Empathy and Action

Mark 8:1-10

Empathy means to “feel into” the situation of another.  To have empathy for the plight of another is to be able to put yourself in his or her shoes and feel what the person feels, as if you were going through the same situation as that person would.  Truly to have empathy doesn’t mean you experience their situation as you would experience it, but as they would experience it.  You try to imagine what it must be like to be that person, with the same history and hindrances, facing the same situation.  

Quite often, my ability to feel empathy is hijacked by my lack of sensitivity to the disposition of the other person, so I end up thinking to myself, “Well, if that were me, I’d just do this or this; it’s not a big deal, I could handle it.”  Again, this is not true empathy.

Jesus showed true empathy to the large crowd in Mark 8:1-10.  Even though there were about four thousand people there, he ‘felt into’ each person individually.  “I have compassion on the crowd,” he said.  To have compassion means to be moved in one’s inward parts, the bowels, to be specific.  Jesus had a belly ache for each person there, his stomach was in knots, just thinking about each person in the crowd.  

He stepped into their shoes and experienced their circumstance not as if he were the Son of God, but as if he were one of them.  Notice the detail in the text.  Jesus knows they had been with him “three days” and he realized they had “nothing to eat.”  Then he imagines each person on the long journey home and says, “And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way.”  He even knew how far each person had travelled, “And some of them have come from far away.” 

Jesus felt into the plight of each person and was emotionally moved.  He had true empathy.

What is your plight right now?  What are you facing?  What are you lacking?  What dangers are ahead of you if something doesn’t happen soon?  Friend, Jesus feels into your life and circumstances today, just as much as he did then.  Whether you realize it or not, he stands in your shoes each morning and walks with you to face all your problems.  His stomach still turns when he sees what you see and feels what you feel. 

When he said, “I have compassion on the crowd,” you and I are in that crowd.  

But Jesus does more than have empathy, he also takes action.  He has empathy and action; he feels into your plight and takes action out of it.  Sometimes Jesus takes action directly, but sometimes he uses other people, as in Mark 8.  Remember this great truth: Jesus loves to use ‘means.’  He uses other people, objects, or events to minister to us.  

In Mark 8:1-10, Jesus used the means of the disciples and the bread and fish they were able to collect.  Jesus could have instantly filled the bellies of the four thousand people, but instead, he used the actions of the disciples to gather seven loaves of bread and a few small fish.  

How does Jesus act?  Now, it’s really important to see the pattern here, because it’s repeated twice in this passage, both with the bread and the fish, for emphasis.  Here are the seven steps of Jesus’s action in our lives.

  1. He uses what we have.  Again, God often uses means in order to minister to us.  He tends to use what we already have, rather than giving us something completely new.  Most likely, the answer to your problem is with you already, but you just don’t know it.
  2. He adds up our resources so that we can see they are not enough.  There were just seven loaves of bread and a few small fish.  Part of his action is for us to realize we don’t have what it takes.  His action doesn’t happen when we think we have it covered, but when we’re staring at an empty plate.
  3. He has us sit.  He directed the crowd to sit down.  For us, this means he humbles us, puts us in a posture of reception, waiting, and patience.  Also, sitting is the posture of grace: he serves us as a waiter as we sit and enjoy.   
  4. He takes away what we have and puts it in his own hands.  The crowd only had seven loaves of bread and a few fish, but Jesus took these away from the crowd.  Often, God will take away what little we have before he acts.
  5. He blesses or gives thanks for it.  We struggle to give thanks for what little we have, but Jesus doesn’t.  He gives thanks on our behalf for what we have.  He blesses what we have, in case we forget how special the little we have truly is.  
  6. He breaks it.  After taking away our meager resources, he breaks them.  While his breaking hurts us and we don’t understand what he is doing, it is necessary.  Just as a grape must be broken to produce wine, so must our hopes and dreams be crushed.  Useful things are broken things.   
  7. He has his disciples set it before us.  We depend on other people more than we realize.  When we’re broken and hungry and waiting on the Lord, other people will minister to us.  God loves to bring us to a desolate place where we have no resources and can no longer depend on our own strength; then he uses other weak and hungry people to care for us.  Sometimes we don’t realize how much God is using other people to help us; it’s okay to let it happen.  The most important meal others can serve to you is the word of God itself, reminding you of the truth of God’s grace in your life.  This is the meal that truly satisfies.   

Look at these seven steps, can you see any of them unfolding in your circumstance right now?  If you can, then you can see the action of Jesus.  Remember, he acts mysteriously and he uses others on his behalf, but he is directing the miracle.  His action will never turn out how we normally think it would, because he is always doing something new and gracious.  But in the end, his way is always best and always satisfies the most.  

There were four thousand in the crowd that day and you were one of them.

The Breakdown

  1. What is empathy?  When have you experienced true empathy?  When have you given true empathy?
  2. Go through the seven steps of Jesus’s action.  Which do you see at work in your life?  
  3. How has God used other people to care for you?  Take one minute and think about all the ways other people have loved you.

Box Top Parable

At the beginning of your life, you are given a bag full of puzzle pieces.  Some bags are bigger than others, but that’s not ours to decide.  It simply is what it is and no one can do anything about it.  

Our job is to put the puzzle together, one piece at a time.  At first, it’s really hard, because we’re just gazing at a mass of jumbled pieces and we don’t have much experience.  Some people are better than others, but for the most part, we all struggle at the beginning.

But soon enough, we’re able to connect one piece to the next.  Perhaps we start at the border or a corner, because those seem the easiest.  

Day after day goes by and we put the puzzle together.  

Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, months turn into years, and years turn into decades.  

The Funeral Scene

By now, a picture begins to emerge, that of a funeral.  The borders of the puzzle show the inside of a funeral home.  Going in from the borders are the flower arrangements, so beautiful and colorful.  As you get toward the middle of the puzzle, you start to piece faces together.  They are the faces of your loved ones.  You see your mom and dad, your brothers and sisters.  Going in toward the center even more, you see your spouse and your children.  You recognize each face as you put the puzzle together, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

Now you’re at the very center of the puzzle and it becomes obvious you’re putting together the coffin.  After a while, you work your way to the top half of the coffin and begin to put together the body that has been laid in the coffin.  

The Face in the Coffin

The body is dressed well, that’s for sure.  You work your way to the head and begin to put it together.  Who is it?  The puzzle is almost finished now, just a few more pieces to go.  You put the face together, noticing the shiny, plastic skin, typical for an embalmed person.  Their lips are flat, much like the rest of the face.  Their eyes seem to be forced shut and their earlobes are sagging.  

By now you know who the person in the coffin is: it’s you.

You put in the last piece and then look again at all your family and friends standing around the coffin, looking at you.  You look at your own dead face again.  You get a chill.

Belief in Death and God 

You wonder why you didn’t get the box top with the picture at the very beginning, when you were handed the bag full of pieces.  Then you’d be able to see that every day you were putting together the puzzle of your own death scene.

Most people believe in their own death about as much as they believe in God.  We might claim to believe we will die, just as we might claim we believe in God, but how we live each day doesn’t support either claim.  Most of us live as both atheists and a-mortals, denying both God and our own death every day.

If we can come to actually believe we will die, then maybe we can also come to truly believe in God.

Your Face Is on the Box Top

But let’s return to the box top and replay the scenario.  At the beginning of your life, you were handed a bag full of puzzle pieces.  You were also handed a box top with a picture of what the puzzle would look like once you finished it.  It’s a picture of your own funeral.  

Every day you live, you’re putting in another piece of the puzzle of your funeral.  Every day you know where your life is headed.  Yet every day, you wake up, grab the next piece, and live your life. 

Teach Us Our Days Are Numbered

According to Psalm 90:12, this is how the wise person lives, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  The wise person knows his days are numbered.  She knows that each day she is reaching into the bag of life, choosing a random piece, and then laying down another piece of the puzzle of her death scene.

Help Answering Life’s Questions

Life is very complex and unclear.  The vast majority of us have a hard time putting it together.  We struggle with questions like, ‘What am I to do with my life?’ or ‘Who should I marry?’ or ‘Where should I live?’ or ‘Where should we spend the holidays?’ or ‘Should I take that job?’ or ‘Should I leave that job?’  Our questions go on and on, because life is such a complex puzzle!

So we cry out in frustration, “I wish I had the box top to my life, so I would know what to do next!”

But you do.  

You have the box top.  It’s the picture of your death scene.  When you get every last piece of the puzzle of your life together, that’s what it amounts to, and nothing more. 

The Vision of Ecclesiastes

Can you see why I say that most people don’t really believe in God or their own death?  Because we think there’s more to it.  We magically think that somehow we’re the exception, that somehow it’ll turn out differently for us, that somehow our lives will really make a difference.  

But if you read the book of Ecclesiastes, you’ll see that all our labor and toil lead to the same place: the grave.  Ecclesiastes says this not just to be depressing, but to get us not to place the meaning of our lives in what we do.  Rather, once we truly see our own death, then we can truly see God and enjoy Him in the little things of life.

Don’t you want to enjoy life?  

A Task for the New Year

Here’s something you can do in the New Year.  Get a single puzzle piece and write on the back of it, ‘Psalm 90:12.’  Just write down the verse reference, as a reminder of what it says.  Then each day, as you grab your wallet or phone or keys, put the puzzle piece in your pocket.  Let it remind you that today you’re putting down the next piece of your life.  

And, be honest with yourself, for you don’t know if today’s piece is the final piece of the puzzle or not.  You could be placing down your face, who knows?  Nobody knows how big their bag of pieces is.  We only know that each day we have one piece to put down, and in the end, it will be the scene of our death.  

If you struggle to believe in God, then start by believing in your own death.  And if you struggle with the complex questions of life, then start by grabbing the next puzzle piece of your funeral scene and putting it in place.

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” 

Merry Christmas from Holy Ghost Notes!

Christmas, 2020

Martin Luther, the 16th Century monk who protested against the wrongs of the Church, knew his share of trials, including a pandemic.  His precious thirteen year old daughter, Lenchen, died during the plague, almost paralyzing Luther and his wife, Katie, with grief.  This was the second daughter they had lost. 

Luther literally had a death sentence put on his head, so he lived much of his life under constant threat.  At one point, he had to hide out in a castle, disguise himself, and go by the name ‘Junker George.’

He battled with depression, too, which he called ‘anfecthungen,’ afflicted on him by the devil. His struggles with these ‘dark nights of the soul’ are well documented today.

He was condemned by the church as a heretic.  His teachings resulted in many bloody revolts, in which hundreds of peasants violently died, and for which he blamed himself. 

He was mocked and his name was publicly slandered by many of the elites of his day. In some circles, he became a laughingstock.

His own supporters were much divided and hostile at times. 

Luther greatly suffered physically from a severe bowel disease that eventually took his life. 

Martin Luther was very close to suffering and death during his lifetime, perhaps more than we ever will be today.  Nonetheless, on Christmas in 1534, at the dinner table, he shared this devotional thought with his family and friends from Luke 1:26-38:

We sustained a hurt through Adam’s fall.  Through it all of us are tainted with sins and subject to death.  But greater than this hurt is the blessing we receive through Christ.  He became man Himself in order to redeem us from sin and death.  The devil came close to us; but he did not come so close as to assume our nature.  For although he fell through pride and thereupon persuaded man also to fall away from God, he nevertheless did not become man and did not come so close to us as did God’s Son, who became our flesh and blood.  

Meditating on what it meant for God to become a real person, Luther realized that God comes closer to us than our pain.  

Suffering comes near to us, but God actually became one of us.  He put on our flesh and blood and shared our humanity.  He became a man and became born of a woman. 

Martin Luther realized God came closer to us than pandemics, death, bowel disease, controversy, slander, riots, death threats, fear, failure, division, depression, and the devil. 

Much closer. 

God came closer to save us than did the devil to ruin us.  Life might have done its best to try to ruin us this year, it might have come frighteningly close, but not as close as God came to save us.  How close did God come?  He was born into our world in the Person of Jesus Christ.  He became our flesh and blood, and you can’t get any closer than that!  

Jesus is able to save us more than the devil is able to ruin us.  Take it from me, we humans can do a pretty good job of ruining our lives!  But my capacity to ruin doesn’t outdo God’s ability to redeem, for God has come much closer to me than the devil.

Often when I suffer, I instinctively begin to sing a song to myself.  Music has the ability to get closer to my heart than even my trials.  When his daughter died, Luther and his wife sang many songs to themselves to get through the pain.  One song he sang the day after she died contained the words from Psalm 78:9, “Do not remember against us our former iniquities; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.”

Not just the compassion of God comes to us at Christmas, but God himself comes to us.  In fact, he comes just as low as we are, entering our world through the depths of a manger. 

As 2020 ends and 2021 begins, we pray you would find God in the depths with you, no matter how low or long you’ve been there.  Remember, and say to yourself, whatever you’re going through, “Jesus is closer to me than this.” 

Merry Christmas from Holy Ghost Notes.

He Heals by Breaking

Mark 7:31-37

So far in Mark’s gospel, we’ve been learning about the power of Jesus’s words.  His words are like seeds planted in soil that break open, grow, and bear fruit.  His words are not sterile, but potent.  We’ve learned this is why Jesus is constantly repeating, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” because Jesus’s powerful words are meant to be heard.  Once they are heard, they go to work and do something in our souls.  His words get inside us like impregnating seeds and cause new life to form inside us.  This is part of his plan of grace, it’s not something we do on our own, but something he does to us.  He gives us new life, he causes us to believe, he heals us.  

But what if you cannot hear him when he speaks?  In other words, what if you’re literally deaf?  Does this mean Jesus’s words cannot get inside you and change you?  Mark 7:31-37 tells the story of a deaf and mute man, who can neither hear Jesus’s words nor confess Jesus to be his Lord.  As we will learn, not even he is beyond hope.  

There are no special cases, in case you think you might be one.  You are not beyond hope, so let’s turn to the story to see how this truth is shown.

“And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mark 7:32).  Here is a man who cannot hear Jesus preach the word, nor can the man voice his faith in him.  But this does not mean he is beyond the reach of Jesus.  This man might not have been able to hear or speak, but he had wonderful friends, who cared enough to take him to Jesus.  His friends did more than casually ask Jesus on his behalf; rather, they begged Jesus to help him.  So far, Mark’s story is leading to this point, because of the emphasis on hearing and responding to Jesus’s word; suddenly, here is a man who can do neither.  What will become of him?  

If there’s one thing I’d like people to know about Jesus it’s this: there are no cookie-cutter solutions.  Jesus is not an assembly line worker, applying the same nut and bolt to everyone he meets.  He takes each person as he or she comes and ministers to his or her individual needs.  He knows you personally and cares for you personally.  He honors, values, and respects your struggles, situation, and needs.  And you are not beyond his reach.  You may look at yourself in the mirror and honestly believe you’re a ‘special case’ that Jesus hasn’t dealt with before; but even if he has not seen ‘your kind’ before, he will joyfully, lovingly, and gladly make an exception for you.  He will take you as you are and determine the approach that works best with who you are and what you need.  He honors and respects every individual story and soul.  

Here’s how it looked for the deaf, mute man, for Jesus did something to him we don’t read anywhere else.  “And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.  And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’  And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” (Mark 7:33-35).  

What a beautiful scene!  In all its weirdness, it’s incredibly intimate and individual.  Jesus intimately fingers his ear holes; Jesus touches the man’s tongue; the man’s tongue gets Jesus’s spit on it!  On the surface it might seem awkward, but, when you think about it for a moment, it’s incredibly beautiful.  Could you imagine having the spit of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, on your tongue, so that you’re literally tasting Salvation?  

Doesn’t that stir your heart like nothing else?  In everything we do, whether eat a cinnamon roll, write a song, do the dishes, or argue with our coworker, we are looking to taste salvation.  We want to be saved, healed, made whole, fixed, repaired, fulfilled, embraced, completed, once and for all.  This man got to taste the Savior who gives salvation.

Notice the ironic actions of Jesus: the man couldn’t hear, so Jesus stuck his fingers in his ears; the man couldn’t speak, so Jesus held his tongue.  Jesus plugged his ears and held his tongue in order to get him to have unplugged ears and a free tongue.  

Take in that extraordinary truth for a moment and think about your life.  Jesus restricts in order to make free.  You have an issue, a problem, an inability; to surrender to God means to let him hold you down.  He won’t just instantly take away your problem, but he will solve your problem with a problem.  He will crucify your problem.  To be free, you have to nail yourself to him.  

Think about how Jesus destroyed death.  He did it by going to the cross and dying.  He destroyed death with death!  In the same way, he destroyed deafness by making the man deaf; and he destroyed muteness by holding the man’s tongue and making him mute.  This is God’s strange and wild work!  However you think he should help you, chances are, he’ll do the opposite.  

Your problem cannot be solved by logic or keeping the law, do you realize this?  In other words, if your problem is sexual immorality, you can’t solve it by trying to keep the law of being sexually pure.  Nobody can keep the law and the law cannot keep anybody safe from sin.  We must stop trying to fix ourselves by keeping the law; we must surrender to Jesus, instead.  Bind yourself to Christ who will crucify your flesh.  He will do the opposite of what you think and cause you pain in order to heal your pain.  He heals by breaking.

Jesus gave the man unique treatment and ‘crucified’ his deafness and muteness.  The man was healed and set free.  Afterwards, the people who saw it said, “He has done all things well.  He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (Mark 7:37).  Jesus found a way to get his living word inside the deaf man, so it could take root and grow.  There is nothing he can’t do well.

This means he knows just what to do for you, too.  You are not beyond hope.  When it says, “He can do all things well,” it means he can heal you ‘well,’ too.  Jesus will embrace your weakness until you’re able to make it on your own.

Finally, in order for God to help you, you have to come clean and show him your weakness.  Even more, you have to let him put his hands all over your weakness.  We like to keep our dirt away from him, we like to keep our problems at a safe distance, because we think he’d be too offended by them.  However, as this passage demonstrates, Jesus wants to grab hold of our tongues and put his spit on them!  He wants to finger our earwax!  In other words, Jesus is not afraid to get dirty.  He longs to be intimate with you and take hold of your problems, no matter how disgusting they might seem.  Don’t be too proud to be real with Jesus Christ.  Expose your weaknesses and shameful underbelly to him.  

This is a message for the church, too, who often is too afraid and too proud to show its dirt to others.  Thank God the deaf and mute man wasn’t too proud to expose himself and his weaknesses in front of his friends and his God.  That is true Christiantiy.  

The Breakdown

  1. Be honest, do you think you’re a ‘special case’ that God cannot help?  That he does not want to help?  Why do you think this way?  Who gave you this message?
  2. If Jesus were to touch a part of you right now, what would it be?  Where do you need healing?  Consider how Jesus made the man deaf and mute in order to heal him of being deaf and mute, what would Jesus do for you?
  3. You must allow God to know your weakness and touch your weakness.  This might be incredibly scary to do, but there’s no other way.  Pray right now and confess your weakness and ask God to grab hold of it.  Also pray for the courage to expose your weakness and shameful failing to another person.

Bitch May I Be…

Mark 7:24-30

There are several provocative things about this passage of Scripture.  First, Jesus was hiding (Mark 7:24).  He didn’t want anyone to know where he was.  Has this ever happened to you?  You were looking for God, but he was hiding from you?  

Next, a strange woman tracked him down (Mark 7:25-26).  She not only found out which town he was in, but also she located his exact hideout.  Whether we’d admit it or not, sometimes it’s the strange ones who find God before anyone else does, for some reason, the ‘normal’ ones don’t know where to look.  

Third, the strange foreigner had a demon-possessed daughter and believed Jesus could cast out the unclean spirit (Mark 7:26).  We don’t believe in unclean spirits anymore, fewer of us have ever witnessed an exorcism.  Do you believe demons can possess a person?  

Fourth, Jesus refused to help the woman because of her race, for she was not Jewish, but Syphrophoenician (Mark 7:27).  So he wouldn’t give her the healing gifts meant for his own people.  Has God ever done anything that seemed unfair or unjust to you?  

Next, even though she begged him, he called her a name, a bitch, to be exact.  “Let the children be fed first,” as the old saying went, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).  It’s bad enough he called her a dog, but, you’ve got to understand, in ancient times, dogs were not thought of as cute and loyal pets, but wild, dirty scavengers.  The name ‘bitch’ captures the sense the best.  Has God ever offended you like this before?

Sixth, the woman didn’t slink away in disgust, disappointment, or depression, but stood up to Jesus Christ.  She immediately responded to him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28).  She believed wholeheartedly that the crumbs of Jesus were far better than the richest delights of this world.  “Bitch may I be,” she smirked, “but you have all the goods!”  Have you ever violently asserted your confidence in the magnificence of Jesus Christ, even when you had been previously denied?     

Seventh, Jesus turned her words of confession into healing agents, saying to the woman, “For this statement you may go your way, the demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7:29).  The woman went home and found her daughter lying peacefully in bed without the demon (30).  Did you know your words carried authority in spiritual realms?  Did you know your thoughts and words about your life and your God matter?

This passage has many disturbing elements to it, but probably the greatest one is the woman’s initial sense of entitlement.  Just because she had a problem (a daughter with a demon), she felt entitled to receive help from Jesus, as if Jesus owed her.  But Jesus doesn’t owe anybody grace…

Which is why it’s called ‘grace.’  God gives his grace freely and lovingly to those in need.  We don’t merit it or deserve it.  We don’t get grace because of our race, accomplishments, or level of need, for if we did, it would be based on our merit, rather than God’s love.  

Finally, consider how God often roughs us up, before he helps us.  Jesus knew he could speak roughly with the woman, he knew there was something inside her that could handle it.  In testing her, he brought out treasure hidden deeply within her, which would have remained buried, if he had granted her request immediately.  The treasure he found was true faith.  The woman would have never known this kind of true faith was in her if Jesus had gone easy on her.  

Have you been hurt by Jesus?  Has God ever let you down?  Often, there are two parts of God’s grace toward us, the rough side and the smooth side, and we need both.  The rough side of grace shows us our sin, helps us to see we are undeserving, and calls forth a richer faith from within us.  

“We need to realize just how much we need God’s mercy and goodwill,” wrote Martin Luther.  The rough side of God’s grace exposes our true situation and need. 

If you’re experiencing the rough side of God right now, meditate on the faith of this strange woman, learn from her, and wait in faith and hope.  

Go to God and pray, “Bitch may I be, but your grace is all I need.” 

The Breakdown

  1. Out of the seven things mentioned, which surprised you the most?  Why?
  2. How has God been ‘rough’ with you?  How did you respond?  How would you like to respond next time?
  3. If there is treasure hidden within you, how can God mine for it?

Are You Out of Touch?

Mark 7:14-23

Jesus gives us a pretty heavy dose of reality in these verses.  The religious leaders had been telling everyone to perform religious traditions, such as ceremonial hand washing, and condemning those who didn’t.  But, as Jesus pointed out, these religious leaders didn’t really love God, they only loved looking better than other people.  They worked hard at keeping up the appearance of being godly, but, ironically, their hearts were far from God.  

So Jesus called his followers to himself and said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15).  In other words, they had to realize that performing religious rituals would not help their relationship with God, because the source of all their problems was within them.  

Recently, we had one rotten potato in our cupboard, making the whole kitchen stink!  It didn’t matter if we scrubbed every countertop, washed every pot and pan, and sterilized every appliance, so long as the black potato sat undisturbed in the back of the cupboard.

Religiously speaking, you can eat all the right things, wash all the right ways, perform all the right tasks, and you wouldn’t have touched the true problem.  The problem is not ‘out there,’ but it’s inside.  You can keep all the rules, be a good person, go to church, and pray five hours a day, and you wouldn’t be any closer to God (or closer to your true self, for that matter!).

Don’t believe me?  Well, consider what Jesus says next.

Jesus went on to teach, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23).

Did you notice the sort of things that come out of the human heart?  Evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, deceit, and so forth…  Notice these are the broken Ten Commandments.  The broken Ten Commandments live inside your heart, all the time.

The Pharisees and religious leaders thought they could keep all the commandments and all would be well.  Since keeping the Ten Commandments seemed so difficult to everyone, they broke them down into doable chunks, baby steps, if you will, like washing your hands and giving your money, so that practically anyone could be successful at keeping the law.  

While the religious leaders looked to an external law to keep, Jesus taught, “It’s a little late for that!  For every broken commandment is constantly gushing from every human heart!”  As soon as we fell into sin in the Garden of Eden, we became manufacturers and septic tanks of broken laws.  Our hearts are constantly producing broken laws; the problem is not ‘out there,’ but the problem is in here.  Trying to keep the law in order to be undefiled is like trying to stay dry when you’re already sunk two miles beneath the Pacific Ocean.  

There are two things I want to point out from this passage of Scripture.  First, be careful you don’t become out of touch with yourself.  The Pharisees thought everything and everyone else was the problem, failing to realize they carried around the problem with them at all times in their hearts.  Imagine being paranoid about bugs.  I mean, they seriously freak you out.  So you’re constantly checking every where you go, terrified you might find a bug.  All the while, you have live grenades strapped to your chest and you don’t even realize it.  

We have to own ourselves and our dirt; we can’t pretend we’re fine.  We can’t pretend like we don’t struggle with sin, have issues, are weak, doubt, and hate God.  If I pretend like I don’t have some of these problems, then not only am I out of touch with myself, but I am a danger to everyone else!  I walk around thinking the problem is out there, so I become careless with the grenades on my chest.  We see this all too often today, as everyone’s pointing their fingers at everyone but themselves.  We’re champions at blaming others, blaming the system, blaming politicians, blaming parents, blaming circumstances, etc.; but we fail to take ownership of the lion’s share of evil gushing out from our own hearts into this world.  

You are never more dangerous to society and yourself than when you are not conscious of the evil within.  In fact, as Jesus is saying, the more you notice evil ‘out there,’ the more you’re probably hiding the same evil (or worse!) in your own life.

Here is the second thing I’d like to point out: we cannot fix ourselves, but desperately need a Savior.  Jesus teaches this parable not so we’ll try even harder!  He doesn’t want us to become aware of the evil within ourselves, just so we can figure out how to fix it.  Rather, he wants us to know about our evil hearts so we realize we’re trapped, doomed, and can do nothing to save ourselves.  Then we will cry out to him to save us.  

We are not saved by our good works, by keeping the law, or even by being enlightened; rather, we are saved by Christ on the cross.  This frees us to come out of hiding, be honest with ourselves, and stop pretending to be better than we really are.  This frees us to embrace ourselves and others, rather than condemn. 

The Breakdown

  1. How is God speaking to you through the Bible today?
  2. Have you been quick to point out the sins of others, but have failed to see the same sins in yourself?  Take an inventory of yourself, ask God to help you see the broken commandments that live within you.
  3. Why is someone who is out of touch with themselves so dangerous?  Where do you see this today?

The Big Secret about Super Religious People

Mark 7:1-13

The Pharisees turned God into a checklist of traditions people could accomplish, making their faith superficial and their hearts far from God.  The Pharisees were the elite religious leaders during the time of Jesus and they looked down their long noses at Jesus and his disciples.  Verse 1 says they had “come from Jerusalem,” indicating to us right away that they were coming from a place of authority and tradition.  The Pharisees, “saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed” (2).  The disciples didn’t do the proper ceremonial washing like they were supposed to do, they didn’t follow the rituals of the Pharisees, but just dug in!

We are also told the Pharisees never ate without washing; in fact, it says they washed not just their hands, but also their cups, pots, copper vessels, and dining couches (4).  That’s quite a list!  So they asked Jesus about his renegade group of followers, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (5).  They were trying to catch Jesus and his followers doing something wrong, so they could accuse and condemn them.  

I’ve got a big secret to share about overly religious people like the Pharisees, wanna hear it?  We look at all their hundreds of traditions and rituals and think, ‘Wow!  They must really be serious about their faith!  I could never keep all those commandments!’  We tend to think the more rules and regulations there are, the harder the religion is.  (Let me put on all caps for a moment.)  BUT THAT IS COMPLETELY FALSE!  That’s where they are tricking you.  They are not serious about their faith, but they are serious about looking good in front of others.  They want you to think more highly of them; they want you to think they are super-spiritual; they want you to believe their way is the hardest and most godly one, but it’s not!  Allow me to explain…

Have you ever had a huge project to do?  Have you ever had an enormous goal to reach?  As you sat there overwhelmed by it all, what did people encourage you to do?  Take it one step at a time, right?  All the experts agree on this: if you have a huge task, break it down into small, accomplishable chunks.  Take one baby step.  Then take another.  After 15,000 small steps, you’ll eventually arrive.  

The way to accomplish big goals is to break them down into small pieces.

This is exactly what the Pharisees were doing in Jesus’s day.  They knew God had told them to “Be holy” (Leviticus 19:2).  But how could anyone reach this enormous goal?  So the Pharisees got an idea: they would break it down into small, manageable steps.  Wash your hands.  That’s easy enough to do.  Wash your cups.  Again, any idiot can do that.  Clean your couch.  Done, I’ll even clean my pillows.  Scrub your copper vessel.  My what??  Nevermind.

Do you see how it worked?  In order to accomplish the huge goal of “be holy,” the religious leaders broke it down into small steps that anyone could do.  But let me ask you, if your life depended on it (and it does!), which commandment would you rather have to do today: ‘be holy’ or ‘wash your hands before dinner.’  Do you see the difference?  The first is impossible, but the second is doable.  Here’s the principle: the Pharisees made the commandments easier, not harder.  They made the law doable, at least, according to them.

And by refusing to wash their hands before dinner, the disciples were protesting against the artificial religious traditions of the Pharisees.

Jesus called them out on another commandment they were trying to make “more doable” with their religious traditions, which was the fifth commandment, “honor your father and mother” (10).  Since that true commandment from God seemed impossible to accomplish, once again, the Pharisees broke it down into manageable steps.  So they created a new tradition called “Corban” (11).  According to Corban, you simply had to give a few bucks to the religious leaders.  Easy enough, right?  You didn’t have to take care of your parents when they got old, honor them when you were a child, respect their wishes when you were a young adult, and so forth.  According to the Pharisees, you only had to hand over some dough to the religious leaders (not your parents, notice, but to the religious leaders!).  

Jesus denounces their tradition of Corban, letting the Pharisees know it actually did the opposite of honoring your parents (12).  Then he added, “Thus making void the word of God by your traditions that you have handed down” (13).  

But the center of Jesus’s critique of the Pharisees is found in verses 6-7, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”  Jesus called them hypocrites, for they pretended like they were religious, but they were actually doing more harm than good.  Do you know any religious people like this?  I do, and just to be honest, there are times when I act like the Pharisees, too.

What can we learn from this?  First, understand the difference between human religious traditions and God’s Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-17).  The Ten Commandments are from God and we are meant to keep them; the religious traditions are from humans and they are an attempt to make the Ten Commandments doable, easier.

Second, however, no matter how hard we try, nobody can keep the Ten Commandments.  Nobody, except for Jesus, can keep God’s law.  God’s law condemns us all, which is what it’s supposed to do.  We are not supposed to keep God’s law, but it is supposed to keep us in line.  God’s law shows us how sinful we are, so we do not rely on ourselves, but on Christ, to save us.  The Pharisees want us to think we can keep the law, so we rely on them and on ourselves.  

Third, we must put our faith in Jesus, not in ourselves and our efforts to keep the law (or any other religious tradition).  When others point their accusing fingers at us and say, ‘You’re not clean enough’ or ‘You’re not good enough,’ we don’t then have to try to get clean or get good; rather, we have to trust Jesus to save us.  He makes us clean.  The real question is not ‘Am I clean enough,’ but ‘Where is my heart?’  

We all give God quite a bit of lip service.  We also give the world quite a bit of lip service, too.  We pretend to be more than we really are.  But Jesus doesn’t care what you can accomplish, he only cares about your heart.  He doesn’t care if you’re clean, but if you’re truthful and sincere.  

The law will condemn you, but Jesus won’t.  He wants your heart, not your good works, so can you give your heart to him?  He traded his perfect life for your imperfect life by dying on the cross in your place.  

He loves you just as you are, dirty hands and all.  

The Breakdown

  1. What are some religious traditions we get caught up with today?  
  2. What is the purpose of the law?  It’s very important to know the answer. 
  3. In what areas of your life are you giving God lip service?  How can you give him your heart?

Love Contagion

Mark 6:53-56

Has anyone yet told you they loved you today?  We thought so.  Maybe you just got done looking at porn, maybe you just got done looking at divorce papers.  Maybe you just got off a double shift, maybe you just got off a bar stool.  Whether you’re beginning your day or wishing it all would end, before you close your eyes, we want you to know we love you.  

It’s crazy to think God would love any of us, if you don’t think it’s crazy, then you’re probably out of touch with yourself.  Most people don’t realize how much God loves them, just as they are.  They think God could love, would love, might possibly love, a certain version of themselves, but that’s where most get it wrong.  God doesn’t love the good you, he loves the awful you

Stick that in your Twitter feed and smoke it.

It’s easy to read a passage of the Bible like this and think Jesus just healed a bunch of people.  He didn’t just heal a bunch of people, he loved a bunch of people, who didn’t deserve it, who woke up that morning in the arms of another lover or hungover with a headache or wallowing in their own sickness and self-pity or still wrecked by the words a parent shouted at them two days before.  In their wildest dreams they never thought that day they’d meet a God who loved them.

Do you?

Words are more powerful than sight, just in case you think words are cheap.  They aren’t.  If my son came to me covered in mud and filth, because he wrecked his life, the sight of him wouldn’t decrease my love for him, because I love him from my heart, not from my pupils.  If anything, the more needy he becomes, the more I love him!  When God tells you he loves you, his words aren’t cheap.  He sees you in your desperate state and runs to you with a love song in his heart.

You could be going through hell, but when someone tells you they love you, it fortifies you, doesn’t it?  When they look at you, knowing full well what you are and what you’ve done and yet still say, “I love you,” it makes you stand up just a little taller, because you know you can get through it.

We live in a time when there’s not a whole lot of lovin’ going on.  We’re a far cry from loving the people around us like they did on the shores of Gennesaret.  “And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was” (Mark 6:54-55).  They physically picked up the outcast and marginalized and diseased and carried them to Jesus.  What a beautiful picture of love!

Who can you carry to the love of Jesus today?  And I mean today.  You are surrounded by many people who didn’t get to hear, “I love you” from anyone yet today, or maybe in a long time.  If you recognize Jesus, can you bring someone to his love?  

Maybe it’s someone who is from a different political party.  Maybe it’s someone who’s been sick.  Maybe it’s someone of a different race.  Maybe it’s someone who’s been making your life hard.  Maybe it’s someone you’ve been taking for granted.  Who can you carry to Jesus today?

How?  Tell them you love them.  That’s all you need to do, because if the love of Christ lives in you, then you share it by opening your heart (and mouth) to someone in need.

In his new book Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortland points to a wonderful truth about Jesus Christ.  It helps to understand the Old Testament background of clean and unclean.  All life was divided up into these two categories and if you came into contact with something unclean, then you would become unclean, too.  You would be morally impure, cut off from God and other people.  That’s why this story is so shocking, because people are running around recklessly, touching the unclean sick and bringing them to Jesus, so he can lay his hands on them.  

But instead of furthering the spread of uncleanness, there’s healing!  “And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment.  And as many as touched it were made well.” (Mark 6:56).  You see, Jesus had his own contagion to spread, a love contagion.  Whoever touched him became holy.  Whoever touched him received love.  Whoever touched him received healing.  

“But I can’t heal anyone!” you say.  I disagree, for you can love them!  You can help spread the contagion of love, which will free the oppressed, bring hope to the despairing, and lift the burden of those heavy with life.  

“There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18).  This does NOT mean that fear will kill love; rather, it means love will kill fear.  So you can’t wait for fear to leave before you love someone, you have to love them first.  The only way to eradicate fear is with love, and that puts all of us on the hook, for where else does love come from?  You have the contagion in your heart and it is yours to spread.  If you don’t love those around you, then no one else will.

Our world today is filled with uncertainty and fear.  Perhaps some politicians are using this to their advantage to get you to vote for them.  But politicians do not drive out fear, love does.  

Your love does.

Beloved, the world needs your love.  People on bar stools, people going through a divorce, people struggling with addiction, people wrecked by dysfunction.  

So we implore you, go spread the love contagion today. 

 The Breakdown

  1. What version of you do you think God loves most?  Do you know he loves the true you?
  2. Did you think of anyone you can “carry” to Jesus today?  
  3. How can you spread the love contagion this week?

Job Remix

The book of Job in the Bible is one of the most outstanding works in all literature.  But what if Job lived in the United States today?  And what if Satan’s greatest strategy for attacking our faith were to make us rich, rather than poor?  To give wealth, not take away.  Before you wish you had more money, consider this remix of Job.

Chapter 1

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.  There was born to him no children, but he adopted two sons and one daughter.  He had a flip phone and had never Tweeted.  He possessed a small apartment and a Geo Tracker and he used food stamps, so that this man was among the poorest of all his people of the West. 

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them.  The LORD said to Satan, “From where have you come?”  Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”  And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?”  Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason?  Have you not made his life hard for him and his whole house?  You have cursed the work of his hands, and he has barely been able to eke out an existence, so that he lives in desperation, depending on you for even his daily bread.  You shout to him through his pain. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, multiplying the work of his hands, getting him to forget that he is an undeserving sinner, and he will curse you to your face.”  And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand.  Only don’t stretch out your hand to increase his health or abilities.”  So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.

Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were starving together, praying for help in their oldest brother’s house, and there came a messenger to Job and said, “The old John Deere tractor was plowing and people from Caterpillar suddenly showed up with new combines and plows and millions of dollars of other farm equipment.  They started giving gifts to anyone they laid eyes on, including all your children, and I alone have escaped without a gift to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “Your sons and daughters were fasting and praying in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, the people from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition showed up and began to build them a mansion.  They were just finishing up the home theater, when I alone managed to escape the blessing to tell you.

Then Job arose and tore his t-shirt and shaved his beard and fell on the ground and worshipped.  And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return.  The LORD took away, and the LORD has given; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

In all this Job did not sin or forget about God.

Chapter 2

Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD.  And the LORD said to Satan, “From where have you come?”  Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”  And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?  He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to bless him without reason.”  Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Grace for grace!  All that makes a man miserable he will take for his faith!  But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh with kindness, and he will practically forget you altogether.  Give him education, entertainment, equality, and fast food, and he will forget your grace. Show him how good and naturally talented he is, and he will not depend on you anymore, but take the credit for himself.”  And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only don’t make him a billionaire.”  

So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with health, wealth, and prosperity, from the sole of his foot to the crown on his head (and he did indeed give Job a dazzling crown).  And he took a bottle of oil and shampoo with which to groom himself while he sat in his jacuzzi.  

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity and belief in God?  Forget the Almighty!  It’s obvious you don’t need him anymore!  Lose God and live it up!”  But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak.  Shall we receive evil from God, and shall we not receive good?”  In all this Job did not sin with his lips.  

Chapters 3-37

Job’s three friends show up, take one look at him in all his blessedness, and say he must have done something right to deserve all this grace.  One says it was Job’s talent that provoked the grace; another says it was his godliness; and another says it was his poverty that untethered the Almighty’s mercy. All conclude that he has a ton of talent and that God wants to use him to change the world.

But Job argues with them; he can’t believe that God would actually bless him because he is such a sinner.

So Job challenges God’s graciousness, demanding God to justify himself for giving all this stuff to him.  After all, Job knows he is a poor, miserable sinner who does not deserve grace or any good thing from God. 

Chapters 38-41

Then God shows up and basically says, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”  God first displays his unmerited graciousness to Job in all his creation, before taking Job to the cross of Jesus Christ, where the full fury and majesty of his love for poor, miserable sinners was poured out.  Job is left speechless.   

Chapter 42

Job finally answers the LORD, the LORD rebukes the friends, and the LORD restores Job’s former miseries.

THE END

The Real Meaning of Jesus Walking on Water

Mark 6:45-52

The story of Jesus walking on water is not a story to show you he can do miracles, it’s not even a story to show you he’s God, but it’s a story to show you he is undoing the old law and putting the gospel in its place.  

In order to help us see the connection to the law, there are four references to the law of Moses in Mark 6:45-52.  The first reference is in verse 46, “And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray.”  Just as Moses went up on a mountain by himself to pray and left the people, so did Jesus.  The second reference is in verse 50, “for they all saw him and were terrified.”  Just as the disciples were terrified of Jesus, the people were terrified of Moses, because the glowing, holy presence of God was upon him when he came down from the mountain.  Next, also in verse 50, Jesus referred to himself by the exact name God used when talking with Moses, “I am.”  When Jesus said, “It is I,” you could also translate it, “I am,” which is the name the Lord told to Moses.  The fourth reference to the Moses story is in verse 52, “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”  Just like God hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and others who didn’t believe him, so were the hearts of the disciples hardened.

Why these four references to Moses and the law?  Because God wants you to see he is going to defy the reign and terror of the old law in your life.  He accomplishes this by strutting out on the water in bold defiance of the laws of nature.  When you see Jesus walking on the water, you’re not meant to think, “Cool trick!” but, rather, “Who is this God who defies the law in order to come to me in my helplessness?” 

The story of Jesus walking on the water is meant to show us just as Jesus defies physical laws, so does he defy moral and spiritual laws to be with us. 

The laws of religion have always gone something like this: I must give to God, then he will give to me.  In other words, I must live a good life, make sacrifices, and do certain rituals or behaviors to manipulate God and get him to accept me.  I must give to God in order to make God happy.

But Jesus breaks that law just as much as he breaks the law that says he’ll sink in the water if he steps on it.

In its place, Jesus boldly brings an un-law, which says, God will give to me, even when I don’t deserve it: I do not have to live a good life, because he will live a good life for me; I do not have to make a sacrifice, because he will sacrifice himself for me; I do not have to do a ritual to earn his favor, because he has brought all rituals to an end.  This is the un-law of Jesus who walks on water.

The disciples didn’t understand the new message Jesus was bringing to them, probably because they were so used to the old law, “For they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (52).  Do you remember the lesson of the loaves from the last section?  It was this, When you finally realize you’re not enough, that’s when you become more than enough.  That’s the lesson Jesus was trying to teach his disciples when he fed 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread.  But the hearts of the disciples were still hardened by law mentality, which taught them you have to have in order to have: you have to have enough food in order to feed a lot of people; you have to have a sufficient amount of good works in order to make a good impression on God; and you have to have a good moral record in order to be rewarded for a good life. 

But the un-law of Jesus was teaching them to walk on water, not good works.  You do not have to have a solid standing on good works in order to stand before God.  As it turns out, the good news of the gospel teaches we don’t have to have in order to have.  You don’t have to have good works and a perfect life in order to have blessing, honor, righteousness, and peace with God. 

Jesus walking on water was not meant to be proof that he is God, but it’s meant to be proof that we are righteous, no matter what the devil whispers in your ear at 3 A.M., the hour of the wolf.  

It’s not meant to show that Jesus must be all powerful, because only an all powerful person could walk on water; rather, it’s meant to show you that God is doing away with the old law and instituting an un-law in your life, which makes you free from the law. 

I want you to picture Jesus walking on the water to you when you’re at your weariest.  Every time you imagine this, I want you to realize you are clean, forgiven, and righteous before God.  When you finally realize you don’t have enough, that’s when you become more than enough.  When you go to God and say, “I don’t have,” that’s when you’ll receive.  When you come to him with your faults and sins, he’ll give you his grace and love.

Satan will continue to throw the old law in your face to get you to despair of your life and God’s love for you, but let your mind go back to the moment when Jesus did the impossible and walked on the water, defying the law in order to come to your rescue. 

Jesus has to defy the law in order to rescue you from your plight.  He came down from the mountain not to tell you your damned, but to say to you, “Take heart; it is I.  Do not be afraid” (50).

Repeat Jesus’s words to yourself, over and over; see him walking on the water, trampling on your expectations of what you deserve because of your sins, and welcome him into the boat.  Just as Jesus will not sink in the water, you will not sink in your sin.  

One more thing, sometimes we think that when bad things happen to us, it’s because we broke the law and God is punishing us, but this cannot be, because it’s using the logic of the law.  Remember, Jesus defies our law thinking and gives us the un-law of grace.  So when bad things happen to you, don’t think God is punishing you for breaking the law, but instead realize Jesus will do whatever it takes to come to you on your scary voyage.  The law asks the question, “Why?” but Jesus’s new and better question is “What?”  

What will Jesus do?  He will comfort you.  What will Jesus do?  He will die on the cross for all sin.  What will Jesus do?  He will stand by your side though all hell break out against you, and will not leave you.  What will Jesus do?  He will love you more than you love your sin and even when you doubt him.  

Sound impossible?  Well, he can walk on water.  

The Breakdown

  1. In what areas do you keep sinking in sin?
  2. What do you think of the last sentence, “Just as Jesus will not sink in the water, you will not sink in your sin”?  How does this buoy (no pun intended) your faith?
  3. The last verse says, “For they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”  What’s the connection between Jesus walking on the water and the feeding of the 5,000?  Hint: the connection is NOT that Jesus demonstrates his power as God, think deeper than that!