Stop “Advancing the Kingdom” Now!

What exactly do we mean when we say our purpose is to “advance the kingdom”? I think we are reaching for a way to say we want to participate in God’s kingdom but often I hear what is synonymous with advancing our own interest or organization which, of course, naturally, we believe to be completely in line with and consistent with what God is doing in the world. But it is precisely this presumption that needs tempering.

In the New Testament, one does not “advance” the kingdom of God. As the parable of the sower illustrates.

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26–29 NIV)

True, the farmer does his part, but as the parable makes clear growth  is a rather mysterious affair. And that is the way it always is with the growth or expansion of the God’s kingdom.

The Apostle knew this. In 1 Corinthians Paul explains clearly his role in advancing the kingdom of God:

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:5–9 NIV)

Thus, the language of participation is more suitable to our role in the Kingdom of God—which after all is God’s domain. In the language of our text, we are God’s fellow workers, God’s partners—not a bad position, mind you. Together we might be said to advance the kingdom of God but truly it is God’s power that has always advanced his kingdom. In a sense, we are along for the ride though with a significant role, but we are not the advancers—the Spirit of God is— and we are more like the rear guard, or to mix metaphors, the harvesters. (Paul liked to mix his metaphors, too).

Ironically—given the way we sometimes speak about advancing the kingdom—the only time that the notion of “advancing” the kingdom appears in Scripture is when Jesus critiques those who seek to lay hold of that kingdom.

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it (βιάζεται καὶ βιασταὶ ἁρπάζουσιν αὐτήν) (Matthew 11:12 NIV)

Here it is the kingdom itself that is advancing forcefully, even violently, and it is violent people seeking to control it.

So if “advancing the kingdom” is a bit of an overshot, is there better language for talking about our relationship to the kingdom of God?

In scripture, the normative way of speaking of our relationship to the kingdom of God is through “entering” and “receiving.” This receiving and entering is to be done in the spirit and disposition of a little child—not a lot of “advancing the kingdom here, just the humble acceptance of God’s gracious move. For entering, see Matt 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23–24; 21:31; 23:13; Mark 9:47; 10:15, 23–25; Luke 18:17, 24–25; John 3:5; Acts 14:22; 19:8; for receiving, see Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17; Heb 12:28; 2 Pet 1:11.

So the next time you are tempted to say “advance the kingdom of God,” slow down a bit and ask “really?” Is this really what God is up to, or am I co-opting the kingdom to advance my ministry, organization, or mission?

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Does “Church” mean “the called out”?

I still hear it, though, by this time we should know better. The word “church” means “the called out,” therefore, based on the root meaning of the word, the church are the called out ones. Actually, no. While I certainly don’t want to take issue with the notion that the church should be those “called out” of the world to live God’s life for the sake of the world, the word church in the NT (ἐκκλησία) does not mean “the called out.”

This a bit like saying our English word “church” means “those belonging to the Lord,” since, after all, the English word church derives from the Greek “kurikos” (κυριακός) which meant “belonging to the Lord.” But few would even make that connection today.

D. A. Carson, years ago in Exegetical Fallacies, called this way of thinking about words, the root fallacy–that is that you can find what a word means by looking at its constituent parts (in this case, ἐκ [out of] + κλῆσις [calling]).

By the time of the first century, the word was the common word for a political or other assembly. The word, in that sense, is not a religious word. Furthermore, the import of the word is not the people had been called out but rather that they have assembled to conduct some business or activity. In one case in the NT, the word refers to a gathered mob (Acts 19:32).

Unfortunately, the often overlooked background of the NT use of the word ἐκκλησία is that the earliest Christians conversant in Greek knew the word from the Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint (LXX). The word was not a new word for the early Christians but one they heard often with the OT was being read.

The Greek translators of the OT used the word ἐκκλησία as a translation of קָהָל (qahal) and other synonyms, generally translated as congregation or assembly. Consequently, the NT word we translate “church,” is all over the OT, as in Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; 23:2-4, 9; 31:30; Josh 8:35; Judg 20:2; 21:5, 8; 1 Sam 17:47; 19:20; 1 Kings 8:14, 22, 55, 65; 1 Chr 13:2, 4; 28:2, 8; 29:1, 10, 20; 2 Chr 1:3, 5; 6:3, 12-13; 7:8; 10:3; 20:5, 14; 23:3; 28:14; 29:23, 28, 31-32; 30:2, 4, 13, 17, 23-25; Ezra 2:64; 10:1, 8, 12, 14; Neh 5:7, 13; 7:66; 8:2, 17; 13:1; Judith 6:16, 21; 7:29; 14:6; 1 Mac 2:56; 3:13; 4:59; 5:16; 14:19; Psa 21:23, 26; 25:5, 12; 34:18; 39:10; 67:27; 88:6; 106:32; 149:1; Prov 5:14; Job 30:28; Sir 15:5; 21:17; 23:24; 24:2; 26:5; 31:11; 33:19; 38:33; 39:10; 44:15; 46:7; 50:13, 20; Sol 10:6; Mic 2:5; Joel 2:16; Lam 1:10.

So better than thinking of the church as the “called out ones,” a more biblical approach would be seeing the church as the continuation of the story of God from the OT. When the early Christians heard the word ἐκκλησία, they were more likely to hear a reference to God’s gathered people.

I Am the Good Shepherd!

Reflections on the Gospel Reading for April 26, 2015: John 10:11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

At the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Hammond, Louisiana, suspended between the narthex and the sanctuary is a stained glass window of the Good Shepherd. I would like to know more about that window. I don’t know who designed and created it. I don’t know when it was made. What I do know is that it goes back to at least the 1920s when the church bought the church building on the corner of N. Cherry and E. Charles. At that time, the glass hung behind where the choir sang.

In the early ’60s when the  current sanctuary was built, the window was placed in its current location. However, much more important than the history of the window, is its symbolic meaning for the life of this church. If I could, I might call our church “The Good Shepherd Christian Church” and not just because of the window, but because the idea that Jesus is the Good Shepherd resonates deep within us–both in terms of how Jesus continues to shepherd but how he has taught us to shepherd.

Of course, the notion of the Good Shepherd is much older than our stained glass window. In fact, the ideas are older than the words of Jesus above. Perhaps it is not unfair to say that “shepherding” is the predominant metaphor in Scripture for “doing ministry.” As sampling of some of these texts would include the following.

Referring to the appointment of Joshua to follow Moses, Moses prayed

Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd. (Numbers 27:16–17 NRSV)

The language of “sheep without a shepherd” shows up again in the ministry of Jesus  when he feeds the crowds (Matt 9:36; Mark 6:34).

Or who can forget the prophet Ezekiel’s scathing critique of Israel’s shepherds:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. (Ezekiel 34:2–6 NRSV)

One should probably read the entirety of chapter 34 but this snippet gives a good idea of how important “shepherding” is a key for understanding the nature of ministry.

Perhaps no text has influenced what we think when we hear about the Good Shepherd more than the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my Shepherd; I will not be in need . . . “

You can take it from here.

Thus, when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he chose an image that was loaded with history, meaning, and interpretation—it was an image that tells the Story of God in the Bible.

Our text, John 10:11-18, begins with a contrast between the Good Shepherd and a hired hand. The point is simple: when danger comes, the hired hand will save his own skin, while the shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep when necessary. Of course, this comment presages what will happen when Jesus lays down his life.

In v. 14, Jesus repeats, “I am the good shepherd.” This second declaration marks a shift in the conversation away from the contrast between the Good Shepherd and a hired hand. Now the emphasis is the special relationship the shepherd has with his sheep. Jesus says, “I know them and my own know me” AND in the same way that the Father knows Jesus and Jesus knows the Father. Typical of the Gospel of John, the writer holds before the reader that the same intimate relationship that Jesus has with the Father can be theirs, too, that is, with the Father, with the Son and with each other.

This should not be missed. John is not just saying one can have a good relationship with God, but the same kind and level of relationship that Jesus himself has with the Father. Thus, just as Jesus knows the Father, so we can know Jesus. The level of union with God promised here is amazing and available, and too often, unrealized by many Christians.

Jesus knows his sheep and his sheep know him, so, of course, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” This is what we do when we love someone, is it not?

But who are the other sheep? A couple of possibilities have been suggested. One is that the other sheep are the Gentiles who will be added to the flock. Other options might include a reference back to the OT promises to restore the southern kingdom of Judah to the northern kingdom of Israel (cf. Ezek 34:23; 37:24). Yet another is the church that will grow around his apostles (this fold?). I tend to favor the first option, but the emphasis in the end is that we will belong to one flock and have one shepherd.

The final note of the text returns to the theme of Jesus’ laying down his life. Why would he do that? Simple answer: Because he wanted to. Or as Jesus says, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” The placement of the last sentence, “I have received this command from my Father,” suggest that the command was not that Jesus must die, but rather that Jesus had the power to lay down his life and to take it up again.

In the final analysis, the Good Shepherd, to be “good,” is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. This has great implication for the kind of people we are called to be.

Now while I don’t know much about our stained glass window of the Good Shepherd, I do know this. The Good Shepherd knows me and I seek to know the Good Shepherd.

What God Loves; What We Love

Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for March 15, 2015: John 3:14-21

The United States became “officially” biblically illiterate on January 9, 2009. The day before, Tim Tebow had “John” written in white on his eye-black under his right eye and 3:16 under his left eye in the OU vs. FL football game.  Tebow made a name for himself by his outward religious expressions at sporting events.

However, the amazing thing that happened the next day was that “John 3:16” was the top search on Google search. The top five searches on January 9, 2009 were

1. John 3 16

2. Mary Lynn Rajskub

3. Windows 7 beta download

4. All inclusive vacations

5. Ana Ortiz

In other words, people no longer knew the once most-memorized text of the Bible. If people knew nothing else about the Bible, they would often know “For God so loved the world . . .”

Equally disturbing, to me at least, is that guy who held up the John 3:16 banner at all those NFL games over the years had been utterly unsuccessful.

The Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday includes this once well-known text. Beginning in John 3:14, our text reads,

… And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

When we read John 3:16 in its larger context we see that God is not the only one who “loves” in our text. People are said to love, too. Embedded in this text is a call to respond to God’s love.

“Who said what?” is a bit of a problem in this text. Since ancient manuscripts of the NT had no real equivalent to quotation marks, scholars have argued over where Jesus ends his conversation with Nicodemus and where John begins his commentary. I’m among those who think Jesus finishes at v. 15 and that v. 16 begins John’s comments. This probably does not change how we read the text much, but in the spirit of full disclosure that is how I’m reading it. If you are interested in this issues, you can consult the commentaries on it or let me know, and I will send you the information.

However one resolves who said what, the content of v. 15 sets the context for hearing the whole text and it is important for hearing that text.

In a rather strange analogy, Jesus compares the “Son of Man,” referring to himself,  to the serpent that Moses placed on a pole and lifted up (ὑψόω) in the wilderness. Of course, the story about Moses and the snake is also rather strange, and unexpected, given the association of the serpent with temptation in the creation narrative. The story is told in a few verses in the book of Numbers:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:4–9 NRSV)

Discounting the idolatrous nature of the bronze serpent (and that it violates the second commandment), Jesus analogy rests on one point: just as the serpent was lifted up, so the Son of Man will be lifted up. A second point might be that those who looked at the serpent would live and those who believe in the Son of Man will have eternal life.

But back to the first thought, the notion of “being lifted” has something a double meaning in John’s writing. For Jesus to be “lifted up” could as easily mean to be exalted or to be crucified. John may want his readers to linger a bit on both and perhaps feel the interplay between the two.

So as we turn the corner into John 3:16, the “exalted” Son of Man is still echoing in our heads. We are now prepared to hear that God’s love for the world will cost God dearly: God gave, God sent. Vv. 16, 17, and 18 all move in the same direction. God gave his Son so that those who believe may have eternal life; God sent his Son so that the world might be save through him; those who believe are not condemn. God’s intent is that his creatures will live!

However, there is another side to the equation: “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” What caught my attention here is that John announces that those who do not believe are “condemned already” (κέκριται; perfect/completed tense in Greek of κρίνω, I judge). Clearly, John has certain people or group of people in mind. He has already mentioned those who believe so he does not believe all people are under consideration here. Rather these who do not believe are those who have encountered Jesus but chose not believe, or in John’s language, closed their eyes to the light of God. This only makes sense if you believe that Jesus is God’s representative, or as the text says, God’s Son. If that is true, then ignoring Jesus is rejecting the God of creation.

In fact, as God so loved the world, such people loved darkness rather than the light. And that, it seems to me, is the fulcrum of this text. God loved the world so much that he sent his Son as “light,” but those who love darkness will not see the Light.

The question of the text becomes, “Do you want to see? Well, do you?

Discipleship: Whose Agenda?

Reflections on the Lectionary Gospel Text for March 1, 2015: Mark 8:31-38

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

As we have noted the Gospel of Mark is a highly structured narrative. I outline Mark 8:27 to 10:52 this way:

Peter’s confession: “You are the Messiah.” (8.27-30)
FIRST PASSION PREDICTION [see 3.6 and 3.19 for early hints] (8.31, 32)
Peter Attempts to “Correct” Jesus (8.33)
Jesus Teaches about Discipleship (8.34-9.1)
The Transfiguration: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (9.2-13)
The Disciples Unable to Exoricise a Demon (9.14-29)
SECOND PASSION PREDICTION (9.30-32 )
Disciples Argue over “Who’s the Greatest?” Object Lesson: A Little Child (9.33-37)
The Disciples Prohibit an “outsider” from casting out demons in Jesus’ name (9.38)
Jesus Teaches about Discipleship (9.39-50)
Jesus Uses Marriage as Example of Discipleship [may look back to 6.14-29] (10.1-12)
Jesus Accepts Little Children (10.13-16)
The Rich Young Man does not accept Jesus (10.17-23)
The Disciples, through Peter, claim to have accepted Jesus (10.24-31)
THIRD PASSION PREDICTION (10.32-34)
The Request of James and John (10.35-45)
The Request of Barimaeus (10.46-5)

The structural framework of the larger context of our text consists of three predictions of Jesus’ suffering. Three times with increasing clarity Jesus states that he will go to Jerusalem and DIE! Each time the disciples will misunderstand or misdirect the conversation in way that moves the topic away from a Messiah who will die. And each time Jesus will pull them back to the true nature of discipleship.

It’s as if Jesus had said that he had cancer, and his disciples do all they can to avoid the topic. The comedy of it all is seen in the disciples’s misfires that occur directly after Jesus’ prediction that he would suffer and die. In the text above, after the first prediction, Peter, who just announced that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), now takes the position of leader to rebuke Jesus for his silly thought. After the second prediction, the disciples shift to the more important topic of who is the greatest among them. Then after the third prediction, James and John ask Jesus for the best seats in God’s kingdom. Clearly someone is not listening.

These examples and others in the larger context suggest that the disciples struggle with who is really in charge. As a disciple of Jesus, whose agenda wins? When Peter rebuked Jesus, he came back with some of the strongest words of his ministry: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

To have Jesus call you “Satan” had to sting. Jesus’s next comment explains the harsh remark and also clarifies what is at stake in not listening carefully to Jesus. In short, Jesus accused Peter of being interested in human things, not God’s things. Or, said another way, Peter is more interested in what he wants than what his Lord wants.

The rebuke of Peter sets up one of the basic teachings of Jesus on discipleship. To be a disciple of Jesus is to follow in the way of Jesus. What happens to the Jesus will also be the way of his true disciples.

Being led to crucifixion is the language Jesus chose for conveying the cost and nature of discipleship. However, the first step is the hardest. Jesus begins with “Deny yourself.” Here Jesus is not inviting us to take Lent more seriously, nor is he telling us to quit doing bad things. Rather, Jesus is going for the heart of the issue: we must say no to our agenda and be willing to take on God’s. To deny yourself here refers to setting aside a mere human perspective, and taking on the divine perspective. It’s answering the question of “Who is Lord of your life?”

Once we have denied ourselves, that is, decided we are not the center of the universe, then following Jesus is the next move. However, to follow Jesus is to follow Jesus in taking up the cross. The cross here is not our personal troubles or persistent challenges. Though, to be sure, those issues can be deeply connected to our personal experience of being a disciple of Jesus. The cross envisioned here is the cross intimately tied to the Mission of God. Jesus is still modeling what he started in the first chapter of Mark. He is still proclaiming the “Good News of God.” “The Kingdom of God has come near!” Repent, and Believe the Good News.” The paradox of the kingdom is that the path to God is the way of the cross.

The Kingdom of God works with a reverse kind of logic: those who seek to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for Jesus’s sake will save it. What hangs in the balance is our very life! If this is not so, then the logic of the Kingdom fails.

So what happens if you gain the whole world but you miss the call of Jesus? The logic of the Kingdom is that you have gained nothing. So as the logic of the Kingdom would have it, there is something quite shameful about this cross Jesus has invited us to carry. So much so, that Jesus warned his audience: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

These words, often read in isolation of the text to which they belong, are a continuing comment on the call to follow Jesus. Jesus understands that the way of discipleship will be hard, that it may even be something that causes us shame, but yet . . .

If anyone wishes to be my disciples . . .

Baptism, Temptation, Ministry

Reflection on the Lectionary Gospel Text for February 22, 2015: Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

So ends Mark’s introduction to his Gospel (1:1–15). Since I have covered the basic flow of Mark’s introduction elsewhere (http://wp.me/pkPXF-oV), I will begin here by noting that the first half of the introduction dealt with John’s work of preparing the way of the Lord. Now, beginning with v. 9, Mark turns his attention to the hero of his story, Jesus.

The briefness of some of Mark’s stories is startling not only because as readers we want to know more but also because of how much each mini-story contains. These stories, if they be called stories, are more like terse summaries. Tense, packed summaries, to be sure.

I have outline the flow of the stories in our text today as: Baptism, Temptation, and Ministry. There is a certain rhythm or flow here that is true of all who dare follow Jesus. Jesus is the prototype (model, exemplar) of all those who would follow him. Baptism, temptation, and ministry outlines the process through which God’s Spirit remakes and reshapes us into the image of Christ. While there is reason to read them in this order, the experience of baptism, temptation and ministry will be revisited often in the life of a disciple of Jesus.

Baptism. While Mark has already made a connection between the forgiveness of our sins and baptism, here, in this text about Jesus’ baptism, the focus is more on appointment and identity. Jesus is the chosen anointed one. Instead of the oil that was pour on the head of kings and prophets to recognize their calling, Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit. John has already clued us that Jesus would also be the one who would baptize others in the Holy Spirit. So in the same way God had anointed Jesus, Jesus would anoint others.

Sometimes when I baptize people, I say something like this: “Based on your confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When you rise from these waters, you can be sure of two things: your sins are forgiven and God’s Holy Spirit has come to live within you.” The certainty of these words rest in the example of Jesus. All of us who accept the invitation to follow Jesus can be assured of God’s acceptance and God’s approval: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Soon, as with Jesus, so with us, our resolve will be tested. Through temptation we prove how deeply we believe the Gospel.

Temptation. Mark’s temptation story is so brief, particularly when compared to Matthew’s and Luke’s. Still Mark give enough to evoke the story of the Israelites in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. The evocative words are wilderness (or desert), forty days, tempted, wild beasts, and angels.

Mark point to the divine role that temptation plays in the process: the Spirit of God “drove” or “cast” (ἐκβάλλω) Jesus into the wilderness. Interesting word choice on Mark’s part. This is the word that is often used in the stories about Jesus “casting out” demons. When Matthew and Luke retold this story (Matt 4:1; Luke 4:1), they softened the verb to “lead” instead of “cast.”

However, there are times in our lives as followers of Jesus, when we feel as if we have been thrown where we do not want to be. One should not minimize the reality of dark times those who chose to follow Jesus will experience but we, in time, learn how to embrace these as part of the journey. Each time we conquer temptation, our credibility increases as disciples of Jesus, and we learn to minister to other with greater depth.

Ministry. While the acts of ministry are many, the basic shape of Christian ministry is proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ message was simple and straightforward: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” However, woven into the very fabric of the proclamation is exactly what each of us need to hear to stay focused.

The center of the Good News is that the Kingdom of God has come near (see http://wp.me/pkPXF-pS). The Kingdom of God is the basis of our authority to do ministry in the name of Jesus. Or, said another way, we do ministry as representatives of the Kingdom of God.

However, also woven into the proclamation of the Kingdom is the humbling, lest we think to highly of ourselves as representatives of God’s kingdom. The proper response to hearing, really hearing, the message of the Kingdom is to repent and believe the Good News. Whether a beginner or a more mature disciple, the call is the same: repent and believe. And when we get off track as we will: repent, believe, repeat.

To repent is more than stop doing bad things. Rather it is a willingness to throw the whole of oneself before God and to submit to God’s will. It is an implicit confession that our ways are wrongs and that God’s ways are right. As we enter the season of Lent, we have a designated time to allow God’s Spirit to recalibrate our lives and bring them into alignment with the priorities of God’s kingdom. When we have repented, then we can truly believe (trust) in the Good News–which is nothing short of Jesus himself (cf. Mark 1:1).

So the movement of Christian discipleship involves baptism, temptation, and ministry. This was the model of Jesus. So as it was with Jesus, so let it be with us.

No One But Jesus!

Reflections on the Lectionary Gospel Reading for February 15: Mark 9:1-10

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

The story of Jesus as told by Mark is punctuated by three nodal moments: the baptism of Jesus, the transfiguration, and the crucifixion. These stories appear to be of the same fabric. They all speak to the identity of Jesus; they all announce Jesus as God’s special messenger, even the Son of God. They all partake of theophanies, or stories in which God appears.

There are several of these stories in the OT: Moses on Mt. Sinai, Isaiah before the throne of God, and others. Often these stories involve clouds, the voice of God, dazzling white garments, and a new direction or clarity for the one who experienced it. Though the elements vary from story to story, they always involve an encounter with the living God.

Though the reading for this coming Sunday is actually Mark 9:2-9, a larger context is necessary to catch the sense of the text. Therefore, I have included v. 1 and v. 10. The first verse sets up the story of the transfiguration. Here Jesus states that some of his audience would be alive to “see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” While this comment may refer to the founding of the church, Mark does not tell us that story in his Gospel. More likely, then, the comment makes sense within in the immediate context. Mark had already introduced the centrality of the “kingdom of God” to the ministry and preaching of Jesus (cf. Mark 1:15; 4:11, 26, 30; 9:1, 47; 10:14–15, 23–25; 12:34; 14:25; 15:43).

Jesus has been very clear that the Kingdom of God was in fact already present in his ministry. In Mark 1:15, Jesus states that the kingdom of God has come near (perfect tense in Greek) and in 4:11 that the mystery of the Kingdom of God has been given (again perfect tense) to his disciples, though they did not understand what he meant. Now, in Mark 9:1, Jesus states that some of his audience would see the Kingdom of God “having come” (another perfect) with power. This text is not predicting some future coming of the kingdom, that kingdom is present in the ministry of Jesus. Instead he is predicting that some of this hearers will experience coming of that kingdom “in power.” (Notice that v. 2 begins with a marker of time: six days later, that is, six days after Jesus said some would see the Kingdom of God having come with power).

The next story, the story of the Transfiguration, satisfies both that some of his audience would experience the kingdom and that it would be a powerful experience. The Transfiguration is certainly nothing short of powerful!

When Jesus had led his closest disciples up a high mountain, he was “transfigured” (μεταμορφόω) in their presence and his clothing became brilliantly white. “Transfigure” is such an ugly English word; the only time we use the word is for this story. The Greek word is the one from which we get metamorphosis, and can just as easily be translated “changed,” “transformed,” etc. More pertinent than the meaning of the word is how Jesus’ transformation sounds like what happened to Moses when experienced the presence of God on Mt. Sinai. The text of Exodus notes that “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (Exodus 34:29). Just as Moses experienced God on Mt. Sinai, so now Jesus in this mountain-top experience.

Out of nowhere Elijah and Moses appear to chat with Jesus. Scholars and commentators have speculated on why Moses and Elijah and whether there is a deeper meaning to be found here. Here are a few of the better suggestion:

1) Both Moses and Elijah had theophanic exits. In the case of Moses, the text of Deuteronomy say that God allowed Moses to see the Promised Land, and then he died and was buried in an unknown location  (Deut 34:5–6). With Elijah, when it was time for him to exit, God swooshed him to heaven in the wake of a fiery chariot (2Kings 2:11–12).

2) Moses represents the Law and Elijah, as the beginning of the prophetic movement in ancient Israel, represents the Prophets. Thus, the Transfiguration is about how Jesus is the culmination of the Law and the Prophets.

3) In Deuteronomy 18 Moses predicted that one day God would raise up a prophet like himself. The earliest Christians read this text to refer to Jesus (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15; Acts 3:22). Yet many of the miracles of Jesus sound like those that occurred in the ministry of Elijah. Furthermore, since John the Baptist is identified with the ministry of Elijah (cf. Mark 9:11–13), Jesus would be like Elisha, Elijah’s disciple, who received a double portion of Elijah’s spirit after the latter departed.

In short, the stories related to Moses and Elijah provide a rich pool of images and echoes through which to understand the meaning of the Transfiguration and the mission of Jesus.

Clearly Peter misses the full meaning of the experience, when he said, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The point, of course, is that Jesus is the one who now represents the will of God. Jesus, as the Voice from heaven says, is “my Son, the Beloved” and the appropriate response is to “listen to him!” One might say that is Mark’s point throughout the Gospel in seeking disciples who will listen carefully to Jesus. Remember “The one who has an ear to hear should listen up!”

Peter, who may well be Mark’s source for this story, speaks before listening. “He did not know what to say!” So as we are prone to do ourselves when we don’t know what to say, we speak anyway. When we do this, what follows is usually disastrous.

Yet Mark goes deeper into the motivation of Peter and the others: “for they were terrified!” Had I experience what they had, I’m sure I would have been terrified, too. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus elicits two basic responses from people: faith or fear. In Mark’s Gospel, the opposite of “faith,” is not un-faith, or disbelief, but fear. At the end of Mark, this same thought recurs. When the women who came to tomb are invited to go tell of the empty tomb, they don’t, “because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).

When the experience was over, Peter, James and John looked around. They now saw no one but Jesus!

And that is Mark’s point: to see no one but Jesus!