Splagchnizomai Everyday!–Mark 1:41-42

Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!”  Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

Jesus was indignant? That’s what my New International Version of the Bible says.  Was Jesus having a bad day? Was he particularly grumpy about lepers? Or just lepers who had the temerity to speak to him? This just doesn’t seem like the Jesus that we read about elsewhere in the Gospels–and perhaps most to the point elsewhere in Mark. In most translations, Jesus is full of compassion–the proper translation of that tongue-spraining word in the title–but in the NIV, he’s indignant, translated thus from a different but similar Greek word that appears in only one early Greek manuscript.

Recently, Bart Ehrman, the scholar who has made a healthy career out of churning out a series of books skeptical about the veracity of the Bible, has argued that, despite the many manuscripts that read “compassion,” the lonely one reading “indignant” is to be preferred. Why? Because it is the more difficult one to read and accept. That’s a great piece of logic. If we could find a manuscript that said Jesus was a space alien, Ehrman would undoubtedly jump on that as well.

While the scholars in seminaries and universities around the land can write their books and articles full of Greek letters and arcane references, we need to be sure not to miss the point. I don’t know why Jesus would be indignant, but perhaps he was. But the key thing is that, indignant or compassionate, Jesus reached out and healed this man.

My emotions are not always as predictable as Jesus’, but whether I am in a good mood or bad, living my best or worst day, I cannot reach out and heal a leper in the easy, almost offhand way that Jesus did this man.

Despite the fact that God’s Word was recorded by fallible men and then copied and translated by a series of more fallible men, it does reveal the character, the nature, and the power of Jesus. Those qualities have survived the Bart Ehrmans of twenty centuries and they will long outlive the current one, articulate and clever as he is.

Willing and Able–Mark 1:40

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

In recent months, I’ve experienced some particular frustration with a certain gigantic banking company, which will remain nameless. Let’s just call it GMAC. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that this interchange involved me filling out a ream of forms and then awaiting the folks at GMAC to render a decision. After months–literally, months–of waiting on them to get moving on my request, the brain trust at this paragon of financial probity declined my request.

But wait, there’s more! After receiving their explanation, I immediately called the handy toll-free number to discuss the matter, because, according to their own documents, the GMAC gang had failed to perform simple arithmetic accurately, a failing that led to their decision. The kind bank representative explained that since they had made the mistake they could restart the process after I refilled all of the documents again.

“There’s no way to simply use the documents I completed before?” I asked.

“No sir,” the GMAC drone answered.

Of course it could have happened. It would have been easy. The problem was that somebody, either this fellow on the phone or his higher-ups, simply weren’t willing.

Think about it. Many times we can do something, but we aren’t willing. I’m not talking about things that I simply can’t do. I might like to slam-dunk a basketball, but it isn’t going to happen. On the other hand, when I head to QuikTrip later to fill up my gas tank, I could pay for the other people’s gas as well. I could, but I’m not willing to do that. I could grade papers for my office mate, but I’m not going to do it. I’m just not willing.

In this brief story, the leper recognizes that Jesus is able to heal him. The question in this man’s mind rests in the Lord’s willingness to do this healing. Now let’s be clear. The ability to heal leprosy is no mean feat, and the leper’s recognition of Jesus’ ability showed his level of awareness.

Sometimes I wonder how much we really believe Jesus to be capable of doing. Do we trust him to provide our food and protect our health, to control this insane world and to control my out-of-control life? Sure, we say that we possess that sort of trust, but often our actions say that we don’t believe him capable of doing the deed.

Rather than depending on the good grace of GMAC with my financial future, I’ve determined not to worry about what they’re willing or able to do. Instead, I’m going to trust in the one is definitely willing and able. At least that’s the plan. I’m willing. Lord, make me able.

The Most Famous Writer in the World–Mark 1:39

So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

On this day after Christmas, I’d like to make a confession. I’m a writerly egomaniac. Sure, I churn out these little devotions with no real hope of a readership that extends beyond the single digits, but in my heart of hearts, I yearn to have the audience of J.K. Rowling and Michael Crichton combined. I want to be a household name, the sort of writer that, when he receives the Nobel Prize, evokes comments like, “But didn’t he already get that years ago?”

Perhaps I’m exaggerating here, but anyone who puts (electronic) pen to (digital) paper wants to have a decent audience to read those words. No musician wants to go unheard. No actor will be satisfied going unwatched, and no writer will want to  be unread. The more readers, the better.

Shouldn’t that have been the case with Jesus? Shouldn’t he have hired a press agent and covered a lot more of the countryside? Shouldn’t he have avoided repeated visits to the same town and opted for the big cities rather than the hick towns of Galilee? I think the Judas character in Jesus Christ Superstar explored some of these ideas very well:

If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation;
Israel in four b.c. had no mass communication.

Obviously Jesus didn’t have things very well thought out. He stayed in the backwater of Galilee and found himself repeatedly at Capernaum. If, as we read in yesterday’s verse, his whole purpose in coming was to preach to people, then he didn’t seem to work out that mission with a great deal of planning. Maybe if Jesus had only read The Purpose Driven Life.

But then Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He knew where to preach and where not to. He visited exactly the right number of towns, exactly the right number of times. By saying this, I’m not simply uttering the platitudes of the faithful. I’m observing results. Sure, Jesus got less overall exposure than Kim Kardashian, his staying power–with a billion adherents two thousand years later–has proven very strong.

This is why, on the day after Christmas, when I examine my lack of Pulitzer prizes and my brief list of published books, I recognize that my fame might be exactly what it needs to be. Fame is not the measure of a disciple and a steward. Obedience is.

Beyond the Manger–Mark 1:38

Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

As I type these words, my saintly wife is hard at work, slaving over a hot sewing machine, struggling to craft Aquabats costumes for two of our grandsons.

In the event that you’re hopelessly out of touch with all the latest wonders of popular culture, the Aquabats are featured in a marvelously silly send-up of cheesy super-hero programs. They’re not particularly cool, heroic, or even very fit. Despite these apparent drawbacks, Ira and Uri want nothing more than to dress up like these guys.

At the same time that Penny is sewing the trademark Aquabat utility belt, other people are piling into Best Buy and Target, attempting to pile all the right gifts into their carts. Meanwhile, people plan for parties and dinners. They map out their route to Grandma’s house and make sure the car is full of gas. They play an apparently endless stream of Christmas songs and watch a Charlie Brown Christmas for the forty-seventh year in a row.

All of these activities keep us busy at Christmas. In fact, we might even get the sense that these things are the point of Christmas. Of course, if you darken the door of church during the month of December, you’ll be reminded that Jesus is the reason for the season. But even that can get us off base.

Jesus, it turns out, did not come into this world to be the cute little baby lying in a  bed of hay. He didn’t arrive to instigate retail sales or to put the black in Black Friday. Jesus’ purpose was not to disrupt the working habits of shepherds or cause Magi to travel hundreds of miles.

Instead, Jesus came into this world on a day that we celebrate on December 25, not so that he could do things on December 25. He came to move out beyond Capernaum, to preach to a lost and dying world. “Beyond the Mangers stands the cross,” a Christmas song explains. How true is that?

On this Christmas, as we eat whatever marvels mean family and home to us, as we open gifts and watch children pull on Aquabats outfits, as we travel to family gatherings that may or may not portend peace and good will, let us remember the Jesus who rose from prayer to head out for ministry.

Rather than lying passive in a manger, Jesus headed to the wider world. Interestingly, he gave us the same instruction at the end of his time on earth.

Everyone Isn’t Looking–Mark 1:36-37

Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”

Visit one of the busy shopping districts around town during the holidays, especially if you do it on a weekend, and you’ll feel like saying, “Everybody in town is trying to get to these stores.” If I were a burglar in such a jam, I’d be tempted to go to work, since apparently nobody would be found at home. Of course the reality is that even when cars so jam the area that the stoplights seem to create parking lots and the parking lots seem not nearly large enough, not everyone is shopping right there, right then.

On the morning in question in these verses, Simon Peter had to know that not everyone was looking for Jesus. Of course, this was Peter, who blurted out some of the silliest and best things that a person could manage during his normal day, but still, he had to see his words as exaggeration.

When I was a child, I had a book of Bible stories that I enjoyed. In one of those, before the story of Jesus’ birth, it described him as “The Baby Everyone Wanted.” I had an image of thousands of potential Marys sitting around and pining to be the mother of the Messiah. In reality, of course, most Jewish women of that day did not consider the possibility of giving birth to the Messiah. Most of the people in that land weren’t actively looking for the Messiah at any given time. At any given time, they might be walking or fishing or farming or something, but not really on watch for the Messiah, whatever he might look like.

Today, on Christmas Eve, how many of the people in your family–believer or non-believer–are actively looking for Jesus? How many of those people at Best Buy or Kohl’s seek him? How many of the people who lined up in the pre-dawn hours on Black Friday for “doorbuster” deals would inconvenience themselves in the slightest to gain audience with the Prince of Peace.

This Christmas, as we celebrate the Incarnation, as we marvel at God taking human form, let us not for an instant forget that much of the world has yet to receive this word. Unless, like Simon and his companions, these people actively seek Jesus, they will depend on us to bring Jesus into their lives. This Christmas, let us start with our own homes and work outward from there.

Talking to Ourselves–Mark 1:35

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

 In the various movies of recent decades in which God has made an on-screen appearance–I’m thinking here of George Burns in Oh God and Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty–we discover among the rather commonplace morality that Hollywood can espouse the inevitable oddities of language that would naturally follow when God himself speaks. When George Burns is sworn in to court, he finishes the oath by saying, “So help me me.” You have to wonder if God, in their mind, would text “OMM.” But then how can an omniscient God be sufficiently surprised to want to text such a thing?

Obviously, those who write such scripts either never read or didn’t pay close attention to Job. Somehow the smug Morgan-Freeman God doesn’t quite seem like the one who asked, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” If those writers were creating a scene surrounding Jesus in today’s verse, they’d have something like this:

Peter: Hey Jesus, what are you doing out here?

Jesus: Just talking to myself.

Peter: Whoa! That sounds crazy. Next thing you know you’ll claim to be God!

Happily, they haven’t written that script, but the question does arise: If Jesus is, as we claim, God Incarnate, then why does he need to go out and pray to himself? Like the trivial oddities of language that the oh-so-clever Hollywood writers deploy in their comedies, the oddities that come when you suggest a character as fully man and fully God simply demand attention.

In reality, I can’t understand the behavior or plumb the thoughts of my own wife after 30 years of marriage. How could I ever hope to understand the God-Man in all his complexity. Answer? I can’t. But I do observe that Jesus, “being in very nature God,” did roll out of bed early in the morning and head out to pray. Perhaps he need the prayer time to keep him from simply obliterating the petty and self-serving people who claimed to be his biggest fans!

This morning, I rolled out of bed with the alarm, went immediately to the bathroom and performed my morning routine. What I did not do was brave the chill to spend a few minutes in prayer. You’d think, needing it so much more than Jesus did, I would follow his lead more carefully, but I didn’t. How about you?

A Blessing for Most?–Mark 1:34

and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

As I write this, I’m watching students take a final exam. Frankly, there aren’t a lot of things duller than watching people take exams. Exam day, coming at the end of the semester, as the burden of studies is lifted from their backs, should be a day of great relief and happiness. For many of them it is, but for some–for example, the young man seated just to my right–it’s a day of excuses and worries. In the class testing right now, many of them have done brilliantly. Another significant group has performed solidly. They’re not literature types, which is fine, but they’ve studied hard, gritted their teeth, and written the papers. They hand in their exams fairly confident of a B. That’s not too bad.

I’d love to come in to an exam and say, “You’ve all done great. Just answer these questions and you’ll be happy with the outcome.” All I can say, though, is “Many of you have done great.” Hearing that “many,” the young man to my right would be thinking, “Yeah, many but not me.”

This student has made his own situation. To his credit, he owns that situation. But what about the people who came to the door in search of Jesus in Mark 1:34. Those “many” with sicknesses or possessed by demons. Do you notice that Jesus apparently didn’t heal all of them. Had he healed them all, my guess is that the text would say that he healed “all.” In fact, back in Mark 1:5, we read that “all the land went out to him.” Surely that doesn’t mean that absolutely every man, woman, and child in the land came out, leaving nobody back home. If Mark says “all” when he means “a whole lot,” wouldn’t he say “all” when he meant “all”?

Why did Jesus not heal “all” of the people who came to the door? What did those people think? We can’t really answer these questions, but they make good fodder for winter-night discussions. The best answer I can answer is essentially the one that Job received: “He’s God and he doesn’t have to answer to the likes of us.”

Blessings seem to come to people who don’t deserve them, while bad stuff falls on some marvelous homes. Why? I don’t know. Why is my family so healthy, while others seem to endure a parade of illness? Why does God seem to bless “many” of his most loyal followers but not “all”?

Mark offers no answers here, nor does he record any answer from Jesus. In fact, Jesus never seems to acknowledge the question. Apparently, this apparent “unfairness” is just the way that life goes. Perhaps there’s a divine logic that we cannot perceive, but perhaps it’s just life.

What I do know is that our call is not to decide who is saved and who is not, who is healed and who remains ill, who is blessed and who is not blessed. Our call is to respond to Jesus without question. I’ll trust him to work out the details properly.

Get the Word Around–Mark 1:32-33

That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door.

Last Sunday evening, my church performed a Christmas musical, directed by your humble correspondent. We had offered this work twice on the previous Sunday morning in lieu of our normal preaching services. Both of those morning services had been well attended. Had we been depending on our normal Sunday-morning attendees–just the ones who hadn’t made it the previous week–to fill the pews for the evening, we might have had a hundred or so people present. Instead, we saw a nearly full auditorium with many faces that I’d never seen before.

The idea, apparently, had worked. After those morning performances, we told the congregation to invite their friends and family to pack the place next week. Sure we could have squeezed a few more people into the seats, but we sang and played to a nice crowd Sunday evening.

Let’s consider the goings-on in Capernaum on that Saturday early in Jesus’ ministry. In the morning, Jesus went and taught in the synagogue. After that, perhaps at noon, he walked over to Peter’s house and healed the mother-in-law. After that, after sunset had come and the Sabbath had ended, the word got around town. Before long, everybody with a stomach ache showed up at the door ready to be healed.

Today, I’m not as interested in what Jesus did as in what these people did. They responded to the blessing that Jesus brought onto Peter’s house by coming and seeking a blessing of their own. They didn’t wait for Jesus to come to their house. Instead, they sought him out and brought their petitions with boldness.

How often do Christians see the blessings that come into other lives and sit back wishing those blessings would visit them? Perhaps we see a life enriched through service or prayer and wish that somebody would ask us to do some neat job or that we could be prayer warriors.

God’s blessings, for whatever reason, do not fall on all believers equally. Perhaps after this life, we’ll understand why that is. But I am convinced that many blessings that you and I should enjoy go unclaimed because we don’t go to the door where Jesus is staying and ask for them.

 

Get Well and Work!–Mark 1:31

So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

As I read today’s verse, I’m sitting in my office in a secular college, surrounded by a host of feminists, many of whom I consider friends. Still, I wonder how they might spin this healing to conform to their ideology. “Obviously Jesus only healed Peter’s mother-in-law to preserve the patriarchal hierarchy and put her in her place as servant rather than served.” Of course, the reason that Mark records that reaction of Peter’s mother-in-law is to provide evidence of the healing. This was not some healing in the mind–“Yes, I do believe I’m feeling better.” Jesus healed this woman so thoroughly that she could hop up and start handing out whatever one handed out to house guests in the first century.

On the other hand, as the father of three daughters, I don’t want to be seen as perpetuating the gender roles in place during Jesus’ day. I’m perfectly comfortable with women playing a broader role in our society than simply staying in the house except to run down to the well and hoss water back on their shoulders.

The real message in this healing, I believe, has little to do with gender roles, feminism, or anything that Gloria Steinem might have advocated or resisted. Instead, I’d like to draw our attention to the response of Peter’s mother-in-law to  the blessings of God’s Son. Lying there, burning up with fever, she was physically delivered by the touch of his hand. And her response? She got straight to work serving Jesus and his followers.

Many years ago, I was healed from a much more serious illness, one that would result not in physical death but in spiritual death. Christ touched me, through no real actions of my own, and healed me of the curse of sin. I’d love to say that I immediately jumped out of my illness and got to work serving him, but that would be an exaggeration. My gratitude, while always present, has not always been at the front of my mind. My ministry, while never closing down, has not always been as selfless and dedicated as it should be.

Imagine what the Christian church could look like if ever redeemed person, got up and starting serving the cause of Jesus with the enthusiasm and energy that we imagine this lady showing. We’d be overflowing with home visits and evangelism activities. Classes would never lack for teachers. Budgets would never lack for dollars.

We don’t know anything more about this woman than what Mark tells us here. Perhaps her enthusiasm waned. Perhaps she rolled her eyes when Jesus and the boys strolled into the house in the future. Really, that doesn’t matter to us. Our fever has been cured. We should jump up and serve.

 

Immediate Missions–Mark 1:29-30

As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her.

When my pastor has the good sense to wrap up his sermon at a decent hour, I can avoid bolting out of the building like the anti-social person I really am and still make it to my favorite restaurant before the masses fill the place. There, I can share the morning’s gossip with my family before shuttling home to see how badly the Chiefs are being beaten. Once the ball game is over, I’ll lounge about the house for a few hours. If I have to go back to church for some meeting or other, I’ll do that, but often I get to relax my way all the way to bedtime. Sundays are marvelous.

That being said, I have to confess that today’s scripture makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. It seems that Jesus, upon leaving the synagogue, did not head for Cracker Barrel. He didn’t even care who was winning the football game. No, Jesus, “As soon as” he left the synagogue took himself to the mission field. And when did the two pairs of brothers mention the illness of Peter’s mother-in-law? “Immediately.”

How often do we walk out of church and then allow the world’s demands to sweep us away from the things that we should do. We get swept into the ads for flashy electronics or the latest movie-of-the-decade. We watch the Chiefs lose or the rest of the family snooze. Back in the pews, we had great intentions to visit the afflicted and pray like crazy, but once we arrive home, things…change.

The point of a worship service is not to give us our religion fix, to fill us up like we do our car at the gas pump. Or maybe it is. Maybe we worship together in order to be able to drive off and actually go somewhere for God. You’d never consider filling up with unleaded on Sunday afternoon and then pulling away from the pump and leaving the car idling until the gas gauge read “E,” would you? That would be pointless and wasteful.

How much more pointless and wasteful is it to “fuel up” on Sunday morning only to idle away our time through the week. Instead, let’s leave church and launch into mission–immediately.