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Jesus has come to conquer death, so don’t underestimate his authority (Mark 15:40–16:8) — October 25, 2011

Jesus has come to conquer death, so don’t underestimate his authority (Mark 15:40–16:8)

Jesus is dead.

Mark is very clear on the matter. He introduces three women to the story, and he follows their eyewitness accounts of the events following Jesus’ crucifixion. The women watch Jesus breathe his last and die. Two of them take note of where he is buried, seeing a great stone rolled as a seal across the entrance. The man who buries him, a secret disciple named Joseph, handles Jesus’ body, taking it down from the cross and wrapping it in a linen shroud before laying it in his own tomb. The centurion who observed Jesus’ rapid death also confirms it to the Roman governor Pilate.

Jesus is dead, dead, dead.

It’s really hard for me to imagine the effect Jesus’ resurrection had on his disciples. For us, the events have already taken place, and we know from the beginning that he will rise from the dead. It’s no surprise. But to Jesus’ followers, his resurrection was a thundering shock. When the women arrive at the tomb early on Sunday morning, they are convinced that they will find a dead body. They’ve prepared their anointing spices and are ready to play out the familiar postmortem rituals. Their only question is, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”

Even as they’re worrying aloud to one another about this rather important detail, they catch sight of the tomb from a distance—“and they saw that the stone had been rolled back.” Suddenly, events are taking an unfamiliar turn. As they enter the tomb, they see “a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe.” And they suffer a collective heart attack.

This strange young man sitting in a tomb immediately tries to calm them down. First, the obvious: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” Then, the shocking twist: “He has risen! He is not here; see the place where they laid him.” The young man gestures toward the niche where Jesus’ body was placed. It’s empty now. The women see the truth with their own eyes.

This “young man” (clearly an angel!) gives them a message from Jesus. He says, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Even though the disciples (especially Peter) have abandoned him, Jesus hasn’t abandoned them. Not only is he alive, he plans to meet with them again!

Now, the angel’s commands to the women are “go” and “tell.” So what do the women do? Mark records that they “went out”…and “fled.” And “they said nothing to anyone”—at least not right away.

What gives? Why did they fail to carry out the angel’s instructions? Mark explains that “trembling and astonishment had seized them…they were afraid.” In other words, their response to the angel was pure terror. They panicked and ran away.

So why the hysteria? Well, their actions speak loud enough. They were fully expecting a dead man. Their minds were locked into the usual pattern of things; it never occurred to them that Jesus might not stay dead. So when the angel’s announcement shattered the orderly reign of Death, they were utterly unable to process what had taken place. Mentally overloaded, they turned and ran.

The women had stood at a distance and watched Jesus’ death. They could handle that, albeit with great pain. Joseph could even exercise courage when it came to preparing Jesus’ body for burial. But when Jesus breaks loose from the dominion of Death, the women can’t take it.

Jesus calmed a storm which threatened his disciples, and they became afraid of him. Jesus drove a legion of demons out of a wild man, and the people nearby responded with fear and asked him to leave. Now Jesus has conquered the undefeated enemy, Death, and the response is shock and terror.

These people responded in fear because they underestimated Jesus. He seemed to be a good teacher, perhaps a prophet, even the Messiah. But when he began to overpower natural and spiritual forces, that caught them by surprise. Then he announced that he would triumph over the grave—and so he did, “just as he told you.” No one believed him.

It is not possible to underestimate Jesus. He is the Son of God. He has authority over Death itself. If you have not given up on yourself and bowed the knee to him, this is very bad news. If he can conquer Death, what will he do with a rebel like you?

But if you belong to him as his disciple and servant, Jesus’ victory will fill you with confidence in his limitless authority:

Fear not! I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. (Revelation 1:17–18)

Jesus has come to protect his disciples, so have confidence in him alone (Mark 13:14–23) — May 12, 2011

Jesus has come to protect his disciples, so have confidence in him alone (Mark 13:14–23)

Last week, we read that Jesus doesn’t want us to be Chicken Littles who panic whenever some cataclysm happens, convinced that the world is coming to an end—that “the sky is falling!”

But what if the sky actually is falling?

After Jesus announces that the Jewish temple will be destroyed (13:1–2), his disciples have asked him, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4). In addition the destruction of the temple, they seem to want to know when he will set up his kingdom on earth. Because these two events are interrelated but separated in time, Jesus’ answer will include elements from both. But first of all, he warns them not to be easily alarmed by cataclysms or by false announcements of his coming; in fact, they should expect persecution since his coming will be delayed (13:5–13).

However, the time will come when the temple will be destroyed, and it won’t be pleasant. We know from history that in 37 years, a Roman army will overrun Judea in response to a rebellion. Jerusalem will be destroyed, and the temple will be razed to the ground, just as Jesus is prophesying. The Jews will be massacred. Jesus wants to protect his vulnerable disciples from this act of judgment, so he tells them to watch for “the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not to be.” When they see this, they are to drop everything and run! The suffering will be so terrible that “if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved.” Everyone in Judea would be killed.

We know that the Christians in Jerusalem obeyed Jesus’ warning and evacuated to the town of Pella to the north and across the Jordan River. By following Jesus’ warning, they escaped with their lives.

“But wait!” you ask. “What is this ‘abomination of desolation’ that they were supposed to look out for?” Well, we know that Jesus was quoting from the book of Daniel, in which it was prophesied that a vicious tyrant would desecrate the temple with some sort of “abomination” (Daniel 8:9–14; 9:26–27; 11:31; 12:11). This prophecy was initially fulfilled when Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the worship of the Lord and set up swine sacrifices in the temple about 200 years before Jesus’ words. Apparently history is about to repeat itself, and another “abomination of desolation” is yet to come before the temple is destroyed.

And if you’re wondering whether I know what this “abomination” turned out to be, the answer is no. There are plenty of theories out there, but no one knows for sure. Ultimately, it’s not terribly important what it was exactly. What’s important is that Jesus is warning his disciples to protect them from death.

Not only is he protecting them from death with these warnings, but he’s also protecting them from deception. He tells them, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. False christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” In times of great suffering, people will latch on to any charismatic figure who offers them hope, especially one who can (supposedly?) perform miracles. “Be on guard,” Jesus says. “I have told you all things beforehand.” This prophecy is meant to protect his disciples so that they can survive the dangerous times that are coming.

Here’s what this passage tells us about Jesus: he wants to protect those who are his own. Twice he calls them the elect—people who have been chosen by God. He won’t abandon the people whom God has chosen to be called by his name. He will preserve them even when the world around them comes apart at the seams. They can say with confidence, “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress!” (Psalm 46:11).

So how should this affect our thinking and our behavior? First, we must be confident no matter how severe the danger surrounding us. Our confidence does not come because we have enough influence or financial security or government protection to avoid suffering. As though these things will protect us when “the earth gives way…the nations rage, the kingdoms totter” (Psalm 46:2, 6)! Neither can we be confident in our own intelligence, thinking that false teaching won’t deceive us. No, it is God who is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear” (Psalm 46:1–2).

Second, watch out! It’s dangerous to have too much confidence in the institutions of man, whether it’s the Jerusalem temple or the national government or the stability of your employer. And as we just observed, it’s dangerous to have confidence in your own ability to discern false teaching. So watch carefully to make sure that you trust only in your Lord, Jesus Christ, to save you when the world falls apart around you.

Eight years of “goodbye” — April 30, 2011

Eight years of “goodbye”

Two weeks ago, I left behind the town of Lafayette, Indiana. I lived there for more than eight years, which is the longest span of time I’ve lived in one town or city. It was the closest I’ve come to calling a town my own.

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.
Leviticus 25:23

What always held me back from feeling settled in Lafayette was the fact that it is such a transitional town. When I left, several people in my church commented that it was hard to imagine the church without me. They had arrived later, and as far as they were concerned, I had been around forever. I was the permanent one—possessing eight years of permanence!

You can’t shake that unsettled feeling when you live in a town like that. You know that you are a sojourner. You can’t fool yourself into believing you’ll be there forever.

In the Old Testament, as Israel was preparing to move into the promised land of Canaan, the Lord instituted a series of laws about how they were to treat the land. They were not to overwork it or sell it permanently because the land was his, not theirs. They were tenants; he was the landlord. He was their host; they were his guests.

For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.
1 Chronicles 29:15

When you’re a stranger and a sojourner, you feel your impermanence on a visceral level. You could disappear, and the world could go on just fine without you. You flit about like a phantom, a shadow, moving from place to place, with no substance.

When I moved away, I had many people come to me to wish me well and to say goodbye. It was hard for me to say goodbye—not because the separation was too painful but because it was perhaps too easy. Most of these friends I will be able to keep up with on Facebook, after all. There will be few severed relationships.

And this was not the first time I’d had to say goodbye. The fact is that it was simply the conclusion to eight years of goodbyes. When you live in Lafayette, people come and go every year. They pass like phantoms through the town, taking classes or working a temporary job until career or family draws them away. You make friends, then let them go, then make new friends, then watch them leave as well. And when it comes time for you yourself to leave, it is not your closest friends who have remained to see you off. So “goodbye” is not as hard, because it’s fundamentally no different from any of the others.

O LORD, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
Psalm 39:4–5

Here in the West, we do our best to quarantine death, to hide it away in hospitals and nursing homes, to pretend that we will live forever. We do our best to make this world a heaven, to live in a nice neighborhood and own a shiny car and find a purposeful career. But this requires a lot of transience and rootlessness, a lot of moving around. So even though we can postpone the death of our bodies, we cannot avoid the isolation of lost friendships. Our impermanence is more obvious than ever.

Hear my prayer, O LORD,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,
a guest, like all my fathers.
Psalm 39:12

The earth is the Lord’s. I’m just passing through. I am a sojourner here, a guest of the Lord’s, just like my father was, and his father before him—a man who did not last long enough for me to meet him. There is no hope to be found in our relationships with one another. Hope must be anchored to an immovable object; I can’t find hope in my relationships with other people any more than a ship at sea can anchor itself to the wind and fog.

Who does David, king of Israel, appeal to in Psalm 39? He appeals to the one who created the land on which he is kneeling, the one who owns it and will continue to own it thousands of years after David vanishes from the earth. The Lord is the only permanent mooring in a world of passing shadows.

So may you cling to the Rock which will outlast the world. And may you find eternal life by binding yourself to our eternal God.

Jesus has power over disease and death (Mark 5:21–43) — May 11, 2010

Jesus has power over disease and death (Mark 5:21–43)

When I began working through the gospel of Mark, my main goal was to know Jesus better. Today’s passage has become precious to me because it’s one of those places in scripture where I’ve encountered Jesus in a unique way. Meeting Jesus here led me to the point of tears as I see the love that he has for his people. I wish I could communicate it in the space of about four minutes, but it’s simply not possible. It takes deep contemplation and imagination and questioning of the text to mine this rich vein of gold.

If you grew up attending Sunday School, the details of this story are familiar. The ruler of a local Jewish synagogue, a man by the name of Jairus, asks Jesus to heal his sick daughter. On the way, a woman sneaks up on Jesus from behind, touches his clothes, and is healed of a menstrual discharge that has plagued her for twelve years. Jairus finds out that his daughter has died, but Jesus goes to his house and raises her from the dead.

Here’s something that should give us pause, though: this is another one of Mark’s “sandwich stories.” Mark begins the story of Jairus’ daughter, interrupts it to tell about the woman, then finishes the story of Jairus’ daughter. The sandwiched, inner story of the woman should help us understand something important about the outer story that we wouldn’t have known otherwise. So how does the story of this suffering woman unlock the story of Jairus and his daughter?

There’s something odd about this inner story: it’s so mundane at first. Jesus has healed many diseased people before, and many of them have “pressed around to touch him” (Mark 3:10). What’s so special about this woman? Well, first of all, she is unusually desperate. She has been suffering menstrual bleeding for twelve years straight and has spent all her money on doctors who have only made the problem worse. Her bleeding makes her unclean according to the law of Moses, so for the last twelve years she has been somewhat isolated from her friends and family. Jesus is her last hope, her only hope. She dares to believe that he can save her from her suffering with a single touch: “If I touch even his garments I will be saved.” And sure enough, she feels his power course through her body and heal her at once.

At the same time, Jesus feels power flow out from him, and at once he demands to know who touched him. The disciples are incredulous—“You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” As though no one had ever done this before! Yet Jesus persists, and the woman comes forward, falls down before him, and tells him everything. She has felt his immense power surging through the depths of her being; she knows what he is capable of doing; and she is terrified. Will Jesus be furious at her for interrupting his urgent mission to Jairus’ house? Will he be horrified that an unclean woman has contaminated him?

“Daughter,” he says to her, “your faith has saved you.” He isn’t upset at her. He loves her—loves her as though she were his own daughter. He is thrilled to see how bold her faith is, bold enough to inconvenience him. She believed he could save her, and he is glad to give her what she spent twelve years longing for. “Go in peace, and be healed of your disease,” he says.

Now, here’s where we get back to Jairus’ story, because at that very moment, messengers come from his house with terrible news: “Your daughter is dead.” Jairus must have been devastated. He was so close to finding help for her; the famous rabbi was on his way to heal her, and now—all is lost. He will never get her back. It’s too late. The messengers ask him, “Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But Jesus is listening in, and he says to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” And all at once, we understand why he insisted on speaking to the woman. It was for Jairus’ sake. Jesus wanted Jairus to see that he could believe in him. Jesus has power over disease and death; his authority is beyond that of any man. And he is eager to use that authority to help Jairus. There is no need to be afraid.

Jairus must have held on to a kernel of faith, because Jesus insists on showing up at his house, kicking out the hired mourners, and walking upstairs to where the girl lies dead. I love this scene! Jesus basically reaches out to her, takes her hand, and says to her, “Wake up, it’s time for lunch!” (If you don’t believe me, read verse 43!) As far as he’s concerned, “the child is not dead but sleeping”—no need to panic or anything. The people in the room are “overcome with amazement,” but Jesus is nonchalant about the whole thing. How can you not love him for that?

This story has a familiar ending: Jesus insists that the small circle of people in that room keep quiet about this. (I have no idea how they could!) This astounding experience is something special that he has given to those people who have faith. To the woman who got close to him and touched him, he gave her his power to save her from disease. To the parents of this girl, who believed in him even when all hope was lost, he gave them their daughter back. Those who mocked Jesus are left on the outside, wondering what just took place. They don’t get to see that Jesus has power over disease and death.

I urge you—come close to Jesus. He wants you to be with him. You feel unclean, unloved, but Jesus wants you to come to him to be washed in his blood, healed from your sin, clothed in his righteousness, raised to life again. Don’t be afraid. Only believe.

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