Thursday, June 9, 2016

"Follow Me"...Beyond the Law

One word that really stirs up most people in many churches is the word “change.” I believe many churches would use their bylaws to ban the word if they only thought about it. Now, the reality is that word is not so bad. You probably change your clothes daily, and perhaps moreso. But some changes are even welcome. For instance, we have had many advances (that is, positive change) in the technological realm. How about telephones? Does anyone want to return to the party-line? Most people would say they don’t even want a cord! What about medically? Many people now have a “minor surgery” related to your heart (e.g. replacing a battery for a pacemaker), Considering something related to the heart as minor would have been inconceivable thirty to forty years ago. So some changes are, indeed, welcome.

But what about in the world of religion (or church)? If you attend some place of worship, you likely know who sits next to you, behind you, in front of you, etc. The truth is that nothing is wrong with that because some habits are ok. Some traditions or customs are fine. Some even have a biblical basis. For instance, many churches ask the congregation to stand when Scripture is read. Why? Because that is what the Jews did when Ezra began to read according to Nehemiah 8. But Ezra and the others with him taught all day. Today, people complain if “we aren’t out before xxx.” Take away the air conditioning (how is that for positive change?) and the exit time will be much earlier!

The truth is people have always been this way. Some truly thrive on change. Others do not.  But in the religious realm, change is often offensive. For a church that uses a bulletin, people are less concerned if a change to the order of service is printed, especially if an explanation is given. But, Jesus didn’t provide a bulletin. Nor did His adversaries. However, as we have already established, in Mark’s account of the gospel, the next bit of action is always imminent.

Last week's post shared of two people that Jesus restored. Both instances – the paralytic man and Levi – caused others to question Jesus. This post unpacks two encounters where the actions of Jesus followers caused a stir among those who were observing Jesus with a close eye. Then Jesus pushed the envelope causing two disparate groups (the Herodians and Pharisees) to join forces to find a way not just to discredit Jesus, but to destroy Him. We turn to these three encounters now.

Jesus Introduces a Change in Timing (Mk 2.18-20)

Jesus’ ministry was continuing to gain notoriety. Mark 1.28 mentioned His fame spreading, but since then, He has healed a man with leprosy, healed a paralytic man, and associated with a tax collector and many of his friends. The leaders were looking for a reason to discredit Jesus, but His popularity would have made this difficult. In their eyes, He has done some suspicious things like associating with sinners and tax collectors, and perhaps committed blasphemy  (which was punishable by death) when He told the paralytic man that his sins were forgiven. But this incident and the next incident are indirect attacks at Jesus. In this text, “the people” note that Jesus’ disciples do not fast like the disciples of John the Baptizer and the disciples of the Pharisees.

The question here comes from some unknown group – the text merely says “the people”, but make no mistake, it was a people with an agenda. The question was about the disciples. “Why are they not fasting?” The underlying question is, “Jesus, if you are in charge of this group, why don’t you make them fast like other leaders?”

Jesus responds to this by stating that the time is not appropriate to fast. Jesus uses the analogy of a bridegroom at His own wedding. Such would be the time for a feast. The time for Jesus disciples to fast would come soon enough, but now is not that time.

This is important because Jesus doesn’t discredit fasting. He simply states that this isn’t the time for those that recognize what is happening. The Pharisees often fasted (every Monday and Thursday) because of tradition and in hopes that God would restore His people. Well, God sent Jesus to restroe the people, so there was no longer reason for the Pharisees to fast. John’s disciples, on the other hand, were likely fasting because he was imprisoned. In fact, Jesus suggests the same idea and more will happen to the bridegroom. Such an event will require fasting to begin at that time. Let me explain.

In the Jewish culture a wedding celebration lasted seven days for a virgin bride and three days for a widow. In such a case, who does the leaving? The guests. The bridegroom stays to be with His bride. But here Jesus says the bridegroom is “taken away” meaning the bride (His followers, the church) will naturally fast when that occurs. (Another mention of fasting by Jesus is in Matthew 6 where He teaches, “When you give...When you pray...When you fast.” We are given instructions on the how, so that implies that we do. But not out of ritual or custom, but out of love. As both Jesus (Matt 5.16) and Paul (1 Cor 10.31) state, what we do should be for the glory of God.

This leads to the next encounter. In the next short story, it is the Pharisees, this time, asking the question. They question Jesus (like the previous group had), but again the question is about the disciples. “Why do they do what they do on the Sabbath?” The most obvious reference is to plucking heads of grain. But Jesus and his disciples are walking, and no more than one-half mile was permitted. Any greater distance was work. (The Pharisees had written on 39 separate instances regarding what was proper or illegal on the Sabbath.). Here, the issue isn't timing, it is understanding.

Jesus Presents A Change in Understanding (Mk 2.23-28)

Jesus did not argue their interpretation, but rather its application. He cites an example from the Old Testament where David and his men were hungry and ate from the bread designated only for priests. Jesus use of this story is particularly interesting because David lies (twice) in this sequence to get what he wants (1 Samuel 21). But Jesus uses this story not merely because of a tie to food, but because of the similar nature of David’s life at this point. David was the chosen king, but had to wait until Saul, who was trying to kill him, was no longer in charge. Likewise Jesus was the chosen Messiah, but the leaders of the day were out to kill Jesus. In both cases God would vindicate His chosen one at the appropriate time.

It is here that Jesus makes His stunning statement that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Again, such a statement may be logical to us having nearly 2000 years of reflection. But again, let me provide you with a quick review of something I covered a few weeks ago – the 1st Century understanding of the Sabbath.

The Sabbath had come to mean more than just a day of rest. It was the representation of the complete rest that would be realized when the Messiah came. No more disease, no more hunger, no more meaningless work. It was the true and complete rest, which is later written about in Hebrews 3. And Jesus fulfilled this. He healed disease. He miraculously fed many. And He offered rest from a “works-based” salvation, by instead offering the grace of God (see Matthew 11.28-30).

Jesus celebrates the principle of the Sabbath. In fact, He epitomizes the principles of it. And, in doing so, He crushed the legalism of it. That was part of the problem. A true Jew could be proven externally – by circumcision and by observance of the Sabbath. To break the Sabbath was to break the covenental law of Moses. But Jesus established a new covenant – one that could not be so easily observed externally, but was to be realized internally. Jesus also calls Himself the Son of Man here, and says He is Lord of the Sabbath. Then, He proves it!

Jesus Adopts A Change in Tactics (Mk 3.1-6)

After the first two episodes of having others indirectly question His authority and integrity, Jesus goes on the offensive. It is the Sabbath, and presumably the same Sabbath day from 2.23-28. Jesus and those with Him have gone to the synagogue with Pharisees following closely behind. Why? The Pharisees did not go to worship God. They did not go to listen to Jesus, or even a Scribe, expound on the tenets of Scripture. No, they went to see what Jesus would do on the Sabbath. Specifically, verse 2 says they watched Jesus to see if He would heal a man.

Now, let us go back to Mark 1 where Jesus cast several demons out of a man. The Pharisees said nothing about this. Perhaps, because casting out demons was not considered work. Or perhaps, He was simply under observation and had not offended the religious order of the day by that time. By this time, however, as we have reviewed from Mark 2, Jesus had presumably committed blasphemy, eaten with tax collectors and sinners, not observed the customary fasts, and allowed his group to “harvest” on the Sabbath while potentially walking more than the allowed distanced. Furthermore, Jesus did not show any remorse for these acts. Rather, He challenged those who confronted Him.

Again, lest we think we are better than the Pharisees, consider that without the New Testament to guide us, we might struggle to follow this man. If I had not been a Pharisee, I likely would have been cheering them on. What this man, Jesus, was doing was seemingly counter to everything the Scriptures had taught. Or were they?!?

Regardless, Jesus instigates this incident. He asks the man to come to the forefront. In the synagogue of the day, the seats were typically around the edges, so for this man to come forward made him visible to all. Imagine you are the man. You don’t want attention, you merely slip in to be compliant with the requirements of the day. And now, though you don’t know what is specifically happening, you have become a major character – one that the world will never forget – in a scene between the great protagonist and all of the antagonists there on that day. But realize also that you, acting as the man, have stood. That act required some matter of faith. And because of that faith you are about to be healed!

Again, the man visible to everyone, and Jesus now asks a question that would have been well understood to each one present on that day. The question is from Deuteronomy 30.15 and relates to doing good or evil. This question is in the last of the major speeches of Moses and is just after the Israelites have pledged their faithfulness to God at the expense of being cursed. The question demands a choice. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill.” Everyone was silent! Jesus knew their intentions. Jesus knew their hearts. The Pharisees knew that any answer would put them at odds with either the people or Scripture. But remember, they didn’t come here on this day for God. The synagogue was the place where people came to celebrate God. But, on this day, the religious leaders had come with intent to do harm. In fact, verse 6 says that it was this moment that led the two groups who largely despised one another, the Pharisees and the Herodians, to begin to plot to kill Jesus. In the very place God was to be honored, they began to seek to destroy His Son. Do evil or do good? The question is answered quite loudly here. Jesus did good, and they did evil!

We are months from reviewing the passage when Jesus summed up the law (Mark 12.29-30). The summation: Love God and love others. Well, isn’t that what Jesus did by healing the man? He showed God’s grace by healing another. But that really isn’t the issue. The issue was not the healing, it was when He did it. It was the Sabbath, and it was permissible to save someone’s life on the Sabbath, but not to heal (another part of the 39 guidelines to the Sabbath). This man had a withered hand, which we should not perceive to be life-threatening, otherwise, Jesus actions would have been accepted by others. We don’t know what time of day this happened, but if it is the day that Jesus was walking through the fields, then it must be mid-morning. For arguments sake, let's assume the time was 10 a.m. Realize if Jesus had waited approximately eight more hours, this healing would not be an issue. But loving God and loving others can’t wait until it is convenient. It must be done when the situation demands it, not when the sun is in a certain place in the sky.

This sums up the whole of Jesus coming and is the heart of what Jesus spoke in the two verses I skipped over earlier. Something new was needed. And something new was here.

Jesus Demands a Change in Association (Mk 2.21-22)

The approach Jesus brought to earth was radically different than what had been seen and tried before. Part of it may have been appealing but only those that didn’t interfere with the religious traditions. For instance, the Pharisees might have been willing participants in helping people find Jesus to be healed if Jesus wasn’t speaking about forgiveness or doing it on the Sabbath. But He was; and He did.

What Yeshua (Jesus) brought was not a patch to put on a garment that was old and just needed a little work. What He brought could not be contained within the old framework of Judaism. No. What Jesus brought was new. It was completely different and needed to be accommodated as such. Patches and old vessels wouldn’t work. In Revelation 21.5, Jesus says, “I am making all things new.” That began when Jesus first entered history, and it continues today. Just like the people of Jesus day, many people in our time like the idea of what Jesus can do for them, but only if it doesn’t mean changing who they are. And while we do participate in those changes, it is Jesus that does the work. It is He who began the work, and will complete it in due time (Philippians 1.6). We just have to be willing to allow Him to work. And while we must share this good news with others, we must let Jesus do the work on others as well.

The fact is we cannot hold on to the old and then add the new to it. Following Jesus requires us to abandon the past and look to the future with a different understanding. As Mark records Jesus saying in 1.15, “Repent” – turn from the old, and “Believe” – turn toward God. The problem is, as I stated last week, you and I struggle to accept the concept of grace. Jesus loves people. We like that, especially related to us and those like us. And because of His love and grace He will save them, so we think, if they will….go to church, read their Bible, pray, sing with more conviction, not work on Sunday, etc. But those things aren’t in the Bible. They are a part of our tradition. And though none of those are inherently wrong, the gospel isn’t Jesus + x. The gospel is Jesus. The issue is people will want to do those things BECAUSE they know Jesus, but they don't have to do those tasks TO know Jesus.

Identity vs. Identification

That is what makes you and I so different from Jesus. Most of us tend to see people for what we think they are, but Jesus sees them beyond their appearance and beyond the law. He sees who they truly are and who they can become. Truly it is a problem of identity versus identification. Identity is who we are, identification is how others see us and, sometimes, even how we see ourselves. For instance, our society today is concerned with gender issues, marriage issues, and bathroom issues. I really don’t think Jesus is worried about these matters. These are symptoms of something deeper. These are issues where people are claiming a false identification not holding to their true identity. That is the real issue. People are trying to change the norms of society, but only for the purpose of feeling better about themselves. The truth is we all do that. And the Pharisees did that too. Prohibitionists did it 100 years ago. The Make Love, Not War movement did it 50 years ago. And now, the current generation has made the issue Gender Identity, but not really Identity, rather Gender Identification. We cannot change identity. We can cover it, mask it, lie about it, etc., but we cannot change it. Only God can do that.

Jesus was less concerned about the customs of His day than He was with the truth of the Kingdom. And my suspicion is that if Jesus were physically here right now, He would be less concerned about which restroom people use rather than why they have created a false identity for themselves. Again, the bathroom isn’t the issue, the identity is. Like the Pharisees, we can make a law to observe which bathroom people use, but it doesn’t fix the problem of who the person is, or who Jesus could help them become. Ultimately, any bit of the false identity prevents a person from experiencing true intimacy – with others and with God. That is just as true for the Christian as it is for the religious, or for someone who has never heard the name of Christ.

That is why our JOURNEY letter for today is: E – Evoke.

It isn’t about the inclinations that others have for themselves. It isn’t about our own wishes. It is about Jesus and the need for us to consistently point others to Him showing what He has done and what He can do for them. The truth is that people need change. We do too. Until we stand before Jesus in all of His glory, we are still being molded and shaped, not by the law, but according to His grace. That is why I stand here weekly. That is what makes me tick most hours of each day. And yet I know I have further to go than I have already come. Because I am practical, and I like results, I prefer to set objective measures. But that is the way of the Pharisee. And grace is the way of Jesus. So, with that in mind, what about our next steps?

Opportunity: We must look beyond the law (religious and otherwise) to be able to address the real needs of others – needs which can only be filled by Jesus.  

Note: The steps are the same as last week. The points behind them are a little different however.

Learn God’s ways. Don’t get stuck in the customs and traditions of judging people for where they are. Help others to discover an identity in Christ (see Ephesians 1) and become what God wants them to be.

Live mercifully. Look beyond what the rules say and determine how to make someone’s life better by granting mercy to someone who needs it today.

Love grace. You and I have received plenty of grace (getting what you don’t deserve) from God. As we better appreciate it, we will find ways to love others by extending it to them as well.

Lead graciously. Everyone you guide will make mistakes. Some will not be appreciative. A few may even be resentful. However, many of us have had guides that we appreciate for their gracious leadership. Most importantly, we should all be thankful that our true Guide, Jesus, has not focused on our mistakes nor our lack of appreciation and enthusiasm at times. May we be an example to others of His grace to us.

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