Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Gospel of Mark: In Search of a Better Life

A guy goes ice fishing for the very first time. All of a sudden, he hears a voice.

"There are no fish under the ice!"

He ignores it and moves to another area, cuts a hole, and tosses his line in. Again, he hears the booming voice:

"There are no fish under the ice!"

He nervously looks up and asks, "Lord? Is that you?"

"No, this is the rink manager!"

Hey, you can’t fault the guy for listening for direction from God! In fact, the world is filled with people who would love it if God came and stood right in front of them.
Go here.
Do this.
This is exactly what you were made for!
Would anyone love to have a conversation like that with God? In some way, that is a lot like what happened to four fishermen one day.

Read Mark 1:16–20 (CEB)

I have read this story many times in my lifetime. And more often than not, I cannot move ahead to the next phase of Jesus’ ministry without asking this question, “Why did these guys follow Jesus with so little information?” We know who Jesus was. They did not! We know Jesus performed miracles and healed people and raised a guy from the dead. Not these guys! At this point in the story, as far as we know, they see a stranger walking on the shore. He says two words: “Follow me.” And they drop everything, their entire lives, and follow Him.

So, why would Andrew, Simon, James, and John follow Jesus with so little information? Here is the only answer I can come up with: They were looking for a better life, and they didn’t know how to find it. They were so desperate to find real meaning in their lives, in fact, that all it took was a simple invitation from a complete stranger! And they jumped at it. The entire Gospel of Mark is filled with people just like them.

This Gospel is a story of Jesus encountering people who are looking for something more for their lives. And I have a hunch there are people in this room that feel the same way. And you would love it if you could have a conversation with God. “God, what do you want me to do with my life?” Whether you have 70 years ahead of you, or 70 years behind you, have you ever wanted to ask God that question? If so, pay attention: God might have something to say to you. As it turns out, there was a world full of people just like these first disciples. Crowds begin to follow Jesus from everywhere! And they are all looking for a better life.

After Jesus calls these first four disciples, His ministry begins quickly. Jesus immediately encounters four individuals or groups of people. First, a man comes to Jesus who has been possessed by a demon. Jesus hears the demon speaking through the man, and Jesus kicks the demon out and gives this man back his life. Second, Jesus is having dinner at the home of Simon and Andrew, and Simon’s mother-in-law is sick. Jesus heals her. And I love this next part: “She immediately got up, her fever left her, and she began to serve them!” Simon’s mother-in-law was a special woman! The third story centers on a group of people. After Jesus cast out the demon and healed Simon’s mother-in-law, the whole town showed up! Mark says Jesus healed the sick and threw out demons. Imagine an entire town filled with people who are looking for better lives. Finally, Mark chapter one ends with a story of Jesus healing a man with a skin disease. This man comes and finds Jesus on his own. Exhibiting his faith, the man said, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” So, Jesus healed him.

Now, I want you to notice a very strange thing about all of these stories. Throughout this chapter (and throughout much of Mark’s gospel), the crowds grow larger and larger. As I said, this world is filled with people who are looking for a better life. Once they came to believe Jesus could offer them a better life, they came in droves. But here is something else that happens in these stories: Jesus consistently tells the crowds to keep quiet about Him! Before Jesus cast out the demon from the man in the synagogue, He tells that demon: “Silence!”—Don’t tell anyone who I am! In that same city on that same evening, when the entire town showed up at the doorstep, Jesus heals many people, Jesus cast out many demons, and then He tells those demons, who knew who He really was: “Don’t tell anyone who I am.” After Jesus healed the man with the skin disease, He told him: “Don’t say anything about this to anyone!” And, ironically, the more Jesus attempted to keep the crowds small, the larger they became! As Jesus’ popularity grew, it is easy to understand why the crowds grew.

In addition to folks coming to be healed, some came because they thought He was the One they had been waiting for. They had waited for centuries for the promised King of Israel to return and sit on David’s throne, to restore Israel to its former glory, to build an army and attack Rome! Many of them thought Jesus was growing the army, and they wanted to be part of it. So, Jesus’ crowds were filled with all kind of people. Some looking to be healed. Others wanting to be part of a revolution. But they were all, in some way, just looking for a better life.

There are some verses in this chapter that seem not to belong. Jesus calls His first disciples, he throws out the demon, he heals Simon’s mother-in-law, then He helps the entire town! Then this happens:

Read Mark 1:35–38 (CEB)

Don’t miss this important point. Jesus has been working all day long. He is healing people. Crowds are everywhere. And late that night when he is tired and ready to wind down, they look outside, and the entire town is there! Instead of dismissing them, Jesus goes to work again. Later, the next day, the crowds show up again. But this time Jesus tells His disciples, “Let’s go in the other direction.” And sandwiched between these two moments is this:
Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where He could be alone in prayer.
Life is chaotic, and many of us go through life trying to figure all of this out. We go to seminars. We read books. We seek advice from family and friends. Looking for a better life! All the while, Jesus may be calling us to find a deserted place where we can be alone in prayer. Perhaps only there, in the quiet, will we find out what God is up to and where God would have us go next. Sometimes God might call us to stand in the living room of Simon’s mother-in-law and heal everyone in sight. At other times, Jesus might invite us to follow Him “in the other direction” away from the crowds. Like Jesus, we need to learn from God why it is that we have come to this place in this time.

Some of us who have been trained to look for a pattern in Scripture will become really frustrated with this text. Because there is no pattern to follow! Some would say, “Just do what Jesus does.” But at one point, Jesus dives in and works with the crowds, despite his fatigue. At another point in the story, Jesus tells His disciples, “Let’s go in the other direction (away from the crowds).” There is no pattern to follow when it comes to faithful service to God. It always involves discernment. It always involves listening to God. And we will not be able to hear God unless we find time to get away and be alone with Him.

If you ever have occasion to take a leisurely walk in the Swiss Alps, you might see an interesting site. Farmers there cut high-standing mountain grass with a hand-mowing tool called a scythe. This tool has been around for centuries. If you were to sit and watch them, you would notice that they periodically take a break. They will pull out from their pockets something resembling a flat stone. Then, they will draw the stones back and forth across the scythes' blades. The purpose? To restore sharpness. The sharpening done, each will return to the cutting. They cut for 10 minutes and then sharpen for five minutes. On and on the process goes. We might wonder, “Why waste so much time sharpening?” That is 20 unproductive minutes every hour! Why not keep cutting? Get the job finished, finish early and sharpen those blades at night? Because with every swing of the scythe, the blade becomes duller. Result: You actually head home much later. You see cutting and sharpening are both part of a farmer's work. Listen church: Those of us looking for something better, if we do not stop long enough to listen to God, if we do not carve out times in our lives to be with God, we will never become who God wants us to be.

I wonder: would Simon, Andrew, James, and John have followed Jesus from the beginning if they knew they would be following Him to the cross? I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so. Could this be part of the reason why Jesus wanted to keep His identity secret for so long? Jesus needed time to form them into the kind of disciples that would follow Him anyway. What about you? If you had been mending your nets the day Jesus showed up, would you have followed Him? Knowing He would lead you to a cross? If not, maybe you need to spend some time alone with God to be formed more into His image. Maybe that is the “better life” you’ve been looking for! In his book, The $64 Tomato, William Alexander writes:
If you were doomed to live the same life over and over again for eternity, would you choose the life you are living now? The question is interesting enough, but I've always thought the point of asking it is really the unspoken, potentially devastating follow-up question. That is, if the answer is no, then why are you living the life you are living now? Stop making excuses, and do something about it.
Do you remember?
Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where He could be alone in prayer.
If you are looking for a better life, maybe God is calling you to that deserted place too.

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