Tuesday 28 January 2014

Mark 15:1-20 - The Roman view

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Jesus has been arrested and brought before the Jewish religious authorities. They have sentenced him to death as a blasphemer and fraud, but under Roman rule they are not permitted to carry out a death sentence. If Jesus is to die as a criminal, the Jewish leaders will have to persuade or force the Roman governor to have him executed.

They therefore pass him to Pontius Pilate who asks him if he is, indeed, the king of the Jews. Presumably the Sanhedrin told him this as it's likely that anyone usurping Roman power would be put to death. But Pilate is not easily fooled, he seems to understand that Jesus is not guilty of any capital crime under Roman law. Notice that he doesn't defend himself or present his case before Pilate. Can we learn something from that? How are we to behave when we are criticised or persecuted? Jesus tells us to love our enemy; what does that mean in practice?

In the end, Pilate hands Jesus over for crucifixion not because he believes he deserves it, but to satisfy the mob [Tweet it!]. Much to his credit, he tries quite hard to have Jesus released, but like any politician he can't ignore strong public opinion.

Once the Roman troops have him to themselves they taunt him and mock him, dressing him in royal robes and finally leading him out for crucifixion.

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Monday 27 January 2014

Mark 14:53-72 - Jesus on trial

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Jesus is taken to the High Priest, and other religious leaders gather to take part in the questioning. Peter follows into the High Priest's courtyard, a bold action. Although he will soon deny that he knows Jesus, even coming this far is clear evidence of his intention of standing by the Master.

Although they're wanting the death penalty for Jesus, the Sanhedrin is stymied as it can find nothing against him. Even the false witnesses don't agree with one another. Finally, replying to a direct question from the Chief Priest, Jesus condemns himself in their eyes by pronouncing the Holy Name 'Yahweh'. The Hebrew words 'I am' sound similar to the name Yahweh, and the High Priest takes Jesus' words as sufficient evidence. Speaking the forbidden name, as well as claiming to be the Messiah and the Son of the Most High are more than enough.

He tears his robe, the specified response to hearing the name Yahweh spoken aloud. Jesus is condemned, insulted and beaten up.

It is at this point that Peter denies Jesus, and the cock crows again. He remembers what Jesus had said to him just a few hours before and he breaks down in shame and utter frustration.

As Jesus' followers, we may face the same sorts of hardships he did. But whether we face injustice or persecution or even death, we know he has experienced these things already. Think of the people of Syria during the last few years, pray for them in their dire need, and remember those who follow Isa (Jesus) and are suffering because of their faith. Pray for all the men, women and children who are suffering there, Christians, Muslims, Druze and others alike.

Jesus leads us in all things, including pain and suffering. And he is with us in all things. If we are to grow to be more and more like him we must also lead and encourage people in all things. In the end fear prevented Peter from keeping his word. Sometimes fear may also prevent us. But Jesus said that perfect love casts out fear. Perhaps we just need love that is more like his perfect love.

We can never fully emulate Jesus, we all fall short, but we can (and must) grow more and more like him day by day and year by year [Tweet it!]. We must grow in love, in compassion and gentleness, in faith and in steadfastly walking in truth and light. He is the Way.

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Tuesday 21 January 2014

Mark 14:27-52 - Jesus arrested

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Jesus tells the disciples very clearly that they will all fall away. And despite Peter's determined insistence that he will not, Jesus knows better and tells him so. Why would Jesus insist on making his point? They will find out that he's right soon enough! What else is going on here?

And then Jesus went to pray, and the disciples slept. They have already failed to support him, despite their claims not to fall away, even if they must die with him. Of course, Jesus knows that they cannot die with him. They are the carriers of the good news of the kingdom. Jesus needs them to live so that they can continue and extend his work. He will build his church through these men and through all the other men and women who were following him. To do so, they must survive.

And then, assisted by Judas Iscariot, they come to arrest him. But notice the subtlety of what happens. Jesus tells the disciples that the moment has come before Judas appears. This is a prophet unlike any other and far exceeding them all. He knows the hearts of all people, he knows the real meaning of the Biblical writings, and when he speaks there is always action. One word from Jesus and water becomes wine, the blind see, lepers are cleansed, demons are forced to leave and people follow him. This is authority. In fact, Jesus is Authority, even as he is being arrested.

Why did the guards need someone to show them which of these people is Jesus? I have always thought that he would stand out clearly because of his stature, demeanour, dress, or in some other way. Surely anyone could pick Jesus out from a crowd?

But no, the truly extraordinary thing is that Jesus did not stand out in a crowd. Have you ever thought about that? [Tweet it!] He needs to be pointed out by someone who knows him (Judas) because he looks just like his companions. There is nothing about his appearance or dress that marks him out as special or a leader or a teacher.

Sometimes in church life, we think that our leaders should stand out. Perhaps they dress differently (think archbishop or vicar) or they are identifiable in some other way. This should not be, my friends. Jesus is different, not from his followers, but from the ways of the world. And we should be like him in this.

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Friday 17 January 2014

Mark 14:1-26 - A final meal

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It's good to eat together. Something about the act of sharing food brings us closer to one another, so this final meal with his twelve closest followers must have been a poignant and very special occasion for Jesus. For the disciples it may have seemed no more than just another Passover meal, although they surely sensed from the Master that this was somehow a special and unusual event.

Mark 14:1-26 records the occasion for us. But Mark first explains how two days before this meal, the religious leaders were planning to kill Jesus and how a woman had anointed him with precious perfume. And it's clear from his reply to some who criticised her that he knew he was about to die. He wasn't executed accidentally; he didn't miscalculate; he knew what was coming and when.

There is so much here of deep significance. Even the man carrying the water seems to have meaning; Jesus is the One carrying an inexhaustible supply of living water.

In the evening, as they ate together, Jesus told the disciples plainly that one of their number would betray him. They were saddened and perhaps nervous about this. Everyone wanted to be reassured that he didn't mean them.

The symbolism of the broken bread and poured-out wine is well known to all of us. Here it represents something that was about to happen whereas now it is all about remembering. And notice that the last thing they did was sing a song of praise.

What can we learn about Jesus here? What does this passage tell us about his love, his determination, his obedience to the Father and his care for his friends [Tweet it!]. See how he goes about laying down his life. Seeing him as he appears in these verses, how can we fail to love him, to trust him, to follow him? He has always been the Lord and Master of the universe. Soon he will be the crucified Lord, and then the risen Lord. Death will take him but cannot hold him.

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Wednesday 15 January 2014

Mark 13:20-37 - Be ready

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Jesus has been talking about the distress that is to come on Jerusalem in 70 AD, and here in Mark 13:20-37 he says that it will be so severe that if the time of trouble wasn't cut short, nobody would survive. And he warns against false messiahs and false prophets.

He also mentions a time of his returning, when he will draw people to him from all over the earth and in heaven too. A great gathering-in will come at a time when even the sun, moon and stars will fail. Nobody knows when this will happen, but he mentions signs and when these are seen the end won't be far behind. So he says we should be on our guard, we should keep watch and we should be ready.

Be prepared for the Master's return.

It's easy to argue endlessly about the precise meaning of Jesus' words. Is he talking about something that happened in the past or something that is still to happen, or both? But for practical purposes it really makes very little difference. Jesus makes it very clear in these verses that he may invade our space in a major way at any time [Tweet it!], and there will be no time to prepare for that.

The time to prepare is now, while we still have time. Even if we face only the same things as past generations (death by violence, accident, through disease or because of old age), we should still prepare now. We cannot prepare after we die, so now is our only certain chance - today!  Read verses 36 and 37 again. Don't be asleep when he comes. Watch!

How are we to prepare?

One way (and it's a good way) is to use the time we have to become more like Jesus himself. We will never have the fullness of his power and authority, we'll never attain his level of insight, and our love will always be an uncertain shadow of his. But let's grow in those things! Our preparation should consist of lovingly serving others, regarding ourselves as least in the kingdom, growing in the fruit of the Spirit and being obedient to his commands. Especially we are to love one another and go into all the world with the good news that Jesus has set us free and wants to do the same for everyone else too.

Then, when that day comes and we finally meet him, he will see that we have been actively following him, and we won't need to say, 'Lord, Lord', and hope for the best.

Be ready. Be ready today.

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Wednesday 8 January 2014

Mark 13:1-19 - The end of the Temple

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The time of Jesus' death is now very close and in Mark 13:1-19 he responds to his disciple's awe about the Temple in a way that must have puzzled them at the time. These massive buildings 'thrown down', what did he mean by that?

In 70 AD, only four decades after Jesus spoke about it, the Roman troops under Titus would do just what he had said. They killed many Jews and ejected the rest from the city of Jerusalem, rebuilding it as a Graeco-Roman town. And as part of the process they utterly destroyed the Temple complex, throwing the massive stones down over the side of the Temple Mount. Some of them are still visible there to this day.

The Romano-Jewish historian, Josephus, lived through these terrible times and provides a description of what happened in considerable detail. Mark's report of Jesus' words in these nineteen verses fits the later events very well indeed. However, as with much prophecy his words may also refer to other events too, still to take place.

But what are we going to learn from Jesus here? For one thing he is clear that people are of more value than buildings, however magnificent they may be. Some of his closest disciples want to know when it's all going to happen. Jesus tells them not to be taken in by others who come claiming to be him. Nor are they to be troubled by wars and rumours.

And Jesus speaks clearly about standing firm to the end in the face of persecution. We in the West have little idea what persecution means. But believers living in North Korea, or Syria, or Iran, or Pakistan know all too well what it means to 'stand firm to the end'.

And what is 'the abomination that causes desolation'? (Luke 13:14) It is spoken of by the prophet Daniel (Daniel 11:31). In Daniel's day a powerful imperial force entered Jerusalem, stopped the daily Temple sacrifices, and set up an altar to Zeus in the Holy Place. Jesus is saying that something similar will happen again. This time the powerful imperial force will be the Roman legions and not only will the daily sacrifices be stopped, but the Temple itself will be pulled down. And from 70 AD until now, there has been no Temple and no daily sacrifice.

But there is also hope in Jesus' words. He says it will be a terrible time, worse than anything that has happened previously. Yet he also says that nothing this terrible will ever happen again.

Jesus the Messiah, Yahshua ha'Mashiach, is the same yesterday, today and forever. He knows the end from the very beginning. This is true, not only of history, but also of our individual lives [Tweet it!]. He knows where you are coming from, he knows your heart today, and he can already see your tomorrows even before you live them. And although he knows everything about us, he still loves us. John says that Elohim is love! (1 John 4:8)

Terrible things may happen in our lives, yet he remains with us. Jesus said, 'Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'. (Matthew 28:20).

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Saturday 4 January 2014

Mark 12:28-44 - Close to the kingdom

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In Mark 12:28-44 we read more of Jesus teaching, but there is a different emphasis this time. Unusually, one of the teachers of the Law understands what he means and is close to the kingdom of heaven in his thinking.

This teacher had been listening to the conversation with the Sadducees and was impressed with Jesus' answer. Presumably, as someone who believed in resurrection, he would not have been sympathetic to Sadducee opinion. But he has a question of his own and asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest.

Jesus gives him the greatest (loving Elohim) and the second greatest (loving other people). Clearly, love is a common factor here, more than anything we are called to love. The Law teacher understands and agrees; he states that love is more important than temple sacrifices. And Jesus commends him.

Why do you suppose nobody else dared to ask him questions after this? Might it be that they were afraid of the answers they might get? This man gave an unconventional answer and was told he was close to the kingdom. But nobody wants to risk being told they are far from the kingdom.

And what do you suppose would have been necessary for the wise teacher to come into the kingdom rather than merely remain close to it? Might that have something to do with the difference between words and actions? Speaking the truth is one thing, living the truth is something else entirely.

Notice in the rest of the passage how Jesus seizes opportunities as they arise. He offers alternative thoughts about what people have said. He warns against outward grandeur. And he explains that sacrificial giving doesn't depend only on how much we give, but also on what we have available to give from.

How can we best encourage others to come into the kingdom? One way might be to tell them these stories [Tweet it!] and others like them. What stories could you tell this week, and who might you tell them to?

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Thursday 2 January 2014

Mark 12:1-27 - Tenants, tax and marriage

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Having just used the example of a fig tree to show how Israel will wither away, Jesus now elaborates by telling a  relevant story (Mark 12:1-12). The vineyard in the story also represents Israel, it is well equipped for every circumstance and is left in charge of people who know how to manage it.

The Jewish leaders knew that Jesus was referring to them as bad tenants, and they were furious. The only reason they didn't act was that the supporting crowds intimidated them.

Instead they tried a different ploy, if they could get him to speak against the Roman occupation and against Caesar in particular they could hand him over as a rebel calling for disobedience and tax evasion. But Jesus is not easily caught, even when there seems to be no way out (Mark 12:13-17).

Next the Sadducees come with a tough legal issue, but they, too, get nowhere (Mark 12:18-27).

Jesus has not only parried three different attempts to question him, he has also answered in ways that engage and amuse the crowds. Isn't this what every great speaker wants to do? See what an amazing man he is in terms of his speaking; nobody can expound the truth as he can. And his use of stories is extraordinarily skilful.

We'll never equal Jesus in skill with words. But we can learn from him; I'd argue that he wants us to learn from him. The art of story-telling has not been lost, but perhaps it's underused in western countries.

Here's a suggestion. Rehearse a few stories in your own words until they are really familiar. Choose some stories that Jesus told, include some events from the Bible, and add in a few stories from your own life. Try telling relevant stories to people who need to hear them - just like Jesus did [Tweet it!]. Ask others to tell you their stories too.

You might be surprised at the opportunities that will open up in this way.

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