DEVOTION: The True Gospel (Mark 2:13-17)
One of the great facts of life is that no matter how much is said and heard about Jesus and the Gospel, the majority will still struggle to understand what it all means. Yes, some of the biblical stories are well known, and yes, at certain times people may rehearse those stories—evidenced by the number of biblical stories being televised at certain times of the year—but despite that, the majority still have trouble internalising what they have heard. Which is why, more commonly, people put their own twist on what it means to be a person of faith.
And that is commonly achieved in two different ways.
The first way is to deny God and remake him in our own image. As a consequence it is very common to see and hear the following attitudes towards God and his Church. “All religions are the same. They are just different pathways to get to the same goal.” “My religion is private. I don’t need to go to church.” “I lead a good life, I am a good person, and if God is good, he’ll let me in to heaven anyway.”
Now, of course, none of these sayings are consistent with the message of the Bible. Indeed, they are contrary to what God has tried to teach his people. Yet, they are examples of what happens when people are uncomfortable with God’s message and try to make the gospel more palatable for themselves.
The second way, of course, is to accept part of what is taught, and struggle with the rest. And the attitude of not being good enough for God is a good example of the acceptance of the belief that we are all sinners, whilst at the same time, denying that God would willingly sacrifice his son, in order that we can be saved.
So, as we can see then, there are common views regarding the Christian faith, which are contrary to the teaching of God, the Bible and God’s church, which are prevalent in the world today. Is it any wonder then, that just as Adam and Eve tried to hide from God in the garden when they realised they were naked, so people try to run and hide from God today too.
And that is why it is vitally important that if we claim to be people of faith, that we get it right. And the passage from Mark’s Gospel gives us a few points which may be helpful.
Now the passage tells of a time when Jesus was walking alongside a lake and when a crowd gathered around him—and he used the opportunity to teach them. And, as he was walking along, he came across Levi, a tax collector. So, he went to Levi’s house and had a meal with Levi and a number of Levi’s friends described as “tax collectors and sinners”. At which, we are told that the Pharisees expressed their disgust, wanting nothing to do with mixing with those they considered to be the lowest of the low. And that, in turn, gave Jesus the opportunity to teach again, telling those present in no uncertain terms that the reason he had come was to save “sinners.”
What we have in this short passage, then, is the whole crux of the gospel—what it means, and the commitment that God requires of his people.
So, what’s it all about? It’s about the fact that God’s creatures—all of us—are sinners. We all make mistakes, every one of us; not one of us is perfect. But it’s about the fact that God has a solution to the problem of our sin—a way in which, when we get to judgement day, we can be treated as innocent of all wrong doing. It’s about the solution to the problem of sin, which entails the direct involvement of his son—the person we know as Jesus. And the reason for his involvement? Because there is simply no other way.
It’s about the fact that Jesus came to tell people the truth; that he wanted people to know what God (and his solution) was all about. He wanted to give them a choice, so they could choose for themselves. It’s about the fact that Jesus chose, at times, to be with the people society considered to be the worst in the world. In other words, Jesus came as much for them as for the people who were considered to be “good”. And it’s about him standing up to those who would preach a different gospel, because they found God’s gospel unpalatable—specifically, the Pharisees who were far more comfortable with their own interpretation of God.
So, of course, when we understand what God and the gospel are about, then the remarks and attitudes we see and hear so often in our society are shown to be the nonsense that they are. “All religions are the same, they are just different pathways to get to the same goal.” “My religion is private. I don’t need to go to church.” “I lead a good life; I am a good person. If God is good, he’ll let me in to heaven anyway.”
Indeed, they reflect so poorly on the Christian gospel, and are so damaging to the real gospel, they we shouldn’t be prepared to simply let them go. At their heart is the idea of making God in our own image, and that is not a very healthy attitude to take.
Having said that, it is true that none of us can truly understand the mind of God. If we could we would gods ourselves. But God has given us some clues, and some very big clues, about what he and his gospel are all about. And it’s not our job to change and adjust it to suit ourselves. Rather it is a matter of grasping what he has given us with faith, and running with the solution to sin that he has offered.
So, the majority of people struggle to understand what it all means. We may struggle ourselves. But that is no reason to change the gospel to mean something other than what God has said. On the contrary, who God is, and what he has done, are the very things that should be grasped by faith and shared with those who have yet to respond to the message, as it was originally intended.
Posted 3rd May 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The State of the Christian Church (Mark 4:21-34)
I’m going to start this morning with a question: “Are you happy with the way the church is?” I mean the Christian church in general. In other words, when you look at the state of the church in this country, and throughout the world, does it reflect the values that Jesus proclaimed? Does it meet the standards that are recorded in the pages of the New Testament? Well, if you’re anything like me, the answer to that question is a resounding “no”. And I say that for a number of reasons.
Firstly, there appears to be a distinct lack of unity within the church. And that is reflected in the myriad of denominations and independent churches. Secondly, the divisions in the church seem to be getting wider and wider. And that can be clearly seen in recent years in regards to the debates over the ordination of women and gay marriage. Thirdly, and particularly in western countries, there is the confusion between church and state. Where the church has found it very comfortable to be an agent of government – and consequently has found that its hands are tied in regards to how it does its welfare. It has also found itself very comfortable in other matters. And yet the legal definitions of life, marriage and a whole host of other things are very different to a biblical understanding. Fourthly, there is the blurring of faith and culture. Where cultural beliefs and expectations are often confused with Christian principles. Fifthly, there is the continuing problem of resources being tied up. Where there’s a reluctance to use the resources that have been provided over the years. And, sixthly, there is the old “Pharisee and Sadducee dilemma”, where people want to keep things the same. They like the church the way it is – they like to keep control. And how dare anyway suggest that it needs to change – even if, it is to return the church back to first principles.
So if you were to ask me whether I am happy with the state of the church, you’ll know my answer. But are you happy with the way church in Australia is? Are you happy with the worldwide church in general?
Well I guess before we get to the question of “what can we do about it?” The first thing we should do, is to check whether we are right. Whether the church has indeed gone off the rails. And a good starting point, is to look at the three short kingdom parables that we read in Mark’s Gospel. Because I believe that in those parables we have the answers to some of these questions.
B. THE PARABLES
1. The Parable of the Lamp
And the first parable was the Parable of the Lamp (Mark 4:21-23).
Now this parable is very simple – common sense really. If we are going to light a lamp, wouldn’t we normally want to place it in the place where we would get the most light? Of course we would. After all what’s the point of lighting a lamp, only to cover it up?
However the point that Jesus was trying to make was that he was the lamp. And that his role in the context of the Kingdom of God was to enlighten and to reveal. As a consequence he wants his lamp to be on show where it would enlighten and reveal the most. And on the basis that he was instructing his disciples about the kingdom, he was letting them know what they had to do. They had to make sure that the lamp was placed in a position that would get the most light, and would not be obstructed by other things.
Effectively he was teaching that a disciple’s task, our task, is to let Jesus shine to the world. We’re not to conceal him, and we’re not to blur him with the restraints of governments or the expectations of culture. We’re not even to hide him away, claiming that faith is a personal thing. Rather we are to use all the resources, gifts and abilities God has given us so that Jesus can shine as brightly as he can to the world.
2. The Following Sayings
The sayings that follows (Mark 4:24-25), develops the theme.
So what we have next is a saying based on an old Jewish proverb. And it originally would have meant that “the more you give, the more you will be given back”.
However, with this proverb, Jesus has given it a twist. Because in the context of his kingdom parables, it takes on the meaning, “the more we listen to parables, the more that we allow the kingdom to part of our lives, and the more God’s ways will be open to our understanding.” But with the reverse being true too, “If we don’t pursue the kingdom, if we don’t seek more about God, then we will lose what little we had in the first place”.
Now this parable makes clear that understanding God, and understanding the kingdom is not something we can do or achieve on or own. We need God’s help.
So being a kingdom person means that we need to pursue an understanding of God. The status quo, leaving things the same, is not good enough. We need to put ourselves in places where we can learn and be taught. Because it’s not something we can do on our own.
Like the first parable, this saying makes it clear there is no room for solo Christians. But it does require a commitment of time. And it does require a commitment to go beyond the superficial.
3. The Parable of the Growth of the Seed
And had we been in any doubt, the second parable, the Parable of the Growth of the Seed (Mark 4:26-29), develops the necessity of growth and change further.
Now this parable has a number of features, one of which is that there is little significance placed on the seed. Yes, seed is needed to grow something – but that’s about as far as it goes in this story. Of far greater significance, though, is the idea that the plant grows without any further human involvement. God does the rest. And, perhaps the most important aspect of the whole parable, is that the plant grows to its full potential, ready for harvest.
In other words it is God who grows his kingdom, not us. So everything we do should be God-centred. But not only that, the purpose of sowing the seed in the first place is so that the plant which developed could grow, ready to be harvested. And in the context of a kingdom parable, that means that people can grow and be ready for Judgment Day.
What this parable suggests, then, is that the church was never intended to become a human institution. It was never meant to be something that we might like to control. Indeed the church is supposed to be God’s creation. It should be organic, living, growing, and developing. But to God’s tune, not ours. And our focus should be, to do our part in growing and preparing for God’s kingdom, with Judgment Day particularly in mind.
4. The Parable of the Mustard Seed
So we come our third parable, the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30-32), which really describes what will happen, if we can take heed of the other two.
Now the reality is, the mustard seed is not the smallest seed. However it does produce a large shrub in which birds can nest. And that I think that is the most important point of the parable.
Because Jesus’ point wasn’t just that we should develop and grow ourselves (although there’s merit in that). But rather that we should develop and grow so that we can provide sanctuary for others. In other words, the kingdom is not just about us. It’s about what we can give to others too. But it does require us to be willing to be grown in the first place.
So how does this all compare? How does my image of the worldwide church compare with the kingdom as described in Jesus’s parables?
After all, does the church allow Jesus and his kingdom to shine out, clearly, and uninterrupted to the world? Is the church reflected by members who are keen to learn more and more about themselves and about their God? Is the church committed to growing to its full potential, and to prepare people to meet their maker? And does the church create a haven for others, so they may be nurtured and encouraged in the faith? Or has the whole thing become blurred and confusing?
So does the church reflect Jesus’ values? I don’t think so. And that means for me there’s a problem, a really big problem. But what is the solution? Well I think for many, the problem is too big. After all how do you fix a problem of that magnitude? And because it’s such a big problem, does that mean there is nothing we can do?
Well I think, that no matter what is going on in the larger Christian world, we can at least try to fix up our small patch of it. We can at least try, with God’s help, to fix up any inconsistences at home.
So in the context of our own part of the Christian world:
Firstly, is there’s a distinct lack of unity within our churches, with different people going different ways? And if there is, what can we do about it?
Well in the kingdom parables we’ve looked at, we have illustrations that there is only one leader in the church – God himself. Consequently no other people or groups have a legitimate place. So any solution to any problem of lack of unity will require the need for us to focus in on God, and not ourselves. We need to accept that the church should not be about what we want, rather it should be about what God wants. And it can only be that, if we are prepared to immerse ourselves in his word, communicate with each other, ask him what he wants. And most importantly be willing to carry out his wishes – no matter where that may take us.
Secondly, does our church suffer the confusion between church and state? And if it does, how do we fix it?
Well in the first kingdom parable, we read of the need to make sure that Jesus was shining out as light to the world through us. However I’m not sure how you can do that, whilst at the same time entering into government contracts, not all of which are conducive to the free promotion of the Christian faith. Even being a marriage celebrant is a problem, where the concept and legal definition of marriage are so different to a biblical understanding.
The solution, difficult as it maybe, then, is for the church to move away from the interdependence of government and church. That way Jesus can shine through the church unhindered by contractual restraints.
Thirdly, is there is a blurring of faith and culture (because this again would affect how we allow Jesus to shine)? And if so, how do we combat that?
Well, the reality is that many non-churched people have expectations of the church, which go beyond the church’s reason to exist. And the church’s role in baptisms on demand, weddings, funerals, government welfare, etc. are just some of the areas where those expectations have been met. And those expectations have been compounded , by a tendency within the church to carry on its business in a culturally business-like manner, rather than in a manner fitting for people who have faith in God, and who trust in God to provide for their needs.
Is it any wonder, then, that many non-Christians have a very distorted view of the Christian faith, and a misunderstanding of the role of the church? Jesus is shining, yes, but through a haze of cultural expectations.
So we need to remove that blur. We need to take a very different stance. And we need to refocus on the principles in the parables – to grow and ready ourselves and others for the second coming.
Fourthly, is there is a problem with resources being tied up? And if so what do should we do with them?
Well if the last parable was about creating a haven where others can nest, we should be using all the resources that are available to us right now, to do that very thing.
You know in many churches there is a tendency to stash things away for a rainy day, for a time when things are really bad. However, I’m going to tell you, it’s not a good idea. Because we are supposed to be people who depend upon God, and not our own resources (something the sower in the third parable was very conscious of). But in any event, it’s been pouring down with rain in the western church for many years.
And, fifthly, are we facing the old “Pharisee and Sadducee dilemma”? And if so, what can we do?
Now I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a church that has not been affected by this problem. Wherever I’ve been, there has always been someone, or a small group, who have wanted to be in control, who have wanted things done their way.
The problem is, that this sort of control is a denial of not just one of the parables, but all three. All three parables shout “change”, “growth”, “the need to grow to our full potential”, and “the need to be ready for Judgement Day”. As a consequence there is no room in the church for things to stay the same, no matter how much we like things done in a particular way.
The solution? Well, it’s simple in theory. And that is to avoid being part of any such discussions or schemes. And to refer any involved in such schemes to a higher authority. In other words we should not be part of any power base on which their position depends.
Of course, like all the other solutions that’s not easy. But the question is: who is supposed to be in charge of the worldwide church, our parish, or even our own church? God! And we should never forget that.
Now I began today by asking a question: “Are you happy with the way the church is?” We have also now compared the church as it is, with the way that the church should be, as described in three kingdom parables recorded by Mark.
Now we may not be happy with the church in general. And we may not know how we can possibly fix up so big an issue. But we can at least try to clean up our own little part of the Christian world.
Yes we need God’s help. But if we take the mustard seed approach, we can start small, and we can make a difference. But it will require a willingness to let Jesus and his kingdom shine out, clearly, to the world. It will require church members to be keen to learn more and more about themselves and about their God. It will require us to be willing to grow to our full potential, and to become prepared to meet our maker. And it will require us to make ourselves a haven for others, so they may be nurtured and encouraged in the faith.
Posted: 19th March 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Priority of Spiritual Healing (Mark 5:21-43)
1. Keeping A Secret
We all have times when we need to confide in someone, whether it’s about something that has happened to us or an issue about which we have been thinking. Indeed, we all have times when we need a sounding board to help us come to the right decision.
The problem is, though, some of us are good at keeping secrets, and others are not. And, even for those of us who are good at keeping secrets, sometimes what’s shared is so exciting that we find it hard to keep it to ourselves.
When it comes to the need to confide, then, to whom do we tell our secrets? And who do we not tell, to avoid the whole neighbourhood from finding out our business?
2. Jesus’s Secret
Now of course the problem of secrecy, and the need to keep a secret, is not a new issue. Even in the Bible some secrets were kept, and others were not.
The secret surrounding the birth of Moses was kept (Ex 2:1-4). And it was kept for three months from the authorities, who would otherwise had drowned him in the river at birth. But, as he grew, it became necessary to change the hiding arrangements—to the bulrushes—and that was the catalyst for him being discovered.
The reason for Samson’s great strength was also a well-guarded secret. He kept it to himself. That is, until he gave it away to the love of his life. And Delilah just couldn’t keep it secret, and he consequently paid the price (Judges 16:4-19).
On the other hand, today, we are reminded of Jesus’s secret, and his request for the crowd to keep silent about what they had seen. But in his situation, do we really think that Jesus expected them to keep quiet about what they had seen? Or do we think that he realised that what they had seen was far too exciting to keep to themselves?
Well, let’s look at the events, and consider the implications …
B. TWO HEALING MIRACLES
1. Jairus’s Daughter (1) (21-24)
The story begins with Jesus and the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee, only to find a large crowd on the west bank. However, the writer, Mark, was not interested in the crowd, only in one person—Jairus, a ruler in the local synagogue.
Now, we are told that Jairus’s daughter was dying and, as a consequence, he was desperate for Jesus to go with him so that his daughter could be healed. He’d heard lots about Jesus, and, at that moment in time, he was putting all his hope and trust that Jesus would heal her. And Jesus agreed. And as they went off to Jairus’s house, the whole crowd followed, pressing around Jesus as they went.
2. The Woman with the Haemorrhage (25-34)
Unfortunately, as they went on their way, their journey was interrupted. A woman who had been bleeding for twelve years came close. She’d been to many doctors, and had endured many treatments. But instead of getting better, she’d actually got worse.
Now, in reality, because of her illness, she shouldn’t have been anywhere near. Anyone she touched or who touched her would have become ceremonially unclean. But she was desperate. She’d heard about Jesus too. So, somehow, even though shouldn’t have been present, she managed to work her way towards him.
Now it must be said here, that this woman was not just motivated by faith. She also had some common almost magical belief, that the dignity and power of a person was transferred into what they wore. Consequently we see her determined to touch Jesus’ cloak, with the belief that one touch would be sufficient to heal. And when she did touch Jesus’ cloak, immediately the bleeding stopped, and she knew that she’d been healed.
However, she evidently had not considered Jesus’s reaction. Because immediately, Jesus stopped, turned around, and demanded to know who had touched him.
Well, the disciples were incredulous. And far as they were concerned, he had been jostled and touched by a host of individuals as they’d gone on their way to Jairus’ house. Why was this one person so important? They may also have been concerned that any delay in their journey, would have serious consequences for Jairus’s daughter. Their mission was urgent, and they couldn’t afford any delay.
However there was a purpose behind Jesus’ stopping. The woman had been motivated by a mixture of faith and superstition. And he needed to correct any erroneous ideas. It was her faith that had healed her, not her superstitious beliefs.
3. Jairus’s Daughter (2) (35-42)
Then, as they were stopped, there came some bad news. Jairus’s daughter had died. And for Jairus, and no doubt everyone else, the interruption to the journey had been disastrous. So there was no longer any need to continue the journey.
But Jairus was encouraged by Jesus to believe that it wasn’t too late. And leaving the crowd behind, where the woman had been healed, Jesus, his closest disciples, and Jairus went on to the house.
By the time they got there, however, the funeral preparations were well in hand. And as was the custom, the professional mourners were in full swing. So when Jesus told them that the girl wasn’t dead, only sleeping, they laughed. However, having allowed the mourners to have their fun, he left them outside the house, went in with the girl’s parents and his disciples, and raised the girl back to life. Much to the amazement of the parents, the disciples, and no doubt the mourners outside.
4. Jesus’ Secret (43)
All terrific stuff. But when all this was done, and this is the crunch, Jesus then asked all present—Jairus, his wife, the three disciples, and the mourners—to keep quiet about what they had seen—to say nothing to anyone of what had transpired. It was to be a secret between him and them.
C. THE NEED FOR SECRECY
1. The Question
Well, I don’t know about you, but that would have been one enormous secret to keep. Jairus and the three disciples would have just witnessed two healing miracles. And Jairus’s wife and the professional mourners would have just witnessed one miracle. That would have been hard for anyone to keep a secret. And no doubt, regardless of Jesus’ request, the story of that day was spread far and wide.
So, knowing that, why did Jesus insist that the whole matter was to be kept secret? After all, these weren’t just isolated events? In his early ministry he’d performed many miraculous signs and wonders. He’d healed people who were lame, blind, deaf, dumb, and demon possessed. And in those early days, he often told people not to go and publish abroad what had happened. So what was it all about? Why the request for secrecy?
2. The Answer
Well the secret lies in the fact that it was still early on in Jesus’ ministry. It was a time when he continued to mix with the ordinary people—the strugglers of life—to show them that God cared. And it was a time when he continued to heal people of their diseases etc., to demonstrate God’s compassion, and to show that he did indeed care for all their needs.
However, for Jesus, there was a greater priority than just the physical healing of the masses. He’d come to bring spiritual healing. And if the people continued to come to him with only physical healing in mind, the concern was that they would not hear the message of why he had come.
Jesus’s call for secrecy, then, hinged on the fact that people would be increasingly queuing up for physical healing. A worthy enough past time in itself. But, as far as Jesus was concerned, it would be at the cost of him being unable to deliver the real message: of the need for reconciliation with God. An act that was only possible through faith in Jesus, and the sacrifice he was about to make.
That’s why he wanted his miracles to remain secret. He did not want to be hijacked into being a Messiah who simply performed miracles. So he called people to secrecy. He even, at times, removed himself from the crowds and the sick that they brought, in order to talk to others about the need for spiritual healing.
It’s not that Jesus liked secrecy. It’s not that he didn’t care for the physical healing of people—he did! And he demonstrated that time after time. But he also was aware that there was a greater priority.
1. Secret 1: Praying for The Sick
Now of course, that’s all well and good. But what does this story mean for us? What can it tell us? What practical application can we make, as we try to become more Christ-like in our own spiritual journeys?
Well, the first thing that we can learn is the point of Jesus’s wish for secrecy—his priority for spiritual healing. Because when we pray for healing, or lay hands on people, and they don’t get physically better, it can be so easy to get disheartened because our prayers aren’t answered. Well, not in the way that we may like. And we can start asking some very serious questions about our faith.
But if Jesus’s priority was getting people’s relationship with God right, then that puts the whole matter in a different perspective.
a) A Lack of Faith?
After all, how often have you heard people saying that they don’t have enough faith? That they don’t believe enough?
And yet, if that was the case why were both Jairus’s daughter and the woman healed? Jairus believed that Jesus could heal his daughter. But only up to the point when he was told she was dead. After that, he no longer believed that Jesus could help. Indeed, he had to be persuaded by Jesus that he could still do something for her. Furthermore, the woman had some faith, but it was mixed with a lot of superstition too. So neither miracle depended upon them being totally convinced of Jesus’ ability to heal.
The issue of faith in both instances, wasn’t that they didn’t have any faith. It’s just that Jesus wanted to challenge them further. Spiritual healing was far more important than physical healing.
And if Jesus’s priority is for people’s spiritual welfare, then we shouldn’t whip ourselves for lack of faith, when our prayers for physical healing do not appear to be answered.
b). Out of Tune with God?
How often have you heard people say that they haven’t been physically healed because they are out of tune with God? That they are not praying according to God’s wishes.
But haven’t we just discovered that as far as Jesus was concerned, there was something more important than physical healing on God’s agenda?
The key to where God’s heart lays, therefore, is not just with physical healing, whether healing the sick, the blind, the lame, those with cancer etc. etc. Although he often does that too. However, important as they may be, God’s heart is with the much more important issue of reconciling people with himself, with the consequence of giving people eternal life.
In other words, more important than our immediate physical well-being is our eternal well-being. And when we attune ourselves to that way of God’s thinking, to think in those terms, then it should change our whole attitude to life, and to prayer. And, may I add, it may even mean that we begin to accept some suffering as necessary, as part of our walk with God.
Because even the Apostle Paul recognised that some suffering was necessary, for him, so that he could continue to minister in God’s name. He recognised that pride and conceit could get in the way because of all the wonderful things God had done for him (2 Cor 12:7-10). And that he needed the ‘thorn in the flesh’ that he had. As a consequence, he stopped praying that it would be removed, and he concentrated, instead, on his spiritual well-being and development.
Jesus’s request for secrecy in this story, should be a vital part of our understanding of Jesus’s priorities, and what was really important in his life, in terms of his work and mission. And those priorities shouldn’t be lost on us. Indeed, they should influence the way we think, and act, and pray.
2. Secret 2: No Secret Followers
And, as for the second secret … The secrecy by which the woman touched Jesus robes, and then tried to disappear back into the crowd, in the hope that no one would notice …
Now Jesus didn’t let her, and for good reason. And we’ve already discussed the fact that he wanted her to know the distinction between faith and superstition, and that superstition had nothing to do with her healing. However, at the back of his mind was another reason. And that was that he didn’t and doesn’t approve of secret admirers.
Being a Christian has never been something that should be practiced in secret. In fact you can’t. Growing in faith requires a believer to stand up and be counted. That was why Jesus made that woman stand up and publicly acknowledge where she stood in regard to her faith.
Secrets! We all have them, and we all need someone with whom we can share them from time to time. But in regard to whom we share our secrets with, we need to be very discerning. After all, do we want our secrets to remain confidential, or do we want the whole world to know?
Having said that, there are secrets that are very difficult to keep to oneself. And Jesus’s secret would have been one of those secrets that even the most faithful friend would have had difficulty in keeping. But at this point in history, that’s no longer a problem.
What we can learn from Jesus’s secret, though, is the priorities of God—priorities that we should apply to our own faith and to our prayer life. The priority of spiritual healing over physical healing.
Because, yes, we can pray for the sick, and we should pray for the sick. But we need to remember that a person’s spiritual well-being is far more important than their physical well-being.
Furthermore, the priority of spiritual well-being should exclude any idea that a person can remain, in anyway, a secret believer.
Posted: 7th September 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: A Letter from Palestine (Mark 9:14-32; 11:22-23; Luke 17:5-6)
Instead of the usual sermon, I’d like to read you a letter:
Hello, my name is Ben, and I’m writing to you from across the miles, and from across the years. And I’m writing, because I’m sure that even you, in your time, will have heard of a man called Jesus. And, if you have, you’ll no doubt be wondering what it was like in Jesus’ time—what it was like following Jesus around.
Now the fact is, that Jesus was very radical in what he said, and he upset a lot of people. His beliefs and practices cut across many of the acceptable ideas of the day. And, what’s more, he expected his disciples to do as he did too. Indeed, he told us not to listen to the religious leaders of the day—not to listen to those who had a stranglehold on organised religion—because they were only intent on keeping things the same. All they wanted, was to maintain their own power and authority. Instead, he asked us to believe in him, and to actively go out and share our faith, and show that we care. (And especially to those for whom the religious leaders had no time.)
Of course, for us, that was a very hard thing to do. Getting ourselves offside with those in authority—those who liked things done in a particular way, and those who liked things to stay the same—was a recipe for trouble. The leaders didn’t like change, and we knew they would oppose anyone who stood up to them. It would mean putting our lives in danger. So, frankly, we found it hard to have the faith or the courage.
It was alright for Jesus. He knew the Father intimately—or so it seemed to us. In fact, I have never known anyone who was so devoted to God that he was. He was determined to set things right. But us… well weren’t so strong, and I’m guessing that you may not feel so strong either.
So, perhaps, if I tell you of some incidents that I witnessed personally—which certainly helped me in my faith—perhaps they will be of help to you too.
B. THE POWER OF FAITH
1. Incident 1: “A Mustard Seed” (Luke 17:5-6)
The first incident occurred as Jesus, his disciples, a few others, and I, were walking along the beach at Joppa. (Well I think it was Joppa, although my memory isn’t as good as it once was.) But I’m sure it was Joppa, because the beach had trees on it—and almost to the edge of the sea.
At that stage we’d all been around Jesus for a while. And we’d picked up that whilst we all had some faith, we weren’t quite sure whether it was enough to do what Jesus was asking. So the inner group of twelve bravely asked Jesus, “Increase our faith!” And to our amazement Jesus replied: “If your faith was like a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Uproot! Be planted in the sea!’ and it would obey you.”
Now, of course, the first thing that came to our minds was this crazy idea of trees uprooting themselves from the beach and throwing themselves into the sea. I mean, we were there on the beach with trees on one side and the sea on the other. But, once we got past that, it was evident that we’d got it all wrong. According to Jesus, faith wasn’t something that could be quantified. You either had it or you didn’t.
Now, I’ve never been good at gardening. But even I knew that a mustard seed was one of the smallest seeds that there was, and yet it grows into one of the biggest trees. And even I knew that the fig mulberry tree’s claim to fame was that it had very deep roots. So, as we walked along that beach, and as we wondered how we could possibly be strong enough—or have faith enough—to go against the trend, we were left under no illusion that within each of us we had enough faith. In fact, enough faith to make anything our Lord asked us to do to be possible.
And I must say that was quite a revelation. It was also a very scary thing, because if we’d stayed ignorant, we could easily have excused our lack of activity—we could have maintained our lack of willingness to stand up to those who wanted to keep everything the same. Indeed, we could have got away with not putting Jesus’s demands into practice. But now we knew what was expected and that we had the means inside to make us more pro-active … well we had no excuse. And that was very scary indeed.
2. Incident 2: “Faith and Prayer” (Mark 9:14-32)
And that was made worse by another incident sometime later, when we were tested to whether we really had taken in what Jesus had said.
Now, for some reason Jesus went off to do something, and left us disciples on our own. (It was just after the transfiguration, as I recall, and Jesus had probably gone off to spend time alone with his father.) However, this time we were approached by a man whose son was demon possessed and was unable to speak.
Now, we’d seen Jesus cast out demons on a number of occasions, and he’d made it look easy. So having been given a pep talk about faith, we obviously thought “There’s no need to search for Jesus. We can do this ourselves.” But you know try as we might we couldn’t do it. The demon simply threw the boy down, as though he was having a fit, and made him foam at the mouth.
Well, so much for faith, or so we thought. But rather than make a bad situation worse, we suggested that the man bring the boy to Jesus himself. And you know, no sooner did he meet with Jesus than the boy was cured. Jesus simply commanded the evil spirit to come out of the boy, and it did. And again Jesus repeated to us the idea that if we only had faith—if only we believed—we could have done that too.
Now, of course we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves in public, so we waited until we were alone with Jesus. Then we asked him what he had meant. After all, he had already told us that it wasn’t the quantity of faith that mattered, but just that we had faith. And, he then introduced to us the concept of prayer, and the need for total reliance upon God.
Because, what we’d done, was to take the gift of faith, and used it as if it was under our complete control. We had used it as though we could exercise it in any way that we wished. But we were wrong, and we should have realised that when we’d tried to cure the boy. We had trusted in ourselves, rather than in God. We’d ignored the fact that we needed to ask God for his help; that we needed to rely on him alone. And that’s why we had failed to exorcise the demon from the boy.
Fortunately, no permanent harm was done. Our pride may have been dented, but at least the boy was cured. And despite what people thought then, and you probably think in your time, we may have been slow learners, but at least we were learning.
3. Incident 3: “This Mountain” (Mark 11:22-23)
However, I must admit, I’m not sure that even then we really understood Jesus’s teaching on the subject of faith. We were still not confident about Jesus’s teaching. And that is perhaps reflected in the fact that Jesus continued to teach us on the subject.
Indeed, only a few days before Jesus died—on the Tuesday, I think it was—Jesus evidently knew we were still having problems on the subject. He knew that we were still not confident about how we could be strong enough to make a stand, like he did. And how we could put our faith into practice in such a way as he seemed to demonstrate so easily.
And you know, despite what he obviously knew he was about to go through on the Thursday night and the Friday, he gave us this advice: “Put your faith in God. Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, `Rise up! Throw yourself into the sea!’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes what he says, it will be done for him.”
Well, if any of you know your geography, when you stand on the Mount of Olives you can actually see the Dead Sea. And as Jesus talked, I think we all had mental images of the mountain throwing itself into the sea.
But for those of us more steeped in the Jewish faith, other images came to mind too. After all, the prophet Zechariah had prophesied about the Day of the Lord—a day when the Messiah would come at the fulfillment of God’s kingdom—at the end of the world. (And quite frankly, Jesus had talked about the time when he would come back to do that very thing.) Zechariah had also prophesied, that at that time, not only would the Mount of Olives be split in two—the mountain on which were actually standing—but the whole land would be made into a level plain (Zechariah 14:1-10).
Well, this was another twist to faith we hadn’t seen before. The focus of faith was to be the establishment of God’s reign in the world. Indeed, everything that a believer does is to be focussed on the end times—to the establishment of God’s kingdom in all its fullness. Everything that a believer does is to be focussed on the idea of including as many people as possible into God’s kingdom.
Of course, once Jesus had said it, it was pretty obvious. We really should have seen it. Where else should our faith have been focussed?
Now it’s alright to look back after the events and stick all the pieces of the puzzle together. But I don’t think even at that moment we really understood Jesus’s teaching about faith. It was only after Jesus was resurrected from the dead that somehow it all began to make sense.
But two things that Jesus told us, should have been plain from the start. And they were:
If we were to use our faith in a self-centred way—with what we wanted or focusing on our own abilities—the end result would be disaster, and we would be left wondering if indeed we had enough faith. On the other hand, if we were to exercise our faith on the things that God asked us to do—and with a dependence upon God—God would really bless us. And we were witnesses to some wonderful and miraculous things.
But then, the lessons of faith are so obvious now:
Faith doesn’t come in quantities. You either have it or you don’t. Because even the smallest amount of faith means that we are capable of doing great things.
When we exercise faith, it’s pointless thinking that we have the ability to do things based on our own strength. It doesn’t work that way. Every time we exercise faith we need to rely on God.
And the focus of faith is to be always on the establishment of God’s kingdom. Bringing others into it and looking forward to its establishment at the end of time.
And, the point that is evident in all three incidents I’ve described, is that with a focus totally on God, nothing is impossible. Indeed the idea of faith expects miracles, because faith includes the idea of an unwavering trust in divine help.
Now we had come a long way in the three short years that many of us had known Jesus. Having said that, the idea of faith wasn’t any easy lesson to learn. It wasn’t easy for us, and I’m sure it isn’t easy for you either. And that’s why I’m writing to you across the miles, and across the years.
Because faith can be very frustrating, confusing, and downright puzzling. When we pray for something to happen, and things don’t quite work out the way that we hoped, it’s very easy to question where we are with God—whether we really do have faith, and whether God is really listening.
Of course, as we followed Jesus around, we often felt he was on a completely different plain to the rest of us. His ideas and concepts, his beliefs and practices were so different to what we had been brought up to accept and believe. It was hard for us, at times, to take in what he had to say. But, at the same time, there was no doubt in our minds that Jesus was the most genuine person we had ever met. In contrast, the religious leaders were only interested in themselves and keeping things the same, in order to maintain their own power.
Now I cannot recall Jesus ever putting himself first or considering his own personal interests above others. He cared for people. His teaching was mind boggling. He did miraculous things. He wanted to include people rather than exclude them. And he fitted precisely the description of the man that God promised he would send to be the Messiah.
And if that wasn’t enough, the sacrifice that he made by giving up his life for the benefit of all (and he talked about the need to do that a lot before he died), would have to be the most unselfish act I have ever known.
And that is why I have written to you this letter. Because exercising faith isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy for us, and it won’t be easy for you either. Despite that, I would like to encourage you—all who read this letter—to try. And to try, because it is what Jesus expects of all of his followers.
So, always remember:
Faith isn’t quantitative. We either have it or we don’t.
Faith isn’t a gift we can exercise on our own independently from God. Rather it requires us, each time, to rely 100% on God.
The practice of faith should always be focussed on the fulfilment of God’s kingdom. And that includes bringing others to faith in Jesus.
And faith requires the expectation of miracles.
And those four basic things, don’t even begin to describe what faith truly is.
Now, may the Lord strengthen you in your faith. And may he make you bold to live lives fitting for the kingdom of God. Your friend across the ages,
Posted 10th May 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Wholehearted Devotion (Mark 12:38-44)
If you had a choice of having power, wealth, or living in poverty, which one of the three would you choose?
Who here hasn’t wished at some time to be in a position of power? Whether because of the need to feel important, to correct an injustice, or to simply get some action. To be in a situation where by just the giving of a word, people would jump to attention.
Who here hasn’t wished at some time to be more comfortably off? To be in a situation where they have sufficient resources to live on without having to worry about the future. Whether because of the need to be independent, to feel secure, or because of a desire to help others less fortunate than themselves.
And in contrast, who here hasn’t had times when life has been a struggle? When new clothes were something that couldn’t be afforded; where it wasn’t certain from where the next meal was going to come; and when better times seemed like a pipe dream.
So if you were given the choice of having power, wealth, or living in poverty, which of the three would you choose?
B. POWER, WEALTH, AND POVERTY
Well, interestingly, the topics of power, wealth, and poverty are the three things that are mentioned in this passage from Mark. But they are not things which are introduced in isolation. Indeed, they are introduced with one specific thing in mind. That is, from the perspective of people who claimed to have faith.
And in each case Jesus drew on his observations of life. And he used them to comment about how each situation could affect one’s spirituality.
1. Power (38-40)
a) The Scribes (38a)
Now, for the first example, representing power, Jesus turned to the Scribes—the religious leaders of the day.
Now, scribes were distinguished visibly by their dress. They wore long white linen robes, decorated with long fringes. They were also venerated by the majority of the people, with unbounded respect and awe. So for example, when a scribe passed by, people rose respectfully. They were greeted with titles of deepest respect, like Rabbi, Father, and Master. They were assigned the highest places of honour, having precedence over the aged, and even over their own parents. And even in the synagogue the seat of honour was reserved for them, sitting at the front in full view of the congregation.
However, one of the features of being a Scribe, was that they were not allowed to be paid for what they did. And as a consequence, they had to depend on the hospitality of others to survive. And much of what the scribes stood for was well and good . . .
b) Jesus’s Observation (38b-40)
Except for the fact that there was a tendency for them to become intoxicated with their positions. They played up to their positions of power, to the point where Jesus was able to identify three things that affected their spirituality:
Firstly, there was a tendency to be preoccupied with their need for the praise of men and the desire of tokens of status. Indeed, to such an extent, that it was not unusual for important men,
when giving a feast, to invite a distinguished scribe and his pupils to ornament the occasion. It was also not uncommon for the well-off to place their financial resources at their disposal.
Secondly, there was a problem of abuse of privilege. Because the scribes actually encouraged the extension of hospitality to them as an act of piety. And in particular they placed demands on those who could least afford it, sponging on the hospitality of people of limited means.
And, thirdly, as a consequence of both, there was a tendency to become very lax in their religious duties. Their teaching had become simplistic and misleading. And the pursuit of their own desires tended to replace their need to honour God.
2. Wealth (41, 44a)
a) The Rich Men (41)
For the second example, representing wealth, Jesus turned to the example of some evidently rich men.
Now Jesus was seated on a bench in the Temple, in the Court of the Women, and he was watching the people bring their contributions to the treasury.
Now giving at the Temple was not something one could do in secret. There were thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles for people to deposit their money in, placed against the wall of the Court. So what one gave was evident for all too see. And as Jesus sat there, with his disciples close by, he noted many rich men come up and put their contributions into the receptacles.
b) Jesus’s Observation (44a)
Now there’s no doubt that the disciples were impressed with some of the donations. Those who were wealthy made some sizeable contributions and much could be accomplished with the gifts that they brought.
However, and probably to the surprise of the disciples, Jesus wasn’t impressed. Indeed, Jesus made the spiritual observation that rather than these people being generous at all, they had only given what they could afford. After all, they had plenty, and they really wouldn’t miss what they had given at all. They had not placed themselves in any hardship. And consequently, they had missed the point of what being wholehearted in their devotion to God meant. And that was, the giving of time, money, or whatever, beyond what they would normally feel comfortable to give.
3. Poverty (42-43, 44b)
a) The Poor Widow (42)
And for the third example, representing poverty, Jesus turned to the example of a poor widow. Now, she had come to the Temple treasury too, but she was so poor she could only deposit the smallest of copper coins that were in circulation at the time. Nevertheless, she put in two coins and didn’t keep any for herself .
b) Jesus’s Observation (43, 44b)
Now, Jesus’ observation, from a spiritual perspective, was not on how little the Temple authorities could do with those two small coins. Rather it was on the comparative cost of those two coins to the widow.
The woman in absolute poverty could not afford one coin, let alone two. And yet by her sacrificial giving she had demonstrated her wholehearted devotion to God, which neither the scribes with all their power, or the rich men with all their wealth, had been able to do. In contrast to everyone else, she had given all she had, even her whole living.
So with the example of the scribes with their power, the rich men with their wealth, and the widow with her wholehearted devotion to God, Jesus was able to conclude that despite her poverty, only the widow had truly understood the call of God. Only the woman had understood the need for total surrender to God and absolute trust in him.
Now we need to be careful here. Jesus did not say that there was anything wrong with power and wealth. He didn’t say that poverty was desirable either. But what he did say was that it was easier for a person with nothing to have faith, than for those with power or wealth.
Because as far as power is concerned, what Jesus was saying was that simply making a profession of faith to gain an advantage, or to possess power, is not acceptable.
We can be as religious as we like. We can attend church as regularly as we like. We can be on Parish Council or be a Church Warden. Indeed, we can be as actively involved in the church as much as we like. But if our motivation is on seeking positions of honour, or seeking the praise of others, or putting ourselves in a position where we can abuse the privileges that we gain, then our righteousness is just a sham.
Some of the Scribes may have entered the profession with the best of intentions, but the inherent nature of power is that there is a tendency for it to get out of control.
But, as I said, that doesn’t mean that having power is wrong in itself. But for Jesus, it’s what we do with that power that is important. And if we use our positions for anything other than telling others about God, spreading his word, or caring for others, then we too will be worthy of receiving the judgement of God.
Similarly, as far as possessing wealth is concerned, what Jesus was saying was that simply giving what one can afford is missing the mark too.
Now we can give to the church, we can give to charities, we can give to some wonderful causes—and not just in terms of money but in terms of our time, labour, or whatever—but if we only give what we are comfortable to give (what is surplus to our requirements and does not encroach on our own comfort) then we’re missing the whole point too. Because, as far as Jesus is concerned, faith requires sacrificial giving, not just giving what we can afford.
Of course, again, that doesn’t mean that wealth is wrong. Indeed, even in the Bible, we are reminded that God blesses his people with great riches—and sometimes they are of the material kind. But from a faith perspective, wealth brings responsibilities. And if we don’t give until it hurts then we’ve missed the point. And like the rich men who gave in the Temple only what they could afford, we will be answerable to God for the misuse of the things he has given us.
And regarding, poverty . . . Well, no-one likes to be poor. Indeed it is a state that we should make sure that no-one has to endure.
But whilst being poor, in itself, is no guarantee of being righteous, it does have the advantage of not having the temptation to rely on our own resources, that both power and wealth so easily provide.
The poor woman had no power over others and she gave more than she could possibly afford. She depended totally on God for her survival. And as a consequence, Jesus held her up as an example to behold.
In the widow, there was no sham righteousness. Rather she gave nothing less than wholehearted devotion. And it is this wholehearted devotion that Jesus urges us all to attain.
So, let’s back to our original question: ‘If you had a choice of having power, wealth, or living in poverty, which one would you choose?’
Now I’m sure that at times, for one reason or another, we have all wanted to be in positions of power and wealth. And some of us may have even experienced either or both. However the lesson today is: Not that either are wrong in themselves, but there are inherent dangers in both. They both provide temptations, where abuse and misuse can very easily become the order of the day and, as a consequence, our relationship with God can suffer.
So that question again: ‘If you had a choice of having power, wealth, or living in poverty, which one would you choose?’
You know, it is not a simple question to answer. It’s not as easy as it may at first seem. Because, whatever our state the most important thing in life is our relationship with God. And there is no point in having either power or wealth if all we do with them is to distance ourselves from God.
Posted: 16th May 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: The Problem of Money (Mark 12:41-44)
The availability (or lack of availability) of wealth, today, is a determining factor in how people live. It can be used to live a life of opulence, or it can limit people to a life of poverty. The same is also true of the church. It can free up the church to do all sorts of things, or it can restrict the church to a life of mediocrity.
Money and finance affect us all—people and church alike. There are those who have it, and there are those who don’t. But that’s not what God intended. Indeed, God’s Old Testament laws provide all the guidelines necessary for the sharing of resources and for the elimination of poverty. Furthermore, his laws on tithing, etc.—when taken seriously—provide all the guidelines necessary for the functioning of a healthy worshipping community.
So, what’s the problem? It’s us. We’re the problem. Which is probably why God felt the need to set out his principles in the form of his laws.
In regard to the worshipping community (Lev 27:30), God set the standard of a tithe—the giving of ten percent of one’s income to maintain its structure and so that ministry could continue unhindered. (And that meant ten percent for the rich and ten percent for the poor.) And, in the New Testament, Jesus raised the bar further, by encouraging people to give sacrificially—to give until it hurts. And, for some, that would mean an amount far greater than just ten percent.
Which is why, when we read passages like the one in Mark, we should understand that the rich may well have put in their ten percent, but the widow put in a far greater percentage. The widow’s gift may have been smaller in monetary terms, but to Jesus her gift was worth far much more.
At the heart of giving, is the spiritual life of the individual and the spiritual life of the church. Giving ten-percent may have been the Old Testament guideline to enable the religious community to function, but sacrificial-giving gives an opportunity for the individual to take their relationship with God a whole lot further.
Think of it another way … If God has given us everything that we have—and he has entrusted all that we have into our care—why would we insist on hanging on to every that we have for ourselves? Why would only give back a small proportion—a portion that we can afford—after we have attended to our own wants and needs? Because if that is our practice, then we have a severe spiritual problem. And that is the implication of Jesus’s response to the rich people in this story.
The lack of finances in a church, is usually a symptom of a bigger problem. And although a person’s pocket is usually the last to be affected by faith, our attitude to giving in the church does reflect our religious convictions. Of course, the amount we give, will be different for all of us. But what’s at stake is not whether we’ve put more—or less—in the plate than someone else. Rather it’s the level of our conviction and obedience to our God, and our commitment to his church and our saviour, Jesus Christ.
Posted 5th January 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: The Characters Surrounding the Crucifixion (Mark 14:43-15:47)
DEVOTION 1. JUDAS
a). His Profile
Like a lot of everyday stories our story begins with the villain of the piece—Judas Iscariot. Now Judas was one of the 12 disciples. In the apostolic band he was the treasurer. He was noted as being a thief (John 12:6), mainly, we suppose, because he pilfered money that was entrusted to him. He was the one who, according to John, voiced criticism when Mary anointed the Master’s feet with precious ointment—apparently on the basis that the money could be used to help those who were not so well off (Jn 12:3-5). And following that protest, he was the one who went to the chief priests, to arrange not only the betrayal of Jesus (Mk 14:10-11), but for a reward, for that betrayal—the equivalent of a little over 4 months’ pay (Mt 26:14-16).
As a consequence, Judas’ name always appears last in the lists of the disciples. And it is usually followed with a description that brands him as the person who betrayed Jesus.
b). His Part in the Story
Of course the question commonly asked is: “What did Judas think he was doing when he arranged to point Jesus out to be arrested? What was in Judas’ mind?”
Was it love of money? Was it jealousy of the faith of the other disciples? Was it fear that the inevitable outcome of Jesus’ ministry would show him up to be the thief that he was? Was it a bitter, revengeful spirit which arose when Jesus revealed that Judas’ worldly hopes were not part of God’s kingdom? Or was it a genuine, enthusiastic, but misguided, move to try to force Jesus’s hand—to try to get Jesus to declare himself to be the kind of Messiah that Judas wanted him to be?
Of course, the answer is—we don’t know. But what we do know is that after betraying Jesus with a kiss, he was full of remorse (Matthew 27:1-5). Indeed, he regretted his actions so much that he went back to the chief priests and elders, and openly admitted his mistake. He returned the reward he’d been given. And then, because he couldn’t cope with the consequences of his deed, he went out and committed suicide.
Now nearly all of the stuff you usually hear about Judas concentrates on the negative. However the fact is that Judas did choose to be a follower of Jesus. And in response, Jesus picked Judas to be one of the 12. Judas was one of Jesus’s closest companions as they journeyed around. When Jesus called the 12 aside to teach them, Judas would have been there. When Jesus sent the 12 out on a mission on their own, Judas would have gone too. And, he was considered worthy enough to be entrusted with the finances in the first place.
And even though something went wrong (and it probably went wrong over a period of time), in the end Judas found the strength to face up to his co-conspirators, and was able to admit to his mistakes—even though he couldn’t cope with the consequences.
In other words there are a lot of positives about Judas, as well as the negatives that you usually hear. Consequently, and this might seem like a strange thing to say, there is something that I admire about Judas. Because we can all try to walk the narrow road of faith, and yet, we all make mistakes. But how easy do we find it to admit them? And not just to ourselves, but to those who were involved in our mistake as well?
Judas’ mistake was perhaps the most important mistake in history. And yet in a sense his facing up to the chief priests and elders, may be the most important retraction too. Of course it didn’t change history, Jesus still died, and I don’t like Judas’s final solution of suicide. However in the circumstances I can fully understand his action, and there are some important lessons we can learn from him.
And at the very least, we should consider, firstly, that no matter how hard we try to stay on track, it is very easy to jump the rails. It’s easy to get diverted from the true path, as we travel the journey of faith. As a consequence we need to be constantly on our guard. However, secondly, and because of that, it’s important that when we do become aware that we’ve done wrong, that we have the courage to face up to our faults and failings.
Judas admitted his mistake, and we need to be prepared to admit our mistakes too.
DEVOTION 2. CAIAPHAS
a). His Profile
The Sanhedrin, that Jesus was taken to for questioning, was the supreme Jewish court of law. Composed of 71 members, it was made up of Joseph, whose surname was Caiaphas—the ruling high priest, who presided over its deliberations. It included the chief priests and elders, who constituted the old ruling class. Indeed, the elders, in particular, were the most influential of the lay families in Jerusalem, being primarily wealthy land owners. And, in addition, it included representatives of the scribes—primarily lawyers drawn from the middle classes who tended to be Pharisaic in their convictions. In other words, it was a court of law where the common people were not represented at all. And it was biased towards maintaining its own authority and power.
Of course that didn’t mean they didn’t have any internal disputes—people fighting over positions of power—but as a body they were very much into maintaining their position in society. And, Caiaphas, in particular, was master of it. Because his ability as a diplomat and an administrator, as well as his ruthlessness for survival, is suggested by the length of his tenure in office. Indeed he was high priest for 19 years, in an era when the average term was only 4 years. And he did so, in part, by maintaining the strict official line regarding their religious beliefs.
b). His Part in the Story
So, when Jesus was arrested, where was he taken? To the residence of Caiaphas. And it was there that members of the Sanhedrin assembled—in one of the upper rooms—so that the trial could take place.
Of course, witnesses were brought forward and heard. But when it came to the crunch, who was it that encouraged Jesus to say something in his defence? Who was it that asked Jesus to admit that he was the Messiah? Who condemned Jesus, before even asking the rest of the Sanhedrin to vote on the matter? And who did nothing to stop the inevitable response from the rest of the Sanhedrin, of condemnation and physical abuse? The answer is: Caiaphas. And with that sort of power, no wonder he survived 19 years at the top.
Now unfortunately, we know nothing about the early history of Caiaphas. We don’t know how he became a priest—whether he had genuine faith, or whether like some he climbed up the ranks, as a way to obtain a position of power. But what we do know is that by the time he got to the top he was very powerful.
And I guess that in that, in a strange sort of way, we can thank Caiaphas for the warning. Because sometimes we might seek positions of authority, sometimes we might have authority thrust upon us. But, the warning is, that whichever way it happens we need to be careful that we don’t let that power get the better of us.
In order to maintain his power Caiaphas abused his position, and it ended with the death of the Saviour. What we have to be careful is that we don’t end up using our power, and sacrificing our faith, by doing exactly the same thing.
DEVOTION 3. PETER
a). His Profile
Now Peter came from Bethsaida (Jn 1:44), but lived in Capernaum in Galilee (Mk 1:21ff). Both towns were by the lakeside where he could work as a fisherman.
Also known as Simeon (Hebrew) and Simon (Greek), Peter maintained the piety and outlook of his people. It is likely that he was affected by John the Baptist, because his brother Andrew was a disciple of John. However Peter was one of Jesus’s first disciples. He always stands first in the list of disciples, and was noted for being one of the inner circle of three. Often the spokesman for the twelve.
But Peter’s greatest claim to fame is perhaps his impulsive nature. Peter’s protestations of loyalty are the loudest. Before the transfiguration, Peter declared that Jesus was the Christ. (Mark 8:29b); at the Last Supper Peter stated that even if the others fell away, he would not. On the other hand, his rejection of the Lord is also the most explicit too (Mk 14:66ff).
b). His Part in the Story
Indeed, in the crucifixion story, we find Peter who had followed Jesus after his arrest, in the courtyard of Caiaphas, the high priest. However, when faced with a servant girl, when faced with those who had gathered around her, and then when faced with a crowd that was beginning to gather, three times Peter denied that he knew Jesus.
Now it seems to me that apart from Judas, Peter, because of this one event, gets a lot of bad press. And that’s because he was there in the courtyard of the high priest, and was prepared to say anything to save his own neck. Peter knew that if he admitted to being a disciple that there would have been four crosses at Calvary not three—that he would have been nailed up there on the fourth. And yet leaving his three denials aside, can you think of any greater courage than what Peter displayed, by following Jesus into the courtyard in the first place?
Think about it . . . In the garden of Gethsemane, every follower ran for their lives. Only Peter followed the arresting party, albeit at a distance. And he followed them into the very premises where Jesus was being tried.
Now Peter didn’t end up going through with helping Jesus. Indeed he denied Jesus those three times. But the very fact that Peter placed his life in jeopardy by even going into the courtyard raises the issue of the lengths he was prepared to go for his beliefs. And Peter’s stand raises the issue of our stand, and the lengths we are prepared to go regarding matters of faith.
Peter followed at a distance, even into some very hostile territory. But that was his limit. The question is, then, how far are we prepared to go, to follow Jesus?
DEVOTION 4. PILATE
a). His Profile
Pontius Pilate was a Roman of an upper middle-class order. In 26AD he was appointed procurator by the emperor Tiberius, giving him total control of the province. He had full powers of life and death; he could overthrow capital sentences passed by the Sanhedrin—which had to be submitted to him for ratification; he was in charge of the appointing all of the high priests; and he controlled the Temple and its funds. What’s more he was in charge of the army of the occupation, which included up to 5,000 infantry stationed at Caesarea, with a detachment on duty at Jerusalem. All of which should have added up to Pilate being a very powerful and influential man.
However by the time of the crucifixion of Jesus, Pilate had made many mistakes—ones which had very much weakened his position and authority.
For example, when Pilate first took up his appointment as procurator he antagonised the Jews by setting up Roman standards, bearing images of the emperor, in the holy city. The result was determined resistance by the Jewish leaders. And despite Pilate threatening them with death if they continued their protests, it was Pilate who had to back down after 6 days and remove the images.
On another occasion, Pilate took money from the Temple treasury, to build an aqueduct to convey water to the city from a spring 40km away. A worthwhile project in itself. But the source of the money resulted in tens of thousands of Jews demonstrating against the project, to which, Pilate sent in his troops in disguise, and large numbers of the protestors were slain (Luke 13:1-2). So apart from official protests, this put him offside with Herod.
And, when a number of Samaritans had assembled to hear someone they believed to be a prophet, Pilate ordered their slaughter. An action that resulted in a protest to the governor of Syria, and Pilate being ordered to explain himself before the emperor himself.
By the time of the crucifixion, then, Pilate was a weak man, and ready to serve expediency rather than principle. The Jews were not like other conquered peoples, they protested at injustices. So Pilate lived in constant fear of imperial displeasure, particularly should the emperor hear of any further unrest in Judea.
b). His Part in the Story
So, when Jesus was passed to him to ratify the decision of the Sanhedrin, as was required, Pilate was faced with a dilemma. If he displeased the Jewish authorities, he could find another complaint going to the emperor. This would have meant him losing his job at the very least. On the other hand, if he did something to please the locals, then the emperor would hear nothing, and his position would remain firm. In addition to that, however, not only was this an opportunity to keep the locals happy, but it was an opportunity to appease Herod as well (Luke 23:6-12). And as a consequence, whilst not recorded in Mark’s gospel—but recorded in Luke’s— Pilate sent Jesus to Herod. An act which resulted in Pilate and Herod’s relationship changing drastically, to becoming the best of friends.
Of course whilst the result of sending Jesus to Pilate was a foregone conclusion. It does demonstrate the problems that being a weak leader can bring. Pilate, having interviewed Jesus, could see that Jesus had done nothing wrong. So when the crowd clamoured for Jesus’ blood, he asked them what crime Jesus had committed. (Mark 15:14). And yet, because of the position he found himself in, he still had Jesus flogged and handed over to be crucified.
And that raises a question regarding leadership in the Christian church. Because we need to stand firm on the fundamentals of the gospel. Because if we don’t—if we buckle in to the pressures of others—then we really are weak, and we don’t stand for much at all.
DEVOTION 5. ROMAN SOLDIERS
a). Their Profile
Now the Roman soldiers were auxiliary troops, recruited from among the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. Normally assigned to look after prisoners in imperial custody, these were assigned to the military governor. And being a Jewish festive season—the Feast of Passover—they would have accompanied the military governor to Jerusalem to assist in the maintenance of public order. Because, as the occupying forces had discovered, with the massing of so many Jews for such an important religious event, things usually got very tense.
b). Their Part in the Story
When the soldiers were called, then, to take Jesus from Pilate to the Praetorian—the army headquarters—the soldiers were provided with an opportunity for a welcome diversion from the tensions in Jerusalem. And so the soldiers took that opportunity, in expectation of having a few moments of entertainment at their prisoner’s expense.
Consequently we see the kind of grotesque vaudeville: the emphasis on the royal pretensions of Jesus; Jesus being bruised and bleeding; and the vulgar mentality of the soldiers.
Of course, normally those condemned to be crucified were led naked to the place of execution and were scourged on the way. But this time it was different—Jesus had already been scourged—so things happened a little differently.
Of course we don’t know if those soldiers at any time really thought about what they were doing, or whether they simply got carried away with their bit of welcome relief.
As a consequence the example of the soldiers does raise the issue of how we deal with the tensions that we face in life. After all, things do go wrong, and there can be a tendency to lash out too. And to lash out in such a way, that we don’t always think through what we’re actually doing.
The Roman soldiers, therefore, stand as a reminder, that life does not always run smoothly. And when things get rough, and a little bit tense, there is a need to be careful that we respond in an appropriate way, in a way consistent with our faith.
DEVOTION 6. SIMON OF CYRENE
a). His Profile
We don’t know a lot about Simon of Cyrene. But what we do know is that Cyrene was an important city in Libya in North Africa, and that it had a large Jewish population. It is not unreasonable, then, to think that Simon, being in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, was probably a Jew, who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival.
b). His Part in the Story
Now, it was normal for men condemned to death to carry the cross beam of the cross weighing between 14 and 18 kilos to the place of crucifixion. And that’s the way it all started for Jesus. However, Jesus, so weakened by his flogging, just couldn’t carry his cross all the way. So Simon was not asked, or even volunteered to carry his cross, but he was pressed into service—forced to carry it, on Jesus’ behalf.
Now one of the things we know about Simon was that Mark expected his readers to know who Simon was—because he specifically mentioned him by name. Simon wasn’t an unknown to the early church. Indeed, it is inferred that members of the church would have known his two sons too—Alexander and Rufus—and very likely because they later became members of the church.
And that has made me wonder . . . Because we know Simon was press ganged into carrying Jesus’s cross. But if he’d been a follower at the time of the crucifixion, given the opportunity, might he not have volunteered anyway?
You see, it seems to me that when there is a task to be done, when asked, people can be reluctant to say, “Yes.” People can be reluctant to volunteer. And yet, when it comes to the ministry of Jesus, if we don’t play our part, and play it willingly, then what we are actually doing is leaving everything up to Jesus.
And whilst there is no forcing people to do things in the Christian church. If we fail to help like Simon may have helped—if he’d been given the opportunity to volunteer—then we are effectively leaving the church stuck on the crucifixion road with nowhere to go, except by the things that God’s does by his own direct intervention.
DEVOTION 7. MARY MAGDALENE,
MARY THE MOTHER OF JOSES & SALOME
a). Their Profile
Mary Magdalene was a woman cured of possession of evil spirits (Luke 8:2). Indeed, Jesus cast seven spirits out of her, and in response she accompanied Jesus and his disciples during their evangelistic ministry.
Mary the mother of Joses
Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses (Mark 15:40), was probably a member of Jesus’ family (on Joseph’s side). Mary was probably Joseph’s brother’s wife, which would have made James and Joses Jesus’s cousins.
Similarly Salome was probably a family member too (but this time from Mary’s side). Indeed, she was probably Mary’s sister. And, if the sons of Zebedee – James and John – were her children, then that would mean that they were cousins of Jesus too
b). Their Part in the Story
However, leaving the details of relationships and family trees aside, Mary, Mary and Salome were just some of the women who had journeyed with Jesus to Jerusalem. And whilst they are not recorded to have taken any part in the events immediately preceding the crucifixion, it was normal for family and friends of the victim to be present at their execution. And, indeed, they watched the proceedings of the crucifixion itself, from a distance.
Now despite their possible absence in the hours before the crucifixion, and despite their distance from the cross—although it may have been that women were just not supposed to stand too close—Mark was still able to comment about the three, that they had followed Jesus throughout Galilee, and ministered to his needs (Mark 15:41).
And whilst they may have floundered over the preceding hours, that does raise the issue about our following, and our caring. Because, no matter what limitations or restrictions there may have been, the fact is that these women did care, and their acts of service, even at the foot of the cross, were seen as marks of true devotion.
The question is, though, can we say the same thing? That we really are followers, and that we really care too?
DEVOTION 8. JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA
a). His Profile
The final character for today is Joseph of Arimathea. A rich man, a member of the Sanhedrin, and the only person in the Sanhedrin who had not agreed to Jesus condemnation (Luke 23:51). Having said that, however, despite protesting Jesus’ innocence, he still did everything he could to hide the fact that he was a disciple (John 19:38). And he did that because he feared repercussions if he was too open.
b). His Part in the Story
And yet, all that changed after Jesus died. Joseph contacted Pilate, and arranged to collect Jesus’s body for burial. But not just for burial in any tomb, but in his own. And the measure of his wealth, and his new found devotion, was that he provided not only the fine linen for Jesus’ burial, but a completely unused tomb as well (Mt 27:57-60).
Now there was something about the crucifixion that changed Joseph’s faith. Something that made him realise that he had to stand up and be counted. And undoubtedly this would have risked his whole social position, and would have had serious implications regarding his place on the Sanhedrin, as well.
However, something must have clicked inside Joseph to make him understand that there is no such thing as a secret disciple. He must have realised that people are either followers of Jesus, or they’re not—there was no room for any shade of grey. Joseph realised that he needed to stand up and be counted. The question is, do we?
The story of the crucifixion of Jesus is, in one sense, a very tragic tale. It’s not only the story of the death of the Messiah (with all that that means). But it it’s also the story of self-seeking authorities doing everything they could to maintain their power (and hence) the status quo; the failure of Jesus’ friends to stand up for their beloved Messiah; and the failure of ordinary men and women to stand up for decency and order and what they know is right.
Having said that however, if Jesus had not died, then we would not have a saviour who paid the penalty for our sins. And we would not have the opportunity for a restored relationship with God, and the gift of eternal life.
As a consequence, there are many lessons we can learn from this story—from the characters that took part. Not least of which is: Judas, and how easy it is to get off track, and the need to face up to our faults and failings; Caiaphas, and the responsibilities that positions of authority in the church brings, and the dangers of any abuse of power; Peter and the importance of the need to not only follow Jesus, but to make a stand in all matters relating to the faith; Pilate, and the need for strong leadership, and the dangers that buckling in to pressure brings; The Roman Soldiers, and the want of distractions, with the need to think carefully through our responses; Simon of Cyrene, and the need to volunteer and to accept responsibilities in the faith; Mary, Mary and Salome, and the need to follow, and to care, despite the odds; and Joseph of Arimathea, and the need to stand up and be counted, no matter what social or other implications there may be.
There are many lessons that can be learned from the behaviour of the characters surrounding Jesus, particularly at his most pressing hour of need.
Posted: 5th March 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis