Signpost for Sunday 17 June, 2018: 1 Sam 15:34–16:13; Ps 20; 2 Cor 5:6-10, (11-13),14-17; Mark 4:26-34.
Two very short parables this week. Very famous too, and therefore although we have ears we may not, like the listeners in Mark 4:23, hear everything on first listening.
One or two things caught my ‘ear’ this week. The first is obviously that Yeshua is talking about the kingdom of God and trying to find a way to explain what’s it’s like.
The first thing I noticed is that he isn’t talking about going to heaven when you die, which is what I suspect many people equate the kingdom of God with these days. It’s a mistake that leads us to think that we have to wait till ‘judgement day’ to see what the kingdom of God is all about. Even then, if we think we might end up among the goats, it won’t be something we look forward to.
But the kingdom of heaven that Yeshua is trying to describe has absolutely nothing to do with that. This kingdom he’s talking about is right here on Earth. More than that, these two parables about seeds seems to be telling us that the earth gives birth to the kingdom and then is essential to its growth.
The kingdom of God isn’t like some weird gigantic space ship that comes from the far reaches of the universe and lands here either. (I’m sure some people think of it that way because I did when I was about six.)
Instead these parables show us a picture of the Kingdom being quite literally planted in the earth. And God needing humans to do the planting.
And once again, unlike the apocalypse stories, there is nothing here about chaff being thrown into fires or axes chopping at the root of trees. Everything grows and is fruitful.
Then I started to think what is actually being planted in these parables. One thing I found out is that the mustard plant was regarded as a common weed in Israel in Jesus’ time. I find that quite reassuring.
The other thing about mustard trees is that they aren’t. Trees, that is. They are herbs that can grow into large bushes (about seven or eight feet high). But it’s the fact that Jesus chooses a herb as his plant in this parable that might be important. After all, herbs are most notable for their aroma and for their flavour. So these descriptions of the kingdom of God are not so much about how big it grows from small beginnings, but equally about the spice it adds to the things that nourish us. Love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, and compassion, for example.
Signpost for Sunday 10 June 2018: 1 Sam 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, 11:14-15; Ps 138; 2 Cor 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35
I never really liked the reading from Mark when I was growing up. It just didn’t make sense to me why Jesus is downright rude to his mum, brothers and sisters. I didn’t, and still don’t, buy any argument that suggests Jesus as the son of God knows who his real parent is, either. So, what on earth is going on, I’ve often wondered?
Is Jesus here really saying that whoever does the will of God is more family than your parents, brothers and sisters? Or are there any clues to any meanings?
I found three things that gave me pause for thought.
Firstly, as ever, let’s consider the context. Scholars agree that the author of Mark is probably writing for at least a mixed gentile and Jewish audience, if not entirely gentile. Some scholars believe the main audience for Mark’s gospel were the same people Paul’s letter to the Romans is addressed to. If that’s the case then verses 34 and 35 may well be a clear signal to those people that the family is not exclusively Jewish. Plausible, I would think of you like the idea of Mary and her children standing as a metaphor for then entire Jewish nation.
Then there’s a literary criticism approach. If we go back to verse 25 we find Jesus ridiculing the scribes’ suggestion that he has the devil in him with these words: if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. Now look at verse 21 which says that his family heard that the scribes accused Jesus of being possessed, ‘they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” ‘ Isn’t there a link between all three verses? Your first century ‘house’ was your family. And Jesus has just told the scribes that his ‘house’ won’t fall because it isn’t divided against itself. So when Mum, sisters and bros come to restrain him, he rapidly needs an extended family. Or maybe, mum and siblings might just be worried he’ll be arrested and hope to save him, but Jesus is telling them they don’t need to worry because the extended family is there to help too.
And then there’s the notion that Jesus is abandoning the definition of the ‘traditional family’ in order to make a point. There is a particular point for us in 2018, when family units come in all sizes, sexes and genders: there’s only thing that makes any group of human beings a family – unconditional love.
Signpost for Sunday 1 April, 2018 (Easter Sunday): Isa 25:6-9; Ps 118:1-2,14-24; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8.
This Easter I have been thinking about the many people who simply find understanding Jesus’s death too hard. But what if we focused more on Easter as a celebration of Jesus’s life, as we do when we hold a funeral for our loved ones?
To my mind the readings we have are not so much about a joyous resurrection, they are stories about grief and confusion. Where has the body gone? Did Mary Magdalene really see an angel and a ghost? What should the disciples do next?
Even the instructions given by Mark’s angel on the day are not followed (Mark 16:7). In Mark the disciples don’t all go off to Galilee where Jesus says he will meet them. (There’s nothing about it in the verses that most Bible translations miss out either.) In John and Luke they stay in Jerusalem. Only Matthew sends the disciples to Galilee, but he’s just adding a nice round end to the story he took from Mark. So there’s even confusion for us.
And then there’s the obvious grief that pervades Easter for his followers. For me, the most moving story of Easter Day is that told by John, when Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for the gardener. I can hear her heart breaking as I read that passage.
And then I was reading an article the other day (it has nothing to do with these readings) and I came across this quote: “Grief happens when we are losing love and it liberates us to feel it fully… Once you feel love, you can be more courageous and make more radical choices.” I remember, too, the unfathomable depth of grief I have experienced when members of my family and some of my friends died.
Whatever you believe to be the truth of the resurrection story, it is certain that losing Jesus, whom they loved so much, made him come alive in the hearts of the disciples. And in the weeks and years that followed they became courageous and made radical choices. It’s also true that Christ is alive in the hearts of millions of people around the world today. For me, that is true resurrection.
Jesus’s essential message seems to me to be more important than which of the Gospel stories about his resurrection is most accurate or even true.
One way to summarise the message Jesus preached during his life on earth is this: ‘God is our Heavenly Father, which gives us all a unique dignity as children of God; so the way to turn our lives into ones of worship is through trust. Let’s not put that off till tomorrow because life is short; let’s delight in and strive to make better the here and now. Because the only way to truly express the love of God for each one of us is through the love of our neighbour.’a
I often find loving my neighbour is hard to do. But it’s easier than trying to persuade people that a cruelly murdered man died and came back to life as a ghost that haunts everyone on earth forever.
If we keep trying to love our neighbours I suspect that’s the only way to make Easter mean more than chocolate eggs and bunny rabbits for most people these days.
a ‘Searching for the Real Jesus’, Geta Vermes, 2009.
Signpost for Sunday 25 March, 2018 (6th Sunday in Lent: Palm Sunday): Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16; Ps 118:1-2,19-29
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, estimated that up to two and quarter million people visited Jerusalem during the Passover festival. Some scholars dispute that figure but most agree that at Passover the number of people in Jerusalem was four times its normal population.
When I came to this week’s well-known reading (Mark or John), those figures came to mind again. It made we wonder about whether or not we really know how this last week of Yeshua’s life on earth started, and what might be important about the actual events as far as we can work out two thousand years later.
Yeshua’s entry into Jerusalem is recounted in all four gospels. Mark, Matthew and Luke all tell the story of him telling a couple of his disciples that they will find a colt tethered and waiting, which adds to the drama. John merely writes ‘Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.’
Now have a look at what each of them says about the crowd that waived their palm leaves as Jesus road in:
John says the ‘great crowd that had come to the Passover… took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him’.
Matthew says, ‘A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road’.
Mark says ‘many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields’.
My guess is that many of us read this as if Jesus was welcomed by most of the people in Jerusalem at the time. And that would certainly have spooked the Roman occupying forces.
But I think he wouldn’t have been welcomed by most of the people in Jerusalem at the time. The crowd was mostly likely a small crowd, made up of his disciples and others who had begun to follow him in the provinces.
In fact, Luke’s version goes like this: ‘‘As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
It’s not the crowd shouting Jesus’s praises. The crowd don’t recognise him for who he is, messiah or rebel, and they’d have been pretty terrified if they had.
After all, there were two processions into Jerusalem at the time of Passover. Jesus was approaching Jerusalem from Bethany and Bethphage in the east. The Roman army was marching in from the west, to maintain order over a population that had suddenly grown fourfold, and was there to celebrate its liberation from a conquering power (Pharaoh in Egypt).
There’s no doubt then that the procession of the Roman army would have been pretty darn scary: thousands of soldiers marching, with Legionnaires on horseback, Roman eagles all over the show, armour clanking, and drums beating.
Symbolically, it’s often said that the Jesus came in peace and the Romans came in war. Symbolically that’s true. Horses versus donkeys and all that. But I suggest Jesus didn’t arrive in the city to be greeted as any kind of national rebel, nor was he ever mistaken for one. Not by the Romans or the Jews themselves.
Let’s remember what Yeshua did as soon as he hopped off his donkey. He went straight to the Temple, and that’s where the trouble started. It was people’s relationship with God that bothered Jesus, not their relationship with Rome.
P.S. Happy nearly end of Lent. Here comes the chocolate. But there are also some extra Signposts coming your way. Andrew has encouraged we Signposters to celebrate Easter by writing a Good Friday Signpost, an Easter Saturday Signpost and an Easter Day Signpost. So George will kick off on Good Friday, followed by Andrew and myself.
Signpost for 25 February, 2018, 2nd Sunday in Lent: Gen 17:1-7, 15-16; Ps 22:23-31; Rom 4:13-25; Mark 8: 31-38.
We sometimes speak of the new relationship that we have with God through Jesus as the New Covenant. This reflects the Old Covenant* that is a feature in our Old Testament reading today, the Covenant between God and Abraham.
The idea of a covenant has been important in a number of periods in the history of the Church. Some of my ancestors in the Kirkudbright district of Scotland in the eighteenth century were “Covenanters”. When the reformation came to Scotland, thousands of the reformed believers signed the Solemn League and Covenant. They wanted to set up a nation under God where, in effect, the State would be secondary to the Church.
When the new Government was set up in Scotland, as it was in England, the reverse happened. The Church always had influence on the State, but the State always had a degree of control over the Church, as it has to this day in England, but no longer in Scotland. The Covenanter Church continued quite strongly for a long time, the first dissenters from Presbyterian Orthodoxy.
During the Nineteenth Century revival in England, the Evangelical wing of the Church of England held firmly to the idea of covenant, and they were often very influential in the government of the day. They were in control when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, and the support of the missionaries for the Treaty was often expressed in covenant terms. So we cannot do justice to our own history without some awareness of the importance of covenant ideas. It still echoes in discussions of the Treaty today.
Returning to our readings; while we speak of a New Covenant in Jesus, it would be better to see his actions in the Gospel for today as an expression of the first Covenant.
In the Old Testament story, Abram and Sarai were surprised when they were told they would have a child, but they rejoiced and became faithful when that actually happened to them. Paul comments on this in the Epistle. He is rather idealistic; he ignores Abraham and Sarah’s times of failure to be faithful. He also gives more importance to Abraham than to Sarah, though the covenant is to them as a couple, rather than to the man and then to the woman as subsidiary to her.
Jesus is faithful to the Covenant in a way that would have surprised many of his co-religionists. He expresses it through his willingness to brave danger for the sake of the message he bears. And it is in the suffering that follows that we believe we see the New Covenant.
What has this to say about Lent; perhaps Lent is about giving up the risk-free life rather than minor indulgences. I hope our worship on Sunday features the hymn “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?” by John L Bell and Graham Maule, to the traditional Scottish tune, “Kelvingrove”, and that we sing it at a reckless speed!
*the word covenant comes from the Latin ‘con venir’ – coming together.
Signpost for Sunday 11 February, 2018: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Ps 30; 1 Cor 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45.*
Here we go with that sneaky old lectionary trick: an Old Testament story that mirrors the Gospel reading. Yes, this week it’s old school leper healing and leper healing with a difference.
Once again it’s not really the miracle that matters so much as how these two writers tell their stories of healing. And it’s not the similarities that are important, it’s the differences. It’s not always the obvious differences either. Naaman is rich and powerful; the leper in Mark’s story is a complete unknown. Doesn’t matter. What seems to me to matter is the way Elisha and Yeshua go about healing their respective lepers.
“Elisha sent a messenger to him [Naaman], saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” (2 Kings 5:10)
“Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him…” (Mark 1:40)
Spot the difference? Jesus reaches out and actually touches the leper. Elisha doesn’t even come out of his tent. He doesn’t even speak to Naaman himself. I don’t think this is about the difference in character between a compassionate Yeshua and a rather stern and standoffish Elisha. I think it’s Mark showing us two things.
The first is that the audience for both stories would know that a leper’s touch would cause both Elisha and Jesus to become ‘unclean’ themselves.
The second is that it is Yeshua’s touch that makes the leper clean, and that’s a big deal (not just from the miracle/healing point of view) but because Yeshua is doing something no one would have dared do in the past. When the leper himself says, “If you choose, you can make me clean,” the last thing he expects Yeshua to do is reach out and actually touch him. That leper would have known that Elisha had healed a leper without moving a muscle. Who on earth in those days wasn’t afraid to touch a leper? No wonder this the ex-leper can’t help but disobey Yeshua’s stern warning to tell no-one about what’s happened.
I reckon that leper must have felt just like the psalmist, whoever he was, when he wrote Psalm 30:11–12: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.”
* Apologies to any northern hemisphere readers. I think your lectionary readings this week may be totally different from ours down-under.
Signpost for Sunday 4 February, 2018: Isa 40:21-31; Ps 147:1-11,20c; 1 Cor 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39.
It occurred to me that the verses from Isaiah, the Psalm and the verses from 1 Corinthians seem to form a frame around the pictures that Mark’s gospel presents us with this week. I see it this way: the frame is made up of God’s power to renew, to heal, to lift up, to not faint or grow weary, and Paul’s declaration that the gospel is not a so much a private gift as a public good.
In fact the reading from Mark starts off in a private home, but ends with Jesus going throughout Galilee preaching to as many people as he can. To the public at large, you might say.
This mother-in-law story, unlike many modern ones, is not remotely amusing, though. Instead it’s sets the scene for the way the larger story unfolds in Mark’s version.
Jesus has just left the synagogue and gone straight Jesus to Simon and Andrew’s house. He walks in and the first thing he does is take Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and immediately the fever leaves her. This isn’t just another miracle, it’s the first instance of Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath. When we read the story we focus on the mother- in-law getting better. But any first century Jew would spot that it’s still the Sabbath when this occurs. We don’t realise how serious a matter this is until Mark 3:1-7, when Jesus heals someone publicly on the Sabbath, which causes the Pharisees and Herodians to conspire against him.
That’s why Mark makes a point of telling us in verse 32 that a crowd of people brought sick people and possessed people to be healed in the evening, at sundown. Sundown is the end of the Sabbath day as far as the Jews were concerned. So the people know the rules, they wouldn’t expect Jesus to heal anyone on the Sabbath.
The next day what happens? Another crowd of locals with sick and crazy friends turns up and Jesus is nowhere to be seen. If you’d been one of the people in that crowd imagine how devastated you would be. We know the story too well to think about that these days. We all know Jesus is going to go off round Galilee and will eventually arrive in Jerusalem. But the people of Capernaum didn’t. The point seems to be though, that just as it has always been – the Gospel, the good news, can’t just apply to a few people. Otherwise it’s not quite such good news.