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Today we look at more teaching from the gospel of Mark and we come to the important Parable of the Vineyard Tenants. I say important because it really gives us Jesus’ own perspective on his ministry and what is about to happen as his time of ministry comes to an end. I want us to look at what this parable means, and draw out some lessons for us to remember as we share in the Lord’s supper together.

Overview of the parable

vs. 1-2 – “And he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.’” [Jesus is using portions of Isaiah 5:1-7 which tells a similar story.]

This setup was not uncommon in that day. You have an absentee land owner who leases out the farm to tenant workers. The agreement would go like this:

  • The owner has the land and sets things up, as he does here: planting the vines and building a fence, a pit and a tower: all that you need to produce wine.
  • And the tenants are to work the farm and give the owner a reasonable return when the harvest comes, several years later (Leviticus 19:23-25).

And so v. 2 ends with the owner sending a servant, “when the season came” to collect what’s due.

The first servant: vs. 2-3 – “ . . . he sent a servant . . .. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed.” There were often disagreements between owners and tenants, just as today.

A second servant: v. 4 – “Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully.”

A third servant: v. 5 – “And he sent another, and him they killed.” [This more than meets the requirement of two to three witnesses of their wrong.]

More servants: And if this wasn’t enough already v. 5 continues, “And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed.” He had a lot of servants, but they had all been unsuccessful in collecting what was due.

His son: v. 6 – “He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” “Beloved” means his only son, and so very dear to the father (Genesis 22:2). And this is the only representative the owner had left to send.

Perhaps the owner figured that since his son has full legal authority, and has higher rank than a mere servant – they will have to respect him!

The tenants reasoned differently, however. vs. 7-8 – “But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.”

Maybe they thought the owner was dead since the son came? Or maybe they thought the owner was too old or too far away, or too weak to enforce his claims on the property. By the rules of that day tenants could inherit the land they worked, if the owner and heirs were dead or unwilling to make a claim. So they kill the son and throw him out, without even burying him, a real insult.

Jesus then asks, v. 9 – “What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” The owner is not dead or weak. And there are grave consequences for the actions of the tenants.

The story the parable tells

– is really the story of God and his people and it is the story of Jesus.

  • The vineyard is the people of God – this was a common image in Scripture (Isaiah 5:2, Psalm 80:8-9, Jeremiah 2:21).
  • The owner is God whenever God’s people are seen as a vineyard. The word translated in v. 9 as “owner” is actually “lord,” which has a double meaning, pointing to “the Lord.”
  • The fruit of the vineyard is faithfulness. This is what God’s people owe to God.
  • The servants are prophets, sent by God to call his people to obedience. As Jeremiah 7:25-26 says “From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day. Yet they did not listen to me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck.”
  • The tenants are the leaders of Jerusalem. This parable comes in the context of a long argument with the leaders of Jerusalem. And even these leaders, v. 12 tells us, “perceived that he had told the parable against them.”
  • Finally, the beloved son is Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark God calls Jesus this at his baptism (Mark 1:11) and at his transfiguration (Mark 9:7).

First we have, the story that has already happened:

– God did form a people for himself. He blessed them and sought their faithfulness.

– And when they didn’t give it God did send messenger after messenger to call them to obedience. But they refused to listen.

– And now as the culmination God has sent Jesus, his beloved, only Son. The one who has all authority. The one who is dear to his heart.

Then we have the story that is yet to come:

– Like in the parable, the leaders have no regard for Jesus, even though he is God’s Son. In fact, they will soon kill Jesus. And in a shameful way, like in the story.

– But God, his Father, will act. God will “destroy” these leaders, which happened in 70 AD, when Jerusalem was destroyed.

– And God will give leadership of his people to “others,” referring to the followers of Jesus, his Son.

And then we have –

A short Scripture lesson

– attached to our story. Here we switch from the vineyard as an image of God’s people to that of a building or more likely the temple as an image of God’s people.

vs. 10-11 – “Have you not read this Scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” This comes from Psalm 118:22-23. Psalm 118 was often sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the festivals. It was well known.

Now, the reason these verses are attached to this parable has to do with the wordplay between – the Hebrew/Aramaic word for son, “ben,” which is the focus of the parable, and the word for stone, “eben,” which is the focus of these verses (Matthew Black).

When it says “cornerstone” it is literally “the head of the corner.” It is referring to the most important stone in the whole building. Perhaps the stone at the peak of the arch, or a capstone on a column or a stone at the top of a building that completes it.

In Jesus’ day this was often seen as referring to king David. He was the one overlooked by Samuel at first, and then by the leaders of Israel. But he became the king of Israel.

This was also read by some as pointing to the Messiah, the coming son of David. When Jesus entered Jerusalem just before this, the crowds quote Psalm 118:26 – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” and then interpret it in a messianic way when they say, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:10)

The message is clear: Jesus is the stone that was rejected and cast aside by the builders (the religious leaders), but God will vindicate him and raise him up as the chief stone of the whole building. Just as God brought about a marvelous reversal of fortune for David, so God will do this for Jesus, David’s son.

This raising image is an apt one for the idea of being vindicated, as well as for the resurrection of Jesus (Joel Markus).

[These verses also connect to the parable in that they expand a bit on the vineyard being given to others. If David is the original reference in Psalm 118, then Jesus is saying it will be similar now in his case. Just as the kingdom was taken from Saul and given to David and his line, so the leadership of the people of God is now given to Jesus and his followers]

An ironic ending

The passage ends with v. 12 – “And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.” The leaders are seeking to do just what Jesus said they would do, in his parable that they didn’t like!

As we share in the Lords’ supper

– let’s remember some lessons from this passage of Scripture: 1. Let’s remember God’s amazing patience and love. The parable highlights these qualities of God.

God sent three servants. Then God sent even more. God put up with a lot. This shows that he really loves us and wants us to come back to him and for us to be faithful.

Then he sent his son to call us back. Now why would he risk this given what happened to his servants? The only answer is God’s profoundly amazing love for us!

2. Let’s remember the terrible consequences of disobedience. God really does require our obedience. And if we don’t give this, or in this case, if the leaders stand in the way of this – there is judgment. This is what happened in the history of Israel, it is what is predicted in the parable and it is what happened in the fulfillment in 70 A.D.

God is patient and loving, yes. But God will not tolerate sin forever. There is a limit, and a time when we must reap what we have sown.

3. Let’s remember who Jesus is. He is God’s beloved and only Son. He is the one who died, coming to call us to repentance. He is the one who was rejected and cast aside. And he is the chief stone, raised up by God – vindicated and resurrected.

William Higgins

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(rewritten)

Proverbs 23:29-35

“Who has anguish? Who has sorrow? Who is always fighting? Who is always complaining? Who has unnecessary bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? It is the one who spends long hours in the taverns, trying out new drinks. Don’t gaze at the wine, seeing how red it is, how it sparkles in the cup, how smoothly it goes down. For in the end it bites like a poisonous snake; it stings like a viper. You will see hallucinations, and you will say crazy things. You will stagger like a sailor tossed at sea, clinging to a swaying mast. And you will say, ‘They hit me, but I didn’t feel it. I didn’t even know it when they beat me up. When will I wake up so I can look for another drink?’” (NLT)

Let me begin by telling you what I’m not talking about this morning. I am not talking about whether a Christian can or cannot drink alcohol in moderation. Christians can disagree about this and I have expressed myself on this before – see here.

What I’m here to do is to emphasize the line which the Scriptures draw quite clearly, which is that drunkenness is wrong. And as we will see, this certainly includes drug abuse as well.

But more than just make this point, I want us to look at why this is forbidden, to get some insight into this. Is God just not fun? What’s up with this?

First, we look at what is clear in Scripture

Drunkenness is forbidden

This is especially plain in the New Testament. Turn to 1 Peter 4:3. “The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do . . . drunkenness . . . (and) drinking parties . . ..” Peter is saying, Stop doing these things! You are believers now. You know, haven’t you already wasted enough of your time with this?” Look at v. 4. He says, your friends may be shocked that you don’t do this anymore, but, as he says in v. 2, you are to live your live after God’s will from now on.

In Ephesians 5:18 Paul says it quite simply, with 4 words, “do not get drunk . . ..”

Then he spells it out a bit in Galatians 5:19-21. “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality . . . drunkenness (etc.) . . .. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Here we learn that it is a work of the flesh, a sin like sexual immorality (and the other items on this list). And if you persist in it, you will be judged; you will be rejected by Jesus on that final day.

And then, just in case it isn’t clear enough already, we also have 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. “Do not be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral . . . nor drunkards . . . will inherit the kingdom of God.” Whatever rationalization you might want to entertain, Paul is saying, “don’t be deceived.” It is wrong and it will kill you eternally. (See also Romans 13:13)

This is why this teaching is a part of our congregational covenant. A commitment to this scriptural standard is a basic part of the Christian life and it is a part of what it means to be baptized.

Now, let’s look at three reasons why drunkenness is forbidden.

1. It will destroy you

 When you’re drunk you lose control of your mental faculties and of your behavior in general. This is the definition of drunkenness or intoxication. You also lose control when you are “high” on drugs. The result of this is that you end up hurting yourself in very serious ways. Let’s look at some Scriptural descriptions of this sad reality.

It will make a fool of you. Proverbs 23:23 talks about having “hallucinations” when you are drunk. You lose touch with reality and this shows up in your behavior. This also comes out in Proverbs 23:35. The drunk person says, “They hit me, but I didn’t feel it. I didn’t even know it when they beat me up.”

You won’t even be able to walk. Proverbs 23:34 speaks of those who “stagger like a sailor tossed at sea, clinging to a mast.” Isaiah 28:7 talks about people who reel, stumble and stagger.

Drunkenness also makes you stupid. Proverbs 23:33 says, “you will say crazy things.” Proverbs 20:1 says, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler” That is, you can become arrogant, obnoxious, overconfident and even violent when you are drunk (Proverbs 23:29 mentions “fighting”).

Related to making poor decisions, this year, 10,839 people will die in drunk-driving crashes; one every 50 minutes (MADD website)

Finally, we know the story of Genesis 9 where Noah is passed out, naked in his tent from drinking too much. As Proverbs 20:1 says at the end “whoever is led astray by (wine and strong drink) is not wise.” No, you become a fool for all to see.

It will lead you to degrade yourself morally. Ephesians 5:18 says, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.” Debauchery means unrestrained self-indulgent immoral behavior. And that make sense. Once you’re drunk and lose control, who knows what you will do, or what will be done to you?

Alcohol is a sin magnifier. It amplifies whatever sinful desires you have and takes away whatever restraint you might normally have.

Long term, it will make you poor. Proverbs 23:20-21 says simply, “Be not among one who drinks too much wine or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.”

It will bring you sorrow. This is the result of what we have seen thus far. Proverbs 23:29-30 says, “Who has anguish? Who has sorrow? Who is always fighting? Who is always complaining? Who has unnecessary bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? It is the one who spends long hours in the taverns, trying out new drinks.” This is talking about reaping what you have sown, from all the stupidness of your drunkenness.

It will enslave you. This reality is described in Scripture. In Proverbs 23:35 the passed out drunk says to himself, “When will I wake up so I can look for another drink?” After all the pain, all you want is more.

Isaiah 28:7 speaks of drunkards, not as those who swallow wine, but as those who are “are swallowed by wine.”

Titus 2:3 says, older women are not to be “slaves to much wine.” The language of enslavement is explicit here.

It can kill you. To the one given to drunkenness, wine may look good, it may be enticing, but really “in the end it bites like a poisonous snake; it stings like a viper” – Proverbs 23:32. And, of course, alcohol can be literally poisonous. In the United States, roughly 50,000 cases of alcohol poisoning deaths are reported each year. (alcoholinformation. com)

2. It will destroy your relationship with others

When you don’t have control of your thinking and your behavior, you cannot love and serve others. You will lack the judgment and clarity of thought needed to do this. Rather than loving your neighbor as yourself, you will more likely be ignoring or harming others.

This is especially a problem for those that you have charge of, because drunkenness will cause you to forsake your responsibilities to them.

Proverbs 31:4-5 says, “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.” There is a real theme in both the Old and New Testaments that leaders must not be those who drink too much precisely because they are responsible for many people. (Isaiah 5:22-23; 28:7; Ecclesiastes 10:16-17).

Paul tells us that church Elders are not to be “drunkards” (1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7) and Deacons must not be “indulging in much wine” (1 Timothy 3:8)

This is certainly true for parents with children in the home. An estimated 6.6 million children under 18 live in households with at least one alcoholic parent (alcoholinformation.com). Just to give one indicator, alcohol is involved in half of the reported cases of domestic violence (Betty Ford center).

But even short of violence, drug and alcohol abuse brings untold pain to families. It is a sad reality when a parent loves alcohol more than their child.

You cannot both love and serve others and have a life given to drug and alcohol abuse. It is impossible.

3. It will destroy your relationship with God

When you don’t have control of your thinking and your behavior, you cannot love and serve God. You have to have clear thinking and self control to serve God and these are the very things you give up when you are drunk. Who knows what you will do? You certainly won’t be loving God will all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

And then when you’re enslaved, your god actually becomes alcohol. You live a life of idolatry, giving up everything for it and looking to it for peace.

Isaiah 5:11-12 says, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them! . . . they do not regard the deeds of the Lord, or see the work of his hands.” In the context here it is a part of why the people went off into the judgment of exile. (See also Hosea 4:10-11)

Jesus said in Luke 21:34, “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness . . . and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” This is talking about when he returns. If you are given to drunkenness you will not be ready for Jesus.

You cannot both love God and have a life given to alcohol or drug abuse. It is impossible.

An encouragement

So these are three reasons why God forbids drug and alcohol abuse. But let me say, I do not share this to condemn anyone or to make you feel guilty (unless that guilt leads you to change). The reason behind these reasons is that God loves you. And God wants what is best for you and for those you love.

And the good news is that Jesus gives us the power to overcome. You can find new life. You can learn to love others. You can come to love God fully. It may not be easy. It may be the hardest thing you will ever do. But Jesus gives us the power to overcome.

William Higgins

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Listen to Psalm 70 –

“Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me!”

“Let them be put to shame and confusion who seek my life! Let them be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt! Let them turn back because of their shame who say, ‘Aha, Aha!’”

“May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you! May those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great!’”

“But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!”

This is a prayer to God from someone who really needs help. I like this Psalm. It’s short, it’s to the point and it’s honest. [It is actually found in another part of Scripture, almost word for word in Psalm 40:13-17.]

Alright, let’s begin with –

The opening plea

v. 1 – “Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me!’

The writer is waiting on God, a common theme in the Psalms, and a common experience for the people of God. He needs “deliverance” and “help.”

He is waiting on God for this, but he wants God to respond in a hurry. Notice the phrase “make haste” in the second sentence. (It is actually not found in the first sentence, but is supplied by the translators. Literally it says, “O God to deliver me.”) Also, notice in v. 5, “hasten to me,” and “do not delay.” No doubt the urgency of the request is connected to his particular circumstances.

So, let’s look at –

His situation

vs. 2-3 – “Let them be put to shame and confusion who seek my life! Let them be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt! Let them turn back because of their shame who say, ‘Aha, Aha!’”

He is being attacked by enemies. He feels his life is threatened. His enemies are trying to hurt him. They say, “Aha” which is a taunt, and perhaps connected to unjustly accusing him of wrong.

From these same verses let’s look at –

His prayer concerning his enemies

  • “Let them be put to shame and confusion . . .”
  • “Let them be turned back and brought to dishonor . . .”
  • “Let them turn back because of their shame . . .”

First of all, he wants their efforts to come to naught. He says, “let them be turned back” that is, ‘let their attack fail so that they turn back in retreat.’

Second, he wants his enemies to be shamed and dishonored for coming after him in the first place. He wants all to see that he has done no wrong and that the attack was unjustified. In other words he wants vindication.

This is pretty mild compared to how some of the Psalms pray for harm to come to their enemies. But as Christians, even here we would also need to pray for good to come to our enemies. Our Lord says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). He says, “bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” ( Luke 6:28).

Next, he offers up –

A prayer for the righteous

v. 4 – “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you! May those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great!’”

If the previous section focused on those who seek his harm, this one focuses on those who seek God. He prays that all who love God will be able to give thanks to God, because of how God delivers and saves them. He asks that there will be much praise of God for all that God has done to help his people.

But this isn’t where he is. And so he ends again with –

His plea

v. 5 – “But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!”

He is still waiting on God. He isn’t able to enter in to the rejoicing yet. He is “poor and needy.” This isn’t a statement his wealth or lack of it. It means that he is weak and fully dependent on God.

As we saw at the beginning, he is pressing God for a response.

The phrase, “You are my help and deliverer” is a statement of his faith in God. And he wants God to be this for him now.

Invitation

The Psalm ends with him still waiting. And because of this, it is an excellent prayer for us when we are going through trials and difficulties, waiting on God to come through for us.

Are you waiting on God? We saw the psalmist’s situation, what is yours? I would like for you to make this prayer your own this morning. I have given you a handout with the words of the Psalm, except the specific situation of the writer is left blank. Would you write in your concern in that place?

Then I will give you a chance to come to the front to be anointed with oil and to receive special prayer. You need not tell me anything, I will simply pray for you along the lines of the Psalm. God, who knows your concern, will hear and respond. Would you come this morning?

————-

Psalm 70 – Outline

 (To the choirmaster. Of David, For the memorial offering.)

A. Request for haste: Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me!

B. Regarding those who seek his life: Let them be put to shame and confusion who seek my life! Let them be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt! Let them turn back because of their shame who say, “Aha, Aha!”

B. Regarding those who seek God: May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you! May those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!”

A. Request for haste: But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!

William Higgins

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[An earlier version of this message was preached in May 2004 in a Church of God congregation in Zurich, Switzerland.]

I want to talk to you about what it means for us to take up our cross and encourage you in your practice of this. Turn in your Bibles to Mark 8:34-35 – Jesus said,

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

First of all, there are a couple of misconceptions about what it means for us to take up our cross that falsely limit its application in our lives. The truth is that –

To take up your cross will affect every part of your life

Let’s look at these misconceptions. Some people say that taking up the cross is a only an inner, spiritual experience, something that takes place in our hearts – an inner cross where we die to our selfish desires.

Well, there is some truth in this, for there is something called an inner cross. For instance Jesus had to struggle within at Gethsemane in prayer, when he prayed, “not my will, but yours be done.” He had to deny himself and put God’s will first.

But it wasn’t just about his inner attitudes. Because after Gethsemane came Golgotha. No, Jesus had to take up his cross with real life actions – his suffering and death on the cross.

Yes, the cross has to do with what goes on within you, but it is also about your outward behavior. For if you die to your desires within this will show up in cruciform behavior and actions without. As Jesus said, a “tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33). What is within your heart, is what will come out in your deeds.

Some people say that taking up the cross is only about suffering persecution, so that it only applies to a particular part of our lives, when we suffer for our faith.

Well the cross certainly does refer to persecution and followers of Jesus must literally suffer and do at times literally give up their lives.

But Jesus himself connects his call to take up the cross in Mark 8 with self-denial, something we are to practice in everyday life. Also in Luke 14 he connects the cross to something as practical as surrendering our earthly wealth to God. No, the cross has to do with all that we do in this world as followers of Jesus. Suffering for sure, but also helping a neighbor, doing ministry, serving someone a meal, etc..

Now I want you to get a sense of what it looks like to take up your cross. I want us to look at the –

The cruciform pattern of Jesus

 Paul talks about this in Philippians 2:5-11 and I want us to read this.

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

There is in these verses a “cruciform pattern” to Jesus’ life – in two stages:

First of all, there is a downward movement. Jesus lowered himself. And he did this in two steps:

First, Jesus became a servant. Though he was at the highest place in all of creation, he lowered himself to serve the needs of others. He denied himself, he lost his life by setting aside his place, his privileges and his prestige in order to lower himself to serve. He did this as he healed others, taught, set people free, loved them, and in general gave of himself to others.

But not only did Jesus serve, when his humble service was rejected he lowered himself even further. Jesus endured suffering and death. In this case his self- denial led to the literal loss of his life as he sacrificed himself on the cross for others.

Then, there is an upward movement. When he was as low as one can go, Jesus waited upon God and God raised him up. God raised him from the dead and seated him at the highest place in all of creation – at his own right hand. He was blessed and honored.

So this cruciform pattern has two stages – a lowering stage and a raising stage.

Now let’s look at –

How this works out in our lives

We are to live out this cruciform pattern. As Paul says, “let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” – 2:5. It is not just about Jesus, it is about us following Jesus. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said.

  • We are lower ourselves to serve others’ needs, and we are to accept suffering from those who reject this. As we do this, we sacrifice and die to our life here on earth; we deny ourselves and lose our lives.
  • And then we are to wait upon God to raise us up to new life.

– This is to be the pattern in our life considered as a whole – that we lowered ourselves and then God will raise us up at the resurrection.

– And this is to be the pattern of our daily walk, as we take up our cross “daily” (Luke 9:23) and “die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:21) to ourselves, and God makes us new in our heart and actions.

This then is what it means “to take up your cross.”

But as this phrase indicates, our focus in to be on the downward movement. Jesus focused on the lowering stage. Paul said, “he made himself nothing.” The raising stage was left for God to accomplish. Jesus trusted that God would raise him up.

We too are to focus on the lowering stage – serving other’s needs and choosing to endure suffering and rejection for this. And then we trust God to raise us up from our lowliness at the right time in this life and then at the resurrection.

The downward movement is necessary. Everyone wants the second stage, right? Who doesn’t want to be raised up, to be honored, to be recognized, to be blessed?

But the first stage, the path to this – lowliness, who wants this? We want to skip right to the second stage. But you can’t have the one without the other. Without the lowliness, there is no exaltation.

In Jesus’ words in Mark 8:35, if we seek to save our lives, that is, to hold on to what we have in our earthly lives; to have earthly honor now, we will lose our lives. We have to lose our earthly life – the lowering stage – before we gain our lives, being raised up by God.

Since this is so, you can see that –

The way of the cross is not easy

It takes real humility to put others first, to lay aside your privileges, rights, status and comforts for others. And to suffer rejection and ridicule for this.

It takes real love for God and others to deny yourself and to sacrifice in this way for the needs of others day in and day out, not heroically (being noticed by others) but obscurely.

It takes also endurance. Enduring lowliness, times of despair and times of weakness. It involves waiting upon God when it doesn’t seem that he will act. Remember Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

So let me end with –

Some words of encouragement

When you feel like giving up, remember we have Jesus’ clear words of promise from Jesus that we will one day be raised up. As he said:

  • Those who are last, will be first
  • Those who humble themselves, God will raise up
  • Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, will find life in the Kingdom of God
  • Those who lose their lives, will find their lives

And not only do we have Jesus’ words, in the midst of our lowliness we must remember the clear example of Jesus’ life. He proved his words and promises to be true through his own life and actions, because God came through for him.

He endured the greatest lowliness, despair and weakness, but God raised him up. And just as God came through for him, God will come through for you as well.

And so in the words of Galatians 6:9 – “let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

William Higgins

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Series on Faith in God

We are still looking at the topic of faith in God. With the youth sharing today I want to just remind us briefly of some of the themes we have been looking at by telling two stories of faith. I hope that these will be an encouragement to you to believe in and act on God’s promises to you.

Story #1 – A miracle in a village

[I am intentionally not saying where this happened or where I got this story].

In the region where this story takes place people began to become Christians and form churches. But most people were Buddhists. Now when the lives of these Christians began to improve with schooling and the donation of a boat to the local church to get across the river – there was jealousy and opposition in some of the Buddhists. And they tried to close church buildings and expel pastors from their homes.

Eventually such an order was given – to demolish the church building in a small village where our story takes place. It was given by  the chief Buddhist monk, a village leader and a township administrator.

The Christians gathered in prayer – and must have heard from God. Because when the officials came on the appointed day the Christians refused to tear down their building. The church leaders spoke out boldly and said they could not tear down a building that was dedicated to the true God. The officials insisted that they do it – but the church leaders told them they would have to do it themselves and be accountable for what might happen.

Two carpenters were sent to demolish the building. But as soon as they got on the roof a terrible storm came with thunder, lightening and strong wind. This scared the carpenters and they ran to their homes.

The officials came back another day and again ordered the carpenters to tear down the church. As they began, again, a fierce storm broke out with lightening. The lightening struck a nearby Buddhist image which was famous and revered. The result was 15 cracks.

Seeing what happened the chief Buddhist monk fled the village. The village leader who ordered the church be torn down was killed by someone. And  the administrator was found to be corrupt and thrown out of the village. And so the order to destroy the building was not carried out.

I share this story to highlight the faith of the church leaders. They has the three essential parts of true faith working in them. 1) They had something from God that allowed them to be bold. They must have heard something as they prayed knowing that persecution was coming. 2) They had an unfailing trust in God and his word to them. And 3) this was evidenced in that they spoke boldly to the officials who sought to tear down the building and warning them.

And we see that God honored their faith and did a miracle that glorified his name in their village.

Story #2 – A miracle in North Carolina

Now a story that has a miracle of a different kind. This comes from Clarence Jordan – a radical Christian in the South who set up an interracial farming community in Georgia in the early 1940’s – Koinonia Farms.

In one place he talks about a church where he was asked to preach in North Carolina. “The church would seat about 300 and I think they had about 600 in it. The thing that amazed me was that these people were white and [black] just sitting anywhere they wanted to sit. . ..”

“When I got through (preaching) the pastor got up and said, ‘Now, we’re going to have dinner on the grounds.’ I really trembled then, because it’s one thing for black and white folks to worship together; it’s another thing for them to eat together. Here the man was advocating social equality right there in the South.”

“I went over to the pastor and I said, ‘You know, this is a rather amazing thing to me. Were you integrated before the Supreme Court decision?’ [1954] He said, ‘What decision?’”

“He explained: ‘Well back during the depression, I was a worker here in this little mill. I didn’t have any education. I couldn’t even read and write. I got somebody to read the Bible to me, and I was moved and I gave my heart to the Lord, and later, I felt the call of the Lord to preach.’”

“’This little church here was too poor to have a preacher and I just volunteered. They accepted me and I started preaching.’”

“’Someone read to me in there where God is no respecter of persons and I preached that.’ I said, ‘Yeah how did you get along?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘the deacons came around to me after that sermon and said, ‘Now brother pastor, we not only don’t let a [black person] spend the night in this town, we don’t even let him pass through. Now we don’t want that kind of preaching you’re giving us.’”

“I said ‘What did you do?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I fired them deacons.’ ‘How come they didn’t fire you?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘they never had hired me, I just volunteered.’ ‘Did you have anymore trouble with them?’ ‘Yeah, they came back at me again.’ ‘What did you do with them that time?’ ’I turned them out. I told them anybody that didn’t know anymore about the Gospel of Jesus than that not only shouldn’t be an officer in the church, he shouldn’t be a member of it. I had to put them out.’”

“I said, ‘Did you have to put anybody else out?’ ‘Well, I preached awfully hard, and I finally preached them down to two. But,’ he said, ‘those two were committed. I made sure that any time after that, anybody who came into my church understood that they were giving their life to Jesus Christ and they were going to have to be serious about it. What you see here is a result of that.’”

“I thank God there was still one un-ruined preacher in the South who had no better sense than to preach the gospel. Maybe it was fortunate that some of our educators didn’t get hold of him. Now, I don’t mean to be putting emphasis upon the man’s ignorance. I don’t think that made any difference. I think it was the man’s faith that brought the power to his church. He was willing to couple a conviction with a way of action and take the consequences.” [Cotton Patch Sermons, The Substance of Faith, pp. 43-45].

This pastor also has the three essentials of true faith. 1) He has a word from God from Scripture – God is no respecter of persons. 2) He trusted God to take care of him as he made this word known. 3) He acted and acted boldly even when things were difficult.

And God blessed him with a new community that reflects the kingdom of God – people that cannot get along in the world – do get along in the kingdom, for we are all one in Christ.

 

I hope that you will be encouraged by these stories so that in your life circumstances you can be bold and have faith as well when God speaks to you.

William Higgins

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Today is Palm Sunday, the day that Jesus entered into Jerusalem. And it marks the beginning of holy week.

We are going to look at a story from the Gospel of Mark, sometimes called the widow’s mite, or we can call it the widow’s offering. This story is a part of the holy week drama. It is Jesus’ last public appearance in Jerusalem as a free man, a few days before he’s killed. And this is a story that will challenge some common assumptions that we have about giving.

I would like to acknowledge the middle school Sunday school class who studied this passage with me for the last few weeks and helped me with this message.

Alright let’s break down the –

The Story

v. 41 – “And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box.”  The “he” is Jesus. And he is in the Temple complex.

“The treasury” probably refers to one of the 13 trumpet shaped chests that were used to collect offerings (not a building; see also John 8:20). The box would have a trumpet shaped opening to receive the offerings. (Something like an old gramophone?) It’s called “the offering box” later in our verse.

These offerings were most likely free will offerings given for sacrifices and the upkeep of the Temple.

This scene took place in the court of women, or the outer precinct of the Temple complex. Jesus was in this area sitting and watching. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I like to sit in the Mall and watch people. And like a mall, there would have been crowds in this place moving about, doing various things.

In v. 41 it says literally that the people were “throwing” their offerings in the box. And this would have made noise as the coins went into the metal trumpet shaped opening of the chest. Maybe like the sound when you throw change into a toll booth receptacle.

vs. 41-42 – “Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.”

Jesus takes notice of the “rich” giving offerings. They were probably well dressed. And they put in a lot. He would have heard this by the sound made as they threw their coins in.

And then he notices “a poor widow.” Widows were typically poor. They relied on their children or charity for whatever they had. Her clothing would have reflected her poverty. She put in very little. Again, Jesus likely would have heard the slight sound of her offering.

How much did she give? The “two small copper coins” she gave were two Lepta. It was the smallest denomination of coins in Israel at this time.

  • Each Lepton = 1/64 of a denarius – or a day’s wage for a laborer.
  • Her two Lepta equaled one Roman penny.

Now admittedly it’s hard to do accurately, but to put it in our terms, based on the cost of bread then and now, if my math is right, she gave something like 8 US cents; eight of our pennies. In her day, she could have bought 1/3 of a loaf of bread. [A loaf of bread cost 8 Lepta. (1 loaf bread = 1 As; 4 quadrans = As; two Lepta = a quadrans). Today a loaf of bread is around $2.50.]

v. 43 – “And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.’”

The disciples were probably close, but Jesus is getting their attention. He wants them to take notice of the poor widow. She is an example to them.

The phrase, “Truly, I say to you,” or it can be translated, “Amen, I say to you,” is unique to Jesus. He uses it 13 times in Mark.

First of all, no other Jewish teacher used “amen” like this. When it was used, it was used the way we use it. The “Amen” came at the end of statements or prayers. It means “yes,” “that’s right,” “so be it” or “truly.” You are making the statement or the prayer your own when you say “amen.”

The whole phrase “truly, I say to you” means something like, this is really important! It’s a way of invoking divine authority. It’s like in the Old Testament when the prophet said, ‘Thus says the Lord,’ but it’s more direct and powerful.

And then Jesus says something that is quite amazing. He tells us that she put in more than all the others combined. How much did all the rich people put in? Thousands and thousands of dollars? She only put in 8 cents. But it was more than the thousands and thousands. How can this be? Jesus tells us in –

v. 44 – “’For they (the rich) all contributed out of their abundance, but she (the widow) out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’”

The contrast is clear. The rich gave out of their abundance. They gave much more in total, but it involved no sacrifice to them. They still had lots more left over. More for food. More for clothes. More for shelter. And good food, clothing and shelter at that.

She gave all she had. The repetition makes the point clear, “everything she had, all she had to live on.” Once she gave, she had nothing left for food, clothing or shelter; even lousy food, clothing or shelter.

[How does he know that this was “all she had to live on”? Not sure. He knew her; he asked her; supernatural knowledge; perhaps the attending priest asked her, “Is that all you have?” and Jesus heard this.]

Jesus teaches an important lesson here. It’s not how much you give that matters. It’s how much you keep that matters; how much you have left over after you give, that you keep for yourself.

The widow gave more because she gave sacrificially. In fact, she gave everything. She held nothing back from God. The others did not give sacrificially.

Now this widow is not just an example to the 12; she is an example to us. So let’s look at –

Some lessons for us

1. Our assumptions about giving are often wrong. In this story we have yet another example of how God’s ways are different than our ways. And how the coming of the kingdom turns things upside down from the way we naturally think.

When giving to the Lord, we think it’s all about how much you give. And we are quite impressed with people who give large gifts. We honor them and we name buildings after them. We say, wow, they gave more than anybody else!

But as we learned in this story it’s not how much you give, it’s whether you gave sacrificially. So when the person gives thousands of dollars to the church  out of their abundance – that’s great, don’t get me wrong – but the poor person who gives very little money, but gives sacrificially, has given more.

And, in contrast to our way of thinking, it is this one that Jesus takes special notice of and honors, just as in our story.

Connected to this we can ask 2. How generous are we? And what is your standard that you measure this by? Is it tithing or giving 10%?

Now there isn’t anything wrong with using the tithe as a guide. But if that is all we use we are missing the true Christian standard. We should measure our generosity by how much it costs us.

The problem is that most Christians don’t even tithe. Churchgoers give under 2.5% of their income (CT 2/11). So to tithe would be an act of faith for most.

But we can’t conform the teaching of Scripture to our failings; so that we lower the standard. We need to conform our behavior to God’s truth. The true test of generosity is giving sacrificially.

3. We can give sacrificially in other ways. Rightly understood, this woman foreshadows Jesus on the cross, a few days later. Just as she gave sacrificially, Jesus will give “everything he has.” He will do what this widow has done with his life.

This shows that this principle of giving sacrificially goes beyond just giving money. We can give sacrificially in many ways: our time, our homes in terms of hospitality, sharing other things we own, and our lives – serving God and possibly persecution or death.

Here are some examples mentioned in our Sunday School class:

  • Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. Even the son of promise. He held nothing back from God.
  • Steve Kimes, who has a ministry to the homeless and mentally ill, and who invites them to live with him. He and his family have given up much to minister to them – time, privacy, their home, their lives.
  • Gary and Denise Williamson, who have given six years of their lives to go and live in Africa in a different climate, and culture and without most of what we take for granted in our country. They left family and friends behind. And it has been hard at times.

Finally, is God calling you to give sacrificially to him? Your money, your time, your possessions, your life? What might God be calling you to?

William S. Higgins

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We are looking at a familiar passage today – 1 John 2:15-17. And we’re looking at its clear word to us – Don’t love the world.

Now these verses can stand on their own; you don’t have to  go through the whole letter of 1 John to make sense of them. And so I want us just to take these verses today and work at understanding what the message is here for us.

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

We begin by asking what “the world” means. It is used six times in our three verses.

Some background

In Greek the word is “Cosmos.” We use this transliteration in words like ‘cosmology’ or ‘cosmic’ or ‘the cosmos’ – as in the universe. It’s used 78 times in the Gospel of John and 23 times in 1 John, which is a lot.

It can mean several different things, but here are some that are more relevant to our passage, from the writings of John:

  • It can mean “the earth,” as in the natural world – John 11:9. Here Jesus talks about how the sun lights this world.
  • It can mean “the people” who live on the earth – John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son . . ..” Here it means all the people in the world.

But it can also have a very negative meaning, something like the world system that stands in opposition to God. This system is made up of people, spiritual powers, values, ideas, institutions and nations. And it promotes a way of life that is not submitted to God’s will or God’s values. And this is what we are dealing with in 1 John 2:15-17.

Here are some Scriptures that speak to this understanding of the world in John’s writings:

  • John tells us that, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” – 1 John 5:19.
  • It is a place of “darkness” and “evil” deeds – John 3:19.
  • Jesus said that, “the world does not know” God – John 17:25. It doesn’t understand God or have a relationship with God.
  • “The world . . . has hated” Jesus – John 15:18.
  • And as John says, “do not be surprised, sisters and brothers, that the world hates you” – 1 John 3:13.

As we see from these last verses, there is conflict between God and those who live by God’s values, and the world and those who live by its values. The world can take two different approaches. It can persecute Christians. Or more commonly in our context it seeks to lure us with what Scripture calls ‘the passing pleasures of sin’ (Hebrews 11:25). Either way it’s trying to get us to walk according to its values and not God’s.

Now let’s look at –

The world in 1 John 2:15-17

We get a bit more specificity here. That’s because, when John says in v. 15 – “Do not love the world . . .,” he also says “. . . or the things of the world.” And then in v. 16 he says more about what he means by the things of the world. “For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.”

So we have three things highlighted here. 1) the desires of the flesh. These are the desires that come from within us; our fallen humanity. Things like greed, wrongful sex, excessive food, excessive comfort, revenge, a desire to be popular, rebelliousness – whatever can come out of hearts that are not submitted to God.

Here are a couple of Scriptures that talk about the desires of the flesh with examples: 1 Peter 4:3 – “living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.” Galatians 5:19-21 – “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies . . ..”

When God is not giving us guidance, direction or a framework of values, we find it in these desires of our flesh.

2) the desires of the eyes. This refers to the same kinds of things. The difference is that these are the desires that come from what we see around us that tempts us. When God is not giving us guidance, direction or a framework of values, we find it in what we see in others in the world.

3) pride in possessions. This one is pretty specific. It has to do with our material possessions that we have accumulated. More broadly it has to do with our status in life. When God is not giving us guidance, direction or a framework of values, we find it in what wealth or social standing we have.

The world promotes all three of these. It tells us to follow these desires and goals. Because this is how you will find meaning; this is how you will be happy; this is how others will respect you.

What we’re talking about in all this is –

Worldliness

This isn’t a word you hear very much anymore. I was a part of what is called the ‘holiness movement’ for a while. The college I went to was a part of this tradition. And worldliness was a big topic. But frequently, as in other traditions (Mennonites), it meant doing things that stood outside of church culture. For instance going to a movie theater (even if it was a Billy Graham movie). Or a certain style of dress that was deemed unacceptable, even if it was modest. Or a certain kind of music that was different (usually louder).

But we trivialize the concept when we do this. Does not being worldly really mean just being a generation behind in styles, music and technology? Or stopping at a certain point in history and not moving forward anymore?

No. Worldliness has to do with values and attitudes and behaviors that go against God’s will. Things like we have seen already: sexual immorality, drunkenness, greed, and boasting in your possessions. You can listen to the right style of music, dress properly and still do these things!

Worldliness has to do with wrong values like craving power and control; always wanting to be better than others, or lording it over others (Mark 10:42-43). This is the goal of your life, instead of humbly serving others.

Also big in our society is seeking the praise of people. We are very concerned with what others think about us, but not too concerned with what God thinks of us, even though this is most important of all.

Another example from American culture is our worship of celebrity idols. We give them our offerings of money and time; we do what they say; we honor and worship them.

The world operates according to these values. And when we love these things; when we do them – we have been lured into worldliness.

Finally our verses speak to –

Why you shouldn’t love the world

There are two reasons. 1. Loving God and loving the world are mutually exclusive. John says this in v. 15 – “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” You’re not loving God if your loving the world. You can’t have both at the same time. That’s because the things of the world are a part of a system that opposes God. As John says in v. 16 – “For all that is in the world . . . (all that we have looked at) is not from the Father but is from the world.”

There is a conflict between God’s values and the values of the world. And let me say it again, when you choose to love the world, you show that you do not love God. You have forsaken God.

The great and fatal mistake of so many Christians is to not understand this. They think they can have both. And you cannot. You really do have to choose. One or the other. God or the world. If you try to have both, you have made your choice for the world, since God requires our complete commitment.

2. You will be doomed along with the world. John lays out a basic contrast in v. 17 – “And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

The world’s time is just about up. It doesn’t have a future. So if you make yourself a part of the world system that opposes God; if you follow its desires, you will perish with it in God’s judgment.

But here is the contrast – if you do God’s will; that is you love God and not the world, you will abide forever. There’s a future in this, even if it is hard now.

And that future is being a part of an eternal kingdom that will not pass away. It will remain forever. You will remain forever.

————–

So I encourage you to hear the message today – don’t love the world! Give yourself fully to God, to love God with all your heart. Don’t allow the world to lure you away and destroy your love of God and your hope for the future.

William Higgins

 

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We are back again in Mark 8:22-26, the story of the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida. Let’s read this to refresh our memoires.

“And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Do you see anything?’ And he looked up and said, ‘I see men, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. And he sent him to his home, saying, ‘Do not even enter the village.’”

Last week we saw a couple of interesting things about this story. First, this is one of three times that we have Jesus using spit to heal someone. Second, this is the only healing recorded in the gospels that takes two tries, or has two steps.

Today I want us to take another angle on this story. It’s one that is pointed out by many commentators, and I think there’s something to it.

To do this we need to understand how this story fits into the larger story that Mark is telling us about Jesus. So, first we look at the story right before ours –

The blindness of the disciples – Mark 8:14-21

This is where Jesus warns the disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. And the disciples think that he’s talking about them not bringing along enough bread.

Jesus gets frustrated. He asks, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? . . . And do you not remember?” – Mark 8:17-18. To even talk about a lack of bread betrays a deeper misunderstanding on their part. Not only do they not get his figurative use of bread, they haven’t gotten who Jesus is.

Jesus goes on ‘Don’t you remember the feeding of the 5,000, and the feeding of the 4,000?, and all the bread that was left over?’ ‘Why would I be concerned about a lack of bread?’

The disciples don’t understand that he is the one who can multiply bread. The fundamental issue Jesus is asking in all of these questions is this, ‘Don’t you know by now who I am?’ As he ends in Mark 8:21, “Do you not yet understand?”

And in the middle of all this, in v. 18, he calls this lack of understanding blindness and deafness. He says, “Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?” This is a common metaphor that we still use today. One who, figuratively, can’t see (or hear) lacks perception, or understanding. Jesus is saying, ‘You just don’t get it! You just can’t take it in, can you?’

Next, we look at the story just after ours, which I label –

Peter’s partial perception of who Jesus is – Mark 8:27-33

As they left Bethsaida they started on their way North to Caesarea Philippi. But the trip would eventually lead South to Jerusalem and the cross.

And so Jesus asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” – Mark 8:29.  Notice the same focus on the identity of Jesus in both stories. And finally, Peter gets it! He says, “You are the Christ” – Mark 8:29. All the clues and signs; healings, exorcisms and teaching. Perhaps he moved from a suspicion that this might be so, to a hope that it was true, now to a clear confession of faith, ‘You are the Messiah.’

Peter understands. He can see! And presumably the other disciples as well. But, right away we find out, that this vision is still quite blurry. (Remind you of our story??)

Just after Peter’s confession, Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed . . ..” – Mark 8:31. But Peter rebukes Jesus – 8:32. Don’t talk like that Jesus! That’s not who you’re supposed to be. You’re the Messiah. What do you mean suffering? What do you mean getting killed? No, no, no Jesus. The kingdom of God comes when the Messiah unveils his power and leads God’s people in triumph over all the nations, defeating them in war and ruling over them.

Peter understands partially, Jesus is the Messiah. But he doesn’t yet understand how Jesus is to be the Messiah. He doesn’t understand the cross.

So Jesus rebukes Peter – Mark 8:33. Be quiet! Your thinking is all messed up. Then he teaches that not only must he go to the cross, anyone who wants to be his disciple must take up their cross and lose their life – Mark 8:34-35.

Jesus is saying, the kingdom comes through the cross (and then the resurrection). It doesn’t come through earthly power, war and politics (which is why Jesus didn’t pursue these). It comes through lowliness, suffering love, and then trusting in God to come through for you. It comes through the cross and resurrection.

Peter sees partly, but his understanding is till fuzzy and blurred. He doesn’t get the part about the cross and suffering love being the way that the kingdom is brought into reality in this world.

Now, let’s look at –

The healing as a prophetic object lesson

Our story comes right between the two we have just looked at. And our story comes at the turning point of the gospel as a whole, where Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, and then where Jesus shifts and begins to teach them that he must suffer and die.

It comes right before we see that Peter needs two steps to understand who Jesus is:

  • Step one: Peter sees that Jesus is the Messiah, but he is confused about what this means, especially the cross. He is no longer blind but his vision is blurry, like the man in our story.
  • And then, after the resurrection, comes step two: He sees that Jesus had to die and then be resurrected to bring in the kingdom of God. It was then that he saw clearly, like the man in our story. After the second step.

I believe that Jesus may have used two steps to heal the blind man in our story to prophetically look forward to a similar process in his disciples’ understanding of his identity. So in answer to our question last week, ‘Why didn’t Jesus just heal him right away?’ It may have been intentional for this very reason. And they could look back on it and understand that he knew what was going on ahead of time.

And even if this is saying too much, that Jesus did this intentionally, I believe that Mark arranged his story in such a way that it highlights the symbolic nature of the healing of the blind man – to foreshadow the process of the disciples coming to an understand who Jesus is.

The prophetic object lesson is this – the disciples’ understanding of who he is will come in two stages. But also the message is there that Jesus is able to bring them to clear vision, just like with the blind man.

Alright, let’s apply this to us with some –

Lessons

In general we can say that we often move from blurry vision to clearer vision. We don’t fully understand everything about Jesus and the Christian life and so we need time. We are on a journey. And we have to grow and mature.

And, of course, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” Even our clearest vision in this life, will be made more clear when the kingdom comes in its fullness.

More specifically, I ask, ‘Is your vision of Jesus and the kingdom and the cross blurred?’ Oh sure, we know that Jesus had to die. We came into the picture thousands of years after he already did. But we often don’t understand how the cross works for us.

The same Jesus who said he had to go to the cross, also told us to take up our crosses. The same Jesus who was teaching Peter that the kingdom of God comes, not through worldly power, but by suffering love, also teaches us the same. Just as Jesus brought forth the kingdom through the cross, we are to advance the kingdom through the cross.

But most of us are like Peter. Most Christians are still in step one! Our vision is blurred; we are confused about all this cross stuff. We have a veiled and partial understanding of Jesus and the kingdom. But Jesus calls us to follow him, not to take a different path. We are also to expand Jesus’ kingdom by means of lowliness and suffering love, and then calling on God to come and act, just like Jesus did. We are to follow the same path. This is how the kingdom of God is made manifest in this world.

Finally, our story gives us hope, because in it we see that Jesus is able to cure our blindness. Just as he healed the blind man in two steps, he was able in two stages to show the disciples who he is, and how the kingdom works. He gave them clear vision.

And he can do the same for us. He is able! If we are open to it. He can deal with our blindness, and give us clear sight and understanding. Ask him to open your eyes!

William Higgins

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We’re talking about prayer again today. Last week we looked at fasting as a prayer amplifier. That is, a way of increasing the effectiveness of our prayers. In the words of Isaiah 58:4, a way of making our “voice to be heard on high.”

We saw how fasting makes our prayers more effective because it’s a way of humbling ourselves before God when we pray. And when we are lowly, we are closer to God; when we are truly humble, we gain God’s favor.

This week we look at almsgiving as a prayer amplifier. Let’s start with –

Some basics on alms

And we begin with the question what are “alms”? It’s not a common word today. It means giving aid to the poor and needy. The word comes from a Greek word whose root means “mercy” or “compassion.”

Isaiah 58:7 gives a good description of almsgiving. It means “to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; (and) when you see the naked, to cover him.”  Jesus gives a number of examples of alms in his teaching on the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:35-36. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

Alms in the Law. Giving to the poor was encouraged for individuals in the Law. For instance lending money to the needy (Deuteronomy 15:11). And these loans were forgiven every seven years, which means some of them became gifts.

But the Law also required alms of everyone at points. The third year tithes (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) were stored up and used to feed Levites, immigrants, orphans and widows. And harvest was left in the field (Leviticus 19:9) in order for the needy to gather it and have something to eat.

Alms in later Judaism grew in importance. Giving alms was considered second in importance only to study of the Law (or Scripture). It was considered greater than all other commandments. It even became Synonymous with the word “righteousness” it was so highly esteemed.

We are to give to the needy

If there might have been a question about fasting, there is no dispute about this. It is an expression of love for the person in need, and it is an expression of righteousness on our part.

Jesus taught about giving alms a lot. Here is just one example, “Sell your possessions and give alms” or give to the poor – Luke 12:33. He is saying, take of your excess and help those who don’t have enough.

Paul also taught giving alms, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” –  Galatians 6:10. ‘Doing good’ is another way to say helping the needy.

Jesus also practiced giving alms – John 13:29. As did Paul, as we see in the case of the Jerusalem offering for the poor in Jerusalem – 1 Corinthians 16:1-3.

There are a number of –

Scriptural promises

– connected to giving alms, and I want us to see some of these.

  • Proverbs 22:9 – “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.”
  • Proverbs 28:27 – “Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.”
  • Psalm 41:1 – “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him.”
  • Psalm 112:5 – “It is well with the one who deals generously and lends.”
  • Proverbs 14:21 – “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.”

Alms as a prayer amplifier

The connection of prayer and the giving alms to the blessings in these promises comes out in several places:

1. Matthew 6:2-5. Here alms are spoken of as a way of seeking the reward of God’s attention or favor. And in this passage it is linked to prayer and also fasting. This is, in fact, why these three things are grouped together by Jesus. Prayer is seeking God and giving alms and fasting are prayer amplifiers.

2. Isaiah 58. We looked at this last week because it also talks about fasting. v. 7 says if you give alms, that is, if you help the hungry, help the homeless and clothe the naked, then v. 9 says, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’” Your voice will, for sure, be heard on high by God – v. 4.

3. Acts 10. In this example of Cornelius the connection between alms and prayer comes out clearly. v. 2 says that Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.”

Then one day an angel came to him and said in v. 4 – “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” As Cornelius recounts this in v. 31 the angel said, “your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God.”

So God answered his prayers, sending Peter to him to preach the gospel. And this great favor came to him, in part, because of his almsgiving and prayer. As the verses say, your alms have been remembered. And so when he prayed God heard his prayers and blessed him.

Why do alms make our prayers more effective?

The basic idea is that when we give alms it pleases God very much; it gains God’s favor. There are several different ways of saying this:

1. Giving alms is lending to the Lord. And God will repay you, when you call out in your time of trouble. Proverbs 19:17 says, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”

2. Almsgiving is a sacrifice that gains God’s favor. The language in Acts 10 is sacrificial language, his alms “ascended as a memorial before God.” It is like a burnt offering in the Old Testament, the smoke of which went up into heaven before God.

Hebrews 13:16 uses similar imagery. It says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” After receiving a gift of alms, Paul says in Philippians 4:18-19 – “I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”

3. The prayers of the righteous carry more weight. James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” And almsgiving is very righteous. As we saw, often the word for alms was synonymous with the word for righteousness, the association was so close.

Let me end with a caution on giving alms from Jesus.

Beware of false seeking

In other words, don’t give alms in order to seek the attention of people; to show that you are spiritual or righteous. We always have a way of taking something good and then making it self-centered. And this is the case here.

Jesus said in Matthew 6:2 – “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Jesus is saying, they will get nothing from God because they already got what they wanted – the people’s attention.

Rather, Jesus says in Matthew 6:3-4 – “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

When we give to help others (besides showing love for the person in need) we are to focus on getting God’s attention alone; or pleasing God. And then God will see what we do in secret, and remember it. And when we call out in our time of need – our prayers will be amplified. The intensity of our concern will be fully conveyed to God for consideration. As I said last week, this doesn’t force God’s hand but it makes sure that we are heard and fully considered by God.

William Higgins

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