And Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. – Mark 9:1-8

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Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ. January 2017

Can you imagine your most favorite place on earth? Now try describing it to someone who has never been there. Better yet, try describing it to a blind person. How would you describe it? Colors? Sounds? Smells? Textures? Tastes?

This is the challenge of explaining the rule and reign of God to someone: how do you describe it? What does it look like? What does it feel like? Is it compelling, or exciting, frightening, or desirable?

On the mountain of transfiguration we have a small clue. Jesus has told his disciples that there were some standing there who would not die before they had seen the rule and reign of God having come with power. Then six days later…

  • Jesus is transfigured – his clothes, appearance and being shines with unborrowed light.
  • Two Old Testament representatives (representing the Law and the Prophets, and notably having not died in the normal manner of man)  appear with him in the splendor of his glory.
  • Peter, James, and John see it all.
  • God announces that Peter (and any of us prone to speak at such holy moments) should shut up and listen to Jesus.
  • Then, in the end, there is only Jesus.

As I consider this event, I conclude that if you are to describe the rule and reign of God you would listen to Jesus, and try to exercise restraint of speech! Listening requires work, effort, intentionality, and concentration. It means putting aside distractions. It calls for us to wait until he speaks in a non-anxious manner, ready to learn and be shaped by him.

Listening to Jesus means that we see his words, teachings, and example as trumping all others. We may have heroes (Martin LutherAnsel Adams or Vivian Maier come to my mind). We may read other books, watch movies, or listen to various podcasts. But in the end, Jesus’ teachings takes precedence. He is the One whose presence, word, and being is the axis of all that is the rule and reign of God. Listen… to Jesus. We have precious few of his words (cf. John 20:30-31). But the few we have are precious: they bring light and life to the soul.

And 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, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:31-38

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This little hummingbird posed for me when we visited Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, AZ. January 2017

They say that there are no dumb questions. To a certain extent that is true. Often the dumb question we ask is something everyone in the room is wishing to have answered. There are also no unloaded questions. There certainly are, however, smart and insightful questions; good questions. A question well-crafted can reveal a need, an opportunity, a challenge, or a danger that needs to be surfaced.

Jesus asks a question the answer to which is vitally important to all people: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” He follows that with another question: “For what can a man give in return for his soul?” The answers to these two questions are of vital importance. These questions also reveal a dire need, and a grave possibility.

There will come a day of judgment. There will be a final balancing of the scales. We will all stand before the judgement seat of God and give an account of everything we have done in this life. It is possible to go through life, having it all, enjoying life’s privileges, joys, pleasures and every good thing, yet forfeiting our souls in the meantime. We can lose our souls in pursuit of worldly pleasure, ease, safety, security, and wellbeing. We can gain all those things yet not be alive or face a hopeless, godless, agony-filled eternity. We can have it all and take it with us to the grave only to burn in hell.

So what will a person give in exchange for his soul? Is it possible to face down the fact that to one extent or another we have all sold our souls for a bowlful of porridge, and embraced values to which we have sold our souls which will never sustain us beyond the grave, and rob us now of deeper joy and life. In short, we have all sinned. We have made ourselves little gods who rule and reign over pathetic fiefdoms of our own making. What will a man give in exchange for his soul? We sell them all too cheaply.

Thank God Jesus asked those questions. Thank God Jesus knew that in order to redeem us he would have to suffer and die at the hands of sinners. Thank God that he told Peter to get in his place. Thank God that he calls us to a higher life of sacrifice and service so that we can discover the depths of true abundant life that comes from God.

Jesus did not sell his soul for anyone of anything. He confronted his closest disciple brutally when he stood in the way of God’s plan. He gave his whole life for the sake of the Gospel. He has redeemed us by his suffering and death. He will come again on the Great Last Day to receive all who are his own into his eternal paradise, the joy and bliss of heaven. What good is it if we get everything right but that?

And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to Jesus a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23 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?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”

27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. – Mark 8:22-30

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New growth springs to live atop a cactus in the Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ. January 2017

C.S. Lewis offers this powerful analogy:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Not long ago I spoke with a man who was struggling with an addiction to alcohol. He rued his inability to tame the monster, and castigated himself because he would go to an AA meeting and hit the bar on the way home. Perhaps – in a profoundly mysterious way – he was too easily satisfied; too easily pleased. Maybe you can identify with that in a different area: Money, sex, gossip, fame, prestige, promotion: all these can offer a degree of satisfaction that is really only transitory. We can never get enough. Someone always has more. And we settle for running after these fleeting things as though they would satisfy us. They never will.

When Jesus heals the blind man, he does so in installments. At first, sequestering him, then spitting in his eyes, and finally placing his hands on him, only to bring about a partial healing. The blind man is honest enough not to be satisfied with seeing people who looked like trees. So comes installment two: Hands on the man’s eyes again. This time he is able to see clearly.

Not only does Jesus do this in installments, he asks the man about his sight. Jesus wants the man to experience the fullness of his healing touch. The man is willing to ask for all that Jesus can give – or at least not fake it as though he’s healed when he is really not.

I spoke to a man once who faked speaking in tongues because he was in a church that required that as testimony of true conversion. He was elated to be out from under that burden. Perhaps you believe you must put on a happy face in order to gain access into the fellowship of God’s people. We each have our masks: those things we use to look the part, to fake it until you make it.

Just as Jesus is not willing to let the blind man live in a limbo of half-healing, he calls us to ask ourselves: Am I settling for too little? Am I seeking the rule and reign of Jesus or a cheap imitation of it? Do I realize that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who has redeemed me from sin, death and the devil? Will I look beyond the immediate outward trappings of success, happiness, and piety for a deep and true relationship with the living God? Will I sit and make mud pies in the slums or accept Jesus’ offer of a holiday at the sea?

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. 12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” 13 And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.

14 Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”16 And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” – Mark 8:11-21

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Perhaps the photo of a cactus fence could be symbolic of our difficulty in grasping the fullness of who Jesus is, and understanding of what he was all about. (Photo taken at Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ, January 2017)

I am an intuitive person. That’s not bragging; there are as many downsides to being intuitive as there are benefits. When I’m right – when I get it – life, the world, and the deepest darkest mysteries make sense. When I don’t get it I’m lost. When I’m wrong about my intuitive conclusions it’s not pretty. And when I don’t get it (chemistry for example) I really don’t get it. Since I’m an intuitive person, a plethora of information and details will as easily confuse me as they will help me understand (did I say chemistry already?).

I’m not certain Jesus was asking the disciples to be intuitive on this occasion, but he certainly is disappointed – maybe even distressed – that they don’t understand who he is and what he is able to do. Jesus wasn’t concerned one whit about how much bread they had to eat. He could multiply the one loaf they had, and feed them all with fishnets full of leftovers! He was warning them against the influence (leaven) of the Pharisees.

Jesus knew that the danger of the Pharisees’ influence was not in their outward piety per se. The problem was that they used that to hide unbelieving hearts. They were worried more about what man thought than what God thought. The Pharisees considered Jesus to be a threat, not a blessing. They considered his ways a detriment to knowing and serving God rather than the way to God, the source of life and salvation, and the true expression of what it means to love God and neighbor.

Because of all that, and because they were so obviously religious and given to outward piety, their influence could easily make its way into the disciples’ thinking. The Pharisees were large and in charge. By contrast, Jesus was leading a ragtag band of fishermen a former taxcollector, and the like on a mission that was devoid of outward religious trappings on a mission to reveal the rule and reign of God. Wasn’t that to be seen in temple sacrifices and synagogue gatherings?

Jesus did not reject the religious rituals or sacrifices or offerings (cf. Luke 17:11-14, Matthew 17:24-27). It was his custom to go to synagogue (cf. Luke 4:16). But Jesus knew that such outward behavior was only part of true worship and discipleship. He realized that the disciples needed to be careful of the influence of those who would say that such outward piety was all that mattered.

The Pharisees’ request for a sign would never be satisfied. They refused to acknowledge Jesus for who he was. They were unwilling to repent and believe the Good News of the timely presence of the rule and reign of God in the person of Jesus. That understanding centers our hearts in Jesus 24/7. It enlivens our worship. It inspires acts of love and kindness. It gives us hope whatever challenges or difficulties we may face. It sustains us eternally. That understanding changes everything.

In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat.And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha. – Mark 8:1-10

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Flowers bloom in the desert at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AZ. January 2017

I heard a rather famous TV preacher speak about Jesus’ miracle of feeding the 5000 (cf. Mark 6:34-44) with the few fish and loaves. His take surprised me – both because I hadn’t expected him to discount the miraculous nature of Jesus’ miracle, and because I had never heard of it before. He said this was a miracle of sharing, not of abundant provision and miraculous multiplication. He suggested that in those days people had large robes and tunics in which they would carry a day’s food, and that when they saw the little boy share his lunch they were moved to do the same; out came their lunches and there was enough for everyone. Touching, yes. But nowhere near what Mark reports – either there in Mark 6 or here in the account of feeding 4000 people.

It strikes me that the people had been with Jesus for three days. Perhaps the crowd had been larger to begin and after a while had dwindled as people had to get back to their daily routines. It might have been that the crowd had grown over those three days. In any event, Jesus recognizes their presence for three days, the difficulty of sending them away without food (v. 3) – not only noting this, but having compassion for them. The word, (as pointed out yesterday by my colleague, Pastor Jeff Doria in his message about this event) for compassion in the Greek language is an onomatopoeia. Σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai) is the word translated as, “I have compassion,” is, in Jeff’s words, like the sound that is made if you take a pound of sausage and throw it onto the counter. It literally has to do with the turning of the guts – gut-wrenching you might say. Jesus not only noticed the plight of these people, he was moved in his being by their difficult situation.

His miracle is grounded in thanksgiving. He takes the available resources, gives thanks, and uses those resources to provide for the multitude. Did he give thanks for the opportunity to care for these people? Did he give thanks that he could call on the Father for his abundant provision? Did he give thanks for God’s care for all of our needs and his opportunity to be part of God’s providential and miraculous work in their lives? Did he give thanks for the needs of the people which would point them to God as their provider? Possibly all of these were the focus of his thanksgiving. We do know he gave thanks – a rather remarkable response to a challenging situation.

This is also a matter-of-fact event. No amazement of the people or the disciples is recorded. They don’t point out how he did all things well. They don’t want to come and make him king. They simply eat and are satisfied. He goes on his way, and they go theirs. Fed. Thankful (hopefully). Reminded of God’s daily provision.

I wonder if we take God’s compassion for granted. He not only sees our needs, but responds with compassion to us – most dramatically in sending Jesus to save us, and restore us to a living relationship with God, now and forever. We are called to thank God in all circumstances (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:18). That means whether we have plenty or find ourselves three days into a time of need, we are to recognize God’s goodness and thank him for his loving care and compassion. That’s what led God to act in our behalf in the first place – for which we can all give praise and thanks to God.

Then Jesus returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him.33 And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” – Mark 7:31-37

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Desert Botanical Garden | January 2017

It’s bad enough when people expect you to do more than you can actually do. That happens to me more frequently than I would like to admit. I’m afraid that some people overestimate my resources of wisdom, stamina, knowledge, power, or availability. There are those who know better, but many think I can do more than I think I can do! Worse yet, however, would be having others know accurately what you can do, and expecting you to do it – wherever, whenever, whatever else may be going on in your life.

That seems to be what is brewing for Jesus these days. There will come a time when he is unable to satisfy all the demands on his time, teaching, healing, confronting, and saving ministry. There will come a time when he lets nearly everyone down by his failure to act, and he will be abandoned to the mockery of soldiers, the scourging of their whips, the false-accusations of the Priests, and the sentence of death by crucifixion.

But not yet. In these days Jesus is healing. Whether it is a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, a woman with an issue of blood, or a deaf man who cannot speak, Jesus is showing the world just what he can do. His abilities are on public display here and the people praise him.

There are those moments when God shows up in bold relief. Prayers are answered. Diseases are healed. People are released from their spiritual dungeons. There are also those times when God doesn’t show up as we think he should. In those moments it is good to remember that Jesus has done all things well – including redeeming us, forgiving our sins, and saving us eternally. That is his greatest work, and we can rejoice in hope as we put our bodies and souls into his hands.

And from there Jesus arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden.25 But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. – Mark 7:24-30

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Photo taken at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. January 2017

You may remember Jezebel; the 9th century BC queen who incited her husband King Ahab to abandon the worship of Yahweh and encourage worship of the deities Baal and Asherah instead. Jezebel persecuted the prophets of Yahweh, and fabricated evidence of blasphemy against an innocent landowner who refused to sell his property to King Ahab, causing the landowner to be put to death. She made Elijah’s life miserable. She also happened to be from Sidon.

I have had a few Jezebels in my life – though thankfully none as notorious as Elijah’s nemesis. When my Jezebels come calling, I know I’m in for trouble. She offers sarcastic comments. She criticizes ruthlessly. She is hurtful and unkind. And she does all this with an attitude of superiority and self-righteousness. She definitely has made her mark in my heart and she decidedly does not enjoy “most favored person” status in my interpersonal relationship policy.

Thankfully Jesus’ interaction with this woman who comes from this same area near Sidon in Syrophoenicia is much more satisfying than Elijah’s encounter with her more notorious sister from another century. Nor did she treat Jesus so shamefully as Jezebel treated Elijah (cf. 1 Kings 19:1-3). Although people from that area of the world were considered to be the bitterest of the Jews’ enemies in Jesus’ day, the encounter recorded here points us to a better way of interacting with people of countercultural or ethnically diverse origin.

Grace and truth meet desperation and temerity. The woman brings all her brashness, intruding presumption, and petulant neediness to the Son of God. Jesus for his part counters with non-anxious truth and a gracious willingness to enter into a real conversation. Nothing contrived here! This is the real stuff of real relationships. Only Jesus doesn’t need forgiveness like any other two people do. Jesus offers the forgiveness we all need.

My problem is that I’m not as anxious to bring my Jezebel to Jesus. Bonhoeffer in Life Together,  says that the only way any of us can relate to one another is through the cross of Jesus. That’s because we are all sinners and we bring our own sin and self-centered desires into any relationship. That makes me wonder… am I someone else’s Jezebel? Probably. I’m thankful that Jesus is willing to take me on when I come demanding his attention. Just as he honored the Syrophoenician woman’s request in behalf of her daughter, he will honor all who realize we have no first right of privilege before him. Frankly, furthermore, his crumbs are far better than the finest of fare the world has to offer.