“Jesus departed with His disciples to the sea, and a large crowd followed from Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and around Tyre and Sidon. The large crowd came to Him because they heard about everything He was doing. Then He told His disciples to have a small boat ready for Him, so the crowd would not crush Him. Since He had healed many, all who had diseases were pressing toward Him to touch Him. Whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, those possessed fell down before Him and cried out, “You are the Son of God! ” And He would strongly warn them not to make Him known.” (Mark 3:7-12 HCSB)
I’m native to Oklahoma and while I have deep familial roots that go back to the east coast and the sea, my feet are firmly planted in the red clay of this landlocked state. As I have researched my family history though, I have found the record of my grandparents and my dad (he was just born) in the 1930 census data and my grandfather was listed as a “fish cutter” for his occupation. I suspect that meant that he worked the fishing piers of Boston Harbor and processed the daily catch of fish preparing them for market. He may have worked the docks, but I suspect he also knew how to read the signs that indicated the weather might be taking a turn and things might get a bit stormy. In Oklahoma, we may not be able to watch the tides or look out across the waves and see an approaching storm, but we know what a thunderstorm looks like on the horizon and how to watch for super cells, wall clouds, circulation and early signs that a tornado might be on the ground. It just comes with the territory.
Of course, we are in the midst of tornado season in Oklahoma and anyone who has lived in this area for more than a year knows that you learn to keep an eye on the weather forecast and the southwestern horizon, especially in the late spring. Storms that tend to produce tornados must have the right atmospheric conditions and tend to come out of the southwest moving to the northeast and can develop rapidly but also dissipate just as rapidly. In the past, you would get very little warning of an approaching tornado but with modern technology and weather models we are able to know when the conditions are optimal to produce these types of storms. But even with all of our technological advances and warning systems we still get some surprises, don’t we?
This week’s focal passage, at first glance, might seem a bit common and nondescript. Nothing much in this passage that stands out and catches your attention. It almost seems like a bit of “housekeeping” for Mark as he relates the story. Is he just setting the stage for later stories? Is this just preliminary data as he prepares to tell us about Jesus setting aside The Twelve Apostles in the next paragraph? You might think so, if you quickly skim these verses and rush past them without noticing a few things. But if you slow down, let the details settle in and roll around in your thoughts for a few moments, maybe there’s a little more there. Maybe…
Mark begins by telling us that Jesus “departed” and returned to the sea with His disciples. Remember, the last several stories have focused on growing opposition from the religious establishment, the Pharisees and the scribes, and now includes some political opposition from the Herodians. As Jesus moves back towards the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum, it appears He may be wanting to retreat back into the wilderness and away from the crowds and opposition to prepare His disciples for the days ahead. However, word has gotten out and the crowds are growing and beginning to follow Him wherever He goes.
Most pastors that I know would read this passage and see success. Word about Jesus and His miracles HAS spread and the crowd is growing. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? To be honest, just this past week I looked out over the empty pews in my church and lamented how empty they were compared to the previous week, Easter. Our Easter attendance was the largest attendance we’ve had in several years. Of course, that includes two years of Covid virtual attendance for many and the subsequent loss of several families from our church for various reasons. For modern pastors, small crowds can be not only discouraging but downright disheartening. However, there was one trend coming out of Covid that I found very, very encouraging… most churches didn’t struggle financially during Covid and many saw an increase in giving. It seems that when things got hard faithful disciples stepped up and met the challenge.
Notice that Mark tells us where the crowds came from and why they came: Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and around Tyre and Sidon. They came because they were hearing about everything He was doing. Given the previous stories Mark has just told us, we can assume this included the miracles of healing as well as the challenges to the Pharisees and scribes regarding their Sabbath rules and regulations. The people felt oppressed by the Romans, but they also felt oppressed by their economic conditions, the incessant taxation, their poor health conditions and the crippling diseases as well as the oppressive rules that their religious leaders were laying upon them. When hope appears on the horizon crowds of oppressed people will always gather, reaching for, grasping onto and clinging to that hope.
“But when the right time finally came, God sent his own Son. He came as the son of a human mother and lived under the Jewish Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might become God’s children.” (Galatians 4:4-5 GNTD)
So, am I saying that Jesus didn’t want the crowds? No, not really but you need to notice the intent of the crowd. It isn’t implicitly stated, but it is strongly implied: He told the disciples to have a small boat ready so the crowd would not crush Him and all who had diseases were pressing toward Him to touch Him. This was less about what He was teaching them and telling them about the Kingdom of God in their midst and more about what they could elicit from Him – physical healing. We shouldn’t be surprised by this because it is exactly the same, today. Don’t misunderstand me, here. The message of the Gospel addresses the complete restoration and transformation of man, but not the way we might expect. Let me try and illustrate my point by referencing another Biblical story you probably know…
In John 11, we are told about a man from Bethany named Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, who was extremely sick. When Jesus is informed of Lazarus’ condition, He responds by telling them that “this sickness will not end in death” but it is for God’s glory and so that He, the Son of God, may be glorified through it. Jesus then delays his journey to Bethany by two days, knowing full well that Lazarus is very sick and even that he had died (or was sleeping, see Jn. 11:11). When He arrives he is confronted by Martha as she says, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus then tells her, “Your brother will rise again.” She responds, “Yes, I know at the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus replies, I am the resurrection and the life. If one believes in Me, even if he dies, he will live and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die – ever. Do you believe this?” This same scene is repeated with Mary, Jesus weeps, Jesus approaches the tomb, tells them to remove the stone, Martha protests because by now he “stinketh” or has begun to decompose, Jesus says, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you’d see God’s glory?”; He then commands, “Lazarus, come out!” and Lazarus is raised from the dead.
Ok! Wow! Incredible and exhilarating, right? But go back and read my synopsis slowly or go to John 11 and read it directly for yourself. Now stop, let these words sink in: “everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die – ever!” Ever? Maybe I need to read that, again. I can only see those three possibilities: 1) He is not the Son of God and is incapable of fulfilling His promise and everything we believe is false; 2) we don’t fully believe and, thus, don’t see its literal fulfillment; 3) or we simply misunderstand His intent and meaning. Which is it?
Several years ago, I was asked by a senior administrator at the University where I worked about why technology always breaks or fails. The question struck me as odd coming from him, in particular, because his educational background was in theology. His question is really no different than the age old question posed against the existence of God: If a good God exists then why is there evil in the world? Simply put, because that good God gave us free will and minds that can reason and think and wills that can choose to love or hate. Because you and I have the ability to make choices then we have the ability to choose whether we obey or rebel, whether we listen or ignore, whether we follow Him or stray off, whether we love or hate. We’ve been given that ability to choose but we often choose poorly. (I’m trying really hard to resist the urge to cite a favorite movie, here.)
Why do we make the choices we do? Why do we focus on the physical when we know it never lasts? Some might respond, because that’s all we’ve ever known or all that’s all that exists. Every culture on this planet looks beyond itself to the unknown, to those things beyond themselves. C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, uses a very simple but effective method of bringing this “other” reality into focus. At least, it does for me. We live in a world in which you can only move in one of three directions, left or right, backwards or forwards, up or down. Every other direction is a combination of these three “dimensions” or planes in space. For example, with one dimension you can have a line or multiple lines but they will always be parallel. With two dimensions you can take lines and they can intersect and form angles and shapes like a square, a circle, or a triangle. However, when there’s a third dimension then you can begin to give the lines depth and structure, like a cube. As you add these dimensions, you don’t leave the other dimensions behind but they become a part of the whole.
While Lewis used this example as a way of illustrating the idea of the Triune God, I’d like to borrow it and use it as a means of illustrating Jesus teaching in our focal passage. In a life lived with a single dimension then life and existence is all about me. That’s a bit childish, but lots of folks get to this dimension and stay. Add another dimension and life becomes a bit broader and includes me, and those I love and care about and occasionally, mankind in general. That’s where most folks find themselves, today. They’ve moved beyond the selfish mentality of a two year old and are willing to see that life is really bigger than just themselves and it might be big enough to include all human beings and the physical universe. Maybe even aliens, if they exist – just sayin. But seriously, I wouldn’t say this but others would definitely say this. Some even go so far as to add a spiritual dimension to life. This has become quite common in the last few years as people admit there’s a dimension to life that may not be physical and that they don’t really understand. I believe that what Jesus is telling us is far beyond just an unseen, spiritual dimension to life.
So, consider what happens if you add a dimension that is outside of our understanding or concept of human life. You might think that we’ve wandered far, far away from our focal passage in Mark. But if you’ll recall, a large crowd had come to touch Jesus because they had heard about everything He was doing. Mark tells us, “since He had healed many, all who had diseases were pressing toward Him to touch Him.” They were laser focused on their physical needs and, it seems, a little oblivious to their greater need… a need for a restored relationship with God and life as it is meant to be. As Jesus said, “I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10B HCSB) Jesus had come to bring the Kingdom of God to man but non-believers tend to think of that only in terms of and improved social existence and the eradication of injustice, poverty and hunger while believers tend to think of it only in terms of “life after death” or eternal life. It isn’t an “either or” scenario or even a “both and” scenario but more of a “both and” and SO much more scenario.
What’s happened is that our culture has latched onto the social revolution and the human justice/equality part of the equation and believers have latched onto the spiritual existence, relationship and eternality of the equation. But we really, really need to firmly grasp the reality that the “abundant life” Jesus promised and the Kingdom of God are a single, unified existence. In other words, what our culture seeks and desires is not possible without the Kingdom of God (the rule and reign of God in man’s life) and the Kingdom of God is not complete without the transformation of our culture and existence. As Christians, we’ve not been called to abandon this existence but to transform it with the love of God and the power of His Spirit.
You see, I’m not saying these folks in Mark’s story who were pressing in to touch Jesus were mistaken or foolish. Not at all. They were just nearsighted. They were just so focused on their current pain and their most pressing physical need that they were overlooking the root cause of their misery – their alienation from a Holy God by sin. They were pressing in to touch Jesus in an effort to be healed of their physical pain all while overlooking the fact that they were in the very presence of God Almighty. Do you think the realization of that fact would have changed their perspective and their request?
But in a similar way, Christians are often so farsighted and staring distantly into the hope of the “sweet by and by” that we don’t see the pain and injustices our neighbors are feeling in the “here and now.” The church has been challenged by Christ to bridge this gap by “ministering” to the needs of people we meet while sharing the Good News of Jesus with them. Yes, feed them a meal while you share the transforming power of Jesus with them. Assist them out of homelessness while you tell them about an eternal home they can share with Jesus and fellow believers. Give them hope for today while tell them how to have hope for eternity.
I want you to notice something very interesting… “Whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, those possessed fell down before Him and cried out, “You are the Son of God!” I believe this is a glimpse into the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “By Myself I have sworn; Truth has gone from My mouth, a word that will not be revoked: Every knee will bow to Me, every tongue will swear allegiance.” (Isaiah 45:23 HCSB) Also, it is a foreshadowing of Paul’s words: “For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth — and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11 HCSB)
I’m going to get very direct and very clear in what I say next. I don’t want there to be any confusion or misunderstanding in your mind. When these unclean spirits and those they possessed were confronted by the power and authority of the Son of God they fell before Him, acknowledging Him as the Son of God. Today, you have a choice. You can live life with a focus on those most pressing physical needs you have and completely overlook the fact that God is standing in front of you or you can look beyond those things and recognize that God wants you to know Him, experience His love, His grace and His forgiveness.
Some of you believe, but you’ve never surrendered. It is time to surrender to His lordship. Stop being so nearsighted and focused only on your immediate needs while completely missing the Son of God who can transform your life. Let Him take control and you’ll never regret it, I promise. If that describes you, surrender to Him right now. Let me know, I want to encourage you and pray for you.
Some of you believe and have surrendered to Him but you are so focused on heaven you are of no earthly good. You are so farsighted you are blind to the needs of the people in front of you. If that describes you, go read James 2 because your faith has no life in it. It’s dead. No, I’m not saying you’re saved by what you do but I am saying that if you are saved then your faith will be expressed in loving obedience to Christ.
I started this post by talking about the weather in Oklahoma. As I write these closing words we have been placed under a tornado watch. Don’t worry, it happens regularly. It just means that the conditions are favorable for a tornado if a storm develops. Those of us who live in this environment know that means keep doing what we’re doing but keep an eye on the weather. Around here, we call it being “weather aware.” Spiritually speaking, you need to be God aware. Living life while seeking God: “Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8 HCSB)
C.S. Lewis put it like this: No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”