Restoration in the Wilderness

JBap

I heard a good joke today. Good by my standards, anyway, which not all who know my humor will wholly trust.

Question: “What do John the Baptist and Kermit the Frog have in common?”

Answer: “Well, besides their affinity for water, they both share a middle name of the.”

That made me think again about my boy JBap. (Yes, that’s what Raymond Brown really calls him.) As Words on the Word inches closer to its one-year anniversary, I am reproducing below some reflections I shared last summer on John the Baptist, the wilderness, and restoration:

From the wilderness comes restoration.

The wilderness for Israel was all too often a place of dissension and lack of trust in God’s promises.

Exodus 17:7 says, “Moses called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, on account of the quarreling of the children of Israel, and on account of their testing Yahweh, which they did by saying, ‘Is Yahweh in the midst of us or not?'” Massah means testing and Meribah means strife or quarreling. “Whining” would not be an inappropriate translation for Meribah. Psalm 78 (go here and scroll down to 78) details the repeated lack of faith Israel had in their delivering God.

(Disclaimer: I am not claiming I would have done better or have done better in wilderness settings.)

In the Gospels, however, Jesus redeems and transforms the wilderness experience on behalf of the entire people of God. In the New Testament Jesus serves as a stand-in for the people of God, both in the wilderness and on the cross.

One of Mark’s first καὶ εὐθὺς statements (“and immediately”) has Jesus going into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. But unlike the people of God in Exodus, Jesus did not sin when he was tempted to walk away from God and worship another. I once heard a preacher say that where Adam failed, where Israel failed, and where all humanity failed… Jesus succeeded on behalf of all people when he refused to listen to Satan in the wilderness.

The wilderness, isolated place that it is, connects with hope to the whole of salvation history. John the Baptist, the “voice of one crying in the wilderness,” hearkens back to Old Testament prophets that “prepare the way of the Lord.” John self-identifies as the prophet par excellence who prepares the way for Jesus. The wilderness may be lonely and despairing, but it is also the place to which Jesus comes.

As R.T. France writes, “The wilderness was a place of hope, of new beginnings…in the wilderness God’s people would again find their true destiny.”

From the wilderness comes restoration—even if it’s only the beginning of the process of restoration. Saint Mark’s first listeners/readers saw the wilderness motif immediately at the beginning of the Gospel (no birth narrative!), with John as prophet in the wilderness and with Jesus conquering Satan’s temptation in the wilderness. This alerted them that something significant was about to happen.

“Is God in our midst or not?”

I confess I’m too quick to ask that question with Israel when I find myself in a proverbial desert. But the desert wilderness is the exact place to which God saw fit to send John, preaching the good news of forgiveness and calling people to a baptism of repentance. The desert wilderness is the exact place to which God saw fit to drive Jesus, so that he could resist the devil’s temptations, beginning to win for us a victory we could never win for ourselves. God in Jesus restores what we have made “Massah” and “Meribah” by our lack of trust and rush to complain.

Next wilderness I come to, I’m going to try to ask myself… what restoration is on the other side of this?

Weekly Greekly Lectionary Confectionery

If your church uses a fixed Sunday lectionary, I found a great blog for you this week. Looking at the Greek (and English translation) of the Gospel reading each week, Left Behind and Loving It is a help to preachers (and parishioners) who want to explore the text in depth.

The Greek is there, but knowledge of it certainly isn’t required to make use of the site. Posts come early in the week, too–no “Saturday specials” here!

Jesus Makes a Pun in the Synagogue

Jesus Reads in Synagogue
Jesus makes a pun in Luke 4. I’m not the first one to notice this, but it stood out to me as I read my way through Luke 4:14-21 this past week. I’m preaching on the passage at my church tomorrow.

Jesus enters the synagogue at his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee and opens the Isaiah scroll to Isaiah 61. In the NIV, the Luke passage reads as follows:

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

But a few verses later (v. 24) Jesus tells the people, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” (They tried then to throw him off a cliff.)

The play on words Jesus uses is not readily evident in most translations, but Jesus uses the same word for favor (“year of the Lord’s favor“) as he does for accepted (“no prophet is accepted“). It’s a rare enough Greek word Luke uses, that I can only conclude it’s deliberate–this is the only passage in all the Gospels to use this word. (For Hellenophiles who read this blog, the word is δεκτός.)

The translations aren’t necessarily wrong to obscure the fact that it’s the same word in each verse. After all, context determines meaning, so even this same word carries different nuances the two times it’s used.

But the irony is that in this year of the Lord’s favor, which Jesus notes later in the passage begins “today,” even his hometown will not accept him. There is no acceptance (δεκτός) of this favor (δεκτός).

And before we rush to point backwards at the hard-heartedness of 1st century Nazareth, perhaps we easily enough realize those ways in which we fail to accept the favor that God would lavish on us. May Jesus give us sight where we do not see all that he comes to offer us.

Faith and healing in the Gospel of Mark: a brief reflection

Jesus healsFaith is closely connected with healing in Mark. Jesus heals the paralytic on the basis of the faith of his friends (and of the paralytic himself, too?) in 2:5. Mark 5:34, 7:29, 10:52 feature similar healings where the faith of the healed seems to be at least a partial basis for Jesus’ healing.

At the same time, Jesus shows his frustration with lack of faith. He exhorts his disciples in 4:40 after he calms the storm, since they are afraid and not showing faith. In 6:6 and 9:19 Jesus expresses disapproval of the crowd who does not have faith in him. And in Mark 11:22 Jesus tells the disciples, “Have faith in God” (or, “Have the faith of God,” ἔχετε πίστιν θεοῦ).

Causation in general is difficult to prove, and although some hold that Mark 6:5-6 say that lack of faith limits Jesus’ power, one should be careful not to conclude from Mark that if someone is physically sick or mentally ill, it is just because that person does not have enough faith. At the same time it is clear that in Mark Jesus heals those who have faith. Mark seems to convey that Jesus’ act of healing is at least in some sense related to their faith, if not a direct result of it.

Robert A. Guelich, in his commentary on Mark, writes, “Faith represented the critical link in one’s relationship with Jesus” (312-3). And, “although Mark does not actually define ‘faith,’…it meant much more than being impressed with Jesus’ words and deeds in view of his modest family background. …To those who came to him in faith seeking help…, he responded by meeting their need” (313).

Just as Jesus tells the disciples (as noted above) to “have faith,” he says in Mark 9:23, “All things are possible for the one who believes.” The father of the boy with an evil spirit says, “I believe (πιστεύω), help my unbelief (ἀπιστία)!”

Mark’s Gospel finally reaches a Christological culmination in the profound profession of faith by the centurion in chapter 15, who declares Jesus to be truly the “Son of God.” Such faith!

Amazed by Jesus

Amazement is a common crowd reaction to Jesus’ teaching and to his miraculous powers of healing and exorcism in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark uses the Greek words ἐκπλήσσω, θαμβέω, ἐξίστημιθαυμάζω to depict others’ amazement at Jesus. In Mark 1:22 the people are “amazed by his teaching.” In 1:27, they reiterate their amazement at his teaching and at his command of unclean spirits. 2:12 shows the people amazed at the healing of the paralytic. In 5:20, “All were amazed” (πάντες ἐθαύμαζον) after Jesus healed the Gerasene Demoniac. 6:2 shows the people amazed again at his teaching.

Then in 6:6, whereas the subject of the verb “amaze” has been the people, Jesus is amazed (ἐθαύμαζεν) on account of the lack of faith (ἀπιστία) of the people. The prior verse has said, “And he could not do any miracle there, except to lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them” (AKJV). This is odd. Just as Jesus’ miracles lead to amazement, now his lack of miracles in 6:5 lead to a lack of belief on the part of the people, and this leads to Jesus’ amazement at the people’s lack of faith.

In 6:51 the disciples are amazed at Jesus’ walking on the water, and in 10:24 and 10:26 at his pronouncement that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. In 7:37 the crowd has gone back to being amazed at Jesus’ curing of a deaf man. In 11:18 and 12:17 they stand amazed (ἐξεπλήσσετο) at his teaching.

In 15:5 there is a new subject who is amazed: Pilate is amazed at the lack of a reply from Jesus in his own defense at his trial.

The theme of amazement is significant in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus in Mark is the divine Son of God who has authority to teach, heal the sick, and cast out demons. Because of this the crowds and his disciples are amazed. (Except in 6:5-6, where they are not.) And yet Jesus is not the political Roman empire-conquering Messiah that many Jewish people expected, so there is amazement even on Pilate’s part in 15:5 when Jesus does not respond.

Though no “amazing” words are used, the centurion in Mark 15:39 seems to have the final word of amazement in the Gospel. Having watched Jesus die, he utters in astonishment, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

Why did Jesus tell the disciples not to tell anyone about him?

Why did Jesus sometimes tell people not to tell others about who he was, or about how he healed them? This passage from Mark 8:27-30 (NIV) looks almost anti-evangelistic:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

This hard-to-understand aspect of Jesus’ ministry is often called the “messianic secret.” I.e., Jesus wanted his messiah-ness kept secret (at times). As the Handbook on Biblical Criticism (4th ed.) puts it, the “Messianic Secret refers to a discernible phenomenon in the Gospels, most especially in the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus explicitly conceals his messianic character and power until the closing period of his ministry” (124).

The messianic secret is not an attempt on the part of Jesus to keep people from knowing, believing in, and following him. But Jesus did seem to be careful throughout the Gospel of Mark to keep his identity as divine Son of God/Messiah from spreading. There are at least two reasons for this that I can see.

First, though Jesus is identified early in the Gospels as a miraculous healer and exorcist, early in his ministry is not yet time for his identity to be revealed. The fullness of time has simply not come. Perhaps Jesus had certain ministry objectives that needed to be accomplished before his crucifixion? He knew, either way, that as his fame spread, he would be tried and crucified for it. But this could only happen in due time.

Second, Jesus may have been cautious that a misunderstanding of the title “Messiah” would result if people were to say things like, “Here is the Messiah!” He was not the military insurrectionist and ruler than many Jews were expecting (I wrote more about this here), and he wanted to prevent title confusion, I suspect. So he often warned the evil spirits and those who received healing (and, as above, even the disciples!) not to tell anyone about him.

Even with those explanations in view, I still find the “messianic secret” difficult to understand. But perhaps this is because I am like Peter, in Mark 8:33, who all too often has in mind the things “of humanity” rather than “of God.” The messianic secret remains, at least to me, something of a mystery.

frameworks (How to Navigate the New Testament): a review

Why the book frameworks? Author Eric Larson says,

frameworks, quite simply, is a book about Bible navigation and context, material that’s designed to build your confidence in your ability to negotiate the text and understand it. Think of it as a guidebook, a Bible companion, written for anyone who would like to have a personal biblical tour guide. This book can be used for self-study, in small group discussions or in classrooms to set the context for Bible reading and to lead you through it.

The emphasis in the book is on presentation and memorability. Larson uses rich and beautiful imagery (and “lots of refreshing white space”) to create a book that has a good home on a coffee/display table. Yet he doesn’t neglect solid content around each biblical book, either.

The introduction is short and sweet and covers essential territory like who the writers were, literary divisions of the book, and an especially helpful 7-part “Navigating Jesus’ Ministry” section with simple maps and narrative highlights. After an introduction to the New Testament in general, each book of the New Testament has these 10 sections: introduction, theme, purpose, outline, verses to note in that book (the best part of frameworks, I thought), navigation (a page of things to look for when reading a book-well done), unique things about that book, recap, questions, and a verse to apply right now.

There is a sample pdf of the table of contents and introduction here.

Charts, tables, photographs and other graphics are a strong point of this book. Some are as simple as this historical timeline, which is visually appealing:

Or take this visual outline of the book of Luke, from p. 92 of the book (and posted on the author’s blog):

(The spelling error in ascension is corrected in the book.)

This book will answer many questions people had about the New Testament but were afraid to ask–one of its intended purposes. For example, in Larson’s introduction to the Gospels (“Biographies of Christ”), he writes about the “four living creatures” that many have understood to represent the Gospels. (Lion, Ox, Man, Eagle.)

I’ve always seen Mark associated with the lion, but Larson has the lion with Matthew, the ox with Mark, the man with Luke, and the eagle with John. He notes that this is the order of the four living creatures in Revelation 4:6-7. But the order as it appears in Ezekiel 1:1-14 is what I’ve seen more typically, where it’s human, lion, ox, and eagle. I understand that Christian tradition varies here a bit.

This is not a huge deal, but it is indicative of a larger trend in the book–nuance seems to be prioritized at times less highly then presentation. Larson’s laudable goal is to engage “anyone who would like to have a personal biblical tour guide.” It’s about “navigation and context,” but readers will still want to look elsewhere for greater detail and clarification on some matters.

As far as a New Testament framework goes, Larson’s 4-1-9-4-8-1 scheme did not immediately strike me as easily memorable. He divides the NT this way:

  • 4 biographies of Christ
  • 1 history book (Acts)
  • 9 letters of Paul to the churches
  • 4 letters of Paul to people
  • 8 general letters
  • 1 book of prophecy (Revelation)

This is less memorable than the 4-1-21-1! chant I’ve used with young people. (See the pdf of it here, from Center for Youth Studies.) Larson’s 4-1-9-4-8-1 does have the advantage of dividing up the 21 letters/epistles into their types/authors, but as much as I wanted to latch on to 4-1-9-4-8-1, I never quite did. This is not too say it’s a bad thing to use; it is to say a reader might not pick it up as easily as some other NT “frameworks.”

One other critique I offer is that, although I appreciate the approach of using visual imagery and stories and examples rooted in culture to try to connect the ancient text to today, sometimes the connections feel a bit stretched. For example, the photograph accompanying the “history” title page (for the book of Acts) is an unfinished attic with a sawhorse in it and a window with light coming through. It’s a beautiful image. But what’s it trying to evoke? The upper room? The light as the Holy Spirit? Okay, but why the sawhorse? Other such images left me curious as to why they were selected, or how they were meant to visually reinforce the author’s text.

Similarly, while the story about Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller to begin the book of James is itself inspirational, its application to James and his audience sure felt reach-y. That James’s “self-indulged spiritual children” were “behaving badly and desperately need a spanking” is an odd way, indeed, to describe things! James would have never “spanked” his listeners. I know the author doesn’t mean that literally, but that image was distracting. I often found myself reacting this way in the introductions to each of the books.

Everything after a book’s introduction is generally solid–and creative. In Mark, for example, Larson has a selection of verses from that Gospel that he has the reader “read…without stopping to take a breath.” He puts in bold words like “at once,” “quickly,” and “immediately” (a favorite of Mark’s). Then he concludes, “If you feel out of breath, congratulations. Mark has succeeded in brining you into his fast moving narrative.” I thought this was a great way to draw the reader into the fast-paced action movie that Mark often feels like.

I like the approach to this New Testament introduction; it’s creative and will reach a larger audience then some less visually-oriented books on the same subject. The short descriptions of each book are generally solid, but the occasional lack of nuance and informal tone distracted me at times as I worked my way through the book. (In other words, as with any book, this one should be read critically.)

Yet I do think Larson’s efforts will guide the reader into deeper engagement with the biblical text. His emphasis on what to look for in a book, pulling out and quoting specific verses, and his constant admonition to “Read It!” are refreshing. He even gives an estimate for how long it takes to read through a book at a casual pace, which is an enormous aid to anyone who will commit to sitting down and doing reading through God’s Word.

I received a free copy of frameworks for review purposes. Thank you to the author and publicist for the chance to review it.