Surprising Streams in the Desert
Jesus Cleanses a Leper
As the parent of two children, I have had experience in recent years with the “five-second rule.” If a piece of food falls on the floor—assuming the floor looks reasonably clean—and if you can snatch it back up within five seconds (and if there is no dirt or lint obviously sticking to the food), it’s OK to eat it. In fact, recently a show on the Food Network did a scientific study to see if there is anything to this rule of thumb. They concluded that the rule holds up under a microscope pretty well!
Behind this rule is the general idea that touching or ingesting what is unclean is a bad idea. When you touch what is unclean, you become unclean (or sick) yourself. Nowhere was this fear of contamination more vivid in Jesus’ day than when confronting a leper. Leprosy was reviled and feared to the point of leading not only to physical uncleanness but also to ritual or spiritual impurity. Touch a leper, and even if you did not contract leprosy yourself, you’d be banished from worship, from the community, and from all other contact for a time.
Early in his gospel Mark shows us that Jesus reverses such conventional wisdom. When Jesus reaches out to touch the leper in Mark 1:41, not only does Jesus not become unclean, but the leper becomes clean and whole. The contagion of holiness that Jesus carries with him is stronger than any power of disease, sin, or evil in the world.
Earlier in Mark 1, immediately following his baptism, we see Jesus go out into the desert and take up residence “with the wild animals” (Mark 1:13). However, the mere presence of Jesus transforms the wilderness from a chaotic place of death into a place of Isaiah-like shalom (in which none of the wild beasts either harm or destroy Jesus). Now we see the same thing happening when faced with this unclean leper: where Jesus goes, shalom breaks out all over.
Because this leper cannot contain his joy and thus spreads the news all over the place, Jesus becomes a hot commodity and has to withdraw to what Scripture calls “lonely places.” In the Greek, however, that is literally “wilderness places,” invoking the biblical symbol of desolation, chaos, and evil. Yet even though Jesus was in the wilderness, Mark tells us that the people still flocked to him. And readers of Mark’s gospel just know that whatever desert wastes of spiritual loneliness, brokenness, or disease they carried with them to that desert place, they returned home from Jesus’ presence full of shalom and wholeness!
Call to Worship
To our world filled with brokenness and disease,
God brings healing!
To our world filled with loneliness and disappointment,
God brings joy!
People of God, shout for joy to the Lord.
Let us worship the Lord with gladness.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
His faithfulness continues through all generations.
Prayer of Confession
Savior God, who made the leper clean, wash us of our sins. We confess our tendency to focus on the sin of others instead of our own failures. Help us recognize the wrong we do and forgive us for the sins we commit so easily. Heal the brokenness within us and give us your wholeness. Make us holy as you are holy. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Hear the good news of our forgiveness from the prophet Isaiah: Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. Know that the wounds of Christ have made you whole!
“Jesus Heard with Deep Compassion” SNC 124
“Take Us As We Are, O God” SNC 125
“Christ Is Risen” SNC 147, PH 104
Jesus Heals a Paralyzed Man
Mark 2 is the first time in this gospel Jesus takes it upon himself to forgive sin. When the teachers of the law said that God alone may forgive sins, they were correct. After all, if you wrong me, I am in a position to forgive you. I am the wounded party and so I am, quite naturally, the one in a position to forgive. But if Mary does something nasty to Jill, what sense does it make for me to go to Mary and say, “I forgive you for what you did to Jill.” Surely Jill would not be terribly happy with me, but Mary might be confused too. “This has nothing to do with you,” she might say. Yet Jesus seemed to think that he could forgive any sin—whether or not it involved him personally. What does someone else’s sin have to do with Jesus?
We’ll get back to that. But first, let’s note another curiosity in Mark 2. After all, Jesus is sitting in a house clotted with those who are sick, lame, blind, deaf, and demon-possessed—each one clearly in need of healing and deliverance. Then, right in the middle of it all, as the crowd gapes in astonishment, yet another sick man is lowered through a freshly opened hole in the ceiling. It doesn’t require a genius to puzzle out what this paralyzed man needs. So what does Jesus do? He looks at the man and says, “Your sins are forgiven!” Not exactly what this man and his friends were looking for! As Neal Plantinga recently said, it’s a bit like bumping into a friend whose house has been wiped out by a tornado, and when your friend asks you for help, you hand her a Bible. It’s nice, but it doesn’t rebuild the house!
Jesus starts with forgiveness because in his mind forgiveness is the more pressing and powerful reality. He begins with the most stunning thing he has to offer: forgiveness. And when Jesus does get around to healing the man physically, he does it primarily to back up the far more difficult matter of declaring sins forgiven.
But to return to our earlier question: what business does Jesus have forgiving sins? The choice divides quickly into two options: either Jesus is a deluded God-pretender or Jesus is God. Because all sin ultimately offends God, only God is in a position to offer such blanket forgiveness. Mark 2 shows us both an act of forgiveness and an act of healing. Jesus asks, “Which is easier?” As it turns out, the healing is easier. Because before we are finished reading Mark, we’ll be at the foot of a cross that shows just how difficult this business of forgiveness really is. It is an act that only the one true Son of God could do.
(based on Psalm 86)
You, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you. There is none like you, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours. All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you and shall glorify your name, for you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God. Amen.
Prayer of Confession
Great healer, we confess that we are often distracted away from our sin. Sickness, economic problems, or busyness draws our attention so that we do not realize the depths of the pain we cause.
Teach us your way, O Lord, that we may walk in your truth; give us undivided hearts to revere your name.
For the times we have lost sight of our sin, we are sorry. For making our agenda more important than yours, forgive us, Lord.
Be gracious to us, O Lord. Hear our prayer; listen to our cry of supplication.
We confess our sins: the things we have thought, said, or done that we should not have as well as the things that we should have thought, said, or done but did not.
Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer us.
Turn to us and be gracious. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Hear the good news from the Psalms:
Our Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Jesus Christ has forgiven all our sins. He has set us free!
We give thanks to you, O Lord our God, with our whole heart. We will glorify your name forever, for great is your steadfast love for us.
“Lord, We Cry to You for Help” PsH 261
“Oh, I Know the Lord Laid His Hands on Me” PsH 367
“When Jesus the Healer” SNT 76, SFL 149, SWM120
“They Came with Faith to Seek the Lord” SNT 77
Jesus Feeds Five Thousand/Walks on Water/Heals the Sick
We’re back in the desert again. Back in the wilderness, a symbol in the Bible of the place of chaos and evil and death, the very place from which the cosmos needs deliverance. You might miss this just reading the average Bible translation. Three times Mark uses the Greek word for “desert,” yet the TNIV gives that word three different translations, describing the setting for this story as a “quiet place,” a “solitary place,” and a “remote place.” But that’s not right. It’s a wilderness place, a place of death. Mark casts a pall of death over this story, which is also why he throws in the sad and sordid account of John the Baptist’s death. There’s no obvious reason to tell that grim story at precisely this point in the narrative; Mark strategically places it here to remind us that ours is a wilderness-like world where even as great a figure as John the Baptist gets killed for the sorriest of reasons.
Once again we’re in the wilderness, and what does Jesus see? Sheep without a shepherd. So Jesus becomes their shepherd, feeding them first a feast of his Word and then a physical feast of miracle bread and fish. In a desert place shalom bursts out yet again. In a desert place of death, food abounds after all! Indeed, in Mark 6:39 we read the word “green” as Jesus directs the people to sit down “on the green grass.” Check your Bible concordance and you will discover that words like “green,” “red,” “brown,” and “yellow” are all but absent from the New Testament. But here, Mark’s gospel tells us not only that in this wilderness place there is grass, but that it is green grass.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Is there a more treasured passage from the Old Testament than its lyric twenty-third psalm? There are many things going on in Mark 6, but let’s not miss the most stunning thing of all: here Jesus is revealed definitively as the Messianic Great Shepherd of the Sheep. He is the One Ezekiel and Isaiah predicted, the One who would make the desert bloom; the One who would wipe out all the deadly features of the wilderness place this world has become because of sin.
Not long after this revelation, another miracle took place when Jesus calmed a storm that was threatening the disciples on the sea. Mark 6:52 tells us that the disciples were amazed Jesus could do this because “they had not understood about the loaves.” What did they not understand?
They didn’t understand who this Jesus was and is—the Lord of all Creation, the Christ, the ultimate Shepherd of shalom.
The implied question for us readers of Mark even today is, “Do you understand who Jesus really is?”
Call to Worship (from Psalm 95:1-7)
Reader 1: O come, let us sing to the Lord;
Reader 2: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Reader 1: Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
Reader 2: let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
All: For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.
Reader 1: In his hand are the depths of the earth;
Reader 2: the heights of the mountains are his also.
Reader 1: The sea is his, for he made it,
Reader 2: and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
Reader 1: O come, let us worship and bow down,
All: let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
Reader 2: For he is our God,
All: and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
Prayer of Confession
Great Shepherd, we confess that we have wandered away from you. Sometimes without intending to we leave your protection and stumble into the wilderness of sin. Other times we deliberately disobey you and fall into temptation. Forgive us, Lord. We confess too that we have not recognized and appreciated your constant provision for us. You give us everything, but we grumble about what we have, abuse our resources, and wish for more. Forgive us, Lord. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Hear the good news of forgiveness from 1 Peter:
Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.
Jesus, our Shepherd, became the Lamb of God, sacrificed for the complete forgiveness of our sins! Thanks be to God!
“Your Hands, O Lord, in Days of Old” PsH 363
“Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” PsH 361
“The King of Glory Comes” PsH 370, SFL 156, TH 240
“Psalm 147: Sing to God, with Joy” SNC 29
“They Came, a Milling Crowd” SNT 90
Jesus Heals the Syrophoenician Woman/Deaf Man
The twin healings at the end of Mark 7 include a bevy of oddities. In the first incident we seem to catch Jesus (of all people) in an un-Christlike moment as he seems to speak condescendingly to a non-Israelite. Then Jesus performs a healing, but he does so in a manner that seems more like some snake oil-peddling street magician than his more typical, straightforward style of healing. Taken together, these two scenes add rich texture to Mark’s portrait of Jesus and give us pause to wonder more deeply about who Jesus is.
Verse 24 tells us that Jesus, for some unexplained reason, wandered into the area of Tyre and Sidon. To most of Mark’s original readers, that was the equivalent of saying that Jesus had now entered Paganland—a kind of spiritual slum outside of any recognizably religious area. The disciples were probably nervous just being there. As though to confirm their nervous fears, almost immediately a shrill woman starts begging Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter. No doubt they all rolled their eyes and hoped Jesus would send her away. And at first it looks like Jesus is going to do so, making an analogy that renders this woman and all who are like her as “dogs.” The woman may or may not have been offended, but without missing a beat she says, “OK, so I’m a dog, but even the dogs get crumbs and leftovers from the table, don’t they?” Jesus then reverses course and sends her home with the promise that her daughter is now fine.
What’s going on here? Mark does not give us much time to ponder this before confronting us with yet another story with a few odd quirks. Jesus is confronted with a man who is deaf and mute. He swiftly heals him, but only after he whisks the man away from the spotlight provided by the larger crowd. In private, Jesus performs what can be described only as a bizarre ritual. He sticks his fingers in the man’s ears, spits, sighs, looks heavenward and says “Be opened!” Well, it works—but what’s with the odd song-and-dance routine?
Mark doesn’t spell it out for us. But maybe Mark 7 is a reminder that Jesus, as the God who is on the loose among us, is forever surprising. There is no small measure of mystery and even mystique about Jesus. He’s not under our control. To paraphrase something Frederick Buechner once said, we too often try to tame and domesticate Jesus, making him oh-so-predictable and, when you get right down to it, remarkably similar to the rest of us. We keep trying to remove the claws from the Lion of Judah to render him a nice little household tabby. Passages like this remind us that Jesus resists such neat and safe reductions. And just maybe the wild divine power that saves us is also what keeps Jesus endlessly interesting and surprising!
Call to Worship (from Psalm 96)
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.
We join to worship our amazing God!
Prayer of Confession
Most High God, we confess that we have tried to limit your power. We call you almighty, but we don’t always act like we believe it. We are sorry for trying to limit your provision to what we can understand. Forgive us for not expecting you to surprise us. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Hear this good news of forgiveness from Romans:
God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
Be comforted, surprised, and delighted by God’s love for us!
“You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd” SNC 182
“You Are Holy/Eres santo” SNC 20
“She Came to Jesus” SNT 78
For Children and Other Lovers of Stories
All four of these passages from Mark are narratives of miracle stories. As narratives they lend themselves to being told rather than read. For the children’s message or in place of the Scripture reading employ a storyteller from your congregation to tell the story for each week, helping to make the Scripture passage come alive for young and old. If possible have that person learn the passage by heart. For resources and samples search “Biblical Storytelling” on YouTube or the web.