Just like yesterday, we find Mark using the wonderful literary technique called “the sandwich”.  He puts a story in the middle of another story, splitting it in half, because the middle story helps us interpret the outer one.  We see this again and again in both Mark and Luke, and today’s reading is no different.

Beginning with the Triumphal Entry as the first half of the story, Mark then inserts the cursing of the fig tree, and then completes the sandwich with the clearing of the temple.  So first the easy question: why are the Triumphal Entry and the Cleansing of the Temple the same story?

In Old Testament prophecy about the coming of the Messiah, everyone knew that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem as a king and then go straight to the temple to bring reform.  This Jesus did, but in a very different way than expected as was His custom.  He rides in not as a conquering hero but as a humble ruler, riding a donkey and hearing passages from Ps. 118: “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  He then travels to the temple and drives out the money-changers who were cheating their customers and making it impossible for the Gentiles who were in that part of the temple courtyard to worship.  Reform indeed.

So the second question is this:  How does the cursing of the fig tree interpret the other story?  As we see in the rest of scripture where fruit is used as a metaphor for obedience, bearing fruit means faithfulness and barrenness of fruit means faithlessness.  Jesus rides in to the shouts of a crowd who would a week later shout for His crucifixion: fruitless followers.  He then goes in to cleanse the temple: fruitless priests.  And the section concludes with the head honchos of the day seeking to kill Jesus: fruitless leaders.  As He nears the crucifixion, Jesus identifies the primary problem with humankind: fruitlessness.

What fruit are you bearing?  How much fruit do you bear in your life?  Take some time today to praise God for that fruit and to ask Him to bear more in you every day.

Sandwiched between the stories of Jesus’ third prediction of His death and His triumphal entry are two stories that relate to each other.  The first is James and John’s request for power and Jesus’ rebuke.  This is one of the three times Jesus talks about greatness in the gospels.  “To be great you must be a servant of all,” Jesus tells us, and then gives us one of the formative thoughts of our discipleship: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to lay down His life as a ransom for many.”  A great memory verse for us, but a stinging rebuke for James and John.

The other story that is related to this one is the story of blind Bartimaus.  I say they are related because together they speak to the reality of Jesus’ closest disciples.  The story of Barimaus’ healing is impressive in and of itself, but the fact that it comes where it does leads us to the conclusion that (1) James and John were as spiritually blind as Bartimaus was physically blind, and (2) all of the disciples were blind to Jesus’ teachings when they missed (again) His prophecy about His own death and then began it with the Triumphal Entry.  Hindsight is always 20/20, as they say, so we can see what they missed from our future vantagepoint.  And it is not fair that we judge these poor men as harshly as we do when we ponder just how blind they were.

Yet we are at least as blind in our own discipleship today.  We may get Jesus’ predictions of His death, but we don’t give up all we have and are to follow Him.  We may see the Triumphal Entry as the first step toward the cross (and the resurrection!) but we regularly miss Jesus’ command to put Him first in every aspect of our lives.  Maybe blind Bartimaus is the only one who can truly see after all.

Sandwiched between the stories of Jesus’ third prediction of His death and His triumphal entry are two stories that relate to each other.  The first is James and John’s request for power and Jesus’ rebuke.  This is one of the three times Jesus talks about greatness in the gospels.  “To be great you must be a servant of all,” Jesus tells us, and then gives us one of the formative thoughts of our discipleship: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to lay down His life as a ransom for many.”  A great memory verse for us, but a stinging rebuke for James and John.

The other story that is related to this one is the story of blind Bartimaus.  I say they are related because together they speak to the reality of Jesus’ closest disciples.  The story of Barimaus’ healing is impressive in and of itself, but the fact that it comes where it does leads us to the conclusion that (1) James and John were as spiritually blind as Bartimaus was physically blind, and (2) all of the disciples were blind to Jesus’ teachings when they missed (again) His prophecy about His own death and then began it with the Triumphal Entry.  Hindsight is always 20/20, as they say, so we can see what they missed from our future vantagepoint.  And it is not fair that we judge these poor men as harshly as we do when we ponder just how blind they were.

Yet we are at least as blind in our own discipleship today.  We may get Jesus’ predictions of His death, but we don’t give up all we have and are to follow Him.  We may see the Triumphal Entry as the first step toward the cross (and the resurrection!) but we regularly miss Jesus’ command to put Him first in every aspect of our lives.  Maybe blind Bartimaus is the only one who can truly see after all.

A family had left a church where I served previously, yet the husband and I were meeting regularly for discipleship.  I asked him why they had left and he shared that it was because he felt I was too negative about money and wealth.  “I work hard for what I have and I won’t feel guilty about it,” he shared.  I appreciated his candor because it made me take a serious look at whether I really was hard on the wealthy and if so, why that was.  I decided that he was probably right.

Throughout my life I’ve had a very difficult relationship with wealth.  I grew up a privileged white male in a wealthy suburb of Detroit.  I had wealthy friends, attended a wealthy church, and lived a wealthy life.  My difficulty with wealth was not covetousness of others’ wealth, nor was it guilt about what I had.  It came directly from scripture.

Now, if the image you have of my childhood includes new cars, a mansion, membership at the golf club, and fancy clothes, you may want to reassess your definition of “wealthy”.  We lived on a teacher’s salary (my mom didn’t work while we were kids, going back only to help put my sister and me through college) and bought generally used cars.  We lived in a 3 bedroom house, camped on our vacations out of necessity, seldom if ever went out to eat, and wore modest or even hand-me-down clothes.  But we were wealthy.

As a youth pastor in Rochester, MN, I used a “global wealth calculator” which ranks your salary level relative to the rest of the world.  With just that salary, our family was in the top 6/10 of a percent of the world’s population.  Even there, making less than my father did after a career in teaching, we were wealthy.

Today Jesus puts we who are wealthy, whether we admit it or not, in our place.  “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the Kingdom of God.”  Jesus commands this wealthy young man, who has lived an obedient, righteous life thus far, to give up everything and follow Jesus.  Not to “be willing to” give it up, and not to give it up metaphorically.  Jesus knows how wealth draws us away from God, and so He says get rid of the baggage.

I don’t know if I’m there yet in my walk with God.  Are you?

Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of God?  Gary Walter, the president of the Evangelical Covenant Church, shared a sermon with us a number of years ago and gave us permission to share it.  It was Jesus’ answer to this very question.  Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of God?

Gary showed us that Jesus used the word “greatest” only three times in the gospel of Matt.  Once He tells us that the greatest is the one who obeys all that God says.  Another time, He tells us that the greatest is the one who serves.  And finally, as in Mark’s parallel here, He tells us that the greatest is the one who is most like a child in their humility.  So, Gary reminded us, the greatest in the Kingdom of God is the humble, obedient servant.

How’s your humility?  Do you give credit where credit is due for all that happens in your life, remembering that all credit is God’s?

How’s your obedience?  Do you find excuses to not have to do what God calls us to do?  Do you look for the loopholes in God’s will for you?

How’s your servanthood?  Do you seek to serve others, even if it costs you reputation, happiness, or time?

Humble, obedient servants of everyone else.  How this world would change if we were all fighting not to be the rightest, or the most conservative, or the most progressive, or the most loving, but the greatest in the Kingdom of God.

One more reflection on yesterday’s text:

Being a disciple of Jesus is hard.  It means taking on behaviors that go against our own natural proclivities and desires, so we have to work at it and fight against ourselves.  Stressful.  It also means taking on behaviors that go against society’s norms and expectations, so we find no support there.  If this isn’t your situation and you’re finding your walk with God simple or at least not too difficult, God bless you.  If you’re like me and find yourself struggling as you push against the hatred and mistrust, lies and defensiveness, and all the -isms our world offers in place of discipleship, then you understand that discipleship is hard.

Jesus knew this and knew this wasn’t going to change.  And so He began warning His disciples about it.  Now what happens when a loosely bound group of dissimilar individuals, some with polar opposite politics and even faith systems, find out that they might be killed if they don’t walk away?  They walk away.  Almost always.  And Peter knew it.

I’ve always read Peter’s rebuke of Jesus as his own issue with Jesus’ death.  Jesus shares the bad news that He’s going to be arrested and killed (and the good news of His resurrection, but apparently none of them could get past the bad news), and I’ve always assumed Peter didn’t want to hear it and so rebuked Jesus for not being the Messiah he expected.  “You’re not going to die!  You can’t!  I put everything behind you!”  But reading in Mark today, did you see what Peter was mad about?  He was mad about the fact that Jesus shared it openly with the rest.  “If you share that, there goes the party!  They all leave and then you have no followers and sure enough, its a self-fulfilling prophecy!”  And so Jesus rebukes him, not for his desire to ignore Jesus’ death, but for not trusting Jesus to know when to tell the truth out loud and when to keep a secret.

The rest that follows is a teaching about the fact we began with:  Being a disciple of Jesus is hard.  So once again today, you have to decide if you’re up for the challenge or if you’ll just walk away and back to the old life of acquiring wealth, living in comfort, gaining power, controlling the world around you as much as you can… in other words, a life without Jesus.  Because none of these are discipleship.

One more reflection on yesterday’s text:

Being a disciple of Jesus is hard.  It means taking on behaviors that go against our own natural proclivities and desires, so we have to work at it and fight against ourselves.  Stressful.  It also means taking on behaviors that go against society’s norms and expectations, so we find no support there.  If this isn’t your situation and you’re finding your walk with God simple or at least not too difficult, God bless you.  If you’re like me and find yourself struggling as you push against the hatred and mistrust, lies and defensiveness, and all the -isms our world offers in place of discipleship, then you understand that discipleship is hard.

Jesus knew this and knew this wasn’t going to change.  And so He began warning His disciples about it.  Now what happens when a loosely bound group of dissimilar individuals, some with polar opposite politics and even faith systems, find out that they might be killed if they don’t walk away?  They walk away.  Almost always.  And Peter knew it.

I’ve always read Peter’s rebuke of Jesus as his own issue with Jesus’ death.  Jesus shares the bad news that He’s going to be arrested and killed (and the good news of His resurrection, but apparently none of them could get past the bad news), and I’ve always assumed Peter didn’t want to hear it and so rebuked Jesus for not being the Messiah he expected.  “You’re not going to die!  You can’t!  I put everything behind you!”  But reading in Mark today, did you see what Peter was mad about?  He was mad about the fact that Jesus shared it openly with the rest.  “If you share that, there goes the party!  They all leave and then you have no followers and sure enough, its a self-fulfilling prophecy!”  And so Jesus rebukes him, not for his desire to ignore Jesus’ death, but for not trusting Jesus to know when to tell the truth out loud and when to keep a secret.

The rest that follows is a teaching about the fact we began with:  Being a disciple of Jesus is hard.  So once again today, you have to decide if you’re up for the challenge or if you’ll just walk away and back to the old life of acquiring wealth, living in comfort, gaining power, controlling the world around you as much as you can… in other words, a life without Jesus.  Because none of these are discipleship.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked His disciples.  And the answers were what you would expect from this motley group of first century Jewish men.  “Some say John the Baptist.”  Some, most notably Herod Antipas (who had been set up to behead John the Baptist in the first place) believed Jesus to be John the Baptist back from the grave.  This is a confusing thought since Jesus and John were not only relatives but had parallel ministries and were even interacting at Jesus’ baptism.  “Others say Elijah.”  Jewish history and lore suggested that Elijah would come again (remember that he never died, but was taken to heaven in a firey chariot, so “raised from the dead” isn’t exactly accurate).  When he came, he was to be the herald of the Messiah, as in fact John the Baptist was.  So if Jesus wasn’t acting very Messiah-like, maybe He was just the forerunner, paving the way for the military and political ruler they all were waiting for.  “And still others, one of the prophets.”  If Jesus wasn’t even paving the way for the coming hero-Messiah, then maybe He was just one of the great teachers, a prophet, bringing God’s messages to the people like Isaiah and Jeremiah of old.

“But want about you?  Who do you say I am?”  Was the silence deafening?  Did the disciples stare at their sandals?  Were they still so unsure, after all they’d seen?  Or was Peter simply the spokesman, speaking for all of them?  “You are the Messiah,” he states simply.  Jesus is trying to keep this fact secret, probably to avoid a premature arrest, though He knew that was coming.  But I hope the disciples felt the same way we do upon hearing this question.  “Who else could He be?  After all we’ve seen and all He’s done, who else could he possibly be?”

For us, maybe an equally needed question to ponder is embedded in the first.  As Christ-followers ourselves, we have already proclaimed, “You are the Messiah” or we can’t call ourselves His followers.  That’s what it means to be a Christian.  For us, maybe the question is not “Who do you say I am?” but “Do you say that I am at all?”  Shifting from faith to action, from trust to evangelism, from commitment to fulfillment of the Great Commission.  Can we truly call ourselves Christ-followers if we have to answer no to this second question?

The story of Balaam is, in a word, unbelievable.  If it weren’t scripture, I’d call it a fable reminiscent of Aesop.  But as scripture, it is God’s Word and so true in all it teaches.  And it teaches a lot.

It’s amazing to me that God is working for my benefit in ways I don’t and will never know.  The story of Balaam feels like one of those stand-alone television episodes that takes a break from the regular story line to fill in the larger picture.  Here, God’s people are fighting their way to the Promised Land, and so each episode is another battle, or a time of grumbling against God and Moses, or the death of a major character.  But with Balaam, we get a whole story that happens without the Israelite’s knowledge.  God does this all the time and throughout time for us, and we don’t even know it.  Calling God to account for ignoring our pleas only reveals our ignorance of God’s activity throughout history.

It’s amazing to me that the bible teaches a number of times that Satan is subject to, and occasionally even used by, God.  We get the “subject to” part quite easily, for we proclaim that ALL is subject to God.  But “used by”?  In Job 1 and 2, the earliest writings of our scripture predating even the writing of Genesis, we find Satan standing before God and clearly subject to Him.  But it is here that we find Satan sent by God, for the angel that stands in the path to kill Balaam is named “Satan”, the Adversary, but called “an angel of the Lord”.  I don’t know whether it confuses you to think in these terms, but it comforts me.  The very worst existence has to offer, Satan himself, is subject to a God who loves us deeply.

It is amazing to me that things like prophecy, divination, blesses, and curses are effective throughout this story.  Balaam seeks God through divination the first two times, but then gets to know God and so doesn’t bother for the rest of the messages.  For these, the Holy Spirit comes upon him and He prophecies destruction for Israel’s enemies, victory of Israel, and even foretells the coming of the Messiah.

This story is amazing, and one we should teach more, for it’s lessons are powerful, encouraging, and important for God’s people today.

I’m listening to the book, “Behave” by Robert Sapolsky.  Subtitled “the biology of humans at our best and worst”, this book looks at human behavior from as many different disciplines as possible from the socio-political to the biological to the neurochemical.  I’m just starting and it’s already pushing the limit of my college-level psychology major.  Already, however, I’ve found an interesting connection between it and our bible study (what did you expect from a pastor?)

In every being from a cockroach to a human, when we feel vulnerable, we attack those around us we consider weaker.  From the increase in abuse cases during financial depressions to playground bullying by bullied kids, this behavior is ingrained in the biology.  Lab monkeys deprived of food will lash out violently at the weaker monkeys.  Even lizards will attack the weaker ones after losing a fight.  We are harsher to our families after a difficult day at work, less patient with our children when fighting with our spouses, and harder on ourselves after a failure than after a victory.  We have to fight consciously and continuously to overcome this drive in ourselves if we are to be Christlike.

I’ve always found the constant grumbling and attacking of the recently Exodus-ed Hebrews to be a lack of faith or a character flaw.  “How could they lash out at Moses over and over again when God had made it clear that Moses was His representative and that He is all-powerful?”  I wonder today if Sapolsky doesn’t give us an answer.  Before I lash out at these redeemed people again, I’m pondering their emotional and societal state.  They have been slaves in Egypt for 400 years without any sign of the God on whom they based their entire existence.  Then suddenly with terrifying miracles, pain, and death, their God frees them, gives them the plunder of Egypt and they are on their way to a fabled home they have not truly considered for a long, long time.  But now, this group of builders and servants has to fend for themselves, fight battles and wars, and obey a shepherd who keeps making bad decisions.

If ever a group should feel vulnerable, it’s these people.  And what do vulnerable people do?  They lash out at those closest to them, especially when their vulnerability hit a peak, like when there was no water in today’s text.  I’ve done it.  You’ve done it.  And they did it, lashing out a Moses and Aaron, their public leaders, again and again.  And so I think from now on I’ll give these folk a break and stop being so judgy about them.  They were just doing what we all do, but on a national scale.  And we can’t understand mistrusting our leaders, feeling vulnerable, and lashing out at them on a national scale.  Can we?