Surviving the Storm

I always love to read the comics in the newspaper. One of my favorites is Charles Schultz’ “Peanuts” cartoon, the adventures of Charlie Brown and his gang. One of the main characters is Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog, who strives frequently to be an author. He always begins his writing, “It was a dark and stormy night . . .”

The storms of life are difficult to endure. Let’s talk together about storm survival.

Our family was on a vacation in the late 1980s at the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota, close to the northwest angle. We were out in our boat on the water and the children began to laugh pointing at my wife, Denise. Her hair had begun to stand straight up. There was so much electricity in the air that her hair was lifting. I looked to the west and sure enough, huge thunder heads were building up. Thunderbolts and lightning flashing to the ground. It was foreboding and we got off the water as fast as we could.

The disciples of Jesus were caught in a storm. Many of us experience storms of life in our journey. Perhaps it’s a loved one who is very sick, or we lose our job, or we’re in the midst of a difficult relationship that does not seem to change, or we struggle with addictions. How do we survive? How do we ride out the storm? How do we even breathe when we are paralyzed by our fear, and we think God, where are you?

The disciples of Jesus had heard Jesus call them and had left all to follow Him. Many times in the Gospel of Mark their response to what they experienced alongside Jesus are the questions, Who is this man? and What does it all mean? and What does it mean for me? They experienced Jesus as He exercised demons, healed the sick and lame, calmed the sea and fed the 5000 from a few loaves and a couple fish. Obviously they knew and believed that He was from God. Is He the Messiah, and if He is, what does it mean?

I’m struck by the truth that Jesus frequently went off by himself to pray. He spent time with His Father. In this particular story it says He sent His disciples ahead to the other side and He sent the crowd away. That would have been no small feat because after the feeding of the 5000, they wanted to make Him their King. Who wouldn’t want a King who could overthrow the enemies by His supernatural power, keep our bellies full, and guarantee our personal comfort? (Sometimes that’s how we approach God.) So Jesus sent them away because He was not going to be that kind of King.

Why does He pray? In His humanness, perhaps Jesus was weary and needed intimacy and encouragement with His Father. Or maybe it was to talk through the details of His mission. Perhaps the praying is not what He prayed about but for whom He prayed. He prayed for His disciples as the great High Priest, prayed that they might understand or that they would have courage for the days ahead, to endure the storms and follow Him all the way to the cross. He prayed for them as He prays for us, that in a revelation from God and in the Word of God faith would come alive and become strong.

The storm the disciples were trapped in was a tough one. It was the fourth watch of the night, which meant that it was about 5:00 a.m. They have been straining at the oars for over eight hours. Imagine their extreme fatigue. Their lower backs ached, their legs and arms were exhausted, their hands blistered as they pulled on the oars. They were way off course and the storm continued to howl mercilessly. It was dark, and the wind was contrary. The waves continued to hammer the hull of the little boat. Their boat was totally out of control in the storm. All of us can relate to their sense of panic, the sense of fear, the wondering if you would survive the night. They had witnessed Jesus calm the storm, but where was He now?

The truth is the story says Jesus saw them and came walking to them on the sea. It was a moment of supernatural intervention. The very source of their fear Ð the wind and waves of the storm Ð was the pathway Jesus used to come right to where they were.

Initially the disciples thought He was a ghost, a phantom. It was more than just a little fear. It says that they shrieked in their screams of absolute terror. But the voice of Jesus calmed them. “Take courage” He called. Eight times in the New Testament these words were spoken and each time by Jesus Himself. His voice says to us Ð wherever we are journeying, whatever the challenge Ð take courage. He also says, “It is I.” The literal words are “ego eimi,” which is translated, I am. It’s the same words that God gave as His name to Moses at the burning bush. “I am who I am.” I am all that you need me to be. Yahweh.” It makes me think of that passage in Romans 8:31-32, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not withhold his only Son, Jesus, but gave him for us all Ð will he not also, with him, freely give us all things?”

In the same way that Moses and the Israelites were afraid because Pharaoh’s army and chariots chased them from behind and the Red Sea blocked their path forward, just as Jesus walked the waves to find the pathway to the disciples, God used that which impeded them to bring victory over their fear. God used the Red Sea to give the as the very instrument for the Israelites’ victory over Pharoah.

Jesus said to the disciples, “Don’t be afraid.” God speaks to us through His angels, through Jesus, more than one hundred times telling us not to be afraid. I think of the power of the words in Psalm 23 where the Psalmist writes, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Someone once said to me, “Listen carefully to what Jesus whispers to you in the dark.” Sometimes it’s hardest to trust God when we need to trust Him most. Sometimes it’s hardest to hear the voice of Jesus when we need to hear His promise the most.

I am reminded of a favorite passage in the third chapter of the Old Testament book of Zephaniah, which describes God as the Lord is a mighty warrior Who fights for you. He holds you in His arms, He sings for joy over you, and He whispers to you in His love. The moment Jesus got into the boat, the wind subsided and the storm dissipated. But this rescue by Jesus from the storm was also a moment for the disciples to be schooled by the Master in the development of their faith. In many ways, this story shows us who Jesus is. In that storm are only three options of what Jesus would do.

He could lift them out of the circumstances altogether.

He could change the circumstances themselves.

He could strengthen them with faith and courage to ride out the storm.

I once heard a quote that said, “Sometimes Jesus calms the storm, but sometimes He lets the storm rage and calms His child.”

So in this story of Jesus walking on the water to where His disciples were trapped in their fear and in the circumstances of the storm, who do we discover Jesus to be? First, He is the High Priest praying for us, praying that God would give us comfort, that we would be encouraged by His presence, the revelation of His Word, and His promises so much that we still believe, even in midst of the storm.

Jesus is also the Son of God, the Omniscient One who sees and knows all about us. He understands our weakness and the circumstances of our moment. Yet He is compelled to act on our behalf in compassion.

Who is Jesus? He is the Lord of Creation, able to control the cosmos as He desires. Nothing can keep Jesus from coming to us. Nothing can hold Him back.

Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One who comes to rescue us.

And ultimately, this Messiah is crucified on the cross to rescue us from our sin and raised from the dead to give us life forever with Him. Jesus is the great “I am.” He is who we need Him to be. He is Immanuel, God forever with us.

The year was 1966. It was the fall, October. I was a boy in Belmond, Iowa when a terrible tornado flattened most of the homes in town. Six people died, many people were injured. It was a scene of chaos and disaster everywhere one looked. My father was a Lutheran pastor serving Trinity Lutheran in town, and he went around town checking in the rubble to see if people were okay. He came to a little white house where an elderly homebound couple who belonged to his church lived. She was blind, and he was in a wheelchair. When the storm began to rage, the husband encouraged his wife to go to the basement where she’d be safe, but she said, no. She was going to stay right there with him. So they huddled together in their kitchen and prayed.

The house literally lifted off its foundation in the midst of the storm, levitating like a scene from The Wizard of Oz. Then it came crashing down on the foundation again, cockeyed, crooked, and off. When my father went to find them, they were both safe but shaken. My father said he would never forget the words that the husband spoke to him, “Pastor in the midst of the storm, when we lifted off the foundation, I had a sense of Psalm 46, ÔGod is our refuge and strength. A present help in time of trouble. Therefore I will not fear, though the earth should change and the mountain slide into the depths of the sea. Be still and know that I am God.'”

When the storms rage, we can turn to God. We can call upon Jesus to come to where we are and help us. We can trust that our lives are in His hands. Trust Jesus at all times, even in the darkness of the storm, for He is our Savior, our God, our Lord, and our Friend.

Meet Jesus: He’s Powerful!

If you had the opportunity to talk with one of Jesus’ disciples, I am sure they would tell you that life with Jesus was anything but boring. Again and again, as we study the stories in the Gospels, we see the disciples going through some nail-biting experiences with Jesus that were actually used to teach them and grow them in their faith. Today we are going to look at some of my favorite Jesus stories. Mark wants us to consider these fifty verses of adventure as we face our own personal chaos. You can call them “power stories” for we see the power of Jesus in them.

The first one I read for you already. Jesus and His disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee when a storm almost swamps the boat. Jesus is in the back, fast asleep on a cushion. I imagine the disciples tried to do some bailing on their own to keep from sinking, but the storm was winning the battle. And so they wake Jesus up and say to Him in a panic, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Jesus simply stands up, says “Peace! Be still!” and He stills the storm, thus displaying His power over nature. The disciples were taken aback by this and filled with awe. They said, “Who then is this that even the wind and sea obey him! (He is a powerful man!)”

Well, the disciples’ adventures were not over. They get the boat to the other side of the sea to what was considered unclean (Gentile or non-Jewish) territory. They were near a cemetery, which is a ritually impure place for a Jewish person. As they were beginning to walk through it, a wild man runs in their direction. He has wild hair, blood all over himself, is mostly naked and beat up, and he is screaming at the top of his lungs. This man’s life was totally out-of-control. He was so strong that even chains could not subdue him. This man lived among the tombs day and night, howling and bruising himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus, he came running toward Him. I’m sure the disciples began running for the boat, but then turned around to see Jesus walking toward the man. The man bowed before Jesus and shouted, “What are you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God.” Jesus’ mere appearance seems to humble the demons. Even though they had dominated this man, they cower before Jesus.

Jesus had earlier told the demons to come out of the man, and now there is a face-off between Him and evil spirits. The demons realize they are outmatched, so they beg Jesus to send them among the pigs. Jesus gave them their wish. The pigs immediately rushed down a steep bank and were devoured by the depths of the sea, never to be seen again.

The disciples see Jesus’ amazing power as the man is now absolutely calm and in his right mind. Jesus has power over evil, over demons.

A short while later the disciples and Jesus head back to the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee in their boat. As soon as they are on shore, they run into another adventure of human chaos and need. A synagogue ruler named Jairus fell on his knees before Jesus and begged, “My daughter is dying. Please come and help.” That was quite a thing for this father to do. He was considered to be the big man around his community. The synagogue was the center of the community, and he was the ruler. But he loved his little girl so much that he swallowed his pride and went to Jesus for help. Jesus, without asking questions, went with him.

On the way to Jairus’ house, Jesus had another encounter. A woman who lived in that area had been bleeding for twelve years, which made her unclean. Her life was totally out of control. She had spent all her money on doctors, but none were able to help her. Her case seemed hopeless. Nevertheless, she took a risk. When she saw Jesus and the crowd coming in her direction, she came up from behind, touched His cloak, and was healed. Jesus knew power had gone out from Him, so He asking, “Who touched my clothes?”

The disciples responded, How can you ask that? So many people are here today! That’s a crazy question to be asking.

Jesus kept looking around to see who had touched Him until the woman came forward and confessed that it had been her. And what did Jesus say to her? Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

While He was still speaking, the synagogue ruler’s servants came running up and told Jairus, “Your daughter is dead. Don’t bother the Teacher any longer.” But Jesus insisted on going back to his house with him anyway. When he got there, the place was filled with people who were mourning. “Why this commotion and weeping?” Jesus said. “She’s not dead but asleep.” The mourners laughed at Jesus.

Jesus drove them out of the house and took the child’s mother and the father and a few of His disciples into the room where the little girl was lying. He took her by the hand and said, “Little girl, get up.” She immediately stood up! Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat. The disciples were amazed. He even has power over death!

Are you catching the trend here? Four stories, four crises, four very desperate situations, and four times Jesus responds to their cries for help and displays His power as He turns chaos into calm. What is Mark’s point in sharing them with us?

Well, first of all, he wants us to see the power of Jesus Christ. Mark Galley in his book. Jesus Mean and Wild tells a wonderful story in this regard. He writes, “A group of Laotian refugees, who had been attending the sacramental church I pastored, approached me after the service one day and asked to become members. Our church sponsored them and they had been attending the church only a few months. They had only a rudimentary understanding of the Christian faith, so I suggested we study the Gospel of Mark together for a few weeks to make sure they knew what a commitment to Christ and His church entailed. And they happily agreed to do this.

“Despite the Laotians lack of Christian knowledge, or maybe because of it, the Bible studies were some of the most interesting I’ve ever led. After we read the passage in which Jesus calms the storm, I began as I usually did with more theologically sophisticated groups Ð I asked them about the storms in their lives. There was a puzzled look among my Laotian friends, so I elaborated. ÔWell, you know we all have storms, problems, worries, troubles, crises, and this story teaches that Jesus can give us peace in the midst of these storms. So what are your storms?’ I asked again; more puzzled silence.

“Finally one of them hesitantly asked, ÔYou mean that Jesus actually calmed the wind and sea in the middle of the storm?’ I thought he was finding the story incredulous, and I didn’t want to get distracted with the problem of the miracles, so I replied, ÔYes, but we shouldn’t get hung up on the details of the miracle. We should remember that Jesus can calm the storms in our lives.’ Another stretch of awkward silence ensued until another replied, ÔWell, if Jesus calmed the wind and the waves, He must be a powerful man!’ At this they all nodded vigorously and chattered excitedly to one another in Lao. Except for me, this room was full of wonder, and I suddenly realized that they grasped the story better than I did.”

Mark is trying to help us to see the power of Jesus Christ. There is power in His name.

Do you catch what’s commended and recommended in these power stories? Jesus is teaching His disciples and those that have come to him for help about the importance of faith in Him. After the disciples awaken Jesus in the storm, and then He calms the storm, He turns to them and asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” He wanted them to have faith that they were safely in the hands of God and God had a purpose for them to carry His mission of salvation for the sake of a sin-sick world. If they sank that day, the mission would be over. The disciples perhaps had a little faith in Jesus, but they did not have the faith of Jesus. They did not have faith that He was safely in the hands of His heavenly Father.

Notice what Jesus said to the sick woman after she confessed she was the one who touched Jesus’ cloak. Jesus gives her a great affirmation, probably the most kind words she’d heard for many years: “Daughter, . . .” Then Jesus commends her faith for all who were listening: “. . . your faith has healed you.”

Then, when Jairus receives the devastating news that his daughter had died, Jesus ministers to him by saying, “Don’t be afraid, only believe.”

These power stories are given that we might have faith. We sometimes use that word rather freely and casually. Keep the faith, have a little faith, and so on. However, in this case, Mark is pointing us to faith, not just in anything, but faith in Jesus Christ. Have faith in Jesus. Trust Him, no matter what circumstances you are facing in your life. Trust Him with everything and in everything.

Your faith is only as good as the object of your faith, and only one object is worthy of our faith. His name is Jesus Christ, and He is the Son of God. He died on the cross to rescue you and me from sin, and He rose victoriously over the power of sin and evil and death. He is the One who promised to be with us always, to the end of the age.

Mark seems to be telling us, through these stories, that storms, evil, sickness, and even death will come your way, as a disciple of Jesus. Followers of Jesus are not immune from these sorts of things. However, He does tell us through the words of St. Paul, “Be convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other chaos threatening the creation can ever separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Jesus also reminds us in John 10:28b to be confident. “No one can snatch (my sheep) out of my hand.”

Oswald Chambers, a great Christian mind of the past, said “Beware of worshiping Jesus as the Son of God and professing your faith in Him as the Savior of the world, while you blaspheme Him by the complete evidence in your daily life that He’s powerless to do anything in and through you.” Wise words from Oswald Chambers.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, when life is coming apart, when you’re feeling overwhelmed by the power of evil, when you are facing the storms, evil, sickness or death, remember Who you are with. You’re with Jesus. If you are trusting in Him, He has promised to be with you. He has shown Himself, proven Himself stronger, more powerful than any storm or demon or sickness, and, yes, even more powerful than death. Just call upon the strong name of Jesus Christ.

You’re not alone. He will come to you just as He came to those people who were facing their own moments of chaos, moments of feeling out of control, moments of desperation. He came to them, and He will come to you.

Meet Jesus: The Storyteller

Everyone loves a good story. I love stories. I love hearing them, I love going to movies, and I love reading novels. As a preacher, I’ve learned that stories make great teaching tools. I especially love stories with happy endings, don’t you? Well, it turns out, so does Jesus.

Jesus knew the power of a story. He told lots of them to the crowds and to His disciples. They were called parables. A parable has been described as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. In the original language, parable literally means to lay alongside something. It’s a simile, or what we would call an analogy, and the stories He told had a real purpose to them. He used them to teach truths about the kingdom of God, which Jesus had been announcing since the opening day of His ministry. Mark chapter 4 is full of Jesus’ parables, but we’re focusing only on the first one. It is called the Parable of the Sower.

One day, as the crowds gathered around him, Jesus got into a boat to have a little space between Himself and the crowds. And from that boat he began to teach them this particular parable. “Listen! A sower went out to sow.” You can just imagine that right away people are starting to tune in as Jesus tells a story. That is what happens when stories are told. “. . . some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil; and when the run rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” In those days this would have been considered a miraculous crop.

And Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

I wonder if anyone really understood what Jesus was talking about there. Perhaps they picked up on the happy ending.

Later on, the disciples and a few others with Jesus asked Him about those parables. He told them that the seed in that story is the Word of God, the Good News about the kingdom. God’s up to something. The soils represent different kinds of people with different responses. The path is those who are hardened. They are people who hear the Word, but the Word doesn’t stick. Then satan swoops down and takes the seed of the Word away.

Then there is the kind of people we might call rocky ground. They receive the good news with joy, but they have no root. It’s a shallow, emotional sort of belief. They endure for a little while until trouble or persecution hits them on account of the Good News.

Other seeds fall among these thorns. These are the people who hear the Word, but the cares and distractions of the world eventually choke that Good News right out of their lives.

But some seeds do fall on good soil. They are those who hear the Word, accept it, and bear fruit. Thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold are the results.

As I studied the parable again these past few weeks, I noticed something new: the story has a happy ending. The sower gets a bumper crop, a miraculous crop. Sixfold would’ve been considered a bumper crop back in those days. Jesus describes here a crop of thirty, sixty, a hundredfold in spite of all the obstacles and the failures.

This story contains a most unpromising enterprise. It has meager beginnings as some of the seed falls in the various kinds of soils that don’t produce any fruit. Nothing seems to be growing. It is a rather unremarkable beginning on the part of the sower.

But in the end Ð amazing outcomes! Amazing! A happy ending. Could it be that Jesus is giving us a glimpse of things from His perspective? I believe with all my heart, dear friends, that the purpose of this parable and others in chapter 4 is encouragement. They are meant to be heard as good, encouraging news from Jesus. He was reassuring His followers and anyone else who is discouraged and wondering, Is Jesus giving us the real thing. Nobody seems to be buying in on it. Is it worth investing oneself in? The religious folks, and even His family, think He’s a little crazy and rejecting Him. This did not look promising.

These folks needed encouragement after a less-than-spectacular beginning, and that is what Jesus gives them in this parable. Jesus addresses the wondering and the questioning of those folks with this story. He allows us to see the kingdom campaign from His perspective Ð a bit of the big picture.

CHIN UP, He seems to be saying. The kingdom is happening and moving ahead. Let’s not stop now. Let’s keep sowing the Good News and be confident in God’s purposes. A glorious ending awaits. Good soil is out there waiting to receive this word, and a bumper crop awaits us.

So they stuck with Him.

As Jesus continues His ministry, the disciples observe Him to be rejected by many, and in the end even they themselves will desert Him, deny knowing Him, and even betray Him. He will end up nailed to a cross and all will appear lost. The kingdom enterprise will appear defeated once and for all.

But then Easter comes with Jesus’ resurrection, and we have victory over sin, death, and the power of the devil. It seems nothing can stop this kingdom from coming. Jesus later on tells His disciples they will have good days and bad. “In this world you have tribulation, but fear not! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And friends, the day is coming when Jesus will appear again in all His power and majesty, and He will judge the living and the dead. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus is Lord.

Look at where we are today, more than two thousand years since His parables were told. The Church of Jesus Christ, that Gospel, is still finding good soil. People are being won for the kingdom of God.

This story is meant to give confidence and hope not only to those folks then, but also to those of us living now, in the in-between times. It is for those who say in our worship services, “Christ has come, and Christ is coming again,” And we wait for His return. What a great, glorious day that will be! But let’s be honest: some days can be rather discouraging and scary. On those days when we wonder where this world is headed, when it seems dark out there, we wonder if the Church is makes any difference and if the Gospel really makes any headway. Evil seems to be winning out and it’s difficult not to be discouraged.

I’m reminded of the story of a man who was watching some kids play a baseball game. He yelled out at one of the kids in the right field, “Who’s winning?”

“They are.”

“What’s the score?”

“Seventeen to nothing.”

The man said to the kid, “It doesn’t look too good for you, does it?”

The kid smiled and said, “Well, no sir, but we haven’t been up to bat yet.”

That is the good news is, Jesus trying to give us. It doesn’t look good some days, but we have His promise Ð the seed is good and when it hits good soil, amazing things happen.

As a pastor in the Church of Jesus, I have to admit that I get a little discouraged some days as I look around at my own location or even around what’s going on in the community or the world around me. Hope can run a little bit thin. So I thank God for this heavenly truth this parable of the sower gives us. Nothing can stop God’s kingdom, God’s rule, from happening. Nothing can thwart God’s good purposes for this world. And even when I can’t see it, things are happening for the Kingdom. The Good News seed is taking root in good soil. Happy and joyous endings are happening all the time, and the kingdom’s efforts win out in the end! His kingdom comes, His will will be done and is being done on earth as it is in heaven.

So dear friend, don’t give into the spirit of defeat and discouragement as a follower of Jesus Christ wondering whether it’s worth trusting your life to His care. The campaign is not over. It may not look like much sometimes from your perspective, but this story encourages us to keep our chins up. God’s rule is advancing. It is finding good soil, and lives are being rescued and changed.

A while back, I read a wonderful book by a man named Leith Anderson, who is the retired senior pastor Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. He is also the President of the National Association of Evangelicals. In his book called, Leadership he says, “In the heat of a tough leadership battle in the church, it’s easy to lose hope, become pessimistic, and convince ourselves of defeat. Hope is diminished when we see multiple casualties and repeated loss of territory. But as Christians, we must open our eyes to see the view from where Jesus sits, and then we’ll conclude we’re going to win.

“Consider what’s happening around the world today. In 1900, Korea had no Protestant church, and the country was deemed impossible to penetrate with the Christian Gospel. Today Korea is 30% Christian with more than seven thousand churches in Seoul Korea alone. More Muslims in Iran have come to Christ since 1980 than in the previous thousand years combined. Every day in the People’s Republic of China, 28,000 people become believers. In 1950 when China closed its doors to foreign missionaries, there were one million believers. Conservative estimates now say there are more than 60 million. The seed is finding good soil.

“In Africa, 20,000 people become believers every day. The continent was 3% Christian in 1900 and 40% Christian by 1994. In Indonesia, the percentage of Christians is so high that the government won’t print the statistic. It may be as many as 25% of the population some estimate. After seven decades of government oppression in the former Soviet Union, Christians now number approximately 100,000,000. This is five times more than the membership of the Communist Party at its peak.”

Leith Anderson goes on to say, “Using this list, I added up the number of daily converts to Jesus Christ. It comes to more than 3,000 per hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year!” There is good soil being found all around and a hundred fold bumper crop happening all around us in this globe folks!

“What about the United States of America?” Anderson continues. “From a broader societal or cultural perspective, the number one sign of hope is what Nobel Prize winner professor Robert Vogel of the University of Chicago has described as a Fourth Great Awakening. This new religious revival is alive and well and continuing to spread, more visible in the United States and in Canada, more in evangelical Protestant circles than in the mainline Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. More in the generations born after 1965 than those born before World War II. More among Asian Americans than among Euro-Americans. More in congregations founded since 1965 than in those organized before 1940.

“The ministry of the laity is becoming more and more a powerful force in the church of Jesus Christ in the United States today as people are being challenged and trained. I’m seeing it all around me Ð myself and my own congregation. Men are returning to the church. This can be seen most clearly in black churches, in Protestant evangelical congregations, in new missions and congregations composed largely of adults born after 19. In those churches, they emphasize the relevance of all male Bible study, prayer, mutual support groups.

“In the United States, approximately 102,000,000 people attend worship services each week. How does this number compare to special sports attendance? Professional baseball, basketball, and football games in the USA draw 94 million fans per year. That means more people go to church every week than go to professional sports all year. Sports attendance equals about 2% of our church attendance. We live in a time of rapid church planting, and those churches are growing.”

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, trust the Lord Jesus Christ. Stick with Him. Listen to the words of this parable. There is a happy ending. Keep sowing the word, and be of good courage as you serve Him, remembering that there are all kinds of soils, but the seed is good and powerful, and when it hits that good soil, watch out! The kingdom advances, and that’s a good news for today.

Meet Jesus: The Disturber of the Peace

At Christmas time, Jesus is often referred to as the Prince of Peace. Perhaps you’ve gotten a Christmas card with a peaceful picture of a sweet and gentle baby in a manger and words about the Prince of Peace arriving.

We remember the angels in the Christmas story singing of peace on earth as we worship at Christmas. Or we read Isaiah’s prophecy: “A Son is given and he shall be called the Prince of Peace.” It’s a funny thing, though. The adult Jesus in Mark’s Gospel doesn’t quite look like a peacemaker. In fact, He seems to stir up a lot of controversy and cause people to ask Who does he think He is? Where does He get His authority? and Why is He ignoring the traditions of the people by stepping over religious boundaries that have been set up to keep things in good order?

In today’s text, Jesus is in a home in Capernaum. It is so crowded with people that four men had to dig a hole through the roof to lower their paralyzed friend before Jesus for healing. What a sight that must have been! But, instead of hearing words of healing as they thought they would, Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The religious folks went crazy when Jesus said that. Who can forgive sins but God? they reasoned. What He said is blasphemy! Where does he get off saying something like this? It’s as if they were saying Jesus has infringed on the very Majesty of God, the very core of our faith by saying this.

Jesus then diffused the whole situation by turning to the paralyzed man and saying, “Get up from your mat and walk.” (He said this to show He has power to forgive sins.) When the man got up and walked and everyone said, “We have never seen anything like this before!”

Later, the scribes of the Pharisees see Jesus having dinner with tax collectors and out-casts of the community in Capernaum. (I imagine the disciples were even a little taken aback when Jesus called the tax collector Levi to follow Him, for they knew that, they shouldn’t be with people like him according to the traditions of the elders.) So the Pharisees ask, Why does Jesus fellowship with these kinds of people? Jesus responds with, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” The intensity picks up.

The story goes on with Jesus getting into more trouble.

In the next passage, the scribes are asking Jesus why His disciples don’t fast. Fasting is a sign of piety; everybody was fasting back then. Why don’t Your disciples fast like John the Baptist’ disciples and the Pharisees of the law? This was a popular tradition back in those days, and Jesus again says, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? (It is a time for celebration.)” They must’ve been upset with that response.

Then we find the Pharisees observing Jesus’ disciples gleaning pieces of wheat off the stalks as they passed through a field, which was considered to be working on the Sabbath. They saw this act as unlawful according to Mosaic law. Again they become upset and ask Jesus, “Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Finally, Jesus heals a man in the synagogue on the Sabbath. A man with a withered hand comes to Him, and Jesus asked the religious people if it is lawful to heal him. But they refused to answer. The law said, “Is it right to do this?” and they refused to answer him. So Jesus touched the man’s hand and healed him. The Herodians and the Pharisees then plotted together how to destroy Jesus, for He was disturbing their peace. He was making them angry to the point where they wanted to kill him. When asked why He did these sorts of things, He claimed He had authority. He claimed to be doing something new. “No one pours new wine into old wineskins.” It’s a new day. So by the beginning of chapter 3, they are already making plans to get rid of Him for He is disturbing their peace.

Jesus is still considered by many to be quite controversial. He still can cause some conflicts as He refuses to be what people want Him to be, as He calls into question our values and our theology. His words and claims can still trouble people a great deal. For instance, we live in a very pluralistic day and age, don’t we? Along comes Jesus who says, “I am the way the truth and the life. NO ONE comes to the Father but by Me.” No one can be saved outside of a relationship with Jesus. When society today hears that kind of thing, red flags go up. Isn’t that a bit narrow? Exclusivistic? Why can’t we all just co-exist.

This sort of response to Jesus’ words is not only found in society but also within the walls of the Christian church, I’m sorry to say. And yet Jesus says, “I am the way . . .” and He doesn’t back off. “I am the truth, and I am the life.”

Jesus has a way of challenging our commonsense wisdom as well. Perhaps you taught your children this little saying, “Birds of a feather flock together,” or “One bad apple spoils the whole barrel.” It’s a way of saying be careful who you run around with; you could get into trouble. Yet, Jesus hung out with some unclean types of people that we would never want to run with our children or with us. The tax collectors, for example, might be compared to a young twenty-something year old who is selling drugs to junior high children in the alley behind the school. These tax collectors and other “sinners” and outcasts are about as low as you can go, and it seems that Jesus is insinuating that if we are involved with Him, we must do the same. I imagine the disciples cringed when they went into the home of Levi and all those tax collectors.

Jesus takes on our natural behaviors that we rationalize as okay. When someone hits you, you hit them back, don’t you? Jesus tells us to offer them your other cheek instead. Or when someone has hurt you and sinned against you, you want to get revenge. But Jesus says to sacrifice your right to get even and forgive them. We have people in our lives that we don’t like or even consider to be our enemies. Jesus says to pray for them. His words challenge us.

Jesus challenges our values, as well. Think about it. Jesus, in another place in Scripture says the person who doesn’t love Him more than their children isn’t worthy of Him. You have to love your spouse less than Him and love Him more than your parents.

He challenges us in our materialism. “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” What are you working for?

He upsets our human-made theological systems of thought as well. Many believe they are saved by keeping rules. When they come face-to-face with God in the end, they will have a resume built up, and God won’t be able to turn them away. We become very rules-oriented in religion. However, Jesus overrules our rules and tells us that is not the way. Salvation is all by grace. Follow Me. Trust in Me.

As we get to know Jesus, we find again and again that He has the ability to rattle all of us a bit. I have to be reminded now and then that Jesus didn’t come to leave things status quo in my life. He didn’t come to just pat us on the head and say we’re okay. He came to save us. He came to change us as well, to take over our lives and turn our world upside down with His Kingdom values. It’s true Ð He can upset us. He can upset many people.

So the issue becomes, what are you going to do with this Jesus, the Disturber of the Peace? Mark tells us in chapter 3 of his Gospel about a variety of responses one might choose. There is the religious establishment who was outraged and turned off by Him. They sought to trash His reputation and tell people that He was of the devil. They wanted to get rid of Him once and for all. They rejected him.

Then there were the crowds that gathered around Jesus. People were curious about Him and had questions about Him. He was quite the miracle worker and they were interested in what He could do for them. Yet they didn’t go with Him, did they? Even His own family considered Him to be out of His mind. They even came looking for Him thinking He went off the deep end and was getting Himself in deep, deep trouble.

Yet, instead of rejecting Jesus or being standoffish or simply curious, there is a better alternative in the midst of these that we could choose. When Jesus called Levi, the tax collector, “Follow me,” Levi followed. In chapter 3, Jesus called those to Him whom He wanted, the Twelve, and they came to Him. They came under His leadership, His tutelage, His authority and became His apprentices. They went into training with Him.

Jesus called “Follow Me,” and Levi followed. He called the Twelve to come to Him and they came. That is exactly what Jesus wants. He wants people like you and me to come to Him and follow Him, so that we become a part of His circle of friends and involve ourselves with Him. We not only listen to His Word but also work with it and obey it. As one person described it to me, “to make Him our GPS system,” like in our car, giving us directions that we follow in order to get to our destination. To obey Him and see for yourself that He really knows what makes a life like mine work.

I think it’s fair to ask if the disciples ever regretted their decision to follow? Levi, also known as Matthew, wrote a Gospel in order to encourage others to follow Jesus themselves. Peter gave his life up for Jesus, and he even wrote a letter that made the New Testament. It opens by Peter exclaiming, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In His mercies he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and to an inheritance that imperishable.”

Does this sound like regret to you? It sounds like pure joy to me!

One of the great Christian minds of the last century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writes in his book The Cost of Discipleship, “If we answer the call to discipleship, where it would lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? To answer this question, we will have to go to Him, for only He knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ who bids us follow Him knows the journey’s end, but we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy, for discipleship means joy.” There you have it from a modern-day thinker. Discipleship with Jesus means joy.

Yeah, it’s true. Jesus is challenging; He’s controversial. He’ll say some disturbing things that can upset us. But still, I appeal to you through Scripture today Ð follow Him anyway. He’s the leader whom you can trust. He’s for you and He wants the best for you. How do I know that? By looking at the cross. He went to that cross for you so that you could have a new life. I know that by looking at the empty tomb, God’s ultimate affirmation of Jesus, and the authority of Jesus. All authority has been given to Him, so follow Him.