Mark 4 – Jesus jokes about a mustard seed

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“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?  It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

A mustard seed is tiny it’s about 1mm thick and from this tiny seed a mustard plant would grow often reaching well over 6ft in one year and would attract lots of birds who would come and perch in its branches and eat its seeds.  Have you ever wondered why Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed?

The mustard seed – one of the smallest seeds that grow into ‘the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches.  The image should make us stop and think, perhaps Jesus is being slightly satirical.  I would think a more appropriate image would be a mighty oak tree growing from a small acorn.  Or perhaps a more biblical tree, like a mighty cedar tree, in fact in Ezekiel in the old testament it says:

God says ‘I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it … it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar.  Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches’.

But here Jesus doesn’t compare the kingdom of God to the tallest and strongest of trees.  Jesus likens the kingdom of God, the church to something that sprouts up quite quickly from almost nothing and the develops into an ungainly spindly shrub.  This should make us smile, Jesus is giving us a humorous picture of the kingdom of God that contains a deep meaning.

Churches I think can take comfort from the lips of Jesus.  Like the mustard plant, a church can be an untidy sprawling shrub.  But Jesus is saying something quite profound about the church; It will be a bit a messy and jumbled but in the mess is real life, and perhaps it isn’t easy to find your place in neat and tidy systems.  But in Jesus’ church, that is a bit messy and tangled, there is a place and room for everyone (Martyn Percy).

2Corinthians 4 – Do not lose heart

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we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.  Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2Cor 4:14-18)

Paul is writing to vulnerable communities of faith who were on the edge of losing heart.  In this passage, he is unusually personal. He talks of wasting away outwardly. The struggles of life.  What are we to do when faced with the struggles of life? 

Paul answers us in v16:

‘we do not lose heart, though outwardly we are wasting away’

And why because our hope is on what is unseen, we are to fix our eyes on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary and what is unseen is eternal.  Our hope, and christian resilience is built upon the fact that God raised Jesus christ from the dead. Our hope in the face of adversity and pain is not rooted in any human capacity for optimism or natural strength of character.  It is based upon something God has done.

By God’s gift and choosing, we find ourselves part of a bigger story, God’s story.  And so we see throughout history communities of Christians, spreading the good news, and the hope they have in Jesus, even though they are struggling, and under persecution.

For Paul he knows he is part of God’s story, something so big and wonderful, something so amazing as being part of the family of God, because Jesus died and rose again, that he can describe his present sufferings as a slight momentary afflictions by comparison.  That hope he has in the God of love shown in Jesus’ life death and resurrection gives him the strength to face the struggles that he now faces. We to are part of that bigger story and are part of the body of Christ, our hope is found in Him, Jesus is our sure foundation.

Acts 2 – The first fruits of the Church

 

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Mosaic representing Pentecost in the St. Louis Cathedral

 

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven in Jerusalem.  (Acts 2:1-5)

Jerusalem was full at this time because Jews had travelled in from all around to celebrate Pentecost.

For a first-century Jew, Pentecost was the fiftieth day after Passover.  It was an agricultural festival. It was the day when farmers brought the first sheaf of wheat from the crop and offered it to God, partly as a sign of gratitude and partly as a prayer that all the rest of the crop, too, would be safely gathered in.  

But, for the Jew, neither Passover or Pentecost were simply agricultural festivals.  These festivals echoed the great story of their forefathers.  The Passover remembers the exodus from Egypt when God fulfilled his promises to Abraham by rescuing his people.  They sacrificed a lamb just like they did the night they left Egypt and crossed the red sea into the Sinai desert.

50 days after days after Passover, after crossing the red sea, they came to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the law, on the stone tablets.   Pentecost then isn’t just about the first fruits, the sheaf of wheat which says the harvest has begun. it’s about God giving to his people the way of life by which they must now life, giving them the 10 commandments.  

So as we hear about what happened to the first disciples as the holy spirit came upon them at Pentecost, Luke, the writer of the book of acts takes it for granted that we would remember that Pentecost is about the first fruits of the harvest and the giving of the law on stone tablets.  

Now we see the first disciples being filled with spirit and then going on to bear powerful witness to Jesus and his resurrection to win converts from the very first day, this like the sheaf of wheat which is offered to God is a sign of the great harvest to come.  

And whereas Moses and Israel were given the law written on Stone tablets, here the disciples receive the holy spirit into their hearts.

Pentecost then is the first fruits of the Kingdom of God, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the moment when we move from stone tablets to God dwelling within us.    

Jeremiah tells us this was God’s plan when he said:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with my people.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, says the Lord.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:32-35)

We are God’s forgiven people through the power of the cross and we can know God because His holy spirit lives within us.

Acts 1 – The Acts of the …

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I have often wondered why the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ is called ‘The Acts of the Apostles’. In my mind it is not the best name for the book, it is not the most accurate name. I think if I were able to change the name I would make it ‘The Acts of the Holy Spirit’.  The opening verses of Acts are about Jesus ascending into heaven and the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit.  

For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.” …  After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. (Acts 1:5,9)

The book of Acts has no one human as its main character we see a lot of Peter in the first half and a lot of Paul in the second half.  There are many others who we hear about in the book of Acts. The one person present throughout is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is moving and working in the lives of the early church as the good news starts to spread.

Many scholars think that Luke the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, intended to write a third book, to make a trilogy but perhaps died before he was able. His first book, Luke’s Gospel, starts in Judea and in the town of Bethlehem. We see Jesus travel and preach in Galilee. Eventually, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem the capital and the heart of Israel.  Jesus dies on the cross and on the third day rises again. The Gospel of Luke ends with the ascension of Jesus in Jerusalem. The book of Acts picks up in the same place, in Jerusalem. And from there the coming of the Holy Spirit the good news spreads around the Mediterranean and ends up in the capital and centre of the known world Rome.  So we have in the Gospel of Luke the coming good news which starts in the countryside and ends in the capital of Israel a small country in the Roman empire and then in the book of Acts we have the good news spread from the capital of Israel across  much of the Roman empire ending up in the capital Rome.  The third book would see the message ripple further from Jerusalem and Rome all the way to ends of the earth. Perhaps that third book wasn’t written because we are living that book. We are spreading the Good news of Jesus to ends of the earth, we are spreading the Good news into every community.

you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)

 

Acts 8 – The Outsider and the Good News

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God tells Philip to travel along a certain road and so Philip sets off and he meets an Ethiopian eunuch in a chariot reading a piece of scripture aloud and Phillip feels that he must go and speak to this stranger, and he asks if he understands what he is reading, the guy says he doesn’t and so Philip explains the gospel message and the stranger understands and believes, he sees some water asks to be baptised, and so Philip baptised him.  We are told that they never see each other again. (Acts 8:26-end)

The Ethiopian eunuch has been in Jerusalem, he was in effect an international diplomat for the royal court of the region we call Ethiopia.  He would have been made a eunuch so that he could advise the Queen in private without any restrictions. We can see that he is a God-fearing man because he is reading the Jewish scriptures, the old testament and had been to Jerusalem to worship God.  The trouble was being a eunuch he was forbidden from taking part in the any Temple rituals (lev 21:20) and was not allowed to convert to Judaism and join the community of Israel

No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord. (Deut 23:1).

Someone who believed in God and yet was kept right on the fringe and so was worshipping God as an outsider.  We are told the Eunuch is reading from the prophet Isaiah chapter 53:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,

   and like a lamb silent before its shearer,

       so he does not open his mouth.

In his humiliation justice was denied him.

   Who can describe his generation?

       For his life is taken away from the earth.” (Acts 8:32-33, Isaiah 53:7-8)

Which we say points to Jesus.  But the really interesting thing is why the Ethiopian eunuch reading this passage.  I suspect it is a passage he has read time and time again one that he would keep coming back to.  And that’s because of what happens after Isaiah talks of this lamb being led to the slaughter. We see what eunuch is looking forward to 3 chapters later in Isaiah 56 where it says:

For this is what the Lord says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,

   who choose what pleases me

   and hold fast to my covenant—

 to them I will give within my temple and its walls

   a memorial and a name

   better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

   that will endure forever. (Isaiah 56:4-5)

Here is a time when the eunuch would not be kept on the outside when outsiders would gain the most prominent position.  This is what the Gospel message is all about, good news for the outsider, good news to those whom society rejects. And so Phillip shows the Ethiopian eunuch that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  That through Jesus’ death and resurrection those whom society rejects, those on the outside are brought into the family of God, and in God’s eyes sit right in the centre.

So Ethiopian eunuch immediately wants to be baptised, he has heard the good news, the time Isaiah look forward to has arrived, he is an outsider no longer.

 

John 10 – The Good Shepherd

 

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Fourth-century depiction at the Museum of the Baths of Diocletian, Rome

 

‘I am the good shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me’ (v11)

Here Jesus is drawing on an image of God from the Old Testament, from an Old Testament Book called Ezekiel.  Ezekiel was a prophet in Israel about 600 years before the time of Jesus.

It says in Ezekiel:

For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.  As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. …  I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy.I will shepherd the flock with justice.  (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 16)

Jesus is identifying Himself as the Good Shepherd building on this Ezekiel passage about God as the shepherd.  Jesus is the fulfilment of this Ezekiel passage, in Jesus’ ministry we see him healing the sick and acting justly.  But Jesus goes further than the Ezekiel passage by saying that the good Shepherd will lay down His life for His sheep.

Jesus tells us a hired hand is not willing to do that, faced with danger a hired shepherd will save themselves if a wolf attacks the sheep.  Jesus laid down His life for the sheep because He is the Good Shepherd because He loves us.

It’s not what you know it’s who you know.  And we know the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ.  Who loves us so much that He was willing to lay down His life for us.  So what can we do? Well in this chapter Jesus also talks about the sheep hearing His voice.  

his sheep follow him because they know his voice. (v4)

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. (v16)

Our job then is to get better at hearing the voice of Jesus.  Hearing what Jesus is saying to us in our lives. Relationships work best when you work on them.  Keep listening out for the voice of Jesus in the Bible, through prayer, in church and with friends.  

1John 1 – A Tangible Relationship

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We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life (1John 1:1)

In John’s opening line of his first letter, he immediately grounds everything he is about to say in the human senses.  There is not a complex philosophical argument, but rather John talks of his encounter with the Word made flesh.  What he has heard, seen and touched.  We can sometimes get too caught up in ever-increasing complexity as we look at the vast numbers of books written on God, the Bible, and theology.   We can lose the tangible relationship we have with Jesus and end up turning our faith into nothing but dry knowledge.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible, especially when I was at university studying theology comes from Proverbs:

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. (Proverbs 12:12)

This can certainly be true, if knowledge is our only goal then our faith will become dry and will not be life-giving.  The Christian life is not about knowledge only but rather is about relationship.  Relationship with the Risen Jesus.  We must remember that the word became flesh and dwelt among us.  Not something abstract and aloof, but real and physical and tangible.

The poet Edwin Muir in their Poem ‘The Incarnate One’ says:

The Word made flesh here is made word again

And Karl Bath said

The Word became flesh – and then through theologians became word again

This should act as a warning to us, that we must be careful not to retreat from the flesh and turn our faith into nothing more than a series of abstract language games.   

And so John says in the opening chapter of his letter:

We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his son Jesus Christ. (1John 1:3)

So never forget that fellowship with one another and with Jesus is what it is all about.  Encounter Jesus the word made flesh and don’t let Him become word again.