Mark 12:18-27

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 12

18 And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, 19 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. 21 And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. 22 And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. 23 In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.” 24 Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”

It is astonishing what folks can make the Bible say when they really want to make it say something. Consider this article from a few years ago.

Dental Miracle Reports Draw Criticism

By James A. Beverly in Toronto
May 24, 1999

Is God miraculously transforming dental amalgam fillings into gold? John Arnott, senior pastor at the renowned Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, told ct that “God is up to something new.”

Regular participants at TACF, formerly associated with the Vineyard, say attendance has picked up because of miraculous testimonies. TACF is the congregation where in 1994 the controversial Toronto Blessing began, a revival marked by “holy laughter.” Millions of Christians have visited since.

Several months ago, TACF produced a 30-minute video, Go for the Gold, in which Arnott announces to the crowd: “If you want God to touch your teeth, stand up and touch your face.”

The TACF Web site (www.tacf.org) quotes Psalm 81:10 (“Open wide your mouth, and I will fill it”) and declares that “the excitement here is electric.” TACF’s ministry team now carries flashlights in order to inspect for gold or silver.[1]

Well. It is most doubtful that the psalmists words in Psalm 81:10, “Open wide your mouth, and I will fill it,” refers to turning fillings into gold, especially as the context of that psalm is speaking of God providing for Israel’s needs after delivering them out of Egypt. He is going to fill their mouths with food and/or with praise for Him. That is what the psalmist is referring to. But here is the thing: when you really want the Bible to say something or not to say something it really is not that hard to add or remove what you do or do not like in order to make it happen. It has been happening since the beginning of God’s revelation of His word to man and it continues to our day.

In Mark 12:18-27, Jesus encounters a group of men named the Sadducees. It will be important for us to know who the Sadducees were so that we can understand what is happening here. Danny Akin has offered a nice summary of this group.

            A small sect of the priestly families, the Sadducees were wealthy aristocrats with significant political and temple influence. They dominated the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:17). They were sympathetic to Hellenism, the Herods, and Rome. They considered only the books of Moses (the Pentateuch) as authoritative. In a sense this made them theological conservatives. They also had a strong doctrine of human free will and did not believe in angels and demons (Acts 23:8). They did not believe in the immortality of the soul or in a future bodily resurrection. Josephus said, “The doctrine of the Sadducees is this: souls dies with bodies”…Because of their truncated Scriptures, they were not looking for a Messiah King from David’s line. With the total destruction of their center of power—Jerusalem and the temple (AD 70)—their political influence came to an end, and they vanished from history.[2]

Furthermore, David Garland writes of the Sadducees:

The Sadducees considered the Mosaic directives alone as binding and rejected what they perceived to be theological innovations. Consequently, they did not believe in a resurrection since it does not appear in the Pentateuch. Their attitude may be captured in the hymn to honor ancestors in Sirach 44:1-23: The only immortality one can hope for is having posterity and being remembered.[3]

So these men were accustomed to making the Bible say what it did not say and making the Bible not say what it did say. Foolishly, they too decide to take a shot at tripping up Jesus, this time using the Bible. Here is what they did:

18 And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, 19 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. 21 And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. 22 And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. 23 In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.”

In short, they were trying to attack Jesus with (a) the Old Testament teaching of levirate marriage (which stated that if a man died and his wife had no child the man’s brother was to take her in as his own wife in the hope that she might have a child by him) and (b) Jesus’ own clear belief in life after death, a belief that the Sadducees rejected. It was, we might say, an ill-advised move on their part!

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Exodus 31:1-11

Exodus 31

1 The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is on it, and all the furnishings of the tent, the table and its utensils, and the pure lampstand with all its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin and its stand, 10 and the finely worked garments, the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments of his sons, for their service as priests, 11 and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense for the Holy Place. According to all that I have commanded you, they shall do.”

Christianity Today once published an anonymous poem that I thought made a pretty witty point about service.

There’s a clever young fellow named Somebody Else –

There’s nothing this fellow can’t do.

He’s busy from morning ’til late at night

Just substituting for you.

When asked to do this or asked to do that

So often you’re set to reply:

“Get Somebody Else, Mr. Chairman –

He’ll do it much better than I.”

There’s so much to do in our church;

So much, and the workers are few.

And Somebody Else gets weary and worn

Just substituting for you.

So next time you’re asked to do something worthwhile

Come up with this honest reply:

If Somebody Else can give time and support,

It’s obviously true, so can I.[1]

Whoever wrote this is correct: that “Somebody Else” is a popular fellow indeed! We all know him and we have all, if we are honest, appealed to him to do something that we do not really want to do. But in the Kingdom of God we cannot cross our fingers and hope that “Somebody Else” will somehow magically take care of what needs to be done. The people of God—all of us—are to be a servant and serving people.

Why, then, do many of us not serve? Perhaps sometimes it is for ignoble reasons: laziness, disinterestedness, etc. But I rather think that many times folks do not serve because they do not think they have anything to offer. But on this point we can simply cry, “False!” For the God who calls us to serve not only calls us to do so, He equips us to do so! More than that, he does not call only those who are viewed by people as exceptionally gifted. He calls us all, the extraordinary and the “ordinary.” But here we must recognize a very important truth: in the Kingdom of God, there is no ordinary! The ordinary is extraordinary in the hands of a great God!

Exodus 31 begins with an example of just this point.

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Mark 12:13-17

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 12

13 And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” 15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.

In the US presidential elections of 2008, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops made a comment in their election guide, entitled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” that was really and truly eyebrow-raising. Here is what they said:

[T]he political choices faced by citizens not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual’s salvation.[1]

When I first read that statement it struck me as manifestly absurd. And, truth be told, in the sense it which it is offered, it is absurd. Just imagine that after you die and stand before the Lord He pulls out a sheet of paper that lists how you voted in every presidential election. In the one hand is your list and in His other hand is His list! And imagine if your list does not match His list that you do not get to enter Heaven!

What a staggering thought!

Fortunately, we are not saved by the quality of our political votes. We are saved by the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ as demonstrated in His life, His death, and His resurrection.

Even so, on a deeper sense (a sense, I hasten to add, that I do not think is intended by this statement) we might say that who we vote to be Lord of our lives does indeed affect our salvation! Who is King to you? Who is Lord to you? Who sits on the throne of your life?

In other words, there is a “political” aspect to salvation in the sense that your King determines your destiny. And, for believers in Christ, that King is Jesus Himself! If the self is King, we are doomed! If any other human being is King, we are doomed! Christ and allegiance to Christ is the way of salvation.

In Mark 12:13-17, a political trap is laid for Jesus. The question, in a nutshell, is this: must the people of God obey earthly kings? Jesus’ answer is brilliant and telling. Furthermore, it reveals fundamental truths about who is and who ought to be Lord of our lives.

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Exodus 30:22-38

burnerExodus 30

22 The Lord said to Moses, 23 “Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh 500 shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, 250, and 250 of aromatic cane, 24 and 500 of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil. 25 And you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil. 26 With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the testimony, 27 and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, 28 and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils and the basin and its stand. 29 You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy. Whatever touches them will become holy. 30 You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. 31 And you shall say to the people of Israel, ‘This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. 32 It shall not be poured on the body of an ordinary person, and you shall make no other like it in composition. It is holy, and it shall be holy to you. 33 Whoever compounds any like it or whoever puts any of it on an outsider shall be cut off from his people.’” 34 The Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), 35 and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy. 36 You shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you. It shall be most holy for you. 37 And the incense that you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves. It shall be for you holy to the Lord. 38 Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.”

I associate one of the most special churches in the world with the smell of skunks. That is a shocking thing to say, I know, but it is true. The first church I ever pastored was a small church in Jimtown, Oklahoma. I loved that church and love it still. I loved those people and love them still! Even so, when I picture that church mentally I immediately smell skunk.

Why? Because there were many, many Sundays when the sanctuary of that church smelled like skunk. A skunk would either get up under the sanctuary or had recently been around it. I do not know. Maybe it was a Baptist skunk. But the evidence of his presence was unmistakable.

Even so, and paradoxically, that church remains one of the sweetest “smelling” churches I have ever known, in a deeper sense. I am referring here to the faith, love, joy, and Christian witness of the people of Jimtown Baptist Church. Skunk or no skunk, the only aroma that really mattered was sweet and beautiful to be sure!

I have been in a few other churches, on the other hand, that smelled just fine…but did not smell right, if you know what I mean. I have been in churches that had beautiful facilities and if there were any skunks around them you sure could not tell. Even so, they did not “smell” right in the only sense that mattered. Something felt wrong. And, oftentimes, I would later discover that there were real problems in the church: infighting, conflict, etc.

In other words, when it comes to church there are things that smell worse than skunks.

Exodus 30 concludes with a fascinating section on the smells of worship. Specifically, the Lord gives instructions for sacred anointing oil and for sacred incense. But are described as having pleasing smells. Yet even here, the issue has less to do with the physical smell than the spiritual.

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Mark 12:1-12

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 12

1 And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. 2 When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not read this Scripture: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” 12 And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.

One of my favorite novels is Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. There is a very interesting scene in it in which a preacher, Monroe, attempts to win a man he considers to be a heathen, Esco, to faith in Christ.

So Monroe had gone visiting, Ada at his side. They’d sat together in the parlor, Esco humped forward as Monroe tried to engage him in a discussion of faith. But Esco gave up little of himself and his beliefs. Monroe found no evidence of religion other than a worship of animals and trees and rocks and weather. Esco was some old relic Celt was what Monroe concluded; what few thoughts Esco might have would more than likely be in Gaelic.

Seizing such a unique opportunity, Monroe attempted to explain the high points of true religion. When they got to the holy trinity Esco had perked up and said, Three into one. Like a turkey foot.

Then in awhile, convinced that Esco had indeed not yet got report of his culture’s central narrative, Monroe told the story of Christ from divine birth to bloody crucifixion. He included all the famous details and, while keeping it simple, he summoned all the eloquence he could. When he’d finished, he sat back waiting for a reaction.

Esco said, And you say this took place some time ago?

Monroe said, Two thousand years, if you consider that some time ago.

—Oh, I’d call that a stretch all right, Esco said. He looked at his hands where they hung from the wrists. He flexed the fingers and looked at them critically as if trying the fittings of a new implement. He thought on the story awhile and then said, And what this fellow come down for was to save us?

—Yes, Monroe said.

—From our own bad natures and the like?

—Yes.

—And they still done him like they did? Spiked him up and knifed him and all?

—Yes indeed, Monroe said.

—But you say this story’s been passed around some hundred-score years? Esco said.

—Nearly.

—So to say, a long time.

—A very long time.

Esco grinned as if he had solved a puzzle and stood up and slapped Monroe on the shoulder and said, Well, about all we can do is hope it ain’t so.[1]

Frasier goes on to say that Esco was a Baptist all along and was just pretending to be ignorant in order to have some fun with the preacher and his obvious assumption that Esco was ignorant! Even so, Esco’s final response might accurately be viewed as the hidden hope of many people living today: “Well, about all we can do is hope it ain’t so.”

The story that the Bible tells us is a story that many hope is not true for it is a story that threatens our idol of radical autonomy, of isolated self-determination, of ego, of pride, and of greed. Nonetheless, the story the Bible tells is the story of the world and is true whether we “hope it ain’t so” or not!

In our text, Jesus tells the story of the world by telling a story about a vineyard. I hasten to add that, in context, the story Jesus tells is clearly aimed at the religious elites with whom He has just clashed. It is, in the narrow sense that Jesus says it here, a story about how religious powerbrokers end up shutting God out of their lives and “ministries.” Yet, it is not inappropriate to apply this story to the world at large, for in it we find the broad strokes of the entire story of scripture. That is what we will do here. We will see in this story the story not only of the few who rejected Jesus at a particular time, but of the world’s rejection of Christ. The world at large rejected Jesus just as these religious leaders did. The story of the vineyard is therefore not only a story about priests and the temple. It is also a story about the world.

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Exodus 30:17-21

8-3_laverExodus 30

17 The Lord said to Moses, 18 “You shall also make a basin of bronze, with its stand of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, 19 with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. 20 When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. 21 They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations.”

Timothy George and John Woodbridge have written of the low view that many people have of ministers.

Most non-Christians are convinced that Christians are inveterate hypocrites. One cartoon in The New Yorker (January 26, 2004) cleverly exploits this widespread sentiment. The cartoon shows a prisoner in a cell turning to another who is sitting on a cot. The first prisoner has apparently just asked the second man why he is in jail. The second responds cryptically: “I’m between congregations.” With a deft touch, the cartoonist had scored Christians – in this instance, a hypocritical clergy member – for not practicing what they preach. What’s worse, the cartoonist assumed that the readers of The New Yorker, so aware of Christians’ flawed reputations, would not need a lengthy explanation to reveal the cartoon’s barb.[1]

It is indeed a damning indictment, and one that should give the church pause. Of course, we might allege that this is simply anti-Christian bias, and that would work if the history books and newspapers were not filled with enough examples of hypocritical and failed ministers to make us blush until kingdom come. No, in point of fact, ministers have usually not needed much help in discrediting themselves.

It is therefore interesting to note that the scriptures call for holy ministers from the very beginning of such a classification of people. Exodus 30:17-21 gives us one more example of how the need for holy ministers was communicated in the arrangement of the tabernacle.

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Mark 11:27-33

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 11

27 And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, 28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” 31 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Upton Sinclair once wrote one of the most profound and insightful quotes I think I have ever heard. Here it is: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”[1] That is so very very true, is it not?

The term “inconvenient truths” has become popular in our day, but what of “vocation-destroying truths,” “ego-demolishing truths,” “assumption-destroying truths”? Well, in these cases, it is not enough for the threatened to ignore the truth, they must silence these threatening truths altogether as well as those who dare to say them.

As we approach the cross in our journey through the gospel of Mark, keep that in mind. Here, in Mark 11:27-33, we see the first real movements in the final stages of the escalating conflict that will culminate in the cross itself. Jesus is questioned by the bodies that make up the Sanhedrin, the high court of Jewish religious power. This questioning does not happen formally, but what happens is a definite harbinger of things to come.

As we watch this scene unfold, note the radical differences between Christ and the religious establishment, these men who do not want to hear truths that threaten all they have built.

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**UPDATED** Sermon Outline for the Arkansas Baptist State Convention 2017 Dixie Jackson Offering Emphasis

UPDATE:  The state convention website has now linked to the much fuller outline here.

I was grateful to be asked to write a sermon outline for the Arkansas Baptist State Convention 2017 Dixie Jackson Offering emphasis.  Dixie Jackson is the yearly offering that helps to fund Arkansas ministry and missions efforts.  An abbreviated outline appears in the ABSC planning guide in their “Additional Resources” packet and the fuller version that I initially submitted will apparently be linked at the ABSC website.  Here are screenshots of the abbreviated outline:

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Mark 11:22-25

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 11

22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel, Catch-22, is a fascinating, hilarious, and troubling account of a fictional group of American Army bombardiers stationed in Italy in WWII. In one scene, Colonel Cathcart calls the chaplain in to discuss with him the possibility of having prayers before bombing missions. Their discussion reveals the dilemmas we get ourselves into when we don’t think rightly about prayer:

“Now, I want you to give a lot of thought to the kind of prayers we’re going to say. I don’t want anything heavy or sad. I’d like you to keep it light and snappy, something that will send the boys out feeling pretty good. Do you know what I mean? I don’t want any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff. That’s all too negative. What are you making such a sour face for?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the chaplain stammered. “I happened to be thinking of the Twenty-third Psalm just as you said that.”

“How does that one go?”

“That’s the one you were just referring to, sir. ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I –‘”

That’s the one I was just referring to. It’s out. What else have you got?”

“Save me, O God; for the waters are coming in unto – “

“No waters,” the colonel decided, blowing ruggedly into his cigarette holder after flipping the butt down into his combed-brass ash tray. “Why don’t we try something musical? How about the harps on the willows?”

“That has the rivers of Babylon in it, sir,” the chaplain replied, “…there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

“Zion? Let’s forget about that one right now. I’d like to know how that one even got in there. Haven’t you got anything humorous that stays away from waters and valleys and God? I’d like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can.”

The chaplain was apologetic. “I’m sorry, sir, but just about all the prayers I know are rather somber in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.”

“Then let’s get some new ones. The men are already doing enough [complaining] about the missions I send them on without our rubbing it in with any sermons about God or death or Paradise. Why can’t we take a more positive approach? Why can’t we all pray for something too, like a tighter bomb pattern, for example? Couldn’t we pray for a tighter bomb pattern?”

“Well, yes, sir, I suppose so,” the chaplain answered hesitantly. “You wouldn’t even need me if that’s all you wanted to do. You could do that yourself.”

“I know I could,” the colonel responded tartly. “But what do you think you’re here for? I could shop for my own food, too, but that’s Milo’s job…Your job is to lead us in prayers, and from now on you’re going to lead us in a prayer for a tighter bomb pattern before every mission. Is that clear? I think a tighter bomb pattern is something really worth praying for.”[1]

It is a hysterical passage because of the colonel’s obliviousness concerning prayer. It is a chilling passage because we can see in the colonel’s exaggerated misunderstanding a reflection of our own self-centered approach to prayer. We may not be as brazen as the colonel but in essence we do the exact same thing: we too can make prayer all about our own desires and our own agendas.

In the aftermath of the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple Jesus speaks about faith and prayer. What He says serves as a much needed tonic to a great deal of our narcissistic prayer tendencies. We will approach this issue from the perspective of certain common “prayer mistakes” to which many of us are likely prone.

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Mark 11:12-21

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 11

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. 15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city. 20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 

I have a great dad and a dad who has always been good to me so I hesitate to tell this story for fear that it might embarrass him. It is a story we joke about now but, at the time when it happened, I was terrified. It remains the only time in my life that I was terrified of my dad. There were plenty of times I was scared of my dad and all of those times had to do with well-earned and well-deserved disobedience on my part! But I was only terrified of my dad once in my life.

I was a little boy. I was standing in our front yard at 7 Clinton Street in Sumter, South Carolina. Our family had a large red Oldsmobile at that time. I remember that car well. It seemed like a tank: big and metallic and strong. My dad had the car in the front yard and, while I climbed the branches of a tree, he was there, just a little way away from me, quietly and intensely focusing on getting the passenger side door of that big Oldsmobile back on the car.

He had to take the door off to fix something or other. The door was huge and heavy. It was not plastic like car doors tend to be today. He had some kind of jack on which he was balancing the door as he tried to line the hinges up in order to reattach it. It was one of those things that never…quite…line…up. Perhaps you know what I mean: those jobs that will test your sanity, that seem to be almost sadistically toying with you, that allow you to think that you have got it when you do not have it. He was so focused and so quiet and so intense in his silence that somehow it got my attention. I stopped playing on the tree and watched him.

It was hot out. He was sweating. The sweat was dripping off the tip of his nose while he strained to hold the door upright, to balance the door, and reattach the door. I think it was the silence that first startled me. There was just the sound of metal bumping and scraping and clanging on metal, but, from my dad, silence. He was too quiet. He looked like he was in a death-grip wrestling match with some sort of red metallic beast, his muscles straining against its resistance.

In a moment, I thought he finally had it. The door lined up. The hinges lined up. But then, at the last second, no, it slipped out again like it had slipped out a thousand times during the time in which he was wrestling with it.

Then it happened. The moment that terrified me. My father stopped. His hands still on the door. Then he gripped it, the entire big door, and, screaming, slowly lifted it over his head. While I stood there with my mouth wide open, my father held that big metal door over his head like Atlas except that he was not stooping the way Atlas does under the earth. He held it up and then with all of his mustered might and fury and rage he slammed the door into the ground.

The door was red metal on the outside but white upholstery on the inside. I jolted with shock when the door hit the ground, the white interior now belly-up in the sun, the dust rising in a cloud. Then my father took his big dirty foot and slammed it down on the door, as if he was pinning the neck of some deadly beast, reached down to the white door handle that you would reach out, grab, and use to shut the door when you were sitting inside it, and with a cry of anger ripped the handle off the door, did a shot-putt rotation, and then hurled the door handle like a propeller over the top of our house.

I watched with stunned amazement as that handle propelled over the house: whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. I think it landed in Florida.

Then, seething and sweating and red-faced and fist-clenched and shaking, my father slowly turned to look at me standing there, trembling, horrified, and all of six years old. I will never forget it: my dad, animalistic with fury, the car door still shaking in the aftermath of the assault, the gaping passenger side hole behind him, the interior handle still flying south. And when he looked at me in that instant, I recall as clear as a bell that chills came over me and I physically took a step back.

That transformation from my loving dad to whatever it is that he had become startled me and startles me even now as I think about it! It…was…epic!

Finally he calmed himself and now, many moons later, we laugh about it. But not at the time. It is unnerving to see one who always seems to have it together suddenly act out with destructive force. And while it was not directed towards me—and I hasten to add that my father never treated me like he treated that car door—it made, shall we say, an impression.

There are people who feel the way I felt then about the story in Mark 11:12-21. This is a hard story. Basically, our text has three components, all three of which cause us to step back a bit in shock:

  • Jesus curses a fig tree that is not bearing fruit.
  • Jesus casts the money-changers out of the temple.
  • Jesus and the disciples pass back by the cursed tree and see that it has withered and died.

In a sense, of course, comparing our text to my dad’s great battle with the Oldsmobile door is unjust, for Jesus did not lose control of himself. Jesus was always in perfect control. However, there are some similarities. Jesus shocked the disciples by doing what He did to the fig tree and He shocked everybody by doing what He did in the temple. Jesus did indeed display ferocious anger, though, unlike our anger, the anger of Christ is never contaminated by sin. And He did react with a kind of fury against something that was not doing what it was supposed to do.

What, then, are we to do with this strange and startling tale? The first thing we must do is understand the connection between the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple. Let us recall those three component parts:

  • Jesus curses a fig tree that is not bearing fruit.
  • Jesus cleanses the temple.
  • Jesus and the disciples pass back by the cursed tree and see that it has withered and died.

In order to understand this we need to understand that Mark, by sandwiching the story of the temple cleansing within the story of the fig tree, is using a literary device that he is particularly fond of. Mark is using something that is called inclusio or intercalation or sandwiching. Scott Duvall and Danny Hayes define inclusio as “a literary technique in which a passage (a story or a poem, etc.) has the same or a similar word, statement, event, or theme at the beginning and at the end. This is also called ‘bracketing’ or ‘framing.’”[1] Our text is a perfect example of this. Consider:

Fig Tree

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Temple

15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.

Fig Tree

20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”

What this means, then, is that what happened in the temple is crucial to understanding what Jesus did to the fig tree and what Jesus did to the fig tree can only be understood by what Jesus did in the temple. The two are not only connected, they explain one another.

So the question is this: what was Jesus so angry about? Why did He act the way He acted?

We are going to approach this text from the vantage point of Jesus’ actions in the temple. We will then allow those actions to explain what He did to the fig tree.

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