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Monday, January 21, 2013

The Crowd Beside the Sea (Mark 2:13-17)

            Among us are people who have had heart surgery.  I am pretty sure there are also people here who have run marathons.  We have people who write books.  And people who develop computer programs.  We have people who get season tickets and others who hate basketball and football.  There are here, people over 6 feet tall and there are those less than 3 feet tall.  Some of us are over 75 years of age and some are less than a year old. 

            Throw us all together, and we make up “the crowd.”  ‘Ochlos’ in the Greek.  It can mean a throng of people.  Or a writer uses ‘ocholos’ to designate “the public” as opposed to single individuals in private settings.  The crowd is humanity in the marketplace, on the road, in the public square.  It is us – humans performing the daily realities of life with other humans watching.

            In the Bible, the crowd represented humanity after the fall, post-Eden humanity, individual persons who each were cut off from God by sin: their own sin and the sins of those around them.  The Bible paints a picture of God grieving because He loves humans whom he has created in his image and has created for the purpose of relationship with Him.  Sin has ruptured that relationship. 

Enter Jesus.  Jesus steps into the crowd.  Jesus steps into humanity, lost and fallen in sin, cut off from God as we are.  Jesus steps in to make things right.  This is the Gospel.  Jesus has come for us.  Evangelism is helping people who don’t know the gospel see their need for God.  As that need is understood, we help them find their way to Jesus. 

“Jesus went out … beside the sea,” Mark writes (v.13).  “The whole crowd gathered around and he taught them.”  Imagine two environments in which people come together.  This first one is a teaching environment.  The people know that Jesus is a traveling teacher.  He had a role that was extremely important in Jewish culture.  He was a considered a rabbi.  People would expect him to instruct them on Torah – the law, which we find in the first five books of the Old Testament.  Everything else rabbis did – even instruction from other parts of the Old Testament – stood on the Torah. 

When we read that a crowd stopped what they were doing and flocked around Jesus as he walked along the sea shore and listened intently as he taught, we can be sure he was instructing them on the Torah.  Knowing Jesus as we know him from the Gospels, I think it fair to assume he was teaching similarly to the lessons he gave in the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  This was Jesus’ radical new understanding of the ways of God, of Torah.  He certainly didn’t lay this all out in just one sermon.  In fact the Sermon on the Mount itself, as presented in Matthew, is probably a compilation of messages Jesus gave in various settings.

Here at the sea, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus teaches and the crowd is amazed.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Love your enemies.  You are the light of the world, so let your light shine. 

The teaching environment is one environment in which evangelism happens.  I have mentioned several ways we are equipped to do evangelism, to share Jesus with people we meet.  I have suggested we should listen first.  As we listen, we must know our Bible and know God and know our faith.  So, a lifelong commitment to growing in knowledge of what it is to be a disciple is a second way we have talked about being equipped.  Compassionate listening; growing in faith knowledge; a third way we are equipped is we develop the deep, even irrational love that God has for people who are far from Him, who have not given their hearts to Jesus.

In this, I have been asked a very good question.  When does all this become “evangelism?”  Non-Christians can listen compassionately without sharing Jesus.  People can devote themselves to knowledge of Christianity.  Many of the greatest theologians are not even sure there is a God.  They are brilliant in describing what people believe about God.  They have the knowledge.  But they don’t believe in their hearts.  And many atheists have moments in their lives where they love deeply.  When does our listening and loving lead to us proclaiming the gospel?  When do we say, “Jesus is Lord and you need Him in your life,” to other people? 

I think we say it throughout the process.  The listening helps us know when the moment is right.  The growth in faith knowledge helps us know what to say.  Again the listening helps us know which aspects of Christianity should be the entry point into a faith conversation.  The love drives us to reach out to people far from Jesus.  The love of the shepherd for the lost sheep and the love we have for people who are not Christ followers – that love refuses to let us give up on people.

As Jesus was in the crowd, walking along the shore, he taught.  The content of his speech is, I am sure, the same material we read in the Sermon on the Mount, in the parables found throughout Matthew and Luke, and the “I Am” statements of John’s gospel.  When we read in Mark 2:13 that crowds – humanity – surrounded Jesus and he taught them, we can be sure of what he was teaching.  He spoke the gospel as it fit the context.

But there is in the story a second environment of engagement.  “As he was walking along, he saw Levi … sitting as the tax booth.  He said to him, ‘Follow me.’  Levi got up and followed him.  And Jesus sat at dinner in Levi’s house.  Many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples.”  The social environment was just as important in the society in which Jesus lived as the teaching environment.  To be a dinner in someone’s home was a big deal.  Who you ate with was a big deal.  Who you hosted and who hosted you – this all mattered. 

Social customs evolve over time and where we live and how we view people obviously is not identical to the days when Mark sat down in 65 AD and wrote the Gospel, his account of the life of Jesus and the salvation Jesus brings.  There are huge differences between then and now.  But, the idea of environments of engagements still holds true.  In one setting Jesus was expected to teach and he taught.  We have settings where we are expected to speak and in those places and times, we should say who Jesus is and what our goal is – to help people know him as Savior and follow him as his disciples.

We also have social settings where there are expectations.  Speaking the gospel of Jesus’ salvation in those contexts can also happen, but it requires finesse.  Jesus taught in social situations, but usually he did so when invited.  Someone, often a religious leader, would ask a provocative question and Jesus would answer with a parable. 

The religious leaders were not at Levi’s dinner party.  They knew about it.  They knew Jesus was there and they knew tax collectors and others involved in questionable and immoral work were there.  They knew Jesus was with a collection of disreputables.  But they did not attend. 

Mark writes that Jesus sat with the sinners at dinner.  With this and with the other Gospel accounts of similar dinners, it is clear Jesus liked these sinners.  He liked being with them.  He laughed with them.  He cared about them.  We cannot know the intricate details of Jesus’ time spent with those described as “sinners.”  We can only know that somehow, Jesus was very comfortable with them even though he never stopped being holy and sinless. 

In these two environments – teaching and social, Mark presents two approaches to sin.  First, the Pharisees saw sin as something to be prevented.  They memorized the law and hammered the law into people’s minds with their teaching.  When someone sinned – whether performed ritualistically unclean acts or committed sins of specific behavior (adultery, deceit, corrupt business practices, theft, illicit sexual encounters) - then that one was kicked out of the synagogue and for all intents and purposes, out of community life.  Sin was something to be prevented and sinners were people who were to be punished. 

Jesus’ approach was different.  Jesus knew sin could not be avoided.  It was inevitable and in fact, every person runs up a mountain-sized sin debt and that mountain stands between us and a relationship with God.  We’re all sinners whom the Pharisees would punish.  But Jesus saw sinners as people to be reclaimed, redeemed, and remade – from cut-off to disciple. 

How do we see people?  Is that person who cut you off in traffic a target of the darkest parts of your anger?  Or is that person someone to be loved because Jesus died for him?  Is your neighbor, you know, the gossiping liar who said terrible things about your child, someone you see as a potential Christ-follower?  Are you the one God is prepping to love that individual? 

Mark’s gospel shows Jesus operating in different environments, maximizing the expectations placed on him.  He didn’t try to meet the expectations of others, but he was aware of those expectations and he used them to create openings to preach his gospel of salvation.  Mark shows Pharisees punishing sinners with ostracism in both social and teaching environments.  Mark shows Jesus loving sinners and inviting them to come to him to socialize at dinner and grow through his teaching. 

We can, following our master’s model, recognize our environments.  We can love the people we meet in those environments.  I think of a retired school teacher I know, Russ.  He never married.  In the 1980’s, he sponsored a refugee family who had fled Vietnam.  They came to the United States with nothing, and he took them into his home.  He didn’t have much, but he shared all he had – food, space, and the Gospel. 

Now, thirty years later, he is very old and he still lives with this Chinese family.  He adopted them, and they adopted him as their grandpa.  When they came, it was a mom, a dad, a toddler, and a baby.  Today, that toddler is a pastor.  His younger sister and younger brother are both grown, both Christians.  I had the privilege of baptizing the three of them along with their cousins a few years ago. 

This man, Russ, invested his entire life into sharing the love of Jesus and the gospel of salvation and new life in Christ with this family.  When those five young adults got baptized, he was rewarded with joy.  The parents are still Buddhists, uninterested in Jesus.  They did not attend the baptism.  But Russ loves them just as much.  He lives with them.  His heart of love is not dependent upon how people respond.  He gives Jesus-love without thought of how it might benefit himself.

His story sounds extreme, but the principles which operated in his life and also in the life the Gospel writer Mark, are just as relevant in our experiences.  Russ saw people – people far from God; Chinese Buddhists fleeing oppression in Vietnam.  He had a couple of options.  He could ignore them as lost, and not his problem.  Or he could be with them, seeing them as people in need of love, people God desperately wanted to redeem and reclaim.  That’s what we all are – people God wants to reclaim as sons and daughters.  Like Jesus at the sea shore, Russ stepped into the crowd intent on helping. 

Once Russ saw this young family as God saw them, he took them in and recognized the environments of engagement.  The parents were unresponsive, so he did not spend unfruitful time trying to evangelize them when to do so would just ignite hostility.  He loved them and shared his home with them.

            Because of his generosity, the parents allowed him to take the children to an environment of teaching – Sunday school.  There, the Gospel we taught to those kids over and over, and when they became adults, they received Jesus and were baptized. 

            Likewise, Mark the Gospel writer, recognized his time and the needs of people in his time.  In churches where Mark worshipped in 65 AD, he dealt with confusion over this new thing, Christianity.  There were many questions.  His response was to write a gospel – the story of Jesus.  He wrote to show how Jesus loved those far from God.  In his descriptions he showed how Jesus’ followers could do as the Master had done and reach out in Jesus’ name both in Jewish and Gentile communities.  Mark’s Gospel, when first written, would be read aloud in assemblies of Christians.  The entire account would be read in one sitting, with questions to follow.  Great discussions would ensue.  In these times, Mark and other leaders could stress that followers of Jesus go to the world, to the crowd to be with people.

            Adopting refugee families.  Writing Gospels.  What call is God sending into your life and mine?  Don’t overanalyze the question.  Consider the everyday places of your life, the skills you already possess, your natural personality style, and the people you already know.  We are called to the crowd, to share Jesus in a way that we will be heard.  We are called to be with people, especially those who don’t know Him.

            Today the crowd is not lingering beside the sea, looking for a good rabbi.  The crowd is all over the world.  In blog chats, on Facebook, Twitter.  The crowd is gathering in your neighborhood, or at the coffee pot in your office. 

            When conversation strikes up, we listen so intently and compassionately, others feel safe talking to us.  We know the Gospel.  We know we are sinners, so we see all other sinners with love, as people God wants to reclaim as sons and daughters.  We recognize when the time is right and the environment is appropriate.  And then we openly share the good news of Jesus. 


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