Mark 2: Is God’s Kingdom a Fortress or a Feast?


The Story So Far

this is week three for us in the gospel of Mark
two weeks ago, our pastor John the Baptist introduced the prophet John the Baptist in the desert
John was like the warmup act before the main show.
When not crunching locusts dipped in wild honey, John – the prophet not the pastor – was shouting
“Get ready.  Buy your tickets.
The big one, the one we’ve all been waiting for, is coming soon!”
 
King Herod wasn’t amused and dragged him off stage
But as John bowed out, Jesus stepped in.
 
“The time has come, the kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).
 
Jesus called some fishermen, Peter and his friends, at the Sea of Galilee:
give up your small ambitions.  Leave your whitebait.  Come with me and catch bigger fish.
 
He launched a preaching tour of the small towns around the lake.
wherever he went, he was mobbed by fans.
They got more than autographs:
he taught with new authority, and had power to heal.
 
Jesus, his disciples, the crowds.
Today, we meet the other big group of characters in Mark’s story:
the religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees.
The word Pharisee probably means “separated”
the Pharisees were the “separated ones”
which suggests a flashback.
Where do we first hear the word “separated” in the Bible?
 

Divide and Defend

right back in Genesis 1,  
in the beginning, God separated the light from the darkness, day from night.
He drove back the raging oceans, and separated land from sea.
 
After he rescued the Jews from slavery in Egypt,
at Mount Sinai God told the first priests. 
“… be holy, for I am holy.  You shall not defile yourselves…
 You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean”  (Leviticus 10:10, 11:44).
That could be the Pharisees’ mission statement: keep separate from what is unclean
 
Centuries later, God spoke through the prophets:
“the priests have profaned my holy things:
they’ve made no distinction between the holy and the common,
nor taught the difference between unclean and clean… disregarded my Sabbaths…
therefore, I will consume them with the fire of my wrath”  (Ezekiel 22:26,31)
 
a strong case for drawing those lines
the Pharisees knew this.
If they wanted God to bless Israel, to save them from the Romans.
Israel must be made holy
the unclean must be separated from the clean.
 
in all areas of life, the law of Moses detailed these divisions.
Pharisees were the guardians of the law.
Like Roman legions, defending the borders against the lawless barbarian hordes
purity police, holy hygienists, spiritual sanitizers,
the bouncers at the door of the godly club
We’re about to meet them today in Mark
 
last week, Peter the pastor asked the questions
who is this man Jesus?
And what is this kingdom of God he’s talking about?
We’ll track a lot more clues in today’s passage.
What sort of kingdom is this?  And is this Jesus the King?
 

Mark 2:1-12    Free Forgiveness

Capernaum – the hometown of Peter – the fisherman, not the pastor, likely his house.
And it’s a full house – seats are packed, fans overflow out the door,
the show’s gonna raise the roof.
as Jesus speaks, scratching and scrabbling noises.
“Peter mate, you need to sort out those rats in the roof!”
Clumps of dirt fall down.
 
in chapter 1, the heavens were ripped open, doubtless a cloud of glory, and the holy spirit soared down gracefully like a dove
now, the roof thatching breaks open
there’s grunting and groaning, a cloud of dust
and a dirty mattress rather less gracefully bumps and thumps to the floor.
 
On it, a paralysed man
in those days, people thought physical and moral uncleanness, sickness and sin hung together.
Disease came from disobeying God.
 
So, Jesus says.  “My son, your sins are forgiven.”
 
 
Now, this is a community formed by the Old Testament
some years ago, I read through all its references to forgiveness and forgive
 
Almost always, it is God who forgives
except for a few cases, with a specific offence done to that person.
Like Joseph, forgiving his brothers for selling him into slavery.
 
Over several days, I got a bit into the Old Testament mindset.
When I hit the story in Mark, I slightly felt the shock.
It doesn’t fit the Old Testament pattern
Jesus never met this guy – what’s he got to forgive?
What right has he to say a blanket, “your sins are forgiven”?
Only God can do that!
 
The most basic boundary, the source of all the others, is the separation between God and us.
The first three of the 10 Commandments insist on this –
No other gods, no idols, no taking God’s name in vain.
 
but the roof has been ripped open.
Jesus just crossed this boundary.
The scribes are right – it is blasphemy.
 
The Jewish writings say “no one gets up from his sick bed until all his sins are forgiven”
so when Jesus healed the man and he walked it’s visible proof
that Jesus was not spouting empty words,
but really did have authority to forgive sins.
 
 
Perhaps some of the crowd remembered the promise of Jeremiah:
 
“The time is coming,” declares the Lord,
    when I will make a new covenant
  with the house of Israel
 
  I will write my law on their hearts.
 
I will forgive their wickedness                                                                         
    and remember their sins no more.”
 
Jeremiah 31:31-34
 
A time of greater forgiveness and deeper closeness to God.
many in Israel were longing for this time.
John said the time was near.  Jesus’ first words in Mark were “the time is come.”
And now he offers Jeremiah’s free forgiveness.
The new covenant has begun, the kingdom of God is at hand.
 

Mark 2:13-20  Open Fellowship

so far, Jesus has called working-class fishermen to follow him.
Honest, blue-collar Israelites.
Now he calls a white collar tax collector.
An unpopular job, but very lucrative,
Peter and the others can go back to their family fishing business.
Levi will have lost his career for good.
 
But God has forgiven him, written off his debts.
Love keeps no record of wrongs
so he does the same: he closes his ledgers, stops counting up what people owe,
and throws a party to celebrate.
 
For the Jews, eating marked social and religious boundaries
at my school, exclusive brethren classmates sat apart on their own to eat lunch
the Pharisees were like that: clean and unclean must be kept apart!
 
But here are fishermen and tax collectors, a Jewish rabbi and unclean sinners, un-hygienically eating together – that’s new.
It’s like the Berlin Wall crashing down.
For the border guards of godliness, it’s an outrage.
For the exiles and the outcasts, it’s home at last – a dream come true.
 
It’s the new community of the kingdom.
Free forgiveness and reconciliation with God,
leads to reunion and open fellowship with others
 
 
This dinner party is a lived parable
It suggests an old image of the new age
the future feast in the kingdom of God, the messianic banquet.
the Prophet Isaiah wrote:
 
The LORD Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
  a banquet of aged wine –
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
Isaiah 25:6-8
 
Isaiah also said there’s a wedding coming
God will rejoice over his people, like a husband over his bride.  (Isaiah 54:5, 62:5)[1]
 
so, asks Jesus, how can they fast and mourn? – It’s a time to celebrate.
 
God’s new kingdom is like a wedding banquet, and everyone is invited.
The ceiling of sin between us and God is broken through – free forgiveness.
The walls of hostility between people are broken down – open fellowship.
 
 
Over Easter, I saw a documentary about The Choir of Hard Knocks in Melbourne,
it was formed by an Opera tenor Jonathan Welch.
The membership criteria:
“If you’re homeless, in the grip of drugs, struggling with mental health problems or disadvantaged in some way,
You are welcome – there are no auditions”
Jonathan said it was scary: like throwing an open party with no idea who would come.
One guy sings shaking like a leaf because of his medication. 
A few hours before the first big concert, the top soloist staggered in drunk.
 
And yet, they’ve made two CDs and sung in the Melbourne town Hall
the choir has given members meaning, hope, value, belonging, family, like they never had.
At their Christmas spread, one said “it is 22 years since I’ve been to a Christmas party.”
Whoever you are, “you are welcome – there are no auditions.”
What a picture of the kingdom of God!
 

Mark 2:23-3:6 Sabbath Freedom

in the first part, the disciples weren’t stealing – the old testament said you could hand pick grain as you walked past a field.
But it counted as harvesting – agricultural labour.
Breaking the fourth command – no work on the Sabbath
 
It sounds a bit picky,
but a few years ago I went to the orthodox synagogue here in Auckland on Saturday.
The service was quite formal, but afterwards the usual church tea and biscuits.
The secretary told me of a website, I reached into my jacket to get a pen,
– “don’t write!”  “huh?”, “the Sabbath!”
A close call – saved from breaking the Sabbath – I might have been smitten.
 
But in the bathroom, there were boxes of tissues on top of the toilet roll dispenser.
I thought how nice – softer paper to blow my nose
afterwards, I discovered, one of the forbidden Sabbath activities is tearing .
tearing off TP – I’ve broken it after all!
 
 
The last weeks I’ve read a few books on the Sabbath,
they paint a picture of deep richness and goodness
like the smell of grandmother’s baking in the oven
that really sums up the kingdom of God themes we’ve seen so far
 
 
the word “Sabbath” means “stopping”
stopping our work, to rest in God’s lavish hospitality
remembering we live by God’s grace, not our own efforts.[2]
 
the Sabbath reminds us of the big God-story
it looks back to what God has done:
it shares God’s delight in creation, and celebrates how in Egypt he set his people free
creation and freedom – What better day for that man to be recreated, freed and healed?
 
And the Sabbath looks forward to what God will do
It’s a sneak preview of the new age, the end-times party, when the Messiah comes
The Sabbath is God’s great gift, a “refuge for our souls”, the “capstone of creation”, a “cathedral in time”.
 
 
in these books,
Words like goodness, gladness, joy, delight, came time and time again.
What a contrast with the Pharisees.[3]
 
Look at the title of this book –
“Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting”  (Marva Dawn, 1989)
 
Like the pun? holy – wholly.
Holiness is about wholeness and unity – not division and separation.
Ceasing?  Resting?  The Pharisees can’t stop their work of defending the law
Embracing?  No way – how unhygienic: you could be unclean!
Feasting?  they took pride in their long-faced fasting
 
They really missed the point.[4]
 
 
The Jubilee
The Old Testament Sabbath concept is more than just one day of the week
every seven years was a Sabbath year, when the land itself could rest, and lie fallow.
Every 7×7 = 49 years was the Jubilee.  (Leviticus 25)
The trumpet would sound
debts were written off
slaves were set free
 
 
The weekly Sabbath points to the Jubilee year
the Jubilee year points to the Messiah.
 
In Jesus’ first sermon, in Luke’s gospel, he announced the Jubilee had come (Luke 4:16-21, Isaiah 61)
good news for the poor
release to the captives
sight to the blind.
Life to the dead
 
The Jewish Sabbath became our Sunday,
when we celebrate the resurrection,
in Christ, the walls between God, us and others are down.
And the final barrier, the great wall of death, has fallen.
 
when we come together to share communion, or Thanksgiving, or the Lord’s supper.
The wine of the kingdom, the bread like the wedding cake of the Lamb.
It’s a foretaste of the messianic banquet, the final Jubilee
 

Lawbreaker or Lord – Who Is This Man Jesus?

he is a physician, the bridegroom, Lord of the Sabbath.
He’s the Son of Man, a messianic title from Daniel
 
In chapter 1, he teaches with authority, heals the sick and drives out demons
in chapter 2, we’ve seen he parties with riffraff, celebrates life, and gives free forgiveness
 
in light of the old testament, the evidence grows
it all suggests he is the long-awaited Son of David, the quasi-divine Messiah King.
 
But in each episode today, the Pharisees’ hostility grows:
first they grumble in their hearts, then they question the disciples, then they challenge Jesus directly.
the Pharisees know he’s not from God, because he breaks God’s law.
By the end of chapter 3, they decide he’s from the devil (Mark 3:22).
 
But his fame is spreading
it’s an outbreak of lawlessness, an epidemic of uncleanness, a pandemic of sinful swine flu
it must be quarantined.
 
Jesus blasphemes, and profanes the Sabbath.  (John 9:16)
in the old testament, both are punished by death:
The bridegroom must be taken away
the false messiah must be destroyed.
 

Fortress or Feast – What Is This Kingdom of God?

the Pharisees had a genuine zeal to honour God’s holiness by obeying his laws.
But I think they made two big mistakes.
 
Mistake One: a mindset of pollution:
they thought sin defiles holiness, evil corrupts good, darkness quenches light (see Haggai 2:12-13)
so they must be kept separated, to protect what is pure – a fortress mentality!
It is the order of creation.
 
But the key to creation is not “God separated”, but “God saw everything he had made, and it was very good.”
 
in Jesus, the kingdom of God “invades the territory of uncleanness”[5]
Now cleanness is contagious.
it breaks out of quarantine and spreads like yeast.
For Jesus, Holiness is more infectious than sin!
 
when Jesus hangs out with sinners, touches a leper, contacts a corpse
The law says, the Pharisees say, he will be defiled,
but no: at his touch sinners become pure, the sick become clean, and the dead come to life
 
 
Mistake Two: Pharisees thought we need to be holy, before God will bless us
in Jewish tradition, if Israel perfectly kept the Sabbath law for one day, then the Messiah would come
 
but it’s the other way round – God first comes to us.
 
There’s a wonderful phrase, that sums up the gospel:
“theology is grace, ethics is gratitude”
First God’s free gift to us, and second, our grateful response for what he’s already done
God freed Israel from Egypt before giving them the law
he offers us forgiveness before we repent.
Jesus embraces us while still sinners,
“we love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
 
But sometimes we forget all this, and slip into Pharisee psychology ourselves
we can think God only works inside the walls of the church.
I used to give out food and drinks on the weekend to street people, with a group called DrugARM.
once or twice, transvestites on K-Road  – all dolled up for their customers – were singing hymns with us.
Flashes of God’s kingdom, church outside the pious box!
The church isn’t a “society of saints” but a “school for sinners”, a hospital for the unholy.
 
 
When I described my synagogue Sabbath experience – “don’t write!”
Who thought: what pharisaic legalism.
Thank God, that Jesus saved us from that slavery?
 
But is that judging like Pharisees ourselves?
 
I also went to a Passover celebration there.
yes, reverence for all the details.
But trusting in God frees us to be childlike – there was also such playfulness and delight:
the youth group acted the exodus – à la Monty Python!
At my table was the most thankful, joyful old man,
he said his wife had died, but he wasn’t lonely, he talks with God from the moment he wakes.
 
I reckon he lived the spirit of the Psalms:
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.
The statutes of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes…
They are more precious than gold, sweeter than honey,                              Psalm 19
 
I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.[6],[7]  Psalm 119:32
 
don’t you love it?  That’s what God’s law is about.
His commands are not burdensome; his perfect law gives freedom (1 John 4:3, James 1:25).
So when our rules or beliefs,
separate, divide, exclude or enslave people, we’ve got it wrong.
We’ve lost sight of the forgiveness, the fellowship, the freedom, of God’s new kingdom.
 
The kingdom of God is not a closed defensive fortress, but an open embracing feast.
It’s not an exclusive holy club, fenced off with rules:
No moral failures allowed
it’s like the Choir of Hard Knocks:
You are welcome – there are no auditions.
 

Conclusion

many of us have heard the Pharisee-voices, saying
“You’re too unclean – God can’t just forgive you.
You’re not good enough – Jesus wouldn’t eat with you.”
We are crippled in our shame and guilt
 
so we struggle to try harder.
We barricade ourselves behind fortress walls.
We enslave ourselves with rules and requirements.
 
You can stop sheep from straying with barbed wire and electric fences.
The way of the Pharisees
but in the desert, no barriers are needed – the sheep are drawn to the life-giving wells.
That’s the kingdom of God.
 
So Jesus says
“My son, my daughter, my weary burdened child.[8]
The Jubilee has come!
Your sins are forgiven.
your debts have been written off.
You are free.
So cease your striving and enjoy my Sabbath rest.
Learn the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’.
Come, drink from the well of my life.
Leave your lonely fortress and come, rejoice in my feast.”


[1] For your Maker is your husband – as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.  Isaiah 54:5, 62:5
`Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’  Revelation 19.
[2] It’s an antidote to anxiety: the Sabbath shows that "God is not anxious about the world.  On the seventh day, he doesn’t show up at the office.  He lets it be" (Walter Brueggeman)
[3] Devout Jews treat the Sabbath like a bride or a queen, often live frugally during the week to save special treats for the Sabbath feast, may begin the day by saying "today I’m going to pamper my soul", and are even recommended to make love their spouse – three times!
[4] Matthew’s gospel splits  Mark 2:1-3:6 into two sections, in both of which Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 " I desire mercy, not sacrifice, (and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings)."
[5] “The rule of God generates conflict because it ruptures the conventional conception of God … Instead of guarding boundaries, God now crosses boundaries.  Instead of remaining in the temple, God breaks out to become available everywhere.  Instead of withdrawing from defilement, God spreads holiness.  Instead of working from the centre, God works from the margins.” Rhoads, Dewey & Michie, 1999, Mark as Story.
[6] “The least one can say about people who express such enthusiastic sentiments for the law is that they were not grovelling along under a heavy burden of legalism. They were not anxiously striving to earn their way into salvation and a relationship with God through punctilious law-keeping. They were not puffed up with the claims of self-righteousness or exhausted with the efforts of works-righteousness. They did not, in short, fit into any of the caricatures that have been inflicted upon the Old Testament law by those who, misunder-standing Paul’s arguments with those who had distorted the law, attribute to the law itself the very distortions from which Paul was seeking to exonerate it.
 
On the contrary, people who could frame such paeans of praise for the law knew that it was a national treasure greater than any museum could boast. Such devout Israelites delighted in the law as a gift of God’s grace and token of God’s love, given to them for their own good (Deut. 4:1, 40; 6: 1-3, 24 etc.). They saw it as a blessing in itself, and the means of enjoying God’s continued blessing (Deut. 28:1-14). They recalled that the revelation of the law to Israel was a unique privilege, granted to no other nation (Deut. 4:32-34; Ps. 147:19-20). They urged one another to obey it, not in order to get saved, but because God had already saved them (Deut. 6:20-25). They delighted in it as the road to life Lev 28:5; Deut. 30:15-20) and as the river of fruitfulness (Ps. 1:1-3).”
 
Christopher Wright, 2004, Old Testament ethics for the people of God
[7] I read a book some years ago, that explained monastic disciplines like poverty, chastity, and obedience are about freedom, freedom to love.
[8] In Matthew, just before these Sabbath episodes, Jesus says,  "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (the true Sabbath!), and refers to his easy yoke  and light burden (opposed to the Pharisees’ heavy one) Matthew 11:28

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