February 28: The Third Sunday in Lent

Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun 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 produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” – Mark 4:1-9

I once saw a political cartoon showing a giant, Godzilla-sized elephant and a similarly-sized donkey both appearing to be in the process of destroying the great dome of the US Capitol building. I wondered if someone a thousand years from now found the cartoon in the excavation of a garbage heap would wonder what kind of superstitious and primitive people we were to produce such art. Of course we know that it is a kind of artistic representation of a rather advanced civilization. But if you don’t have the kind of eyes to see that sort of thing, it must seem really weird.

That’s the way Jesus’ parables work and He means to use them that way. They are often politically incorrect, i.e., they are out-of-step with the prevailing culture’s commonly held values and hopes. Jesus’ vision of how God was sowing his word surely won’t set well with the Jerusalem-centric leadership, but it isn’t going to play well with ordinary citizens of Israel either. They wanted the kingdom of God to come in a blaze of glory that all the world would bow before in awe. Jesus is saying it’s more like a farmer sowing see, most of which apparently goes to waste because the soil isn’t fit for it anyway.

Things haven’t really changed. Ironically, if you’ve heard this passage preached as being about how people listen to sermons (“be the good soil so you’ll hear the sermon and it will stick with you”), then the preacher supposedly preaching the word has actually had the meaning hidden from him. That is not what the passage is about, at least when Jesus said it. For Jesus, the parables are partly meant to divide (those who get it and those who don’t) and they still do that today.

The sower sowing seed was obviously something with which the original audience was very familiar, but it goes back further than that. In the prophets, especially, God is sowing Israel again in her own land after the long years of exile. The fortunes of His people are being restored, the cypress is replacing thorns, the myrtle is replacing briars, trees and clapping their hands, and it sometimes even looks like maybe Eden is possible again. The familiar Isaiah statement, “The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever,” indicates that the word being sown will overcome death and curse. In fact, all will be made new.

The first three types of soil are not meant to symbolize three different types of unregenerate hearts. Israel has been planted, but the seed has gone bad because of bad ground. In the second soil, you find the Pharisees, the Zealots, and the disciples who want Him to reject the cross. The third soil is the Herodians and Sadducces and Judas who are in it for the money. The good soil is Christians who continually repent and believe (those in Jesus’ day right up to our own).

We usually think of the good news of the gospel as being the content of the work of Jesus Christ. And it certainly is, but it is also good news to know that you have ears to hear. That means your deafness from idolatry has been restored and you are now exactly the kind of soil in which the Kingdom of God takes root and grows until the knowledge of the glory of the Lord covers the earth as the waters cover the sea. And that’s the gospel!

Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”– for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.” – Mark 3:20-30

I’ve lost count of how many Christians I’ve known over the years who have told me that they were either chronically worried they had committed the “unforgivable” (or “eternal”) sin or that they were acutely sure that they had. One fellow told me that he had uttered some choice words involving the Holy Spirit during an episode of not being able to get his lawn mower to start that he feared had sealed his eternal doom.

While it is a dreadful thing to speak a word against the Lord even during lawn mower sufferings, the passage above indicates that such a sin alone is not the unforgiveable sin. The context is that scribes do not like what Jesus is doing, especially since His popularity is growing. He is not ordained in their presbytery, so this will never do. They want to label Him in such a way that no one will ever listen to Him again. The strategy is to show that He is in cahoots with the arch-demon, Beelzebul. Perhaps Jesus can do all these amazing things because Beelzebul inhabits Him. While evil, this plan has a good chance of working. Problem is, of course, that Jesus effortlessly outsmarts them.

Jesus doesn’t start to expose who the scribes really are. He doesn’t call them names or label them in kind. Instead he calmly points out the flaw in their suggestion: “How can the Accuser cast out the Accuser?” This is a war, and if it’s an internal war (a “civil” one) then victory is impossible. The house cannot stand and will come to an end. It is impossible that Jesus will win with His current course of action in casting out demons if He is the Five-Star General of Demons, Beelzebul.

But Jesus is not merely on the defensive against their claims. He provides the Parable of the Strong Man to allow those who have ears to hear that there is a war going on, and it involves the Accuser and his minions. Rather than cooperating with that evil army, Jesus is lining up his forces (comprised shockingly of tax collectors, fisherman, and “sinners”) against the kingdom and army of Satan.

It’s at this point that Jesus offers the warning concerning the “eternal sin.” It is eternal because once you go there, you’ll never go back. You will be blind to the truth. The scribes were suggesting a conspiracy that Jesus was involved in. Believe in that conspiracy and no matter what Jesus does, you’ll attribute it to Satan. How terrible! You’d be hopelessly stuck in calling good evil and evil good and powerless to see it any other way.

Even the scribes aren’t there yet. They have more opportunity for repentance. Rejection of Jesus, as dreadful as that is, does not bring instantaneous, permanent condemnation. But time will run out. For the scribes of the original audience of this passage, Pentecost is coming when time will run out for Israel. That’s when the Holy Spirit will baptize with fire, and they’d better be ready. Proverbs 29:1, He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing.

Repentance must be like voting in Chicago: early and often! Jesus is telling them and all of us to repent the first time. He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts. And that’s the gospel!

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him. And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him. And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” And he strictly ordered them not to make him known. – Mark 3:7-12

I’ve seen video of people being trampled at sporting events, especially soccer matches. Someone in our church recently told me of a crowd experience they had had where a moment of panic set in and they were fearful of the same thing happening to them. I can’t help but think something like that is a real danger in Mark’s passage above. Jesus actually has to give instructions to have a boat ready because the crowd might crush him! That’s easy to read over as an interesting, but otherwise incidental, detail; however, if you picture it, the scene is remarkable.

Word certainly got around fast. Without a single electrical device or mechanically duplicated piece of paper, people came “from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon.” That’s pretty much everywhere. Yes, there were whose “who had diseases,” but Mark, writing an apocalyptic gospel, tears back the curtain to show that there is always a darker and deeper something behind the scenes. The powers of darkness seem to be at least as big a problem as the need for medical treatment or healing.

Mark uses the term “the unclean spirits” to let us know that they are non-physical powers that work in a person, and that they make the person they inhabit defiled or “unclean.” Notice Mark says “whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him….” What did this look like? Did the demon come out of the person, take on a bodily form, and bow down? No, the inhabited person would bow down and that person’s voice would cry out, “You are the Son of God.”

Picture it: people were coming for healing, but when they came into the presence of a power as great as Jesus, people cried out. Mark lets us know what’s really going on, but the scene must have been amazing with masses of people crying out, “You are the Son of God.” What they have to say is Jesus’ true identity. It’s doubtful that the crowds knew that going in, thus it is being revealed by demons (of all things!). Perhaps even the disciples were learning in a more precise way that this is the Messiah, the true King of Israel.

What Jesus was doing there at the Sea of Galilee is what He is doing today: bringing New Creation to make people new. He’s not making them “brand” new, but restoring what has been lost in the fall. Not one of us behaves as we were created to function, but Jesus corrects that. With New Creation comes true humanity. We were not created to get sick or die or be inhabited by defiling spirits. We were created to live forever free of disease and death, clean and holy, to have life, and abundantly so. That’s what Jesus was doing way back then, and it’s what He’s doing now, even in 21st-century America. And that’s the gospel!