How much is too much? I’m not thinking about chocolate here. That’s an easy one. No, I’m thinking about ministry effort. When do you say enough is enough? Is it OK to say “I’ve done my 40 hours this week; now I’m going to stop and have a rest”? Or should you work flat out all the time for the Lord? Alternatively, when you see someone in ministry seemingly working their fingers to the bone, should you tell them to stop and have a break?
I’ve known people who from my perspective seemed to be workaholics, never stopping, always looking for another opportunity to minister, to help someone out. And I’ve thought they should look after themselves more. It’s a fine line isn’t it, between being a workaholic, and working flat out at serving God?
But of course it’s much easier to make a judgement like that from the sideline isn’t it? If you’re not the one actually engaged in that ministry it’s hard to know what’s the right thing to do.
Well, in today’s passage we see two different sets of onlookers watching Jesus and judging him. They both think he’s not quite right, though their conclusions as to the cause are quite different.
What do you think’s going through Jesus’ family’s mind as they hear about what Jesus is doing? They’ve heard that he’s under such pressure to teach and heal that he isn’t getting any rest and in fact he doesn’t even have time to eat. You can imagine, everyone’s talking about him and some are even suggesting he’s losing his mind, going too far in his willingness to give them what they want.
Could it be that they’re embarrassed by him? Embarrassed that people might think this is what his family is like?
Some of us get embarrassed by Jesus or by God at times. When we read passages like this where Mary and Jesus’ brothers don’t look good. Or worse still when we hear some of the stories in the Old Testament, particularly, where God exercises his judgment on nations or people who oppose him. When we heard the story of Miriam 2 weeks ago we might have been embarrassed at the way she celebrated the death of hundreds of Egyptian soldiers. When you read the story of God striking down Ananias and Sapphira because they held back a portion of the proceeds from the sale of their land, in Acts 5, do you worry that God seems too harsh?
If Jesus’ family are embarrassed it’s because they’ve decided he’s going too far. As I thought about this it struck me that I need to be careful that I don’t fall into the same trap as Jesus’ family did here, of judging Gospel ministry (gospel priorities) by the standards of the world. The person who works flat out preaching the gospel may be different from the person who never stops working at their secular job. Can you see how? Ask yourself, how was it that Jesus could keep going even though he was so pressed by people that he didn’t even have time to eat? Do you remember that incident in John’s gospel when Jesus was speaking to the Samaritan woman by the well. What did he say to the disciples when they came back from the town with a basket of lunch? They were concerned that he must be hungry and they urged him to eat something. But he said “I have food to eat that you know nothing about... My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” Jesus’ preaching and teaching were sustenance enough for him. God’s Spirit bore him up as he taught and healed. There was an inner strength given to him by God that kept him going. That’s one of the reasons of course that he spent time alone in prayer. Because in communion with God he was strengthened and empowered to go on. This was the hidden source of strength that his family failed to see. They thought he was neglecting himself when in reality he was doing the very thing that gave him strength. He was doing the will of God. He was experiencing God at work in the lives of the people to whom he ministered.
But his family weren’t the only ones who failed to see the source of his power. Already in this gospel Mark has emphasised the power and authority with which Jesus taught and healed, but as we’ve seen before, the very people who might have been expected to recognise the source of this power and authority fail to do so. Both Jesus’ family who were closest to him and the religious leaders who should have been able to recognise the work of God, misunderstood him. The religious leaders have come down from Jerusalem to check out what was going on and they don’t like what they see. Look back at the start of the chapter, in v6. There we find them plotting with the Herodians how they might kill him. When they came down from Jerusalem it was with only one thing in mind and that was to discredit what Jesus was doing. Now this is important for what follows. They haven’t come to see whether what he’s saying is worth hearing, or to check on his credentials. Their minds are already made up. All they want is to undermine him in the eyes of the people.
So when they hear someone commenting that he must be out of his mind, it’s the perfect lead in for them. “He’s not just out of his mind” they say, “He’s possessed by Beelzebub. That’s how he can drive out all these demons, he’s doing it in Satan’s name.”
It was very quick thinking wasn’t it? Except that there was a basic fallacy in their argument. “How can Satan drive out Satan?”, Jesus asks. It just doesn’t make sense. Then he tells them a parable. He says imagine a kingdom that’s at war against itself. How can it stand? Clearly it can’t, can it? We’ve seen enough of that in our own day haven’t we? Ireland, Congo, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya and most recently Syria. Nations that have destroyed themselves or are in the process of destroying themselves through civil war. Similarly a house, that is, I take it, a family that’s divided against itself won’t remain as a family. This may be a subtle reference to his own family who are at this very moment on their way to come and rescue him from himself.
We had a funeral here last week for Peg Morgan and I commented on how wonderful it was to see all her grandchildren standing together to sing her praises. That’s how a family should be isn’t it? But sadly you don’t always see it because families don’t always get on together.
But Satan isn’t so stupid as to oppose himself. There’s no way he’s going to allow those who are under his control to be freed if he can help it. There’s only one way that Satan’s hold over a person can be removed. That’s if Satan is first overcome. To rob a strong man’s house you first have to tie up the strong man.
Can you see what Jesus is saying? He’s telling them to think about what’s been going on here. How is it that Jesus has been able to drive out these demons from people? The only way he could do it would be if he first overcame Satan. That is if he were more powerful than Satan. Now who’s more powerful than Satan? No-one on earth. Satan is described as the ruler of this world. The only one who’s more powerful than Satan is God himself. The only way that Jesus could drive out evil spirits was if God’s Holy Spirit was within him, empowering him.
That’s why Jesus gives them this dire warning: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:28-29 NRSV)
Now why does he come out with this terrible saying? That even the death of Jesus can’t atone for this sin. What is it about what they’re doing? Their offence isn’t that they question - Jesus never objects to honest questions - plenty of people in the gospels question Jesus, and those questions often lead to Jesus’ most profound statements. Nor is it just that they doubted. Doubt isn’t a sin in itself. Think about Thomas after the resurrection. Jesus accepted Thomas’ need for reassurance and showed him his hands and his side. If there was any hint of a rebuke in Jesus words to Thomas it was a very mild one. Nor is it their lack of understanding. The disciples regularly misunderstood. In the next chapter, in v13 Jesus rebukes them for not understanding the parable of the sower. But it’s hardly a sin.
Nor is it that they’ve inadvertently come out with a word or phrase that could be considered blasphemous, the way some people today say “Oh My God!” without even thinking.
No, their sin is that, in the presence of God’s grace in action, they have not only rejected it, but have ascribed it to the devil. This is their fixed position. They’ve come with the express purpose of denying Jesus’ claim to work by God’s power, by the power of the Spirit. They’re set on calling the Spirit’s work the activity of Satan. And their sin is all the greater because these are the informed and educated religious leaders of the people. These are those who determine the religious understanding of the ordinary people. Remember what James said to teachers: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3:1)
Well just then, Jesus’ mother and brothers arrive and send someone in to call him out. There’s a feeling of distance here isn’t there? They’re not going to go in and join him. They want him to come out to them.
In response we get one of the toughest sayings and one of the most misused sayings in the bible. Jesus turns to those around him and asks (Mark 3:33-35) “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then he looks at those seated in a circle around him and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Now God’s creative purpose was to put people into family units as the basic unit of relationships. But at the same time what Jesus says here is a warning that even a relationship as deep and precious as that of the human family, is superseded by the fellowship of the new family of God, which will continue into eternity. This is a warning to us as a church to be careful about overemphasising family in our church programs. We actually have few natural families in our congregation. But we’re all people whom God has called to be his sons and daughters by adoption. We constitute a family of eternal dimensions. What we have here are relationships that can provide all that an earthly family may not, either because they’re no longer around, or because they’re alienated from us for one reason or another, or because, like Jesus family, they don’t understand what we’re on about.
So while this is a hard saying, it’s also one that contains a rich promise on the other side of the coin.
So as we get to the end of the third chapter of Mark, we find the momentum building up. The opposition from the religious leaders is becoming more overt. Jesus’ challenge to those who follow him is becoming tougher. The source of his power is becoming more obvious. Who is this Jesus? is becoming a more pressing question. How will people respond to what he does and says?
C.S. Lewis once suggested that there were only 3 ways of seeing Jesus. Either he was mad, as his family thought, or he was an impostor, motivated by evil, as the Pharisees suggested, or he was exactly who he claimed to be, the Son of God, the Lord of creation.
Well, how do you respond? Like the Pharisees who want everything to be neat and tidy within their clearly defined religious parameters? Like Jesus’ family who are a bit embarrassed by him; who doubt him? Or like those who followed him, even at the risk of their lives.
Are you one whose desire is to be counted among his spiritual brothers and sisters? What did he say? “Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother.” That’s the criterion for membership of Jesus family. Are you ready to do his will?
All of us are called to be God’s sons and daughters. It’s a gift he gives freely. But then he expects us to be those who remain loyal to him and who seek to do his will no matter the cost.
Let’s pray that we will see clearly who Jesus is and follow him faithfully for the rest of our lives as part of God’s family.