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A Surprising Kingdom

Series: The Gospel of Mark

Sermon by David Strain on Jul 22, 2018

Mark 3:7-19

Would you take your Bibles now please in your hands, and turn with me to the gospel according to Mark, chapter 3; page 838 in the church Bibles. Mark chapter 3. We’re considering verses 7 through 19. If you were to take only a casual glance at these two passages, you might think Mark is doing some housekeeping. You know, he’s telling us some connecting information between two major sections of the book. So verses 7 through 12 there’s a little summary of the progress of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee; then in 13 through 19 we get the list of the twelve apostles. That sets things up for the remainder of the book as we learn more about the apostles and their ministry in partnership with Jesus. And so it looks like housekeeping and you might skim over it and move right along. And while some of that is true enough, there are some important truths that we might miss if we were simply to regard these two passages in that light.

Let me list the three themes that we will be considering together in these verses this morning so that as we read it in a few moments you’ll have a sense of where we are going. First of all, I want you to notice in verses 7 through 12 how Mark sets up a contrast with the passage we considered last week in verses 1 to 6. There is a simple contrast here designed to reveal the real power of the Gospel. A simple contrast that reveals the power of the Gospel. Then secondly, we’re also going to notice that at the end of the first passage in verse 12, and again at the end of the second passage in verse 19, there are some sinister agents that appear. There’s demonic powers; there’s a note about Judas Iscariot. And yet, both are made to serve a broader purpose as Mark tells the story about Jesus. Both indicate truth about Christ so that sinister agents are made to serve Gospel ends, you see. So first, we have a simple contrast that reveals Gospel power. Secondly, sinister agents that serve Gospel ends. And then, as we look at the list of the twelve apostles, the men that Jesus called, these rather ordinary, frankly often quite messy, confused, contradictory, ordinary men, these twelve men. This is a point for which I am personally very grateful – how strange people make Gospel servants. Strange people make Gospel servants. Praise the Lord, right?

So there’s the outline. Simple contrasts that reveal Gospel power. Sinister agents made to serve Gospel ends. And strange people that make Gospel servants. Before we read the passage and begin to work through those three themes, let me ask if you would bow your heads with me one more time as we pray. Let’s pray together.

Lord, at this point on a Sunday morning, especially for those of us who are here regularly, it’s easy for us to come at this as to a routine and begin to tune it all out. Now we pray for the ministry of the Holy Spirit so that instead of tuning out, we might tune in. Lord Jesus, would You come and by Your Word do open heart surgery in our lives. Encourage us, enable us, equip us, rebuke us, confront us, and then deploy us in Your service. For we ask it in Your name, amen.

Mark chapter 3, reading from the seventh verse. This is the inerrant Word of Almighty God:

“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.

 

And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.

On the Spanish island of Tenerife in 2014, local police received a phone call, a panicked call alerting them to a gorilla that had escaped from the Laurel Park Zoo on the island. Authorities rushed to the scene; they called a veterinarian who was required to tranquilize the escaped animal. The poor man had been on the job two months when he began the hunt for this massive silverback. After some searching, he managed successfully to tranquilize the gorilla with a sedative shot strong enough to bring down a 440-pound animal. And so the gorilla quickly went down and the vet approached, rather gingerly. And when he got close, however, much to his absolute horror, he discovered it wasn’t actually a gorilla after all; it was a zoo employee in a gorilla suit who had been assisting with a drill to test protocols for escaped animals. Their protocols worked rather well, this poor man discovered, to his own cost!

Simple Contrast Reveals Power of the Gospel

The point is, sometimes appearances can be deceiving. The contrast that Mark draws in verses 7 through 12 with the preceding material in verses 1 to 6, sort of help us see exactly that in the passage before us. Here’s the first thing I want you to see – the simple contrast that reveals the power of the Gospel. You remember in verses 1 to 6, if you were with us last time, Jesus is in the synagogue. He’s surrounded by the congregation, much as we are this morning here in church, a congregation of regular worshippers. The Pharisees are all there too, of course, watching Christ, scrutinizing His every move, looking for material with which to accuse Him. And the whole episode climaxed when Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, an act that enraged the Pharisees enough to make them hold their noses and work with their natural political opponents, the Herodians, in order to take Jesus down. Verse 6, “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against Him, how to destroy Him.”

Strategic Retreat

But then look at verse 7. Now, Jesus withdraws. He’s not fleeing the wrath of the Pharisees, but it is rather a strategic retreat. He’s pulling back because His mission is not yet complete. There is a great deal of work for Him still to do, and staying would almost certainly have exacerbated the growing tensions and conflict between Him and the religious establishment, ultimately hindering His ministry, ensnaring it in a hopeless tangle of controversy. And so He withdraws to the sea with His disciples. But as the action unfolds, notice the contrast. When He’s in the synagogue on the Sabbath, surrounded by the elites of the religious establishment, the results of His ministry there is only a plot to murder Him as soon as circumstances allow. When He backs off and heads to the beach for some time away with His disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, what happens then? Mark says “A great crowd followed from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that He was doing, they came to Him.” Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem are to the west. Idumea is in the south. Transjordan is in the east. Tyre and Sidon are in the north. You get what Mark is telling us. North, south, east, and west, people flocked to be with Jesus when Jesus withdraws to the sea.

As the poor vet outside the Laurel Zoo on Tenerife learned the hard way, just because someone looks like a gorilla doesn’t mean he is the real thing. All the trappings of the kingdom attend the assembly in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The theologians are there. The congregation has gathered. But when Jesus came among them, His ministry was an indictment on their unbelief and they respond only with malice and spite. But out on the beach, beside the Sea of Galilee where no one was looking for it, people came from all over the country just to get closer to Jesus. Just because someone looks like a gorilla doesn’t mean he’s the real thing. Just because this is where to expect the kingdom to be, doesn’t mean the kingdom fits into our nice, neat boxes.

Unexpectant Advances

The power of the Gospel, Mark is telling us, isn’t really regulated or programmed. It’s not neat and tidy. It doesn’t work on que. You sometimes see that on a church sign when you’re passing in the car. Don’t you? “Revival – Sunday, August 5-12 at 6pm.” They’ve programmed revival; they’ve booked a revival. I hope they let the Holy Spirit know. That’s not how the kingdom works, is it? It’s not how the power of God descends. It’s not how Jesus works. You can’t program a revival. You can’t package grace. You can’t manipulate the power of the Gospel. In fact, part of the message of our passage, surely, is that Jesus loves to break the mold. His kingdom advances in ways we often don’t expect.

In 1741, during the first Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards wrote a book to defend the revival that broke out under his ministry. They really knew how to write titles back then. His book has a fantastically snappy and memorable title. It’s called, “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God Applied to that Uncommon Operation that has Lately Appeared on the Minds of Many of the People of this Land with a Particular Consideration of the Extraordinary Circumstances with which this Work is Attended.” I’m sure you would have immediately rushed out to buy it and sent it straight to the top of the Best Seller list had you seen that title on the bookshelf! But Edwards was arguing very simply, “What we have been used to, or what the church of God has been used to, is not a rule by which we are to judge whether the work be of God.” No, he said the real gauge of whether the work is the work of God isn’t whether it fits the nice, neat mold of what we expect but whether it’s pattern and it’s fruits correspond to the teaching of the Scriptures.

The Gospel as a Change Agent

And one use of the passage before us is to remind us that the Gospel has a way of smashing the hum-drum and the everyday and shaking us out of the mold. In fact, the Gospel, when Jesus comes, the Gospel is a change agent. If the Gospel begins to grip your heart, your life is going to change. If the Gospel has its way among us, First Presbyterian Church is going to change. The Gospel is a change-agent. The same-old, same-old gets shaken up every time. Simple contrast here, do you see it, between the synagogue where everyone expected the power of the kingdom to be found, and Jesus on the beach with His friends where the kingdom erupted in unexpected ways. The simple contrast that reveals the power of the Gospel.

Sinister Agents Serve Gospel Ends

Then secondly, notice that even sinister agents are made to serve Gospel ends when Jesus works in His kingdom. There’s already been one unexpected twist, right? So we look at the synagogue, we expect that’s where the power of the kingdom should be on display, but it’s not. It’s back on the beach on the Sea of Galilee. And now, here’s another unexpected twist. Look at verses 11 and 12. Among the many who come to Jesus – they’re all pressing around Him seeking His help – among them there were demon-possessed men and women. Mark says whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, they fell down and cried out, “’You are the Son of God!’ And He strictly ordered them not to make Him known.” Now when Jesus met the Pharisees, they could not make head nor tail of Him. But when the demonic powers are confronted with Jesus, they can’t help but announce the truth. How’s that for a stinging indictment on the religious establishment? The Pharisees don’t know what to make of Jesus, but even the demons have to proclaim His real identity. Of course, when they did so, they weren't doing it gladly.

The Father’s Plan

In fact, it’s likely another attempt to derail His ministry. Having retreated from the controversy with the Pharisees, the demonic powers are trying to ensure that controversy will dog His steps no matter where He goes. By unmasking His true identity, creating still more chaos surrounding Him, so that He can never escape it. You see, Jesus must prosecute His ministry on the Father’s timetable according to the Father’s plan. And He will not have it derailed by these wicked powers. And so He silences them and refuses to allow them to speak.

Demonic Powers

That’s what’s going on internally in the story, but Mark has a larger design for including it here at this point in his account. Just like he has a similar, larger design when, at the end of the list of the twelve apostles, he includes Judas Iscariot and then that little note, “Judas Iscariot who betrayed Him.” Mark is rather skipping ahead to the end of the story, isn’t he? We’re only in chapter 3 and he’s already telling us about how things will end. Why is he doing it? Because he wants us to understand for all the malice and sinister motives of these wicked actors, the Lord is working out His purpose to make much of Jesus Christ and advance His mission in the world to the salvation of sinners. Despite the evil, demonic powers that attempt to derail His ministry, they identify it so that His name is honored. Despite Judas’ malicious intent to end Jesus’ ministry, it is by Judas’ betrayal that His ministry comes to its fulfillment at the cross, securing our deliverance. Evil, sinister agents ultimately serve Gospel ends.

God Reigns

Isn’t that an enormous comfort to us when we look at our world, at our society? Turn on your TV screens, listen to the news – it doesn’t matter which channel you prefer – listen to it if you can possibly bear it for more than five minutes at a time as they all start shouting over one another. Listen to the venom and listen to the acrimony. Listen to the way that the seedy and the sinful is lauded and honored or excused and affirmed. Look at your own heart. As you strive to be obedient, notice the way you sabotage your own attempts to follow Jesus as your lusts suddenly roar into life and you cannot help but follow their call. Look at the way that evil seems sometimes to prevail around us. Isn’t it easy to be discouraged in those moments? To begin to be tempted to think that perhaps Satan’s kingdom has gained the upper hand after all? Don’t we need to be reminded that even sinister agents must serve Gospel ends? That because the Lord God Almighty reigns, and at His right hand is the Son of God, risen from the dead who has made public spectacle of the principalities and powers, triumphing over them in the cross, because He is King of kings and Lord of lords, no matter the wickedness we see around us or even the sin that may for a time prevail in your own believing life, no matter what Satan’s strategies may be, it all must “work together for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose.” Even sinister agents must serve Gospel ends. Take heart, discouraged believer, though you may have taken several steps back as you’ve sought to be faithful and followed your Master’s call, in the end, even your temporary setbacks are part of a larger design.

That’s what the demonic powers were trying to do here. They were trying to inhibit and hamper and limit and undermine and derail the ministry of our Savior, not realizing that no matter which strategy they deploy, in the end, it only furthered the Master’s cause. Many of us have been praying for a missionary expelled recently from the country where he serves by a hostile government because he is preaching the Gospel. It’s not yet clear if he will be allowed to return and continue his ministry. And we’re right to be concerned and to pray and even to wonder what’s going to happen to the church that he has helped to plant if he is removed altogether from the scene. We’ve been praying, many of us. But we ought not to lose heart because not even wicked governments can thwart the design and purpose of the Lord Jesus Christ to gather to Himself a people from every tribe and language and nation. Let’s not forget there’s no such thing as a closed country when Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords.

You remember, I used this illustration often; it’s such a comfort to me as I pray for those around the world who are serving the Lord Jesus in difficult places. You remember what happened with the missionaries were expelled from China at the rise of communism. It looked like a terrible disaster, didn’t it, for the church. All the missionaries in the country were expelled. And then years later when western observers could see what had happened to the Chinese church that was so fragile when the missionaries were expelled, what did they find? They found a growing indigenous church following the Lord Jesus with zeal, owning the cause of Christ often at great personal cost with a resilience and a creativity and a flexibility that is even today breathtaking to behold. The persecution and the malice of a wicked government ultimately serving Gospel ends. Sinister agents serve Gospel ends because the Lord is on the throne; the Lord is on the throne.

Strange People make Gospel Servants

Simple contrasts that reveal Gospel power. Sinister agents that serve Gospel ends. And then lastly, strange people make Gospel servants. Look over at verses 13 through 19. Jesus went up on the mountain. He called twelve of the disciples who had been following Him. He called them apostles. They were to be with Him. That’s the non-negotiable, essential requirement for any kind of faithful ministry. You really can’t lead anyone to Jesus if you yourself are not with Jesus, especially important for those who were to be apostles. Christ had them with Him. They were to be eyewitnesses, after all, of all that Jesus said and did, of His life and ministry, His death and resurrection. And as eyewitnesses, inspired by the Holy Spirit, they were to give an authoritative explanation to His significance and the meaning of His coming. And there are twelve of them because there's a certain symbolism involved. Jesus is restoring the people of God. He's renewing the Israel of God. A similar message comes out when we learned about the great crowds from all the points of the compass that attended His ministry – Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, Transjordan, Tyre, and Sidon. Everyone from all over the land of promise, you see, flock to Jesus. And so there are twelve apostles just as there were twelve patriarchs that founded the people of God in the Old Testament. So this is an enormously significant moment, isn’t it, for these men. A hugely, weighty calling is being given to them, filled with significance and moment. Upon the labors of these twelve men, the church of Jesus Christ across the ages and around the world would be built.

Which is why the list of names is so amazing. You might know the fictitious treatment of Jesus’ team done in the style of a management consultant’s analysis. You’ve probably heard this, I’m sure:

Memo. To Jesus of Nazareth. From the Jerusalem Management Consulting Firm.

 

Dear Sir,

Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men you’ve picked for management positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken a series of tests and we have not only run the results through our computer, but we’ve also conducted an in-depth interview with each of them by our staff psychologist and vocational aptitude consultant. The profiles of all tests are included and you will want to study each of them carefully. It is the staff's opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background education and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. They do not have the team concept, and we would highly recommend that you continue your search for persons with more experience, higher qualifications, and greater managerial abilities. Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and is given to fits of temper. Andrew simply has no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, place personal interests above company loyalty and are quite boisterous. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale among the ranks. It is also our duty to inform you that the Better Business Bureau of Greater Jerusalem has received reports on Matthew regarding questionable business practices. James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus both have radical leanings and both demonstrate attitude problems which could present difficulty in their dealings with the public. However, one of your candidates shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind, and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious, responsible, and is not afraid to take the initiative. We recommend Judas Iscariot as the most qualified of all your prospective candidates.

 

Sincerely,

The Jerusalem Management Consulting Firm

Least Likely to Succeed

You get the point. These guys are not an obvious crop of candidates for the founding team of a global organization designed to overturn empires and change the world. Are they? Prideful, pompous, fearful, skeptical, greedy. Matthew, also called Levi, remember, is in effect a loan shark working, collaborating with the hated Roman-occupying forces. On the other extreme, Simon the Zealot is a Jewish partisan that belonged to a terrorist cell. This is a messy, awkward, unlikely bunch of sinful, silly men. And these are the apostles upon whom Christ founds His church. If the power of the Gospel breaks out of the religious boxes we like to put it in, and even evil must serve the design of God for the Gospel in the end, are you really all that surprised that Jesus often chooses to work with characters voted “Least Likely to Succeed” in their high school yearbook? What a relief it is, actually. What a relief. It means there’s room for you and room for me, all our sin and stupidity notwithstanding. Doesn’t it? It means Jesus isn’t put off by our failure or impressed by our resumes. All Jesus is looking for is men and women who will answer when He calls and say with the prophet Isaiah – you remember what he said? “Here am I. Send me.” Don’t let the lovely sanctuary we are sitting in fool you. Don’t let the nice clothes of the people in the pews around you deceive you. Scratch the surface of any life in this room, start with me – you’ll find men and women not so very different than these twelve; not so very different than you, in fact. Jesus has called us, as He called them. Maybe He’s calling you this morning.

How surprising the kingdom of Christ really is. We look in the synagogue and we don't find power, but back on the shores of the sea, there is a great awakening. We listen to the religious elite and they've got nothing but threats and malice for Jesus, but even the demons must tell the truth when Christ confronts them. He is the Son of God and His kingdom shall have no end. We hear Jesus calling His all-star team together and we expect the great and the good; instead, we find twelve flawed men, just like me and you. How surprising and how wonderful Jesus' kingdom really is. You see, Jesus is a King to trust, isn't He, in whose service faith can replace fear at last, and under whose Lordship we are all welcome. 

Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, how we’re so grateful, we’re so grateful that You don’t work on a timetable and we don’t put You in a box. We can’t constrain or programitize spiritual renewal. You work in surprising ways, ways that we did not expect, and now we pray that You would continue to do exactly that here among us and in our hearts and lives. Grant that the change agent of the Gospel might have its way among us. Help us not to be discouraged or to lose heart when we seem to see evil prevail in our homes, in our lives, in our community, in the world around us. Help us to remember that even sinister agents must serve Gospel ends in Your ultimate purposes. And as we do, would You call and deploy us, summon us to Your service, and send us out with authority in Your name. Grant those of us who seek to serve You to be with You, that we may take others to a Savior we know well. And use us, please, for Your glory. Thank You that there is room on the rolls of those whom You call disciples, for strange people, for sinners, and weaklings, for the confused and the needy. There’s room for us. So when You call us, would You give us grace to answer, “Here am I, Lord. Send me.” For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.

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