How quickly things can change. There is no greater illustration of this cycle of fickleness and stubbornness than the election cycles that fill up our news across the Globe. Every four years, the world watches as America pins all its hopes and dreams on a new president with almost messiah-lite expectations to watch as approval numbers drop and frustration grows. Others promise the solution and hope that the nation has been looking for.
In April 2022, President Macron (of France) was on course to see his political Party win a majority within the parliament and allow him to implement his political plan for the next five years, fresh after winning his election, then by June, the polls of opinion where showing En Marche struggling, and as the results trickled in the governing party had lost its majority. In a matter of weeks, the people of France reacted against a man they had just elected and punished him at the polls! How quickly things can change, how fickle crowds can be.
“The hearts of the people are fickle; they are guilty and must be punished. The LORD will break down their altars and smash their sacred pillars.” – Hosea 10:2 (NLT)
The fickleness of the human heart is not isolated to election cycles, or the modern age, where we struggle to focus on any task for too long or commit to something that might take too long. The fickleness of humanity has been ingrained in us since the moment that sin entered the world when we grew frustrated with God and sought another way. As you read through the contours of the Scriptures, you will be met with moment after moment of human stubbornness and God’s Grace. We are a fickle people, always have been and always will be – yet, more than our fickleness/stubbornness is the beauty of Grace and mercy that we see consistency from God. Where we are fickle, God is constant and good.
That fickleness of heart has been no more evidence in the contours of Mark’s Gospel over the last few weeks. We have watched as John the baptist told the crowds about the Messiah who was to come, and then how the groups and leadership slowly turned against him as he called them to repent of their sins and ways and turn to God. Then as John faded from the scene and Jesus picked up the baton and continued on the work of proclaiming repentance, demonstrating the Kingdom and pointing people to God and his way and away from their idol. We saw how the crowd were initially amazed at his power and authority as he taught in a way unlike the religious leaders (1:20); then somewhat perplexed as he told them he had come not for the righteous but sinners (2:17); Then slightly annoyed as he didn’t conform to their rules (2:18,23); then their annoyance moved to frustration as Jesus confronted them with the truth that forms their own beliefs about God they had fallen into grave error in their religions (2:19-22,25,36). If all of that was not bad enough to leave the crowd and the religious authorities of the day no longer neutral towards him, he dared to point out engrained wrongs and sins about their understanding of the Sabbath and enjoying God’s day.
How quickly the crowds can turn as Jesus’ message and the way was no longer pleasing to their ears. They had moved from amazement and excitement to disdain and disbelief because he would not be what they wanted him to be. The people are still intrigued by him, but the crowd has generally started to turn against this, and now the religious leaders are no longer unsure about Jesus; they are sure about him – that he is not the one they have been waiting for but a threat to all that they are and all that they do: so now they are determined to do something about it. Their eyes are on him, their minds against him, and their hearts fickle to his way as they wait for a moment to pounce and prove to the world what they have already decided is true. Yet, we see in every encounter, especially in this encounter, that it might be their way, but it is not God’s way. Especially on this Sabbath day when they think they have found their opportunity to catch and confront Jesus! While they believe they have caught him, what we soon see is they are the ones who are stuck (in their ways and not God).
The World Might Hide You: God Sees You (1-3)
Last week, Mark 2 finished with that beautiful, controversial statement from Jesus: “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” They were words that were true and talked the people of God needed to hear – because they had drifted so far from what God had intended for the sabbath – yet, they were controversial words because, as “truth”, they went against what had become the norm for the sabbath, and what had been taught as accurate by the people who claimed to Know God and discern his teaching for the world.
Remember that God had intended Sabbath to be a day of rest and enjoyment him, yet, over the years, men who claimed to represent him and speak for him, men who claimed to have been appointed by God and know what was from God and best for people and those who wanted to worship him. They were pious, religious, zealous for the things of God, keen to be known as they who spoke for God! Yet, what Jesus makes clear is why they know lots about God: they don’t know anything about Him. For centuries, as the religious leader’s knowledge of God grew, so did their distance from Him, as they humanised the wonder of life/relationship with God. Over centuries those who claimed to speak for God had lost sight of the heart of God for his people, a heart that has always been gracious and merciful. I love how AW summaries the heart of God as he writes:
“When Jesus died on the cross, the mercy of God did not become any greater. It could not become any greater, for it was already infinite. We get the odd notion that God is showing mercy because Jesus died. No–Jesus died because God is showing mercy. It was the mercy of God that gave us Calvary, not Calvary that gave us mercy. If God had not been merciful there would have been no incarnation, no babe in the manger, no man on a cross and no open tomb.”
It was this truth about the character and heart of God that the religious leaders of the day had lost sight of as they became so focused on how things were done, spiritual purity of action and deed, they focused on the outward rather than the inward. As Leaders, they became people who said God expected things to be done a certain way because that was how they had been done for centuries (and they said so). Hence, faithfulness and relationship with God took on the form of actions, ritual, and religious routine, without any sight of the radical truth that God is first concerned with our heart and that by his Mercy, we approach not through effort, ritual or religious routine but by the Grace of Him who we seek to come. Hence, the Sabbath as a day of rest and Worship was a day that was first and foremost about the heart before God that approached in Mercy and thankful Worship. Still, for the religious leaders and those under their tutelage, it had become a day of pious ritual and elevation as they judged those who failed to “live well” and promoted their righteousness.
Where God desires Mercy and not Sacrifice (Hosea 6:6) on the Sabbath (because that is his heart), The religious leaders prompted Sacrifice regardless of the nature offered it. Thus, for Jesus to say that Sabbath is for man is to remind those who will Listen that they must not be concerned with human-made instructions about Worship and approaching God; instead, they must look at their heart. Then to follow with the reverse: not man for the sabbath was a rebuke for those who had taken a gift from God and made it a burden. Hence Jesus re-establishes his authority over the Sabbath – he is the only one who what it means to live out and in Sabbath.
Hence, it is no surprise that as the Gthe gospel’s narrative moves, we see a situation that gets to the heart of the Sabbath and confronts the root sin of the religious leaders of the day. Mark shares about another day in the Synagogue on the sabbath, and there before Jesus is a man with a deformed hand (NLT). A man who should not be there by all norms of the day and to religious authorise would not have been welcome! He was unseen in the eyes of the world, especially on the Sabbath. Yet, while the world might not see or value him, Jesus sees and shows his value by placing him at the centre stage. That they believe Jesus can heal is in no doubt, but they want to know if he will recover on the Sabbath-breaking their teaching and understanding of the law. What does Jesus do as all eyes look at him in judgement? He challenges them to look at themselves as he shows he has nothing to hide by inviting the man from the Shadows to present: “Come and stand in front of everyone.” (3) Why did Jesus say this? Because while they look to judge him because of how he might do something, he wants them to see that God desires Mercy over sacrifice regardless of the day of the week: That the Lord is more concerned with the heart rather than how something is done or the keeping of human regulations or traditions.
What matter on the Sabbath – and every day – is not rule-keeping; things are done a certain way, pious law-keeping, religious routine, ritual, or doing things as they have been done. No! What matters is our heart before God; when our hearts are His and formed by Him, we will live as he lives and delight in the things he delights in. Thus, for the God who delights in Mercy over sacrifice, acts of Mercy will always triumph over adherence to ritual, routine, and dead religion. Jesus brings the man with the deformed hand into centre view because he wants all to see the Mercy of God and that God is a God of Mercy.
The Deadness of Religion(4)
As Jesus brings the man from the shadows into view of everyone, he wants everyone to see that no adherence to tradition or the law will save them before God. It is Mercy. He wants all whose eyes are looking to see that what matters more on the sabbath – and every day – is our heart. What flows from it, not the duty, routine, ritual, or religious tradition: What matters is that our hearts belong to God, are being formed by God and that the overflow of our lives displays the belongings of our hearts. The Religious leaders of the day knew lots about God but worshipped their status, power, influence and standing. Thus, the overflow of their hearts displayed the sin in their lives as they put the law before people; and sacrifice above Mercy. As they put religious tradition before true Worship; and ritual over restoration. Why? Because theirs was a dead religion that takes life and leads away from God: Jesus, the Lord of Sabbath, came to give life through Mercy and open up the way to God; hence he calls out the warpedness of their worldview, the hardness of their hearts, the deadness of the religion; and, the danger of putting human-made religious ritual’s and traditions over the merciful heart of God as made known in the Gracious good news of the Gospel that he came to preach and reveal as he questions:
“Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?”
The Response? Silence – they would not answer him because they would instead worship their routines and rules and the power it gave them: then see the merciful heart of God before them and at work.
The Life of Grace and Beauty the Gospel incarnated (5-6)
They are silent because they have no answer; they know that what Christ challenges them is true, but they would rather stay where they are than turn to the light of the Son of God. They would rather remain in the darkness of their dead religion and rituals, protecting routine and how things had been done as handed down by their peers, than see God’s better way and true purpose. That is to say, they would rather see the law kept to the purity of their understanding and teaching that one who was sick made well: They would rather see the man’s health sacrificed for their religious traditions and ritual than see the Mercy of God.
In verse two, we saw the gaze of the religious leaders on Jesus with judgemental expectations. Yet, verse five shows us that while they wait to see, Jesus is the one who can genuinely see to their silence. He looks upon them with anger (orgē: the reaction of divine nature against sin). Why is he angry with them? Because they were the ones who claimed to know God, the ones who had been the keepers of God’s way and accurate, the men appointed by the generations to bring the people to Worship and experience Mercy rather than show people that they could have a relationship with God because He is merciful and gracious they burdened them with tradition, ritual and routine as they set them on a course of death and not life. What does Jesus do in response to the hardness of their hearts? He shows that God does not expect adherence to Tradition or rituals but Mercy, as in response to the hardness of their seats and the sin that has ruled their lives, he acts against it: He is grieved by the spiritual state of God’s people and their leaders; that they would delight in dead religion over mercy. So, he shows Mercy as the heart of God and the way of the Kingdom as he turns to the man with the deformed hand and in plain sight of all there, against their religious expectation, he welcomes him into the Mercy of God by telling him to “Stretch out your Hand.” What happened? The man was healed! Because God delights in showing Mercy and Grace because it is only by God’s mercy and grace that we could ever honestly know Him and Commune with him.
Conclusion: Jesus is Alive! Are We?
There is so much to wrestle with in these few verses of Scripture; we could spend hours applying it to ourselves and our world. However, two things stand out to me: How we see and understand God and how this affects how we see ourselves and the world we live in. The religious leaders of the day had excellent knowledge of God, yet, they had never truly let their hearts and minds see Him: they shaped God in their image and not the Image of the bible. Today, we have even less excuse than them as we come to know God through the incarnation: when he took on human flesh, walked among us proclaiming the Gospel of Grace and Mercy of the Cross, and demonstrated both things by going to the Cross to make real and open the road of Mercy. Tozer puts it beautifully:
“But when, through the open door of the cross and the name and power of Jesus Christ, I commend myself to the Father’s heart, then God cancels all my past, accepts all my present, swears His holy name for my future and the love of God take me over. Then fear goes out of my heart because love has come in.” – Tozer.
So today, we must ask do we see God as he presents Himself or, like the religious leaders, do we see and hear what we want to? Then if our sight of God is right, let us consider our hearts and understandings. What burdens of our creation might we put on people in terms of Worship and approach? Are we those who, without even realising it, delight in sacrifice (ritual, routine, and tradition) that is dead religion over Mercy? Or are we those who know it is by Mercy’s Road we walk and Grace’s gate we enter, so it is those things we seek to make known?
In the Gospels, ’ hardness of heart is imagery that is used to describe a rejection of God’s truth and way: thus, if Jesus was to look at our hearts, would their hardness grieve him? Or would he delight because they belong to him? Then if we are those who delight in knowing it is only by God’s Mercy and Grace and not ritual, a routine, or tradition, we are saved. If we are those whose hearts beat with the Mercy of God as the Holy Spirit works in us, then let us consider how that Mercy of God should affect our lives as individuals and a family of Faith. What does it mean to show the Mercy of God in how we gather and worship? What does it look like to know and live out the Mercy of God in our everyday normal in our work and this city? Because let’s be clear: when we as a people delight (as God did) in Mercy over sacrifice, then others will come to know it, be transformed by it and worship God with us because of the gift of Grace and the incredible Mercy of the Cross.