Mark 11:12-14, 19-25
This morning we are going to tackle some verses that I find pretty challenging, especially in light of what we are currently experiencing. We are continuing our study of the gospel of Mark, which we believe is the oldest of the four gospels, the first one to be written. Ninety percent of what’s in Mark shows up again in Matthew and Luke, but not always at the same point in the Jesus story, and not always connected to the same other stuff. I tell you that because the verses we are going to hear this morning are going to sound familiar. Matthew and Luke repeat some of these same phrases, but they tell the story differently. When we hear the same material used different ways by different gospel authors, it’s a clue to us that each of them was using the material to communicate something that would be specifically meaningful to their audience. The people who originally read the book of Matthew had different needs from the people who read Luke and the people who read Mark. We don’t know which version is the most historically accurate, and while trying to figure that out can be an interesting academic exercise, it doesn’t really matter for us. As always, what matters to us is answering the question, “What does this story teach me about what it means to follow Jesus? How can this story lead me to be a more faithful disciple?” The goal of these books isn’t to give a factually accurate account of the life of Jesus. The goal of these books is to make disciples. So even when the story is weird and confusing, like the one we are going to read this morning, there’s still something for us to learn about how to be a disciple of Jesus.
A little context: even though we won’t hear the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem until Palm Sunday, it has happened on the day before the story we are going to hear today. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to the celebration of crowds of people. He and his followers went to the temple and then left the city again to stay the night with some friends in the town of Bethany. As our story begins, they are headed back to Jerusalem. We skip over the activities of what they do for the rest of the day and finish with what happens again on the next morning. So triumphal entry on day 1, the first part of our story on day 2, and the second part of our story on day 3. Got it? OK.
“So let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Readings: Mark 11:12-14, 20-25
In the morning as Jesus and his disciples were leaving Bethany to go back to Jerusalem, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
This the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
A few weeks ago as I was getting ready to come to work after my maternity leave, I didn’t feel ready. Eight weeks is a lot longer than some people get, but as it was coming to an end, I really wished I could have a few weeks more. So in light of these scripture verses, and what we are facing, I think we have to ask ourselves, “Did Pastor Beth cause the coronavirus?”
Now I don’t think I did. But there are some Christians who treat these verses like a Christian version of the Law of Attraction, a philosophy that says our thoughts make things happen in the world. As if reality bends to our will. The problem is that nobody experiences this. Even the people who interpret these verses in their most literal sense do not get everything they pray for. It just doesn’t happen. And while I can make a joke about it, it’s really not funny. I bet everyone listening to this can remember a time in their life when they prayed about something very serious, but it didn’t turn out the way they wanted. And if we’re not careful with these verses, they can sound like our prayers weren’t answered because there’s something wrong with us, because we didn’t believe good enough. But that doesn’t sound like the way a loving God would treat us, does it?
So what the heck do we do with this story? Well, I’ll tell you I read it and read it and read it and thought about it and studied the Greek words, and I was still baffled. Then I started reading the opinions of experts, and here’s what I discovered: they are also baffled. Really smart people, researchers and teachers who love Jesus and have advanced degrees, they disagree about these verses. And they do some pretty impressive academic gymnastics trying to make sense of what Jesus does and says in this story. So before we go any further, we just need to admit that it’s a weird story and there’s no way to know for sure what Mark meant when he wrote it. It’s up to us to do our best with it. It’s up to us to discern together what this story might be saying to us about how to be a disciple this morning, in America, in the 21st century, in the midst of a global pandemic.
For me, there are three key words in this story. The first one is trust. Now if you were listening closely, you’re going to say, “Pastor Beth, I didn’t hear the word trust in those verses.” And you’re right; you didn’t. You heard the words “faith” and “believe.” Faith is a noun, it’s a thing. And believe is a verb, it’s an action. In Greek those two words have the same root. But in English we don’t have a verb for faith, so we use a different word. If I were translating the Bible, in both of those places, I would use the word trust, because it’s a noun and also a verb. And it really gets the point across. The Greek word that we translate as faith or believe has the meaning of trust. When Jesus says in verse 22, “Have faith in God,” he’s saying, “Trust God.” That’s what faith is, it’s what belief is. When we have faith, when we believe, we are putting our trust in God.
Faith, or again I will say trust, is hugely important in the book of Mark. In fact the very first words Jesus says in this book are, “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God has come near; repent and trust the good news.” Throughout the book, faith slash trust is the key component in stories about sins being forgiven, people being healed of paralysis, blindness, bleeding, seizures, and even a child being raised from the dead. Jesus tells people that their trust has saved them, their trust has healed them. He says, “Do not fear, but only believe (or trust).” “All things are possible to the one who believes (or trusts). And a distraught parent speaks the cry of all our hearts: “I believe (or trust). Help my unbelief (or lack of trust).” Faith, believe, trust. It’s not an abstract thought. It’s a choice and an attitude. And trust comes through relationship, which brings us to the second key word: pray.
In the book of Mark, the person we see praying most often is Jesus. He goes out of his way to make time to pray alone, away from the crowd. He doesn’t pray because it makes him look spiritual. He prays because he needs to. Of course the example of this that most of us probably think of is when Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he is crucified. Jesus models for us how to stay connected to God through prayer. Prayer is one of they key ways that we develop a relationship that makes it possible for us to trust God.
With those two words in mind, faith slash believe slash trust and prayer, let’s think again about the verses we read this morning. Jesus says, “Have trust in God. Truly I tell you, if you command this mountain ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea’ and shall not doubt in your heart but trust that what you speak takes place, for you it will be. Because of this I say to you, whenever you are praying and you ask, trust that you receive, and for you it will be.”
While we may not always get exactly what we pray for, these verses do tell us how to pray. First and foremost, we must have an attitude of trust in God. Each of us has a different understanding and experience of God, but whatever it is, we are invited to trust, and for me that means trusting that God is real and that God is good. There is Something, I would say Someone, who is the source of all that is good and beautiful in this crazy world, a steady point in the chaos, a port in the storm.
Next we have to actually ask for what we want, and that’s not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes I find it hard to pray about the things that I want the most because I’m afraid of my own disappointment. I don’t want to even ask because I know I’ll be really hurt if I don’t get it. I jump immediately to overanalyzing what it might mean about God if I don’t get what I want. Again, trust is the antidote to this. It makes me think of a trust fall. You know that team building exercise where someone stands behind you and you let yourself fall backwards, trusting that person to catch you. If you never fall, you never give them to the opportunity to catch you. So go ahead and ask and trust that God will catch you, even if you don’t get what you want.
Finally, when we pray, we must not “doubt in our heart” the verse says. This word “doubt” is interesting. Literally it means to go back and forth in judgment. Sometimes in the Bible it’s used in a positive way to mean discerning and sometimes it’s used in a negative way, as it is here, to mean overanalyzing our wavering or doubting. Overanalyzing will kill your prayer life. Logic and thoughtful consideration are good, but we all know we can take it too far. Jesus invites us to trust God, actually ask for what we want, and not overanalyze the process.
Now if you were keeping track, you might have noticed that I promised you three key words and so far there have only been two: trust and pray. There’s another important aspect of prayer that Jesus brings up in these verses, and that’s forgiveness. The word means to release something, to let it go, to be free of it. Jesus says when we are praying and we recognize that we are holding something against someone, we should release it, and then God releases us from our trespasses. If you are struggling to pray, if you feel like your prayers are going nowhere, the first thing you should do is check yourself to see if you are harboring unforgiveness towards someone.
All of this seems like a tall order: trust God, actually ask for what I want, don’t overanalyze how prayer works, and make sure I’ve forgiven everyone. If we actually did that, who knows what might happen? Who knows what kind of power might be released in us and what might be accomplished in the world through our partnership in what God is already doing? In the gospel of Mark, amazing things happen when people trust. Like I said earlier, when people in this story trust, they and their loved ones experience healing and forgiveness. They are rescued. They are saved.
It doesn’t happen for us every time. But sometimes it does happen. Sometimes we pray and experience God’s healing and rescue and salvation. Amazing things can happen when we do a trust-fall back into God’s love and goodness. Jesus extends the invitation: fear not, only trust. And we respond, “Lord we trust. Help our lack of trust.” Amen.
I don’t want to sign off this morning, until I’ve given us a few minutes to reflect on what we’ve heard. So I’m going to invite you to take a few moments here. Wherever you are, go ahead and close your eyes. Take a deep breath in and let it out and feel the wind of God’s spirit move in and out of your body. Just breathe for a moment.
This morning we are facing an experience that is completely new to all of us. None of us have ever before faced a global pandemic. It’s scary and we struggle to know what to do. This morning Jesus invites us to trust. For just a moment, try to still your thoughts. Push pause on all of your questions, “what about this and what about that” allow those questions to quiet down so that you can listen for the voice of God’s Spirit speaking to you. It’s there, underneath all the craziness, inviting you to trust, reminding you who God is, who you are and whose you are, what God calls you to do in the world. Just listen. … And now I’ll say a closing prayer. Jesus, we accept your invitation to be your disciples. As we navigate these uncharted waters, help us to grow in our trust, to pray and ask for what we need, and to forgive as you have forgiven us. We believe. Help our unbelief. Amen.