What do you see?

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

(Mark 8:1-26)

 

What do you see?

The question I want us to consider today from the first half of Mark chapter 8 is, what do you see when you look at Jesus? What picture have you put together from what you’ve seen of Jesus so far in Mark’s gospel?

Because sometimes we don’t see things clearly do we? We don’t see what’s really in front of us, or we don’t see people for who they really are.

Last year, a woman in France was selling her house and had an auctioneer come to value her belongings. It turned out that a painting hanging above her stove in the kitchen was from the 13th century. It was the long-lost masterpiece of Florentine artist Cimabue, known as “Christ Mocked”. It was expected to sell for just over $6 million. It ended up going at auction for $26.6 million. I’m pretty sure once this woman realised what she had, she stopped cooking her snails in garlic and butter underneath it…

And did you ever watch that show, Undercover Boss? CEOs of large companies would go undercover as a humble worker to see what things were like on the ground and how they could be improved, and (hopefully!) reward hardworking employees. People could be talking about their boss directly to their boss without realising it. If they did, they’d usually behave very differently!

 

What do you see when you look at Jesus, and how does that affect you? Do you realise what you’re looking at?

In the first half of Mark’s gospel, chapters 1-8, we are basically riding alongside the disciples with Jesus. We’re seeing what they see, hearing what they hear. And the focus of this first half of the gospel is this very question. What do you see? Who do you think Jesus is? What picture are you forming? What conclusions are you drawing about him and what that means for you and for this world?

And our passage today brings these issues to a climax. It leads into the pivotal turning point in Mark’s gospel, which we’ll look at next week, where Peter finally confesses that Jesus is the Christ. In our passage today, leading into this confession, Jesus presses his disciples to reflect on what they’ve been seeing – to put the pieces together, to see him for who he really is. It’s almost a crisis point for Jesus himself, as he wonders if this group of disciples are ever going to put the pieces together.

And for us as we reflect on the passage, there’s a warning and an encouragement as we put our own picture of Jesus together. There are two related warnings really: one, not to let outright scepticism determine what we see when we look at Jesus, and two, even when we’re not consciously sceptical, not to let the same underlying hard heartedness blind us or give us a small view of Jesus. But along with the warnings we’re also encouraged to know that Jesus can open our eyes – he can help us see him for who he really is.

 

Two Miracles and two difficult conversations

As you will have noticed when we read through the passage earlier, in this section of Marks’s gospel we basically have two miracles separated by two difficult conversations in the middle.

In the first section, Jesus miraculously feeds a massive crowd of people (four thousand of them!) from 7 loaves and a few small fish. This huge crowd has been with him for 3 days, listening to his teaching, and they’ve used up any food they might have brought. Things are looking desperate. And so, because he has compassion on them, and because he can, Jesus feeds them – and he does it in abundance! After everyone’s full, there’s seven basketfuls left over! Even if no one ate anything it was a miracle!

And at the end of our passage, in the final section from verses 22-26, Jesus does another miracle. People lead a blind man to him and beg Jesus to heal him. And again, displaying miraculous power over the natural world, Jesus heals the man – he restores his sight. Strangely, it takes two attempts to work fully, but he gets there in the end.

And in between these two scenes – these two miracles – we see Jesus having two difficult conversations. First with some Pharisees demanding a sign from Jesus, and then with his disciples in the boat over a loaf of bread. And it’s really these conversations, and the one with his disciples in particular, that is the heart of our passage today. It’s what Jesus says here that helps us reflect on the significance of the miracles. And it’s through these conversations that we appreciate the warnings for ourselves, and they help us see the encouragement in this passage too. So we’re going to go straight to these difficult conversations in the middle and see what they have to say to us…

 

First Warning: Don’t let scepticism rule…

And I think the first thing we should take away from these conversations – the first warning – is not to let outright scepticism determine what we ’see’ when we look at Jesus.

11   The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. 12He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” 13 Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.

14   The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15 “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

Jesus is not impressed with the attitude of the Pharisees, and so after getting into the boat with his disciples and leaving the Pharisees on the shore, the first thing Jesus says is basically, ‘watch out for those guys – watch out for their influence on you and on anybody else.’ “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

And the most basic meaning of the warning is to not adopt their same attitude towards him and ultimately towards God. An attitude of scepticism towards Jesus – a predisposition to write Jesus off, regardless of what you see from him – which stems, not from careful reasoning of the facts, but a commitment deep down to staying in control.

 

Determined not to be friends

If you’ve been joining us for most of our Sunday morning Bible talks through Mark’s gospel this year you’ll know that Jesus is not great friends with the Pharisees and other religious leaders.

You see, on the one hand, as we work through chapters 1 to 8 we’ve seen a whole bunch of examples of faith and openness to Jesus. First in the disciples themselves, leaving everything to follow Jesus – to learn from him and join in his mission. But then also stories of individuals who come to Jesus desperate for help, recognising that Jesus alone is able to meet their needs and so humbly falling at his feet in faith. They are stories that reveal who Jesus is, but also give us models of faith in Jesus.

And alongside these stories and models of faith, we have the reactions of the Pharisees and religious leaders. Right from the beginning they have taken a position of suspicion and antagonism towards Jesus. They’ve been offended at the way he has spoken and the way he and his disciples have disregarded their traditions. They’ve been upset by the way Jesus challenges their own position and public status. And when they directly witness the miraculous healings performed by Jesus, their first instinct is to accuse him of acting through the power of Satan and to plot to kill him. They’re not what you would call ‘objective observers’.

 

Asking for a Sign = testing

And so when they turn up in chapter 8, questioning Jesus and asking for a sign from heaven, they’re not there to learn. They’re not wrestling in their hearts with whether they should be listening to Jesus and following him too, needing just that little extra bit of confirmation… they’re looking for excuses to write him off. Possibly even grounds to get him executed.

A sign from heaven was something that would confirm that a prophet was speaking the truth – that he was from God. In the Old Testament, prophets might give their main message – a message of judgment, or warning or hope about something big to happen in the future. And then they would demonstrate that this message can be trusted by performing some other sign – sometimes at the request of the person receiving the message. So Gideon asks for the sign (two signs even!) to confirm the message from the angel. And the prophet Isaiah predicts the sign of the sun’s shadow going back up the steps to confirm the message he’s just given to king Hezekiah.

Now Jesus doesn’t call his miracles ‘signs’, and in the gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke, they are not described as signs. Jesus and the pharisees seem to agree that these miracles are not ‘signs’ in that particular sense. But, of course, they disagree about what the miracles actually reveal about Jesus. You see, when Jesus heals people from sickness and even brings them back from the dead, when he drives out demons, and when he calms the storm with a word… when he does all this, he’s revealing the kingdom he’s proclaiming, and he’s revealing his authority as the king. The miracles are part of his message – his announcement that the kingdom has arrived with him. They are not ‘signs’ – they’re not impossible tricks to prove that Jesus should be taken seriously. But that’s because they’re more than signs, not less. Jesus’ miracles speak loud and clear about who he is and what he’s come to do.

 

No deal for determined sceptics

And so Jesus doesn’t buy into the Pharisee’s test. ‘No deal’ he says. ‘You’ve got all you need to make a decision about me. Think about what I’ve said; consider what I’ve done; and make a call. But I’m not going to play along with your tricks and give credibility to your scepticism.’

I think some of us listening in right now may well be in danger of this same kind of scepticism. Not a healthy scepticism, where you’re careful not to be gullible and believe things without any real justified reason. But this kind of determined scepticism that prevents you from seriously dealing with the facts in the first place.

Have you ever found yourself thinking, ‘Well, God, if only you’d do something obvious to prove to me that you’re there, then maybe I’d believe in you!’ But if you’ve let that kind of thinking prevent you from reading the gospel accounts with an open mind, then it’s not healthy scepticism. If you just take a look, you’ll notice God has done some pretty obvious stuff through Jesus. And that’s not to mention the mere fact of your existence along with the rest of this universe…

If you’ve been ‘learning’ about Jesus, maybe for years, but everything gets squeezed through a filter of what you have decided beforehand is possible, you’ll never really learn anything about Jesus.

Jesus is warning us against this kind of thinking – this kind of view of Jesus and reaction to him – where we’ll never end up falling at his feet in faith; not because there’s no good reason to, but because deep down we’ve decided nothing could make us do it anyway. We like life the way it is – with us in control. We don’t want Jesus to rock the boat, so we stay on the shore while Jesus gets in… just like the Pharisees.

 

Second warning: be wary of spiritual blindness

So first warning – don’t let scepticism rule. The second warning is to be wary of spiritual blindness. Most of us listening won’t have fallen into the trap of rejecting Jesus outright through the kind of pre-determined scepticism of the Pharisees. But we can still have our view of Jesus affected, in-fected even, by similar underlying attitudes which ultimately prevent us from seeing Jesus for who he really is and responding rightly to him. We look, we learn, we study, we talk about Jesus… but we somehow end up with a small view of Jesus. We don’t see what is there to be seen. We don’t put the pieces together properly and so we don’t realise who we have in the boat with us, so to speak…

 

Bread on the Brain

After Jesus gives his initial warning about the yeast of the Pharisees, instead of getting what he’s talking about and perhaps asking for guidance on how to best guard against their influence, the disciples latch onto the idea of bread and start lamenting the fact that they only brought one loaf of bread for their trip.

The connection of course is the word ‘yeast’. Yeast is the active ingredient that helps bread rise. Jesus is using it as a metaphor to talk about the way the scepticism of the Pharisees could easily work its way into their hearts and minds and affect the attitudes of other people, but all the disciples can think about is bread. Man, why didn’t we bring more bread!? Perhaps they were hoping Jesus hadn’t noticed their poor preparations for the journey, and now they’re embarrassed. Or maybe they’re worried. How are they going to survive without food? What if they get stuck in bad weather?

Whatever the case, they must be really focused on their lack of bread, because it just doesn’t make any sense to think Jesus is talking about having no bread. How would having no bread have anything to do with the yeast of the Pharisees, metaphorical or not?? How is watching out for the ‘yeast of the Pharisees’ going to solve their bread problem??

 

Do you have eyes, but fail to see?

And so Jesus is understandably frustrated. And he unleashes a barrage of questions…

“Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

            “Twelve,” they replied.

20  “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

            They answered, “Seven.”

21   He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”

What Jesus is doing is drawing a connection between their rather misguided ‘bread discussion’ and a failure to grasp the significance of his feeding of the crowds people. Jesus sees their discussion as a product of their failure to see him for who he really is, flowing from a failure to grasp the significance of what they’ve witnessed him do.

The key is not in the numbers of basketfuls left over, as if they are cryptic puzzles. It’s not as if Jesus was expecting them to suddenly say, “Ohhhh! yeah! Twelve basketfuls! Seven basketfuls! We get it now! Of course!” No, Jesus is simply emphasising the fact that he turned five loaves into enough food for five thousand people with twelve baskets left over, and likewise with the second feeding. He’s saying, ‘have you really witnessed that, and now, here you are with me in a boat freaking out about not having enough bread?? Do you still not understand?’

And what’s really significant about what Jesus says here, or rather what he suggests through his questioning, is that his own disciples seem to be in danger of the same spiritual blindness that has affected many in the crowds and amongst the religious leaders.

‘Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?’ he asks.

Up till now, Jesus has been saying that those on the outside, in the crowds, are ‘ever seeing and never perceiving’. He’s been inviting those ‘who have ears to hear, to hear’ what he’s saying. And he’s been taking his disciples aside to answer their questions and reveal the mysteries of the kingdom – to help them grasp that God is revealing his great promised future in and through him. But now, in a tone of despair and exasperation, he looks at them and says, ‘do you too have eyes but fail to see? Ears, but fail to hear?’

 

Don’t you understand who’s in the boat with you?

Jesus can tell there’s a problem with how his disciples are putting the pieces together. There’s a problem with what they see when they look at him. And he can tell, because of how they are reacting to their circumstances. If they saw him for who he really is; if they grasped the significance of what they saw him do… they wouldn’t be worried about only having one loaf of bread. They’d never worry about bread again! Their view of Jesus was too small and it allowed them to be side tracked with worries that didn’t need to concern them.

And I don’t think these are the only disciples of Jesus to have struggled in this way. We’re all in danger of forgetting – of not seeing Jesus rightly. We read, we sing, we talk about Jesus… but the picture doesn’t really click in our minds. Our hearts are not captured by a clear vision of Jesus in his glory – we fail to truly grasp that in him we have God in the flesh, God with us. We forget or don’t quite realise just who we have in the boat with us, and so we start stressing and arguing about only having one loaf of bread.

 

Are your hearts hardened?

But Jesus’ reaction to his disciples, his string of questions, raises the possibility that the problem is not just forgetfulness. It’s quite possible that underneath our small view of Jesus are hard hearts which make us spiritually blind.

You see the phrase ‘eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear’ is pretty much a direct quote from two passages in the Old Testament prophets. God uses the phrase to describe rebellious Israel in Jeremiah 5:21 and Ezekiel 12:2. In both passages the phrase is connected with stubborn hearts and rebellious attitudes – people who are unwilling to hear God’s word and respond in repentance and faith. And that’s why Jesus uses the phrase here after asking, ‘do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?’

The point is that lack of understanding of who Jesus really is – failure to put the pieces together and form a proper picture of Jesus – it’s rarely an intellectual problem. The disciples aren’t stupid. But they are sinful. Just like you and me. The problem with our minds is a problem with our hearts.

And of course, that’s why Jesus warns us against the yeast of the Pharisees in the first place. This whole discussion in the boat is proving Jesus’ point! Watch out that your view of Jesus isn’t infected by stubborn hearts that resist God’s revelation. Are you failing to see Jesus for who he really is, because deep down, you don’t really want to?

 

The encouragement: Jesus can open our ears and eyes

But thankfully, it’s not all bad news. The conversation between Jesus and his disciples in the boat might end abruptly, with Jesus’ exasperated question ‘don’t you understand yet?’ just left hanging in the air… but the story goes on, and it gives us hope.

The come to Bethsaida where Jesus heals a blind man people bring to him. And what stands out to us is that it takes two attempts before the man can see clearly. Why doesn’t Jesus heal him completely the first time? Did something go wrong?

Well I’m quite convinced that it wasn’t a problem with Jesus. I think the way this healing unfolds is meant to serve as a picture of what’s happing with the disciples. Do you see the way this healing connects with what Jesus has been saying to his disciples in the boat?

He has been asking them, ‘do you still not see or understand? Do you have eyes but fail to see?’ And now, here he is, healing a blind man, asking him, “What do you see? Can you see anything?” And finally, Jesus restores his sight completely so that he sees everything clearly. Jesus opens the eyes of the blind.

And it’s no coincidence I think that just before the feeding of the 4000 and the awkward boat trip, Jesus heals a deaf man. People bring to Jesus a man with ears who cannot hear, and a man with eyes, who cannot see. And Jesus opens up the ears of the deaf and the eyes of the blind. And in between these two miracles, Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?’

The point is pretty clear I think. We might have a massive spiritual blindness problem, just like the disciples seemed to… but Jesus can open our ears and our eyes. The physical healings are a preview of what’s to come for people in God’s kingdom, and they also point to the healing of the deeper, underlying problem here and now. As God promised through the prophet Isaiah, when God comes to save, ‘then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.’ Jesus can enable us to see and hear him clearly. Jesus can help us to see him for who he really is. And what’s a great encouragement to many of us is to know that Jesus can open the eyes of our friends and family – people for whom we may have been praying for many years. Jesus has come to open the eyes of the blind.

Whether we’ve been stuck in stubborn scepticism towards Jesus, so that we manage to write off everything we hear and read and see about him as essentially irrelevant… or whether we’ve just been struggling to see Jesus clearly – to remember who we have in the boat with us… yes, it’s a problem – we need to have our eyes opened. But the good news is, Jesus has come to do just that.

Jesus is asking you, ‘What can you see?’ And he’s there, ready to put his hands on your eyes, again if necessary!, so that you can see clearly.