Family First Isa 49:22-26; Ps 121; Col 1:13-23; Mark 3:7-35 St Mark’s 22.1.17
The Gospel reading for today should embarrass us because it reveals two spheres of conflict we would rather deny. The larger sphere is Christ’s ongoing conflict with demonic powers. As crowds were following Jesus seeking healing people possessed by unclean spirits were uncontrollably crying out, “You are the Son of God.” (v.11-12). When was the last time you saw anything like this? I few years ago I was witnessing such things in the Cave Church in Cairo where even Moslems come seeking healings and exorcisms under the famed ministry of Father Samaan. Dealing with the demonic was not a side issue for Jesus; in this passage the twelve apostles are commissioned not only to preach the gospel but “to have authority to cast out demons” (v.15). Going on further in the story the Jewish scribes do not question the supernatural power present in the ministry of Jesus but accuse him of being in the service of Satan, “the prince of demons” (v.22). Whatever we spiritually impoverished Westerners may make of it the work of evil spirits is deeply integrated into the New Testament worldview.
If dealing with the demonic realm is hard to process what this chapter teaches on family is far harder to absorb. Family is the second sphere of conflict for Christ and it brackets the beginning and end of our reading. Jesus’ own family think he is crazy and try to free him from his religious mania. In reply Jesus elevates those who hear God’s word and do God’s will above natural family; ““whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”” (vv.21, 31-35).Do we really realise the implications of these sorts of scriptures? If some of those closest to you have never thought of you as some sort of religious nut then something is wrong in your relationship with Christ!
That conflict with demonic powers and in families over the Lordship of Christ is not openly seen amongst us exposes the painful truth that we are lacking the powerful presence of the kingdom of God. How would God speak to us today about such things? Let’s start with Jesus’ family problems.
After healing a vast number of people and casting out demons Jesus “went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”” (vv.20-21). Jesus’ family thought he had gone insane and tried to take hold of him by force. As any “loving family” would, they wanted to save him from his religious fanaticism and to save their own family’s reputation. This reminds me of what my own family did after I became a Christian and started going to a Pentecostal church. They all turned up at the services because they “lovingly” thought they needed to save me from some weird tongues speaking religious cult. However well meaning Jesus’ family and my family were mistaken because they did not understand there is something infinitely more important than natural family.
This becomes clear by what Jesus has to say at the end of our story. When his “mother and brothers” call Jesus to leave the crowd he was teaching i.e. to abandon the ministry of the word of God (vv.31-32) he redefines the meaning of his family. ““Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”” (vv.33-35). Jesus is not against the natural family, the family is God’s idea, but he is against natural “family first”. This is because the only family that will exist beyond this world is those “who hear the Word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21) for only God’s Word lasts forever (Mark 13:31). The New Testament anticipated Christians would experience conflict with their families; “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matt 10:35-37). Nothing could be clearer but worryingly this has ceased to be a common experience for Western Christians.
Some people explain this by saying in Eastern cultures family defines everything but in Western societies family is more like a voluntary organisation you can opt in or out of. On the surface this looks plausible, but the truth is every social problem you like to name can be traced back to a breakdown in the family. Have a chat with a few drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes or ambitious pastors as I have and you will soon find this to be indisputably true. The only difference between post-Christian countries, like Australia, and nations which are dominated by other religions is that when people there hear the call to follow Christ they instantly understand the implications for family life.
At one meeting in Myanmar I was approached by a local (Min Min) who shared with me how he came to Christ. In training as a Buddhist monk he fell seriously ill with kidney and liver disease and was taken by his family to hospital. He was sent home to die because his condition was untreatable. Soon after he was pronounced dead by a doctor at home, but Jesus appeared to him and restored his life. When he began to attend Christian meetings his uncle confronted him with raised fist and asked him if he was going to abandon the ancestral religion. Under great stress some words of Jesus came into his mind, ““everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, 9 but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” (Luke 12:8-9). When he said he had to follow Jesus his uncle beat him up and his mother declared she had no son and cast him out of the house. Living close to Jesus this man now has a healing ministry. In an encounter between the power of family ties and the power of Christ it must be Christ whom we serve. If we have non-Christian family members and friends who don’t find our commitment to Christ misguided then we must question the depth of our loyalty to the Lord.
Jesus’ family thought he was insane but the Jewish religious experts went one better, they thought he was demon possessed.
“He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons….He has an unclean spirit.”” (3.22, 30). They believed a demonic power was possessing Jesus and casting out evil spirits through him. Jesus ridicules their position; if the devil is fighting against himself then his dominion is destroying itself. What is happening is the exact opposite to the assertion of the Jewish religious experts. God’s kingdom presence has “bound the strong man” i.e. Satan and “plundered his goods” i.e. set free those under his power (Matt 12:28 cf. Isa 49:24-26). This leads into one of Jesus most poorly understood statements.
“…all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin. 30 for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”” (vv.28-30). At various times people have approached me as a pastor worried they have committed the unforgiveable sin; they obviously hadn’t because anyone concerned about sin is still sensitive to the Holy Spirit. But what did Jesus mean by blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”. In the context of his conflict with the Jewish religious experts it means to take up a considered and determined conviction that the supernatural power working in Jesus is not from God but of the devil. Every time the Holy Spirit tried to convict such a person of their sin in rejecting Jesus the Spirit would be resisted as if he were a demonic power (John 16:8-11). This is why these people can never receive forgiveness. All this is clear; but is Satan active in the world today in the way that the Bible simply assumes?
Here is a series of events I will never forget. When we launched the first Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast in the city of Belmont we committed to a week of prayer in advance. Then hell broke loose amongst the leadership team. The coordinator encountered a pastoral emergency when a runaway car killed the granddaughter of his parishioner in the front yard of their home, then another member of the team’s brother drowned, then someone’s mother took ill and had to be raced to hospital, then Donna tripped over in the shopping centre car park and broke her elbow, finally another lady fell over coming out of the prayer room and broke her wrist. Whenever the kingdom of darkness is threatened resistance will manifest itself. If Satan seems invisible and unreal to the sort of Church life we are familiar with then it must because we are not challenging his strongholds.
Resisting the Powers
It’s really easy to sight the Satanic hot spots in another culture. When you are standing in front of a pagoda plated with $4b worth of gold, plus diamonds and precious stones in the poorest nation in S.E. Asia with beggars on the streets you know an evil controlling spirit is at work. When you are awakened every morning at 4.30 by monks on loudspeakers chanting in a language (Pali) completely foreign to the locals you know something bizarre is at work. But where are the demonic strongholds in our culture?
“Demon drink”, drugs, uncontrolled sex, teen suicide, gluttony, shopaholism and so on are easy to pick. But what about when a mum drives her car into a lake drowning her three kids or a father throws his 4 yr old daughter off the Westgate Bridge? It was because he was first crazed by family violence that last Friday the killer in the Bourke St Mall turned his hate against strangers. Do you know that he stole by throwing a burning Bible thrown in its owner’s face? These forms of wickedness should speak clearly to our consciences of a demonic evil rampaging in a nation under the judgement of God. And one great and terrible reason we are under such intense judgement is because we, yes, even Christians, have put family first before Christ. If Jesus had put his family first he never would have gone to the cross and saved us from our sins.
People love their families and Christian people want all of their loved ones to go to heaven. But nothing we can ever do can rescue our loved ones from the power of evil. The only power strong enough to do this is the power of God in Christ.
There is a distinct calling and grace given to St Mark’s to be a uniquely loving spiritual family. Today Jesus is calling us to step up further into this call. Jesus defined his family not through blood ties but “doing the will of God” (v.35). The Church will remain full of folk with unresolved family hurts until we love the will of God first in our lives; above a love for your husband, wife, children or grandchildren (Matt 10:37). Being misunderstood by family is very painful but the more you suffer for following Jesus the closer Jesus will become to you. There are two opposite attitudes to Christ, one is evidenced by its lack of spiritual power; the other will witness the power of Christ’s presence to overcome demonic evil.
When Jesus’ family called him to come to them on their terms he ignored them (v.31). Jesus will never come to us in power on our terms. But when Jesus chose his apostles “he…called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him” (v.13). How much did Jesus desire these ones to come to him? Today Jesus desires you to be a part of his family with a desire that can only be measured by the love of the cross (Rom 5:8). However much your natural family has desired or not desired you to be a part of their life the desire of Christ to call you into his forever family is infinitely greater. Will you come to him today; will you put him first above every other love? This will certainly mean conflict with the powers of evil which hate us and with those close to us who with their best intentions believe they love us. But the presence of the power of the love of Christ is worth it and you will never regret your decision to put him first above all else.