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Jesus Inspires and Disarms and Confuses

Updated: 6 days ago

Sermon Preached by Jack Cabaness

Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Sermon Text: Mark 4:1-20

“Christ Among the Doctors” by Anton Kern, 1730

The phrase “Jesus Inspires and Disarms and Confuses” is from a hymn by the Scottish hymnwriter John Bell

What do you hope to hear in today’s sermon?

Perhaps you’ve had a particularly challenging week, or perhaps you’re in a very challenging season of life, and what you hope to hear in the sermon are words of comfort. You’ve come here hoping to hear good news.

Or perhaps you feel that your faith has been rather static lately, and what you hope to hear in today’s sermon are words of challenge. 

Or perhaps you’re hoping to hear both words of comfort and words of challenge, because there are situations in our lives that prompt us to seek comfort that coexist with other aspects of our lives that need to be challenged.

According to the Gospels, Jesus was a teacher who would both comfort and challenge.

There’s a scene in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus is asked why he teaches in parables. Jesus replies:

The reason that I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’

(Matthew 13:13)

In other words, according to Matthew, Jesus teaches in parables in order to make spiritual truths easier to understand. (See comments by Thomas G. Long in his Matthew commentary, 1997.) 

In contrast, in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark  Jesus is also asked why he teaches in parables, and his response is starkly different from the Gospel of Matthew. In today’s text Jesus says:

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything comes in parables, in order that, ‘they may indeed look but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” (Mark 4:11-12)

According to Mark, Jesus speaks in parables in order to confound.

The Scottish hymn writer John Bell wrote a hymn about Jesus’ teaching style.

First born of Mary,

Provocative preacher, itinerant teacher,

Outsider’s choice;

Jesus inspires and disarms and confuses

Whoever he chooses to hear his voice.

John Bell suggests that this would be an appropriate song to sing after a particularly provocative Gospel passage.

Well, this would certainly be the week.

Why on earth would Jesus intentionally try to muddy the waters?

I don’t know about you, but I like Matthew’s explanation a lot better.

Life is difficult and confusing enough without having Jesus trying to make it even more difficult and confusing.

But I’m becoming convinced that we need both Matthew and Mark.

Many times we are exhausted and confused, and we need Jesus to give us a refreshing and life-giving spiritual truth.

We need Matthew’s Jesus to make life less confusing.

We need to be encouraged that our spiritual quests and our longing for meaning and purpose will indeed take root and grow and yield a bountiful harvest, even if we cannot yet see the seeds sprouting.

Even if we believe that we are planted in rocks or surrounded by thorns, we need assurance that loving friends will help us remove the rocks and thorns. And we can be assured that even the seeds eaten by the birds will eventually come out again!

But sometimes we need Mark’s Jesus to disarm and confuse us.

To paraphrase biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, we need someone to say to us, “you have a lovely home here, but you built it on top of a fault line.”

We need Mark’s Jesus to confuse us and blow up our old paradigms so that eventually we can hear something new.

We might be challenged to expand our understanding of the scope of God’s grace. There’s a story about a farmer who attended Sunday School when they were discussing the Parable of the Sower. The farmer listened as the Sower sowed seeds not only on the fertile soil but also along the rocky paths and thorn briers. Seeds, of course, can be an expensive commodity. Why on earth would anyone deliberately sow seed on such unpromising ground? After listening for a while, the farmer finally exclaimed, “Well, it’s clear from this parable that Jesus was a carpenter and not a farmer!”

But the parable is not so much about farming as it is the character of God. God is the sower who indiscriminately sows seed everywhere believing that seeds can sometimes take root and sprout in the unlikeliest of places. If we ourselves feel that we are living in the midst of the birds and rocks and thorns, how reassuring to know that the sower has not abandoned us and continues to sow seeds into our messy lives.

Knowing that God is the indiscriminate sower challenges us to be generous in our outreach. When we are the sowers, we are challenged to sow seeds even in the most difficult ground. We dare not be parsimonious with our supply of seeds or stingy with church resources when new potential outreach opportunities arise.

Finally, we might be challenged to clear out the thorns and rocks in our own lives. What are the concerns that choke us as we strive to grow spiritually? What is it that hinders us from building healthy habits and being more consistent with spiritual disciplines?

I don’t pretend to understand the mysteries of God. To paraphrase Frederick Buechner, I don’t know why God would harden the heart of Pharaoh and then clobber Pharaoh for being so hard-hearted.

But what I do believe is that God is the prodigal sower who casts seed absolutely everywhere in order to bring about an abundant harvest.

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.

Please note: Each week I try to write a complete sermon manuscript in advance, but in the preaching moment I often use an outline or sparse notes. Accordingly, this written blog post will likely differ slightly from the sermon as actually preached.

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