This morning, my family had a brief time of worship together. We’re trying out homeschooling our four kids this year, and we’ve been trying to kick off each weekday with worship. It’s a simple thing: we light a candle, my daughter opens the Word and reads a verse she finds there, I read a longer selection from the Word (we’re going through the Gospel of Mark right now), and then we have a short discussion. We finish by going around and giving everyone a chance to share a final thought, then say the Lord’s Prayer together. It’s very much a “small group” experience.
Anyway, this morning, we read a very short story about Jesus, and I found it particularly intriguing:
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side. (Mark 8:11-13)
I love that!
First of all, Jesus was in the middle of a tour of the land in which he was going around casting out demons, curing deafness, and had only one paragraph previously fed thousands of people with just a handful of food, and not for the first time!
But the Pharisees wanted a “sign”.
And the Lord’s reaction? Wow. We all smiled at that, and laughed a little in sympathy. What a powerfully human reaction: he “sighed deeply in his spirit”. Of course he did!
But it was his next move that really grabbed my interest the most.
Did he argue with them? Nope. He said, “A sign? Sorry, can’t help you.” And that’s it! He didn’t point out all the signs he’d already provided, he didn’t explain to them what was wrong with their question, he didn’t call them out for what they were really doing or point out that they didn’t want a sign. I think I would have. Would you? He basically said they couldn’t have any signs, which I understand as him saying, “If you haven’t seen any ‘signs’ so far, then you’re not ever going to.” That’s powerful. But not overpowering.
Did he give them a sign? Well, technically, he had many times, and would many times again. He spent years doing miraculous things that could be taken as “signs”. But people were always able to interpret his actions in different ways. At one point, some theorized that he could cast out demons because he was somehow allied with them. But I think he could have given them a sign they would have to see. That they couldn’t ignore, or explain away, or deny. He could have opened a doorway to hell and taken them on a tour, then taken them up to heaven and shown them around. But he didn’t. He could have called down fire right there and then, but he didn’t. He could have reached into their minds and taken away their freedom of thought, reached into their hearts and forced them to want to worship him. But he didn’t.
Instead, he got in a boat and sailed away.
I bet many there interpreted that as a sign of weakness. But that was powerful. When you know you’re right and good, and the people you’re with don’t want to hear that, go spend time with someone else!
Now, Jesus sometimes engaged people like this in debate. Sometimes he preached to them. But sometimes he just walked away. (Or in this case, sailed away.)
So what does this tell us? FIrst, it says something about the nature of God. Namely, that he isn’t going to force or trick or argue or debate anyone into doing anything. He wants more than anything else for us to love him. And love can only be given freely. It’s part of the definition. So if we don’t choose to follow, to worship, to believe, to obey, to love, then that’s that. He won’t force the issue. The sentence my daughter found to read at the beginning of this morning’s gathering relates to this idea:
Behold, the LORD’S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear. (Isaiah 59:1-2)
He is always reaching out to us, but we do things that throw up barriers between us and him. If we don’t want those barriers removed, then he’s not going to force his way through to us. Instead, he patiently waits.
So what does this say about our own lives? One of my sons pointed out that it’s a reminder to be more aware of the signs the Lord has given that are all around us all the time. His brother connected it to this really cool video:
(Quick aside: I highly recommend you, right now, go and subscribe to that guy’s YouTube channel. Go on. I’ll wait.)
Now, what I personally was drawn to this morning was the idea that, sometimes, the best thing to do when confronted with conflict, hate, obtuseness, temptation, is to just sail away. Cross over to the other side. Go spend time with different people, different ideas, different affections.
And that’s just skimming the surface. This four-sentence vignette from the life of Jesus has tons more depth to it that I’m not even beginning to mention here. What is that boat a symbol of? Why is it significant that it was Pharisees he sailed away from and not Sadducees, or lawyers, or tax collectors, or the demon-possessed? What’s the significance of the fact that he crossed water, rather than just walked away down a road?
But I’ll leave exploring that to you.
For me, for this moment, I’m taking away from this the following idea.
Sometimes, it is best to be like water: flow where gravity takes you, passing over and around the barriers, ever moving forward. And maybe in passing you will eventually wear down some rough edges. But don’t worry about that. Just change direction when you have to, and move on.