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The Second Lenten Talk: The four Gospels, the Ministry of Jesus, Jesus’ Prayer life and What He Taught About Prayer. (Outline)

Filed under: An Overview of Christianity in Five Sessions -- Lent 2017 — Pastor Jeff at 11:54 pm on Friday, April 14, 2017

Second Lenten Talk: The four Gospels.  The Ministry of Jesus.  Jesus’ prayer life and what he taught about prayer.

1) We have four Gospels (“Good News”) – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — which tell the story of Jesus ministry, death and resurrection.

A) There are some other surviving “Gospels” though they are believed to have been written significantly later. The two most famous are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.  They have interesting and mysterious things to say – sayings inviting reflection.

1) Never reached the stature that the other four did in large part because they were associated with what was called the “Gnostic” movement. “Gnosis” is a Greek word for knowledge, and they portray Jesus as the teacher of a special divine knowledge found deep within.  Gnosticism attempted to move the church away from its Jewish roots.  The material world – believed to have been made by a lesser god — was seen as something to be escaped from.  Gnosticism tended to be elitist – only the elite few were privy to this special knowledge — whereas the four Gospels in our Bible make it clear that the first disciples were no sense “elite”; they were ordinary fishermen and such.

2) The Gospel of Mary Magdalene presents her as having had a much more significant relationship to Jesus and important role in the early church than the Gospels in our Bible portray, which may have in fact between true.  Perhaps the other Gospel writers edited her out because of the patriarchal assumptions of the culture. But we really don’t know for sure.

B) The first of the four Gospels to be written down was Mark, which scholars think took place around 70 AD — 35 years or more after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Why so long?  Most people couldn’t read, and the stories were passed along orally.  The earliest Christians believed they were living at the end of human history — that Jesus would return any day – so there didn’t seem to be a need for written documents.

1) Mark might have been inspired to write his Gospel in response to interpret an event that rocked the Jewish world in 70 AD:   an uprising against Rome led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  To grasp the significance of that event imagine 9/11 and multiply it by a factor of ten.   The world as Jews and Jewish Christians had known it was coming unhinged, and Jesus is portrayed in the Gospel as having predicting it.

2) Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels, establishing an outline that Luke and Matthew would basically follow.

a) It starts with the ministry of John the Baptist (no Christmas story) and moves very rapidly.  After his baptism by John and his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus leaves Judea in the southern region of Palestine – the region where Jerusalem, the capital city is located, and returns to the region of Galilee in the north where he had grown up.  There he begins his ministry, proclaiming that “the time has come.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the good news.”

b) Jesus stations himself in the town of Capernaum, (where the story of the paralyzed man lowered from roof takes place) but wanders from town to town teaching and amazing people with his power to heal, drawing large crowds.  We are not told much regarding what he taught.

c) Early on Jesus calls disciples to follow him, but throughout the Gospel they aren’t portrayed well.  Jesus often berates them for their lack of faith, and they struggle to understand him at every turn.  For instance they turn the children away, unable to grasp how in the kingdom of God notions of who matters are reversed from world’s way of viewing life. (The struggle of the disciples reminds us that our journey to make God the first love of their hearts – the journey towards true freedom and the ability to love others – isn’t easy.)

d) When Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, it doesn’t go well.  The people seem to see him as being too big for his britches.  We are told that Jesus could do very few miracles there, and that Jesus was amazed by their lack of faith.

e) Elsewhere, however Jesus is a portrayed as a man of action with extraordinary power.

1) He silences a storm when they are in a boat at night, and walks on water.

2) He heals all the physical afflictions of people brought to him, and has authority over the “unclean spirits” that are understood to be the source of peoples’ mental afflictions.  For instance, encounters the “Gerasene Demoniac”, a lonely, agitated man tormented by a great many violent, self-destructive impulses – a legion of demons – and casts out the demons, which leads to the man sitting calmly, serenely at the feet of Jesus, restored to his true self.

a) Curiously, the unclean spirits recognize that Jesus is the messiah – the anointed one of God — before human being do.

f) Early on, Jesus comes in conflict with the local religious authorities, the Pharisees and scribes, because he seems to play fast and loose with Holiness Laws by healing on the Sabbath, and keeping the company of publicly identifiable sinners, and that he claims to have the authority to God to forgive sin. The common folk marvel that he speaks “with authority and not as the scribes and Pharisees.”

g) Midway through the Gospel Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am?” and Peter becomes the first person who answers publicly that he is the messiah.

1) Here and elsewhere Jesus tells people not to talk about the fact he is the Messiah because he will not be the messiah they expect.

2) Right after Peter makes his confession, Jesus proceeds to tell the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die at the hands of the religious authorities.  And if they are going to be his followers they must be willing to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow; none of which the disciples understand and are afraid to ask him about. They are portrayed as reluctantly following as he makes his way towards Jerusalem.

h) Things slow down in Mark’s Gospel once they arrive in Jerusalem; the last third of Mark’s Gospel is devoted to describing the last week of his life with particular detail given to what happens the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life.

C) Luke and Matthew were written perhaps 15 years later.  They both use Mark as their central source and follow his basic outline, but they add material, much of it teaching material, some of which they share in common, and some unique to themselves.

1) A simple example:  The temptation story in Mark is very simple; in Matthew and Luke the three temptations of the devil are added. Matthew and Luke switch the order of the last two temptations..

2) Both Gospels have stories about the birth of Jesus, but they are different.

D) Luke tells the story from the point of view of Jesus’ mother Mary, and Jesus is born in a barn when the holy family is homeless in Bethlehem.  Word of his birth first comes to poor, outcaste shepherds.

1) Throughout the Gospel Luke will give more attention to women than Mark or Matthew, reminding us on several occasions that there were women among those who followed him, and in fact, supported his ministry financially.

2) Throughout the Gospel the needs of the poor are emphasized and the dangers of wealth.

3) In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus visit to his hometown of Nazareth is one of the first things to happen.  Invited to read scripture in the synagogue,  Jesus selects a passage from the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me… to preach good news to the poor…”  The passage references the “Jubilee year”, where every fifty years land was returned to the original owners, breaking the cycle of the rich getting rich, and the poor poorer.  The hometown folk don’t respond well, and then Jesus points out that there were times in the past when God passed over Jews and blessed Gentiles   In Luke’s version they come very close to killing Jesus.

4) Parables:  In Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ teaching in parables is limited to a few stories about seeds. Matthew and Luke have far more parables, with Luke telling some of the best known parables:   The Prodigal Son and Elder Brother, and the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus has a despised outsider be the hero of neighborliness.

5) Luke makes it all the more clearly that this isn’t a solo act.  Where as Mark and Matthew have Jesus sending out the twelve disciples two by two out to proclaim the kingdom, Luke has Jesus send and additional 72 such followers.

6) Luke pays more attention to Jesus’ prayer life, which will turn to later.

E) Matthew’s Gospel is the most self-consciously Jewish.  For instance Matthew’s Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of “Heaven” rather “God” because of the Jewish reluctance to speak the name of God.

1) Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses.

a) Matthew’s birth story has the wise men from the east alerting King Herod to the birth of the new King, which leads to the slaughter of all the boys under two, reminding us of Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Hebrew children.   The birth story is told from the point of view of Joseph, who is led by God to take his family to Egypt, where later they will return home from – a quick replay of the history of the Jewish people.

b) Early in his adult ministry, Jesus goes up on a mountain like Moses who delivered the ten commandments.  Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount, saying he hasn’t come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  He pushes us to further, challenging us to examine our hearts for anger, lust and greed.

2) In ch. 25 there is the famous teaching of the Sheep and the Goats, indicating that Jesus is served whenever we welcome the stranger, care for the hungry and those in prisons.

3) Matthew’s Jesus concludes that teaching, and many others, with threats of harsh judgment: being cast out into the darkness to gnash teeth eternally.  This language is rarely found in the other Gospels.

F) The first three Gospels are unanimous that at the center of Jesus’ message was the Kingdom of God, which, Jesus says, is at hand.  His ministry is revealing this kingdom, and he is blazing a path for others to follow. Although Jesus has a crucial role, he himself is not at the center of the message.  In all three Gospels when Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he responds by giving two:  loving God with heart, soul and mind, and loving our neighbor.

G) John’s Gospel is believed to have been written last, perhaps 100 AD.  In this Gospel, we enter a distinctly different world from that of the other three Gospels.

1) There are frequent references to the “Beloved disciple” who can do no wrong and who isn’t named but is assumed to be John, and the Gospel is associated with a separate Christian community that identified itself with the Apostle John.  This Gospel is farthest removed from the Jewish roots — in fact – at times it has an anti-semitic tone when the “Jews” are lumped together as the bad guys, rather than just the religious authorities.

2) Whereas the 1st three Gospels have many stories in common, the only story from the ministry of Jesus (as opposed to the story of his last week) that is clearly found in all four is the feeding of the 5000.

3)  At the outset, the language and thought world of Greek philosophy is embraced.  Jesus is the Word – the “logos” – the underlying rational structure out of which the universe was created – made flesh.   In a certain sense it uses the style of the Gnostics, ultimately rebuking them by saying “God became flesh.”

4) The Kingdom of God is rarely mentioned:  rather we hear about “eternal life” – a quality of life that can be entered into now rather than simply at the end of this life.

5) John’s Jesus doesn’t tell parables, but he does use these big metaphors in speaking directly about himself: the “I am” statements:  “I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the door of the sheep, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the true vine.”

6) Repeatedly there is confusion, almost comic, as Jesus speaks on one level with a metaphor, and his listeners take him literally on a lower level.

a) Samaritan woman at the well – living water.

b) Nicodemus — birth.  “Born again.”

7) Jesus’ miracles are called signs, revealing God’s glory, and water into wine is the first.

8) Jesus often seems to float above everybody else, but then we are reminding of his humanity, as in the story of the raising of Lazarus where we hear that, “Jesus wept.” With the woman at the well, Jesus is described as tired and thirsty after walking under the heat of the sun.

9) If John’s Gospel is the furthest removed from the “historical Jesus”, what are we to make of it?  Is this deception on the author’s part?  Is it less authoritative?

a) John’s community believed that the Holy Spirit was present with them, and as Jesus declares, ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:25 – 26)

b) They believed the Holy Spirit was guiding what amounts to a profound theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus.

H) What do we mean when we say the Bible is divinely inspired?

1)   The authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but they were still sinful, imperfect people writing in particular contexts, with particular concerns, occasional biases.      When do we take words literally, and when do we take them metaphorically?

2)   As the reader, this can be hard.  What do we take literally, and what metaphorically.  Lois used to say, “This is why I don’t read the Bible; it just confuses me!”

3) There is a distinction between putting our faith in “the Bible” vs. in God/Jesus.  If our faith is hinged on the “inerrancy” of Scripture, our faith will be threatened by the contradictions, etc.

4) The four Gospels are all we have in regard to knowing about Jesus, who Christians believe reveals the heart of God.  The Scriptures are the one common thread that has tied the Christians together for 2000 years. We are under an obligation to grapple with the Bible, including the passages we don’t at first glance care for.

5) Obviously, different people interpret the Bible in quite different ways.  Though some are slow to acknowledge it, everybody who reads and interprets the Bible chooses certain passages to give more authority than others, with these passage becoming the key by which we interpret the rest of the Bible.

a) If you elevate those passages in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is presented as talking about severe punishment, gnashing of teeth you get a pretty punitive Jesus/God. But why is that not also in Mark and Luke?
I)  If we believe that Jesus reveals the heart of God, what themes can we identify consistently throughout the four Gospels regarding the ministry of Jesus?

1) Jesus’ compassion for the outcast — those personsothers might find unlovable. The woman who crashed the Pharisee’s dinner.  The Samaritan woman at the well.

2) Love.  Loving enemies.   Forgiveness.  Luke’s Good Samaritan.  Matthew’s the care of the least.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you.  This is how people will know you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

3)      The kingdom of God implies the need for, and the care of community.  Though John’s Gospel doesn’t often mention the Kingdom of God, Jesus is often picturing praying for our unity – “that we would be one.”

4)      The danger of pride, and the importance of humility.  The last will be first and the first will be last.  In John the religious authorities think they see, when in fact they are actually blind.

5)      Embracing vulnerability.  Jesus sending out his disciples without protection.  The story of the feeding of the five thousand. In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes himself vulnerable to the woman at the well, and praises the vulnerability of Mary who pours her heart out with the alabaster jar of expensive ointment she uses to anoint Jesus, and getting criticized by Judas.  Jesus weeps.

6)      Servanthood, and the reversal of the power/status order of this world.  John’s Gospel Jesus gets down on his knees and bathes his disciples feet.

7)      That at the heart of the faith is joy.  Jesus’ love of parties.  John’s Jesus:  “I have come that you may have joy.”  Luke’s Angel speaks to the poor shepherds of “good news of great joy.”

8)      Grace and mercy.  Love not earned, but bestowed.

9)      That faith showing up in unexpected places.  The Gentile Woman seeking healing for daughter.

J) Jesus and prayer.

1) Although we know Jesus spent a lot of time alone in prayer, we don’t actually know how he spent that time.

a) Mark 1:35a   “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” When the disciples find him, Jesus seems to have reached clarity that what he needs to do isn’t what people think he should do.

b) Luke in particular portrays Jesus praying several moments.

1) After baptism, when Holy Spirit descends.

2) In the desert for forty days.

3) He spends a night in prayer before calling his twelve disciples.

4) It is after praying alone that Jesus asks his disciples about who they say he is, and then

first speaks about his intention to go to Jerusalem.

5)  He prays on the mountain of transfiguration.

6) He is described as having finished praying alone when the disciples ask him to teach

them to pray as John taught his disciples.

7) At the Last Supper, Jesus mentions specifically praying for Simon Peter because the

devil was after him.

8) In the Garden of Gethsemene.  “If possible, let this cup pass from me… But not my

will, but thy will be done.”

2)  Teachings on prayer.

1) Don’t use a lot of words: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”  Matthew 6:7

2) He gave us a simple model for prayer – The Lord’s Prayer.

a) Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

1) Center on God and give God glory.

b) Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

2) God’s will is love, and it is already done fully in heaven; we pray for that love to

be lived out on earth, and that we would conform our lives to that will.

c) Give us this day our daily bread.

1) We are encouraged to ask for our needs – but it assumes a process of
distinguishing what are our true needs as opposed to what we might desire.

2) This also a focus on the present moment.  “This day.”

d) And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

1) The hard places in our hearts soften in prayer.  (Pray for your enemies.)  In prayer we find freedom from the bondage of resentment and inner rage.

e) And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

1) We embrace humility; acknowledge our frailty. I may feel strong in the present, but

it wouldn’t take much for my world to fall apart, and me to be tempted to despair

or hatred.

2) That evil is real… And one can succumb to it.

3) Cultivating a childlike trust of God, letting go of fear.  God as Abba…

a)  Go ahead and ask, but prayer is a process, and persistence is important, and in the

course of prayer we are changed, and in the end, what Jesus promises is the gift of

the Holy Spirit – God’s self.

4) John’s Gospel

a) Jesus says to Nicodemus:  “The wind blows where it wills.” Prayer as paying attention to

where the Spirit is moving, and where it isn’t, and acting accordingly.

b) “Abiding in Jesus.”  Hanging out with the one we love.  (You can pray to Jesus or to God,

whichever you feel more comfortable.)

1) Eventually more listening

5) Mary and Martha and my new thought.  There are two types of persons, and in Luke’s story Martha comes off badly here, but perhaps if Mary had complained about the noise Martha was making in her serving because it was keeping her from praying/listening to Jesus, Jesus would have rebuked her.

6) In prayer, we seek to becoming a free, open vessel of God’s love.

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