Pilgrimage – Asking the Right Questions
In the Gospel of Mark there are a lot of questions. Jesus himself asks 47 questions. We received one of those 47 here in the passage today. As the disciples are traveling from Galilee to Capernaum they start to argue about who is the greatest among them. Jesus asks them “”What were you arguing about during the journey?” In another translation the question is stated, “What were you discussing on the way?” Either way the question is a reflection of the conversation between the 12 as they journeyed.
Jesus’ questions are not the only questions in Mark’s gospel. There are twelve different questions that come from the religious leaders, seven that come from a crowd or an individual, five that come from Pilate, and two that come from unclean spirits. The whole gospel is filled with questions. The first one in Mark’s gospel is actually from an unclean spirit. Jesus is in the same area, Capernaum, in a synagogue teaching when a person with an unclean spirit walks in and questions him. The evil spirit screams “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
This differs from the other first questions in the other gospels. In Matthew the first question comes from the magi. They ask, “Where is the child born King of Jews?” In Luke the question comes from Zechariah as he learns that Elizabeth is pregnant with their son who will be known as John the Baptist. He asks the angel, “How can I be sure of this?” In John the religious rulers ask the first question to John the Baptist. They ask him, “Who are you?” In Matthew, Luke and John the first questions reflect a need to understand and searching. But in Mark, as in most of the questions in this gospel, the question the unclean spirit asks is an attempt to question Jesus’ authority and power.
Remember the question the evil spirit screams? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” With that simple question about coming to destroy the spirit is attempting to corner Jesus’ power as one who is coming to destroy but in reality Jesus has come to redeem. How a question is asked is important because how we ask will lead to how we are answered.
If you have ever asked the question, “So, how was school?”, what was the normal response? (Fine.) This is what as a closed-ended question. Too easily students learn they can give a one word response to their parent’s question. When the parents are seeking to find out what happened in their child’s life at school all they usually get is fine, good, okay. That is if they get any words at all and not just a smirk and shrug of the shoulders. Instead of asking a closed-ended question, how would the response change if you asked an open-ended question? A type of question that would lead to more than one word response? What would happen if you asked a question like, “Can you tell me about your day?” or “What was the topic of your English class today?” These lead to a conversation because they demand more than one word.
What type of questions we ask are extremely important for our own faith and journey to grow as individuals and as a congregation? There are right questions and there are wrong questions to ask. The wrong questions to ask are ones that lead to accusations, labeling and destruction of community and relationships. The evil spirit was looking to peg Jesus as a destroyer not a redeemer. There was a purpose behind the closed-ended question he asked. Jesus did not take the bait though and cast the spirit out. No matter how clever we think we are, we can never trap Jesus in a corner.
Here is another example of a wrong question. When Campbell was two years old I walked into our living room to find her jumping on our recliner. Now this could go bad in many ways. The recliner was right next to a class French door, so if she fell off she could go through the window. She could go the other way which would lead to her head hitting a coffee table. I was concerned with her safety. Plus I was attempting to teach her the rules of the house which are you don’t jump on furniture. Being the wise father I am I raised my voice and asked her, “What are you doing?” She stopped jumping and looked at me, “I’m looking for trouble.”
I know a minister who is a senior minister of a very large church and has many staff people under his leadership. It came out that two of his staff people where having an affair with one another. He invited them into his office to sit down and talk out the ramifications of this affair. As he discussed their termination and other consequences they were confused about why this was happening. The minister looked at them and asked, “How did you think this was going to work out well for either of you?” This was a far better question to ask in this situation because it was more of an open-ended question that could lead to dialogue and understanding. My question was more closed-minded, or the wrong question to ask at that moment. This pastor did a better job asking the right question.
A right question is one that leads to a conversation, to a deeper understanding, and strengthening of a community or a relationship. It is something that will build up rather than tear down. Many of the questions in Mark’s gospel vary from right questions and wrong questions. One of the questions the religious rulers ask of Jesus is to question his authority. In the second chapter of Mark, Jesus is once again in Capernaum and a paralyzed man is brought to him and Jesus forgives him of his sins. The legal experts see this and the question they ask is, “Why does he speak this way?” They were questioning his authority, his power to forgive sins. They demanded an answer and so Jesus answers them with a couple questions of his own. He asks them, “Why do you fill your minds with these questions? Which is easier – to say to a paralyzed person, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk’? But so you will know that the Human One has authority on the earth to forgive sins” – he said to the man who was paralyzed – “Get up, take your mat and go home.”
The legal experts questioned Jesus authority and there was a power struggle going on. The legal experts wanted to make sure the power of their society rested with them. But if Jesus was walking around forgiving sins, healing people, their power was threatened. The same was true for the first question in Mark’s gospel from the evil spirit. The spirit’s power was threatened and he wanted to know if Jesus was here to destroy. But Jesus came to earth not to destroy but to redeem. He came not to limit us to the law but for us to be free from it. He came to forgive sins, to heal the broken, and to take the sins of the world upon himself.
Jesus had told the disciples about this task in the early part of our scripture today. He told them that he would be crucified and would die. In verse 31 it says, “He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be handed over to men. They will kill him. After three days he will rise from the dead.” He told this to the disciples but they did not understand. What question did they ask to get clarification on what he told them? They didn’t. The scripture says, “But they didn’t understand this kind of talk, and they were afraid to ask him.” What questions are you afraid to ask Christ because you don’t understand or you really don’t want to know the answers to?
Power is extremely important to people. People love to have power. It could only be the power to change the channel on the TV so they hoard the remote. Or it could be they want to be the one in charge, the director of what is going on. There is a story I read in a book called Ten Temptations of Church: Why Churches Decline and What to Do about It. It is a story about a declining church. It had been losing its members and worship attendance. As it did leaders came up and started to fill in roles that needed to be filled. They got so use to those roles they kept them for years, decades even. In the story the authors focus in on Bill. Bill was the head of trustees and the head usher. He sat on the finance committee and memorial committee. His family had donated a lot of the art work for the church and they had been there for three generations. If the doors were opened Bill was there. Members of that church said, “Bill is the face of our church; nothing gets past him. It’s been that way as long as I can remember!” The pastor the church then asked the right question, “How long has the church been in decline?” A church member asks, “As long as I can remember.”
The point of the story isn’t to point at Bill and say that he is the source of the church’s decline. No, that isn’t right. But there is a hidden benefit to Bill to keep his church in decline. The more his church declines the more it will depend on him. The more power he ends up having. This probably happened completely by accident and without Bill really knowing it. The truth in this story though is that it will be really hard on Bill as the church moves out of decline because as they do he will have less power, less control. How will Bill react to this?
As churches decline and seek to be revived there is a thought that only through death can a resurrection happen. Now this is true. Jesus had to die to be able to rise again. But how did Jesus die? Well that may be the wrong question to ask at this moment. A better question would be, “Why did Jesus die?” The disciples struggle with this a lot as they follow Jesus. In Mark 8 Jesus asks another, very vulnerable question. He asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am.” Peter answers correctly by saying, “You are the Christ.” Then Jesus starts to teach them about his death. He says, “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the leaders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” Peter doesn’t like this and scolded him. Jesus has none of this and says, “Get behind me Satan.”
When faced with reality that Jesus had to die Peter decided to control Jesus, or have power over him, and told him differently. Yet if Jesus is going to be the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the world, he will have to die. God knew this when he sent him to grow in Mary’s womb. But the disciples had a hard time with this but this is because they hadn’t figured out the lesson that Jesus is attempting to teach them once again in verse 35; “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant to all.”
Bill was a servant to that church as it declined but as it would be resurrected would he be fine losing some of that power? Would he be okay with the fact he would have to step out of the lime light, away from some of his leadership roles to let other people move in with possibly new ways of doing things and new ideas? That is hard to do when you have been the one people look to for the decisions of a church for so many years, but if the church is not going the way it should maybe the right question to ask is “am I getting in the way of this church growing?”
To go back to Jesus’ original question, “What were you arguing about during the journey?” The disciples were arguing about who had the most power. Throughout the whole journey from Galilee to Capernaum they argued about who was the greatest. In Galilee they heard once again Jesus predict his death and resurrection. They could have been talking about that. They could have been trying to figure out what that has to do with being a disciple but instead they argued about who was the greatest, who had the most power.
Many church keep asking the same question and it is one that we here at Indian Trail UMC must have to face as well, “Do we have a future?” Are we going to stand around and argue about who has the most power, who the greatest is, or are we going to follow Jesus instead? Are we willing to be a servant to all and the least of all for the greatest of all, Jesus Christ?
I am glad to know that some of you are taking the reading through the New Testament seriously and are doing well with it. I know this because some of you have emailed me questions about what some of the scriptures mean. I enjoy that, so keep them coming. But as I wrote this sermon this week one of those questions came back to me and it fights right into Jesus’ calling for his disciples, his calling to us. Matthew 10:29 says, “Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.” The person who asked this question was wondering what it meant. It echoes just what Jesus says here, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” We must follow Jesus’ example which leads to the cross.
If we are truly wanting to live into that mission and that vision that Jesus calls us to in John 17, then we will have to be comfortable with being the least and the servant. “Why did Jesus go to the cross?” He went because he loved us so much that he took our sins upon himself and died for our sake. Yes he rose again. Yes we love Easter but to get there we have to be willing to go through Good Friday. The question we have to ask ourselves is, “Am I willing to die to self in order for God to be glorified?” “Am I willing to put God’s will above my own?” “Am I willing to serve no matter where or when in order to do the will God has laid out for this church?” “Am I willing to do what it takes, even if it leads to my own cross, if that is what God’s will demands?”
The last question in the gospel of Mark is asked by Mary Magdalene as she approaches the tomb she laid Jesus in a few days before. She asks, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” The difference between that question and the first question from the evil spirit is remarkable. To quote the book I am using for this series, “The first question by the unclean spirit is an attempt to confine the power of the Holy One of God. The last question asked on Easter morning opens our lives to the reality of the empty tomb and the power of the Holy One.” Mary’s question was the right question because it opened her up to the power and truth of the God she loves. Are we asking the right questions that open us up or are we asking the wrong questions which will simply lead to death?
And all God’s people said…Amen.