February 10, 2002
JESUS AMONG US: FRUSTRATED
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
I used to live under the illusion that the primary purpose of a refrigerator was to keep food cold. Iıve since learned better. The primary purpose of a refrigerator is actually to serve as a family ³billboard² of sorts for pictures and notes. Grocery lists. School calendars. Weekly schedules. Missionary prayer cards. Photographs of infrequently-seen friends and relatives. ³Honey,² one note might very well read, ³Please remember to pick up some milk on your way home from work today.² ³Donıt forget that you have trombone lessons at 4:30 this afternoon,² another might announce.² I am quite confident that, were I to step into each of your kitchens, I would find very, very few unadorned refrigerators. Knowing some of you as I do, you probably hang similar messages on your stoves and dishwashers!
Why? Because you and I have an undeniable tendency to forget. We need reminders. We need to take certain steps to insure that we remember our responsibilities and commitments. To forget is not only embarrassing to us I, at least, would rather not have to say ³Iım sorry, I forgot² too often but itıs also frustrating to those who we forget about. There is your mother or father, holding an uncooked casserole by an ice cold oven that you were asked to turn on when you got home from school. There is your friend, sitting alone in a booth at Brothers restaurant, anticipating the breakfast that the two of you had planned to enjoy together. There is your spouse, longing for flowers or even a card on an anniversary that youıve given no thought to. There is your son or daughter, peering anxiously at the parking lot located near the end of the third base line, distraught that you failed to show up for the big game that day. We forget, and in forgetting cause disappointment and, if we do it often enough, frustration for those around us.
As Mark continues to describe this Jesus who is among us, he introduces a new and perhaps startling idea here in 8:1-21. In earlier scenes from Markıs gospel, we encountered a Jesus who is single-minded, saying ³Yes² to God in every area of his life and ³No² to temptation and evil. Markıs Jesus cares deeply about all people all people and he lives a life that balances active service, on the one hand, and prayerful silence, on the other. This Jesus who is among us is, in the estimation of Mark and many others who encountered him, awesome, wonderful beyond words. Now, notice the Jesus of chapter 8. He is frustrated. Intensely frustrated.
As surprising as it might seem to us after all, we often speak of Godıs unlimited power and his overwhelming majesty and might even a casual reading of the Old Testament reveals to us that frustration is not unfamiliar to God. In fact, he experienced intense frustration on several occasions, long before this episode recorded in Mark 8. In Numbers 13 and 14, for example, the people of Israel were on the verge of entering the promised land. They had already been freed from slavery in Egypt, and they had recently received Godıs covenant establishing them as his chosen people. Now, as they prepared to enter the land that had been promised to them years before, Moses sent twelve spies to evaluate the situation and to help formulate a strategy. Upon their return to the group, the twelve no doubt affirmed the splendor of the land. ³The apples are huge, and the water is crystal clear,² I can very well imagine them saying. ³But there is one problem. The people who live there are too numerous and too well equipped for us.² ³God must be delirious if he thinks we can move in there,² they seem to insinuate. ³There is no chance of that happening.² ³Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in the wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword?² And in the face of these new, apparently insurmountable problems, the people of Israel forgot about God and everything that he had done for them in the past.
As a result, God grew frustrated, to say the least. ³How long will this people despise me?² he asks with a noticeable sense of rejection. ³And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?² ³How long,² God wonders. ³Will people ever trust me?²
Iım convinced that we modern types are sometimes too hard on the Israelites. ³If I would see God separate the waters of the Susquehanna River and lead me through on dry ground, I would never doubt him again,² we sometimes seem to say. ³I would trust him then.² Would we? I could parade before us this morning one miracle after the other. Lives that have been changed. Needs that have been met. Addicts who have been freed. Relationships that have been restored. Bodies that have been healed. What more do we want? And yet, when we encounter new problems, tough decisions and pressing predicaments, how do we react? Do we have confidence in God? Or do we forget about him?
Other things frustrate God as well. In Isaiah 1, the people were not necessarily doing anything explicitly wrong. In fact, we find them engaging in various religious rituals that were expected of them. They were observing the Sabbath and offering the prescribed sacrifices. The problem, however, was that through time, these observances lost a great deal of their intended meaning and significance. Rather than enabling people to growing increasingly closer to God, these rituals became an end in themselves just something that good Israelites ought to do. What resulted was a religion of doıs and donıts. No warmth. No grace. No genuine experience with the living God. Just procedures.
And God simply could not conceal his frustration. ³What to me is this multitude of your sacrifices?² he asked. ³I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;... When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.² God is annoyed. He is disappointed. He is intensely frustrated. He is hurt. After all, he has invested everything into loving the human race, and to see them turn it all around and somehow conclude that all he cares about is a few rituals serving on a committee or going to church occasionally frustrates him. Imagine how you would feel. You give yourself completely to another person, wanting their love and affection in return. What you get instead is a casual pat on the shoulder, an unwanted and meaningless present, and a rehearsed but insincere ³I care about you.² Youıd feel used and annoyed. Youıd grow frustrated. God does too.
The Jesus of Mark 8, then, fits right into this depiction of a God who feels frustration. Jesus had just finished feeding the multitudes for the second time, in fact. The apparent similarities between the two miraculous feedings have led some scholars to conclude that they are simply alternate descriptions of the same event. Jesus, however, will shortly refer to both occurrences when he interrogates his disciples (vv. 19-20), and Mark describes sufficient differences to suggest that he has two distinct events in mind. For Mark, the fact that the disciples witnessed and indeed participated in two miraculous feedings is of fundamental importance in understanding the way that Jesus responds to them during their upcoming boat ride.
In any case, on the occasion recounted here in Mark 8, at least 4,000 people some manuscripts read 4,000 men, suggesting that the total crowd numbered considerably more congregated to hear Jesus teach. The service apparently ran longer than most people expected, and the audience eventually grew hungry. When it dawned on the disciples that there was no food in the immediate vicinity no super markets or restaurants capable of handling such a sizeable entourage they expressed concern. ³What are we to do?² they asked. As you well know, Jesus next miraculously fed everyone by multiplying a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Jesus did so in such a lavish way that, when all of the people were finished eating, seven large baskets full of food remained.
At this point, our otherwise familiar story takes on a fascinating and, were it not so ³frustrating,² amusing twist. Mark informs us that, after this event and a subsequent debate with the Pharisees who themselves frustrate Jesus because they insist on testing him by demanding irrefutable evidence that he is the Messiah Jesus and his disciples enter a boat in order to sail again to the other side of the sea. Almost immediately, the disciples make what to them was a traumatic discovery they forgot to pack lunches for the trip (v. 14). They had in their possession only one, lonely, isolated, single, solitary loaf of bread to feed all of them! Imagine it. The disciples, the very ones who had just witnessed the feeding of this massive gathering of people. The very ones who had just collected enough left overs to fill what were no doubt seven large baskets. Now, just a short time later, they are distraught that their own cupboards are bare.
Suddenly, this single-minded, caring, awesome and balanced Jesus who is among us grows frustrated. ³Why are you talking about having no bread?² he asks. ³Do you still not perceive or understand? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? Donıt you recall the baskets full of food that you just collected?² he inquires with obvious dismay. Jesus is frustrated. He is annoyed. He has invested considerable time and energy into teaching and nurturing these people, like a parent who spares no expense in raising his children. Yet, in a moment of apparent need, all else is forgotten. Havenıt they learned anything?
One can sense Jesusı frustration here at no less than two levels. For one thing, the disciplesı preoccupation with their physical needs a preoccupation that blinded them to the far more important things of Godıs Kingdom that Jesus is trying so hard to teach them must have annoyed our Lord. And furthermore, their almost comical failure to trust Jesus to take care of them, even after they witnessed the miraculous feedings, would, I think you will agree, drive any one of us crazy. ³When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand,² Jesus asks with perhaps a trace of sarcasm, ³how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?² ³Twelve,² they sheepishly replied. ³And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?² ³Seven,² they answered with ever-reddening faces. ³What must I do,² Jesus no doubt wondered, ³to convince these disciples of mine that I can and will take care of them?²
Seemingly insurmountable problems. Religious rituals and routines that are void of genuine love and commitment. Pressing physical needs. These and other situations often provide us with opportunities to forget about God to forget who he is, what he has done, and what he has promised. And when we do forget about God, when we repeatedly allow the cares and worries of life to blur our memories of his grace and faithfulness, he, as caring as he is, grows frustrated. Can you blame him sometimes? He wants so deeply for us to trust him, to have confidence in him, and to rest in him.
So what are we to do? To begin with, we must recognize our tendency to forget whenever new situations arise. We must realize the pain and frustration that our forgetfulness can cause the heart of God, as strange as that might seem to us. And finally, we must take the necessary precautions to ensure that we remember the Lord the next time we find ourselves facing obstacles and overcome by doubt. ³Recite the commandments to your children,² Moses instructs the Israelites in that great passage in Deuteronomy 6. ³Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates...take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery² (Deut. 6:7-9, 12). Much of the Bible, according to the renowned Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, can be summarized in a single word: Remember.
Itıs true, of course, that refrigerators keep food cold, and I confess that we use our refrigerator for just that purpose. But keeping food cold is, in reality, secondary when compared to the role that refrigerators play in helping human beings remember. We certainly donıt want to forget our appointments, our chores, our errands, and our other commitments, do we? We donıt want to embarrass ourselves, and we donıt want to cause frustration for others. But what about this Jesus who is among us? Do we ever stop to think that our forgetfulness frustrates him?
Imagine, for just a moment, that Peter, or James, or John, or Matthew, or any of the other disciples had placed just a crumb from the leftover bread and fish in his pocket after Jesus had fed the multitude. Just imagine that, as they are all gathered in the boat, distraught over their failure to bring along adequate provisions, this same disciple had reached down into his pocket and pulled this crumb out. ³I donıt know what we will eat now,² you can hear him saying as he holds the crumb up for everyone to see, ³but I know that this Jesus who walks among us is able to provide for our every need. He can take care of us. He can work it out. He can make a way through this mess that we have made of our lives. He has done it before, and he can do it again.²
When you get home today, put another note on your refrigerator. Save it as the background on your computer screen. Hang it on the dashboard of your car. You might want that note to say something like what David prayed in Psalm 63: ³On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I stay close to you; your right hand upholds me.² Hanging such a note leaving yourself such a reminder might very well help you to trust in God through the ups and downs of life. Hanging such a note would no doubt save this Jesus who is among us a great deal of frustration.