Mark 2:13-14 – As Jesus Passed By

“Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them. As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So he arose and followed Him.” (verse 13-14, NKJV)

As Jesus passed by… This line strikes me so strongly. We all pass by a thousand things each day that we never take a single moment’s notice of, don’t we? People, interactions, opportunities… We simply “pass by.” But when Jesus passes by, He sees things. He saw Levi “sitting at the tax office.” Any one of us would have glanced Levi’s way and have simply muttered to ourselves, “What a hopeless sell-out.” But when Jesus saw Levi, He saw a heart hungering for acceptance and love. Aren’t we so thankful that when Jesus passes by us, He looks our way, too?

In Mark’s Gospel, Christ’s call to discipleship and Levi’s immediate response of obedience is abrupt and unexpected. The sudden encounter is one which even leaves us a bit uncomfortable perhaps. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflects on the abruptness of this interaction:

The call of Jesus goes forth and is at once followed by the response of obedience… How could the call immediately evoke obedience? The story is a stumbling-block for the natural reason, and it is no wonder that frantic attempts have been made to separate the two events… Thus we get the stupid question: Surely, the publican must have known Jesus before, and the previous acquaintance explains his readiness to hear the Master’s call. Unfortunately our text is ruthlessly silent in this point, and in fact it regards the immediate sequence of call and response as a matter of crucial importance. It displays not the slightest interest in the psychological reasons for a man’s religious decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, Levi follows at once. This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus… Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher of a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God. In this short text, Jesus Christ and his claim are proclaimed to men. Not a word of praise is given to the disciple for his decision for Christ. We are not expected to contemplate the disciple, but only him who calls, and his absolute authority. According to our text, there is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road – only obedience to the call of Jesus.  (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship)

An unexpected call, and an immediate response… You know, I used to look at this story and shudder in awe at the magnitude of Levi-Matthew’s sacrifice. To be honest, I always found the account intimidating. Would I have been able to walk away from everything known and comfortable in my world? After all, Levi’s decision was an irreversible one! Theologian William Barclay points out:

Of all the disciples Matthew gave up most. He literally left all to follow Jesus. Peter and Andrew, James and John could go back to the boats. There were always fish to catch and always the old trade to which to return; but Matthew burned his bridges completely. With one action, in one moment of time, by one swift decision he had put himself out of his job forever, for having left his tax-collector’s job, he would never get it back. It takes a big man to make a big decision, and yet some time in every life there comes the moment to decide. (Barclay, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, Mark)

But, you know what, as I reflect on this passage more fully, I think I now understand why Levi could and would immediately choose to follow the call. Through his whole life, Levi-Matthew had struggled to find meaning and purpose, to feel like he belonged somewhere. And now, here was that opportunity standing before him, in the form of a Person named Jesus. Levi was being offered an invitation to be a part of a community, a family. He was being called into an eternal friendship with the very Son of God. As Bonheoffer concludes, “At the call, Levi leaves all that he has – but not because he thinks he might be doing something worth while, but simply for the sake of the call. Otherwise he cannot follow in the steps of Jesus… When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person.”

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. ~Jim Elliot

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Presence

When we left off in Exodus 32 a few weeks ago, we were confronted with the unbridled, raw emotion of a betrayed God. Moses had begged God to restore the covenant with His people, and yet, the end of chapter 32 left us dismayed with what seemed to be an unequivocal “NO!” I appreciate how Professor Steve Rodeheaver helps us to understand this unsettling place in Scripture: “if we are to know Yahweh’s heart, if we are to know the heart that Christ reveals, that’s where we must be for now: the not-yet-forgiven side of forgiveness” (Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

As we continue reading in Exodus 33, we listen as God and Moses continue their conversation once again:

The Lord said to Moses, “Get going, you and the people you brought up from the land of Egypt. Go up to the land I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… And I will send an angel before you… But I will not travel among you, for you are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I did, I would surely destroy you along the way.” (Exodus 33:1-3, NLT)

Basically, God is saying that Moses and the people are free to go their own way. God will send an angel before them to clear the way and fulfill the promise to Abraham, but He Himself will not be traveling among the people. The relationship, it seems once again, has been too far damaged. The covenant has been shattered beyond repair. You know, at this point, I think if Moses had any less of a heart for God than he had, this arrangement probably would have seemed good enough. “Okay, God, thanks for at least sparing our lives! I guess we’ll be heading our separate ways now… (At least there will be a lot less rules this way.) Well, see you later!” But, no! Moses knew that this arrangement was completely unacceptable. Without God’s very Presence in their midst, there was simply no point in continuing to exist as a people.

At this point in the narrative, however, we find this rather awkward break in the flow. Verses 7 through 11 give this seemingly-random aside about Moses and the “Tent of Meeting” (separate from the sanctuary tent) where he would go to speak with God. I didn’t appreciate the purpose of this side note until just recently, when I finally realized that the reason we have this passage is so that we have context–a backdrop, so to speak–on the unspeakably intimate friendship which God and Moses enjoyed. This passage helps us to understand why Moses will ask what he is about to ask. But before we get to that part, I just love how verse 11 reads: “Inside the Tent of Meeting, the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Afterward Moses would return to the camp, but the young man who assisted him, Joshua son of Nun, would remain behind in the Tent of Meeting” (verse 11, NLT). I especially love this part about Joshua. You see, Joshua wanted so badly to experience God’s Presence that he would stay behind at the tent after Moses left — just so that he might catch a glimpse of God’s lingering Presence. Oh, that we would have hearts for God like Joshua!

Now that we have this backdrop to Moses’ and God’s friendship in place, let’s read what Moses asks of God in verses 12 and on:

Then Moses said to the Lord, “See, You say to me, ‘Bring up this people.’ But You have not let me know whom You will send with me. Yet You have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found grace in My sight.’ Now therefore, I pray, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight. And consider that this nation is Your people.”

And He said, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (verses 12-14, NKJV)

God’s response to Moses is both gracious and loving. But at this point, God has only promised to personally be with Moses, singularly. Yet Moses’ courage and confidence is bolstered by this response, and he’s ready to probe God’s heart even deeper for the sake of the people:

Then he said to Him, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here. For how then will it be known that Your people and I have found grace in Your sight, except You go with us? So we shall be separate, Your people and I, from all the people who are upon the face of the earth.”

So the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have spoken; for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name.” (verses 15-17, NKJV)

Amazing grace, unfailing love! God’s goodness and graciousness know no bounds. Israel is forgiven and the covenant is renewed. The relationship is restored! I can only imagine Moses’ breathless relief and ecstatic wonder at this response. His heart is so overcome by God’s words that he blurts out the most daring request of all: “Please, show me Your glory” (verse 18). I imagine that God’s heart thrilled at Moses’ request for deeper intimacy! Moses’ request is granted, yet, God must warn Moses that only His back can be seen. God then arranges for Moses to meet with Him again on the mountain.

As we come to Exodus chapter 34, our anticipation as the reader can hardly be contained. This is the first time in the biblical narrative that someone will actually encounter God’s full glory! Even if it is only God’s back, we eagerly wait to see what this experience will be like. What will it look like? What will it feel like? And, yet, when we get to verses 5 through 7, we are left surprised–maybe even a little disappointed at first–at the lack of a physical description of the event. Instead, here’s what we get:

Then the Lord came down in a cloud and stood there with him; and he called out his own name, Yahweh. The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out,

“Yahweh! The Lord!
The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love [hesed] and faithfulness [’emet].
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty… ” (Exodus 34:5-7, NLT)

No description of what God looked like. No description of what the encounter felt like. Instead, what do we get? We get a transcript of God’s character. We get a picture of how God chooses to relate to His people. We are reintroduced to who God really is: the LORD is full of immeasurable compassion, boundless mercy, unfailing love, and eternal faithfulness! I especially love the use of the Hebrew word hesed. Hesed describes a love so deep, so intense, so radical, that we simply don’t have an English word to describe it. It’s a word that is never used to describe the love between a man and women, because that kind of love simply isn’t deep enough. It’s only ever used to describe the self-sacrificing, unfailing love of God for you and me. Likewise, the Hebrew word ‘Emet denotes uncompromising fidelity, unwavering reliability, unchanging faithfulness. Moses wants us to know that this is what God’s glory is like!

As we close out our weeks, my prayer is that we will develop an insatiable thirst for God’s Presence just like Moses and Joshua. Like Moses, let our prayer be that God’s Presence will “go with us” in every step of our daily journey. It’s a prayer God’s heart is yearning to answer.

Final Instructions

By Exodus 31, God has been giving instructions to Moses for the last ten chapters – instructions for social laws, ceremonial feast days, the construction of the tabernacle, the garments of the priests, and nearly everything in between. Finally, God wraps up the conversation by telling Moses who has been chosen to build the holy tabernacle:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship.

And I, indeed I, have appointed with him Aholiab the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have put wisdom in the hearts of all the gifted artisans, that they may make all that I have commanded you…” (Exodus 31:1-6, NKJV)

I find these words to be of special importance. We so often think of God pouring out His anointing Spirit on pastors, ministers, evangelists, and missionaries. We think of the work of the LORD as encompassing preaching, teaching, and witnessing – but not much else. Yet here we have a beautiful illustration of God’s Spirit being poured out on an ordinary workman. “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri,” the text reads. “That’s my guy!” God says. “This is the one I have specifically called and chosen to build My holy tabernacle.” What an overwhelming privilege! I would think that this passage offers encouragement and affirmation to those of us who may not have been called to a specific vocation of church ministry. We may not be pastors or foreign missionaries, but, guess what, we’ve still been chosen and anointed to do a very special work of the LORD. You have received a unique calling that only you can fulfill! When you look at it that way, you realize that every single activity of your daily labor—no matter how menial it might seem—can be turned into an act of worship! The New Testament admonishes us to live out this “true worship” which comes by surrendering every facet of lives—whether at work or home or church—to God’s will. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1, NIV; see also 1 Corinthians 10:31.) It is both an encouraging realization as well as a sobering mandate of responsibility.

The final set of directions that God gives Moses is in relation to the Sabbath day: “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.’” (Exodus 31:12-13, NKJV). At first I found this repetition of the Sabbath commandment a little strange. Hasn’t God already given clear directions for the Sabbath in Exodus 20? Why the need to repeat? It then occurred to me, however, that the placement of the Sabbath reminder here is indeed very significant. God and Moses have just been talking about all the things that the people will need to do to prepare a dwelling place for the LORD: they will need to build the tabernacle, they will need to craft the sacred furnishings, they will need to prepare the priest’s garments, they will need to perform the dedication ceremony – and the list goes on… Perhaps God wanted to use this last repetition of the Sabbath promise as a way to remind the people that it is not their works, but God’s work, that will make them holy. God wanted His children to take a break every single week on the Sabbath day, to stop and remember – “that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (verse 13).

It’s almost as if God has intentionally book-ended this entire mountain-top discourse with the Sabbath. We first read about it in Exodus 20, at the heart of God’s proclamation of the Ten Commandments (the “Ten Promises”). And here we are reading about the beautiful Sabbath promise once again at the end of Exodus 31. I think God wants us to learn something today as well. As we discussed in our previous lesson “The Law, Part 2 – Sabbath,” Sabbath is so much, much more than a mere day of the week. It’s an attitude. We can either live our lives striving to get something that we already have, or we can begin abiding in the promises that God has bestowed upon us. (See John 15:1-8.) The Sabbath signifies a salvational rest. It’s a day we observe every week, where we remember that we can stop working to earn anything with God. We can’t impress Him. We can’t earn our way to heaven. Instead, we simply rest in His self-sacrificing and eternally-lasting love for us.

And with that last reminder, God delivers to Moses His holy law and covenant – the transcript of His very own character of love:

“When the Lord finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, written by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18, NLT).

Written with God’s very own finger! The question we are now left with is, “What will Moses and Israel do with this overwhelmingly-beautiful token of God’s covenant relationship?” We wait until the next chapter to find out.

Abraham: The Relationship Factor

With Genesis 12 and 13, we dive into an amazing journey with Abraham which we will spend the next few weeks traveling through! In chapter 12, we find the call of Abram – a call that asks him to leave behind everything known and familiar and to follow God’s voice into an unknown land. Abram would have never followed that call if a relationship with his Creator had not already been in place. However, all was not smooth and easy for Abram. After a long and arduous journey, Abram finally reaches the land where God has led him – but look what confronts him: Famine! What a test of faith! Abram has finally settled down in the land of promise only to be driven to Egypt by threat of starvation! When Abram finally reaches Egypt, it’s as if his faith begins to waiver in his God. We are, of course, all too familiar with the lovely mess Abram managed to get himself into with Sarah and how a merciful God got him out of it!

But then we get to Genesis 13. I really like how this chapter begins: Abram came “to the place where his tent had been at the beginning… to the place of the altar which he had made there at first. And there Abram called on the name of the Lord.” After a long and unnecessary detour, Abram finally ends up right back where he started. Abram had made a big mistake in Egypt and his actions had hindered God’s plan, but Abram never forgot about his relationship with God. He knew how to come back to the starting point. This made me think of some life-application questions for us today: What do we do after a season of backsliding or after a major spiritual failure? What is our response to God? Do we torture ourselves over the past? Does our guilt drive us farther away from God? And, yet, our loving Heavenly Father desires nothing more than for us to simply call on his name. He wants us to come running back into His arms!

Chapter 13 also covers the dissension and separation of Lot and Abram. I absolutely love Abram’s words to Lot in verse 8: “Please let there be no strife between us… for we are brethren.” Why should there be no strife? Because we’re family! You know, this really makes me wonder whether our arguments, contentions, and annoyances with each other (especially in the church) are really that big of a deal when we realize the most important thing of all: That we’re family! 1 Peter 4:8 reminds us how we should act in our family: “Above all continue to love one another fervently, for love throws a veil over a multitude of faults” (Weymouth New Testament). In other words, love looks past a whole lot of baggage when relationship is kept at the forefront of the picture. And, that, friends, is what I believe the message of Genesis 12 and 13 is for us today. In chapter 12, a merciful God chose to dig Abram out of his ditch because of relationship. In chapter 13, Abram demonstrated radical generosity and graciousness when he allowed Lot to choose his portion of the land. Why? Because of relationship! And throughout all this, Abram never forgot the most important relationship of all – the relationship with his Creator. “And Abraham was called God’s friend” (James 2:23). I think that’s why Genesis 13 begins and ends the same way: Abram builds an altar for worship. Abram’s experience of Genesis 12 and 13 is book-ended by one overarching purpose: relationship!

I would like to invite you to join me in spending some time this week thinking about what it means to “call upon the name of the Lord” – no matter what! Whether we’re on a spiritual mountain top or whether we’re coming out of a spiritual downfall, we can always count on God’s relationship with us.