Mark 8: Signs in the Bread

This is the a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, September 27, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of a chapter-by-chapter series on Mark’s gospel, the goal of which is to get to know, love, and follow Jesus more fully in our daily lives.

It’s based on Mark 8:11-21.

You can view worship and sermons at BBUMC.orgYouTubeVimeo, or Facebook.

Salvation Mountain.” Leonard Knight has been building Salvation Mountain for over fifteen years. Using his unique method of “splooching” to paint manmade mounds of clay and straw, Mr. Knight simply wants to spread the good news that “God is Love.” As your eye travels from the base of the mountain to its peak, you discover a multitude of images and slogans that express the complexity and comprehensiveness of God’s presence. A slogan about Jesus begins your journey up the mountain, and it concludes with a single white cross at the top that represents the risen Christ. The image of Creator God is embodied in every painted flower and tree. From doves to fruit, representations of the Holy Spirit cover generous portions of this labor of love. Very inch of Salvation Mountain represents Mr. Knight’s experience of the living God, the Trinity.
Holy Trinity Sunday requires a similar labor. It is a community’s opportunity to profess and confess of God’s eternal presence. It is an occasion for the church to celebrate the living mystery that is the Trinity. Whether using the phrase Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, we must take time to name how God is active in the communal life of faith. — Blair Tolbert
For more details on Leonard Knight’s creative project and Salvation Mountain, please visit: www.salvationmountain.us;

Most of the first people to receive Mark’s gospel would have heard it read, not read it themselves. So, imagine you’ve sat through the first seven chapters, or maybe you heard them yesterday and have returned today for the rest. We’d need signs, often in the form of repetition, to keep us tuned in to the message. Today’s reading, chapter 8, is like that. It reaffirms and pulls together many of the themes from the first half of the gospel. It’s also a turning point in the gospel, leading toward Jesus’s eventual crucifixion, which Jesus foreshadows at the end of chapter 8. With this in mind, let’s explore some of the repetitions we see in today’s chapter.

Think about the boat scene. This is the third time we’ve seen Jesus and his unnamed disciples on a boat in somewhere in the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-40, 6:45-52, 8:13-21). When we preachers pick one of these to preach on, we can sometimes forget that there are multiple boat scenes. This can tempt us to conflate them as a single event. But, while there are similarities, there are also differences between these passages. In two of them, Jesus calms the winds or the waters (4 & 6). In two of them (6 & 8), Jesus or Mark mention something about bread. And in all three, there’s some question of the disciples’ faith or understanding of who Jesus is. But, in chapters 6 and 8, their lack of understanding is related to Jesus’s feeding miracles, not his power over the seas, which Mark clarifies in the scene from chapter 6:

“His disciples were so baffled they were beside themselves. That’s because they hadn’t understood about the loaves. Their minds had been closed so that they resisted God’s ways” (Mk 6: 51-52).

This brings up a second repetition in Mark: Jesus feeding multitudes. In chapter 6, Jesus feeds 5,000, presumably Jewish, people somewhere in the Galilee region. In chapter 8, Mark doesn’t tell us where Jesus is, but chapter 7 ends with Jesus in the “region of the Ten Cities,” which is on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee – the typically Gentile side (Mk 7:31). So, we might reasonably assume he’s still there when he “feels sorry for” or “has compassion” on the crowd and calls his disciples to feed 4,000 people.

Reading Mark straight through also reveals another tool for reading scripture: we look to the things surrounding a particular passage. Where these individual scenes fit within the larger story can be revealing for us as we seek to know, love, and follow Jesus, which is Mark’s point in writing the gospel. For our passage, the Pharisee’s request for a sign just before Jesus and his disciples get into the boat is significant.  

Mark tells us that the “Pharisees showed up and began to argue with Jesus…[asking] for a sign from heaven” (8:10). Before assuming the Pharisees are the “bad guys” here, I think we can be a little generous with them and their desire for a sign. After all, according to Deuteronomy 13:1-5, it was their calling to make sure any prophets or teachers were legitimate, to make sure someone who seemed to be a prophet was actually sent by God to help the people love God with their whole hearts. Moses was proved legitimate, in part, because bread fell from heaven for the people of Israel in the wilderness. Signs from heaven were the test for prophets in the Old Testament. The Pharisees only wanted what God has previously done.

In this light, the Pharisees are asking a seemingly fair question, one with which we might all relate in some way. Is wanting, praying, or asking from a sign from heaven, a sign or proof from God, such a stretch of the imagination? How or in what situation have you asked for or longed for a sign from God?

As I was first choosing a college, I don’t know if I was so faith-minded that I sought God for a sign about which college to attend (I assumed that God spoke through scholarship committees, I guess). I do remember praying, longing for a sign when trying to figure out what my major should be, after I dropped my first path. I remember praying for a sign when I was trying to decide if I should apply to seminaries or English grad schools. I remember praying for a sign when Sarah and I had been dating for some time and it seemed like it was going somewhere. I remember praying for a sign that it was time to open my heart to the possibility of children, and for an open heart when we discovered a child was coming. In our lives as church, I think we do something of this at each meeting when we pray something like, “God show us the way forward for our congregation; order our work according to your will.” We even pray something similar to this each week as we begin worship, longing for God to move through worship to assure us of God’s grace and shape us thereby. It seems normal to want assurance of God’s presence, and especially, God’s direction in our lives, doesn’t it?

Fair as the Pharisee’s request for a sign seems, Jesus sighed deeply with impatience and declared “[No] sign will be given” (Mk 8:12). We could think that Jesus is trying to be difficult here. We could think that Jesus is doing that mystery thing that comes up in Mark, like when he tells people, “Don’t tell anyone what I’ve done here.” But, maybe he’s just a little exasperated, like his sigh is saying, “Didn’t you just see me feed thousands of people, or at least hear about it? It was a big thing.”

So, Jesus leaves with his disciples in a boat to cross the lake again, leaving the Pharisees without the sign they’re asking for; however, as we see in today’s passage, Jesus has, in fact, given them a sign. But, just as they didn’t understand the loaves in Mark 6:52, they still can’t see the sign, which confounds Jesus:

“Why are you talking about the fact that you don’t have any bread? Don’t you grasp what has happened? Don’t you understand? Are your hearts so resistant to what God is doing? Don’t you have eyes? Why can’t you see? Don’t you have ears? Why can’t you hear? Don’t you remember?” (Mk 8:17-18).

And so he asks about the feeding miracles – about how many loaves he had used, and how many basketsful were left over. The sign, according to Jesus’ questions, is in the numbers, but neither he nor Mark spell it out for us.

We have to interpret the numbers. In chapter 6, in Jewish territory, Jesus fed 5,000 using five loaves, with twelve basketsful left over. For Jewish folk, like Jesus and his disciples, these numbers ring bells: five, for the five books of the Torah; twelve, for the twelve tribes of Israel. Here, Jesus is the sign of God’s blessing and sustaining presence for the whole of the people of Israel – for whom Jesus said last week that he had come. In chapter 8, in Gentile territory, he fed 4,000 using seven loaves with seven basketsful left over. For a reason I haven’t figured out, seven, for Jewish people in the Bible, is a number that signifies completeness, like the seven days of the week. So, repetition of the number seven signifies the completion of God’s mission to bring all people, all the nations, into relationship with God. Here, Jesus reinforces the message he taught and enacted last week in chapter 7: Jesus inaugurates God’s kingdom of blessing for all people, Jews and non-Jews alike.

After the disciples fail to see and understand Jesus’s signs in the feeding miracles – even after Jesus asks about them (Mk 8:21) – the next miracle Mark recounts is Jesus giving sight to a blind man. This time, however, Jesus has to place his hands on the man twice in order to fully restore his sight. With the blind man, and the spiritually blind disciples, Jesus has to keep trying to bring healing, wholeness, and the sight of faith to them. And somehow, in the next scene, the disciples’ sight is healed too, for when Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers affirmatively, “You are the Christ” – the messiah, God’s chosen way to bring God’s kingdom (Mk 8:27, 29).

In this, we see what Jesus has not yet said, but which Mark began his gospel saying: Jesus is good news for the world, the Son of God, the savior (Mk 1:1). In the boat with Jesus, the disciples shouldn’t have to worry about not having any bread: Jesus is, as he says in John’s gospel, the bread of life, come down from heaven (Jn 6:51). Jesus, himself, is the one loaf, the one sign needed of God’s mission in the world. Jesus reveals himself, so that his disciples can see, believe, and follow him. And then he calls the crowds and his disciples to follow him, to learn from him, to devote themselves to his way of life, saying, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Mk 8:34).

Seeing all this in chapter 8, it’s easy to see that Mark is trying to reveal as fully as possible who Jesus is, so that all his hearers will grow to know and follow Jesus. So who is Jesus, thus far? Jesus is the Son of God, the good news of salvation, the presence of God’s kingdom. He is God’s bread of life, God’s sign of blessing, presence, and power, and God’s way of bringing salvation to all.  

And having seen Jesus in this way, here are two take-aways from this passage, and the first half of Mark. First, seeing the disciples get it wrong so many times – completely missing the significance of the feeding miracles – is encouraging. They’re the ones following Jesus day in and day out. They’re the ones sitting at his feet during all of his lessons, public and private. And they are still sometimes blind to who Jesus truly is. That means that there is nothing preventing us from considering ourselves as part of their rank, as disciples of Jesus. They’re not extra holy. They’re not super wise. They’re humans seeking to follow and be intentionally formed to become like Jesus. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t, which leads us to the second take-away. Jesus keeps calling us, keeps teaching us, keeps offering himself as the full sign of God’s presence, love, grace, forgiveness, and salvation. This too, means that we are disciples, if, at any point in our lives, we’ve confessed with our mouths and believed in our hearts that Jesus Christ is Lord. And then, each and every day, is, like it was for his first disciples, a day to choose to follow him, to learn from him, and to experience a little more of his grace. May today be a new day of following Jesus, for he keeps calling.

Reflection Questions:

  1. In this sermon, I suggest that Mark is trying to consolidate or summarize much of what he believes is important to know about Jesus up to this point in his gospel. Either from Mark 1-8 or in general, ponder who Jesus is to you. What would you tell someone about Jesus, if they hadn’t heard of him before? What about him makes you want to follow him daily? What about him makes you want to keep him at a safe distance?
  2. Being a “disciple” of Jesus is Mark’s goal for his readers/hearers. What does being Jesus’s disciple mean to you? What about this term, as I describe it in this sermon, makes you think you might or might not be Jesus’s disciple?
  3. Paul says that “[If] you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). Is belief and confession enough to make you a disciple of Jesus? What else do you think is required, if this is not enough?
  4. If you think there’s something else required to be considered Jesus’s disciple, what, if anything, is preventing you from taking this next step in your faith life?
  5. Or, if you are taking next steps in your faith lives in what you believe is a journey of discipleship, what are those next steps? What do you think is important, beyond belief and confession, for being a disciple of Jesus?
  6. Obviously, one of the challenging things about Mark 8 is Jesus’s call to “take up your cross.” I didn’t develop that idea in this sermon. What do you think Jesus means by this? What is a “cross” in your life? What thing do you have a choice to take up or not, but that Jesus is calling you to carry in his name?

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