Gospel of Mark

What’s Missing


Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


Followers of Jesus sometimes struggle with how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament. The behaviors of the God of the Old seem different than the God of the New, and this perception can cause people to treat the ancient Jewish Bible as a colorful aside to the real story.

The beginning of Mark should help us put aside any notion the two can be separated. First of all, there is a clear connection of ideas, a flow from the promises of the Old Testament into Mark, generally considered to be the earliest gospel written.

Let me make this important assertion about the Old Testament: Grace abounds. Yes, in some of the really ancient stories, God can seem harsh, with entire cities vanishing in sulfurous flames or overrun by holy, spear-chucking armies. We have to remember how far back in time we are going with these stories, and we have to remember God is communicating who he is in the only way ancient people could understand.

What’s remarkable is in the midst of all that primitive communication, grace still abounds. God’s love for his creation and his desire to be in deep relationship with his creation shines through. There is a simple call throughout the Old Testament: “Put aside sin, be holy, and I will be with you.”

In our text today, we hear a quote from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, a call to repent and prepare for the full, visible presence of God. If we back up a little in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, we hear the context for this call to repentance:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God,
speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Throughout the Old Testament, God seems to long for the full relationship to begin. You see this desire in the Psalms, and you certainly see it in the writings of the prophets.

When the Gospel of Mark begins, we remain in the theme and mood of the Old Testament. A man clearly dressed and living like an ancient prophet, John the baptizer stood in the wilderness crying the words of the prophets of old.

Just like the ancient prophets, he told the people to straighten out their lives. He was saying, The centuries-old promise is bearing fruit! Something is about to happen—get ready! Someone is coming, and in him you will meet God.

It was an exciting message, so exciting that word spread, and people went into the wilderness to hear more. They were even given a chance to respond. They partook of an activity rare for Jews, water baptism, symbolically putting their sins behind them and pledging to live under God’s law.

Repentance is not the end of it, though, John made clear. Even with their contrite hearts, something was missing. Again, John was very much the Old Testament prophet, repeating messages that had been floating around for centuries.

God had already described just how intimate he wants to be with his creation. Look at the words of another prophet, Ezekiel. He was speaking to suffering people, the people of Israel living in exile because of their sins. A day is coming, though, he told them:

“I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)

The encounter with God was to be so deep that it would become a matter of the heart, God working from within. And like the prophets before him, John saw that day coming. In his case, it was coming soon, very soon.

It was to be a baptism much greater than the water-based one they were receiving in the wilderness. Instead of water, God’s Spirit will wash over you, into you, John told the people, and God will fulfill the promise of old.

As people looking back on the events through the lens of the New Testament, we know how this actually happened. Jesus came into the world, and was declared the Christ as the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism.

This baptism of the Spirit began to spill out on the world in Jesus’ ministry. His touch healed and the truth he declared marked the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth. After his death and resurrection, he breathed new life into his followers.

And then, just as he promised, the Holy Spirit descended on his followers at Pentecost and began to spread as word of the Savior spread.

The Spirit is God’s palpable presence, and where God’s presence is acknowledged and accepted, there is great power.

In a story of the early church in Acts 19, there is a fascinating account of the Spirit becoming known and going to work. Paul traveled to Ephesus, and there found a group of people who are described as “disciples,” followers of Jesus Christ. They had experienced what they described as “John’s baptism.” That is, they had repented of their sins with a sense of expectation, but they did not know they could experience the Holy Spirit immediately.

Paul let them know there was so much more available to them in terms of experiencing God’s power. He laid his hands on them, and Acts tells us they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.

They encountered the truth of God’s love and a sense of God’s presence. Think how that changes a life—to know, without doubt or fear, that God is real, that God speaks to you and through you.

I want for all of us what Paul wanted for the Ephesians. I want for all of us to have a deep sense of our connection to God, to know the Holy Spirit is at work. I want for all of us to sense that power, and then to see great works happen, not to our glory, but to the glory of God.

All I know to do is what John did as he baptized and Paul did as he guided the church at Ephesus. I declare to you today, the Spirit is present. I declare it to be true, in your lives and in mine.

Whether the Spirit truly changes us has a lot to do with how we have readied ourselves for this powerful manifestation of God. One of the authors in the recent book “A Firm Foundation,” Georgia Pastor Carolyn Moore compares this process to wood catching fire.

For the wood to be ready, time and patience often are needed. The wood has to be dry, free from the outside influences that hinder combustion. It has to heat up enough to reach the combustion point.

“Try to light a wet log and you’ll end up frustrated,” Moore writes. “Try to start a spiritual fire before the heat is there to sustain it, and you’ll end up frustrated at best, burned at worst.”

Our spiritual practices are the kindling, drying the wood and heating it so it will burst into flames. Traditionally, Methodists have called these “means of grace”: worship, Bible study, prayer, fellowship, communion, and caring for the “Matthew 25” people of the world.

The Holy Spirit is the match. But the wood cannot be lit until it is ready. What are you doing to prepare yourselves to catch fire?

Through our lives and through this church called Luminary, may the Spirit bring glorious changes in this world God so desperately loves.

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The End

Mark 13:1-8

I frankly don’t like preaching about what we sometimes call “the end times.” When a Bible text like today’s comes up in the regular readings, I am tempted to avoid it.

The subject is terribly complicated for a 15- or 20-minute sermon. When I have a group of people who really want to study what theologians call “eschatology,” I prefer the reading time and lessons to stretch over eight weeks in a small group or Sunday school setting.

The subject also has been muddied to the extreme, particularly in American religion, by people with some strange ideas about how to read the Bible. The most troubling of these authors and preachers fail to heed Christ’s words that come a little later in this chapter: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

A lot of these charlatans not only want to predict the timing of “the end” and tell us exactly what must happen on earth before Christ returns, they also want to sell us books explaining their theories. If they are sure the end is near, why don’t they live their convictions, going deep in debt to print their books and give them away? Why do they need the money?

That said, people regularly come to me and ask, “Pastor, are we living in the end times? With everything happening around us, it sure seems like it.” I’m sure a lot of you had that feeling of end-time foreboding after the horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris Friday.

So let’s consider the matter, at least a little. If you want to consider it more deeply in a different setting, I’m always glad to help.

Here is the short answer to the question, “Pastor are we living in the end times?” Yes, we are. Yes, we have been since Christ ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit arrived to guide the church.

Jesus warned us that all sorts of terrible things would be happening around us, “wars and rumors of wars,” and natural disasters, and famines, and so on. Such events were happening even as he spoke.

From a global perspective, they continued to happen nonstop up to present day, but they do not represent the end; as Jesus said, they are merely the “birth pangs” of what is to come. Evil was defeated by the cross, but evil will continue to snap and bite, to try to take as many of us down with it as possible, until Christ destroys evil forever.

Many of the earliest hearers of Jesus’ words lived long enough to think the world was coming to an end in A.D. 70. Remember, Jesus started this passage by prophesying the glorious Jewish temple and the great buildings around it would be destroyed. In the year 70, the Romans did just that, razing everything on top of the Temple Mount in response to a Jewish rebellion. The historian Josephus claimed that 1.1 million people were killed in this destruction.

There have been other times people have been convinced the end must be near. In fact, I would assert there has been no definable period in history where someone somewhere wasn’t justified in thinking, “This must be the end of everything.”

Just imagine being in the midst of the Black Death, when plague killed anywhere from one-third to one-half of Europe’s population in the 14th century.

Or think of the 20th century, when two world wars left people with the sense that everything was crumbling around them. Those wars gave us nuclear bombs and were followed by a Cold War during which it seemed most of us might die at the push of a few buttons.

It’s depressing stuff to think about. And maybe that’s really why I don’t like talking about the end times. When we do so, we are missing the true message Christ is trying to give us. We are missing the glory of what is to come.

As long as evil remains, we are going to have huge, scary messes before us, with those events taking innocent lives needlessly. Islamic terrorism is the great evil before us now. Maybe it will be the last great evil in the world we confront before Christ returns. Maybe not. I don’t know.

But I do know this. It all comes to an end one day, and that could be any day. And we need to live our lives as if Christ could return in a flash, in the next few seconds. There is enough evil in the world already; let’s not let evil creep into our lives.

I want all of us to live with a sense of immediacy. Let’s live as if we are going to see Christ with our next breath! When we live this way, evil cannot truly touch us, not even if it takes our lives. Even if we are killed, we are sheltered with Christ, destined to return with him on that great day.

Carry in your hearts Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:35-37: “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

——

Featured Photo Attribution: By ERIC SALARD [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. Gathering in Paris on Jan. 7, 2015, following Charlie Hebdo attacks.

You Don’t Tug on Superman’s Cape

Proverbs 1:20-33

Our verses in Proverbs today depict wisdom in a way you might not expect, as a woman wandering the streets, calling out warnings of doom to those who ignore her.

“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” she asks. “How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

Some read these lines as a warning to the young. And there’s probably some validity to that idea. Most of us do recognize that basic wisdom—an understanding of how life works, and how we should navigate that life—develops with age.

It’s the kind of wisdom you’ll find in a Jim Croce song: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around with Jim.”

We’re talking about wisdom that keeps you alive, the kind of wisdom we often call common sense. It’s good to have.

There’s more going on in the Proverbs text than just a call to earthly survival, however. Wisdom points her audience to the source of her existence, the knowledge and fear of the Lord. And that’s not necessarily the kind of wisdom where age has to be a factor. We all know some very young people who seem to have knowledge and fear of the Lord, and some very old people who don’t.

There also is the issue of which understanding of God is wise and which is unwise. All this week in the Middle East, people have been debating this topic with fire bombs and bullets.

As a Christian pastor, all I can do is remind us once again of what it means to define God through the lens of Jesus as Christ, Son of God, God Among Us in Flesh. Our version of godly wisdom makes us different from all other versions.

Let’s pause a minute and look at another text, Mark 8:27-38. It’s one of those places in the New Testament where it becomes abundantly clear who Jesus claimed to be and what it means to accept his claim. There are four parts to this text.

First, there’s the debate about Jesus’ identity. Peter made a startling assertion: Jesus is the Messiah, the savior promised by God.

Second, there is Jesus’ explanation of how the Messiah would go about doing his saving work. He had to suffer, die and rise from the dead. At this point, Peter didn’t do so well because Jesus’ explanation of the Messiah’s work didn’t match Peter’s worldly expectations for a warrior king. Peter rebuked Jesus for all that suffering and death talk.

“Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus said. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Tough words from Jesus, but he was right, of course. Satan does like to keep our minds on our immediate, earthly concerns. He knows that if we glimpse the divine, he’ll lose his unholy grip on us.

Third, there is the demand made on us if we are to follow Christ. We are to deny ourselves. We are to burden ourselves with the cross, the symbol of the story of sacrifice we are to tell and incorporate into our own lives. We are to give up earthly wants and earthly ways to pursue strange, divine activities that don’t fit into this world.

The only reason that Jesus is able to say in Matthew 11:30 that “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” is that he knows his true followers will receive special power from the Holy Spirit to do what they are called to do.

Fourth, there are repercussions if we do not take up that cross, if we act like we’re ashamed of its startling message. They are essentially the same repercussions Lady Wisdom speaks of in Proverbs, a separation from God that has the potential to last for eternity.

And yes, Jesus is speaking to people who call themselves Christians, who say “I’m with you Jesus” in baptism and church membership but then fail to follow through. You have to own something to be ashamed of it.

It is here I get a little uncomfortable—I’m happier speaking of God’s infinite grace and love, and God’s willingness to save us through simple belief. But both our texts today speak of responsibilities and repercussions, and if I’m going to be true to the text, I have to point the repercussions out to you, too.

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. And you definitely, definitely don’t thumb your nose at God’s call on your life, a call to sacrifice and ministry. It could very well be a matter of eternal survival.

As I bring all this up, are you a little uncomfortable, too? Who’s winning in your life, the one who is of this world, or God? As a believer, are you making a difference that matters in a divine way?

Your church, your local gathering of Christians, is the best place to start if you want to live the life divine.