Mark 2:1-4

September 6, 2019

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.

Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. Mark 2:1-4

Today’s devotion is for everybody but especially for men. It is both a celebration and a challenge to how we do “church” in our lives. Here it goes.

Years ago I heard someone ask the question while talking about the lives of men: “If your world was falling apart and you needed help at 3:00 AM, who would you call?” The speaker suggested that many men cannot identify even one other man with whom they have a close, mutual, deep friendship. The kind of friendship where you wouldn’t hesitate to ask for help in the middle of the night.

A 2018 Barna Report came to the same conclusion. Barna says that “Earlier this year, a study from health insurer Cigna found that most Americans report feeling lonely, left out and not known.” Loneliness is an epidemic in America today. It afflicts young people as badly as it retired people. The ache of loneliness, the pain of not being known, the sadness of social isolation, gives rise to a host of self-destructive behaviors which seek to self-medicate and numb the pain.

What is the answer to this? Community. Connection. Safe spaces and safe people among whom we can be ourselves. We can be vulnerable. We can speak our truth. We will be heard and we will be able to both give and receive support. This IS exactly what Jesus was talking about when he called his followers to love one another. That is the celebration of church.

Later this morning I am going to meet a group of men at a golf course to spend the day together. The core group have been meeting every Friday for over eight years. We are always open to others and often invite guys to make room to play. I met all of those guys at church. Through the years we have all been through the highs and lows of life. Together. I wouldn’t hesitate to call any of those guys at 3:00 AM. They are a blessing.

The church is one of the few institutions which enables long term relationships between people. That’s a good thing. It is essential. But the church is also a place where people can put on their Sunday best and pretend. Church is somewhere they go when Jesus’ idea is that church is something we do. That is the challenge to the church – are we willing to do Christian community that goes more than skin deep?

Don’t get the wrong idea about that paralyzed guy. He wasn’t helpless. Sure, he couldn’t walk but he wasn’t helpless. He had plenty of help. All the help he needed. Because he had four friends who were willing to carry his mat to Jesus. Four friends who were not going to be satisfied standing among the overflow crowd. Four friends who hoisted him to the roof, dug a hole in it, and dropped their friend right in Jesus’ lap. That is what friends do!

As we will see next week, Jesus welcomed him. That is another challenge to the church. Are we ready and open to welcoming the physically and mentally infirm into the community? Do we make room for the full participation and inclusion of the physically challenged? Don’t you think that congregations ought to strive toward that?

By the way, there are two ways to develop deeper friendships at church. Be a friend and bring a friend. It is worth it. There is healing in there.

Let us pray: Thank you Lord for the people with whom we share our lives. Thank you for friendship and for opportunities to both give and receive help. We pray for those who suffer from loneliness and isolation and pray that you guide us toward being church in a way that proves a real blessing in peoples’ lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Mark 1:40-45

September 5, 2019

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. Mark 1:40-45

Leprosy, Hansen’s disease, is caused by a bacterial infection. Over time it can be very damaging. Around 200,000 new cases show up around the world each year. It is easily treated with a combination of modern drugs and highly curable. But it wasn’t always this way.

In Jesus’ day, all disease was considered a spiritual matter with communal implications. The Jewish laws proscribed very specific treatment for those with outwardly visible physical afflictions. God is punishing them! Kick them out of town! Have nothing to do with them! Even menstruating women were considered unclean and supposed to keep to themselves during their cycle.

Today, when I read “leper” in the Bible I always remember the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. The fear. The grief as people mysteriously got sick and then suffered until death. The social judgment and ostracization that those testing positive faced. Ignorant and opportunistic preachers perverting the Christian faith, manipulating their followers with fear, fueling their prejudice and lack of information, by declaring AIDS to be God’s punishment for homosexuals.’

No. It was a virus that attacked the human immune system. Once understood, it could be treated. With proper treatment, even those who test positive for the virus can live long and full lives without coming down with a full blown case of AIDS.

Jesus had room in his life, in his work, in his heart, for suffering people. Jesus understood both the physical pain of illness and the social pain of blaming the victim to protect the community. So when Jesus was confronted by a leper desperate enough to break the social taboos against approaching a “healthy” person, Jesus welcomed him. He cured him. Then he sent him back into his community so that his physical cure could lead to his social reconciliation.

Again, surprisingly, Jesus tells him not to say anything to anyone except the priest who needs to rubber stamp his cure. Again, just wait until the end of the story so you can really understand what Jesus’ healing means.

Again, not surprisingly, the man can’t help but blab to anyone who would listen. I get that. Last weekend a friend shared some new information with me about weight loss, something I really struggle with. They couldn’t help but share what they found to be wonderfully promising information, even at the risk of offending me, because they care. Now I’m trying something new and like them, and like the leper in the story, I’m so excited that it is all I want to talk about. That is the way it works, it is how the faith spreads, and we all get to play.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, sometimes the brokenness in our lives is on full display for all to see. More often, we suffer from the inside out and no one sees. Always, the most important medicine in our lives is love. May your love birth compassion and healing in us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 1:32-39

September 4, 2019

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. Mark 1:32-39

To this day, there is no advertising that any businessperson covets more than good old fashioned “word of mouth”. Nothing attracts satisfied customers more than satisfied customers telling others how satisfied they are. And, of course, that also works the other way.

To this day, no matter how many times our parents might have drilled into our heads that “in this world, there is no such thing as a free lunch”, we are all subject to the absolute insanity that the world is full of free lunches. That is precisely the human pipe dream that con men prey on and manipulate. Everybody wants something for nothing. Everybody wants an edge. Insider information. And we fall for it.

Word spread quickly that there was this guy doing amazing things in Capernaum. Mark says the “whole city” gathered around Jesus. We can imagine that. How a neighborhood is suddenly swamped with onlookers and reporters after something significant happens. Rubberneckers clogging the lanes around a car crash. Lines snaking around the block to get the new iPhone.

What does Jesus do? He helps hurting people. He heals the sick and casts out demons. That is obvious. This morning I’d like us to notice two things that might not seem so obvious.

The first is the line, “he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” This really is a curious thing for Jesus to say, and he will say it again and again in Mark. Why? Obviously Jesus wants to be known. He says himself, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” So why tell anyone NOT to tell the story of Jesus?

The explanation that makes the most sense to me goes back to the key question that Mark wants to answer – What do we make of a Messiah who dies? Mark’s answer will be the resurrection. That the death and resurrection of Jesus is the point of the whole story. Nothing that Jesus says or does will make much sense until we get to the resurrection story. And therefore, all of these stories of healing and casting out demons are all previews of coming attractions. They are “little resurrections” that demonstrate the power Jesus has to give us new life that will only be revealed in its fullness at the end.

And the other thing I want to notice is that, early in the morning, Jesus went to a deserted place to pray. He models God’s pattern of work/rest. His prayers remind us that there is more going on in him than a traveling medicine show. He reminds us again that God’s love has to come to us before it can flow through us.

Let us pray: Jesus, there is something powerful in imagining you surrounded by sick and hurting people rather than building an army. From the very beginning, people looked to you for healing. Be our Healer. And use us to tell our own stories of how you transform our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 1:29-31

September 3, 2019

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. Mark 1:29-31

Events happen very quickly throughout Mark. It is a breathlessly told story. BANG, something else interesting happens. And as the story goes along, it has a way of constantly surprising us. My sense is that we ought to pay close attention to those times when we’re surprised.

We’re still in the first chapter!

It is hard to put ourselves in the position of someone reading this story for the first time but we can imagine what that would be like. Jesus and his friends leave the synagogue and go home with Simon and Andrew where they find Simon’s mother-in-law sick in bed with a fever.

“Modern” people might read this and imagine Jesus leaving a wooden or brick church building, walking together down a street, and entering a large enough home that it could accommodate Simon and his family, including his mother-in-law, and Andrew (and his family, if he has one.) That, most certainly, wasn’t what it was like.

These were very poor people living a subsistence lifestyle. Their homes were much more like tiny concrete/stone apartments with very small rooms around a central open space for cooking. Extended families shared the same spaces. People would sleep in the rooms or on the roofs. Beds were mats on the floor.

“Synagogue” – like “church” – refers first to the people who gather together and only secondarily to a building in which they could gather. It is quite likely that there wasn’t a dedicated building for worship in the little fishing villages along the Sea of Galilee. Visit Capernaum today and you’ll see the ruins of a synagogue building…originally built in a Roman style, 100-200 years after the time of Jesus.

Consider what this scene in Simon and Andrew’s home teaches, not only us, but those first disciples. Gathering together with other men in worship was nothing new to them. For several hundred years, Jews living outside of Jerusalem – with only periodic access to the temple – practiced their faith by the customs they followed in their homes and by gathering with others to sing, pray, and study the Law. That Jesus would take them to such a gathering was normal.

“Going home after worship” was also normal. Even having a sick family member at home was normal.

The “mystery” was what caused someone’s illness. Common sense held that perhaps they had done something worthy of punishment. The Law included many passages referring to the sick and often the need to send them out of the village. The interesting thing about that is that, in our modern age, doctors can diagnose an illness, describe it down to the cellular level, and still people are left with the haunting spiritual question, “Why is God letting this happen to me?”

The wonder of this story is obviously what Jesus does. He goes to the unnamed mother-in-law, takes her by the hand and heals her.

No doubt the disciples are shocked! And, like us, they ask, “Who is this guy?”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you joined worship with others to healing at home. We pray for those we know and love who are ill today. From the very beginning, you are our Healer and there is so much in our lives that needs the healing you can bring. Come to us and take us by the hand. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 1:21-28

August 30, 2019

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28

From the internet: “On July 8, 1954, Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played a new song on the radio for the first time. It hadn’t even been pressed into a record yet, but when Phillips heard the tape that had been recorded a few days earlier at Sun Records, he wanted to play it on the air as soon as possible. It was the first time that the music of Elvis Presley was heard on the radio.

The switchboard at WHBQ lit up immediately with listeners wanting to know who this new artist was.  Phillips played “That’s All Right” over and over and tried to reach Presley on the phone.

Now, for the rest of the story: “Phillips couldn’t reach Elvis because he was at the movies.  His parents tracked him down and brought him to the studio for his first radio interview.  One of the first questions that Phillips asked Presley was where he went to high school. The answer “Humes” was a cue to the audience in the segregated south that the singer was white.”

Elvis, unlike so many other musicians who had their moment in the sun, wasn’t a “one hit wonder.” Neither was Jesus.

We forget that, in the 1st century, in the decades preceding the birth of Jesus, “messiahs” were a dime a dozen. Charismatic figures drew followers seeking a better life, seeking to oust Rome from Israel, seeking to establish the New Jerusalem on earth. And all of them, charlatans as they were, fell. Always discredited, often killed, all they left in their wake were disappointed and disillusioned followers – and Pharisees clucking “I told you so!”

Then Jesus comes along. And in the breathless, breakneck style, in just one week he has already arrived on the scene, been baptized, suffered in the wilderness, preached his first sermon, chose his first followers, cast out his first demon, and excited like the crowds like an ancient Elvis. Whew!

As I shared on Monday, no one knows for sure where, when, or who wrote Mark. Tradition says it was the John Mark who followed Paul. Very unlikely. And if it was, he learned the faith from Paul. Why is it then that Paul would teach Mark all sorts of stories about Jesus and yet, in Paul’s own writings, never mentions any of them? Answer: Because Paul wrote long before the gospels were written. Paul might not even have known many of the stories that appeared in the gospels. The truth is, we will never know with absolute certainty who, what, or when Mark was written.

But we can make a pretty good guess as to why! The big question that lies behind Mark is this one: What are we to make of a messiah who dies? And then come the inevitable other questions: How are we to understand it? Is Jesus just another charlatan? Are there still good reasons to follow him?

Interesting, isn’t it, that we still ask those same questions?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we want to imagine that you exploded into the consciousness of the world. Mark makes your introduction seem so quick, so easy. But we know your life wasn’t easy. And we know of the fickleness of crowds. We’re still that way. Thank you for making yourself known, for whoever it was who wrote Mark and thereby introduce you to us. Bless us as we follow your story, and as we follow you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 1:21-28

August 30, 2019

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28

From the internet: “On July 8, 1954, Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played a new song on the radio for the first time. It hadn’t even been pressed into a record yet, but when Phillips heard the tape that had been recorded a few days earlier at Sun Records, he wanted to play it on the air as soon as possible. It was the first time that the music of Elvis Presley was heard on the radio.

The switchboard at WHBQ lit up immediately with listeners wanting to know who this new artist was.  Phillips played “That’s All Right” over and over and tried to reach Presley on the phone.

Now, for the rest of the story: “Phillips couldn’t reach Elvis because he was at the movies.  His parents tracked him down and brought him to the studio for his first radio interview.  One of the first questions that Phillips asked Presley was where he went to high school. The answer “Humes” was a cue to the audience in the segregated south that the singer was white.”

Elvis, unlike so many other musicians who had their moment in the sun, wasn’t a “one hit wonder.” Neither was Jesus.

We forget that, in the 1st century, in the decades preceding the birth of Jesus, “messiahs” were a dime a dozen. Charismatic figures drew followers seeking a better life, seeking to oust Rome from Israel, seeking to establish the New Jerusalem on earth. And all of them, charlatans as they were, fell. Always discredited, often killed, all they left in their wake were disappointed and disillusioned followers – and Pharisees clucking “I told you so!”

Then Jesus comes along. And in the breathless, breakneck style, in just one week he has already arrived on the scene, been baptized, suffered in the wilderness, preached his first sermon, chose his first followers, cast out his first demon, and excited like the crowds like an ancient Elvis. Whew!

As I shared on Monday, no one knows for sure where, when, or who wrote Mark. Tradition says it was the John Mark who followed Paul. Very unlikely. And if it was, he learned the faith from Paul. Why is it then that Paul would teach Mark all sorts of stories about Jesus and yet, in Paul’s own writings, never mentions any of them? Answer: Because Paul wrote long before the gospels were written. Paul might not even have known many of the stories that appeared in the gospels. The truth is, we will never know with absolute certainty who, what, or when Mark was written.

But we can make a pretty good guess as to why! The big question that lies behind Mark is this one: What are we to make of a messiah who dies? And then come the inevitable other questions: How are we to understand it? Is Jesus just another charlatan? Are there still good reasons to follow him?

Interesting, isn’t it, that we still ask those same questions?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we want to imagine that you exploded into the consciousness of the world. Mark makes your introduction seem so quick, so easy. But we know your life wasn’t easy. And we know of the fickleness of crowds. We’re still that way. Thank you for making yourself known, for whoever it was who wrote Mark and thereby introduce you to us. Bless us as we follow your story, and as we follow you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 1:14-20

August 29, 2019

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. Mark 1:14-20

Mark tells us that Jesus’ first sermon was nineteen words long. It is the biblical Gettysburg Address. Most of the words are worth a sermon all to itself but we don’t have room for that so let’s quickly run through them.

“Time.” There are two words for time in Greek. Chronos is sequential time. It is watching the hands move on a watch. Kairos means consequential time, the right time, the critical time. It is that moment when the robbers hear “OK boys, the gig is up!” An alcoholic might think of the difference between “closing time” and the “time I got arrested and hit rock bottom before I got sober.”

The “kingdom” or the “reign” of God. These terms are among the politically subversive ideas in Mark. They signify God being the ruler, the one from Whom we take our marching orders, not Caesar. The kingdom or the reign of God signifies a relationship marked by loyalty, devotion, and faithfulness. This kingdom is “drawing near” in the person of Jesus. Unlike Caesar, God doesn’t use violence, coercion, or manipulation to entice followers. God uses love because God is love. We should always, by the way, be very wary of earthly rulers who “love” us and seek for us to “love” them in return. That’s how Caesar would have used that word. Jesus’ love landed him on a cross. Very different.

“Repent” means turning around, reversing course, changing our minds, and changing our ways. To “repent” isn’t “feeling sorry about your sins” – that is contrition or remorse – repentance is the recognition that the path we’re on is a dead end and we’re willing to stop and do something different.

“Believe” is more than being intellectually convinced that something is true. That is part of it but it doesn’t capture the full meaning. I always think about the analogy of a chair. Someone tells me that a chair will support my weight. If I didn’t know that before but now do, that is knowledge, the first movement of faith. If I agree with them, that is assent, but I still don’t believe. Only when I actually try it out, and physically sit down on the chair, which is trust, do I fully believe what they are saying to me.

To believe is to trust. It isn’t merely about our heads or our hearts, it is about our whole bodies, our whole being.

And the good news that Jesus brings stands in stark contrast to the good news that Caesar brings. It is the newness, the fullness, of life for all people which will be marked by love, mutual service, and “enoughness” for all. It is not about the dominance, the insatiable empire, the worldly adoration, that Caesar seeks. It is the difference between a local leader forcing all the citizens to line the roads to put on a good show when Caesar comes to town and an impromptu flash mob laying palm branches and their own clothing on the road to welcome Jesus.

Then Jesus hits the road. Two paragraphs later, he has four friends joining him in his mission. His missio dei – his God-given mission, mandate, and purpose for being. He has literally called his friends with the invitation, “Follow me” and they do. They immediately recognize that what Jesus is about is much more important, hopeful, and helpful than fishing for a living. Do we?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, let today be the day that we hand the wheel of our lives back to you. Again. Take us, use us, always to your glory and to the common good of all people. We know the allure of the dead-end roads we have been traveling. Count us among your followers. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 1:9-13

August 28, 2019

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Mark 1:9-13

I never knew the date of my baptism until I was filling out the application form for seminary. Evidently, I didn’t need to know the date until then. I was able to live my entire life to that point, all those days since November 27, 1960, blissfully unaware of the date of my baptism. Should I have been surprised to admit that my baptism meant absolutely nothing to me?

Many years later, after my cousin moved into my Grandma’s old house, he and his wife went through all of the treasures that had laid long forgotten in her basement. They sorted the stuff out, cousin by cousin, and then one day a box arrived in my mail with all sorts of wonderful things in it. Including my baptism certificate. Only then did I learn who my baptismal sponsors, my godparents, were. Not a peep from them over the years. Should I have been surprised to admit that my godparents were absolutely meaningless to me, all that time, and since that time?

I have come to learn – first by going along with what my professors taught me and what I was expected to parrot from them, then by life experience – that my baptism actually was a pretty big deal. It was FULL of meaning. Lots of promises were made that day. Few were kept.

My parents promised to raise me in the faith. To see that I learned the basics of the faith along the way. To see that I was in church on Sunday mornings until I had a car of my own. My sponsors promised to help them with all of that. The church promised to be there for me.

Honestly, the only one that kept their promise was the church. For the rest of my life, in every place I have lived, I have been surrounded by Christian communities that stood like the prodigal son’s father, always looking down the road, anxiously hopeful that I would find my way home. And, with God as my guide, I did. And they told me, because God loved me, because Jesus died for me, and because I was baptized on a Sunday afternoon in 1960, when I walked through their doors, I was coming home.

Jesus public coming out party happened along the shores of the Jordan River. Like all of those other desperate people looking for something that their faith could hold on to, some reassurance that God wasn’t through with them, some promise that things would get better, he slogged through the mud, negotiated the slippery rocks, until he rested in the arms of John, who gently lowered him into the love of God.

The heavens were torn open – like the temple veil will be ripped in two when we get there later – and God’s affirming words thundered. Even as Jesus blew the water out of his nose, he knew, in his heart of hearts, he was God’s child. He was loved. His father was proud of him.

My father didn’t make it to my baptism. It was just my mom, the pastor, and his wife as a witness. But that wasn’t about God and it wasn’t about me. As far as God was concerned, and as far as I was concerned, I too was beloved. A work of art, crafted by the creator of the universe. That ain’t bad!

But life didn’t get easier for Jesus. It got harder. Baptism isn’t a “Get Out of The Wilderness Free” card. Baptism IS the assurance that, even when we’re alone in the wilderness, we’re not alone. And even though it feels like we will never get out of the wilderness, one day we will.

When will we ever learn that it is the wilderness that brings us the assurance of faith?

Let us pray: In your baptism, O Lord, you identify yourself with us. You don’t scold us from the front of the room, you sit in the desk with us. You don’t sit with the cool kids in the lunch room, you come back to the corner and sit with us. You might even have had pimples when you were a teenager. Through all these years, you are still with us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 1:4-8

August 27, 2019

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.” Mark 1:4-8

If I told you that there were two young men standing at your front door, just about to ring your door bell, wearing short-sleeved white shirts and ties, their bicycles parked on your sidewalk, you would immediately have an emotional response to the possibility of their actually ringing the door bell. You already know a lot about who they are. You might welcome them. You might not.

That is one side of the power behind the uniforms people wear. The other side is how the uniform helps those guys do their jobs. All uniforms work that way.

Mark’s description of John immediately (there’s that word again) gives away his identity. John is a prophet. One who speaks for God. One who interprets the present time, not one who predicts the future. But why are throngs of people heading out to the wilderness to get what he has to offer?

I believe that all four of the gospels were written primarily to Jewish audiences, knowing that those audiences might also include “Jewish sympathizers”, or people with an interest in Jewish faith or Jewish community even though they hadn’t taken the plunge of baptism or circumcision. And I believe that Mark was written after the destruction and devastation of Jerusalem (67-70 CE) at the hands of the Roman army. That puts it in the early to mid 70’s.

Times of tragedy and change, changes either for good or ill, always prompt us toward spiritual questions. Why did this bad thing happen? Are the gods behind it? What will God do about it? Is it our fault? Is it something we did or failed to do? The new Taylor Swift song, written as she was thinking about her mother’s cancer, includes the line, “Desperate people find faith, so now I pray to Jesus too.” I think that Mark was writing to a desperate community.

Why were the crowds streaming out to the wilderness? In part, they were recreating the story of Israel. The people of Israel in bondage in Egypt, called the cross the Red Sea, sent wandering in the wilderness, eventually finding a place in their Promised Land. That is their defining story. We also have a defining story as Americans, we just can’t agree about what it is. Is it the story that began in 1492, or 1619, or 1776? Because we can’t agree on our defining story, we don’t know what to do with ourselves today. But we’ll figure it out eventually. God never leaves God’s people in the wilderness forever.

So Mark tells us that the people went to the wilderness to be baptized by John – always the sign of death and new life. They sought forgiveness of their sins. They wanted a better future. They were willing to acknowledge that part of the answer to their spiritual questions was, “Yes, in lots of ways, you blew it. But God isn’t going to hold that against you.” That was great news, well worth a really long walk.

Then John says that there is still something better to come. Or better, someone better still to come.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, when all around us is shaking and quaking and all of the foundations of life seem to be crumbling away, we know that is where you stand ready to let us fall so that you can build something new in us. May we always welcome those voices that guide us to you, and may we live in the forgiveness of our misguided attempts to be gods unto ourselves. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 1:1-3

August 26, 2019

“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.’” Mark 1:1-3

The vast majority of Bible scholars believe that Mark was the first of the four gospels to be written. Further, most believe that the writers of both Matthew and Luke were holding copies of Mark when they wrote their versions of the Jesus story, each with their own purposes. John was written later and very much independently.

The rationale for this way of seeing things is pretty simple. Mark is the shortest book. Everything in Mark is also in both Matthew and Luke. That is the basic argument that Mark was written first.

Both Matthew and Luke make little tweaks to the stories they found in Mark. They changed them slightly, we have to assume, to improve the story for their own purposes. Some stories are only in Matthew, others only in Luke. This is the basic argument that each of the gospel writers structured and told their stories with specific purposes.

And there are stories that appear both in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. That is the argument that there was another written source, now lost to history, that consisted of the sayings of Jesus. Scholars call that source “Q”, from the German word for source, “quelle.”

Personally, I like the idea that, even in the first century, someone decided to write down the things they either heard Jesus say or heard that Jesus once said. Even then someone was more interested in what Jesus actually said than in constructing some grand narrative to structure some point they wanted to make.

Having said all of that as a basic background, today we begin our slow walk through Mark. Immediately – and you will come to see how important that word is to Mark – Mark tells us who Jesus is. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, not Caesar Augustus, who also claimed to be the anointed one. Jesus is the Son of God, not Caesar Augustus, who also claimed to be the son of god. And what Mark is writing he calls “good news”, using the same word that was used to describe the birth and coming reign of Caesar Augustus.

Certainly Mark is a work of spiritual writing but we simply can never put aside or forget that Mark is also a work of subversive writing. He tells us the story of Jesus within the story of the cultural and political realities of his day. I believe that tension is essential in appreciating what Mark had to say then and how that impacts how we hear his words today.

Further, by reaching back to the words of the prophet Isaiah in beginning his story, Mark is doing that very same thing. He is applying the language of his spiritual tradition to the cultural and political realities in which he lived. We are free to, and we ought to, do the same thing.

Mark’s story begins in the wilderness. At the edges. He uses the power of words. And the note he sounds is that something big is about to happen.

Let us pray: Thank you Lord for the witnesses to the faith who have gone before us. To the writers of scripture and to those who so carefully attended to and preserved their words for us. Give us open hearts, open minds, open ears, that we might hear. In Jesus’ name. Amen.