January 6, 2002
JESUS AMONG US: MESSAGES FROM MARK
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
Think of the excitement that often arises when you introduce somebody special to your family or friends for the first time. I remember the first time my parents ever met my wife-to-be. They drove out to the college from the Allentown area and joined up with me at my dorm. We then proceeded together to the lobby at Bittner Dormitory, and I called up to Debs room and asked her to come down. I could hardly waitI was eager, to say the least, to show off this magnificent young woman from Massachusetts who, surprisingly enough, had interest in little old me. For a young man not too far removed from his rebellious, flunking-German-in-high-school-intentionally days, this was a wonderful occasion for both my parents and me.
As I suppose is typical of parents during such moments, mom and dad were eager to find out more about this new girl in my life. They wanted to know what kind of a person she was. They asked questions about her interests and her majorwhat she wanted to do with her life. And of course they hoped to gain an increasingly better sense of her priorities and values. If by chance this budding relationship turned into something permanent, mom and dad cared deeply that it would last through the ups and downs of life that love-struck teenagers generally have little, if any, awareness of.
In just a minute or two after receiving my call, Deb walked through the lobby door. My heart was pounding with anticipation. This was, after all, the night that I could finally introduce this special young girl to my mom and dad.
Ive read through Marks Gospel many times in my life, and Ive lived in it during recent weeks. In a round about sort of way, I think Mark, as he pulled together this account, felt something of the same excitement that I felt in the lobby of Bittner 27 years ago. Someone extremely special had come into his life, and he desperately wanted to introduce him to others. He wanted, if you will, to show Jesus off. We find, for example, no lengthy birth narratives as this gospel begins, nor is there any peoccupation with preliminary remarks. On the contrary, Mark jumps right in: Hes here. The one Isaiah spoke about hundreds of years ago. Ive met him. And I want you to meet him too.
Marks Gospel divides rather neatly into three sections, each of which addresses a crucial question similar to those on my parents mind as they drove out to meet Deb. In 1:1-8:30, Mark deals with the question, Who Is Jesus? In 8:31-10:52, he asks, What did Jesus Come to Do? And finally, 11:1-16:8 focuses on the question, What was the Outcome of Jesus Life and Mission?
In the opening section of Marks Gospel, 1:1-8:30, over 140 questions appear, many of which are rhetorical in nature and therefore receive no direct answers. But if you take all of these questions and wrap them together, the central concern is, Who Is Jesus? Mark of course provides no theoretical or systematic answer, nor does he employ sophisticated theological terminology. As is customary in his culture, he instead tells stories about things that Jesus did and recounts parables and lessons that Jesus told. Why, Mark gets sufficiently caught up in the excitement of what he is doing that he depicts Jesus seemingly leaping from one encounter to anotherand immediately Jesus went there; suddenly Jesus did this; immediately Jesus said that.... I can almost imagine myself describing my new girlfriend to mom and dadshe likes to cook, she wants to be a nurse, she prays a lot, she cares deeply about people, shell learn to enjoy wrestling,... Mark is excited about Jesus. Are you?
Look briefly at the Jesus who Mark describes. He is a man with a missionhe proclaims the good news of God. He travels throughout Galilee, calling others to join the team. He speaks and acts with astounding authority, and he has power over nature, sickness, and sin itself. This Jesus utters a simple word, and the storm subsides and the bread multiplies. He reaches out his hand, and lepers are clean and the lame walk. He says Come out of him, and even evil spirits flee. Mark is excited about Jesus. Are you?
This Jesus who appears so clearly in 1:1-8:30 moves about among a wide variety of people. He eats with societys outcasts, debates religious leaders, and travels with everybody in between. As he rubs shoulders with all of these people, Jesus is a strikingly odd combination of mercy and determination. He seems so patient and kind when he interacts with the broken and hurting, but so feisty when challenged by the close-minded: He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.... As gracious as this Jesus is, there is nothing whimpish about him. He is a man with a purpose, and his resolve and commitment keep him squarely on track. Mark is excited about Jesus. Are you?
If not, youre not alone. A good number of people who serve as secondary characters in Marks collection of stories arent terribly excited about Jesus either. To be sure, the crowds who gather around him grow larger with each passing accountrather like a community assembling when a house in the neighborhood catches on firebut uncertainty and opposition grow right along with them. The disciples dont seem to have a clue as to who Jesus is and what he is doing. Family members question Jesus sanity. Religious leaders argue with him at every turn, and they soon begin to seek his demise. Mark is excited about Jesus, and so are some others who have met him. The former leper is bouncing around enthusiastically. Jairus, whose daughter Jesus raised from the dead, is amazed too, as is even the foreign woman from Tyre whose family will never be the same following Jesus visit. But many are not so excited. They are afraid of Jesus. They are angry at him. They are confused by him. They wish he would just go away. Where do you fit in?
Interestingly enough, Marks opening section ends in much the same way that it began. As Mark deals with the question, Who is Jesus?, he first recounts the testimony of God the Father himself following Jesus baptism: You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. This same Jesus who heals and teaches and casts out evil spirits and stirs up controversy is, by the Fathers own declaration, the son of God. Then, just when we are about to think that nobody, including the disciples, will ever get it, Peter blurts out in 8:29: You are the Messiah. It would appear, after all, that progress is being made. Mark is excited about Jesus, and others, at least Peter, are actually catching on. But are they?
After dealing with the question, Who is Jesus?, Mark proceeds in 8:31-10:52 to consider the issue of Jesus missionWhat did Jesus really come to do? In this central section of the book, it doesnt take long for us to realize that Peters pronouncement hardly reflects a reliable understanding of Jesus true identity and role. Get behind me, Satan, Jesus soon says to Peter, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. Apparently, the acts and words of Jesus so vividly displayed previously in Marks Gospel failed to offset or counteract the deeply rooted expectations that the disciples and others had of the anticipated Messiah.
For many Jews living in 1st century Palestine, the expected Messiah would be a military leader. After years and years of oppression and occupation at the hands of the Romans, these Jews longed for Gods anointed one to come and literally set them free. The Messiah would destroy the Romans and establish a new kingdom characterized by peace and freedom. No wonder it was so difficult for them to hear Jesus talk about his upcoming death. I remember a course I took on Islam in Jerusalem back in 1980. The professor was reflecting on some of the differences between Islam and Christianity, and he mentioned the fact that the death of Jesus is a real obstacle for many Muslims. Jesus died on a cross, the professor commented, but Mohammad died with his head on the breast of his favorite woman. Peters declaration notwithstanding, death on a cross just doesnt fit the description of an anticipated deliverer.
Yet that is precisely where Jesus mission will lead him. The people need to be retaught here in 8:31-10:52. Central for Jesus and his followers are not the petty questions that people of all ages tend to be preoccupied with, like Who is the Greatest? or Who has the most? but rather, Who is willing to give up absolutely everything, including his life, for God and his kingdom? And if new doubts begin to emerge here concerning Jesus role and identity, a second divine pronouncement occurs in 9:7: This is my Son, the Beloved. Jesus hasnt lost his mind. He hasnt given in to despair following repeated rejections. He hasnt given up when he talks about self-denial and death. You are the ones, Mark informs his audience, who are operating on the wrong paradigm. You are the ones who have fashioned the Messiah in your own likeness. You are the ones who repeatedly ask the wrong questions. This is my Sonthe one telling you about his impending death and resurrectionlisten to him. Not only does God the Father corroborate Jesus identity in the midst of the miracles of 1:1-8:30, but in the harsh reality of an anticipated death here in 8:31-10:52.
Finally, after describing who Jesus is and clarifying what he came to do, Mark concludes his gospel by exploring one last question: What was the outcome of Jesus life and calling? After all, both Scripture in particular and history in general are full of examples of aborted missions. There are countless people who begin a task or assignment with great zeal and promise, only to fizzle part of the way through.
In Jesus case, I suppose that we might very well understand why he would have abandoned his calling. His own family, once again, questioned his mental stability. His disciples, though taught by a master teacher, were frighteningly dense at times and remarkably slow to catch on. The religious authorities ridiculed him and plotted against him. And the very nature of crucifixiona gruesome way to diewould be enough to scare virtually anyone else away. Who, honestly, could blame Jesus for throwing in the towel on everyone and just walking away? You and I have no doubt thrown in the towel on many other people for a lot less. People who dont listen to us. People who rub us the wrong way. People who seek to do us harm. People who ridicule us. People, even family members, who just dont seem to appreciate us.
Who among us could have blamed Jesus for calling it quits?
But, Mark assures us as he brings his gospel to a close, Jesus never did. He never did. And note the irony of the Roman centurions words as Jesus hangs limp on the cross: Truly this man was Gods Son! Didnt someone say that before? Twice, in fact? But who noticed? As a prelude to the miracles and insightful teachings of unit one, God the Father said to Jesus, You are my son, the Beloved. And in the middle of the predictions of Jesus death and resurrection, the Father announced a second time to all who could hear, This is my Son, the Beloved. But again, who noticed? Now, with Jesus doing the unthinkableactually surrendering his life for the worlda Roman guard, of all people, declares what the Father has been saying all along: Truly this man was Gods Son!
A famous French bishop tells the story of three university students walking along a Paris road one Good Friday afternoon. They noticed the crowds going into churches to make their confessions. The young men began to discuss the whole matter of people worshiping in churches and they decided that it was just a survival of some old superstitions. Suddenly, two of the students turned to the third and said, "Will you go into the church and tell the priest what we have been saying?" "Sure, I will," he said, and went into the church. He stood in line for some time. When he finally reached the confessional booth, he said to the priest, "Father, I have come here merely to tell you that Christianity is a dying institution and that religion is a superstition." The priest came out of the booth and asked, "Why did you come here to tell me this, my son?" The youth told the priest of his conversation with his companions. The priest listened and then said, "All right, I want you to do one thing for me before you go. You accepted the challenge of your friends; now accept my challenge. Walk up to the chancel and you will find there a large wooden cross. I want you to stand before that cross and say these words, `Jesus died for me, and I don't care.'" The student was puzzled, but to save face, he agreed and went and did as he was told. Returning, he said to the priest, "I have done it." "Do it once more," said the priest. "After all, it means nothing to you." He went back and looked at the cross for some time and finally stammered, "Jesus died for me and I don't care." He returned to the priest and again reported, "I have done it; I am going now." The priest stopped him, "Once more - just once more, and you can go." The young man walked to the chancel and looked again at the cross. He stood there for a long time, but said nothing. This time he returned more slowly and quietly asked, "Father can I make my confession now?" The bishop who told this story concluded by saying, "And my dear people, that young man was myself." If looking at Jesus hanging on the cross was enough to change this nameless and foreign centurion and the young French university student, just imagine what the resurrection can do.
Its been 27 years since that night in the lobby of Bittner Dormitory. I can still feel the excitement that overcame me as I anticipated introducing this wonderful young woman to my parents. Now, after years of interacting and getting to know each other better, my mom and dad would quickly say if they were here this morning, We are so glad she came into our lives. With similar but even greater enthusiasm, Mark seizes the opportunity to introduce someone very special to a host of listeners. Mark is excited about who Jesus is. Mark is excited about what Jesus came to do. And Mark is excited about Jesus completed mission and what it means for everyone. Are you?