MARK: Good News to Human Failure

This year I really just wanted to dive into the story of Jesus.

After all, the story of Jesus and who Jesus is are pretty central.

We have four accounts of the story of Jesus preserved for us in Christian Scripture—
what would it look like to explore one of the gospels?

But then I ran into a dilemma.
Which gospel would we talk about?

If we choose to talk about the masterpiece called Luke,
then we’re missing out on John and Matthew and Mark.

And once we chose one of the gospels, how would we even go about exploring it?

How on earth could we explore
the twenty-eight chapters of Matthew
the sixteen chapters of Mark
the twenty-four chapters of Luke
or the twenty-one chapters of John?

How could we choose just one of the Jesus accounts?
And if we COULD choose one, how could we even digest it?

My confession to you is that I couldn’t decide which of the gospels we should focus on…
so (insanely) we’re going to do all four of them.

You know those packs of ice cream that have multiple flavors in them?
That’s what this weekend is.

Think of this weekend as a “Gospel Neapolitan” if you want.

I want us to taste the four four different of the Jesus story
that the ancient church preserved in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

At one point in the second century (so almost 1900 years ago),
the church could have opted to have one gospel—one story of Jesus.

A guy named Tatian took all four of the gospel stories (with their distinct flavors), put them into a blender and came up with one story of Jesus.

A Jesus smoothie, if you will.

So in the second century, there was this opportunity for the church to say:

“You know, it is kind of confusing to have four different stories of Jesus.
Let’s put them all together and we’ll have THE gospel. We’ll have THE story.”

But that’s not what the Church decided.

Instead, the early church said:

“We’ve got four distinct gospels, and we like ‘em that way.
Tatian, you can keep your smoothie. We like being able to taste the flavors.”

That’s what this weekend is about.
Tasting the flavors.

We want you to be abel to say,
OH—that’s what Luke tastes like.
That’s what Matthew smells like.
That’s the flavor of John.

So sampling and tasting flavors is one of our priorities.

But if this weekend becomes primarily about knowing things—
knowing things about some ancient documents in what we call the Bible—
then we have radically missed the mark.

If this weekend is ONLY about Bible trivia or literary analysis or sampling flavors
then we might as well have not come.

Our goal this weekend isn’t primarily to know things.
These sessions aren’t primarily about knowing things about the gospels.

Our goal this weekend is to know Jesus.

The Jesus whom the Church proclaims to be God-made-human;
the Jesus whom we confess has conquered death and is alive right now;
the Jesus who rules the universe as king and who will one day
bring justice to the world, right all wrongs, and restore all things.

At one point in John’s gospel,
Jesus says that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood,
until we somehow bring Jesus into the deepest parts of our being—
until we allow him to bring us nourishment and sustenance and life—
we’re missing out on real and lasting life (cf. 6.53-57).

My prayer for this weekend is that
we’ll be learning not just to taste the gospels
but learning to taste life.

That maybe we’ll start inviting Jesus into the deepest parts of our lives
and start glimpsing what it might look like to experience real and lasting life
in normal, everyday routines of school or art or sports or relationships or whatever.

So with each of our four sessions,
we’re going to be looking at a gospel to try to taste a flavor.

And hopefully as we taste each distinct flavor
it’s going to be help us to know Jesus and to taste life.

So go ahead and open up your Bibles to the gospel of Mark
because we’re about to jump in there.

Mark, you say?
Why not Matthew?

Well, Mark is probably the original gospel.
The earliest gospel. The first gospel written.

Best we can tell, the order of the gospels being written was something along the lines of
Mark first and then Matthew and Luke
and then John probably last.

So what Mark is writing is revolutionary.
It’s the first-of-its-kind.

I mean, there were biographies in the Greco-Roman world,
but no had ever written something like this.

Mark isn’t simply telling us the life story of a revered historical figure.
The end of his story is claiming that this figure has actually been raised from the dead:
(16.6) Don’t be alarmed…You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

…says a mysterious messenger at the end of the story.

Conquerors and senators and noblemen may have been written about before,
but Mark is making a shocking claim.

He’s claiming that Jesus is alive.
I mean, he WAS dead, but now he’s alive forever.

Death—the terrifying, unstoppable shadow that looms over all of us—
has been conquered by a human being.

Well… that’s worth a headline.
That’s newsworthy. That’s news.
The defeat of death is good news.

That’s why Mark starts his story the way he does:

(1.1) The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

The earliest readers of this story were used to hearing “euangelia” (good news).

When something great happened to the empire, it was announced everywhere—
whether it was that a new emperor had ascended to the throne,
or that the emperor has defeated threatening enemies.

Mark says, “this is the way the good news starts.”
It’s the beginning of the “euangelion.”

The singular, definitive good news to which all other news pales in comparison.
Mark is telling the story of a man who has defeated death.

This is the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.
If you want a good road-map to Mark, that first verse gives it to you.

Mark’s story is a two-step story.
It’s a two-step story about learning to see Jesus clearly.

Learning to recognize him as ancient Israel’s long-awaited Messiah (or “christ” or king”)
and then learning to recognize him as something even more.

As someone who shows us what God is like—as the Son of God.

Mark begins by telling us where this is heading:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…

That’s the road-map. But then he continues by saying:

(1.2) …as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

(1.4) And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

So Mark is assuming that the people hearing his story know a few things.

First, he’s assuming that we know something about the story of the people of Israel.

You know—the Judean countryside and the people of Jerusalem.
The people of Israel—the people of what we call the Old Testament.

The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob way back there in Genesis,
who God promised would bless the entire world (Gen 12).

The people who were liberated from Egypt in Exodus,
and charged with being a kingdom of priests (Ex 19).

The people who
even though they were given God’s very presence with them,
even though they were given instruction on how to live,
even though they were given land in which to prosper,
even though they were sent prophets who tried to warn them against rebellion,

they rebelled against their God,
until they finally found themselves under God’s judgment.

They found themselves conquered,
their land invaded,
their temple destroyed,
their identity shaken,
and their hope all but gone.

But the masses are flocking out to John the Baptist,
because Israel’s prophets had haunted them with hope.
They had said one day Israel’s Lord would return his temple,
and a crazy Elijah-like figure would prepare his coming (Mal 3.1, cf. 4.5).

One of the prophets (Isaiah) had said,
“God is coming—get ready! Prepare the way!” (40.1-5, 9).

Nobody knew exactly what their “God coming to them” would look like.

But as they ached and hoped and prayed with the prophets, quite a few of them began to believe that God would send some kind of anointed figure (e.g. Isa 61.1-2)—

perhaps a priest (Ps 110)
or maybe a prophet (Deut 18)
or a probably a king (Ezk 34)

—who would restore Israel and bring the healing reign of God to the entire world (Dan 2, 7).

And so a lot of people were anticipating the grand and glorious appearing of this anointed figure who would bring restoration and healing and God’s kingdom.

The word “Messiah” is just the Hebrew word for “Anointed One.”
And if you want to say “Anointed One” in Greek, you say “Christos.”

So there’s a buzz—there’s electricity in air—
when a camel-skin-clad, locust-eating baptizer
appears in the wilderness.

There’s something very Elijah-like about this guy.

And this guy is calling everyone to “repent”
(to change their thinking and living and everything)
because there’s someone coming after him.

And everyone is thinking:

“This is it! This is what we’ve been waiting on! Any moment now the Messiah is going to appear with power to trample down our enemies, to conquer Rome, and usher in the kingdom of God.”

And that sure seems like the story Mark is telling. Because he continues:

(1.9) At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

(v14) After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Everyone is ready for the movement of God.
For the arrival of the Anointed One (the Messiah, the Christ).

And then Jesus steps onto the stage.
Well actually (in Mark) Jesus bursts onto the stage.

There’s no cozy Christmas stories in Mark.
The first we meet of Jesus is at this baptism.

God is tearing open the sky and coming down (cf. Isa 64.1).
(Mark is the only one describes the heavens as being “torn” or shred.”)

God’s Spirit is descending on—is anointing—Jesus.
He’s the anointed one. He’s the christ.

He comes out of the water and goes out into the desert
to be with Satan and wild animals (like you do).

After that he comes back to civilization and makes an announcement:

“Get ready: The kingdom of God is coming.
Change everything. Repent. Believe the good news!

And then—it’s almost like he’s an action hero in Mark—Jesus gets to work.
He starts recruiting a posse and kicking butt.

Seriously, he recruits some followers (1.16-20)
and then drives a spirit out of a man (1.21-28).
And that’s really the way that Mark continues to depict Jesus:

(1.33-34a) The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons…

(1.39) So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

(3.13-15) Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.

There’s not a lot of parables or teaching in Mark.

Jesus just shows up announcing the reign of God and trashing evil.

Whatever kind of evil he sees oppressing the human condition—

whether it’s various Impure spirits (1.21-28, 5.1-20),
or debilitating diseases (1.40-45, 5.25-34),
or broken bodies (2.1-12, 3.1-6, 7.31-37, 8.22-26),
or religious hypocrisy (2.13-17, 2.23-28, 7.1-23),
or regular old hunger (6.30-44, 8.1-13),
or death itself in the case of twelve year-old girl (5.21-24, 35-43)

—Jesus just can’t seem to help himself.

He’s here to make things like God wants them.

And everyone is talking about it.
Even though Jesus doesn’t want them to.

Jesus keeps trying to keep a low profile in Mark,
and constantly tells those around him not to go blabbing about what he’s doing.

After he casts out an impure spirit in chapter 1:

(v43) Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone.”

After he raises that girl from the dead in chapter 5:

(5.43) He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this

And after he heals a man in chapter 7:

(7.36) Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.

People keep talking about Jesus.
More and more and more.

But no one knows what to make of him.

Everyone’s trying to figure out who exactly Jesus is.

The religious leaders of the people think he’s a blasphemer (2.7)
and perhaps even demon-possessed (3.22).

His own family thinks he’s out of his mind (3.21).

His disciples don’t even get him. Again and again Mark tells us that
they. just. don’t. understand. (4.13, 6.52, 8.17-21, 9.32).

Jesus has burst onto the stage to trash evil but he’s absolutely alone in doing it.

The demons are the only ones who can see him clearly (1.24, 3.11),

Everyone else just keeps talking about him,
but no one understands him.

Everyone is clueless.

That’s the first half of Mark’s story. And the end first half comes roughly in chapter 8:

(8.22-25) They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.

Jesus is doing something incredibly unusual here.
He’s doing a two-step healing.

And when I say that it’s “incredibly unusual”
I mean unlike any other healing anywhere else in any other gospel.
So that probably means we can get a really good taste of Mark right here.

Jesus spits in this guy’s face—spits on his eyes—and this blind man begins to see.

But not clearly. Not at first.
People look like walking trees.
It’s all blurry.

And it’s only after seeing through a fog and second touch from Jesus
that he finally begins to see clearly.

Mark is a genius.

We’ve got a story about someone learning to see in two-steps followed by this:

(8.27) Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

“I think you’re the one we’ve been waiting for, Jesus.
You’re the Messiah.”

Peter is starting to see. But it’s a bit foggy.
A bit little like trees walking around.

He knows that something special,
something out-of-the-ordinary,
something revolutionary
is happening in Jesus.

He knows the prophets,
so he’s waiting on God’s kingdom.

So he’s expecting a revolution.
An overthrow of Rome.
A military uprising.

And this Jesus guy is the one to do it.
He’s the action hero who’s been kicking evil’s butt and taking names.

Surely this is the guy. This is the king.
The king to trample down and conquer and rule.

And here in chapter eight—this is where Mark’s gospel takes a wild turn:

(8.30) Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.

This is like Aragorn melting down his sword.
Like Indiana Jones tossing away his whip.

What’s going on? You’re the hero, Jesus!
You don’t die in the end—you win!

But this is just the first time Jesus predicts his death.

Chapter nine:

(9.31) The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.

Chapter ten:

(10.33) “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles,

If the first half of Mark is basically all going well, all action, all winning,
the second half is preparing us for something that makes zero sense—the death of Jesus.

Jesus keeps calling himself “the Son of Man.”

That’s the name of a mysterious figure from what we call the book of Daniel.
A mysterious figure who ushers in the kingdom of God.

The disciples hear a title like that, and they’re beside themselves:

“He calls himself the “Son of Man” but he’s going to be delivered over.”
“He won’t deny being the Messiah, but he’s saying he’s going to die.”
“He saying that God is going to rescue, but he’s moving in the wrong direction.”
“This guy makes no sense.”

It’s like Jesus has got totally different ideas about why he’s come bursting onto the scene.
He’s got completely different conceptions of how this kingdom will come about.
He’s got an entirely different understanding of how the world works.

No wonder Jesus has been trying to keep a low profile in Mark.
He’s on a completely different wavelength.

The only categories the disciples have (cf. Mk 9.33-34, 10.35-42)—
for that matter, the only categories any of us have—
are the categories of winning and power and greatness and conquering.

How much of our energy is put into winning?
Of making sure we’re ahead of THEM—in grades, in sports, in performance?

If you’re anything like me, you’re trying to always control—
control your emotions, control your body, control that situation, control that relationship.

Oh man, I just want to get me some greatness—
want to make sure everyone thinks I’m talented and clever and beautiful.

Most of the way we function most of the time
is just like everything that the disciples were expecting from their Messiah:

We believe in our bones that our only hope
for our world being restored and our lives being saved—
that our only hope lies in our ability to conquer.

But Jesus calls all of that—all the stress you’ve brought with you this weekend about winning and power and greatness and conquering—Jesus calls all of it into question.

He’s decided that he’s going to die.

Each time he predicts his death,
he calls anyone who will listen to follow him:

Chapter eight:

(8.34b-35) Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Then again in chapter nine:

(9.35b) Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.

And then the third time in chapter ten:

(10.43b-45) …whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

It’s like Jesus is saying,

“You think life is about greatness, about winning, about conquering,
but the mysterious, glorious Son of Man you’ve been waiting on,
he’s a servant. I’m a servant.

“And I’m going to give my life as a ransom for yours.
You’re going to find freedom when you surrender and follow me.
You’re going to find life when you embrace my death as yours.”

And that’s the rest of the gospel of Mark—
Jesus making good on his promise to die.

The last few chapters of Mark are devoted to the trial and execution of Jesus.

During the trial, the question arises again:
“Who is this Jesus? Who do we decide that he is?”

The religious leaders lose their patience with Jesus.

They brand him as a rebel and blasphemer
and persuade the local state government to execute him.

And the Romans were very good at executing people.

They had this thing called a cross,
and it’s not a pleasant way to die.

Jesus gets tortured to death.
He loses on the grandest kind of scale.

And when this losing starts (when the winning stops) the disciples despair.

They all abandon Jesus.
One of them flees naked into the night (14.51-52).
Peter denies ever knowing Jesus (14.66-72).

After hours of shame and pain and absolute failure,
Jesus cries out from his execution stake,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15.34c)
and then—with more howl—he dies in darkness (15.37).

Jesus of Nazareth got himself killed.

He got what he wanted.
It was painful and terrifying and absolutely awful.
But it was what he had set out to do.

Thanks for sharing the story with us, Mark.
But how is any of this good news?

Well, at the terrifying moment of Jesus’ death,
we find the second step of Mark’s two-step story:

(15.38-39) The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Mark’s story seems to be good news
because God is tearing through
even in the darkness of Jesus’ death.

Remember that the sky itself was torn open when Jesus stepped onto the scene…
now the same word is being used for the curtain in the Jewish temple.

Somehow with the life and the death of Jesus,
any barrier between God and humanity has been utterly shredded.

From top to bottom.

God is not distant—from any of us.
I think that might be worth trying to believe.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this weekend could be a time
to recognize that God is at work in your darkness.

Whatever it is.

Maybe your darkness—maybe your feeling forsaken—
is exactly where you need to be.

We want our salvation, to come to us on our terms.
When we’re winning, when we feel great, when we’re in control.

But may it’s when we’re finally at the end of our rope—
when we stop trying to win,
when we abandon control,
when we die to being great
—maybe then we’re finally desperate enough to cry out to God.

Make no mistake.
God is tearing through.
God is saving. God is rescuing.

It just almost never looks like we expect.

But God is working even when it’s painful and terrifying and absolutely awful.

And did you notice who is it that finally sees Jesus clearly?

It’s the last person anyone would expect,
the enemy, the guilty, the problem,
a Roman centurion.

Maybe Mark is hinting at something—
hinting at who among us actually begins see the good news.

It’s the person nobody expects,
the enemy, the guilty, the problem—
the person without hope and without excuse
the one responsible for Jesus’ death
who finally begins to see Jesus clearly.

That’s good news—because that’s all of us.
We just need to admit it.

And, of course, none of this would be good news if Jesus were still dead.

But the witness of the church since before the New Testament was even written
(the reason this story was written down in the first place)
is that Jesus has been resurrected.

He’s alive.
Now. Today.
Ruling the universe.

But interestingly enough,
we don’t get to see Jesus at the end of Mark.

We just hear about him.

That’s probably a lot like your personal experience.

In the last five verses of the story (16.4-8)—as his story ends—
we’re back to that mysterious messenger at the tomb of Jesus.

The messenger tells the women
who had come to try to help Jesus’ corpse smell better:

“There’s no corpse here.
Jesus isn’t dead. He’s risen. He’s not here.
Now, go. Tell the others. Tell Peter.”

And then most modern Bible translations agree that Mark originally ended with verse 8:

(16.8) Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

They’re trembling and bewildered.
They flee from the tomb.
They say nothing to anyone.

Throughout the whole story,
we couldn’t get people to stay quiet about Jesus
but now we can’t get anyone to talk.

No wonder people through the centuries have added endings to Mark’s story.

There’s something troubling about his ending.
It’s like a movie that cuts to black too soon.

He just leaves us with the news that Jesus is risen—roll credits.
And—man oh man—is that good news if we actually start to believe it.

But then he also leaves us scratching our heads.
No one has done what they’re supposed to.

I think the reason why Mark is good news,
is it’s about a God who gives good news to human failure.

Nobody helps Jesus in Mark.
Nobody ever understands.

Everyone fails.
We never get it together.

The women haven’t told anyone,
the disciples still don’t understand,
the only person seeing Jesus clearly is covered in his blood.

And all of this means there’s hope for me.
And hope for you.

Because Mark is indeed giving us good news:
the good news of God’s strange success.

God IS establishing his kingdom.
God IS making the world as he intends—but in the strangest of ways.

Not by us getting it right,
or by us getting it together,
or by us finally winning,
because none of that is ever happening.

God saves the world—God save us—by plunging into the darkness himself.

And the rumor that just won’t die
is that he didn’t stay dead.

My prayer for all of us this weekend,
that we would not settle for seeing walking trees
but would begin to see the world as it really is.

That we would consider the possibility that the universe has a king,
and that he’s showing us a different kind of God than we ever suspected:

a god who has shredded everything that separates us from him,
a god who is rescuing and ransoming us in the midst of darkness,
a god who that liberates us from our obsession with winning,
and a god who call us to follow him and serve the world.