Mark lets listeners into the secret of the coming of the Son of God
Philip Morgan, 18 February 2018
Genesis 9: 8–17; Mark 1: 9–15
This sentence, from a New Testament scholar, has been a help to me in reading the gospels, and I hope it may help you this morning as we focus on Mark, our gospel for 2018: ‘What must the truth be, and have been, if it appeared like that to men who thought and wrote as they did’.
I must now tidy up what I’ve just said about Mark being our gospel for the year, because here we are, at the first Sunday in Lent, with 15 Sundays gone since the start of the year in Advent, and we’re still on chapter 1. We have had a reading on Advent Sunday from Mark about the ending of the world and, last week, his account of the Transfiguration in chapter 9. During the Epiphany season, we brought Paul’s conversion and the feast of Candlemas on to a Sunday, so there were reasons for other gospel passages being used. Another reason we’re travelling so slowly is that readings from John’s gospel are incorporated into every year, and we’ve had four of those so far. Yet another reason is that there is nothing about the birth of Jesus in Mark’s gospel. So no readings from Mark over Christmas.
Why no account of the birth? Well, it’s pretty clear that in the first two generations after the resurrection, Jesus’ birth was not much remarked on. The stories that really brought Christianity to the world were the crucifixion and resurrection. You can check that by reading St Paul’s letters – nothing about the birth (or, if your reading time is limited, you can take my word for it).
There is evidence outside the New Testament that Jesus was crucified in the early 30s of our era. It’s thought Paul was active in the late 40s, and it seems probable Mark was writing his gospel between about 65 and 75. Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels, from which we get the birth stories, were written later in the first century. Their sources for the birth of Jesus were unknown to Mark; they may even have worked them out for themselves.
So where does Mark begin? He has an introduction, like the other gospels – brisk, like the gospel as a whole. He uses it to let listeners into the secret of the coming of the Son of God, the Messiah, God with us. Jesus bursts onto the scene as an adult, heralded by that outsider, John the Baptist, and then, as we heard a few moments ago, he is baptised by John. At that moment he knows he is beloved by God and blessed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. He then begins the opening phase of the gargantuan struggle against the powers of evil in the alternately scorching and freezing desert. This is described briefly. Mark rushes on: John arrested by Herod (details later, because all the emphasis is on Jesus’ ministry). After John’s arrest, Jesus comes into Galilee with the great proclamation of new things about the kingdom of God in the world then – and now.
Jesus begins the opening phase of the gargantuan struggle against the powers of evil in the alternately scorching and freezing desert.
That doesn’t sound much like a secret. But if you read on in Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry, you find it doesn’t work out as the prophets had led those longing for the Messiah to expect. The proclamation is made. Crowds gather to hear Jesus and observe his acts of healing; but they don’t listen, and they don’t follow him far. He gathers the disciples together; but they can’t make sense of him, or of what his teaching actually means. Peter has a flash of the truth; but it has no effect when push comes to shove at Jesus’ arrest. He flees like the others. Mark makes out that the reality remains a secret until the climax is reached.
Last week’s gospel passage, the Transfiguration, gives us an illustration of this. The three disciples summoned to the mountain by Jesus were knocked sideways by what happened – a glimpse of the reality of the lordship of Christ. But there is a long way to go before everything is accomplished, so Mark has Jesus tell them to be silent about the event, because there will be great sufferings between the Transfiguration and the full revelation. The pattern has to be woven in its wholeness before we can see it changes lives – our lives.
The religious authorities hear about Jesus; they are the leaders who might be expected to be looking out for the Messiah, but when they meet him, they don’t see the Messiah in him and take every opportunity to cut him down to their size. The story is one of bewilderment, misunderstanding and defeat. Mark has told us in his prologue that the Son of God is in the world, but it is obvious to Mark the ministry of Jesus was a failure. Don’t let your reading be coloured by the other gospels; Mark is writing his in his own way.
And he is writing with this gargantuan struggle against evil as the constant background. The first Christians to hear Mark’s gospel must have felt they were facing the same struggle as the Roman opposition to Christianity was being tightened. The ministry does of course play its part and although largely unsuccessful, it leads to the climax: the Passion, crucifixion and resurrection of the man discarded by his people, but remaining the beloved of God – who can and does reach across the gap between God and his people and close it for ever, winning the struggle with evil in this act of surrender and love. The Messiah overcomes with love, not with threats and bullying. The Messiah is defenceless in the hands of his people, and utterly in the hands of God. And through him, we too are in the hands of God, in whom we live and move and have our being, as beloved children, with whom he is well pleased.
Jesus can and does reach across the gap between God and his people and close it for ever, winning the struggle with evil in this act of surrender and love.
There is the secret revealed. We shall hear the account of the Passion and crucifixion on Palm Sunday, and of the resurrection on Easter Day. All Mark’s emphasis is there. His gospel has been called an account of the Passion of Christ, with an extended introduction. It is by far the shortest gospel of the four. In our New Revised Standard Version it is 20 pages; the account of Palm Sunday and the final few days begins on the twelfth page. It’s worth reading it as a whole this Lent – and preferably aloud. That quotation will, I hope, come in handy: ‘What must the truth be and have been, if it appeared like that to people who thought and wrote as they did?’
May this Lent be a time of blessing for each one of us.