Which One Are You?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Third Sunday of Lent (March 24, 2019), we found ourselves waiting in the Garden of Gethsemane with the disciples while Jesus was praying.  What were we waiting for? That depends on how you choose to interpret the verbs here.  Our Gospel text was Mark 14:27-52.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the player below:

I would imagine that everyone in this room has enjoyed looking through old photos with a loved one and one of you is looking with incredulity at the older (and in my case, often grainy) images and saying, “Wow, this is really cool. Which one are you?”  Sometimes, we want to know what our parents or our friends looked like before we knew them.  Sometimes we want to learn more about that loved one – we are saying something like, “Tell me about this, Grampy: how did you fit into what was happening here?”

I find myself asking that same question – of myself – as I read through this chapter.  There are so many people who are mentioned here – Jesus, of course, and Peter, James, John, Judas – not to mention a host of un-named servants and friends and the crowd. Where do I fit in?  Which one am I?  Which one are you?

Well, it depends, I think, on what we think is happening here.  For most of my life, my interpretation of this passage has been based on the translation of Jesus’ prophecy that you heard earlier in verse 27.  The New International Version reports that Jesus declared “You will all fall away…”  A few verses later, Peter replies, “Even if all fall away, I will not…” The New Revised Standard Version words it slightly differently, but with the same effect: Jesus indicates, “You will all become deserters…” and Peter contests by saying, “Even though all become deserters, I will not…”  These translations – justifiable, I think – suggest that the people who have known Jesus the best are about to have the crap scared out of them and run away because they are so frightened.

And, to be honest, if that is the reading – if that is what is happening in this picture, then the disciples are once more the clueless dolts that we have imagined them to be through the years.  Jesus of Nazareth has a great plan, and it will require great bravery, but they can neither understand the plan nor muster the courage and so they fall short.  They run away leaving him to his own devices in his hour of need.

In this reading, Peter in particular is bold in his assertion of loyalty and strength, but terribly weak in practice.  He, along with James and John, is essentially helpless.  They are weak and flawed, especially compared to their friend Jesus, who suffers through what we have come to call “the agony in Gethsemane” all alone.

Judas is singled out as one who is actively and intentionally “falling away” or “deserting”.  So far as we can tell, Judas is the only disciple who is notsleeping, and he is actively undermining Jesus’ plan.

Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (self-portrait), Paul Gauguin, 1889.

Have you heard this story before?  Is this how you have read it, too?  Brave Jesus, needing his friends now more than ever, but one of them is an active traitor and the others are shameless cowards in his hour of need. If that’s the case, you are surely not alone.  That is a time-honored way of hearing this story.

But there’s a different reading.  Jesus uses – and then Peter echoes – a very interesting word.  The Greek word that Jesus uses to describe the behavior of his friends is skandalizo.  In that language, a skandalon is a stick that is baited and then put into a trap.  When a careless or unwary animal stumbles upon this treat, the stick moves, the trap springs shut, and the victim is caught.

Jesus uses this word himself in that very difficult teaching back in Mark 9, when he says, “whoever puts a stumbling block (skandalion) in front of one of these little ones… And then again three times later in the same chapter: If your hand (or foot, or eye) offends you (skandalizi), then get rid of it…”

Because of the use of the word skandalonin this passage, and its meaning in those other instances, some translators give a different picture for the prediction of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  For instance, the King James Version renders this conversation this way: “And Jesus saith unto them, ‘All ye shall be offended because of me this night…’, but Peter said unto him, ‘Although all shall be offended, yet will not I.’”  The Contemporary English Version reads, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘All of you will reject me…’, and Peter spoke up, ‘Even if all the others reject you, I never will!’”

And Eugene Peterson renders it thusly in The Message: “Jesus told them, ‘You’re all going to feel that your world is falling apart and that it’s my fault…’Peter blurted out, “Even if everyone else is ashamed of you when things fall to pieces, I won’t be.”

Now stay with me here, because this is crucial.  If Jesus is predicting that his followers will all lose heart and flee because they are cowards, then our traditional understanding is correct.  But what if he is saying, “Look, you may think that you know me, but you don’t really ‘get’ who I am or what I’m doing yet.  And because you don’t fully understand me, or the Kingdom I’ve proclaimed, then what is going to happen will scandalize you – you will think that I’m wrong.”

If that’s what Jesus is saying in Mark 14, then the behavior of the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane is consistent – but in a way that could be perceived as being almost admirable.

Listen: Jesus goes off to pray and becomes, in reality, a sitting duck.  The disciples whom he invites to accompany him choose to catch up on their sleep because they are going to need it.  Someone has got to be ready to defend Jesus, and he has shown no inclination to defend himself.  Praying is all well and good, but if we’re going to be able to help him when the dookey hits the fan, we’re going to need our rest.  There will be important work to be done.  I think that this interpretation might be strengthened by the fact that Jesus recognizes that his friends are falling into old habits, and therefore calls his beloved comrade “Simon” – his old name, rather than “Peter”.

In this understanding of what is happening, then, even Judas gets a little more noble.  In bringing the powers of the Empire and Religion into a direct confrontation with Jesus, perhaps Judas is in his own mind merely calling Jesus’ bluff and telling him it’s time to fish or cut bait.  He’s effectively saying, “Look, you’ve told us that you are the Messiah – we believe that you are the one to deliver Israel. Now’s your chance, Jesus.  Act like a Messiah.  Stand up to Rome and to Religion – or we will all die trying.”

The Kiss of Judas, Giotto (1304-1306)

When Judas gets there, Jesus’ followers begin to act like, well, followers. They defend him.  Someone draws a sword.  Blood flows – the blood of those who have come to arrest Jesus.  And yet as his followers rush to his defense, Jesus forbids it.  Although Matthew and Luke are more explicit in their depiction of this part of the scene, a faithful reading of Mark indicates that Jesus is the one who stops the violence in the Garden.  His followers wantto defend him, they wanthim to stand up for himself, and they wantto stand up for him – and he prevents them from doing so.

Thenthey run away.  If Jesus is going to be saved, then it’s going to be up to people like Peter, James, and John, because (as the disciples must see it) Jesus himself is naïve and clueless.  Although his followers love Jesus, they must think that as noble as he is, simply does not understand how Empires work.

Jesus said that his followers would be scandalized by his behavior.  If we accept the translation of that word as put forward by Peterson and some of his colleagues, then this reading is all about a group of disciples who think that they know better than their master what could and should happen.  In this reading, if Jesus thinks that giving up to Pilate and Herod without a fight is a good idea, then Jesus is sadly mistaken and he’s going to need our help, according to the disciples, to get out of this jam.

So, back to my original question: which one are you?

I guess it depends on which reading, which translation of skandalizo, you prefer.

Today I’m asking myself – and therefore, you as well – are you one who has been scandalized and offended by the Lord?  You can say it, you know.  I think that he’s given us permission here.  Are you someone who has looked Jesus in the eye and said, “Well, that’s an interesting theory, Jesus, but I’m not sure that you really understand how the world works.  Listen, Lord: let me give you a little advice.  Here’s how I think we want to play this thing out…”

Are you someone who has a better plan than Jesus?

What does this passage have to teach me about trusting in God and having faith? What do I need to learn, this Lent, about seeking to listen to and live into this narration about life in the Kingdom of God? What might have happened differently if the disciples had stayed awake and prayed with Jesus?  We will never know.  All we can be sure of is that they came to understand themselves as those who had, in fact, been scandalized by the behavior of their Lord, and it was only in hindsight that they came to see their own behavior and theology as flawed.

So there is a curious little footnote to this story.  Mark ends his account of the struggle in the Garden with an odd description of a nameless kid who is almost caught in the round up but winds up escaping into the night whilst becoming known as the first “streaker” in the Gospels – a scared young man running naked as fast as he can into the darkness.

What is thatabout?  Why does Mark – the author of the shortest Gospel – the “just the facts, Ma’am” kind of writer – why does he go out of his way to tell us this story, when none of the other Gospels thought to include it?

The only reasonable explanation that I can see is that this frightened teen is actually Mark himself.  These two brief verses are Mark’s way of saying, “Yeah, I was there too.”

It makes sense. In Acts 12, we read that one of the central locations in Jerusalem for the early Christian movement was in the home of a woman named Mary, who was the mother of a son called John Mark.  It’s entirely possible that this home was the site of the Last Supper on that Maundy Thursday evening.  And if the Supper took place in his own home, it’s easy to imagine this kid hanging around the edges, listening to the men talking and planning and then following them out into the darkness.  When everything goes down, he is overcome with fear and flees into the darkness and back to the safety of his own home.

Friends, I want you to remember what we said about Mark’s Gospel way back in 2017.  The second Gospel was written, we said, to encourage the young church in Rome.  That community was being persecuted and victimized and attacked, and they wanted to know where was Jesus in the midst of all this.  Mark’s account, written to these people, is that Jesus can be trusted. That Jesus promises to be present in the midst of all the pain, all the injustice, all the persecution.  The second Gospel was written to help a specific community see that the Kingdom is real and powerful and worthwhile.

And in this little footnote, Mark, the teller of the story, is able to say, “Listen, friends: I’ve been there.  You need to know that I didn’t always ‘get’ him either.  I’ve been scandalized.  I’ve been offended.  I’ve been afraid and I’ve been ashamed.  But I’m telling you that Jesus is the real deal.  You can trust him.  As you live and move and seek to get through the days and nights in Nero’s Rome, don’t give up.  Never forget that the ways of the Empire are notthe ways of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. Remember that the values of the Messiah are not always celebrated by the Emperor.

I would suggest that the author of the second Gospel uses this story, in part, to help his first hearers – and us – to focus on the admonition that Jesus offered his friends in verse 38: “Keep awake, and pray…”  Those are two of the most important aspects of being a disciple, I think. The commands in the Garden are virtually identical to the summation that Jesus gave in Mark 13 – the longest teaching passage in this Gospel: “What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake”.

This, beloved, is the task and the purpose of Lent.  To set aside some extra time, to seek to apply some special discipline, to put ourselves in a place where we are able and willing to do just that – to watch and to pray.  To look for and point out signs of the Kingdom that is present among us even now. To hold onto the promise when it seems as though that Kingdom is incredibly far-off. The first 13 chapters of Mark give us a vision, a foretaste, a hope for the Kingdom.  Mark uses them to help us be attentive to a Messiah who cares about injustice, and who offers us viable strategies to come together and live into that kind of community.

And this passage is given to help us remember that nobody – even first disciples and Gospel writers – gets it right all the time.  We are called to live as a community of grace, humility, forgiveness, hope, and sacrifice.  Those are not values that always sell well in the Empire – but they are the ones that will shape us into the likeness of the Christ, whose name we bear.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Nothing But Dirt…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On March 4 we delved into the parable of Jesus which receives the “marquee billing” not only in Mark, but in Luke and Matthew as well: the Parable of the Sower.  Our scriptures included Mark 4:1-20 and I Corinthians 3:5-9.  To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

In recent months, we have begun an intensive and intentional exploration of the Good News – the euangellion – the Gospel of Mark. In this time, we’ve seen the urgency with which this writer describes the ministry of Jesus. Mark doesn’t spend any time telling us about Jesus’ birth or childhood; most of the ink that has been spilled thus far has told us about what Jesus did and how people reacted to him. Some embraced him with great enthusiasm and even gave up everything to become his followers (disciples) or emissaries (apostles). Some, on the other hand, rejected him outright and thought of him as a threat. And some, not surprisingly, didn’t care much one way or the other.

Mark 4 represents a significant shift on the part of the author because it presents one of the longest sections of Jesus’ actual teaching contained in the gospel. For the first time, we are not reading about what Jesus said or did, but rather, we are given a front-row seat to one of the informal teaching sessions on the beach. If Mark decides that this is the time to stop talking about Jesus and start listening to Jesus, well, it must be significant.

To illustrate my point, I’ll mention that the author of the Gospel of Luke loved the parables of Jesus so much that we can find as many as twenty-seven such stories there. The Gospel of Matthew contains twenty-three parables. Mark, on the other hand, gives us only nine sayings that could be called parables, and only two of those are longer than four verses in our Bibles. Half of the parables in Mark are located in chapter 4, and the Parable of the Sower gets the most elaborate treatment of any such story in this Gospel. Given that the Gospels are emphatic in their assertion that Jesus often taught in parables, it would make sense for us to explore the one that Mark seemed to think was the most important of the bunch.

As we listen to this story, we hear some very familiar words, at least for some of us. Most of us know this tale about the man who scatters seeds and the conditions that threaten to limit his harvest. In that familiarity, we have a problem. The more we know a thing, the more we think we understand it, the more familiar we are with it, the more we think we have it tamed. So when the preacher mentions the sower and the soil and the seed, heads in the sanctuary nod approvingly and lovingly. “Oh, the one about the seeds – that’s my favorite!”, we gush.

But, as I’ve said, there’s a problem there- because the more that we domesticate the words of Jesus, the less able we are to hear them in the midst of our daily journeys. The Jesus of the Gospels is a Jesus who often spoke, thought, and acted in some very controversial ways. He was confusing. He was threatening. He was irritating – and the things that he said often did more to confuse his listeners than they did to clarify things. People came to Jesus looking for a book of rules, a checklist, an easy guide – and he spoke to them about farms and fishnets and fig trees.

And what’s worse, in the parables anyway, things never come out the way that we think they should. As theologian Robert Capon has said,

They set forth comparisons that tend to make mincemeat out of people’s religious expectations. Bad people are rewarded (the Tax collector, the Prodigal, the Unjust steward); good people are scolded (The Pharisee, the Elder Son, the Diligent workers); God’s response to a prayer is likened to a man getting rid of a nuisance (The Friend at midnight), and, in general, everybody’s idea of who ought to be first or last is liberally doused with cold water (The Wedding feast, Lazarus and the Rich Man)[1]

Do you see what I mean? Sometimes we hear a thing so often and we think we’ve got it figured out and it loses its power to really impact us.

The Sower, Van Gogh (1888)

Our reading for today, the Parable of the Sower, is given the Marquee Billing in the collections of Jesus’ parables that Matthew, Mark, and Luke put together. It is the one story to which they give the most attention and the greatest amount of space.

You’ve heard what happens. First, Jesus tells a story. Then, there are questions from the disciples about parables, and about this parable in particular. Then, Jesus interprets the parable for them.

Because we are so familiar with this story, we don’t think of it as surprising or irritating that Jesus should gather a crowd around him and then go on to tell a pretty straightforward story about a farmer, tell the folks that it was really important, and then sit down. But I think if I came up here and read you a paragraph or two from Architectural Digest or The Burpee Seed Catalogue and then sat down, you’d react in pretty much the same way that the disciples did. Why are you doing this? Is that supposed to make sense or something? But that’s what Jesus does. And that’s what the disciples do.

And then Jesus, rather than simply clarifying the whole mess like we’d really prefer him to do, muddles it even further. “Look,” he says, “You don’t understand much of anything about this Kingdom of God movement, do you? But one thing you DO get is the fact that it works in very mysterious ways. And as you go through your journey, the fact that you know it is a mystery will help you understand it. There are some people who can’t accept mysteries at all. Those people, when they journey through life, will find that less and less seems to be making sense to them – even the things that they used to think they understood.” And then Jesus sighs a bit and says, “You know, I think old Isaiah had it right. The more they depend only on their eyes and only on their ears, the less they are able to see and to hear. But you, you have the gift of me. Listen up, and I’ll tell you what I meant with that last story.”

And then Jesus proceeds to talk about the parable. But instead of providing his students with a nice little explanation about a straightforward farming story, his discussion introduces new interpretations that are anything but simple. If we are honest in our approach to this story, we’ll see that rather than providing us with an open-and-shut exposition, Jesus asks us to look at things in a whole new light.

For instance, who is the farmer in the parable? Because it’s church, our first guess is that it has to be Jesus – the one who goes about scattering his seeds. And I’ve also heard some sermons that tell us that now, the church – you and I are the sowers. It is our task, these messages say, to take the seeds of the gospel to new places and plant it on God’s behalf. Well, we have been commissioned to take the gospel, but you don’t find that in here. What you find here is a farmer, planting his seed.

Allow me to suggest that the farmer in this parable represents God the Father – the One who walks throughout his creation planting the seed, which is the Word. And God is not a sparing planter, either. He takes handfuls of the seed and throws it as high and as far as he can. God is a generous, flagrant, lavish sower who tosses the seed everywhere in creation.

And what is the seed? As Jesus said, the seed is the word. The LOGOS. And when the New Testament speaks of the Word, who is it talking about? Jesus, the word become flesh who dwelt among us. Jesus, the word become flesh who was literally buried. Jesus is the seed that is being so generously scattered throughout creation. Jesus is the seed that comes from the hand of God the Father – the seed that is being planted in the hearts of people everywhere.

The Parable of the Sower, Leighton Autrey (c. 2012)

And what’s left? The dirt. That’s us – the creation of God. Jesus goes on to say that there are four kinds of dirt – four types of people – in the world. Some of us have been hardened, for whatever reason, and are not able to let anything break the shell with which we have surrounded ourselves. And so the word that God so desperately longs to speak to us bounces off our thick exterior and is taken away from us.

Some of us are shallow. We want so badly to be receptive, to be able to open up, but sooner or later we pull back. The seed that we thought was going to be such a beautiful plant ends up as something else, or maybe we really can’t afford to give of ourselves, and so the seed dies within us, because there’s not enough space in our lives for it to take root.

And some of us are cluttered. Oh, great, give me some of that seed, we cry out. Plant it in us. Let it take hold. But sooner or later, we see so many other things that we want – that we need. There’s too much happening, and the word of God simply gets crowded out of our lives.

And some of us are fertile soil, says Jesus. Some of us are able to receive the seed, tuck it inside, and wait for it to grow, for it to spread its roots. In some of us the seed – the word of God – is free to do what seeds are supposed to do, and because of that, the seed turns into a plant that bears great fruit.

Now, if that’s true – if the sower is God the Father, the seed is the word of God and the word is Jesus Christ, and we are the dirt – if that is true, then what does it mean? What are the implications?

First, I think we need to recognize that the word of God is at work in the world all the time, everywhere, in everyone. Many of Jesus’ hearers were angry at him, because they wanted to know that Israel was superior in the eyes of God; they wanted to lock those other people out. And here is Jesus, telling a story that seems to include the whole world as candidates for receiving the attention and love of God. One thing that Jesus might be saying in this parable is that there is no need for we Christians to adopt a condescending posture towards the world – the world that must wait for us to bring the seeds to it – because the world has already had the seed scattered in and through it. And, like the seed, the Word of God is complete. It has everything it needs to grow – the Word can grow without someone like me hovering around all the time.

If that’s true, then how does that affect the way that I think about the young people who are a part of our After School program? How do I look into the eyes of the children who crowd into Pre School each morning? I am able to encounter these folks holding on to the truth that Jesus says there is already a seed of the word of God planted there by his Father. And it’s not just these kids, either. How do you approach your ex-wife, or that teacher you really can’t stand, or that boss who mistreats you? How do you pray for those folks? The kingdom of God is at work in them. The seed has been placed in their hearts. The Kingdom of God is active in our world — all over our world.

And that’s another implication of this parable: like a seed, the Kingdom works in a mysterious way. When I plant my beans or peas, I take a seed and I hide it in the earth. It disappears from my sight. It grows in secret. As you and I observe the fields that lie all around us, we have no right to judge where the seed has failed and where it has not — because we are not privy to the mystery of the kingdom. We act in as faithful a way as we know how, and then we realize that the end result is up to God – and we need to be prepared to be surprised by the results. The Kingdom of Heaven grows in secret, and in places we do not know.

And perhaps the most important implication for us this morning is the recognition of what is necessary for the seed that is planted to bear fruit. Please note that the ground that does host the seed that is fruitful does nothing — the only thing that it does is to NOT get in the way!

For centuries, we have been tempted to think of the Christian life as amassing a resume of good deeds. According to this parable, that’s not true. The Christian life is more a matter of letting the seed that has been planted in us grip us, take root in us, and bear fruit in us. It’s about nurturing the gift of God that is within you.

In the course of my ministry, I’ve had a number of really tired folks come into my study. I’m tired of trying, pastor. I’m tired of never matching up to what they expect of me. I’m tired of never feeling good enough for my parents. I’m tired of being poor. I’m tired of being tired. To tell you the truth, pastor, there are some times when I feel as though I’m nothing but dirt.

Imagine our surprise when, after saying something like that, God leaps up and says, “EXACTLY!! You are nothing but dirt. I am the farmer. My Son is the seed. So be good dirt – don’t crowd out the seed, don’t choke it, but let it do what seeds are designed to do. Don’t get in the way! The seed will grow – not you. But as the seed grows and bears fruit, you will be changed – your very essence will be different. You will be full of roots and covered with fruit. But let the seed in, and let it grow. You worry about being good dirt.”

The Apostle Paul catches that theme when he writes to the Corinthians: “You,” he says, “are God’s field. There is something going on in you – and it is God, not you, who is making it happen.”

Lent is a time for remembering that I’m nothing but dirt. Lent is an opportunity for me, and for you, to consciously explore the ways that we are called to receive the person and work of Christ. This week, I hope that you can find some time and space to reflect on the ways that your life is able to be receptive to the mission of Jesus. Let’s look for time in which we can do the work of confession and repentance and sorting out that can open the way for the surprising and miraculous work of God in Christ. Amen.

[1]Capon, Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdmans, 1985), p.10

What’s the Plan?

On the first Sunday of Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the day included Mark 1:1-8 and Psalm 85. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

When I was eighteen years old, I was supposed to be on top of the world. In August of that year, the grown man across the street from my home stopped me and said, “David, congratulations on finishing high school. Now, you’re going to college! This is the best time of your life! I’d give anything to trade places with you!” And by November of that year, I was in college. I was “free” from all the limitations that come from living at your mom and dad’s home. My family, my church, my friends – they all sent me off telling me that wonderful things were in store for me. All of us had some pretty high hopes.

And yet, in spite of that, two weeks before Thanksgiving I found myself in a dark place. I was lonely, a little afraid, and overwhelmed with schoolwork. I missed my old life and, well, let’s be honest – I was already starting to worry about what in the world I’d do with an English Major… My reality seemed miles away from the expectations we’d had.

My hunch is that you know something about real life not matching up with what you’d thought it might be. Maybe you spent years, or even decades, in loneliness, wondering if you would ever find a life partner – and now you’re beyond frustrated because of the arguments you’ve been having over Christmas bills… Perhaps you’ve worked for months to bring the family together for a vacation, but then when you get to where you’re going, everyone is bickering about schedules or lost on their phones for the whole time.

Things don’t always work out the way that we think that they will, and, even more often, it’s tough to see how things can possibly work out when you’re in the middle of some crisis. Ask the parents of a newborn who’s got the croup and diaper rash how much time they spend wondering some nights exactly why all of this seemed like such a good idea…

The Ascension, Dosso Dossi (16th century)

The earliest followers of Christ lived in the first century Roman Empire. These people believed with all their hearts that they had seen the ultimate purposes of God in Jesus of Nazareth. They had been witness to miracles and healings. They were sure that the knew what Jesus meant when he said, “the Kingdom of God is among you!” Sure, they had suffered a great deal during the events of Holy Week and especially on Good Friday, but they knew the truth and the power of the resurrection. They had been there, many of them, for the miracle of Pentecost. Most importantly, they believed him when he stood at that mountain and promised to come again. Christ is coming again! He will return! He said so!

Now, normally, we have some sort of context to understand when a person says, “I’ll be back.” For instance, if you’re watching a movie with a friend whose phone keeps on ringing, she might sigh and say, “OK, just a moment. I’ll be right back.” And if you’re a good friend, you’ll pause the movie while your friend is out of the room.

On the other hand, you may go out to coffee with your brother who tells you that he’s been reassigned to the Virginia office, but not to worry, he’ll be coming back. You surely don’t pause the movie for him, but you plan the holidays and birthday parties around the expectation of seeing him again, and soon.

So when Jesus prepared to ascend into heaven on that hill in Jerusalem and said, “I’m coming back”, well, you can’t blame the disciples for saying, “That’s fantastic, Lord! When?” And sure, his answer was a little evasive – “that’s not up to me” – but you know that the Christian community was upbeat. “All right, Lord, you go and do what you need to do. We’ll be over here. Waiting. We’re pretty excited about this!”

And they wait. Five years pass. Then ten. Twenty. Thirty. All this time, babies are born, people get married, people die… The world marches on. Some of the disciples experience conflict and persecution, but still – Jesus does not return. The community began to ask, “Well, Lord? When are you coming? How long?”

And there was silence in the heavens.

On the 18th of July in the year AD 64, a fire erupted in one of the slums of Rome. It spread quickly and raged for three days. Ten out of the fourteen districts of that city suffered damage, and three were reduced to ashes entirely. Hundreds of people died, and thousands more were homeless.

Rumors quickly spread that the Emperor, Nero, was actually responsible for the blaze. In an effort to deflect that criticism, Nero put the blame on the small group of Christians who lived in the city. These followers of Christ were a fringe group who were broadly misunderstood by most Romans. They were called atheists, because they did not believe in the Roman gods and goddesses. They were called cannibals, because they were said to eat the body and blood of their founder. And they were called incestuous, because even spouses called each other “sister” and “brother” and their most sacred rite – an agape love feast – was only open to members of their own community.

Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradski (1876)

This group was an easy target for Nero, and so many believers were handed over to the magistrates and sent to their deaths on crosses, in the arena, or even burned alive to provide “entertainment” in Nero’s gardens.

And at that moment, you know that those who followed Jesus were saying to themselves and each other, “Is this how it is supposed to be? Is this what we are called to?”

In addition to all of that, as the first generation of Christians was dying, it occurred to someone that unless something happened soon, the stories of Jesus that “everyone knew” would be lost. Who would remember them for the next generation?

Taking Notes: Peter and John Mark, Craig Erickson (2014) Used by permission of the artist. See more at http://www.craigerickson.net/home.htm

Around this time, the tradition of the church tells us, the old Apostle Peter was sitting in a Roman jail cell awaiting his own execution for not respecting the divinity of the Emperor (Peter, essentially, “took a knee” when confronted with the claims of the Empire). He was tended to by a young man named John Mark, who was the nephew of one of the most respected leaders in the early movement, a man named Barnabas. John Mark had failed miserably in his attempt to join with Barnabas and Paul in a mission trip, but now comes to the aging disciple and helps him to record his stories of Jesus.

Peter and Mark are not trying to write history here, but rather to deliver a message. We know this because in verse one of the little book that bears Mark’s name, we read arche tou euangellio Iesuo Christu, Huiou Theou – “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The book of Mark is the only piece of literature in the New Testament to actually call itself a “Gospel”. This little booklet can be tough to read, because it’s barely more than an outline. The incidents described are roughly chronological, but there are few attempts at contextualizing them. Sometimes, the Gospel interrupts itself with some detail or even another story. It is a lousy history book.

It is, however, a tender and compassionate pastoral response to a community in crisis. People want to know, “Is God still in charge? Is Jesus coming back? Does faith matter? What’s the plan, Lord?”

The Preaching of St. John the Baptist, Peter Bruegel the Elder (1565)

This morning, our congregation is going to begin a walk through the Gospel of Mark. We’re not going to rush, and I suspect it will take us most of a year to get through to the end. It’s a curious choice, perhaps, to begin this Gospel during the season of Advent as we prepare for Christmas. After all, there’s not a wise man in sight, and no sign of angels or blessed babies or even genealogies to open this Gospel.

And yet the theme of this morning’s reading – and, in fact, the entire Gospel – is that of expectancy. I think that British author C.S. Lewis captures this sense of anticipation and delight well in his series The Chronicles of Narnia when creatures throughout that kingdom continue to whisper to each other – even in the dead of the winter that has no Christmas – that Aslan is on the move.

Just as John the Baptist appeared in the midst of the desert announcing hope to those who are weary of the oppression of both an occupying army and a religious establishment that had lost touch with its reason for being, so the Gospel of Mark appears at a time of crisis and persecution to say that God has not forgotten his promise. Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again. The Savior who appeared in the Judean wilderness proclaiming that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” is still wandering in the wildernesses of our own lives.

This Advent, as every Advent, is a reminder of the fact that Jesus is alive and active and still on the move. It is a season of profound hope for those who find themselves pinched between expectation and reality, and it is a season of reflection as we are called to consider what it would mean for you and me to repent – to turn around – and live in an awareness of Jesus’ presence in this time and place.

The first Advent of Christ was to a war-weary people living in a land of great injustice and deep fear. Advent of 2017 finds us living in a world that is seemingly on the brink of nuclear conflict… where it so often appears as though some bodies – notably the brown ones – matter less than the white ones, and where the color of money seems to be the most important hue of all… it comes to a culture where we are increasingly aware of the violence that is perpetrated against women and those on the fringes of society every single day.

The Gospel of Mark, then, comes to you and me at exactly the same time it came to its first readers: at the time when we are crying out, “What’s the plan, Jesus?”

And the Gospel – the euangellion – the message is the same: it is Good News in all of those horrible circumstances and more. Our call for this day is to listen to, and then get in line behind, John the Baptizer. To make the paths straight, and to prepare our hearts and our corners of the world for the inbreaking of the purposes of God as we come to know them in Jesus Christ. So let us, dear sisters and brothers, be alert as we enter into this part of the story – for the first, or for the fiftieth time. Thanks be to God! Amen.