Sunday, January 18, 2009

Jan 18, 2009 - Getting to Know the Jesus We Follow

First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - The Five O’Clock
Mk 1.1-13 - “Getting to Know the Jesus We Follow”

We talk a lot at the Five O’Clock about “following Jesus,” about living out the message Jesus preached, about living as the proof of God’s coming kingdom. Last week we brainstormed some ways that we can be living out Jesus’ message more faithfully, as a community of people whose lives are growing more and more closely together and as a community of people who want to help meet the needs of our neighbors as a picture of the sort of kingdom that Jesus brings. During the weeks of Advent, we talked a lot about how God’s people have longed and waited for the kingdom that Jesus announces, the kingdom he will one day finally bring.

My question tonight is “Why?” Why do we talk so much about “kingdom” and “gospel” and “Jesus”? There is a Sunday School answer to this question. When I was younger, a Sunday School teacher--a guy named Eric who I thought was so much cooler than all the other adults I knew--once laughingly said that no matter what question he asked in class, we’d be right if we answered with “Jesus.” In way, we could reply “Jesus” to the question tonight of why we talk about kingdom and gospel and, even, Jesus himself, at the Five O’Clock. But this answer would be true in ways and with a depth that a second grade or junior high Sunday School kid wouldn’t quite grasp. Honestly, it’s true in a way that most of us don’t pick up on initially.

What I have to say tonight is important because we who are becoming part of this Five O’Clock community are just beginning a process that will be hard work, that will be often uncomfortable, we’re beginning something that’s going to ask more of us than we think we have to give. But it’s just this answer of “Jesus”--who he is, what he announced, how he lived and died and, especially, how he lives again--that will gets us through.

We are together trying to faithfully live as the people of God, to be the church in a real and full sense, in an Acts 2 kind of way. This is going to mean getting to know one another better, becoming vulnerable as our live increasingly intersect, as we share our needs and try to help each other out in practical ways. It’s going to mean some awkwardness, as we make social missteps, as we bump into unfounded assumptions. It’s going to mean frustrations as we unfortunately sometimes let each other down, as we find places we disagree, as we unroot hidden prejudices. And it’s going to mean forgiving one another, just as God forgives us, just as we pray in Jesus’ prayer each week. Tonight, it’s going to mean some of us doing the chore of cooking pasta, setting out some plates and silverware, it’s going to be the sweat of washing up dishes afterward.

On our own, we’ll eventually run out. Our patience will wear thin and break, we’ll be tempted to pull out, to hole up in the isolated comforts of a couch and television programs instead coming to meet the raw reality of being together the loving, difficult people of God. And in this, it will be the person and presence of Jesus that sustains us, that refreshes us, that gives us the energy to have one more conversation, to wash one more plate, to drive out into the cold January night one more time.

This is all the reason why I want us to spend the next few months reading through the Gospel of Mark. Mark is a great place to meet Jesus, to get know him better, and to find out what his kingdom and gospel are about. Mark tells a story about Jesus that says so much more than we find on our first read through. The author’s a clever, skillful storyteller, and his book is more like epic poetry or even, perhaps, a riddle, than just a scientific, rigorously precise record of what Jesus said and did. For the longest time, I didn’t like Mark for just these reasons. I would read through it, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. He starts off, as we’ll see in a few minutes, without any background story for Jesus. He also ends quite differently from other Gospels, mysteriously even. It wasn’t until I was part of leading a bible study through Mark in college, and I began to read through it over and over, that I began to understand how rich and how real-life, how gritty Mark’s story of Jesus is. I think this is just the sort of picture of Jesus we need as we set about the difficult project of becoming God’s people, something gritty but also something that requires commitment, dedication to bear fruit.

Here I should encourage us all to begin getting to know Mark’s story over the next few months. Read through it, maybe a chapter a day, maybe all at one sitting, then read through it again, and again. Maybe make a schedule where you read through one chapter one day, read from somewhere else in the bible on the next day, and read through the next chapter of Mark on the day after that. Intersperse it. Listen for what God has to say to you about who he is and who Jesus is and who we are. Read a bit to your kids as a bedtime story. If you want to study it more seriously, I’ll make sure the church has a few study guides that you can check out of the library. I want us all to get this story into our bloodstream, under our skin, so it’s the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we’re thirsty for. It’s that good, that important, that true of a story.

Tonight, I just want to listen to the introduction of Mark’s Gospel. These first words of Mark are going to be really important for how we hear the rest of the book. Mark is a story full of characters getting confused, misunderstanding, or only partially understanding things, especially misunderstanding who Jesus is. But in the very opening lines of the book, Mark’s going to lay it all out in front of us. He’s going to state very plainly who Jesus is. While everyone else in the book--the disciples, the crowds, the religious leaders--all muck about, misidentifying Jesus, always failing to get what he’s really about, Mark is giving us the answer key even before we even begin reading along about Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, his journey to Jerusalem, his betrayal and death and resurrection. So pay close attention to these first thirteen verses, and keep them in mind the whole time we’re reading through Mark in the coming months.

I want us to focus on two things in particular. First, I want us to see how Mark roots the disclosure of who Jesus really is in what God has already shown of himself and all that he has promised in the Old Testament. Second, I want us to pay close attention to what happens when Jesus is baptized. We’re going to read through the text tonight in two sections, corresponding to each of these points. So if you will read with me the first part, Mark chapter 1 verses 1 through 8.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
In the wilderness John the baptizer began preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem were going out to him, and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore a garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “One more powerful than I am is coming after me; I am not worthy to bend down and untie the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirt.”
Just as Mark is beginning his story, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” he interrupts himself to quote the Old Testament. Here we are, his audience, all eager to hear the story of Jesus, and he puts off telling his story to cite ancient scripture. But this interruption has a point. It tells us that this story of Mark is not a story that we can read all by itself. It’s a book with a very, very important point, but we’re only going to get the point if we read the story in light of another story, the history of all God has done and promised to his people Israel in the Old Testament. In a way, we need to read the book of Mark like a sequel, the Part II of God’s epic story of redemption.

Mark puts in all sorts of signals and allusions to let us readers know how to read what’s going on here. One is the Old Testament quotation itself; a second is the way John is dressed. There are others, but these are the big, blatant signposts sticking out of the book saying “You need to read the Old Testament to understand what’s coming.”

Mark prefaces his whole story with an epigraph from the prophets. He references Isaiah, but he actually slips in another prophecy from Malachi too. We read, “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”--this is the bit from Malachi--“the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.’”--and that’s the bit from Isaiah. Why Mark only references only one of the authors, we don’t know. A lot of people have written long scholarly arguments about that, and still people can’t settle on a reason.

What’s more important is what Mark is saying with these two quotes. He’s just told us that we’re now reading the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God, when he blasts us with these two prophecies. He’s pretty obvious in showing what the prophecies are referring to. In the next verse he says “In the wilderness John the baptizer began preaching a baptism of repentance.” We might have expected him to launch right into talking about Jesus, but instead he insists that these prophecies are about John. But that makes sense when we go back and read what Malachi and Isaiah were talking about. The Malachi prophecy come from chapter 3 verse 1 of that book, which reads, “I am about to send my messenger, who will clear the way before me. Indeed, the Master you are seeking will suddenly come to his temple, and the messenger of the covenant, whom you long for, is certainly coming,” says Yahweh who rules over all. The words are going to sound a little different because Malachi the prophet, who lived four hundred years before Jesus, spoke Hebrew, and Mark, who’s writing a few years after Jesus, is writing in Greek. Malachi is talking about someone who will come and prepare the way not just for another person, but for the Master, God himself, to come to his people, to judge them and then set up peace. It’s important that a few verses later, in the beginning of chapter 4, he talks a little bit more about this messenger. He says, “Look, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of Yahweh arrives.” He identifies the messenger who prepares the way for Yahweh’s coming as the ancient (even to him) prophet Elijah. Remember that Elijah the prophet never died, according to 2 Kings, but that a God sent a chariot of fire (which is where we get the movie name) to come and take him to heaven. People from Malachi’s day up until Jesus’ day expected Elijah to come back to earth right before God came to set things right, to prepare the way for him by calling people to repentance. The prophecy from Isaiah is from chapter 40. It should sound familiar because we read it earlier in the service. It’s all about God sending a messenger to say that the day is just about to arrive when he’s going to come to judge his people and to make things right and new. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak kindly to Jerusalem, and tell her that her time of warfare is over, that her punishment is completed. For Yahweh has made her pay double for all her sins.”A voice cries out, “In the wilderness clear a way for Yahweh; construct in the desert a road for our God.”

All of this Elijah-messenger language only comes through stronger when Mark tells us how John is dressed. While this may seem a strange detail to include, it’s actually quite important. John’s living in the desert wearing clothes made of camel’s hair and a leather belt. A leather belt might not sound so interesting to us, but guess who is the only other person in bible who is said to wear a leather belt? Yep. Elijah. Check it out in 2 King 1 verse 8. Mark is being pretty explicit about who John is.

But if John is the messenger, if he’s Elijah come back, what does that tell us is just about to happen? Exactly. If this Elijah-like messenger is a signal that God is on the move, that he’s about to set things right, then we’d better be ready for God to arrive. And John’s message is the last thing that tells us this. He says, “One more powerful than me is coming after me.” In the Old Testament, God is often called “powerful” or “mighty,” usually in situations where he’s acting to save his people, like when he split the Red Sea during the Exodus. God is powerful, he is mighty to save us.

And now we can read the end of the introduction, verses 9 through 13:

Now in those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River. And immediately as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight.” The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, enduring temptations from Satan. He was with wild animals, and angels were ministering to his needs.
Here Jesus is formally introduced. He’s from the country, up in a Galilee, from a small town called Nazareth. And he’s come all the way down to where John is preaching by the Jordan River to take part in what John is announcing. People were being baptized for repentance. Repentance we usually think of as feeling guilty about something wrong we’ve down, of telling someone we’re sorry, asking them to forgive us. But repentance is a much deeper word than that. At the bottom, it’s really all about a change of mind, a change of heart. It’s about dying to something old and being born again to something new. And that’s what Jesus comes to the river to do, to be baptized into the new thing, the new kingdom of God that John is signaling.

But watch what happens when Jesus is baptized. He wades into the river, gets dunked, and just as he is walking out, he sees the sky split open, God’s Holy Spirit descends into him, and God himself declares that Jesus is his one beloved Son. If we were really familiar with the Old Testament, we would be shocked. This isn’t exactly what the prophecies from Isaiah and Malachi led us to expect. The prophets talk about God, about Yahweh himself, coming to set things right. But just as Jesus is coming up out of the water, God says that he has something else in mind. “You,” he says to Jesus, “are my one dear Son.” And then the Spirit comes down into him. John said that the one who came after him would baptize in the Holy Spirt, but here we see Jesus being baptized by the Spirit.

These events should make us remember back to how Mark introduced his story: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We just heard God call Jesus his Son--something that’s going to be a matter of great confusion throughout the rest of the book. In fact, we may not realize it at first, but we also just saw Jesus pointed out as Christ. We treat Christ like it’s Jesus’ last name most the time. But actually, Christ is just the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, a word that means “anointed one.” And we just saw Jesus anointed with God’s own Spirt, in a way similar to when ancient David was anointed king with oil or the the old prophets were had the Spirit poured out on them when they were to begin their ministry.

This is a really rich passage, and we could learn so much about Jesus and God by just soaking in it, reading it over and over. But let’s draw this to a close by reviewing at least the bare skeleton of what Mark has laid out for us in his introduction. The messenger-like-Elijah that the Old Testament prophets foretold has appeared; he’s John, who’s preaching a baptism into the new thing that God’s doing. And then Jesus appears, a guy from Nazareth without any introduction or fanfare. And when he’s baptized by John, suddenly he sees the sky split open, God’s Spirit coming down into him and anointing him, and God saying that he is God’s one dear Son. The end of the story proves the power of this encounter between God and Jesus. The Spirit that’s in Jesus forces him to go live in the desert for forty days where Satan come to confront him, to put him through all sorts of temptations and trials, and Jesus comes out the winner, defeating Satan.

This is our introduction to Jesus. Things are maybe still a bit murky, still a bit mysterious. But we know that where the prophets told us to expect God, to expect Yahweh himself, Jesus appeared. We know that the prophets said he would bring both God’s judgment and God’s peace. We know that Jesus is the one who John expected to be more powerful, more mighty than himself. And we know that the Spirit anointed Jesus and that God has called him his own one dear Son. Hold on to these things, this is the truth, the point that Mark is going to develop throughout the rest of his book.

So what do we say? How are we to respond to this? It’s not really a go-and-do-likewise passage. It’s not really a command or a promise or a warning. What we can say is “Thank you, Father, for sending your Son.” We can say, “Jesus is what we’ve been hoping for.” And we can wait to see what else God will tell us about Jesus as we read through Mark.


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