First Lutheran Church + January 7, 2018
As many of you know, (perhaps you learned it in Confirmation!) when it comes to our Sunday morning readings, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America follows the Revised Common Lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary is a three year cycle of biblical readings that follow the liturgical calendar. The church year of course begins each year with the season of Advent. Thus this past December we be began a new church year, “Year B,” which features readings from the Gospel of Mark. Year “A” took us through Matthew, and next year in “C” we will be reading from Luke. Readings from the Gospel of John are sprinkled in here and there in all three years.
Since we will be spending this year in Mark, this morning I wanted to take some time to make a couple of observations about the Gospel of Mark, a couple of things that make it unique, a couple of things that may be significant for our faith community here at First Lutheran.
The first observation is that the Gospel of Mark is in a hurry. A case in point, the word “immediately.” The Greek word for immediately is “eutheós” (εὐθέως). It means “as soon as possible,” “at once,” “right now!” And this word, and the root of this word, can be found three times in the first twelve verses of Mark, today’s appointed gospel reading, setting the tone of the gospel.
Most obviously it is found in verse twelve where we read, “And the Spirit immediately drove him (Jesus) out into the wilderness.” In verse ten the NRSV translation reads, “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart …” However this can, and often is, also translated as, “immediately he saw the heavens opened …” In the King James Version it is translated, “And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened …” Which leads us into our last instance, which we find in verse three where the gospel writer quotes the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The Greek word for straight is “euthus” - which is related to the Greek word for “immediately,” “eutheós.” So “straight” in this context, in the Greek, means straight in the sense of no zig zagging, not detours, no unnecessary delays; essentially it means - build a road that will get you there as soon as possible, immediately! All these words found in the first chapter of Mark convey a sense of urgency and set the tone for the Gospel of Mark.
The word "immediately" appears in the NRSV, (the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible,) by my calculations - 72 times. And of those 72 occurrences 28 of them occur in the Gospel of Mark. That’s about 40% of all the occurrences of the word in the entire scriptures! In my bible, Mark, the shortest of the four gospels, is only 22 pages long, and the rest of my bible contains over 1100 pages. The writer of Mark seemingly uses the word “immediately” on just about every page! It’s definitely one of his most favorite words. Everyone is in a hurry in Mark, especially Jesus. Mark is an action movie, quickly and dramatically moving from scene to scene. Mark’s gospel is filled with a sense of urgency, each event requiring swift action and re-action. In contrast to the Gospel of John, where the word “immediately” only occurs two times, Jesus is more poetic, he’s calm, he’s reflective, he’s esoteric; but not in Mark Jesus is on a mission, he’s on the go, he’s literally “driven” by the Spirt!
So it is the Gospel of Mark begins with the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord make his paths straight;” the call to clearly articulate and demonstrate without delay or detour the ways of God, the reign of God, the kingdom of God. In the very next scene at Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are torn apart, straightaway - suddenly - and immediately revealing the kingdom of God. And even in that incredible moment of epiphany, there’s no time to take it all in, no time to rest in the glory, no time to sit around as the Spirit “immediately” drives Jesus out into the wilderness for forty day to be tested, and prepared for his public ministry. In the Gospel of Mark there’s no Christmas story, no background story, there’s no philosophical or theological pretext; Mark just hits the ground running. The Kingdom of God is suddenly upon us!
The second observation I want to share with you this morning has to do with the ending of Mark. It doesn’t really have one! Maybe in his rush the writer forgot to do it. According to biblical scholars the original manuscripts end Easter morning with an angel announcing the resurrection to the woman who have found the empty tomb, instructing them to go tell Peter and the disciples that the risen Christ will meet them in Galilee. The last verse in the original manuscripts concludes the gospel with these words, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s how it ends, with people trapped in fear. In Mark we don’t know what happen next? Did they bring Peter the message, or did they really say “nothing to anyone?” What kind of ending is that? Terror, amazement, fear, and no proclamation?
Over time two different endings have been tacked on to complete the gospel adding verses 9 through 19. Your bibles most likely will mark them as footnotes, “The Shorter Ending of Mark” and “The Longer Ending of Mark.” No one really knows what happened to the ending of Mark's gospel. Perhaps that’s how he intended it to end, perhaps the last page got lost, perhaps a scribe left it out, perhaps it was eaten by his dog?
Whatever the reason I like the incomplete ending because it invites us into the story. Suddenly, or should I say “immediately,” we find ourselves placed in the story. We have to imagine what happens next. The tomb is empty, Jesus is no longer among the dead, the resurrection is a witness to the truth about Jesus, his life, his words, and his actions. The unexpected ending demands a reaction, a response. Suddenly the urgency of Mark becomes our urgency. The tomb is empty? Death and empire do not have the last word? What will we do next? How will we complete the story? So it is an ancient story becomes our story, making a claim on our life today.
So what about today? What about your life? What feels “urgent” to you? What do you feel like you need to act on immediately? We all have our “to do” lists but if you’re like me, sometimes the really urgent things don’t make that list! I like to put the easy things on my “to do” list, things that I know I can get done, things that I can easily scratch off the list. Sometimes the big things don’t make the list because I prefer to ignore them and hope they will go away.
And then there are the things I like to think are urgent. Things like that new guitar I really need! I’m all about “immediately” taking care of that one! I can’t wait to scratch that off my list of things that really need to happen as soon as possible!
Sometimes my sense of urgency is displaced, a little bit off, not really grounded in the Kingdom of God! Today God invites us “not” into the urgency of this world but rather into the urgency of the Kingdom, the Reign of God, the Commonwealth of God.
Today we begin the season of Epiphany, a season marked by insight, revelation, and “aha moments.” I encourage us all to be in prayer, to be open, to spend some time in reflection, to engage the intensity of the Gospel of Mark, and ask, “Where does the urgency of God’s Kingdom intersect with my life, and how that might that shape my own sense of urgency, how might that shape my “to do” list! And as a community we must be about the same question, “What is God calling First Lutheran to be “urgent” about, what must we do immediately to engage our mission here in this place?
The Gospel of Mark ends in the midst of the resurrection, understandably with “terror and amazement.” We too should be terrified and amazed, the life of faith is no easy thing. How will the story end in your life? How will it end in our life together? May God grant us the grace and courage to leave fear behind and chase after amazement, to believe that God is all about doing a new thing, in me, in you, in each of us, in all of us, and in our life together!
One of my favorite stories around the tradition of making the sign of the cross, the actions in which we remember our baptism, goes something like this. There was an ancient superstition that angels whispered the promises of God into your right ear, and the devil whispered the promises of doubt and fear into your left ear. So it is when we make the sign of the cross, in our actions, we affirm the voice of the gospel and cast out the voice of fear.
Today God invites us to make the sign of the cross, to reject fear and affirm the good news of the Gospel, the amazing grace, peace, and love that is our in Christ. And to act “immediately,” “urgently” living out the Gospel for the sake of neighbor, for the sake of the world, taking part in the Kingdom that comes even now. Amen.