Sermon: January 7, 2024 1 Epiphany

The new church year began with Advent at the beginning of December. With the first Sunday of the season of Epiphany (today), we are entering the year of Gospel readings that come from the Gospel of Mark. There will be some Sundays when we don’t hear from Mark, but by and large this will be the year of Mark, which incidentally makes me really happy as Mark is my favorite Gospel, with Luke coming in a close second. So, I thought I would take some time today to step out and give a big picture perspective of Mark, as I think it can sometimes be difficult to understand the message of a particular Gospel when we hear it in small pieces, as we do in our readings from Sunday to Sunday.

Mark is the second Gospel in our Bible, but is in all likely the first Gospel written. Augustine wrongly believed that Mark took Matthew and cut out a bunch of stuff, and so for many centuries the church treated Mark as the second Gospel. However, it is clear to scholars today that Augustine had it wrong. Matthew and Luke and probably John too used Mark as a source when they wrote their Gospels and they embellished what they found in Mark’s writings.

As with the other Gospels, we don’t know who wrote this Gospel. Nowhere in the book does the author give any indication of who they are. Early church tradition said that the author of this Gospel was the John Mark who accompanied Peter on his travels and served as Peter’s secretary and interpreter. The reality is we just don’t know. The author of this Gospel wasn’t interested in revealing themselves, but instead in telling the story of Jesus.

Just as we don’t know who wrote this Gospel, we also don’t know where it was written, or for whom it was written. Again, because of the connection with Peter, the early church held that it was written in Rome for the community there. Others in the early church held that it was written in Egypt, as tradition said that John Mark was one of the first bishops in that region. But scholars find it strange that there are no references to Paul’s letters to the Romans which had already been written and were read regularly in that community and there is no evidence for the Egypt connection.

The writer of this Gospel, who I will call Mark because that is the easiest thing to do, takes care to explain Jewish customs, sometimes wrongly so, to his readers, he gets some of his geography of Israel wrong, and he doesn’t have a clear picture of Jewish leadership groups. Also, Mark’s Greek is not literary, it is not polished. He uses the kind of Greek that travelers and professionals living in provinces north of Israel would have used—a Greek that has picked up some Latin phrases and vocab. This is the Greek of a reasonably educated but not very bookish merchant class. This has led most scholars to say that this Gospel was written to a Gentile community or a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ, for whom Jewish scriptures held authority, in southern Syria or just north of Palestine—close to Jesus’ homeland, but not quite in it.

Then of course comes the question of when it was written. Again, we can know nothing for sure. The best that scholars have figured out was that it was written either just before, during, or just after the Jewish revolt against the Romans, and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, or between 66 and 73 AD. This is important information, because it helps us to understand the chaotic and tumultuous world in which Mark and his community were living.

In 66 the Jews led an insurrection against Roman rule in Jerusalem that spread to the surrounding regions. The Romans launched a counterattack but were initially repelled. They retaliated with a vicious scorched-earth campaign that extended until the spring of 70 with the final assault of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. The wider Roman Empire was also in chaos. In 60adn 63 there had been serious earthquakes. In 62 the Roman army suffered defeat at the hands of the Parthians on the eastern border. A devastating fire in Rome was blamed on Roman Christians who then became scapegoats. Tradition holds that both Peter and Paul were martyred during this persecution. In 68 the emperor Nero committed suicide and the struggles for the emperor’s throne ensued, with three Emperors in one year. This chaos and devastation would have impacted Mark’s community too, even though they weren’t in Jerusalem or the surrounding area. They were still part of the Roman empire and following a Jewish man who had died the death of an insurrectionist against the Romans. Life couldn’t have been easy for them.

We also don’t know what sources Mark used. There are no written sources to be found that come before this Gospel. We have Paul’s letters, but he focuses on the struggles of the communities to which he was writing and what the death and resurrection of Jesus mean for them. Mark focuses on the ministry of Jesus following his baptism, continuing through his crucifixion and ending with the empty tomb. It is likely that he was drawing on the living traditions shared orally in the community of which he was a part. Mark never makes a claim to have been an eyewitness of the person and life he is describing, but it is likely that he knew people who knew Jesus. The authority of this Gospel comes not from the person telling the story, but from the person about whom it is written.

So this Gospel was written sometime between 66 and 70 AD, by a Gentile Christian follower of Jesus to a community of primarily Gentile followers of Jesus for whom the Jewish scriptures held authority in their lives, in an area north of Jesus’ homeland, by a man who didn’t know Jesus but who knew people who knew Jesus. There are mistakes in the geography and descriptions of Jewish practices. The Greek is not elegant, though the structure of the narrative is. The original readers lived in a world far different than ours in which miracles and demon-possession were a valid lens through which to view the world. What are we to make of this book? What meaning does it have for us in 2024? Does it have any meaning for us? Well, I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of preaching this sermon if I didn’t think it had meaning for us today, and profound meaning at that.

Almost every commentary I read as I prepared for writing this sermon recommended that we should sit down and read the entirety of Mark in one sitting. These biblical scholars argue that this is the only way to get a feeling for some of Mark’s most important messages. This is a short, concise, and fast-moving narrative, and this was deliberate on Mark’s part. He has an urgent message to convey, and he depicts a Jesus that is a man of action—healing, stilling storms, feeding crowds, forging sins, praying, exorcising demons, confronting injustice, challenging, and finally dying on the cross, leaving behind a trail of amazed believers and dazed opponents. Seldom, does Jesus stop to preach or teach. Jesus’ ministry is urgent and important, and the reader needs to pay attention and join in the action.

This Gospel does not begin with angels whispering to Mary, or shepherds tending their folks by night, or wise men travelling from afar, or beautiful theological poetry about the pre-existent Word. It jumps right in. “The beginning of the good news” [or Gospel] of Jesus Christ. Gospel was a word used by the Empire to announce news important and life-changing in the Empire—the birth of an imperial child, an imperial wedding, a victory on the battlefield. It would not have been used to announce anything about an average person. From the very first verse, Mark is telling us that Jesus is different, special, and world changing. There is a regime change coming, a new reign has been inaugurated. God is taking over. Then the story takes off and John the Baptizer, an Elijah-like figure appears, preaching a baptism of repentance and announcing that something incredible is about to happen. Mark gives us no information about who this John the baptizer is, because this is not important. What is important is the person to which John is pointing, Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man. And then Jesus appears upon the scene.

In Mark Jesus’ story begins at his baptism, because this is when his identity is first revealed, and his ministry begins. For Mark, nothing else matters. Jesus’ ministry is too important to focus on what came before. The world is being upended. A new regime is coming. We better prepare ourselves. We better pay attention. We better join the action. And then Jesus is baptized by John and the skies are ripped open and God speaks to Jesus, and Jesus alone, announcing that he is God’s beloved son.

The church has never been comfortable with the baptism of Jesus. In Matthew John tries to talk Jesus out of being baptized. Luke doesn’t say John did it. John doesn’t mention baptism at all. But in Mark we see a very human Jesus, perhaps the most human of all the Gospels, and a human Jesus is in solidarity with humanity in everything, including sin and repentance. Jesus is baptized because God joins us in every aspect of our existence—the good, the bad and the ugly. There are no insiders and outsiders with God. God is with everyone. And this is truly good news. And then, in very human fashion, immediately (one of Mark’s favorite words) after Jesus is baptized and God speaks to him, Jesus is driven into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan and to face his own temptation to minister in ways other than his humble, loving, forgiving, suffering-with-others style. This God-man will use God-power that is always loving, forgiving, and suffering-with, and never like worldly power that is frequently coercive, othering, and soul-crushing.

Mark’s Gospel begins abruptly with John crashing onto the scene and the adult Jesus being baptized and it ends just as abruptly with the empty tomb and women fleeing in fear. In between there is a lot of action and not a lot of theologizing. And we are swept along in the action, and left at the end with the question of whether or not we will join this world-changing God-man who reveals to us God’s kingdom and God’s love for us. Mark gives us the first half of the story. It is our responsibility to continue the story, to move from despair into hope, from death into new life. Mark leaves us with a decision will we join in the work of Jesus who was willing to risk rejection and suffering for the sake of drawing all people into God’s just and loving realm. I don’t know about you, but I think that Mark’s message is just as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago, and I can only pray that I will be as transformed by it as his original readers were.

So, I urge you to take about an hour out of your life to sit down and read this Gospel from start to finish. It will leave you with many questions, but quite possibly it will also leave you with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to this God-man that we are all gathered here to follow. And perhaps it will also leave you with a sense of comfort, because Jesus’ followers in Mark are also clueless most of the time, and yet Christian history shows us that they got it in the end. Amen.