March 1, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
Mark 1:1, 4-5, 9-13
The first in a series of seven.
Good News for Modern Man is a translation of the New Testament that came out in 1966. That’s 54 years ago. So from our vantage point in 2020, we might call it Good News for Ancient Man. Some of us though are ancient enough to remember it.
Here’s the story behind it. People were asking for a Bible they could actually understand. King James English was a barrier, but even the modern English translations that gave a word for word translation of the original Hebrew and Greek weren’t much better. So in Good News for Modern Man, the translation is not “word for word” but “thought for thought.”
To test this new approach, they started with a sample translation. They used the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the book we are going to be working our way through starting on this first Sunday in Lent. And Mark is also the book I am challenging you to read between now and Easter. Not just skim through it, but take your time. Think about what it says and what it means for you. I will have suggested readings on the Connection Card each week – usually two and at most three chapters each week.
Why Mark? It’s the first of the four gospels that was written and it’s also the closest thing we have to an eyewitness account of the story of Jesus. We have reason to believe that Mark recorded the recollections of Peter, one of the original twelve disciples.
So who was Mark? His name pops up in several places throughout the New Testament. As a young man, he had traveled with Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys. Paul and Barnabas actually got into a major dispute over Mark. Barnabas was more willing than Paul to give him another chance after he had quit on them. Paul eventually had a change of heart and forgave Mark (II Timothy 4:11). And Mark also became almost a son to Peter (I Peter 5:13). We can picture a young Mark sitting beside an elderly Peter as he dictated his memories of Jesus so they would not be lost.
We’re pretty sure Mark’s gospel was the first of the four to be written. Our best estimate is that it was written anywhere from AD 66 to 71. And we have reason to believe it was written in Rome. This is important because there were two big and tragic things going on in the Roman Empire at that time.
First, in Rome itself there was a massive fire. It is believed that Emperor Nero himself may have been the arsonist because he wanted an excuse to rebuild the city. But Nero blamed the Christians. He had them rounded up and put to death. Paul and Peter may have been among his victims. And we can imagine Mark in hiding, carefully guarding those priceless notes of what Peter had told him about Jesus.
The second big, horrible thing was happening 1,500 miles away in Jerusalem. The Jews had revolted. At first they seemed to be winning, but quickly the tide turned. Legions of Roman soldiers were dispatched, Jerusalem was surrounded, and the Romans waited them out. They waited until they could march into the city without resistance. It is estimated that a million Jews and Jewish Christians were killed.
So here is Mark. He has these notes. Maybe he wonders why he should bother guarding them. There is nothing but bad news, horribly bad news, in his world. And yet somehow he knows that he has in his possession good news – the most incredibly good news – and that he is the one God has chosen to write it down. So he does.
If you have ever written, you know about “writer’s block.” You stare at that blank page and you don’t have a thing to say. Maybe that’s the way it was with Mark. Then he got his inspiration. And so he began, “This is the Good News about Jesus Christ.”
Most of our Bibles say “Gospel”, not “Good News”, but it means the same thing. Remember Good News for Modern Man wants to make the Bible understandable. The Greek word is “euangelion.” You can translate that “gospel” or you can translate that “good news.” Either one is correct. But if your goal is clear communication, you will go with “good news.”
Rome is on fire. Jerusalem is on fire. Christians are being tortured. Christians are being killed. Things are horrible. Things are hopeless. Which makes the first sentence Mark writes down jump off the page all the more. “This is the Good News about Jesus Christ.”
Are you ready for some good news? It’s here. In sixteen action-packed chapters. I hope in our journey over these seven weeks of Lent and Easter we will learn a few things. More than that, I hope this “Good News about Jesus Christ” will break through whatever bad news we might be living in these days and make us more fully and more joyfully alive.
Mark does not begin with Christmas. It’s like he’s in a hurry. He doesn’t have time to set the stage. He jumps right in and tells the story of Jesus, from baptism to resurrection. Beginning with John the Baptist.
John the Baptist just kind of “appears in the desert” out of nowhere. He is baptizing people. I guess that’s why they call him John the Baptist. Baptism didn’t begin with John. There are ritual washings in the Old Testament. John makes it clear that his baptism is connected with repentance. His sermons must have been really easy to understand. He just had one word. With three exclamation points. “Repent!!!”
Which is interesting in these first few verses of the “Good News about Jesus Christ.” Is repentance part of this good news? It sure doesn’t sound like good news. It sounds like bad news. It means your life is heading in a bad direction. There is a disaster waiting for you just ahead. No one wants to hear that.
You’re driving down the road. You see that sign you don’t want to see. “Road closed.” That’s bad news. Well, not nearly as bad as the news will be if you ignore that sign and keep your cruise control engaged while you drive right over the washed out bridge.
The good news is that you were warned in time to avoid the bad news. Lent is an excellent time to take a long, hard look at ourselves. Where do we need to repent? What sins have we gotten used to? They don’t even bother us any more like they used to. Where do we need to turn around? We say there’s time. There’s always time for procrastination. But our time eventually runs out. And the longer we wait, the more we miss out on what life could be.
“Repent!!!” Not what we want to hear, but it is what we need to hear. And if we pay attention, it is very good news.
So the first person we meet in Mark’s gospel is John the Baptist. The second person we meet is Jesus.
Not long afterward Jesus came from Nazareth, in the region of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan (1:9).
Isn’t this odd? John the Baptist is calling people to repent and be baptized. And one of the people who answers the call is Jesus?? We need repentance. We need baptism. No argument there. But not Jesus.
It’s a bit like a cello teacher advertising for students and getting a response from someone who is very interested in taking lessons. His name is Yo-Yo Ma. That wouldn’t happen. No one is good enough to teach Yo-Yo Ma how to play the cello.
And no one is good enough to baptize Jesus. Jesus should be the one doing the baptizing. In fact, that’s the way Matthew tells the story. John refuses to do it. He says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you” (3:14). Jesus says something like, “Don’t sweat it. This is the way it’s supposed to be.” And John gives in and does the baptism.
As soon as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw heaven opening and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove. And he heard a voice from heaven: “You are my own dear Son. I am well pleased with you” (1:10-11).
So what’s really going on here? Why does Jesus, sinless Son of God, need baptism for repentance and forgiveness of sins?
We all need baptism, even Jesus. Here’s why. We all need God’s grace. This is something we often miss about baptism. We think it is something we do. We are sorry. We repent. We are going to try harder. We are going to do better next time. We are going to finally get our act together. And so we “get” baptized. Kind of like we “get” a haircut.
No. That’s not the way it works. Baptism is not something we do for God to show how sincere we are. It is something God does for us to show that God loves us no matter what. The word for that is grace.
I heard a simple explanation of grace that even a simple person like me can understand. You are driving down the road, listening to a song you really like. Your mind is wandering. You are enjoying the ride. You glance at the speedometer and you are going too fast. Way too fast. And before you can slow down, so see the blue and red lights in your rear view mirror. You are busted. Here are three possibilities:
1) You get the ticket you deserve. You have to cough up a considerable sum of money. That would be justice.
2) The officer tells you to slow down. But he says he won’t give you a ticket this time. He just gives you a warning. That would be mercy.
3) The officer hands you a box of Krispy Kreme donuts. That would be grace. And that wouldn’t happen. But with God, that does happen.
God loves you, period. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more. And there is nothing you can do to make God love you less. That is true of everyone who has ever lived. Even Jesus.
And that voice from heaven? I didn’t hear it when I was baptized and I’ve never heard of anyone else who did. But it’s just as true of you as it was of Jesus. God says, “You are my own dear child. I love you. Always have and always will.”
The baptismal font has been placed today so that as you come forward for communion, you can take a moment to dip your hand in the water and touch your hand to your head. Listen for that voice speaking to your heart. “You are my own dear child. I love you. Always have. Always will.”
After Jesus is baptized, he is tempted in the wilderness. This relates directly to the season of Lent. Lent lasts 40 days because Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days. And while he was in the wilderness, he was tempted by the devil.
Mark barely mentions this. Just two verses. In Matthew we have eleven verses. In Luke there are thirteen. So if you want to study this passage, you don’t want Mark. Mark’s in a hurry as Mark often is to get on to the next part of the story.
But we’re going to pause here for a moment before we close to see if this part of the story has anything to say to us. How does the devil tempt us? Probably not in an obvious way. If you knew it was the devil, you would know not to listen. You would know not to obey. You would know to do the opposite. But what if the devil is sneakier than that? The lies he tells you are disguised to make you think it’s the truth. And to think you’re the one who figured it out all by yourself. That voice in your head is so clear and so compelling.
It’s telling you to keep going when the path you are on is leading to destruction. It’s telling you to stop when you are finally going the right way. It’s telling you to believe the worst about yourself instead of the best. It’s telling you to give up. It’s not worth it. It doesn’t really matter what you do or how you treat others or how you spend your time. Maybe that voice even tells you that God is just a figment of your imagination. He’s not real. He doesn’t care about you. Why would you believe that?
In Matthew and Luke, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God . . .” If?? That’s the voice Jesus hears. But what’s the voice he just heard when he was baptized? “You are my own dear Son.” Two voices. “If you are.” And, “You are.” So Jesus has to decide which is the truth. And which is a lie.
He had just had this moment when God spoke to him so clearly. But now the devil wants him to second guess. Did you really hear what you thought you heard? Or maybe you just heard what you wanted to hear. Maybe you are just fooling yourself. You want to think you are special. Or course you do. We all do. But you really aren’t.
Have you ever heard that voice? Have ever heard those two competing voices, each pulling you in a different direction, and you had to decide which voice is God’s and which is the devil’s?
I think again of Mark who is writing this down. He had that time in his life when he heard two very different voices. There was the voice of Paul who was so disappointed in him and for good reason. Paul was slow to forgive. He came around eventually, but it took a long time. Mark had quit. So maybe that’s who he was. That was his identity. He was a quitter. He would never amount to anything.
It would have been easy for him to believe that about himself. It would have been easy for Mark to decide he had had enough of Christians. It would have been easy for him to add his name to that long list of disgruntled people who don’t go to church any more.
But there was another voice. There was the voice of Barnabas. Barnabas the encourager. Barnabas who still believed in him. He felt worthless. But Barnabas helped him recognize that as a lie. Barnabas helped him hear the truth, spoken directly from God into his heart: “You are my own dear child. I love you. I always have. And I always will.”
And because Mark listened to the right voice and not the wrong voice, we have the story of Jesus. Mark’s gospel. Mark’s Good News. Which is very good news for all of us.
God, you are always speaking to us. And we are often choosing to pay attention to something else. We’re going to pay attention to you in this season of Lent. We’re going to listen for your good news. And we’re going to repent, turn around, stop doing what we shouldn’t do, start doing what we should, and start living our lives in such a way that we are a living embodiment of your good news, seen so clearly in Jesus Christ. In his name, Amen.