Tag Archives: Gospel of Mark

the heart of the matter

 (a sermon preached at St. Mark Presbyterian Church, February 26, 2012)

Jimmy's family, with the photo of Jimmy's newly repaired heart.

Good morning. I bring you greetings from Baja California, from the small coastal town of La Mision, about an hour south of the border. It is there that I live, ordained by this presbytery, by a partnership, called Bridging Borders,  in which St. Mark has played a key role. I live there in a community of expatriate Americans, alongside two Mexican communities.

People often ask me what took me to La Mision—it was my parents, actually, since my first visit was as a six-month-old baby.

My grandmother lived in La Mision, for the last twenty years of her life. I live in her house, and though some of the furnishings have changed—thankfully—I still sit outside on the flagstone patio where I have photos of my grandmother sitting, and still walk through the same front door—it is a half door, that you can open just the top, but which also, in the winter, allows the cold to seep through the cracks—and wash dishes in the same sink.

I also bring you greetings from the Casa de Paz orphanage, about 40 minutes further south. It is the American community there in La Mision that has been building a relationship with Casa de Paz, and we, as the Bridging Borders Partnership, have been able to come alongside them as they seek to learn better how to love their neighbors, the children of Casa de Paz. Your amazing generosity in that endeavor has been a witness to the folks living in La Mision.

For you see, when you ordained me, none of us really had an idea of what might unfold from that. We took a risk. We took a risk to try something new, something a bit outside the box, something that hadn’t really ever been done quite like this before.

In fact, one of my neighbors, Kathy, who is not necessarily a churchgoing type, happened to be traveling in mainland Mexico. She met a man that was Presbyterian. “Oh, my neighbor is in the process of becoming a Presbyterian minister.” She responded, and told him about this idea that I would be ordained in this very creative, unconventional way, and based, not in a church, but in this community, and then sent out into the world. “Oh, she must not be Presbyterian,” was his response.

But this Bridging Borders Partnership was created—folks from St. Mark, and from St. Andrews, from Santa Ana First and from Downey, from Placentia and from Village, our new church development down in Ladera Ranch. We came together, having a sense that God was calling something new into being, but not really having any idea how it would all unfold.

…..

I wonder what that Syrophoenician woman was thinking on that particular day, as she searched for Jesus. I’m guessing it was the thought of her daughter that propelled her forward. Thoughts of her daughter’s need that pushed her to keep searching, even though, it seemed, that Jesus was hidden, and, it appears, maybe even intentionally so.

Maybe she had heard about this Jewish teacher, this man who had been doing amazing things.

But she was a Gentile, a foreigner. Not only that but a woman—how could she even dare to approach Jesus, much less ask him for a miracle for her daughter?

Biblical scholars suggest that, had there been a father or husband in the picture, it was likely that he would have been the one to approach Jesus since it would be a man’s role, not a woman’s.

So it is possible that this woman was not only a foreigner, but also without a husband to advocate on her behalf.

But maybe it took a mother’s love for her child in need to bridge the boundary lines of culture and race and ethnicity that separated this woman and her daughter’s healing, from the one who could most surely provide it.

I wonder what she was thinking that day, as she searched for Jesus?

…..

Last fall I was at a birthday party in La Mision. The birthday party was for Becky, the daughter of the local pastor of the Mexican protestant church in town. Through a somewhat chance encounter, I had been introduced to Becky a few months before, and she had become my Spanish tutor as well as my friend. It was at that birthday party where I met Sarah, an American missionary, running a medical clinic in the local community.

As Sarah and I talked she happened to mention her frustration in trying to get treatment for Jimmy, a local man with a serious heart condition—called a coarctation of the aorta.

“I know Jimmy,” I said, remembering that my friend and neighbor Audi had helped the local American community raise some funds for the tests that Jimmy needed to undergo back in the spring. Many in the American community also know Jimmy, husband to Blanca and father of three young children, because of his work at the La Fonda restaurant, or as the son of Don Lucio, or because his brother Beto plays on the local baseball team.

Sarah continued to share the severity of the problem, it appeared, was beyond the capacity of the resources of the General Hospital in Tijuana. “At this point there really is no hope, short of a miracle,” said Sarah.

As we chatted it occurred to me that we, as the Los Ranchos Presbytery, have a partnership with Hoag Hospital—the hospital where I was born.

“Well, I might have some connections with Hoag Hospital, in Newport Beach,” I said to Sarah, telling her I could at least ask. I’m not sure that either one of us really thought that anything would come of it.

But as I went home that night it occurred to me that, because of where I happened to be born, were I to have this heart condition, I might die of it, but I surely would not die from lack of medical care. The least I can do is ask, I thought to myself.

…..

Who knows what the Syrophonecian woman was thinking to herself, as she finally found Jesus. She fell down at his feet and begged him to heal her daughter.

Jesus, as the book of Mark tells it, had been on the go—the whole book is full of immediately this and then immediately that.

But in this story we find him retreating to the region of Tyre—which is Gentile, not Jewish country—and hoping to avoid notice. It would make sense that perhaps Jesus, after all of this being on the go, would need a bit of a breather.

And then, almost from nowhere it seems, in barges this woman. Not just a woman, but a Gentile woman. Not just a Gentile woman, but a Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed by an evil spirit. Perhaps not exactly the ideal person for an up and coming rabbi to being hanging out with.

She begs Jesus to heal her daughter. And Jesus, the Great Physician, Jesus, the wise teacher, Jesus who said “let the little children come unto me”, Jesus, the one we expect to be compassionate, especially to someone in such need says “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Did he just compare the woman to a dog?

It’s one of the more troubling passages, about Jesus, and scholars have debated its meaning—was Jesus being tongue in cheek? Was he simply reflecting the prejudices of his day—Jews thought of Gentiles as dogs, a derogatory term—was he trying to bait her, to see how she would respond?

It’s a parable, of course. In the book of Mark Jesus often speaks in parables—in fact, he almost never says anything plainly.

Not long ago I posted something on facebook about dealing with rocky ground. All of my pastor type friends assumed I was using it as a metaphor. I had to explain that no, in fact, I had been planting carrots, and the rocky ground was making them grow all bent.

But in the gospel stories, and especially the book of Mark, Jesus speaks in parables. And the disciples, the ones who are with Jesus, the Jewish men, the right kind of people, are continually asking him, um, what did you mean?

We don’t know why Jesus said what he said that day.

But we do know how the woman responded. Her response was as sharp as it was quick—“Yes, but even the dogs under the table get to eat the children’s crumbs.”

She got it. Not only did she get it, but she spoke back to Jesus, in a parable. This woman, this foreigner, spoke back to Jesus in his same language. She is the only one in the gospel stories to not only understand the parable, but to speak back to Jesus using a parable herself.

And Jesus says to her, for your words, your daughter has been healed. Not for her faith, but for her words.

She spoke up, defying all social convention, and the unbelievable happened—her daughter was healed.

…..

I went home after that birthday party conversation about Jimmy. I emailed a few folks here at St. Mark, and at St. Andrews, that I knew had connections with Hoag.

At the November presbytery meeting I spoke with Don Oliver, Presbyterian chaplain at Hoag, and he told me he’d pass it on to Dr. Afable, Hoag’s CEO, who also happens to be a member of St. Andrews. “But it would be great if you happened to see him, say at church, if you would ask him yourself.”

The next week was Thanksgiving, and I went to St Andrews with my mom for their Thanksgiving service. “If you see Dr. Afable, could you point him out to me? I’ve got a question to ask him.”

After the service, as we were walking out of the sanctuary, she said “Oh, there’s Dr. Afable, right in front of us.”

I have to admit, I felt like a schmuck, bothering him on Thanksgiving day, at church.

But something compelled me, propelled me forward—at least you can ask, I thought to myself. So I did, introducing myself, and explaining the situation about Jimmy. He assured me that Hoag would do everything they could.

So, we got Jimmy’s medical chart info to the right people at Hoag, and then we waited. That was back in the fall.

I found myself thinking, there is no way that this prestigious, beautiful, state of the art hospital in Newport Beach would agree to cover all the costs for a complicated and fairly risky surgery for my Mexican neighbor Jimmy, son of Don Lucio and one of sixteen children, from tiny little La Mision—not only that, but to also work to get him an emergency medical visa so that he could even enter the US in the first place.

And then, about ten days ago, we got the good news. As Sarah told me, with tears in her eyes, she gave me a hug. The tears spread to my eyes as well.

Jimmy, who is at Hoag recovering as we speak, had open heart surgery on Friday. His family, his father Don Lucio, his sister Herminia, and his niece Vanessa, are here with us this morning.

It was with tears in his eyes yesterday that, in the 4th floor waiting area at Hoag, Don Lucio explained to Sarah and myself that in all of his 76 years he had never seen a miracle such as this fall from the heavens.

I wonder how long it took the Syrophoenician woman to get home that day? Had she left her daughter alone while she went to meet Jesus? I wonder what she must have been thinking, as she hurried home? But I’m guessing, as she entered the house and found her daughter well, it was with tears in her eyes that she picked her daughter up and gave her a hug, drawing her close to her heart.

On Friday afternoon, after the close to 8 hour surgery, Dr. Caffarelli, Jimmy’s heart surgeon, came into the waiting room to explain to the family what he had done in the surgery. The problem, as Sarah had explained it to us, was that it was as if someone was stepping on a garden hose, so not enough blood could get through. Normally the solution would be to simply replace the problematic part in the artery. But because Jimmy had had this condition from birth, the body had attempted to solve its own problem, by sending out all sorts of small blood vessels to try to get the blood where it needed to go. To operate in this area would be much too risky, due to the potential loss of blood.

“So what we had to do,” Dr. Caffarelli explained, was to bypass that area entirely. “So, we created a bridge.”

A bridge.

A bridge that allowed them to transcend all of the diseased areas, and allow the lifeblood to flow again, restoring his heart.

The word heart, has many meanings. Of course on Valentines Day we tend to associate it with love and chocolate and romance. But the word heart can also mean the center, the core, that which matters most, as in the heart of the matter.

And it seems to me that the heart of the matter is this:

That which pulses through the very center, beating life, bringing love, knows no boundaries—national, ethnic, or even theological.

And the bread on the table? It seems as though there is enough for everyone—for the children and for the dogs under the table. Maybe it’s time we throw open the doors, let the dogs in, and all get down on the floor and eat together.

Amen.

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mark study: day 2

a sign along the Sea of Galilee...gotta watch out for those shorts

One thing that I’ve found to be fairly essential in ‘manuscript study’ is the ability to sit with the questions, without rushing in to answer them. This is something that we who are Americans are not always great at, with our unquenchable optimism in our ability to overcome any obstacle, whether we know what it is or not. It doesn’t mean that we can never have answers, or that answers are inherently evil or wrong. But it does mean that, at times, we might need to sit with the questions without having all the answers. I believe that in that ‘sitting’ is found part of the powerful experience of this type of study.

So, for Day 1, I’ve posted some  thoughts/questions/observations. Perhaps they resonate with you. Perhaps they frustrate you or confuse you. Whichever it is, let them roll around a bit, and keep them within reach as we continue through Mark to see what might happen to them.

Oh, one other caveat. Often those of us who have grown up in the church are used to consulting ‘experts’ when it comes to a study of the Bible. We who have gone to seminary are probably even worse when it comes to this reliance on ‘experts.’ Again, I’m not saying commentaries or scholars are bad–many have devoted their lives to this study and of course have a vast knowledge to share from that. But for now, for this time, let’s not rush to see what the experts say, but let’s dwell in the text and see where it leads us.

…..

So, to begin Day 2, which begins at page 2 line 1 (“And passing along by the Sea of Galilee…”) until page 3 line 11 (“And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.”) Remember, the questions you are asking are “What do you see?” and “Where do you see it?” What do you notice repeated, left out, described…what surprises you, what is confusing to you?

Some of my questions/observations (and feel free to add your own):

  • Line 4, “immediately they left their nets and followed him”: Were they just bored of the whole fishing thing? They were in the middle of casting a net, which makes one think they were a little busy. But ‘immediately’ they followed. What was it about Jesus, the way he spoke or looked or acted, that made them so ready to ditch what they were doing and obey him, hook line and sinker? (sorry, couldn’t help myself…)
  • Line 6: Same thing with James and John. They left their father, in the middle of mending the nets. This time the ‘immediately’ is Jesus calling them (Line 7).
  • ‘Immediately’ (line 10) on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught. What did he teach? Why were they so astonished? How had the scribes been teaching? (obviously, sometimes we will ask questions for which we may never have answers…that’s okay, keep asking)
  • Line 13: ‘immediately’ again–this time a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue
  • Line 14: unclean spirits are talking to Jesus? Who is this guy? What do we make of the fact that the ‘unclean spirit’ knows something about Jesus that the others present don’t seem to understand?
  • Line 19: they were amazed. In line 11 they were astonished. ‘a new teaching, with authority’ seems to be the cause.
  • Line 24: immediately again. This time he left.
  • Line 25: If Simon has a mother-in-law, then where is Simon’s wife?
  • Line 26: “immediately they told him of her.” The opening of  the book of Mark seems to be in quite a hurry…
  • Line 29: ‘at sundown’–pay attention to time of day being referenced. What would this mean? In this case, it had been the sabbath, so ‘at sundown’ would signal the end of the sabbath. If the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law happened before this, then Jesus had healed her on the sabbath, something that gets him in trouble later, but actually, we’re not supposed to be reading ahead… 😉
  • Line 29: ‘all who were sick or possessed with demons’–really? All of them? Wonder how many that was? Seems like it could have been quite chaotic…

Page 3

  • Line 1: the whole city was gathered together. That’s likely a big crowd.
  • Line 2: ‘he healed many who were sick.’ But not all? What about the others? If they all had come, why were only ‘many’ healed? Was he not capable of healing the rest? Did he run out of time?
  • Line 4: how/why did the demons know him? What does that mean?
  • Line 5: ‘lonely place’ Was Jesus an introvert? What did he pray? How did he pray?
  • Line 8-9: Jesus seems unconcerned that ‘everyone is searching for you’. If he had any PR sense he’d take the opportunity to launch his movement with all of this momentum behind him, wouldn’t he? That doesn’t seem to be his strategy…
  • Line 9: ‘preach there also’ What had he been preaching? What was the content of the preaching? Have we seen that yet? (hint, page 1)

So, those are some thoughts to get you started…

 

what is ‘manuscript study’ (and why in the world would I care?)

Page 1 of Mark manuscript

I first came upon the concept of ‘manuscript study’ in Bangkok, Thailand. I realize, a form of studying the Bible is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Bangkok. Nor the second. Nor the third. And yes I did partake of much that Bangkok has to offer–amazing Thai massage, beautiful Buddha statues in temples, and of course green curry, tom yum, and pad Thai with incredible flavor and dirt cheap. No, I did not partake in the ‘other’ side of Bangkok, but I did go on a tour of the red light district with an organization called Night Light that seeks to rescue women from sexual slavery and exploitation. But more on that later.

Back to manuscript study. I was blown away by it from my first encounter. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but each of the three times I’ve participated in this week-long event, it has been incredibly rich. I’ve tried to describe it a few times, including an article I wrote for Princeton Seminary called ‘Wonder Bread.‘ I wrote about it again after my experience with it four years later.

The basic gist is to take a book of the Bible (the gospel according to Mark is what is often used), take out the chapters, the verse numbers, the paragraphs and print it out, as in from the computer. Mark is about 42 pages. Well, the shorter ending of Mark. But that’s another story too. Each page has a page number (in case you drop the pile, it makes for much easier ordering than playing “I wonder what comes next” with the text) and each page is also given line numbers, every 5 lines, so that you can refer to a particular location such as “On page 1, line 10, what does it mean that they were confessing their sins?”

The format is part of it–take the study away from those paper thin pages in that leather-bound book and it can help to make it more accessible, or at least easier to write all over it without feeling guilty for ‘messing it up.’ With no chapters and verses there are no arbitrary stopping or starting points, and the story itself is allowed to dictate where one section ends and another begins.

But more than the format is the style in which the manuscript is studied. I’ve grown up in the church, so I’ve been a part of many Bible Studies, some better than others. What often seems to happen is that the text can be used as a springboard for something else. So, instead of studying Mark, we actually bring in Ephesians or Acts or Revelation, none of which are bad, necessarily, but they are not Mark. In the method of manuscript study (mss) one is forced to stay with the text at hand.

The two main questions, in this format, are ‘What do you see?’ and ‘Where do you see it?’ This, again, helps the study to stay focused within the text in question, and to try to curb the tendency amongst some to leave the text behind and pontificate on a topic of choice.

It can feel limiting at first. It can be frustrating. It can feel slow.

In our Mark 1 group (the first half of Mark–it is a two part series, with each half taking up one week)  we spent the entire first day on page 1. An entire day, 9AM to 5PM, on roughly 300 words. Among the other westerners in the group (people come from around the world) you could see the obvious body language of “Okay, I’m done with page 1, can we move on now?!” as they shuffled their papers and fidgeted in their chairs, questioning the decision to devote a week to this madness. But by the end of day 2? They didn’t want to leave at the end of the day. Seriously. It’s that engaging, that engrossing. I know, it sounds a bit crazy. But I’ve flown half way around the world three times to be a part of this process.  (well, the food and the Thai massage are enticing as well…)

So, since I can’t make it to Thailand this year I’ve decided that I’m going to attempt a blog version of a Mark study. Will it work? Don’t know, I’ve never tried it before. Seems like it’s worth a shot.

first things

It’s amazing, it feels like summer lately even though the calendar tells us we are in mid-November, swiftly approaching the holidays, as many retail stores have been making all too clear with their displays of trees, lights, ornaments and tinsel. Soon, the Christian season of Advent will be upon us.

Advent, as you are probably aware, is a season of waiting, of anticipation, that spans the four Sundays before Christmas. Many people light advent candles and children often open advent calendars, both of which are ways that we mark our waiting. This Advent waiting reminds us both of the Hebrews who waited for the coming of the Messiah, but also serves to remind us that we still wait for that time when God will make all things new.

But if the stores can get such a long headstart on Christmas, why can’t we in the church as well? What if we get a head start on Jesus before we start singing about him being in a manger? What if we take a look, before we get swept up in the pageantry of the Christmas season, to pause and look more closely at the man that this nativity baby was to become? At Easter it is often common to remember and contemplate the final days of Jesus’ life and to commemorate the ‘last words of Jesus’ so why not, before the Christmas season, take a look at some of the ‘first words of Jesus.’

Of course, we do not mean the actual first words, mama or dada or the like, as we do not have a record of what those might have been for the baby Jesus as he grew up.

But what about the first words of Jesus as we have them recorded in the gospel accounts, his first public words and the context in which they were uttered? Before we get wrapped up in all of the commercial packaging of the celebration of his birth, the “Jesus is the reason for the season” what if we take a look at what Jesus said was the reason for, well, for Jesus?

So listen with me to the word of God, as we find these first public words of Jesus as told by the Gospel according to Mark in the first chapter, beginning with the first verse. Listen for the Word of God.

Mark 1:1-15

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

In the book of Mark we do not have a Christmas story, the traditional nativity scene of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels and wise men.

If we were to make a nativity of the opening scene of the book of Mark we would likely have a river, a somewhat odd looking guy wearing fur and eating bugs, a lot of people (the text says that ‘everyone from Jerusalem and people from the whole Judean countryside went out to John at the Jordan). As the scene unfolds we begin to catch a glimpse of one guy, coming all the way from Nazareth, probably about 100 miles away, on foot. It must have taken him awhile to get there—an average walking pace is about 3 miles an hour, so that would potentially be a three day’s walk. Instead of baby Jesus in a manger, we’d have grown up Jesus with a lot of dust on his sandals.

The last time I was with all of you I was living in Orange County, and waiting to be ordained. Since then I have finally been ordained, as a ‘designated tentmaking evangelist’ and I have moved to live in a small community in Mexico. It is my grandmother’s house that I’ve moved into and it is surrounded by a yard which, before I started working in it, had been long neglected and overgrown. Over the past couple of years I’ve been slowly working my way through the overgrowth, trimming, digging up, and planting. It is common amongst my friends down there to realize that if they call me on the phone and I don’t answer, I am probably out working in the yard. One of my favorite things to do is to make a path for the rainwater, so that it creates almost a stream through the yard when it rains, and allows more of the water to soak into the ground. This not only keeps the rain runoff from getting too much and out of control, but it also helps to bathe the dry ground in fresh water.

A few weeks back, in October when we were having all that rain, I found myself outside digging around in the garden in the mud…in my pajamas. I had meant to just go outside to check on the water’s flow, but one thing lead to another and I wound up in the mud, digging, my pajamas getting wetter and wetter, and trying to keep them from getting muddier and muddier. I knew it was a bit odd, but I was occupied with my task. All of a sudden I heard a car pull up on the road outside. Sure enough, as I looked up at the car, I saw my  Doug, Kathy and Leslie–who had come for a visit. They took one look at me, soaking wet, muddy, and in my pjs, and burst out laughing.

…..

John the Baptist must have been quite a sight. Clothed in camel’s hair secured by a leather cord, and eating a rather interesting diet of bugs and honey. Why are we told all of this? We are not given wardrobe information for anyone else in our story, not Jesus, not the crowds, just John. If we stop to think, one wonders why the author of the book of Mark includes these details. Is it just to make him sound a bit weird? His strange appearance doesn’t seem to be off-putting though—the text tells us that all of Judea and Jerusalem were coming out to John at the Jordan. Maybe they were just going out to see a crackpot in the wilderness, outside the city? But they weren’t just going out to see John or to gawk at this strange sight; they were getting baptized by him.

Sometimes, when we read the Bible, we have become so accustomed to it that we don’t see what is actually in front of us. I am a photographer because I like to help people see that which they somehow overlook when not guided in the direction of a particular image. Mark is giving us a photograph of John, inviting us to pause and take a closer look at this unusual man. For those who knew their Hebrew Scriptures would know that John was not the first person to be described in this way.

Elijah, one of the Hebrew prophets, was described as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” who lived out beyond the normal borders of society. Elijah, coincidentally, did not die, as it is told in the book of Second Kings, but was simply surrounded by a chariot of fire and taken into heaven. Where did this miraculous event happen? None other than the banks of the Jordan River. The same Jordan River where we now find John.

But so what? So what if there is this guy who seems to look like Elijah and happens to be found in the same place where Elijah had last been seen? What’s the big deal about that?

That is where the writer of Mark gives us another clue. “It is written in the prophets…I will send my messenger ahead of you, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make his paths straight.” There are actually two quotes here, one from Isaiah and one from Malachi. Both passages talk about the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the one who will turn the people back to God and make the world a place of peace, justice and harmony—the one who will make things right.

But Malachi goes further…”Lo I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes…” The reason Elijah matters is that it was believed by the Jews of the time that before the Messiah would come and usher in the day of the Lord, that time when all would be made right, that day for which the people of Israel had been waiting…before that day would come, first Elijah would return, a precursor, a messenger announcing the coming Messiah.

John even seems to echo this belief himself, proclaiming that “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…I have washed you in water, but he will wash you in the very Spirit of God.”

…..

One of the results of this summer we seem to be having in November is that it has brought with it some beautiful sunsets. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to catch any of them, but from where I live in Mexico, they are hard to miss as they paint the sky with pinks and oranges and yellows. You can’t spend too much time watching sunsets in Mexico without someone bringing up ‘the green flash.’

The green flash is a phenomenon that occurs right as the last bit of sun has sunk below the horizon. If the view is clear and there are no clouds or smog to get in the way, the story goes that this flash of green can happen just as the sun disappears. It is a story that I’ve heard all of my life, and to be honest, I sort of thought it was the product of people having too many cocktails, rather than there being any sort of real occurrence. I assumed that the green flash would be just that, a flash of green lighting up the sky, impossible to ignore, obvious to all who were paying the least bit of attention, like a bolt of lightning casting a green hue across the horizon.

It turns out, the green flash is much more subtle than that. You’ve got to be watching for it. You’ve got to be paying attention. And even when you are, you might miss it. It’s less of a shout, more of a whisper. I always assumed that because I hadn’t seen what I expected it to be, that there was no green flash. It hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps I might be staring it in the face and not even see it right in front of me.

…..

And so onto the scene walked Jesus. Jesus who had traveled a few days journey to get to the Jordan where John was baptizing, immersing the whole of the region in water as a sign of repentance, of turning, of a fundamental shift. John had already warned them, this is only the beginning. What I’m doing, what you’re doing by coming out here to me, this is just the start, this is the first step. There will be another and that other will bathe you not just in water, but in the very Spirit of God. I’m doing this to prepare you for that.

And then, just like that, Jesus enters our nativity scene, getting baptized by John just like the rest. But when Jesus comes up out of the water something new happens. The text says ‘he saw the heavens opened’ but literally it means the heavens were ripped open, were torn or rent apart. And the spirit like a dove came down upon him saying, “you are my beloved in whom I delight.” And immediately the Spirit drove him further out into the wilderness, alone, tempted by the adversary.

If this were a movie I think we’d stop right here and say, what? After all that build up, all of that careful stage setting in showing that this John the Baptist was actually fulfilling the role of Elijah, who was the one to appear before the Messiah, the anointed of God, came upon the scene and made all things right, brought the world into justice, peace and harmony…

And everyone has come out to the wilderness to prepare, to make themselves ready for this big event that the Jewish people have been anticipating, toward which God has been guiding all of history…and then Jesus shows up and the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends upon him.

And just when we are waiting for a green flash to proclaim itself across the entirety of the evening sky, it is much more subtle than that. Instead of stepping onto the stage and proclaiming, here I am, the one you’ve been waiting for, the chosen of God, the anointed one, the Messiah, the Spirit drives Jesus from that place out into the wilderness to wait for 40 days.

After that 40 days Jesus shows up back in Galilee, back where he started, and utters his first public words as recorded in the book of Mark: “Now is the time to turn around, for the reign of God is here, right now, so put your trust in the good thing that God is doing.”

It sounds a little bit like a passage you will likely be hearing in the coming weeks, a passage that comes from Luke’s gospel: “And the angel, the messenger, said, fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.”

Or, to put it as Mark does, “This is the beginning of the good tidings of Jesus the anointed Son of God…”

Did you catch that? When we first read the passage? The first line of the book of Mark isn’t a sentence at all—an English teacher would call it a fragment. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the anointed.” Some might call it a title or a heading. The only problem is, if you keep reading the book of Mark, there are no more headings, other than this one.

If you spend much time with the Gospel of Mark you will see that it is not always neat and tidy, cut a dried. Often Mark leaves us hanging, without answers, without conclusions. In fact, what is referred to as the ‘shorter ending of the book of Mark’ ends with the women coming to the tomb after Jesus has risen, seeing an angel, and fleeing in fear. Even in our text this morning, we have suggestions more than assertions. The prophets have written about a messenger, an Elijah-like figure. And here we have John. John talks about preparing the way for someone greater. And then Jesus shows up. Mark gives us enough of the story to draw us in, to invite our participation, to cause us to wonder. But he doesn’t give answers. That he leaves up to us.

Jesus comes onto the scene and his first public words are, “Change, turn around, turn from the way you were going and toward something new, for there is good news, there are good tidings, the kingdom of God has come near, have confidence.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ…

Perhaps, the author of Mark is suggesting, I’m going to give you the beginning, but it’s up to you to keep the story going.