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Gospel of Mark - overview
I was one of them. One of his followers, that is. It’s safe to say that here, right? It wasn’t very safe for me that night in Gethsemane; I escaped, but not even with the shirt on my back. Anyway, I’m here because your preaching team told me that you’re starting a series on the Gospel of Mark. Let me tell you that today – the Sunday after Easter - is an awesome day to start Mark’s Gospel; it’s the very best Sunday you could choose to start this study of Mark. Your scheduling people on the preaching team got it right; bravo!
Why? you ask. Well, at the very end of Mark, at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning – last Sunday – Mark sends us, Jesus’ followers, back to Galilee, where it all started, back to Jesus’ beginning. Why? you ask again. Well, we didn’t get it, we didn’t understand - bumbling disciples we were - so Mark makes us start over again, re-live it again, try to understand, try to see…. Try to see … ah, “seeing”. Can’t you see? That’s what Jesus kept saying to us. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the end of Mark’s Gospel just for a second before we are sent back to the beginning to start all over again.
So Mark ends his gospel with a very brief story of Easter Sunday morning. I’m not going to retell that even though I was almost an eyewitness; you all just experienced it last Sunday. Three women go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body only to find a mysterious young man pointing to Jesus’ empty tomb and announcing the resurrection. The women then “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” End of Gospel. Yet, just before that, in the second to last verse, the young man at the empty tomb says to the women to tell Jesus’ disciples to go back to Galilee, that we will see him again there. The young man sends us the disciples back to the beginning! Mark ch 1. vs 1: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
And now for you, readers of Mark’s Gospel today, you arrive at the last verse of the Gospel, but the story isn’t over, it’s a loop. Leave the empty tomb now, go back to the beginning and re-live the gospel again. Like us, the disciples, you did not understand this story fully the first time. Now that you have been to the cross and the tomb, now that you know where Jesus is headed, go back and read the Gospel again with that in mind. Try and understand. Try to see. Can you see? Mark’s Gospel says that you, that we, need to immerse ourselves in the gospel again; that’s why the first Sunday after Easter is the very right time to start Mark. But as we go back to the beginning, let’s remember that we’re doing this because we didn’t get it the first time, we haven’t fully understood Jesus. And that’s a major theme of Mark. Can’t you see? So, let’s try to see Jesus again. Now, after the cross, maybe we can answer: “yes, now we see!”
But before we continue, I’ve got something to get off my chest, here with you Mennonites. One of your 16th century Anabaptist forebears, Hans Denck, said in a phrase that you teach to your kids and repeat as your mantra, Hans Denck said, “no one can know Christ truly unless she or he follow him daily in life.” I just gotta say that that’s really unfair. We disciples did follow him - literally, we followed him, but we still didn’t understand him, we still didn’t “know” him. Mark’s Gospel shows that loud and clear – we just didn’t comprehend fully what he was trying to tell us and show us. So sorry Hans Denck, from my perspective, while I agree with you, it’s not so simple. Following doesn’t automatically mean knowing and understanding. Believe me, I speak with experience. So that’s why we’ve got to do as Mark’s Gospel says and go back to Galilee, back to the beginning in order to keep on re-living it and trying to see more of Jesus each time.
So come with me back at the beginning. Believe me, I know this Gospel quite well. Let’s start with an overview. Mark’s Gospel was the first Gospel written, about 35 years after Jesus’ death; it’s the shortest (16 chapters), there are no birth narratives, not many teachings, no resurrection appearances; Matthew and Luke both incorporated most of Mark in their Gospels when they wrote theirs around 15 years after Mark. Mark’s Gospel has two main sections; we’ll get to them. But first there’s a very brief introduction of 14 verses: John the baptizer appears, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is baptized by John, a voice from the heavens declares “You are my Son, the Beloved” and Jesus is then taken to the desert where he is tempted.
Then begins the first and longest section of Mark’s Gospel: Jesus’ ministry in Galilee his home area -- Galilee being the region starting 100 kms straight north of Jerusalem with Samaria sandwiched in between. This section goes from the middle of chapter one until the end of chapter 10. The last 20 verses of chapter 10 are with Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. These verses are crucial to understanding Mark. Then comes Mark’s second and last main section: chapters 11-16, Jesus in Jerusalem where he confronts and argues with the authorities. He is arrested, put on trial and condemned to death. Then comes the crucifixion and resurrection.
But let’s go back to the first main section whose message (or meaning) culminates on the road to Jerusalem at the end of that section. Mark’s Gospel is awesome, just awesome in its stucture. Sure, a superficial reading easily misses the intricate literary plan and focuses on the roughness and emotion: lurching from story to situation, Mark is immediately this and suddenly that; people are astounded and terrified on every page; Jesus is angry and exacerbated almost as often, he spits on a couple people’s eyes, tells everyone whom he heals to keep it a bloody secret, and virtually calls his disciples idiots. But that kind of reading misses much of Mark’s message.
Mark’s Gospel is awesome due to its structure, how it builds, almost secretly, to its core message. Haven’t you got it yet? Don’t you see? The Kingdom of God has come near; repent, believe the good news; and come and follow me.
Here’s what it sounds like. Follow me – the call to the disciples, then numerous healings (often casting out demons) each with a strict charge to keep it and him a secret – shhhh – say nothing to no one. Healings, shhh, keep it secret. Healings, shhh, it’s a secret. Exorcism, shhh. Healing, exorcism. Follow me. Healings, exorcism, shhh, don’t tell.
Then, in increasing crescendo, there comes misunderstanding, no understanding. Mostly clueless. We don’t understand, we don’t get it. So, the message of the Kingdom of God is repeated. Still, even Jesus’ own family come to restrain him, believing he’s mentally ill; Jesus responds by rejecting them, saying that “those who do my father’s will are my family.” Numerous parables add to the confusion. Don’t you hear? Can’t you see? Kingdom of God. Shhh, a secret. We don’t understand. Shhh, but we don’t get it. Nature miracles. Cast out demons, shhh – a secret. Kingdom of God, heal the sick, 5000 fed, but we don’t understand. Healing, but don’t get it. Heal more sick, exorcism, shhh – right right a secret. 4000 fed, still don’t understand. “What are you talking about?” Jesus plainly yells at his disciples in exacerbation. “Do you still not understand. How can you have eyes and yet fail to see?” Can’t you SEE???
And now Mark’s crescendo builds even more towards the end of the section with his contrasting of blindness, restoring sight with a focus on the implications of following him. It goes like this: a congregational chant
1. Messiah 
2. Shhh – don’t tell – it’s a secret 
3. Come, follow me. 
4. Don’t understand. 
But Mark doesn’t make it so easy; the parts are all mixed up, so you’re going to have to respond with your part when I call for it. And I’ll be adding parts.
• Sight restored, blind healed. I can see! #1-Messiah. #2-Shhhh. The cross. #3-Follow me.
• #4-Don’t understand. #1-Messiah. #2-Shhhh. Healing. The cross.
• #4-Don’t understand. Healing. #3-Follow me. #4-Don’t understand. #3-Follow me. #2-Shhhh.
• We’re going to Jerusalem, the cross. #4-Don’t understand.
• Sight restored, blind healed. I can see! #1-Messiah. #3-Follow me, Follow me to Jerusalem, to the cross.
That was great. Now let’s look with a bit more detail; for Mark’s Gospel, by its very structure, is revealing clearly what it means to follow Jesus. For Mark, to be a disciple is to follow Jesus on the way that leads to Jerusalem, literally and figuratively. During this journey, Jesus three times speaks of his impending crucifixion and resurrection: the authorities will kill him, but God will vindicate him: in chapter 8, 9, and 10. Three in a row. After each of these, Jesus speaks about what it means to follow him. To follow Jesus is to follow him to the cross in Jerusalem. Jerusalem: the place of confrontation with the authorities, and the place of death and resurrection, of endings and beginnings. To follow Jesus is to join him on this journey of confrontation and transformation. Mark’s story of Jesus’ final journey is a narrative about the meaning of discipleship, of following him. BUT, until it all unfolded, until we re-lived it, WE DISCIPLES DIDN’T GET IT. Let’s continue to examine this smaller section closely.
As we read this again we can see that it’s a beautifully constructed literary unit with two blind people’s sight restored at the beginning and at the end. And the middle is packed full of declarations of Jesus’ Messiah-ship, explanations of God’s Kingdom, charges to secrecy about Jesus, and loads of invitations to follow him. And ever present are we clueless disciples who just didn’t get it; WE DIDN’T SEE; WE DIDN’T UNDERSTAND. We just bumbled along. Mark organises these stories to show that Jesus heals blindness – our blindness, Jesus restores sight. And seeing Jesus means following him. Following him to Jerusalem, following him to the cross.
So, the first story in this unit, Jesus restores sight to a blind man in the town of Bethsaida, who after some spit in the eyes resulting in seeing people like trees walking and Jesus then laying hands on him, “looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” Then what follows this restoration of sight is several declarations that “you are the Messiah” along with immediate charges to “shhhhh – keep it a secret”, plus explanations that Jesus is heading for the cross and invitations to “follow me”. Yet, we were clueless then. Still we followed. Then just before entering Jerusalem, the blind see again. Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus in Jericho, the last stop before Jerusalem. Jesus restores his sight. Bartimaeus is sitting by the roadside and calls out for help. He begins to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly order him to be quiet, but he cries out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stands still and says, ‘Call him here.’ So throwing off his cloak, he springs up and comes to Jesus. Then Jesus says to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man Bartimaeus says to Jesus: “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus responds “Go; your faith has made you well.” And immediately Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way, on the road to Jerusalem.
So Mark brackets the story of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem with these stories of sight being restored to the blind, of seeing Jesus, and following him, to confrontation with the authorities, following him to the cross. Within Mark’s narrative, really seeing, having one’s eyes opened, being healed of blindness, is to see that discipleship means following Jesus on “the way” – all the way, even to death.
On re-living the story, now we see Jesus more clearly after we’ve walked with him, after we’ve followed him to Jerusalem and the cross. But to see more clearly, we’ve had to go back to beginning. We’ve had to recognise our blindness. We’ve had to accept that perhaps we haven’t understood fully, that we’ve been one of the disciples who often didn’t understand, one of us who, when Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem, we were arguing about who was going to have a throne at his right side. Seeing Jesus. Seeing and following Jesus. Don’t you see?
Seeing is also our choice. Sandwiched between the two stories of Jesus giving sight to the blind, is the story of someone I knew well. You know him as the rich man who ran up to Jesus and asked “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus reminds him of the commandments, and the man responds: “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, sees him and loves him, and says, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions…. Was that his final decision? At that point, he chose not to follow Jesus to Jerusalem; his possessions were #1. Yet Jesus loved him, because he was so sincere. Jesus wasn’t saying that following the commandments was not important, only that he hadn’t gone far enough yet. How often are you the rich man?
Seeing and following Jesus involves changed values. I see that now, but it’s taken me a long time. It means metanoia! Conversion! A complete turn around. To follow Jesus our values need more than a simple adjustment, rather a commitment to following Jesus on the way! Anything that hinders full commitment to Jesus needs to be re-assessed. What do we need to give up in order to follow Jesus? I’ve asked myself this for two millennia as I’ve re-lived the journey countless times. Mark’s Gospel says that to take Jesus seriously is to follow him, to follow him to the ultimate consequences of having different values from the system, from the world around. The way of the cross is the way of God’s kingdom, the reign of love, justice and peace.
So that’s the overview of Mark’s Gospel your preaching team asked me to share. In upcoming Sundays,
Michele will consider the Parable of the Sower as a key for interpreting Mark,
Marilyn will examine the importance of geographical movement in Mark,
Aldred will take a closer look at the social/cultural/political fabric of the gospel,
Doug will take a look at the demoniac and the Son of Man themes, and
Maureen will wrap up our series.
Oh, one last item. I heard some of you muttering at the back “Who are you, preacher?” Well, I’ll tell you. I’m the follower of Jesus in Mark 14.51-52. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is betrayed and arrested. In the midst of that chaos, Jesus’ disciples desert him and flee. Then follows this obscure little verse: “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” End of verse. Just as the artist who very subtlety, almost secretly, puts her or his own face in a painting, some scholars have suggested that this “certain young man” is perhaps the author of Mark’s Gospel. You can decide; in any case, that’s me. Not so young any more, but still trying to see Jesus. Will you join me? Can you see?