Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mark's Gospel Box

Today while I was listening to Pastor Ken preaching about the Gospel of Mark and thinking about the things he has taught us in his sermons and in our Bible study classes, I was pondering the thought that Mark was in such a hurry to tell his story, that he encapsulates the stories about which the other gospels expand and share details. He leaves out these details, even though it seems that some of them might help make the point that Mark is trying to portray in the telling of the Gospel story. Mark is in a hurry, he gives a couple of sentences and then rushes on to the next item..."immediately" is his word that ushers each story along, keeps us in step, grabs us by the elbow if we try to dawdle. And a picture came to my mind as Pastor spoke--this picture compiled basically from what I've been learning along the way.
Mark is showing us, his readers, a box full of his treasures. He has a collection of various mementos, and pulls them each out one by one, and he tells us just enough to tell why he has that figurine in the box. The speed with which he does so reminds me a little of a child telling about each toy in his toy box, flinging each one aside, scattering each on the floor as he goes on to the next. Mark's clear goal is to get to the bottom, where he has the one that really shows why the rest of the box is there.
First, he pulls out the Book of Isaiah the Prophet. It's bookmarked to Isaiah 40:3-5:
A voice is calling, "Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley; Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken." He quickly explains how this fits into what John the Baptist had to say and how he fulfilled that Scripture. Then he lightly puts it aside and pulls out a sandal. "John said, 'After me will come one more powerful than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.' I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." But he's not stopping there. He pulls out a dove. "John baptized Jesus, and as He came out of the water, the Holy Spirit came down upon Him like a dove, and a voice came down from heaven, 'You are My Son, whom I love; With You I am well-pleased.'" You would think Mark would have more to say about that, but no; he puts the dove to one side. He digs around in the box again. He pulls out a clear plastic box that is half-filled with sand, which shifts at each turn. "The Holy Spirit ushered Jesus into the desert, where He stayed for 40 days, being tempted by Satan. He was there with the wild animals, and angels attended Him." Well, that's about all we get about that, and he tosses the sand aside.
With each story, there is another figurine, momento, reminder. He pulls them out quickly, hurrying in relating the stories as he breathlessly tries to tell you just a little bit about each one! His goal becomes apparent as he goes along: to get to the bottom of the box without forgetting to tell you just enough about each little item. He pulls out: a figure of a boy who had been possessed by a demon; an older woman who had been sick with a fever; a man who had been a leper and now was clean. On and on he goes.
Some of the stories show Jesus' power and wisdom and authority. Some also show that there's strong opposition to His very existence, to what He says, to that very power, wisdom and authority that single Him out as unique among all who have ever lived. He's doing great things: healing people, teaching about God, bringing hope...and there are those who want to kill Him. They're jealous. They're power-hungry. They're hateful. And they refuse to benefit from the message that Jesus brings.
Mark gets down toward the bottom of the box, and he slows down. He moves slower, he talks slower. He adjusts his position so that he can really settle in and tell the last part clearly and not miss any details. It's increasingly clear that Mark is trying to emphasize its importance.
Mark has reached about the point of Chapter 12 of his Gospel, the point where Jesus starts emphasizing His coming death to the disciples. Mark pulls out a jar carved from a beautiful creamy stone. It's jagged at the top, where it's been broken. This is the story of Mary anointing Jesus for His burial. Mark stops and talks quite a while about this before he goes on. He puts the jar to one side, a bit more carefully than some previous items. He pulls out a wooden donkey, and tells the story of the Triumphal Entry...and the pace is similarly slow, intense, reverent. The reason that the speed is slower is becoming evident, that Jesus is going to die, and there's an important point involved. It isn't just your ordinary death of a man. It isn't just a man being killed because people don't like Him, because they're jealous. It's more than that. It's the climax of a long-standing battle, the ultimate, cosmic battle of good-versus-evil, more significant than anything else that the world has ever seen, or ever will see, more intricate and unfathomable than anything any human could fabricate. We needed the battle that is represented in this Gospel with more desperation than any of us will ever realize while we stand on earthly soil. And that's the point John's making as he slows down. Jesus didn't go to the cross accidentally. He didn't die against His will. He didn't die pointlessly. Mark takes time to make sure we understand that point. He brings out more figures, and while he talks to us about each figure, he relates more of the heart attitude, the confusion, of the disciples. He pulls out a communion cup from the box and tells us how Jesus said one would betray Him; relates about Jesus' prayer time at Gethsemane. The clearer Jesus is about His imminent death, the more confused and scared the disciples become. They understand very little of why He says what He does, how His death could fit in with His purpose as the King of the Jews.
Mark gets closer, right down to the bottom of the box of figures in his Gospel. He relates the mockery, disregard, cowardice, and indifference that surrounded this crucial point in history. He relates Judas' betraying kiss, and the arrest. Next is the figure of a rooster; he talks all about Peter, and how he denied three times that he knew Jesus. He pulls out Pilate and tells of his half-hearted effort to spare Jesus. He pulls out a group of figures that are huddled together, obviously conspiring together--these are the chief priests and elders, who have pursued and opposed Jesus all through this Gospel account. Barabbas is next, the murderer in whose place Jesus dies. Mark then pulls out the crown of thorns and tells how Jesus was mocked by the soldiers who hardly knew anything about Him.
Now Mark is near the last items in his box. He pulls out the cross, the point of the whole story. He tells about a stranger, Simon of Cyrene, who helps Jesus carry the cross up the hill. With more detail, he tells about the crucifixion and the death; more mockery. The disciples and His other followers seem to all have disappeared for some time now; it's all strangers nearby now. Jesus is essentially alone among the enemies, and even God has forsaken Him for now. Mark relates how the curtain was torn from top to bottom, and how the centurion, who had seen many other crucifixions, acknowledged the inesecapable conclusion of what he saw: "Surely this Man was the Son of God!" It's a story of sorrow, of suffering, and of victory. The victory isn't so evident to the observer at the cross, but that's where it happens.
It seems like the end of the story, but Mark continues. He pulls out a large disc-shaped rock. He tells about how Joseph of Arimathea obtains Jesus' body, wraps it in linen, and puts it in a tomb, closing the tomb with an enormous stone--and how three days later, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James discover that the stone is gone, that Jesus is resurrected. He is risen from the dead! He lives! The reliable part of the manuscript goes no further than to relate the angel telling the women about His resurrection and that they should tell the disciples "and Peter." Mark's story goes only as far as their confused and fearful reaction. He is done telling all of the essentials of the story. Jesus' journey to the cross was filled with battles, it brought confusion and opposition all around, but it brought love and hope to humanity. Mark's box is empty. He has no more to share, but we do. Now the contents of the box have become ours--to share with all who will receive them.

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