Yesterday, our church wrapped up a four month journey through the Gospel of Mark, and it was fitting that we crossed the finish line on Resurrection Sunday. What a joy to arrive together at the empty tomb after having journeyed through the life and ministry of Jesus.
This morning, as we prepare to move on from Mark, I can’t help but reflect a bit on some of the things I’ve learned, as I’ve preached through it. It was my first time preaching front to back through one of the Gospels, and I feel like I’m walking away with some valuable lessons, as a preacher. If you preach or teach regularly, maybe these will help you too.
- Don’t be too quick to harmonize the Gospels, to try to supplement or fill in the blanks in one with material from another. Sure, harmonizing has its place, and it can certainly be helpful, but I think we do the Gospel writers a disservice when we don’t drill down deep into the riches of a particular Gospel and seek to determine why that writer said what he said in the way he said it. We have four portraits of Jesus for a reason, and each one of them is intended, by itself, to tell us something important and specific about Jesus. Throughout Mark, the question before me constantly was this: What does the Holy Spirit, through Mark, want to teach us about Jesus?
- When preaching expositionally through a book of the Bible it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, to go so slowly that you overlook the connective thought tissue that binds sentences, paragraphs, passages, and chapters together into a cohesive whole. In other words, it’s easy to get lost in the minutiae and to lose sight of the bigger picture. I went into Mark with this in mind. Having said that, it’s also easy to miss the trees for the forest. You can move so quickly, intending to help folks get a sense of the movement and the overall message of the text, that you don’t deep dive often enough. We launched our series in Mark in January, and we intended to be done by Easter. And sure enough, we made it. I preached the cross on Good Friday and the resurrection yesterday. Looking back, though, I think the pace was a tad bit fast. Reflecting on the past few months, sixteen chapters in seventeen sermons feels like a bit much. Especially considering the fact that we had to do a 30,000 foot flyover of so much of the content. Ultimately, in light of our journey through Mark, I want to learn better how to balance exploring the beauty and the majesty of the individual trees while always keeping the forest in view.
- The more I study the Bible the more appreciative I am of the literary artistry of the text. Yes, the words – every single one of them – are inspired and infallible because they are the words of a perfect God, but I’m learning to appreciate more and more how the very texture of the text is inspired. The structure of Mark has left me in awe at times. The various literary devices he uses. The subtlety with which he hints toward the divine identity of Jesus. The way that he relies mainly on the actions of Jesus rather than the teachings of Jesus to clue us in to the identity of Jesus. The countless allusions to Old Testament texts, stories, and ideas. The way the book divides into two halves that mirror or flesh out the very first verse of the book and demonstrate what it means for Jesus to be the Christ and Son of God. And then, there’s the ending. Why the abruptness? What is the Holy Spirit trying to tell us, as disciples of Jesus? All of this and more has reminded me that the Bible we hold in our hands is a masterwork of literary beauty, style, genre, and technique. In the end, though, how could we ever expect less from the master Creative?
- For the most part, Mark presents Jesus’ disciples as bumbling buffoons. Now, not all the Gospels present the disciples in this light, but Mark does. Throughout Mark, the disciples fail time and time again to connect the dots and to fully understand and embrace Jesus as the Servant King who gives his life as a ransom for many. Two things about this stick out to me: 1) The ongoing, never-stopping, never-giving up commitment of Jesus to these hard-headed, hard-hearted men who have their minds set on messianic triumph and glory. Not once does Jesus intimate that he’s prepared to drop them like a bad habit if they don’t straighten up. Not once does he give any indication to anyone that he’s fed up with them. In fact, immediately prior to his arrest he tells the disciples that they’re all going to scatter and desert him in fear, but he assures them that like a good and faithful shepherd he’ll go ahead of them after his resurrection, and he’ll gather them back to himself. Talk about grace and talk about comfort, not only for 1st century disciples but for 21st century disciples as well! Thank God for the faithfulness of Jesus! 2) Many say that the apostle Peter, the chief disciple, is one of Mark’s major eyewitness sources for a lot of the events he narrates. If this is the case, I have a new level of respect for Peter after working my way through Mark. He is rarely painted in a good light, which indicates to me that this fisherman turned pillar of the church had become an incredibly humble man, if indeed Mark is recounting Peter’s own retelling of the life of Jesus.
- And then, there’s Jesus. Mark presents us with a Jesus who is mysterious, who works wonders but refuses to allow people to tell others about him, who speaks in parables so as to hide truth from those to whom the kingdom of God has not been given, who acts with complete and total authority in every situation in which he finds himself, who is rarely, if ever, understand by his own followers. Mark’s Jesus demonstrates authority over the unseen spiritual realm. He demonstrates authority over nature. He demonstrates authority to forgive sins. He demonstrates authority over sickness and death. And he demonstrates supreme authority through his teaching. And yet this same Jesus, this authoritative Christ, allows himself to be crucified in shame and weakness. He allows himself to be beaten, whipped, spat upon, and murdered by people who have no right to treat him as they do. Why? What are we to make of this strange paradox of power and weakness present in the man Jesus of Nazareth? What are we to make of this Servant King, this one who is both the Son of Man of Daniel 7 and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53? What is he revealing to us about God? What is he telling us about how God works in the world, about the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God? These are some of the most profound questions I was led to ponder as I read further and deeper into Mark Gospel.
- The cross is at the center of the gospel because the cross is at the center of the Gospels. Following the plot line of Mark it’s clear that everything is headed toward Golgotha. Even the resurrection seems like a footnote to the cross. It receives much less attention and much less exploration than do the events surrounding Jesus’ suffering and death. Mark’s account of the life of Jesus culminates at the cross with a Roman centurion declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. In other words, for Mark, the cross is the narrative climax. Everything that happen after Jesus dies is denouement. It’s been said that the Gospels are passion narratives with extended introductions, and while I don’t want to dismiss everything else Mark says about Jesus and about discipleship, it’s clear that the cross is the centerpiece of Jesus’ message and mission. After all, it’s Jesus himself who gives clarity to his very reason for coming when he says in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” It is then the cross that is ultimately to give shape to discipleship. Jesus makes this clear in Mark 8-10, where three times he predicts his death and resurrection. He then goes on to attach three separate discipleship teachings to these predictions, and all of this while “on the way” to Jerusalem with his disciples, where he will suffer and die. The point? Any and all who follow Jesus must be prepared to follow him to the place of death. Disciples must be ready to die to self-will, to self-glory, to self’s plans and purposes, and to embrace Jesus and his will. Only then will they become all that God intends them to be.