A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Epiphany 2 ~ Mark 1:12-13 (off lectionary)
Last week we started the season of Epiphany, which is all about awakening and seeing and realizing things, and we started our journey through the first chapter of the gospel according to Mark. In case you weren’t here last week, I mentioned that Mark is the shortest gospel and it has a really interesting kind of flavour. Everything is direct, and matter-of-fact in Mark. And stories that you probably know well from the other gospels are really different here. Well, they’re the same story, but Mark tells it in a very simple and unembellished way.
Take today’s reading for example. It’s the story of Jesus’ temptation. It’s very familiar, but if you only had Mark’s gospel and none of the others I’m not sure this story would be familiar. I doubt we’d even notice it, because Mark doesn’t seem to give it much attention at all. If you know the temptation story think for a second about the details of it. Think about who Jesus talks to, think about what the temptations are, think about where the temptations happen, think about what you might do if you were tempted by the same things.
Now forget all about that stuff. Because if we only had Mark this would be our entire temptation story:
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
It’s not that Mark disagrees with the other gospels. The basic info is still there. But that’s all there is. Basic info. Forty days, tempted, wild beasts, angels. Done.
Why the difference?
The scholarly consensus is that both Matthew and Luke wrote their versions of the gospel with Mark in their hand. They used Mark’s basic structure and timeline as their starting point and told the same stories in more or less the same order. John’s gospel is really different, so either they didn’t have Mark or chose to ignore it! Mark, Luke, and Matthew are called the synoptic gospels – that means ‘seen together’ because they agree with one another.
So, all that should raise some questions for you.
Why do Matthew and Luke have fuller versions of the story?
Is it because Mark only knew the basics and the others knew more information?
Is it because Mark didn’t care very much about the stories?
Is it because Mark had the whole story but Matthew and Luke didn’t think there was enough meat in it so they made up a bunch of details to make the story better?
These are all valid options – and you can read lots of doctoral dissertations championing each of those theories. No one knows for sure why Mark wrote like this, but I’ll share some of the reasons I think make the most sense.
We need to remember that theirs was an oral culture, not a literate one. They didn’t have books because books all had to be hand copied, and most people probably couldn’t read anyway. So they told their stories orally, and they were incredibly good at it.
So why shift gears and write it down all of a sudden? Great question!
One huge motivation was that Mark was written in the shadow of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Whether it was about to happen or had just happened we don’t know, but we do know that things had gotten very bad in Jerusalem.
In the year 66 the Jews revolted against their Roman occupiers. There were uprisings, and war, and ultimately in the year 70 the temple was destroyed.
This is exactly the time we think Mark was writing.
If you’re in an oral culture, you change your main method of communication when you feel threatened and wonder if you’ll be around anymore to keep telling your story!
The temple was the centre of their culture, and it was literally crumbling before their eyes. This was catastrophic.
Imagine if we arrived this morning and this church was burned down. Now multiply that by about a thousand.
It was more than just a worship space to them. It was the centre of everything. And now it’s gone. Their world had fallen apart. That’s motivation!
And that sense of urgency may also explain why Mark is written the way it is.
There was no time to elaborate! Get the story down as quick as you can. We may not be here tomorrow!
And that may also partly explain why Mark’s favourite word appears to be immediately! Everything in Mark happens immediately.
Immediately Jesus came up out of the water. The Spirit immediately drove him (not led him, or nudged him – but drove him) out into the wilderness. Immediately he went there. Immediately he said this.
It’s positively breathless.
Well, the stones are falling down everywhere – if you don’t do everything immediately it’ll be too late. Mark’s urgency is overwhelming!
I think urgency is the perfect word to describe Mark’s gospel.
Urgency means an insistent necessity! You’ve got to do it. Now! You can’t help yourself.
And I think there are two main reasons why someone would feel a sense of urgency. One is because you’re feeling threatened. We’ve just explored that in Mark’s case. Fear is a fantastic motivator, but it’s really negative.
I’d like to offer you a positive spin on Mark’s urgency.
The second reason a person might feel a sense of urgency is because they are so passionate about something that they feel like they’re going to burst if they don’t engage in it. Maybe that’s what’s going on for Mark?
Maybe he’s so fired up by his experience of the Presence of God, that the story of Jesus gave him a life-changing epiphany and he awakened to the awesomeness of realizing that surely God was in that place where Mark was.
Maybe Jesus’ risen presence was so deeply a part of Mark’s life and so indescribably energizing, and life-giving, and transformational that he couldn’t imagine how anyone would want to miss living every minute of their lives feeling that same thing, so he just wrote it all down as quickly and directly as he could so anyone reading it could feel what he felt right that very minute!
The urgency is that if you don’t have an epiphany too and learn to see the mind-boggling world-changing reality of God’s Sacred Holy Presence everywhere and always that you’ll waste years, or days, or even a single second that you could’ve spent sensing, savouring and reveling in that Presence. I don’t want you to miss even a second of that! Can’t you see it? Can’t you feel it? HURRY!
Now, we’re fine, upstanding United Church of Canada people. This kind of thing is not generally in our nature. We’re not really known to embrace that kind of urgency.
No, our favourite word is earnestness.
We’re oh so well meaning, and talk about the seriousness of our issues, and our justice work is very weighty indeed. These are great things! I’m glad we’re these things. The world needs us to be these things. AND I think we’d be able to do even more wondrous things if we had some of Mark’s urgency about the things he’s passionate about!
Do you feel passionate about anything?
Do you have a sense of urgency about anything? I bet you do!
How about this?
Do you feel a sense of urgency and passion about anything in your spiritual life, like Mark did?
Do you feel an insistent necessity about spirituality?
Do you feel a sense of urgency about sharing spiritual things with others, like Mark did?
Do you feel an insistent necessity about evangelism?
Do you feel urgency about the state of the Church?
Do you feel urgency about the state of THIS church?
Our temple may not be falling down all around us, and our spiritual centre isn’t really being threatened in any way so we’re not going to get any urgency around here from feeling threatened. I don’t worry about threats or viability here at this church.
There are some days that I worry about urgency’s enemy – complacency!
The opposite of urgency is a shrug – a yawn – a “yeah, whatever”.
Honestly, I never get that sense from the people here at Faith. I actually think we’re kind of in-between – not exactly complacent, but fairly satisfied that things are going ok and that’s ok.
We’ve kind of plateaued at 140-150 people at worship most weeks. It’s a good, strong, healthy number. Tons of churches would love to have what we have.
A good spirit about the place. Lots of people around to share the load. We’ve got a good thing going here.
So why aren’t there 200, or 300 people here?
Why is our Sunday Night Worship time having trouble getting traction?
Why aren’t we bursting at the seams?
It isn’t because we don’t have spirit, or don’t care, or aren’t a healthy church?
No! We are all of those things!
I think our challenge is urgency. You’d have to agree that we aren’t exactly overwhelmed with the urgency of desperately feeling the need to share the wonderful life-enhancing experience that we have here. We don’t seem to have that insistent necessity to look at our friends or family members or neighbours or coworkers and think about how it’s breaking our hearts that they might be missing out on knowing God’s all-encompassing love.
And I don’t know how to get us there.
This isn’t meant to be a guilt trip, or a scolding. But I guess I am trying to express my earnestness that we ought to be evangelizing and sharing our delight.
I just think we’ve inherited such a terrible and negative impression about what evangelizing is when it’s done insensitively and judgementally instead of passionately just wanting to share a positive thing we’ve discovered – and so we recoil and squinch up our faces and refuse to even consider going there.
So my great prayer as we walk together through Mark’s gospel this epiphany season is that some of his urgency will become infectious.
That we can awaken more and more to the joy and wonder Mark feels and find ourselves utterly unable to resist doing something about it.
That we can awaken more and more to the joy and wonder we feel, that you feel, that thing that got you out of bed and brought you here this morning, that thing that makes your heart feel full, and your spirit feel alive, and that we might find ourselves utterly unable to resist doing something about it.
And what might we do?
Give someone a better gift than anything they got at Christmas.
Introduce them to what you’ve been blessed by – to what lights you up.
Inviting someone to come with you to Sunday morning or Sunday night is an easy way to start.
I encourage you, implore you, challenge you, command you, whatever it takes to entice you to commit to something right now:
This year I’ll sincerely try to share my urgency and bring a friend to church. (repeat)
Epiphany is about awakening and learning to see God everywhere. So help somebody see!
Shine your light. Share your love. Show somebody how.
You could also easily do this through deep spiritual conversations with someone. But if that sounds too scary or intimidating then bring them here and we’ll do it all together!
Notice though, that Mark doesn’t race from story to story to just get you to go to church. Mark’s urgency isn’t just about supporting an institution, it’s about noticing God’s Presence everywhere and always. Mark’s urgency is about not wanting anyone to miss a single millisecond of knowing that God is love, and you are God’s beloved, and so is the friend you’re going to bring!
Mark is leading the way, blazing a trail, jumping up and down trying to get us to see what he sees, feel what he feels, and realize what he’s realized.
He’s seen the light, and he just can’t help himself as he desperately wants you to be able to see it too!
He’s inviting us to join us as he goes – but he’s not out for a pleasant little Sunday afternoon stroll.
He’s got his running shoes on and he’s ready to bolt.
He’s enthused. He’s fired up. He’s passionate.
He’s got a sense of urgency.
He’s got something to share and he can’t wait to share it.
Can you feel it? Are you with him? Are you ready?
On your Mark…