The Excitement of Roller Coasters
(Creative Commons Image by Eric Lynch on Flickr)
Regarding the Gospels, many lectionary preachers may approach Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary with less than uplifted hearts. Gone are Matthew’s barbed directions and Luke’s breathtaking parables. At best Mark is deceptively simple; at worst, lean, odd, and hard. The church has long regarded it so.
Yet, as one who has inhabited this Gospel for three decades,1 I say unto you: Fasten your seat belts, ye preachers of Mark. This Gospel is a wild ride, piloted by Jesus with befuddled passengers who try to hang on yet keep falling off.
Mark’s Jesus does not merely tell parables; as God’s crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus is a parable of the kingdom he preaches. To that end, Mark has tailored his Gospel into a magnificent parable itself.
As you approach Year B, be ready to take some intelligent risks from the pulpit. Dare to follow this Evangelist’s announcement of good news that teases and offends, perplexes and provokes, in the same way that Jesus does by action and deed.
“What new teaching is this?” (1:27)
“Who, then, is this?” (4:41b)
“Where did this man get all this?” (6:2)
When you reach the end of this Year of Mark, perhaps you’ll find that this Gospel remains indispensable for the church’s heritage, worthy of its embrace, and incumbent upon preachers to preach. Here’s why:
A. No Gospel is more intensely concentrated on the crucified heart of Christian faith. Every Gospel canonized culminates in Jesus’ death and resurrection -- but, if Mark was the earliest, then it was the first to frame the entire story of Jesus as a passion narrative, in which his life’s last week occupies forty percent of the book. Precisely because it lacks Matthew and Luke’s abundance of church instruction and John’s extended christological meditations, Mark focuses our attention on the foolishness of the cross, which makes this world’s wisdom moronic (1 Cor 1:18–2:16). The suffering, vindicated Son of Man is Mark’s constant refrain (8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10:33-45).
This is of vital importance. No other religion, ancient or postmodern, professes its most patent contradiction as its most fundamental belief. Other believers venerate their founders, extol their achievements, and construct honorable ways of life modeled on their conduct. Only Christianity professes a crucified Messiah as the agent by whom this tortured world is being set to rights. Far from transporting its adherents out of this world’s vapor or viciousness, only Christian faith continuously drives them back to its most despicable mockery -- the shame of the cross -- and dares to proclaim that there, and nowhere else, has the God of the living acted incognito to restore all of creation. Lose that, and we’ve lost the unique testimony God has entrusted to us as Christians. It’s not merely a good idea to dedicate a lectionary year to preaching the gospel according to Mark; it is essential to the clarity of the church’s self-understanding and its vision of mission in this world. Throughout Year B the preacher is summoned to remember and to remind others that we are servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries (1 Cor 4:1; cf. Mark 8:34–9:1).
B. No Gospel draws us more deeply into the mystery of Jesus Christ and the kingdom he proclaimed. Mark’s genius lies not in telling a story about Jesus but in creating conditions under which the reader may experience the peculiar quality of God’s good news. The Evangelist hurries us along breathlessly, “immediately,” making sure that we lurch with the characters into one pothole after another. “What is this new teaching” (1:27) that consorts with the outrageously sinful (2:15), turning the pious homicidal (3:6), intimates into strangers (3:21; 6:1-6a), and mustard seeds into “the greatest of all shrubs” (4:32)? What pilgrim saunters into the temple one day and unhinges its operations the next (11:11, 15-16)? What teacher speaks well, impartially teaching “the way of God in accordance with truth” (12:14, 28), while spinning riddles intended to blind the sighted and to deafen the hearing, “so that they may not turn again and be forgiven” (4:11-12)? What healer routs disease and demonic possession more powerfully and more secretively, only to have that cover constantly blown (3:10-12; 6:53-56; 7:36-37)? Jesus, the savior of others, cannot save himself (8:35; 10:45) -- and the religious and theological elite are blind to the truth of their own ridicule (15:31).
“To you has been given the mysterion of God’s kingdom” (4:11). That mystery keeps bumping into disclosure by demoniacs, whose testimony is incredible (1:23-24), and antagonists like the high priest (14:61) and Pilate (15:2), who do not realize they are telling the truth. “There is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light” (4:22). Even when dawn breaks and things come to light -- God emptied Jesus’ tomb, as promised (10:33-34; 16:4-6) -- Mark leaves the tension unresolved to the very end: disciples flee the tomb, hiding faith’s good news, “for they were afraid” (16:8). This Evangelist is the church’s original master of suspense: a companionable guide for Christians still living in the tension that stretches from Easter and the Son of Man’s final return (13:24-37). The prudent preacher, sensitive to this Evangelist’s masterly technique, will not scurry to fill this Gospel’s many gaps. Mark never explains the kingdom’s mystery. Scripture does not expect us to answer life’s most excruciating questions. It challenges us to live them, sometimes praying to the silent God who has apparently left us in the lurch (15:34).
C. No Gospel is more radically counter-cultural than Mark -- be it Mark’s culture or our own. “Good news” in the first century included extolling Caesar’s empire. The gospel preached by Jesus defies imperial values and propaganda. The structures of God’s kingdom are neither partisanship nor piety, neither wealth nor prestige, neither patronage nor abusive power (9:38-41; 10:17-31, 35-43). It’s easier for a camel to slide through a needle’s eye than for Donald Trump to enter the kingdom of God (11:23-25): only if he and we become as a child, helpless and dependent, shall any of us inherit eternal life (10:13-16). Repeatedly Jesus’ disciples are stunned by his words (10:24, 26, 32); if we speak them truthfully, so, too, will our congregants. Mark exposes our culture’s pervasive fear -- of terrorism, disease, and death -- and demands of us, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (4:40). If we accept Jesus’ assurance that with God all things are possible -- salvation in particular (10:26-28) -- then why don’t we call the bluff of political and media hucksters who profit from frightening us and send them packing? “Pay attention: I’ve told you everything beforehand” (13:23).
D. No Gospel balances more exquisitely the cost of discipleship, the disciples’ tendency to fail, and God’s determination to make all things right. In Mark, following Jesus requires prayerful, voluntary self-sacrifice for the gospel’s sake (8:34-35; 11:22-25; 12:41-44); at Gethsemane the beloved Son demonstrates how hard the complete yielding of oneself to God really is (14:32-42). While getting some things right (1:16-20; 6:7-13; 10:28), the Twelve are notoriously craven, stupid, hard-hearted, self-serving, and disobedient (4:35-41; 6:45-52; 8:14-21; 14:17-31, 66-72). Most congregations would benefit from the preacher’s steady holding of Mark as a mirror in which they may recognize themselves. We have met the Twelve, and they are us. We fall into the same traps as they, because Jesus doesn’t feed our delusions. Shouldn’t God’s Messiah lift the burdens of those who follow him? What kind of Christ heads to a cross, handing his disciples another for themselves? “Do you not yet understand?” (8:21). More often than not, we don’t. If we do, we’d rather not be reminded of our failures.
The church must face its sin. If it refuses, it will continue its pretense that it is healthy, without need of a physician (2:15-17). We can become so sick that we even fantasize ourselves our own healers. Mark’s entrance exam for discipleship is an honest confession of illness and a correct answer to Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (10:51). No offer of grace could be clearer.
Mark ends with mysterious confirmation that God and Jesus have kept faith and have done just what they promised (16:6-7). There, perhaps, lies the brilliance of this Gospel’s open ending (16:8). Mark is a book about God’s shattering of human expectations; Mark as a book blows apart everything its readers thought it understood, including our assumptions of how a Gospel should end. Reaching deep into Genesis 17–18, Paul articulates what Mark narrates: a summons to “[trust] in God, who makes the dead live and calls things that are not into things that are” (Rom 4:17). In Mark’s case, those things are a crucified Messiah, raised by God to indestructible life, who promises a reunion with those who failed him (14:28) and a mission for them to fulfill (13:10). In the meantime:
“Listen. Look.” (4:3)
“Don’t be afraid.” (16:6)
1 Portions of this essay are excerpted from the author’s commentary, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Mark (Abingdon, 2011).