Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Not a Tame Gospel

Today marks the feast day for St. Mark, Evangelist. One of the symbols most commonly associated with the Gospel according to St. Mark is the winged lion. The Gospel of Mark is the lion-hearted Gospel. Is he safe? No, of course he isn't safe. He's not a tame evangelist and his is not a tame gospel. But he is good. And more importantly the message he bears witness to - the good news he evangelizes - is none other than the voice of the Lion of the tribe of Judah. Jesus roars in the Gospel of Mark not as a tame God, but as the Crucified and Risen Lord of heaven and earth. But you don't find that out in its fullness until Mark leads you to the crucifixion.

That's what makes Mark's Gospel so riveting. Matthew captures the Old Testament fulfillment so superbly. Luke captures the wonder and mystery and joy of the incarnation in poetic historical prose. And John has the "I AMs" and Jesus the Good Shepherd (among a myriad of other images). But what does Mark have? Doesn't it seem like he gets left out of the Gospel party a bit? Like the last kid to get picked in gym class for dodge ball, Mark is often ignored, frequently misunderstood and even more forgotten.

Perhaps that's why I like the Gospel of Mark. It's underestimated. He's the underdog of the evangelists. And just about everyone (except President Snow of Panem) likes underdogs. But make no mistake, he is not a tame evangelist. Mark is the gun-slinging, "True Grit" Gospel. It's not just the pace: immediately! Straightway (in the old KJV)! It's more than the form - although Mark shows excellent prowess as a "playwright" for the greatest true story ever told - it's also the substance.

Right from the opening words of Mark's Gospel, you know Jesus is headed somewhere. "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Behold I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way..."  Where is Jesus going? To the Jordan for you.  To be anointed for you. To be baptized for you. To tear the heavens open for you. And then to be tempted by Satan for you. Thus begins the binding of the strong man (Mark 3). According to Mark's Gospel, Jesus begins the plunder of hell immediately. Straightway! No time to waste. No dilly-dallying. That's where Jesus is headed. Even in death John the Baptizer is the forerunner of Jesus.

But before Jesus has his way with death, he must first have his way with the demons and diseases. He treats them all the same for they are all symptoms of the same deadly poison that infects his creation. Sin, death and the devil invaded Jesus' house and he came to take it all back. The demons quickly find out what kind of authority this Jesus has. They obey (Mark 1:27). They must. He is not a tame God. He's even the devil's keeper. And, as Mark will point out clearly, he is also the devil's destroyer.

That's one of the more intriguing and unique aspects of Mark's Gospel. There's more talk of the reality of the devil's lies, work and kingdom than the other gospels. It's almost as if Jesus is casting out demons every other verse. But that's all part of the plan. The diseases. The preaching. The casting out of demons. That's all part of the way Jesus must go. Peter tried to tame him along the way. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. Get behind me, Satan! But He's not a tame God. Peter couldn't tame this Lion, neither could the devil. And death is no match for him either. The irony is that the blind man - even before he received his sight from the Lord - had better vision than Peter.

Mark's Gospel is clear, if it's not the Jesus of the cross - Christ Crucified for you - then you don't know Jesus at all. If you only know Jesus as the healer and the miracle worker and the powerful, amazing teacher, then you don't know him at all; he's just a cafeteria deity to you. Mark points us straightway to the truth about Jesus. It is necessary. Jesus must go this way, the way of the cross. The way of suffering. The way of death. This is the climactic ending of Mark's Gospel: the crucifixion.

It's not until Jesus is on the cross that all of these things done in his ministry finally make sense. It's only at the foot of the cross that we can make a true confession of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Truly this man is the Son of God. The Roman centurion's confession is also our confession. I too was once blind, but now I see: Jesus Crucified for me. Hopefully we realize it before the cross when reading the Gospel. But there's no better place to confess that Name above all names, then at the foot of the cross he bore for you. The strong man is bound as Jesus binds himself to the cross. Hell and the grave are plundered and Jesus emerges victorious from the death. The Messianic secret isn't revealed on Easter - not in Mark's Gospel. It's revealed on Good Friday.

There's Easter and Resurrection to be sure. But always in view of the cross. That's Mark for you. A monomaniac about Jesus Crucified. That's my kind evangelist. Not a tame one. Not one easily swayed by popular opinion or trends. One who will simply tell it like it is. Sin sucks. Death and sin are damnable. The devil is a liar. And Jesus has overcome them all for you. He is your life through his death. The Lion has pounced the devil. Jesus leaps from his grave and he takes you with him all the way. For he leads us through Baptism into the heavens, first torn open at his Baptism and later rend open by his death for us. The same Greek word for the heavens being torn open is the same word used for the temple curtain being torn in two. And there you have it, everything Jesus comes to give you: Baptism and the cross. Water, blood and Jesus. Font. Chalice. Word. His bloody, watery side is open for you. Heaven is open for you. Of course it's not a tame Gospel. But this Gospel and this Lion are good.

Come, ride on my back children; we have far to go. And as we ride, we rejoice in his victory. Immediately. Straightway! Truly this Lion is the Son of God! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Almighty God, You have enriched Your Church with the proclamation of the Gospel through the evangelist Mark. Grant that we may firmly believe these glad tidings and daily walk according to Your Word; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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