As Randy reminded us last week, the gospel writers each have their own emphasis. John begins like a philosophical treatise, with a reflection on the Eternal Word, the one who is “in very nature God”, made like us in human form. Luke begins like the academic person that he was, with a careful statement about how he had sifted all of the data in order to give us the true story. Matthew organizes Jesus’ life and ministry around five major sets of teachings or sermons, such as the Sermon on the Mount. And Mark? Mark jumps right in without any preliminary beyond the first verse: “The gospel of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”
I was thinking, if they had lived in Steinbach and were part of our church, what language would the gospel writers have used? Luke was the best writer of the group, a well-educated Greek physician. John was perhaps the deepest thinker of the four. They would have probably both spoken and written in English. Matthew was Jewish, and he would have probably spoken High German. He would have been a good preacher here! And Mark? Definitely Low German. Plautdietsch! Mark tells the story simply and directly, no messing around. You get right to the action.
So we get to the verses we read.
In the first story, Jesus Forgives and Heals a Paralyzed Man. Two of the three stories that end chapter one resemble the stories of chapter two: Jesus casts out an evil spirit, and Jesus heals many sick who were brought to him. Here, Jesus heals a paralyzed man—by forgiving him! [Like going to the doctor, and instead of a diagnosis of your illness, he says, “I forgive you.”] His friends had lowered him through the roof of the house to get past the crowds of people who surrounded Jesus.
You notice the response. “6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” This is a basic point in the way Mark tells his stories. Jesus deliberately gets people thinking and asking, “Who is this guy? What is he doing!”
In the second story, Jesus Calls Levi and Eats With Sinners. In chapter one, Jesus called Andrew and Simon Peter and James and John. Here he calls Levi (who may be the same as Matthew, the writer of the first gospel). This encounter with Levi, a tax collector, becomes part of Jesus’ growing reputation and prompts the Pharisees to ask again, “Who is this guy?” So verse 16: “When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”
Jesus response has become basic for our understanding of his ministry: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
In the third story, Jesus is Questioned About Fasting. You remember that John the Baptist was known for his extreme lifestyle in the desert, where he wore a camel hair shirt and ate locusts and wild honey (1:6). People wondered about Jesus. John pointed Jesus out as the Messiah and calls himself the one who goes before the Messiah (1:1-8). [John’s gospel makes the identification more completely, but clearly this is what the first verses of Mark’s gospel refer to.] Some people wondered why Jesus was not more like John. “Who is this guy anyway?”
Jesus replies with two images—he is the bridegroom, so that his disciples do not fast; and he is the “new wine” that breaks the old patterns that try to contain him. Verse 22: “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”
Finally, we read that Jesus Is Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus and his disciples break the rules for making food on the Sabbath Day, and the Pharisees question him about it. His response is calculated to cause trouble. He can break the rules because he is “Lord of the Sabbath.”
In each case Jesus provokes comments and questions, and the basic question beneath all of the others is, “Who is this guy?” Before we answer the question as far as we can, I wonder why Jesus felt that he needed to be so provocative. Why did he push this question the way that he did?
Expectations of the Messiah
Jesus could have come to the Jews and announced himself more openly—if he had been willing to use what they expected.
· The Jews expected a Messiah who would come and rout the Romans.
· The Jews expected a Messiah who would come as a warrior and king.
· The Jews expected a Messiah who would restore the greatness of the Kingdom of David.
· As you can see, they expected something very different from what they got in Jesus.
So Jesus began by breaking their expectations and doing everything he could to make sure that they would not confuse him with their twisted ideas of the Conquering King. Matthew and Luke make the point by emphasizing Jesus’ humble birth, including Herod’s confusion at the idea of a baby born as king in Bethlehem. Mark makes the point by the way that Jesus begins his ministry.
There is a bit of a splash with John the Baptist and his preparing the way for the Messiah—just enough to get the attention of some people in a time when many expected the Messiah at any moment. Then there are a series of actions designed to clash with the establishment, which makes people ask, “Who is this?” In chapter one: Who is this who teaches with such self-assurance? Our rabbis quote other rabbis as their authority; he speaks with authority that comes from inside himself. Who is he? In chapter two: Who is this who forgives sins? Who is this who casts out spirits? Who is this who treats the Sabbath as his own personal day? Who is this guy?
We are a lot like the Jews of the first century today. I was reading someone’s personal faith statement recently. It went like this: “We like Jesus. A lot. The real Jesus, not the supernatural one. We like the one who was 100% human, who moved around in space and time. The one who enjoyed the company of women and was obsessed with the kingdom of God. … We endorse the Sermon on the Mount. Or at least the sayings within that can be identified by modern biblical scholarship as authentic. The sayings emphasizing love, mercy, compassion, nonviolence, and non-attachment to material things.”
Do you see what this writer has done? He takes what he likes so that he ends up making Jesus into what he wants. In 1970 Ralph Carmichael wrote a song titled “Dressing Up Jesus”.
Everybody’s dressing up Jesus.
Style him just like you want him to be.
Everybody’s dressing up Jesus now.
You’re just seeing what you want to see.
Let him keep his sandals, robe and flowing hair.
Now you add some red and yellow beads. Cover up the calluses, keep him thin and fair.
Little bit of love and peace is really all you need.
Where is Jesus, Who’s side is he on? Where is Jesus, Wonder where he’s gone?
Would you know him if he stood up now? Finding Jesus, can you tell me how?
Have you really seen him, looked at him straight on?
Can you take him as he is with the trimmings and trappings gone?
Everybody’s dressing up Jesus.
He looks fine in establishment gray.
Everybody’s cutting up Jesus now.
See his hair, you’ll have to trim it away.
Look in high society, he knows what to do.
After all he really is a king.
Quote his words of wisdom; join the chosen few.
Keep your Jesus dignified; the image is the thing.
Everybody’s dressing up Jesus.
Get your brush, are you ready to paint.
Everybody’s touching up Jesus now.
Make him afro or a dashiki saint.
Brighten up his seamless robe, darken up his skin.
Keep his eyes of black and keep his soul.
Red and yellow black and white, which one’s going to win?
Guess you’ll have to wait and find out when they call the roll.
We all do this. We think of Jesus in ways that fit what we want, and we fail to see the Son of God, who reveals the Father to us. So Jesus breaks our preconceived ideas and acts in ways that we don’t expect, forcing us to ask, “Who is this guy?” This is also what’s going on when Jesus tells the spirits he casts out not to tell who he is (1:24, 34) and when he tells people he heals to keep quiet about who did this (1:44). Rather than let people conclude quickly, “This is the Messiah, this is what he looks like”, he wanted them to wrestle with his identity.
Some Tentative Answers
To answer the question, we look again at what Jesus said and did. Notice first of all that the secret of his identity was not really a secret. He said enough to make his identity quite clear. The evil spirit in chapter one refers to him as “the holy One of God”—a Messianic title; and he calls himself the Son of Man in two of the four stories in chapter two. He also calls himself “Lord of the Sabbath” when talking with the Pharisees, and they understood what he was claiming. So people who were listening could tell that this is the Son of Man and Lord of the Sabbath—this is the Messiah of God! But Jesus kept them from speculating too much, so they had to look at what he did.
It interests me that people did not seem to notice anything special about his appearance. You observe that the text does not tell us what he looked like. He did not stand out in the crowd until he did something. He walked into a group of people and hardly anyone noticed—at least based on what Mark describes. Then he did something, such as forgiving the paralyzed man his sins, and everyone said, “Who is this?”
Maybe we think that Jesus must have been at least six feet tall, with long flowing hair and piercing eyes, but Mark doesn’t suggest that he stood out in a crowd. King Saul in the Old Testament stood out. He was a head and shoulders above anyone else around him, but Jesus does not seem to be noticed until he says something, “Your sins are forgiven you”, or until he does something like casting out the evil spirit, “Come out and leave that man alone!”
What did he do? He healed people who were sick. He cast demons out, setting people who were possessed free. He ate with broken people, the outcasts of society—aka, tax collectors and sinners. He enjoyed life the way that working people enjoy life, walking through a field and taking something to eat from the grain growing there.
It was what Jesus did that got him noticed, and that got him in trouble. He seemed to be drawn to broken people, and he walked with them, ate with them, forgave them their sins—such a strange idea, and healed their hurts. Years later the disciples kept trying to figure out who Jesus really was. They came up with some powerful claims.
Listen to the writer of Hebrews: “3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Heb. 1)
Listen to Paul: “15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col. 1)
Wow! No wonder Jesus began by hiding his identity. People were expecting a warrior king, and he was revealing God, showing us what God is like. Do you see what that means?
God is drawn to broken people. God walks with those who are hurting and broken, healing and restoring them.
We can say more. Once we are restored—because everyone here has been broken (and if you haven’t been, you will be)—once we are healed, we also are drawn to broken and hurting people. We also go where people seem possessed and crazy, where people are trapped by the structures in which we live, where people think there is no hope. We walk with them, and we bring Jesus into their lives so that he can bring them healing and new life.
What does that look like? That’s another sermon, but we know people here at SMC who have done exactly this—with refugees from overseas, with homeless people in Steinbach, with young people who just need to hang out and with old people who think that life is over. We have not always done this so well. Sometimes we act like we are the healthy and unbroken ones. Of course we aren’t, but in our weaker moments we might look down on people who don’t fit, or who we think don’t fit. God forgive us when we do so.
Text: Mark 2
Steinbach Mennonite Church
24 January 2016