Mark 14: 66-72, NRSV
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, ‘You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘I do not know or understand what you are talking about.’ And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’ But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.’ But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’ At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept.
Luke 24:50-53, NRSV
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Preached Sunday, May 13, 2018 (Ascension Sunday) at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman with gratitude to the Rev. Lori Walke, who wrote a new ascension story included at the end of this sermon.
I wish all stories had such clear beginnings as the Gospel of Mark does. The author doesn’t use the classic “Once upon a time” nor the Southern version, “Y’all ain’t gonna believe this.” But he does start at the beginning. Except the beginning, for Mark at least, isn’t the beginning we’re used to. There aren’t shepherds or angels or wise men. There’s no mangers or picturesque animals adoring the newborn Christ-child. It’s anything but a silent night.
Instead, there’s John, not the author of the eponymous gospel, but the baptizer—the one who’s been, according to these first verses of Mark, baptizing people from the whole of the Judean countryside in the river Jordan.
We like to think of John as John the Baptist or John the Baptizer. But what John really is, is a prophet. And prophets are…well…complicated figures. We like to champion our prophets in retrospect. But, if we’re honest, the prophets were, in a kind word, wacky; in an honest word, nuts. Nehemiah out right refused to speak God’s message at first. Moses murdered a guy. Isaiah roamed around naked. Jeremiah hid his underwear under a rock, then went back to get it after “a long time.” Hosea married a prostitute and named their daughter Lo-ruhama. Know what that means? Unloved. Jonah was swallowed by a big fish. Ezekiel ate a book then shaved using a sword, deciding his hairs into thirds—then he set one third on fire. Weird, right?
So when we compare John to his biblical forebears, it makes sense to think of him as a prophet right? I mean, he’s doing some wacky things of his own. He’s wearing cloths made of camel’s hair—coarse and scratchy tied with a leather belt. And for food? He’s eating locusts—bugs—and wild honey. No formally prepared food or civilized conversation for him, just living off the wilderness like, I don’t know, prophets do.
And John was wild. Some have linked him to a religious community called the Essenes who were radical Jews of the time. They were ascetics who believed the the rejection of worldly possessions helped clear the mind from distractions and focus on what’s important—namely a spiritual life. And it’s this wild man named John, who didn’t really dress like anyone or eat like anyone else or live like anyone else, it’s this man, this wild man who Mark claims is the voice crying out in the wilderness.
It might seem curious, to start a gospel proclaiming “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” with a reference to Isaiah, arguably one of the most formative prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah is the one who speaks to Israel during the famed and lamented Babylonian Captivity—that era when Babylon has conquered Judah and forced many of Israelites out of the Promised Land. It was to these captive people having their very own wilderness experience that Isaiah addresses: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
There are a few things worth pointing out about these first verses. The first is that the greek we translate as “gospel” is evangelion and, like most ancient Greek terms, our English translation is lacking. In the first century, it wouldn’t’ve referred to a book. Instead, it “was [in Israel] the good news of God’s coming deliverance. In the Roman world [evangelion] was the good news of the peace brought by the Emperor”(The Jewish Annotated New Testament [JANT]). Either way, early readers of the gospel would’ve connected with how Mark starts—and those particular distinctions offer important insight into who the Gospel was written for.
Like most of our scriptures that we deem holy, Mark wasn’t initially written down. It’s a series of stories that was passed down from person to person. And by the time it was written down, the early church was facing unrelenting persecution. So, you see, while the Jews who were John’s contemporaries would have certainly understood the nuances of evangelion, they also would’ve known Isaiah’s prophecies by heart. They would’ve recognized how John fit Isaiah’s vision, and they would’ve remembered everything else Isaiah said: how a wolf will lie down the lamb, how a child will lead them. How God has called each of them by name, and says “I love you and you are mine.”
So it’s significant that Isaiah is quoted here. But not just because it ties John and soon Jesus to the historic Jewish faith (more on that in the next few months). But also because of what it sets up our faith to be. Twice in this little bit of Isaiah, we hear the word “way.” I suspect most of us think of this as road or journey. But really, this singular word carries so much more meaning. It’s a common reference “in Greek, Jewish, and Christian Ethical discourse”(JANT). Way in religious terms is the intone of “choosing the good and difficult path as opposed to the immoral and easy path” (JANT).
And you know something? We’ve encountered it before: the Israelites followed the way out of Egypt. And early Christians, facing an oppression by the Roman Empire many of them linked to the Exodus, referred to their faith as the Way. They weren’t Christians; they were followers of the Way.
Today, we starting our Year of Mark—a 51 week journey through the gospel of Mark. But what we’re really doing is discovering the way of Jesus for ourselves. Earlier this Spring, I sent out a survey to all of you as part of my doctoral studies. Along with my colleague Sara, the pastor of Old West Church in Boston, our goal was threefold. (1) We wanted to gain a deeper sense of how you relate to your church. (2) We wanted to explore the notion of Biblical literacy within our congregations—that is, how well you know the scriptures that we claim as holy. (3) We wanted to understand how you understand the scriptures in terms of how they influence your day-to-day life. We’ll call that Biblical authority. What we were really getting at, the question we were really wondering about was this: How is our congregation living in the Way of Jesus?
Now these three areas: how you relate to your congregation, how well you know the Scriptures, and how you let scripture influence your life certainly aren’t the only indicators of living the Way of Jesus—not by a long shot. I’m not going to stand up and tell you that you for sure are or aren’t living in the Way of Jesus because I don’t know. I do know that as a congregation, we try hard to take care of people—and that taking care of people, loving them, is a big part of what it means to live into the Way of Jesus. But I also know that when our scriptures tell us about the “way” they’re not referencing the easy thing or comfortable thing. The Way is a harder path. And a much more rewarding one.
Here’s what the survey revealed to us. It told us that nearly 85% of you attend church to be part of something bigger which is revealing in two ways: (1) people aren’t feeling that sense of community elsewhere which means we’ve got something to offer other places don’t and (2) is a noble and good reason to be part of a community of faith. But it shouldn’t be the only one. So we’ve got some work to do. In terms of Biblical literacy, I’ll confess that I found the results to be…shocking. While nearly everyone correctly located the story of Creation in the book of Genesis which is definitely a start, less than half of our survey participants were able to tell us where the story of David and Goliath was. And when we asked how often you read the Bible on your own, nearly 2/3 of our participants replied “rarely.”
There’s lots of interpretive work to be done here, but at the core is this: We’re really great at helping people feel like they’re part of something bigger; but we’re not so great at helping them uncover just what that is. We’re really great at teaching the individual stories; but, we’re not so great at helping you understand how those stories fit together to tell God’s story. We’re really great at helping people lead better lives; but, we’re not so great at helping people live better lives formed and influenced by our scriptures.
So here’s what we’re going to do: Over the next 51 weeks—don’t worry, we’ll take a couple of breaks—we’re going to work our way through the gospel of Mark. I want you to hear the stories and to understand how they fit together. And I want you to hear the stories to understand how you fit into the arc of God’s Story. More than anything, I want us to uncover the Way of Jesus—a Way that begins in Mark with a wild man in the wilderness prophetically clamoring for us to “Prepare the way of the Lord!”