Undercurrent (Mark 2:1-3:12)

A couple of summers ago, our family went swimming in the ocean. It was a beautiful day, and we had a blast. It was one of those days that makes you wish that summer could last forever - beautiful rays, great water, and complete relaxation.

It was only when we were leaving the beach that we read the sign that was posted at the entrance to the beach. The sign warned of extreme danger. The water was indeed beautiful, but underneath the surface there were strong undercurrents that could sweep you away.

I'm used to ignoring warnings that can seem a little over the top, but this warning seemed to be the real deal. We wondered later if we would have been so carefree if we knew the danger that existed right where we were swimming.

The passage we're looking at this morning is a little like that. At first glance, it's beautiful. This morning we're going to see things that should make our hearts sing for joy as we read about Jesus from the Gospel of Mark. At first glance, it's all beauty. It's one of these passages that make you revel in the Word of God.

But not too far below the surface, there are dangerous undercurrents that threaten to sweep us away. This passage, which really should be all good news, ends up leaving us a bit unsettled. This morning I want to show you the beauty. I don't want us to miss seeing the very good news in this passage. But then, as we come out the back end, I want to point to the warning in this passage that alerts us to a very real danger that could sweep us away.

First, though, let's look at the beauty.

You can't look at this passage without seeing the very good news. The passage that we just read contains five stories. We could camp out at any of these stories for a while, because each one contains so much.

Let's look at the first story, found in the first 12 verses of chapter 2. In this story we see that Jesus offers far more than we ask for. The scene is a house in Capernaum, a small town on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. This may have been Peter's house, but verse 1 leaves us wondering if this was Jesus' home. At the very least, it was Jesus' adopted home town. Jesus was preaching the Word in this packed house that could hold up to maybe 50 people, and people are packed even outside. It's unbelievable.

But what's even more unbelievable is what happened next. As Jesus preached, parts of the roof began to fall on people's heads inside. You can imagine everybody looking up. The roof would have been flat, overlaid with reeds, palm branches, and dried mud. This group of people dug through the roof, and lowered a paralyzed man on a cheap mattress, a poor man's mat, through the opening in the roof down to where Jesus was.

What happened next boggles the mind. "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, 'Son, your sins are forgiven'" (Mark 2:5). Why would Jesus talk about his sins instead of just healing him? We know that sickness is in general a result of the sin that entered the world, but the Bible is very clear that sickness is not always a direct result of sin. Perhaps Jesus knew that this paralyzed man was struggling not only with his paralysis but with a sense of guilt. Maybe Jesus or this man saw the link.

But remember what we said last week? Jesus' miracles are not just displays of power. They point to what the world will be like when the kingdom comes in its fullness. So Jesus does more than this man asks for: he not only heals this man, but he forgives his sins. It's a picture for us of what life will be like in the kingdom. Not only will our bodies be perfectly healthy for the first time, but our souls will be healed as well. We will be forgiven - completely forgiven. Jesus offers far more than we even expected.

Then there's the second story found in verses 13 to 17. There was a major trade route near Capernaum. As Jesus walked and taught the crowd, he saw a tax collector at what was probably a toll booth.

Now, you and I aren't fans of the tax collector. If you're at a party and you ask what somebody does for a living, and they say they're an auditor for the Canada Revenue Agency, you'll probably say, "Oh" and walk away. We may not like the tax collector today, but you have to magnify this many times to get to the way people felt about tax collectors back then. In that day tax collectors were seen as traitors and cheats. They were Jewish and yet were collaborating with the enemy. They'd sold out to a hostile and culture. They were also known for their dishonesty - you could even say extortion. Tax collectors were seen so negatively that rabbis taught that it was permissible to lie to them.

So you can picture the crowd coming to this tax booth. There were maybe glares. Others looked away. Some might have been ready to insult the tax man as they passed by. But Jesus looked at him and said, "Follow me." Not only that, but he then went to his house and, according to verse 15, had dinner with "many tax collectors and sinners".

Meals in that culture were a big deal. In eating with these tax collectors and sinners, Jesus wasn't just sharing a meal. He was expressing his acceptance of them. The meal was a concrete expression of God's forgiveness and acceptance of them. Jesus doesn't just tolerate them or reluctantly accept them; he sits and eats with them. He befriends them. Jesus befriends and feasts with those that others consider not worth saving.

This is great news for those of us who sometimes wonder if we're beyond God's reach. You probably know the hymn Amazing Grace. You may know that the person who wrote that hymn, John Newton, was a slave trader. In 1750, at the age of 25, he commanded an English slave ship. He purchased slaves in Africa. He put them on board below deck in two-foot-high pens to prevent suicides. As many as six hundred lay side by side like fireplace logs, row after row. There were no facilities and there was no ventilation. The ship had chains, neck collars, handcuffs, and thumbscrews, a torture device. Newton allowed the crew to rape female slaves, as he did himself. Sometimes a quarter of the slaves died on the journey. Newton blasphemed God and engaged in brutality and immorality.

So when John Newton wrote, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me," he knew what he was talking about. Years later, at the age of 82, shortly before his death, he said, "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior." Jesus befriends and feasts with those that others consider not worth saving.

Then there's the third story, found in verses 18 to 21. It's a shorter story. Basically, Jesus was asked why he didn't fast more. Jews were only required to fast once a year, but some of them took it further and fasted twice a week. They wanted to know why Jesus wasn't more solemn.

Jesus answered this question using three pictures. First, he uses the picture of a wedding to say that the coming of the kingdom is a time for celebration. I've been to some solemn weddings, and it doesn't work. Weddings are supposed to be celebrations. In that day, a wedding party could take seven days. That's how you celebrate! Jesus says that the coming of the kingdom is not a time for solemnity. It's a time for celebration and joy.

Jesus then uses two pictures of putting a patch on old clothes, and pouring new wine into old wineskins. What he says in these pictures is that he is doing something completely new. The old forms of Judaism are incompatible with the new, he's saying. It's not that the old forms are bad; it's just that what Jesus is doing is so new and packs so much power that the old can't contain it.

There are some people who think that Jesus is not that different from the religious practices of other faiths. Jesus says here that his ministry and his gospel don't fit at all with anything else. They can't be plastered on to the law. He is doing something that is completely new, that the world has never seen before.

Not only that, but some people think that piety is all about solemnity. There's a place for solemnity, but solemnity and godliness are two different things. To quote Tony Campolo, the kingdom of God is a party. What God is doing should cause our hearts to rejoice like nothing else. When we really understand what Jesus is doing, it should fill us with joy that we can't get anywhere else.

Well, two more stories quickly. In verses 23 to 28 we see that Jesus sees past religious rules to the freedom that is found in truth. There are all kinds of rules that religious people teach. If you ask them why, I've found that they're sometimes pretty vague about the reasons. Later on as you read the Bible you find out that there's no biblical basis for many of the rules that they live by. Have you experienced this? Jesus has no time for this.

In that day, people had a concern about keeping the Sabbath. This was good: the Sabbath was a command, a way to honor God, and a profession of faith. But some people had taken things so far that they went way beyond what God had said about the Sabbath. Jesus and his disciples walked along and picked some heads of grain as they walked. This didn't violate any law in the Old Testament. This didn't dishonor God in any way. But it violated religious rules that people had created. Jesus sees past the rules and even finds Old Testament precedent for what they're doing. You could say that Jesus rules over the rules.

This is great news for those of us who can't stand rules. God's laws are not burdensome; they are for our good and for our joy. Jesus breaks through religious rules and leads us to the freedom that is found in truth.

Last story in the first 6 verses of chapter 3: Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath despite the objections of the religiously scrupulous. This time, verse 5 says, Jesus gets angry and distressed at the reaction of the religious. Jesus cares far more for people than he does for religiously uptight rules.

No wonder so many people followed him. We read in verses 7 to 12 that a large crowd followed him. Jesus' ministry is remarkable. There's such a beauty in this passage as we see what Jesus is up to:

  • He restores people's health and forgives their sins
  • He isn't put off by sinners, but he welcomes and befriends them
  • He's doing something new and full of celebration
  • He can't put up with rules but he brings freedom
  • He really cares for people

This should all be good news. It is all really good news. It was certainly good news for a lot of the people who began to understand what Jesus is all about and who followed him. You can't help but read these stories without sensing the beauty and newness of what Jesus is doing.

But there's an undercurrent in these stories.

Each of these stories is a story of opposition. It's really a warning to all of us who are gathered here this morning, because the undercurrent generally tends to affect people just like us.

The people who struggled the most with Jesus in these stories are people we would have guessed would get it. If we were around back then, and we worried about the spiritual condition of people, these would have been the last people we would have worried about. We may have prayed about the sinners and the masses, but we wouldn't have been too worried about these people.

These were the scribes (learned and devout Jews who really knew the Hebrew Scriptures), and the Pharisees (a group of devout followers who were rigorous in their obedience to the Law). In each of these stories, these two groups struggled with Jesus. They're on a collision course with Jesus. It reaches a climax in Mark 3:5: "Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus."

This passage, these stories, are a warning sign to us of the undercurrent that can sweep us away, because we are just like these people. What are the warning signs?

Refusing to recognize who Jesus is - I know all kinds of religious people who believe that Jesus was a good man and a great teacher, but they have a hard time accepting that he is God. They believe that Jesus never claimed to be God.

That's exactly the mindset that tripped these people up. All through this passage, Jesus confronts us with who he is. He calls himself the "Son of Man" in 2:12 and 2:28. The term Son of Man comes from the Hebrew Scriptures. Daniel 7:13-14 says:

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

Jesus claims to be this one. He also claims to have authority to forgive sins, and he says he is the Lord of the Sabbath.

You may be a very religious person this morning who is willing to accept Jesus to a point, but unless you see Jesus for who he is - as God himself come as a person - then you are in danger of being swept away by the same undercurrent that swept these religious people away.

Not liking the people Jesus loves - Jesus loves people that we think are beyond saving. We wish he wouldn't be so extravagant with his love.

Westley Allan Dodd tortured, molested, and murdered three boys. He was scheduled to become the first U.S. criminal to be hanged in three decades. At dinner that evening, two Christian girls, aged eleven and thirteen, prayed that Dodd would repent and believe in Christ before he died. The father, also a Christian, agreed with their prayer - but only because he knew he should. His heart wasn't in it.

After he died, eyewitnesses to the execution reported Dodd's last words: "I had thought there was no hope and no peace. I was wrong. I have found hope and peace in the Lord Jesus Christ." The idea that God would offer grace to someone like that offended many. That father who prayed half-heartedly said that he came to realize that in God's eyes, "I am Dodd...Only by the virtue of Christ can I stand forgiven before a holy God" (Randy Alcorn, If God is Good). We dare not be offended at the people God forgives once we see our own need for grace.

Tim Keller says:

Jesus's teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.

Missing Jesus for all our religion - The thing we discover in these stories is that our religion can help us miss Jesus rather than find him. The thing that kept the religious leaders from seeing who Jesus is, and entering the celebration, is that they couldn't see Jesus for all their religious traditions and preferences. The people who missed God when he came were the people who were most convinced in their hearts that they knew God. They couldn't see him for all their rules and religion.

This morning, it's like Mark has taken us to the ocean of the gospel. He's showed us the beauty and he invites us to enter in and swim and revel in what God is doing. But he's also warned us that if we're not careful, we'll miss what God is doing, and we'll be swept away. You've seen the beauty and you've heard the warning. How will you respond?

Father, the people who should have welcomed Jesus missed him. They were swept away by the undercurrents and were ultimately destroyed.

This morning you invite us to see Jesus, the Son of Man, and to revel in the newness of power of what he is doing. Help us not to miss it. Especially help those of us who think we're religious not to miss Jesus, like the religious of his day did. Instead, may we see Jesus for who he is. May we love the people he loves with his scandalous grace. And may we never miss him because of all of our religion. We pray and plead this in Jesus' name. Amen.

The Kingdom of God Has Come Near (Mark 1:14-45)

Last week we began to look at the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the written record of an eyewitness account of the ministry of Jesus Christ. It's short and punchy. I really encourage you to not just read the Gospel of Mark, but to listen to it. It was designed to be heard, and when you hear it, it grabs you.

Today we come to really the heart of what Jesus is all about. Many people respect Jesus as a moral teacher or as a prophet or a great man. Today we have, through Mark, the heart of what Jesus is all about. We have one of the shortest and most important summaries of his ministry in this passage, and then we have some stories that show what his ministry was like. This is almost like Jesus' whole ministry and message in a nutshell.

So let's look at the passage we just read and ask: What is Jesus all about? Secondly, what does it look like? Finally, what does this have to do with us?

First question: What is Jesus all about?

Before we decide to accept or reject Jesus, we really have to understand: what is Jesus all about? What was his message? If you had just thirty seconds to get to the heart of who Jesus is and what he came to do, what would you say?

Right off the bat, Mark gives us an incredibly important summary statement of the message of Jesus Christ. This is the most important summary statement in the whole book, and maybe one of the most important summaries in the whole Bible. Verses 14 and 15 say:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!"

What is Jesus all about? Whatever it is, Mark says that it is good news that is proclaimed. We need to stop and camp here for a minute, because this is a point that we sometimes missed. Some of us are wearing ties this morning. If you're wearing a tie, it's because someone probably put a tie around your neck one day and stood behind you or beside you, and demonstrated exactly what to do to tie it. Take this end and wrap it around here, and then flip it over here, and then slide it through here, and so on. I guarantee you that nobody ever handed you a book of words that explained how to tie a tie. Why? Because some things are best taught through demonstration rather than words.

Other things, however, are best taught through words. The news is a good example. When Obama won the election last November, the news was announced to us with words. Even if you watched TV, the news came through words. You saw people smiling and happy, and you could maybe guess why they were celebrating, but somebody had to explain the news. Some things are better demonstrated; other things need to be spoken.

We're going to see in this passage that the good news of Jesus Christ is something that is both announced and demonstrated. But here we see that the gospel is about good news. Tim Keller puts it this way:

Suppose a king goes out to defend his lands from an invading army. If the king is defeated by the enemy, he sends back military advisors to advise the people how to shore up the cities defenses and save themselves. But if the king defeats the invading army, he sends back messengers (heralds, good-newsers) with the news: "We have defeated the enemy. Rejoice and live in that victory."

Now apply that to religion: Every other religion sends military advisors to put in place rites, rituals, and laws so fearful people can try to save themselves. Christianity sends "good-newsers" to say, "Jesus has won! Rejoice and live in light of that victory."

Unfortunately, advice is not found only in other religions, there are people in the Christian Church who think the gospel is good advice and are fearfully trying to save themselves and others by obeying Jesus. That is not the gospel! The gospel is the news that Jesus has saved us and obeying him comes from that joy!

Advice is counsel about what you can do about something that hasn't happened yet. News is about something that has happened. The gospel is good news.

What is this good news that has to be announced, and that will change our lives? Verse 15 says: "The time has come...The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!"

Here is the central message of Jesus: the waiting is over. The time has now come. God is doing something new, something that the whole world has been waiting for centuries to see. What is it? The kingdom of God has finally come near. God's reign has finally arrived.

Imagine for a minute that you own a house and rent it out. But then you discover that the tenants have been mistreating the place. They have kicked holes in the walls. They have broken the windows. The heat's been turned off because they didn't pay the bills. They have junk all over the yard. The place is an absolute disaster. The house that you owned, that was in perfect condition when you rented it out, has been all but destroyed.

You try to take the house back, but they get a lawyer and fight the eviction order. But finally, after months of waiting, you take back possession of the house. You repair and paint the walls. You clean up the mess. You fix the windows. You get everything fixed to the way that it should have been.

The believers in the Old Testament looked around and saw that the world had been good, but that sin had destroyed much of what was good. The world around them was far from the world that God intended. The world is filled with violence, wickedness, death, and disease. But they believed that one day God would once gain take over, and that he would repair all that is broken, and that he would reign unopposed over the transformed universe. All that is crooked would be made straight; all that is wrong would be made right.

Jesus came and said, "The time has come. The reign of God has come near. God is setting things to the way they should have been in the first place. He's restoring things to the way they should be." This is good news that has to be announced.

But it's also news that requires a response. In a way, we're like the people who lived in that broken-down house and have been party to its destruction. Now Jesus invites us - those who are responsible for the destruction in the first place - to turn around and join him in the restoration. Jesus says in verse 15, "Repent and believe the good news!" Repent literally means to change one's mind in a way that affects your whole life - to change your way of thinking and living, to turn the direction of your life. Repentance and belief is the essence of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Jesus wants us to understand that his ministry marks the coming of God's kingdom - that through him, God is beginning the process of restoring all of creation. How will you react? The only way that makes any sense is to change your way of thinking and living; to believe what Jesus said and live in light of that reality.

That's what Jesus is all about. This helps us understand Jesus' whole life and ministry in a nutshell: the kingdom of God has come near. Mark doesn't leave it at the abstract level, though. He answers a second question:

Second question: What does it look like?

Verses 21 to 39 essentially give us a day in the life of Jesus. We see Jesus teaching, casting out a demon, healing, and preaching. This is more than a random collection of stories. Mark is giving us a sample of what it looks like for the kingdom of God to come near in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus has proclaimed the coming of the kingdom; here he demonstrates the coming of the kingdom. What does it look like?

Verses 21 and 22 show us one aspect of what it looks like. It involves people understanding the truth. You see this also in verses 38 and 39. Jesus teaches and preaches, but it's not just like any preaching or teaching. Jesus doesn't get his authority by quoting other rabbis, as was common in synagogues. But when Jesus preaches, he amazes them. His preaching has authority.

You may wonder why there's such an emphasis on teaching and preaching, not only in Jesus' ministry but throughout the New Testament. It's because in the kingdom of God, people come to know and understand who God is and what he's up to. Sometimes we think that it's more important to do than to know, but Scripture corrects us: both are important. We need to love and serve God, but we must also know him and what he's up to. Habakkuk foretold a day when "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea" (Habakkuk 2:14). Jesus preaches and teaches so people understand what God has revealed about himself, so they can know and love God.

But then we see that there's more. We're going to see what can only be described as two miracles that take place this day. Miracles are not random displays of God's power. They're much more than that. They are actually foretastes of what life will be like one day when God's kingdom is fully here. Every miracle we encounter in the gospels is a foretaste, a pointer, to what life will be like when the kingdom arrives in its fullness.

So when Jesus casts out a demon in verses 23-28, we see that Jesus has authority over the supernatural forces of evil, and that points us to the day that

the devil and his powers will be completely defeated
. The Bible teaches us that the devil is a liar and a murderer (John 8:44), and that he comes to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). We've seen Satan and his works. Jesus shows us that the announcement of the kingdom is the announcement that he was authority over evil, and that evil will be completely declawed and defeated.

And then Jesus shows us that what's broken will be restored. The account of the miracle in verses 29 and 30 is the shortest miracle account in all the gospels, and I love it. Jesus encounters sickness and immediately heals Peter's mother-in-law. Once Jesus heals her, she doesn't even need a period of recovery. She's up serving the guests. She's completely back to what she would have been doing. Jesus even cares for mothers-in-law.

Verses 32 and 33 say:

That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases.

I love the miracle recorded at the end of this chapter. Not only does Jesus heal a leper, but he touches the untouchable. Instead of the leprosy making Jesus unclean, Jesus' touch makes the leper clean.

Jesus points us to a day that there will be no need for hospitals, nursing homes, or the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. He will straighten everything that's crooked. He will restore everything that is broken. The world will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God; Satan will lose all his power; everything will be restored to the way it should be. Everything sad will become untrue.

The Jewish people prayed for the day that the kingdom of God would be established over all the people of the earth; that God will reign unopposed over the universe and transform all things. Jesus says that the waiting is over, and the kingdom has come near. The restoration has begun.

This leaves just one question: What does this have to do with us?

You may have noticed that I skipped over the very first thing that Jesus did in his ministry. He called Simon and Andrew, James and John to be his disciples. We read that in verses 16 to 21.

The first thing that Jesus did in his ministry is to create a community of followers. As he announces a kingdom, he calls people to follow him.

Jesus called these first disciples, and they serve as a kind of pattern for the response that Jesus expects from us as well. So as we close this morning, we close knowing that God is up to something new. It began with the ministry of Jesus: the kingdom is coming. God is setting everything right. He's returning things to the way they should be. And he invites us to be part of what he's doing. He's created a community of followers who will join him in what he is doing.

On one hand, this is very good news. The fact that Jesus chooses us is remarkable. I'm really encouraged as well that Jesus didn't call superstars. We're going to see in the coming chapters that Simon, Andrew, James, and John are flawed and imperfect. God doesn't call perfect people to himself. He calls imperfect people like us to follow him.

But there's a cost. You see this all throughout this passage. John the Baptist is in prison. At the end of the chapter we have a small hint of the conflict that is going to break open very soon in the ministry of Jesus. Not only that, but Jesus calls the disciples to follow him by leaving their small but prosperous businesses, their families, and their homes.

Jesus also shows us the type of dependence that's required. He's busier than ever, and yet at his busiest he slips away and spends hours praying. Jesus is showing us the type of relationship that we will need to have with the Father if we are to follow him.

As the Gospel of Mark begins, Mark gives us an introduction to who Jesus is. And he then gives us the central thrust of Jesus and his ministry through summary and example. Best of all, he invites us to join the community of his disciples and to follow him.

It's not going to be without cost. But the invitation is extended to ordinary people to join Jesus in his extraordinary mission. The good news is that God's kingdom has come in the person of Jesus Christ. But the good news demands your response.

Father, thank you for clearly revealing in Mark who Jesus is and what he is up to. We thank you that the kingdom has come near, and that you have begun the work of restoring all things.

Thank you also, Father, that the first thing Jesus did is to invite a community of followers to join him in what he is doing. May we revel in wonder that you've invited us to follow Jesus; but may we also count the cost, knowing that following your Son demands our all.

Make us into a community of disciples who will join Jesus in what he is doing. We pray in Jesus' name, Amen.

The Beginning of the Gospel (Mark 1:1-13)

This morning we're beginning a new series that's going to take us all the way to Easter. I'm very excited about this series, because we're going to be looking at the Gospel of Mark. Of all the subjects that we could look at as a church, there is no better subject than the one Mark writes about: Jesus. And Mark is a great person to tell us about Jesus, because his account is the earliest account of Jesus' life that was written. What we're about to read was written just twenty or thirty years after the life of Jesus, and is based on eyewitness accounts. Tradition says that Peter, one of Jesus' closest friends, told stories of these events. We read:

The hearers of Peter...were not satisfied with a single hearing...but with every kind of exhortation besought Mark...seeing that he was Peter's follower, to leave them a written statement of the teaching given them verbally, nor did they cease until they had persuaded him, and so became the cause of the Scripture called the Gospel of Mark.

I'm sure that all of us, whether you are a Christian or not, would have loved to sit down with someone who actually knew with Jesus, who had lived with Jesus, and who had seen the stories we've heard about take place firsthand. We'd have questions about what it was like and what it felt like to see it with your own eyes.

We can't do that, of course, because all the eyewitnesses are now dead. But Mark is the next best thing. Mark is the written record of an eyewitness account of someone who was there and saw it all happen. I'm very excited about the subject matter of Mark, and I'm also excited that we get to read the written report of an eyewitness account of somebody who was there and who saw it all.

The passage we read this morning is like a decoder ring. Before the action begins, and before the body of the story begins, Mark gives us a framework, a way of deciphering what's about to happen. In this opening passage, Mark gives us a preview of the gospel by telling stories that answer three questions: What's happening? Who's involved? And what is it going to look like?

So let's look at these three stories and the questions they answer, beginning with this one:

What's happening?

Mark 1:1-8 reads:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

"I will send my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way" --

"a voice of one calling in the wilderness,

'Prepare the way for the Lord,

make straight paths for him.' "

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: "After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

If I were to ask you what your week was like this week, a lot of us would say, "It was okay." If I asked you for more details, you'd probably just say, "It was like almost any other week. Monday came, followed by Tuesday, followed by Wednesday, and so on." Most of life is the numbing routine of getting up and repeating the same actions, brushing the same teeth, getting stuck in the same traffic, washing the same dishes, over and over and over again.

When the events we're about to read took place, life was pretty much like that. You get used to the daily rhythm of life no matter how good or bad it happens to be.

For the people who lived at that time, things were more bad than good if they looked at them closely. They had heard stories of how God had moved in the past: how he had spoken to Moses from a burning bush; how he had sent plagues on the Egyptians to rescue his people out of slavery; how he had parted the sea in two so that his people could pass through; how we had spoken from Sinai and made a covenant with his people. But that had been a long time ago. That was then and this is now. And now looked nothing like that. God had not spoken in hundreds of years. There had been no miracles in recent memories. No prophets had spoken. What's worse, God's people were once again under foreign rule.

You get used to this. You never quite stop believing in God, but you sure don't see his hand in the present. You speak of God, but more as a memory than as a present reality. And you believe the future promises of what God is going to do, but you sure don't expect it to happen in your lifetime. You've settled in, and it's hard to believe that tomorrow is going to be much different than today.

It's in that context that we read these opening verses. The first thing that strikes you is that it's a new beginning: "The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah..." It almost takes you back to Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." This is almost like a new creation account. God has broken into the sameness of everyday life, and something big is about to happen.

What exactly is it? In verses 2 and 3, Mark quotes from some Old Testament prophecies. These prophecies spoke of a day that God would break into human history and shake things up and return them to the way that they ought to be. Both Isaiah and Malachi had spoken of a day that God himself would come. His glory would be revealed; the suffering of God's people would end; the whole world would be made a place fit for the coming King to reign, God himself.

But first something would happen in the wilderness. The wilderness in the Bible is a place of hope and new beginnings, but also a place of struggle. Charlene and I honeymooned in Quebec City, so Quebec City is a place for us that represents the joy of new married love. The wilderness was that for Israel: it was the place where God brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and where they initiated their relationship together. Through the prophet Hosea God had said:

Therefore I am now going to allure her;

I will lead her into the wilderness

and speak tenderly to her....

There she will respond as in the days of her youth,

as in the day she came up out of Egypt.
(Hosea 2:14-15)

So see what Mark is doing in the passage we just read. He's saying that God is creating something new right in the middle of the numbing routine of everyday life, in the middle of people who had given up hope that anything could change. It's a new creation.

What's more, he's doing this in the wilderness, we read in verse 4. Something is happening that is also like a fresh start for God's people, a new exodus of sorts. He's calling them back to the wilderness to reinitiate a relationship with them.

And then, according to Mark, something else is happening as well. The promises of God, made through prophets like Isaiah and Malachi, that God himself would come to set things straight - those promises are being fulfilled as well. All the hopes, all the desires that God would come and set things straight, are being fulfilled as the Gospel of Mark begins.

So as we encounter this strange character in verses 4 to 8, we're tipped off that something pretty big is happening. This John, who's dressed funny and who eats locusts and wild honey, brings back memories of Elijah the prophet. He is, according to Mark, the promised forerunner who gets people ready for the coming of the Jehovah himself, who is going to set everything right. John preaches repentance and baptizes people, and predicts points to one who will come who is mightier than John. According to John, he is going to pour out the Spirit. This means that God himself is going to be present among his people; that what God had promised - "I will pour out my Spirit on all people" (Joel 2:28) - was now coming true.

So what does this tell us? Mark is preparing us so that we realize that something big is happening in the book he's writing. No less a person than the Lord Jehovah is showing up. It's a fresh start, a new beginning. God is stepping into history and setting things right. Everything that's been hoped for is now coming true.

What Mark is doing is giving us a decoder ring so that we can make sense of what's about to follow. This is the answer to the first question: what's happening? No less a person than God is arriving to set everything straight again.

Second question:

Who is involved?

If you really believed what John the Baptist was saying, you would have been preparing yourself for the Lord himself to show up. You would have had no idea what this would look like, but you wouldn't have been prepared for what happened next. Verse 9 says: "At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan."

If you are expecting God to show up, you wouldn't be expecting this. God has appeared many times in the Scriptures. He appeared as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night when he led them out of Egypt. He appeared to Moses at Sinai on the mountain with thunder and lightning and a thick cloud and a loud trumpet blast, and we read that all the people trembled.

Mark has told us that this same God is now showing up, so when we get to verse 9 we are surprised. Because God does appear, and Mark's already tipped us off in verse 1 that God appears as Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Rather than coming in pillars of cloud or fire, or with thunder and lightning and trumpets so that people tremble, he comes just like everybody else comes to be baptized. Even more surprisingly, he comes from Nazareth in Galilee, a city so unimportant that it's not even mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament.

If you were expecting God to show up, you never would have guessed that he would come like he did in Jesus.

That's just the thing. Mark's tipped us off that God has broken into history and is doing something completely new, and that he's fulfilling all of his promises, but nobody guessed that it would happen like this. Very few people in the coming chapters are going to guess either. So Mark lets us glimpse behind the scenes so we can know that this is, indeed, the Messiah. The other characters aren't going to know this, but we get tipped off on who Jesus is. Verses 10 and 11 say:

Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."

What happens? The heavens part. God is about to say or do something. Then God himself speaks, commissioning Jesus to undertake his God-given role, announcing that this is his Son, with whom he is well pleased. And the Spirit marks him as the one anointed to bring good news, giving him power to accomplish his mission.

Nobody knows this, but Mark tips us off so that we know. As we start the book of Mark he wants us to understand that God is breaking into history and setting all things right, and he's doing so through Jesus.

One of the biggest questions we're going to encounter in the book of Mark, and which still is the key question you need to answer, is this: Who is Jesus? This really is the key question of your life. If Jesus is indeed God who has come to set this world straight, then it changes everything.

Here, right at the beginning, Mark is already forcing us to grapple with the question of who this Jesus is. Later on Jesus is going to ask, "Who do you say that I am?" Here we have that question answered by the highest possible authority: God himself has spoken. Jesus is the Lord himself come to sent to save his people and to set this world right.

There's one more scene, which leads us to our last question:

What's it going to look like?

I've told you that Mark is giving us a decoder ring so we understand what's happening and who's involved. Just so that there are no surprises, Mark tips us off to what's going to be happening in Jesus' ministry. Verses 12 to 13 tell us:

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Here, without any human contact, we get a preview of the coming conflict. In the coming chapters we're going to see lots of people with lots of reactions to Jesus, but here we get a glimpse of the supernatural conflict that is going to take place with Jesus. In fact, it's a conflict that continues today.

Here we get a glimpse of the real conflict. On one side are Jesus and the angels. On the other side, we have Satan and the wild animals - the dogs, wolves, leopards, jackals, and bears that lived in the wilderness at that time.

There, away from everybody, we see that behind the coming triumphs and conflicts we're going to read about is a supernatural conflict. All the forces of Satan are arrayed against Jesus. But Jesus is not alone in his conflict. The powers of heaven are with him.

This gives us a hint that we're not going to read a quaint story. We're about to witness a battle. In a sense, we're part of that battle depending on what we do with Jesus.

We're not even into Mark yet. This is just the preamble, the preparation, the decoder ring for what follows. But already Mark is forcing us to wrestle with the most important questions you will ever answer. And he's telling us that God has acted decisively in history to keep his promises and set things right. He's done so by coming in the form of Jesus. He's warning us that it's going to be a battle. And he's already calling for a response. This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Let's pray.

Father, we thank you for giving us a glimpse, as the action begins, of who Jesus is and what he came to do. The gospel is not a nice story. It is, according to your Word, the story of the Lord himself coming to save his people and fill the earth with his glory. When your Son came, you spoke from heaven authenticating his identity and his work.

I pray that every person here would confront the question: Who is Jesus? It's a question that changes everything. And I pray that, as we study the book of Mark, we would encounter Jesus in a way that changes our lives. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

The God of Seeing (Genesis 16)

a sermon at the launch of a resource for Christian women and church leaders on abuse and family law by METRAC

It's my privilege to be here with you today. I've been excited to learn about your work, and the resource you're launching today is an important one.

I want to be sensitive to the time constraints, so today what I what to do is to simply tell two stories. The two stories come from two different worlds, but they have one thing in common. Both are about women who faced abuse in very different ways, and yet found hope in the most unexpected of places.

Hagar

The first story is from the Hebrew Scriptures. If you ask me why I believe the Bible is true, one of the many reasons is that it is painfully honest about the people it describes. The first story I want to tell you is about Abram and his wife Sarai. They are two heroes, a patriarch and a matriarch. Yet the story I want to tell isn't about their greatness. The story is about how their actions led to a brutal situation for a woman called Hagar.

The true story goes like this. God promised Abram that he would have a son, and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, and that they would be a great nation. There was only one problem: Abram and Sarai were old and they had no children.

It's very hard for us today to understand what being childless was like in those times. Infertility is still a big problem today, and many know the pain of not being able to have the child that you long for. Compounding the pain in those days was the fact that children were literally your security and your future. If you didn't have children, you had nobody to look after you in your old age.

Not only this, but the stakes were even higher when it came to Abram and Sarai. God had promised they would have a son. As someone has written, "Her inability to conceive is no longer just a thorn in their marriage or a grief to her heart, but now is an obstruction to the promises of Yahweh!" It's a horrible situation.

So Sarai took the initiative and suggested that she and Abram fulfill this promise themselves by using a surrogate mother. This wasn't uncommon in that culture. Sarai offered her servant Hagar to Abram. Hagar became pregnant. But things went horribly wrong between Hagar and Sarai. Hagar displayed a bad attitude towards Sarai, and Sarai became fed up with Hagar. Abram told Sarai to do as she'd like, and we read, "Then Sarai mistreated Hagar" (Genesis 16:6). I don't know exactly what she did, but the verb there means things like "to afflict, to oppress, to treat harshly, to mistreat, to humiliate." The same term is used later to describe the suffering endured by the Israelites in Egypt.

So, we read, Hagar fled and ended up in the desert, alone, pregnant, and forgotten, presumably on her way back to her native land. It's a total disaster for everybody concerned. Hagar has lost her home, Sarai her maid, and Abram his second wife and newborn child.

But something happens that has been called a severe mercy. At her lowest point, a stranger came and addressed her as Hagar, Sarai's servant, and asked, "Where have you come from, and where are you going?" It turns out that this is an angel, and the angel told her to return and submit to Sarai, but then made a remarkable promise. The angel said, "I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count" (Genesis 16:10). Not only that, but the angel told her to name the child Ishmael, which means "God hears." And the angel also promised that this son, Ishmael, would not be servile, but would be aggressive.

Ishmael. God sees. And then Hagar says words that have been remembered for thousands of years since:

She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: "You are the God who sees me," for she said, "I have now seen the One who sees me." (Genesis 16:13)

Hagar literally called the Lord "the God of seeing." Ishmael - God sees. And, Hagar says, "I have now seen the One who sees me." This is remarkable. In fact, this is the only time in Scripture that a person confers a name on God. God is the one who sees those forgotten by everyone else.

I won't go into all the details, but a similar thing seems to have happened 17 or 18 years later. The tensions boiled over, and Hagar and Ishmael were sent away again. This time they wandered aimlessly in the desert. When they ran out of water, Hagar walked away from Ishmael because she couldn't bear to see him die. We then read:

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation."

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt. (Genesis 21:17-21)

From this true story we learn two things. We learn something about us and something about God. First, we learn how horrible it is to be the victim of abuse. Hagar's situation breaks your heart. Humiliated, mistreated, ostracized, powerless, alone, afraid for her own life and the life of her child. What's even more horrible is that Hagar's story has been repeated countless times since then. It's why METRAC exists. It's why the resources you offer are so important.

But Hagar's story also teaches us something about God. God is the God of seeing. God sees those who are invisible victims. He hears the cries of those who are not heard by others. God sees and hears, and he takes action. God is concerned with the afflicted, whoever they may be, even if they are downtrodden foreigners living in Israel.

This becomes a major theme throughout Scripture: the Lord looks after the oppressed.

Hagar heard the words, "You will give birth to a son and name him Ishmael, for the Lord has noticed your oppression." Thousands of years later, another woman, "Behold, you will conceive ... and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus." In Jesus we learn that God not only sees and hears the afflicted, but that he willingly became afflicted. God not only sees and hears suffering; God himself suffers. God himself became a man and willingly experienced the full force of evil on our behalf.

As Tim Keller puts it in The Reason for God, "God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself...We can know that God is truly Immanuel - God with us - even in our worst sufferings."

We don't have easy answers for the suffering that people go through. But it does mean something - a lot actually - that God sees, God hears, that God himself suffered in the person of Jesus Christ for our sakes, and that he will set this world right. He is the God of seeing.

One More Story

My second story is brief. It's about a mother, a recent immigrant, with four children: two teenagers and two young children.

It's a story of emotional abuse: days, without explanation, of her husband not speaking to her. It's also a story of physical abuse: young teenagers hiding the knives when they go to bed at night out of fear of what could happen. One night he pins her down on the living room floor with the entire family watching. The oldest son crawls out a basement window to get help from the neighbors, and is never forgiven by his abusive father.

It's also the story of a church that had never had to encounter domestic abuse or divorce before. If you were to guess how the church would react, you would have guessed that they would be judgmental and cold. They tended to be on the strict side, and as I said, they had never encountered a situation like this before.

This terrified mother one day put an end to the abuse. She called the police, changed the locks, and took her family to a hotel for safety. She now faced an uncertain future: no car, no job, a husband who refused to pay the court-ordered support. She had almost no resources, but she did have a mortgage, bills, and four very hungry children.

The story is a gritty one. At one point she was hospitalized for a couple of weeks because of the stress. Her days were filled with endless work. At times it was unclear how the bills were going to be paid.

But she learned that God is the God of seeing and the God of hearing. And her church, which was supposed to not know what to do, was there for her in ways that nobody could have expected. And they did this without making her feel like a charity case. They offered emotional support, legal support. They offered food. Mysterious envelopes of money would show up. Rides were offered. The kids were almost adopted by people in that church. Men were put on call to deal with things if the abusive dad ever showed up looking for trouble.

That woman was my mother. That church became a visible demonstration of a community that is shaped by the Son of God, who gave his life as a sacrifice for our sins. We literally could not have survived without that church's help.

Two women, separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years. But both who found that God is the God of seeing.

I am so grateful for the resource that you're releasing for Christian women and church leaders. I wish we had had it years ago. My prayer is that our churches would be places that help those who are victims of abuse in every possible way, proclaiming that God is the God of seeing and hearing; that God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself at the cross. Amen.