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Date: December 30, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Snow flakes in the shape of a Christmas tree on a goldish background.

Scripture: Mark 1:1-20

Used to be that people thought you could tell a lot about someone by their handwriting. It wasn’t the obvious stuff, like how some people who are left-handed slant their writing to the left, while most folks’ writing, if it slants at all, slants to the right. It was things like the idea that if you connect the letters in your writing a certain way, it meant you are overbearing, or that if the capital letters in your signature are a lot larger than the rest of the letters, you might think of yourself more highly than you ought. [1]

Turns out that most of that stuff has about as much truth in it as your average newspaper horoscope. But there are still some things that you can tell from a person’s handwriting.

For instance, my friend Linda, in Ohio, has nearly perfect writing. My aunt Sue also has nearly perfect writing; she and Linda write the way they do for a reason: they’re both retired elementary school teachers. When you are responsible for teaching children how to write correctly, it helps if you also write correctly.

You can usually tell by someone’s writing when they’re writing quickly, or if they’ve taken the time to think through what they are trying to say. We may not be able to determine someone’s personality by looking at their handwriting, but we can learn a few things about them.

More important is what we can learn from the content of the writing—and that’s true whether it’s handwritten or printed on a press or from a computer. We can’t look at Mark’s handwriting—no original manuscripts of anything in the Bible have yet been found—but we can tell something about him from reading his Gospel.

Mark appears to be in a hurry and to have some sense of urgency about getting his message about Jesus across. Twenty-seven times in sixteen chapters, Mark uses the word “immediately.” Things happen fast in Mark, and you don’t want to blink or you’ll miss them. He doesn’t bother with birth narratives or genealogies. He gets Jesus baptized, through his temptation in the wilderness, preaching, and calling his first disciples within the first twenty verses of his Gospel.

Twenty verses, and he is where it takes Matthew almost four whole chapters to get!

Something else we can tell about Mark from reading his Gospel is that neither he nor his original audience was Jewish. Sometimes Mark has to explain Jewish customs, but he doesn’t appear to be very confident about his explanations.[2] He also doesn’t appear to be very familiar with the geography of the area in which his Gospel takes place, and so he sometimes describes it incorrectly.[3] This detail, especially, makes it unlikely that he was an eyewitness to the events he describes, in spite of the tradition that makes him the boy who escaped capture and ran away naked at the time when Jesus was arrested.[4]

The shortness of Mark’s Gospel compared to the others, and the fact that both Matthew and Luke seem to use Mark as one of their sources when writing their own Gospels, leads many scholars to believe it was the first of the four to have been written. If you look at Matthew and Luke alongside of Mark,[5] you’ll notice fairly quickly that there’s a lot of stuff in both of them that is lifted directly from Mark. They might make corrections (such as when Matthew removes the part of the prophecy in Mark 1:2-3 that is actually from Malachi, not Isaiah)[6] , and they often arrange the material in a different order, but most of Mark is in Matthew and Luke. [7]

In the past, scholars involved in the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus” looked to Mark as presenting the most accurate portraits of the real Jesus and his disciples. They would point especially to Jesus’ repeatedly telling people he’s just healed not to say anything to anybody about it, and to the rather harsh way the disciples are portrayed as quite clueless about who Jesus was and what he was doing. But Mark has a point to make, just like all the other Evangelists; like Matthew, Luke, and John, Mark is not writing the kind of objective history we find in our school textbooks but is trying to get across what he believes to be the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. That means the argument that Mark’s is the most accurate depiction of the “historical Jesus” and his disciples falls apart when we look at the text more closely.

This is the year when the Narrative Lectionary will have us working through most of Mark’s Gospel. We will spend a great deal more time between now and Easter considering the differences between the way Mark tells the story of Jesus and the way the other Gospel writers tell it, and about the points Mark wants to make to his readers by telling the story as he does. This is one of the things I most appreciate about the Narrative Lectionary: each year we have the chance, between Christmas and Easter, to spend several weeks with just one Gospel—even the Gospel of John, which is woefully neglected and, I would argue, mistreated, in the Revised Common Lectionary. We get to hear each Evangelist speak with their own voice, and tell the story in their own way; and this year the Evangelist before us is Mark.

I promise that not every sermon will be a lecture, like this one is. The point of a sermon, in my opinion, is to examine a text to understand what God might be saying to us through it that can make a difference in how we live in the coming week. The other stuff is interesting, and we needed to spend a little time with it today as a starting point to our time with Mark.
But a sermon must ask one important question: “So what?” That is where we are now, after we’ve been introduced to the Second Gospel and heard its first few verses. What does this mean for us?

Our reading for today, the first twenty verses of Mark’s Gospel, is a rapid-fire account of the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism and temptation, the beginning of his own ministry and the message he proclaimed, and the calling of his first disciples. What does it all mean for us right here, right now, as we prepare to head into the first full week of 2016?

To answer that I want to go back to the very first verse. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Good news, by the way, is what the word gospel means; in Greek it’s euangelion, from which we get the name often attached to the writers of the four Gospels: evangelist.)

The question we have to answer about this first verse is just what Mark is describing as “the beginning of the good news.” Does he mean what comes right after that verse—the ministry of John the Baptist? Is he just saying, “Now I’m going to start my version of the Jesus story”? Or does he mean for us to hear “the beginning of the good news” as his entire Gospel—the implication being that the story, the good news, doesn’t end at the end of Mark chapter 16?

He’s not here to ask, obviously, so we can’t know for sure what he was thinking; we can only guess based on what he has written. My inclination, personally, would be to go along with the scholars who believe Mark is describing his entire Gospel as “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

If that’s the case, that the Gospel as it’s written is only the beginning of the story, then what’s the sequel? What comes next?

Well, we do.

The story begins with John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness, with him baptizing Jesus, with Jesus being driven out into the wilderness to face his temptations, with the first disciples he called and the first sermon he preached. It begins with Jesus driving out demons, healing people with illnesses and disabilities, teaching the people through parables about the Reign of God. It begins with the conflicts that erupt between him and the religious and political leadership, and with their plots to do away with him, which eventually come to fruition at Golgotha, or to use the name that’s perhaps more familiar to us, Calvary. It begins with three women running away terrified and speechless from Jesus’ tomb, when they discover that he’s not in it.

The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God begins there, but there is a great deal more to the story—and it’s still being written.

Men and women, beginning with the three who ran from Jesus’ tomb, and his twelve disciples, and the people in Mark’s church, wherever it was, and the churches to whom Paul wrote his letters, and many others, continued the good news. They continued to encounter Jesus in everyday life, in prayer, and at the Table, and the good news went on and on, for two millennia and to this very day.

And now we are part of it. We continue to encounter Jesus in everyday life, in prayer, and at the Table; we do our best to continue the ministry he began, as his Body here on earth—his hands healing, his feet going, his heart loving, and his voice speaking.

The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God only began with the Gospels that were written down and became part of our Bible. And we are now part of it—each with our own bit of good news to tell, our own story about what difference following Jesus has made for us.

What’s your good news?

[1] I was really into handwriting analysis at one point when I was growing up, but I don’t remember any of the details nowadays, so these descriptions are only guesses.  My own signature has capital letters that are much larger than the rest, but I don’t think of myself more highly than I ought…I don’t think.

[2] Pheme Perkins develops this idea more fully in the introduction to her commentary on Mark in the New Interpreter’s Bible series.

[3] See Mark 5:1; 6:53; 7:31; 10:1.

[4] Mark 14:51-52.

[5] Scholars often call Matthew, Mark, and Luke the “Synoptic” Gospels; this means that if you look at them together, you notice a great many similarities among them.

[6] See Matthew 3:3.

[7] Matthew and Luke also draw on a document scholars call Q, which was likely a collection of Jesus’ teachings and parables.  They each also have their own sources, and include material that is not found in any of the other Gospels (such as the two very different birth narratives).