Monday, February 13, 2012

Closer Than You Think

(This is one in a series of messages on the Gospel According to Mark.)

Mark 1:14-20

(This message was preceded by the choir singing “Libera Me” from Faure’s Requiem.)

I have three pieces of classical music on my iPod, alongside my less-lofty music: Mozart’s Requiem, Brahms’ Requiem, and Faure’s Requiem. I don’t know if that reveals an obsession with death or not, but the music is beautiful.

The words here are from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, which goes back to the 13th century when it used to be called the Black Mass. In the changes after Vatican II there was a significant shift in the funeral services used by the Catholic Church. The emphasis on sorrow and grief was replaced by a stance of hope and joy, based on trust in the saving work of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The anthem we just heard said this:

“Deliver me, O Lord, from everlasting death on that dreadful day when the heavens and the earth shall be moved, when thou shalt come to judge the world through fire. I quake with fear and I tremble, awaiting the day of account and the wrath to come.”

But the service ends with this prayer:

“May Angels lead you into paradise; may the Martyrs receive you at your coming
and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem.
May a choir of Angels receive you,
and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Let’s pray for a moment.

We continue our series on the Gospel of Mark today. From the very beginning Mark teaches the connection between the Jesus story and the story of Israel. For this part we need to have in all of our minds the words God said to Abraham when he called him in Genesis 12 and promised that he would be the father of a great and chosen nation. God said:

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

Let me make this part very clear as we move forward. Jesus came as the promised Messiah or King to complete the story of Israel that started with that conversation between God and Abraham. Then, as the King, he went to the Cross to take everyone’s sin and brokenness onto his own shoulders. That’s now he establishes his Kingdom on earth, and now he calls every person and every place to follow him and live by a new set of values and priorities and loves.

That’s the answer to the three big questions Mark is answering in his account of Jesus life and work:

Who is the Messiah?
What did the Messiah do?
What are we supposed to do about it?

We find the complete gospel of Jesus Christ in the answers to those questions.

Anything less ignores the continuity that drives the story of the Bible from beginning to end. Anything else doesn’t do justice to the mission of God among his people and in his creation. Anything that calls itself “the gospel” that doesn’t include this whole story, is catastrophically incomplete.

Today our text follows right after Jesus’ own baptism. It’s a great scene where Jesus comes out of the Jordan River and the heavens open and the Holy Spirit lands on Jesus like a dove. God’s voice comes from the heavens and says: “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Not a bad start to his ministry.

In true Mark style, our text immediately follows the baptism of Jesus. If you’re able, please stand for the reading of God’s word today.

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 is near. Repent and believe the good news!” As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.


Mark’s story of Jesus gets exciting right from the start. Last week Mark led off with “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the son of God,” and immediately introduced us to the wild man we know as John the Baptist. Jesus own baptism and his temptations in the desert are taken care of in a mere four verses, and by the time we get to our text John is already in prison.

The silencing of John the Baptist brings Jesus into the full-on start to his ministry. “After John was put in prison,” Marks tells us, “Jesus went into Galilee and preached the gospel of God.”

The next section captures the essence of the message Jesus preached during his earthly ministry.

“The time has come,” Jesus said. This is a reference to Jewish expectation. The prophets had communicated God’s promise of a Messiah for centuries, but in the 1st century that had been reduced to a hope for a military leader who would drive out the Romans and who would purge Jerusalem of people who didn’t believe as they did—the faith as practiced had become self-serving. It had forgotten, as Israel had done so often, that being God’s chosen brought a responsibility with it: to communicate and share God’s blessing with all the nations. The prayers of Jesus’ day sounded a little like we all did as kids, sitting on Santa’s lap and reciting our Christmas list.

“The Kingdom of God is near.” I’ll confess here that I miss the old way of saying that: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” It’s within reach. It’s getting closer all the time. The momentum toward the fulfillment of God’s promises is closer than you think. It’s worth reminding ourselves here of what Jesus means when he refers to the “Kingdom.”

We tend to think of kingdoms as places with boundaries and limits—places where you’re either in or out. But in the language of the New Testament we should see “kingdom” as God’ reign—the ongoing demonstration of his sovereignty over all people and all places—God’s power over all things, even death. When Jesus refers to the kingdom being near, this is what he’s talking about.

“Repent and believe the gospel.” This is the call of Jesus to strip away your self-serving expectation, and to believe that God has come to bring peace and justice and shalom to the world he loves.

That’s just the first two verses of our text, by the way. Remember that last week I said that parts of Mark’s gospel read like the executive summary of the Jesus story.

The next section shows Jesus calling Simon, Andrew, James and John to be his disciples. It’s fair to assume that they had already believed that Jesus was the Messiah, so it doesn’t have to be as abrupt as it looks on the page. But still the call was no less dramatic. Jesus said “Follow me,” and that was clearly a call to leave everything behind and surrender their lives and plans and even their values, and to follow the King.

Tim Keller, in King’s Cross, said that the difference between the Christian faith and other religions is this: Most other faiths require a series of behaviors in order to meet the divine—to gain ultimate consciousness—to earn the highest prize. What they often amount to is advice.

The difference between following Jesus and other religions is that while they give you a path to follow, Christ gives us good news. Keller has a great way of saying this:

“The gospel is not about choosing to follow advice, it’s about being called to follow a king. Not just someone with the power and authority to tell you what needs to be done—but someone with the power and authority to do what needs to be done, and then to offer it to you as good news.”

That helps us understand the way Jesus looked out at some men who were in the middle of their workday—it helps us understand how he could simply say “Follow me,” and have them drop what they were doing to follow him.

It’s also where Christ’s call translates for us today, here in this place, as we seek to learn what it means to be disciples of Jesus. Keller adds this:

“Come, follow me, Jesus is saying.
Follow me because I’m the King you’ve been looking for.
Follow me because I have authority over everything,
yet I humbled myself for you.
Because I died on the cross for you
when you didn’t have the right beliefs or the right behavior.
Because I brought you news and not advice.
Because I’m your true love, your true life—follow me.”

Following Christ requires a surrender on our part. Not a surrender of responsibility or action, and not a surrender of vision or creativity, but a surrender of the idea that all of this begins and ends with us. A surrender of our secret belief that we’re in charge—that we’re the king of our own worlds. The call to faith in Jesus Christ is a call to surrender our values for his—our lives for his.

As we move through the Gospel of Mark over these next months, the idea of Jesus as King will be balanced by a reminder to us that if he’s the King, then we’re not. If he’s the King, then the call on our lives is to yield to him—to worship and follow him—and to serve the world that he loves, in his name.

It’s in that surrender that our preoccupation with sorrow and grief is replaced by a stance of hope and joy, based on trust in the saving work of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Only one hymn will do when we’re talking about surrendering to God. Let’s stand and sing together: “I Surrender All.”

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Better News Than We Thought

(This message is the first in a series on the Gospel of Mark.)

Mark 1:1-8

This past week we watched a documentary about a series of protests against Apartheid back in the 70s. The protests focused on the South African national rugby team, and their tours of other nations. Anti-Apartheid protesters disrupted a series of matches, drawing attention to the injustices toward blacks in South Africa. There were interviews of participants on both sides. Some of those who were against the protests were convincing, but time has proven that they were mistaken—time has proven that they missed the point about what was really important.

Thirty years later they turned out to be on the wrong side of history. Apartheid was wrong—it was an example of a massive injustice inflicted by the strong against the weak—it was wrong, and getting rid of it without a full-scale war has to be seen as one of the great political victories of the last century. The final moments of the film showed the celebration among both blacks and whites, when the first integrated South African rugby team won the World Cup. It was so moving.

The Gospel According to Mark uses a similar strategy. It was the first of the four gospels to be written and circulated, and part of the point was a call to all of us not to be on the wrong side of history—not to miss the point of who this Jesus person was and what he meant and means for everyone and everything in this world. Mark’s story of Jesus is an expression of the central message of the Christian faith. It talks about three main things:

Who the Messiah is,
what the Messiah did,
what we’re supposed to do about it.

From the very beginning Mark teaches the connection between the Jesus story and the story of Israel. For this part we need to have in all of our minds the words God said to Abraham when he called him in Genesis 12 and promised that he would be the father of a great and chosen nation. God said:

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

Let me make this part very clear as we get started.

Jesus came as the promised Messiah or King to complete the story of Israel that started with that conversation between God and Abraham. Then, as the King, he went to the Cross to take creation's sin and brokenness onto his own shoulders.

That’s now he establishes his Kingdom on earth, and now he calls every person and every place to follow him and live by a new set of values and priorities and loves.

That’s the answer to the three big questions Mark is answering in his account of Jesus life and work:

Who is the Messiah?
What did the Messiah do?
What are we supposed to do about it?

We find the complete gospel of Jesus Christ in the answers to those questions.

Anything less ignores the continuity that drives the story of the Bible from beginning to end.
Anything else doesn’t do justice to the mission of God among his people and in his creation.
Anything that calls itself “the gospel” that doesn’t include this whole story, is catastrophically incomplete.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our text this morning is the first few verses of Mark’s gospel, Mark 1:1-8. If you’re able, please stand for the reading of God’s word today.

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

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 desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and 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 will come 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.”

Have you ever spent much time talking with someone who can’t get to the point? Yeah, that’s never going to be your problem with Mark. This book gets to so many points, so quickly, that you can be out of breath after just a few chapters. Mark uses some variation of the word “immediately” 47 times in 16 chapters. This is the gospel for people with short attentions spans.

But the main point for us in this text is the definition of this “gospel” Mark is talking about. The church gets this part wrong far too often.

On the liberal side, Jesus gets reduced to being a great moral example. He loved the poor so we do too. He was tolerant, so we should be too. This side of things doesn’t take Jesus’ own claims seriously—it doesn’t see him as the Messiah, as the fulfillment of Israel’s story, or the one who came to redeem the world as its rightful servant king.

The evangelical side doesn’t do much better. A preacher posted this on Twitter the other day:

“The gospel in four words: ‘Christ in my place.’”

That’s not nearly enough. When personal salvation becomes the main part of the story, it misrepresents who Jesus was and makes it too easy to ignore the other main parts of the story. It allows us, by comparison, to ignore the poor or injustice or the environment, or to turn loving our neighbors and enemies into an abstraction that doesn’t really change anything about the way we live and love and work and spend.

It leads us into the lie that the Kingdom of God is some future place, instead of the reign of God at work in all times and in all places and in all people. “Christ in my place” is such a severely edited version of the gospel that it ends up perverting the gospel message.

Mark has a different definition, one that begins where we should begin, with God’s promises in the Old Testament. The Old Testament references from Isaiah and Malachi serve as a flashback right at the start of the book, to help us understand both the present and future.

So what is this gospel Mark is talking about? Bob Guelich, who was my New Testament professor in seminary, summed it up this way:

“The gospel is the message that God acted in and through Jesus Messiah, God’s anointed one, to effect God’s promise of shalom, salvation and God’s reign.”

See how that ties everything together?

This is something that Scot McKnight and other writers are taking up with a lot more urgency these days. They see the huge impact of the true gospel being reduced to individual fire insurance—a ticket to get punched so that we can avoid eternal punishment. McKnight writes about the way of thinking that limits the gospel to “Justification by faith that Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins.”

In his book, The King Jesus Gospel, McKnight recalls a conversation with a pastor who believed this was the sum total of the gospel. He asked him: “So did Jesus preach the gospel?” The guy thought for a moment, and then said no, because Jesus didn’t preach about the cross and the resurrection and Pentecost. I’m still stunned by the gall of someone actually thinking that Jesus himself couldn’t have preached the gospel of, well, Jesus, because he couldn’t talk about the parts of his ministry that hadn’t happened just yet.

Do you see how this is a stunted view of the gospel? In our own text this morning Mark says that the beginning of the gospel is underway before Jesus even starts his ministry. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God,” Mark says.

And that beginning he’s talking about is John the Baptist announcing that the King is coming. That’s the gospel. That’s the good news. When the good news for the whole world is reduced to the personal, it’s no longer the gospel and, quite frankly, it’s not very good news, either.

This is where it’s important to remember that the promised Messiah was a promised King. It was a King that would glorify and extend the reign of God himself over all things and all places. Anything less than that turns the message into something completely different from what it was intended to be.

In this election year everyone seems to be taking sides on what kind of politics Jesus would approve of. A Stanford psychologist measured the relationship between Christian beliefs and political views. The conclusion of the study was that most liberals understand that Jesus might have views that are more conservative than their own, but also at the same time that most conservatives agree that Jesus would hold more liberal views than theirs. (click here for the article).

The point here isn’t to suggest that we vote one way or the other. It’s to recognize this simple truth:

If you’re picking and choosing political views that you know Jesus wouldn’t agree with, he’s probably not the King and Lord of your life just yet.

The task for us as we make our way through Mark’s gospel, and as we try to make the gospel real in our own lives—all of that means we have to remember a few things:

Christ came to establish his kingship, not start a club.
He came to transform culture, not to be subject to it.
He came to complete the story of redemption that God started in the Garden.
He came to write the climax of the Bible’s story, of Israel’s story, the story of God’s blessing for all nations.
He came to heal what was wounded, restore what was broken, and to offer forgiveness for everything that has gone so painfully wrong in each one of our lives.
He came to do all that, and also to offer each one of us the chance to live with him forever.

“The gospel is the message that God acted in and through Jesus Messiah, God’s anointed one, to effect God’s promise of shalom, salvation and God’s reign.”

That’s the Gospel that Mark is about to show us. It’s a much bigger story, with more meaning for more people than we usually give it credit for. It is, at the same time, the history and the future of God’s people and his creation. It’s better news than we ever could have thought or even imagined. It tells us who the Messiah is, what the Messiah did, and what we’re called to do about it.

The gospel is the history of God’s active love for his people and this world. The invitation in Mark’s gospel is to be on the right side of that history—to be caught up in God’s redemptive plan, and to serve his world in his name.

That invitation is meant to begin with a meal together. The Lord’s Table is where we come to be nourished and strengthened for the journey of faith. It’s where we come in our weakness and brokenness and fear, and leave strong and restored and courageous. Come to the Table. Let’s pray together.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Through a Glass Manly

Over on Rachel Held Evans’ blog, she’s invited her manly readers to respond to John Piper’s latest comments on masculinity and faith, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. Check this out before you read on: http://rachelheldevans.com/john-piper-masculine-christianity

These days some Christian men are talking a lot about being, well, Christian men, and a lot of it comes off as a little strange. Mark Driscoll thinks we should be reimagining Christ as a sort of 1st-century badass, shoving his way through Roman-occupied Galilee and giving Pharisees the finger on the way to the Cross. He likes to think that our inheritance from Jesus Eastwood is a life of no-tears faith, rockin’ worship and getting laid. John Piper takes a slightly less aggressive approach. He has long warned that women in leadership roles is an indication of a deep-seated problem with the church, and lately he’s come to the conclusion that God himself gave Christianity a masculine feel, whatever that means, and that women should accept and enjoy that.

So like I said, there’s a fair amount of manliness popping up in churches these days.

This is nothing all that new in American evangelicalism. Dwight Moody said similar things back in the late 1800s, but for far more sensible reasons. The massive shift toward industrialization and urbanization in post-Civil War America kept working men away from home and church for six or seven days out of every week. The work they did was often dirty, dangerous and dehumanizing, and their time off was spent sleeping or drinking. As a result the Christian faith became associated with the women who were its most visible practitioners, and Moody believed that if men were ever going hear a credible expression of the Christian message, preachers were going to have to butch it up a little. He didn’t say anything against women, though. He simply wanted men to feel more welcome—as men—in the Christian culture of the day. We can credit Moody with a part of our contemporary emphasis on reaching out to the marginalized people around us (the working men of Moody’s time), and making them welcome in our midst.

That’s substantially different both in motivation and tone than what Mark Driscoll and John Piper are selling these days. I honestly can’t say that I know what has them in such a state.

What I do know is this. The first two Christian leaders to take me seriously, questions and all, and to model the love of Jesus to me, were women. I grew up in Southern California, not too far from Fuller Seminary, and Kathleen and Mary were pastors-in-training, gaining experience by serving as interns in local churches. What I learned later was that they were also trailblazers, women who were clearly gifted and called by God into ministry, but who had to fight (gently and patiently, as it turned out) for the chance to serve the church—as women—as Ministers of Word and Sacrament. Alongside the passages of Scripture that have been used to fence the pulpit for men only, I also see these two women who helped to shape me into the Christian and pastor I have become.

That’s a pretty significant set of data for my own understanding of how men and women and faith all go together. Here’s another.

When Dustin Hoffman was given the Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, he took the statuette, held it up to his eyes, and said: “Just as I thought. This has no genitalia.” I’ve always wanted to say that about God, too. Yes, he reveals himself as Father, and we need to believe that and wrestle with it and continue to pray the Lord’s Prayer as it was given to us. But we don’t have to overconclude from God as Father that he’s limited in any way to one expression of gender, or that somehow, as it seems to follow for Piper and Driscoll, mothers and daughters don’t measure up. We also shouldn’t overwork the traditional understanding of differences between men and women in such a way that limits either from being all that God intends. The kindest, most gently loving person I ever met was a man. Some of the toughest people I know today are women. So what? Those are personal descriptions, not prescriptions, and we forget that simple difference at great cost.

One of my favorite reminders from the Apostle Paul’s writings is that we see now as “through a glass darkly.” I’ve always understood that to mean that here and now, in our fallen and broken state, we aren’t always (or ever) going to grasp the full depth and measure of what the Gospel means in our lives and families and communities. It’s always made me a little suspicious of people who were a little too sure about things. Did they have a clearer glass than I did? The caution here is that we should be careful about letting our politics, or our traditions, or our manhood, obscure our vision any more than it already is. The glass is dark enough already. Let’s not muck it up even more.

So what do I make of all this? What do I—as a man who is also a Christian, a husband, a father and a pastor—what do I teach my son about men and women and Jesus and faith? On the one hand I’m thankful that in my denominational tradition he won’t see the issue in the same conflicted way that I did at his age. But with this resurgence of gender role navel-gazing, especially in its more testosterone-fueled variant, it seems more important than ever to make sure we give our son as clear a sense as possible of our equal value and freedom in Christ.

I choose to do that in stories. I’ll tell him about the way Kathleen took me under her wing when I was the most awkward 10th grader in history. I’ll tell him about how it felt when Mary sang with me and challenged me in college. I’ll tell him that life is best when we are willing to grow and learn from anyone who is willing to pour their lives into ours. I’ll tell him that right now, at 11 years old, I’m praying for someone to come into his life and help make Christ real to him, no matter what they’re packing under the hood (that was for Driscoll). I’ll tell him, well, you get the idea.

Maybe there are masculine qualities to the stories we see in the Bible, but every one of those has to pass through the crucible of Paul’s radical vision for Christian community in Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The point of Paul’s vision for the Christian church was for the barriers between us to be crushed and wiped away, not to be shored up and nurtured. That’s the church I want for my son. That’s the kind of Christianity I think we’re meant to enjoy. It’s an aspirational faith, one where we’re not limited by the prejudices and limits we inherit, but one that always moves, slowly at times, toward the joyfully inclusive celebration of the King’s banquet.