2 Lent: Truths that travel inside stories

So this is a different kind of sermon.

I’m not sure if anyone will appreciate it

but it is what popped up.

Anyway, I get to start today

by telling you, I do not know


You have as much idea

about what is going on

in this story from Mark,

or the one from Genesis,

as I do.

But here is what I think — aren’t you glad you asked?

“Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and that he would be rejected by the Jewish elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of the law. He told them that the Son of Man must be killed and then rise from the dead after three days. Jesus told them plainly what would happen.”

This is Mark,

and Mark’s community,

inserting in this story

about Jesus being aware ahead of time

of what would happen to him.

And Mark is doing it

to buck up and embolden

followers of Jesus

terrified by the scorched earth terror

that Rome has just inflicted

on Judea and Galilee

in the three-year war of 66-70 CE.

It is always important for us to remember

when we listen to Gospel stories,

that we are not hearing a verbatim transcript

of what actually happened in history

told by witnesses who were there.

What we have here

is the result of Mark and his community,

slowly and intentionally

editing stories and sayings, |

and inserting them into a narrative

of their own creating,

and painstakingly putting it all down

on precious pieces of parchment or papyrus

fashioned into a scroll.

This was done, not necessarily by

someone named Mark,

but by a community of Jesus followers

under the banner of the name Mark,

about whom we know very little.

New Testament scholars debate

when and where Mark was written.

The earliest say between 50-60 —

contemporary with when Paul was writing.

Others say 60-70, during

or just after the Jewish-Roman war.

Most theorize it was written from Rome

for an audience of gentiles.

The whys and wherefores

of all such theories are interesting

but not useful today.

What I want us to remember

is that Mark is an editor, as much

if not more, than an author.

He, or he and his companions,

had collected and received

lots of stories,

and sayings,

and parables

without a context.

They had to decide

when Jesus said a particular thing,

to whom,

where, and why?

They probably are not making up

the stories or sayings

but they are making up the narrative context.

They have received these bits and pieces

across 25 to 45 years of time

and across 2,200 geographical miles

and through however many cultures

and languages those bits and pieces were passed.

They knew how the story ended —

with an empty tomb;

and they knew how the story began —

with a baptism.

But where did everything else they had

fit in?

So what we have

are gems of wisdom, some

of which are very likely

authentic Jesus sayings

and very early stories about him,

fitted into a narrative glue

of Mark’s creation

that holds them altogether.

And “how” Mark tells his story

is with intentional bias —

it is told to tell us what Mark thinks

is important for us to know about Jesus.

What we heard today

is a literary feature of Mark.

What he is doing is telling us

that Jesus knew what was going to happen

before it happened,

and told people so.

But we must ask ourselves,

did Jesus really know what was going to happen?

Do human beings know in advance

what will happen to them?

We might have some ideas — usually

vague and, I don’t know about you,

but for me, often mistaken.

Why would Mark

want his audience to believe

that Jesus knew what was going to happen?

Because they wanted them to believe

that it was God doing it.

For some reason, God

must have wanted Jesus to be crucified

otherwise, how could it have happened that way?

There was no other way to explain it.

God must have made it happen, or at least let it

unfold that way, for a reason.

We tend to think of Rome

as the stable place

and Judea and Galilee

as the chaotic push and pull of

imperial control over

a population that wanted no part of

foreign domination.

But Rome itself was chaotic.

For example, during one year — 69 CE,

which could have been

when Mark was written —

three emperors ascended to the throne

and all three of them were killed

by a fourth. (themelios vol. 14, issue 2)

If Mark is writing in the midst

of the kind of Rome

that felt like chaos on the verge

of apocalypse,

we can imagine how important

it would be for his audience…

…to know that Jesus suffered death on the cross

knowing full well he was choosing it,

and that anyone who follows him

must do the same.

Think about it:

what meaning would it have had

for Jesus to say, “pick up your cross and follow me”

if he hadn’t been crucified?

Clearly that is a saying

placed on the lips of Jesus

after he was already dead, one

that was meant to encourage faithful commitment

against all odds.

So, like I said,

I think today’s story

is a story told in retrospect —

after the crucifixion

as an effort to make sense

of a messiah being executed by Rome.

Think about this now.

Mark and his community

find meaning in the idea that God

caused Jesus to suffer horribly

at the hands of state authority.

For Mark and his colleagues,

God causing Jesus’ execution

is what made sense of it.

You see, the story tellers tell the story

in a way that makes sense to them, just like we do.

Another intentional literary device of this story,

is Peter’s objection.

In Mark, as I have mentioned before,

one of the literary features he uses

is that the people who are supposed to be

the good guys —

the disciples, his family members,

Jews who are his

contemporaries and share a faith and covenant,

are precisely the people who do not recognize

who or what Jesus is.

But the bad guys — demons

and Satan, Roman soldiers, and

gentiles —

they are the ones

who do recognize him.

Perhaps, if Mark was indeed written in Rome,

this is his way of saying to his audience,

you didn’t have to be there

or be one of them

in order to recognize Jesus.

The way this relates to Genesis

and the story of Abram and Sarai,

is that Genesis

is a book of stories

written after the fact too.

It wasn’t until the Exodus was over

and Israel had become a kingdom —

and then through civil war, two kingdoms —

that Genesis was written.

Most likely it was edited too,

like Mark was.

In other words, a collection

of stories that had been told for generations

put together in one collection

with a purpose.

The purpose of Genesis

was to answer the question:

What happened before…

before the burning bush?

What happened before Moses?

Where did we come from?

How did God make us a people?

Even, how did God make the earth

and heavens?

Genesis answers questions

that were asked afterwards…

after they were already a people

and a culture

with a history.

Genesis is the prequel or pre-history.

That is the way we always tell stories

about our families and peoples.

We tell them in retrospect

and we explain gaps in the story

with more stories.

Now, does all this mean

that Mark and Genesis are not true?

Not at all — it means

they hold truth

and were what preserved and carried truth

across time and distance.

But we must not confuse the vessel

with the truths

it carries.

There may be a lot of truths

held here in these stories

but one clear and simple one I recognize, is this:

whenever we commit ourselves

to radical acts of love,

we may be in danger.

Those who want dominion

and those who amass fortunes

work hard

to discredit, reject, and even destroy

those who seek justice

through peace.

That may not be enough truth

for those who want to make unique

and universal claims for Jesus,

but the truth that we are in danger

when we commit ourselves

to radical acts of love,

is a big enough truth for me.