Sermon by Pastor Christopher Nelson
We are in week 2 of our sermon series, “All in…” in which we are rejoicing in God’s decision to go “all in” with God’s people- becoming one of us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And then, asking the question that goes with it- can you and I go “all in” with Jesus- learn to follow him, become his disciple, and his ambassador to the world.
The Gospel of Mark is our vehicle for the conversation- between now and Easter we will be living in Mark’s Gospel. We will be getting to know better our Savior Jesus, the people around him, through the lens of the first Gospel writer- about whom we know very little as a person (his Greek was excellent, people have speculated that he was Peter’s translator), but who, in this brilliant, short piece of writing, literally invented what we now call “Gospel.”
And don’t miss this- this is not biography, in the way we understand it today, this is proclamation: this is WHO Jesus was and is, and why He matters- mattered then and matters now.
Mark’s writing has an urgency- he tends either not to linger or not even mention details in the story, but when he does, we need to pay attention. As Ben noted last week, we get no Christmas story, nothing but a cursory introduction to John the Baptist, a slight mention of Jesus’ temptation, and then we are off!
Jesus begins by proclaiming what he is all about- and I will take the time right now to review it, because twice in our reading today, we hear about “the message,” without ever hearing it, exactly. We see it lived out- we see it in action- but we need to hear the words again.
Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
We can say, therefore, that in Jesus, the time has come for God’s decisive act in history- becoming one of us in Jesus, and in this Jesus, we are going to see and hear- we are going to experience what the Kingdom of God is all about. And then, how are we to respond?
Jesus says by repenting and believing…
For many folks, when they hear “Repent!” the image is one of a guy on a street corner with a sign announcing the end of the world… Or perhaps it is a TV evangelist talking about the same thing. And, we usually associate it with someone accusing you and me of being sinful creatures who are deserving of the wrath of God unless we “repent,” or be sorry and change our ways. “You better turn or burn!” “You’re gonna fry while I fly to the sky.”
And my reaction? I’m guessing it’s not dissimilar from yours, and absolutely it is the reaction of people who are unchurched. It is a defensive reaction: “OK, so I’m not perfect. But, I’m not so bad- especially in comparison to some of the other people around. How does anyone get off judging me? It sounds like clean up your act.”
But the word “repent” literally means “turn around,” or better, “walk a new path.” Here’s some context: in the Roman Empire, when the emperor died, and a new one took his place, the word went out to all the Roman legions, “Repent and believe in the new emperor!” In other words, realign your selves- from the old emperor to the new one. Give your loyalty to the new king.
For Mark, repent meant “turn from the path you are on, and align yourself with God!” Establish a new loyalty to the one who will give you hope, faith and life; turn from the old ways and old loyalties that have brought frustration and meaninglessness!
So this is not about “cleaning up your act.” If we could do that on our own, don’t you think we would have figured it out by now? “Repent” does not mean “behave- or do the right things- or even stop doing the wrong things.” That all comes later!
What we’re talking about here is relationship- the relationship that God has desired to have with you and me- and with every human being who has ever or will ever live! It’s a relationship we all need; it is something we are all searching for.
And that’s the context for “believe!” It is not just intellectual assent to a set of propositions about who God is and how God works. It is engaging- going “all in” with our relationship with God, trusting in God’s presence, and God’s ability to work through us and in us, and through that relationship, being used by God to change the world- just as Jesus showed us!
And that sets the stage for everything that follows in our reading today.
I noted earlier that there is an urgency in Mark’s writing- we see that urgency in Jesus’ behavior, too. He is on a mission; he speaks with “authority…” That is, when he speaks, things change, things happen, people change! He casts the demon out with a word, and the man is healed!
Mark also uses the demon- the one who is evil, who harms, causes destruction is the first one (after God, at Jesus’ baptism) to identify exactly who Jesus is. The demon knows! This is something we’ll see again- those who shouldn’t know do, and proclaim it- the demons- the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross, and so often, those who should know- like the disciples, those closest to him, the women at the tomb, apparently don’t.
At once (things happen quickly in Mark), Jesus’ fame spreads! He heads to Simon’s house- where he heals Simon’s mother-in-law.Tthen, after dinner, people who are sick, or possessed by demons, are brought to him, note that he heals “many,” but not all.
We are seeing that when the Kingdom of God comes near, as Jesus said, people are healed- it’s a huge part of Jesus’ ministry. And it is important to note that Jesus heals the whole person- mind and body both!
In Jesus’ time, those who had mental illness were often thought to be demon possessed. Jesus’ casting out of the demons restored mental health to those who had been suffering.
We can see, in the first chapter of Mark, that illness- mental or physical- is not God’s will, ever. And that’s why Bethlehem’s Care Ministry includes care for both physical and mental illness. That’s why our Mental Health Connect is so important!
The question that inevitably arises next is “If that is so, why hasn’t my loved one, or why haven’t I received this healing?” And that is a fair question…
The Bible teaches us that we live in an imperfect world (don’t really need the Bible for that, do we?). Paul says in the Book of Romans that the world is “groaning in travail,” in childbirth, as God works through Jesus to bring in God’s Kingdom.
These miracles point to who Jesus is- what the Kingdom will look like… And remember, Jesus didn’t heal everyone- and all those who were healed, even those who were raised from the dead- all died. Poor Lazarus, raised by Jesus from the dead… a whole new perspective on “been there, done that.”
Jesus tells us in Mark that the Kingdom has “come near,” not “has arrived in all its fullness. Don’t blame yourself, or question your faith if you or a loved one is not healed medically; it is not your fault, and it is not God’s will.
The next verses are critical- both in terms of seeing and believing just who Jesus is, and in our own response to the Gospel.
After a long day of preaching and healing, Jesus gets up early the next morning to pray. He finds a quiet place, away from everyone, to build his relationship with God, to engage in life-restoring, mind restoring conversation with the Father.
And if prayer is important for Jesus, than it’s important for all of us! Have you ever been so busy, or consumed, or maybe even so self-absorbed, that prayer time slips away from you- or you just forget about it? More often than I care to admit, I’ve said to myself, “I’m too busy to take that time away just now.”
Martin Luther once said, “I am so busy today that I will have to double the amount of time I commit to prayer…” And he was right: when I’m too busy to pray, I often fail to get done what I think is necessary. And when I take that time to talk things over with God, to listen to God, everything that needs to get done, somehow does.
Take ten minutes- get up before everyone else does, or close your office door and turn off your phone. Shut your music off, wherever you might be, and pray- that is, engage in conversation with God- it’s sharing what you’re feeling, where your heart is, what your needs and hurts are. It’s saying “thank you” for all the ways God is working in your life. And it’s listening to and for God-build in a time of silence- or build in a time of reading the Bible.
And while this is just me, I don’t recommend trying prolonged prayer just before sleep- whenever I do that, the next thing that happens is my alarm is going off, and I didn’t get very far… just sayin…
The disciples don’t get this yet- they’re looking for Jesus, and when they find him, they tell him “everyone is searching for you…” That is, the local neighborhood wants more.
But Jesus will have none of it- “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there; for that is what I came to do…”
The disciples are the first to try and keep Jesus for them and theirs… And he has to tell them, the message is not just for you- it is for everyone! It’s a reminder we all need! As long as there are people who need the Good News, we are to take it to them! Let me remind you that the Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel begins “Go into all the world and make disciples,” not “let them find us, maybe, and become a part of our community…”
One of the most important reasons we have engaged with Minnetonka Lutheran is that it is a marvelous mission field- thousands upon thousands of people in that area who don’t have a church home, who don’t yet know the joy of a relationship with Jesus, and the difference he can make in their lives!
If we say “we don’t care about them; let them find it themselves,” we’re behaving like those first disciples, who wanted to keep Jesus in Capernaum; we’re missing the point of our calling.
And to reach out there in no way means that we stop doing it here; God has blessed us with the resources to do both- and more beyond, I have no doubt!
The chapter comes to a climax with the healing of the leper. This is much more than a healing story.
People were terrified of leprosy in ancient times. It was a devastating illness that caused horrible disfigurement before death. It was strangely contagious, but no one knew how, so any sort of skin disease was suspect. If you got better, great. If not, you were declared a leper, and this is what happened, according to Leviticus 13: 45-46.
“A leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes, and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry ‘Unclean; Unclean!’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease…he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp…”
Torn clothes- loose hair- mourning your own death. Cover your upper lip- don’t spread the illness. Shout unclean- no private suffering, you have to announce it to keep people away and you are isolated.
Your spouse was free to re-marry; you were literally “walking dead.” You can imagine the affects…
To be a leper was a powerful symbol of separation, alienation and isolation.
“If you choose,” the leper said, “you can make me clean.” Our text says that Jesus, “moved with pity,” but a better translation is Jesus was filled with anger. How DARE there be leprosy in this world God made! And so he says, “I do choose,” and immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean!
He is restored- returned to his community, no longer alone, and no longer dead.
And if it is not God’s will that we suffer from pain, sorry and separation, it is all the more God’s will that we be rejoined, restored to our relationships with God, our relationships with our families, our brothers and sisters in community.
Isn’t that exactly what Jesus does on the cross- taking on everything that separates us from God and each other, identifying so closely with us that he is willing to die your death and mine? And in his Resurrection, Jesus says to us, this is what the Kingdom is about: you belong to me, and you always will! Every one of you!
In Jesus, you can begin to see that “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!” You can see, and then believe just who this Jesus is, as you engage with Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus’ life and ministry. As you engage with us in Jesus’ continuing ministry of peace, healing and reconciliation in the work He has called us to do as his people, wherever he has placed us in this world!
A few years we gathered to celebrate Pentecost at Central Lutheran- eleven congregations, lots of people and stirring worship. It was a good first step in developing some new ways of collaborating together as congregations…
But the most moving moment for me, by far, came after the service. I was wearing my name tag, and a young woman came up to me, and said, “Oh, you’re from Bethlehem, right?” I said, “Yes.”
She said, “You go tell the people at Bethlehem how important Spirit Garage is. I’ve been going there for some time, and it has changed my life. There are people there who were on the streets, on drugs, and now they are in college. That church changes people- and that Rob (Spirit Garage’s pastor, for those of you who don’t know)- he helps us see Jesus at work in our lives.”
That’s Mark’s story of Jesus in action today; that is our continuing call to find new ways of sharing the Jesus who heals and who loves, and who invites you to find your part in the story. My prayer is that you respond- that you repent- walk a new path, and believe in the wonderful Good News we have been given, That you see, and then believe, in Jesus’ Name, Amen!