January 12, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Have you ever posed for a family photo where the person with the camera said, “Smile on the count of three: one… two…” and then snapped the picture before they got to 3? When that happens, most of us shout in protest, “I wasn’t ready! My eyes were closed. I had a goofy look on my face. You said you’d count to 3!”
When we pose for a camera, or when we crouch at the starting line of a race, or when we are getting ready to play a piece of music, we usually take a few moments to prepare, and we want to know exactly how many moments we will have to get ready so that we’re not caught off guard. We are using that time to take deep breaths, to visualize what is about to happen, to steel our bodies and our minds, and “get into the zone,” and if someone aborts that process by getting to the “go” before we expected it, we are caught off guard; our brains split in two with one half trying to catch up to those who have charged ahead while the other half is still back at the start saying, “But I wasn’t ready!” Everything is suddenly in motion while we’re still planning how to begin.
This is how we, the reader, are supposed to experience the gospel of Mark. While Matthew, Luke, and John warm up their audiences with stories about the birth of Jesus and poetry about his relationship to God — “the Word was with God and the Word was God” —before they get to the main narrative, Mark jumps in feet first.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” he says abruptly. He skips all of the heart-warming scenes of the baby Jesus and goes right to the baptism of the adult Jesus by the prophet John. In fact, Mark is in such a hurry that in Greek the first sentence of his gospel is even more terse, dropping the article, like the start of an urgent telegram — Beginning the Good News of Jesus Christ — and what follows that hasty opening is just as fast and furious. John the Baptist appears on stage and then exits from view in a mere nine verses. Jesus steps into the Jordan River for his baptism and strides back out, the scene finished, in only 3 verses. And the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness which Matthew and Luke explore at length, Mark disposes of in two verses, reporting the incident like he is writing bullet points for a power point slide: “Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Next slide, please.
Although translators have tried to smooth out Mark’s writing to make the gospel feel less abrupt, his hurried style is deliberate. Mark uses the word “immediately” 40 times in the sixteen chapters of his book and he introduces almost every sentence with the word ‘and.’ (1)
“These stylistic features,” one scholar says, “along with the vivid use of the present tense for past action, keep the narrative flowing at a fast pace.” (2) In other words, as Mark reports the events surrounding Christ’s ministry, Mark tells the audience not to spend too much time mulling over the whys and wherefores of Jesus’ life.
“Try to keep up,” he says to his audience as he sets a breathless pace. “This gospel isn’t for dawdlers or ruminators. It’s not for the hesitant or the indecisive, and it is certainly not for procrastinators. The time is fulfilled and the realm of God is at hand! OORAH!”
During the season of Advent, we were told to take time to prepare the way of the Lord. We were to wait and cultivate patience, to contemplate the meaning of Christ’s involvement in the world and in our lives, and to prepare ourselves for his coming, but now, the gospel of Mark prods us out of our contemplation and says, “It’s time to fish or cut bait.” In fact, Jesus says that rather literally to Peter, Andrew, James, and John when he sees them at their nets by the Sea of Galilee and immediately he says to them, [No dawdling for Jesus. No looking over the possibilities for recruits and collecting applications. He zeroes in on the brothers and makes a beeline for the four. Immediately] he says, “Come with me and I will make you fish for people,” and immediately they drop their nets [No taking Jesus’ proposal under consideration. No weighing the pros and cons of discipleship. No hemming and hawing or sleeping on it for the night] immediately they drop their nets and follow him.
Advent is over, folks. The time of contemplation and reflection and preparation is behind us and now is the time when the rubber meets the road. The realm of God is at hand. OORAH!
I have to admit that I sometimes find the pace of the gospel of Mark to be exhausting. My motto has always been that of Mark Twain’s who said, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow,” and so as Jesus comes striding so quickly across the pages of this gospel, I am tempted to grab his robe and say, “C’mon, Jesus. Let’s sit down and have a cup of coffee. Let’s watch the sunrise and talk over the meaning of life for a while. We’ve got all of the time in the world so what is the big hurry?”
The big hurry for Jesus, of course, was that he didn’t have all of the time in the world, did he? When you consider the world changing consequences of Jesus’ ministry, it is amazing that he was only at it for about three years. Moreover, his ministry played out in first century Galilee where there were no video cameras or recorders to preserve his words, and no newspapers to report on his rallies. (No Twitter! No Facebook!) Jesus didn’t even write anything down; he left that to those who came later. That meant that he had only three years to go around Galilee delivering his message enough times and to enough people that what he said would be remembered after he was gone. We can read the Sermon on the Mount anytime we want to because we have it preserved in Matthew’s gospel but Jesus most likely had to deliver that sermon dozens of times — on the Mount, on the Plain, in the streets, in the rain — so that people could get the rhythm of his teaching into their heads and be able to recreate those words after he was gone. Jesus had to travel by foot — a very time consuming method of travel — from town to town in order to meet enough people and develop a big enough following that when the Romans crucified him, people would take note, and when he rose from the dead, people would talk about it. We think of Christ’s resurrection from the dead as so remarkable that it could not possibly have gone unnoticed but human nature being what it is, if someone is a nobody before they die, they are probably still going to be a nobody even if they come back from the dead. It takes the popularity of a Jesus — or an Elvis — rising from the dead to catch our attention.
And of course, Jesus’ toughest task of all was getting the meaning of his gospel of grace through the thick heads of his disciples so that there would be someone to carry on when he was gone. Given all of that, you can understand why he immediately went to work. He just didn’t have all of the time in the world to change the world. The question is, do we?
The poet, Maya Angelou, spent her childhood in Arkansas where she lived with her grandmother. Her grandmother owned a store which was frequented by several curmudgeonly types, and Angelou said that sometimes when one of them would come into the store, her grandmother would quietly beckon Maya to her side and then bait the customer with, “How are you doing today, Brother Thomas?” As the complaining gushed forth, she would nod and make eye contact with her granddaughter to make sure Maya heard what was being said. As soon as the whiner left, her grandmother would say to Maya, “Did you hear what Brother So-and-So or Sister-Much-to-Do complained about? You heard that?” Maya would nod.
Her grandmother would then say, “There are people who went to sleep all over the world last night, poor and rich and white and black, but they will never wake up again. Those who expected to rise did not …. And those dead folks would give anything, anything at all for just five minutes of this weather or 10 minutes of that plowing that person was grumbling about. So you watch yourself about complaining. What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing,” her grandmother would say with conviction, “is change it. And if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.”
Maya Angelou’s grandmother understood that we don’t have all of the time in the world and that every minute we spend just sitting on our backsides wishing the world was different instead of doing something to make it different or figuring out how to make ourselves different is a waste of the little time we have. That’s not to say that contemplation or thoughtful preparation is wrong, but too often we get stuck in the “Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim…” syndrome when we spend all of our time thinking about what is wrong and how it might be changed, and not enough time actually doing anything to change it.
Or as Theodore Roosevelt said, “The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on [and] sometimes people get their ends reversed. When this happens,” he said, “they need a kick in the seat of the pants.”
The gospel of Mark is delivering a kick to the seat of our pants. In Jesus’ purposeful preaching and his call to Peter, Andrew, James, and John to immediately cast down their nets and follow, we are to hear his call to us to be similarly decisive.
“The time for planning and complaining is over,” he says, “and the time to take charge of your life and commit yourself to action has come.”
And what does that look like?
It looks like the person who today confesses the sins that have kept them paralyzed and makes a stand against those sins so that they can begin to be healed of them.
It looks like the person who finally steps away from the work that is draining their soul to take up work that feeds their spirit.
It looks like the one who speaks truth to the powers that hold them and others in captivity decidng that even if they cannot overcome those powers, they can at least know the freedom that comes with speaking up.
It looks like the one whose life is full of trouble and despair, but who chooses to commit themselves to actively look for moments of beauty and joy in that life instead of just letting the dark suffocate them.
It looks like the person who stops grumbling about how awful the world is and today chooses to do something that will make at least their little piece of the world a place of light and love for others.
It looks like the one who finally forgives someone they have been holding in resentment for too long, so that they can become someone new.
We argue against the gospel of Mark’s hurried pace because we say, “But it is not so easy to do these things. Healing and forgiveness, change and justice take time and it is naive to think that just saying, ‘Today I will change the world,’ means that the world will be changed today.” And indeed, it won’t be, not completely. Change does take time whether it is change in our society or just inside our own hearts. The disciples may have immediately cast down their nets to follow Jesus but they weren’t immediately new people. They remained for a long time the same thick-headed dummkopfs they had been before Jesus called them, but the difference was – and it was a humungous difference — the difference was was that now they were headed in the right direction while the rest of the fishermen were still back with their fishing nets doing what they had always done with not a whiff of change about them. And because the disciples chose to act that day instead of mulling it over or putting it off until tomorrow, they were eventually able to become the people that Christ needed them to be to carry on his ministry of grace after he was gone; and that did indeed change the world; it changed our world. We are here today only because Peter, Andrew, James, and John heard Christ’s call and immediately followed.
We don’t have all of the time in the world to make our world different because we are mortal human beings and today may be all you have. And even if you were to break the record for human longevity and live to be 130, do you really want to spend all of those coming years festering in resentment, moping about the unfairness of life, in despair over injustice, feeling powerless and hopeless, because you were waiting for the right moment to act?
Well, the time for action is now, Jesus declares to you. The time for thinking and planning and theorizing and making spreadsheets with pros and cons and mulling things over and complaining and worrying and procrastinating is over. It’s time to fish or cut bait. Take up your nets and follow because the realm of God is at hand! OORAH!
1. In English, the count will be less because translators sometimes use synonyms for the Greek εὐθὺς. For example, in Mark 5:42, the NRSV says, “And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.” Both “immediately” and “at this” are translations of εὐθὺς.
2. Rhoads, Dewey and Michie, Mark as Story, page 46