Saturday, 13 June 2015

Mark: Awe & Wonder

There is a sense in which I cheated with yesterday's post: this week's section of the CTM parish sermon series is meant to cover chapter 4 of Mark, as well as the two chapters I looked at yesterday. Chapter 4 is important because at the end of it Mark plants a big signpost to who Jesus is, and why he matters, at the quarter-way point of his book.

My defence is that sermons and blog posts are different beasts, of different length and shape. I would see a sermon on these chapters starting with Jesus' words and actions, and the reactions they produced, and finishing with the storm story (see below) as a kind of punchline. But you can be a little longer and more complex in a sermon (although not too much so in the CofE!); in a blog context I decided two posts fitted better, with this bit of woffle linking them.

This way also gives me a bit of space to mention the parables block which makes up the bulk of chapter 4, and which the sermon series explicitly leaves out. One big problem with parables is that they are usually treated as 'stand-alones', not as part of an ongoing story. Since this sermon series is meant to be about context and continuity within Mark's Gospel, that wouldn't help.

The context of these parables is that they are a follow up to all that Jesus has been saying and doing about a message of good news which demands a reaction, effectively as a summary and reinforcement of the previous chapters.

So you have an apparently careless farmer scattering his seed onto mostly spoiled land, reflecting Jesus mission to the sick who know their need of a doctor, rather than to those who are sure they are well. Then you have other parables about a Kingdom which is visible, a light to the world, but which is to be held generously, given freely, and which grows in unexpected ways to bring comfort to many who are in need.

These are word pictures which make most sense when you look at the things which Jesus has already been saying and doing; if you just try to analyse and dissect their meaning from their text alone you end up with nothing more than dead words chopped up on the ground.

As chapter 4 draws to close, Mark has been painting a picture of Jesus as a remarkable teacher, preacher and prophet. Someone who speaks words of hope and comfort to the lost and words of truth to the powerful, and who backs up those words with action, healing and a sense of urgency.

Then Mark pulls the rug out. The final section of chapter 4 suddenly shows a new picture of Jesus, like a flash of lightning illuminating something new and unexpected.

It's just a brief story: Jesus is asleep in a boat, whilst the disciples take him across the Sea of Galilee. A storm blows up and the disciples - experienced fishermen - are panicking. They wake Jesus and complain to him. Jesus simply tells the wind to quieten down and the sea to be still ... and they do as they are told. "Who is this," the disciples say, "that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

It's a good question. There is a common view today that Jesus was a good man teaching wisdom and truth. That seems to have been about as far as the disciples had got, at this stage. This story is here as a signpost that there is a lot more to Jesus than that. That the Kingdom of God is far more real and impactful than maybe we imagine.

At the time Mark was writing this Gospel, this story mattered. Christians in Rome had been persecuted and brutally murdered; Judea and Galilee were aflame in a terrible revolt, brutally suppressed; the Roman Empire itself was in danger of falling apart as powerful men fought to be emperor. To most Jews of Jesus' day the sea and storms represented death and chaos, like the death and chaos that surrounded them in their lives.

Who is this who can quieten chaos and bring peace to death?

Then, as now, the question mattered.

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