Sunday, April 25, 2010

St. Mark's Day Sermon

St. Mark’s Day – April 25th, 2010 – Mark 16:14-20

Christ is Risen (He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia) Amen +
Today, April 25th, is St. Mark’s Day. I have a personal fondness for this day. If you remember Professor Quill, who came here and preached at my ordination – I remember him preaching at the Seminary on April 25th a sermon for St. Mark’s Day – one of my favorites that I’ve ever heard. And then, I’ve been to Venice, where they have St. Mark’s Basilica, where Mark is buried – the Venetians actually sailed down to Alexandria in the Middle Ages and basically stole Mark’s remains and brought them back to Venice. I enjoy things with Mark, but, well, Mark sort of ends up being the forgotten Gospel writer, his Gospel the forgotten one. In the 1 year series, there are only 4 times a year where our Gospel is from Mark. Even in the three year series, when there is the year that is designed to focus on Mark’s Gospel – they still include a lot of John, some Matthew in that year. And partially, this is because Mark’s Gospel is just so short. Only 16 chapters – and those chapters aren’t very long. And if there is a specific story or lesson that is in both Mark and another Gospel, it’s going to be longer, fuller, in the other Gospels. As an example, I am going to read Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, something you should be familiar with – “The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.” That’s it. Short and sweet. Mark’s account doesn’t tell us about the temptations, or have Jesus quoting Scripture at Satan. Short, sweet, to the point. Now, I’m sure some of you might be thinking – short and sweet, that doesn’t sound so bad! But generally speaking, when you are preaching on just a pericope, just a small bit of a Gospel, Mark’s version often comes out just too brief. And this is why his Gospel isn’t read that often in Church.

However, in many ways, Mark’s Gospel is really well set up for us to learn from today, especially in America. Let me explain with a bit of history. So, who is Mark and why does he write a Gospel? Well, Mark was a companion of the disciples, sort of like an assistant, often working as a secretary to them. St. Paul, on his first missionary journey, takes with him Barnabas, and also “John, whose other name was Mark.” Acts tells us that later on Barnabas and Mark head off west together. Eventually, other Church histories tell us that Mark ends up in Rome – and there in Rome he is basically the top assistant to Peter. And then Nero becomes Emperor, and then the persecutions come – and in the midst of this chaos and danger and confusion – Mark collects from Peter the things in the Mark’s Gospel and writes them down. Then, when Peter is killed, Mark heads to Alexandria, where he is the bishop there, until he too is eventually martyred. But here’s the thing about Mark’s Gospel – it’s written under duress. It’s written under the threat of persecution. It’s written in a time when the world was hostile to Christianity, when people were being fed to the beasts in the Coliseum, when Nero was using Christians as torches to light the streets. It was written in a dangerous time. And so Mark doesn’t mince words – He just dives on in and gets to the point. We don’t have time to chit-chat, the Romans might come at any moment, and we might be dragged off. So what is the point, what do we need to know right now? Do you want to talk about the Temptation of Christ – alright – Jesus was tempted just like you are. He Himself was surrounded by wild beasts, just like you might be. And He was victorious and endured, just like He will make you be victorious and endure, even unto life everlasting. A simple point, but an intense point, a comforting point.

So basically, Mark is a Gospel written for people whose lives are on the line, who live in a hostile world, who need to get to the point and get to it quickly. And sadly, this is becoming more and more a description of our world today. There are plenty of places in the world where if I walked around with my clerical collar on, or you openly wore a cross, you’d be much, much more likely to be arrested or killed. And then, even here in America, society is becoming much more hostile to Christianity. And so perhaps we would benefit from sitting down and studying this book, it would be excellent for a Bible Study – but for this morning, we will learn from just a small portion – our Gospel lesson for this day, where Mark recounts our Lord’s appearance to the disciples after His resurrection – and we will see what the whole point of this Gospel is.

“Afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and He rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw Him after they had risen.” So this is where the Gospel starts this morning – and what do we see here? The two problems that will plague the Church at all times – unbelief and hardness of heart. And note, Jesus isn’t lambasting the world – Jesus rebukes the disciples. This is a danger for us – something we might fall into. Mark records this for us so that we might learn that as Christians, as those in Christ’s Church in a time of stress and persecution, we are going to be tempted with unbelief and with hardness of heart. Consider unbelief in today’s world. It used to be you could just assume that pretty much everyone was at least some sort of Christian. You can’t do that any more. And the so-called wise, the so-called educated often delight in trashing Christianity. One of my classmates, Rev. Charles St.-Onge writes a little religious article, a blog for the Houston Chronicle, and it is astonishing to see how vehemently he gets attacked in responses, how people just want to tear him apart. And that is the way the world, the way our own country is going. People are going to try to drive you to unbelief, people will try to tell you that your faith, what you have heard, what was recorded by those who saw Christ after He had risen, that all this is foolish. Don’t give into the world, don’t be misled by puffed up talk from so-called experts – Christ has given you the Word, learn and study that.

The other problem Mark points to is the hardness of heart. That’s the other danger we can face when the world is cold and rough and cruel. We can harden our hearts to where we just don’t care about folks out there anymore. They don’t want anything to do with God – so be it. They are going to behave like that – so be it. What’s the phrase – to hell with them? That’s literally the danger we face, where our hearts can become so hurt, where we worry so much about guarding ourselves that when people are off on the path to hell, we shrug and don’t care. Christ rebukes the disciples for this hardness of heart. We aren’t to let the world make us jaded – there isn’t anyone who is too lousy, too mean to hear of Christ’s love for them – “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation.” To all the world, to the whole creation. Do you see how that doesn’t let us cut someone out of the loop because they are difficult, how it doesn’t let us have hard hearts?

So how then do we avoid these dangers of unbelief, of hardness of heart? Jesus explains – “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” A lot of times we will speak of Baptism in the past – you have been baptized. And this is true, you have been baptized – however, note here that Jesus says, “is baptized” – that you “are baptized”. This past event of your baptism isn’t just something of the past, but it describes your reality, your life now. You are baptized. The way to avoid unbelief, to avoid the hardness of heart is to be in your baptism right now – to be in the faith into which you were baptized. When you were baptized, you were brought into God’s family, you were made a part of His Household – and that is all true right now. The way to avoid unbelief, to avoid your heart becoming hard is to receive the benefits and blessings you get as one who is baptized. Baptism is for the forgiveness of sins – the key to staving off unbelief and hardness of heart is focusing on the forgiveness of sins, of hearing this Word of love and mercy to you from Christ again and again so that your doubt is driven away, so that it is always wondrous and something to be shared.

And here is the wondrous thing – “will be saved”. The whole point isn’t that we must save ourselves, but rather that we are saved, that Christ comes and because of His death and resurrection, He saves us , that He is the one who does this saving – that is the point, that is where we live, that is what we believe and cling to – that Christ Jesus is our Savior from sin, and that He forgives our sins, He pulls us out of disbelief, He softens our hearts, and He gives us life. And this changes things in our life. We hear this passage then in Mark – And these signs will accompany those who believe; in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Now, let me tell you, some folks hear this and run with it – and they shouldn’t. This isn’t a “go prove you’re an awesome Christian” text – but rather this – a reminder that God gets us out of things that we would have no way of getting out of. In the Name of Christ we fight off the power and temptation of Satan – sometimes literally in an exorcism, which is rare, but more commonly in avoiding temptation. Christ will give us words to speak when words fail us – sometimes in a new tongue, but more commonly just giving us words of comfort when we don’t know what to say on our own. As for picking up serpents – well, there is the physical danger that God gets us out of, but this is more speaking to being able to deal with people who are difficult and speak venomous lies – God helps us deal with them. And as for poison, as for the sick having hands laid upon them – well, let me ask a question. How many of you, right now, by rights ought to have died a long time ago? How many of us have been preserved by God through danger and trial, how many of us have been supported by God? As Christians we understand that these things aren’t just dumb luck, aren’t just random chance – we see and believe in God’s care for us.

So this is the point. This world will strive to stir up doubt. This world will try to make you harden your heart, make you jaded just as it is jaded. But you are baptized, and you know and believe in Christ Jesus, and thus you have eyes to see not only His mercy and forgiveness, but also the support and love that He has given you all your days. In the midst of a world of increasing violence and chaos, you see the peace of Christ and this shapes your life. Rejoice in this wondrous message which Christ gives to you through His servant Mark, and rejoice in the truth of the resurrection of our Lord. Christ is Risen (He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia) Amen.

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