Among the four Gospel accounts, Mark's version of Jesus' death is the most grim. Jesus is a victim. Abandoned by his followers, denied by Peter, condemned by the religious and political authorities, he is mocked by everyone, even those executed with him. Utterly alone, his last words are a cry of abandonment even by God. True to form, the crowd misunderstands even these last words: "Listen, he is calling for Elijah" (15:35). On that note, Jesus dies. There is more to the story, of course. The signs at the moment of death signal other realities. Scattered sentences from the psalms direct the sensitive reader to the Scriptures which provide the backdrop for the story. The words and actions of Pilate and the soldiers are ironic: they say more than they know. Yet the tone cannot be sentimentalized. This is where Jesus' offer of life ends. This is what Pilate and the priests do. There is no other way. The message of Passion Sunday is Jesus' death on a cross. Jesus died because God sent him to die. Jesus died for our sake. Hearing that Jesus died for us to make us right with God, we realize that we do not have to try to have a relationship with God by our own efforts. We become nothing with Jesus in his death so that we can become everything to God through Jesus.
The request of "Greeks" (non-Jews) to see Jesus signals that his hour has come, the time of the inevitable confrontation with the religious authorities. Testimony has been offered, and the hour of judgment has arrived. Jesus will be condemned--but in rejecting him, the world and the "ruler of this world" will be judged. There can no longer be illusions about human life. In bondage to sin, people have no alternative but to hang Jesus from the cross. Paradoxically, Jesus refers to this as the time of his "glorification." His death on the cross will mean his "lifting up" to draw all to himself. Jesus will not be spared the pain and humiliation of death on the cross, but we are invited to fix our attention not on the broken figure, but on the effects of that death: it will mean life for the world. The depth of Christ’s suffering is what Luther called the "theology of the cross." The theology of the cross is Luther's great contribution. Others also spoke of salvation by grace and justification by faith. But he, in a very special way, recovered the scriptural emphasis on Christ's suffering. The Scriptures are full of the theology of the cross, especially Mark, John, Peter, and Paul. Paul strikes the keynote when he speaks of the foolishness of the cross over and against the wisdom of the world in 1 Corinthians 1. The theology of the cross is not a single doctrine or a single chapter in a book. It is like an undercurrent which affects all our thinking. It is an emphasis which colors all our theology, liberating us from false assumptions. Especially in a day when we are saturated with the idea of success, we need this emphasis again. But it is very difficult because it is opposed to all of our "natural" ways of thinking.
The word "Believe" sums up everything we are about, and much of this text. There are some who like to divide all people into two groups, the believers and the unbelievers. This is an arbitrary division--there are no people who do not believe. Everybody believes in something or someone. The question is not whether or not we believe; it is about the object of our faith, in whom or in what we believe. Faith is what undergirds one's life. It is our highest loyalty, our ultimate commitment. As we use the word here, faith is a response to what God has done. Sometimes it is incorrectly called a decision. But when we use this word we have to be careful not to give the impression that faith is something we have done. It is a gift of God. We can refuse it, but we cannot of our own power or strength create it. Christian faith is: 1. the inner belief, given to us as a gift of the Holy Spirit, which; 2. Enters our lives through Baptism and allows us to realize the truth about the damning consequences of our sinful nature and our need to be saved, and; 3. Enables us to cling to God's gift of grace in Jesus Christ for salvation. For Christians, faith is centered in God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this sense faith is a personal relationship. God is revealed to us in the Bible, but the Bible is not our God. The word of God is in the Bible as the soul is in the body. The Augsburg Confession (Article IV) reminds us that Christians "…are freely justified for Christ's sake through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in his sight." When God saves us, he doesn't wait for us to do something for him to prove that we are saved. He goes to work in us to give us the faith and the good works that go with it. Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. So is obedience. It is not salvation by works but salvation by grace. Whatever good works we do, are good works "which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." When John says that everyone who believes in Jesus may have eternal life he does not mean that believing is something we have to do by our effort or strength. Rather, God's love for us is so great and deep that he sends his Spirit to help us believe. Whatever faith we have and whatever works we do are done by the Holy Spirit in us.
The Temple in Jerusalem was always crowded during Passover with thousands of visitors. Money changers were set up at the Temple entrance so that a Temple tax could be paid in local currency. Merchants provided sacrificial animals for a temple sacrifice which were also purchased with local currency. Jesus' dramatic expulsion of the money changers and merchants in the temple signals a conflict that will lead finally to Jesus' arrest. His objection is not to dishonest merchants, but to the use of the temple as a place of business. Initiating such a demonstration marks Jesus as one who claims prophetic authority -- and in the eyes of the leaders, without authorization. The focus of the text is not Jesus' anger, nor his "driving" the merchants out of the temple. The focus is Jesus' zeal for God's temple to be a house of prayer. When we disrespect God's Word, he calls us to repentance. Christ's suffering, death and resurrection reveal God's heart, which is zealous for those he loves. The conflict will lead to Jesus' death, but it also signals the impending doom of the temple. Jesus' cryptic comment about "destroying this temple" promises both his own death and resurrection and the demise of the temple. The temple officials' rejection of Jesus will finally mean their rejection by God -- and the destruction of the temple by the Romans in A.D. 70. Within our traditional lectionary (list of Sunday Scripture readings), this Gospel has always been connected to the Old Testament reading which presents the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). The zeal which Jesus expresses for God's temple is the zeal which God's chosen people had for the Ten Commandments. The Commandments were like buoys in dangerous water, designating the areas in which there was safe passage. The Commandments have been understood as "liberating limits" and sign posts on the way to freedom.
In the first verse of our Gospel (Mark 8:31-38) Jesus announces that he will be "rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes." How could they reject the long-awaited Messiah who had come to save them? They were so satisfied with Jesus' teachings, miracles, and his endorsement of their congregation's ministry, that they missed the primary purpose of Jesus' life. Jesus was sent by God to die a sacrificial death on our behalf to save us from "sin, death, and the devil." The religious people in Jesus' day were much like we are today. We like to dwell upon all the blessings of our life with Jesus, the fellowship of our congregation, and all the wonderful things about being a Lutheran. And yet, we so easily lose sight of what Christianity is really all about--the cross of Christ. In this Gospel lesson Jesus is getting down to the basics and begins to teach that "the Son of man must suffer many things…and be killed, and after three days rise again" (v.31). Peter, like we in the church, accept Jesus as the Messiah. We are sincere, loyal, and openly thank God for all the blessings and miracles in our lives. However, Jesus had to correct Peter, as he regularly corrects us through His voice in the Scripture. Too often we are attracted to Jesus for all the wrong reasons. Jesus drives home this point with the words, "If anyone wants to be with me, they must forget self, carry the cross, and follow me." And then, Jesus added one of the most mystical teachings he ever spoke: "Whoever tries to save their life will lose it; and whoever loses their life for my sake and the Gospel will save it" (v. 35). In other words, we spend nearly our entire existence concerning ourselves with ourselves. If truth be told, our daily lives are hardly effective by an awareness and appreciation for Jesus' death on the cross. Jesus is confronting the issue of priorities in our lives. What priority does the cross have in our experience of worship? Is the cross the most important message in our Scripture reading…In telling others about what it means to be a Christian do we dwell on the cross? As our primary motivation to help others are we empowered by the cross? Is our financial support of Trinity's mission and ministry made possible by the cross? We are reminded of St. Paul's teaching, "Christianity is Christ crucified."
Today's lesson invites us to go back to the basics. Look at the subjects touched upon in just these few verses: Spirit, wilderness, Satan, angels, Jesus, gospel, God, kingdom, repentance. One basic stands out above the others though. The word gospel is used twice in this lesson. This may be the first time it was used in referring to Christ's person and work. Our most basic question is, "What is the gospel?" 1. The gospel is Christ. Without him there would be no Christian gospel. Only because he came--of his own initiative--could Mark write a book called a Gospel. The gospel is something given--a gift--and not something that we either gain by climbing a ladder or do by accomplishing good things. 2. The gospel announces a radical change in the balance of power which prevails in the world. It was Satan who tempted Jesus (v.13). Satan personifies the super-human powers of evil. The world is an arena of battle in which forces hostile to God are extremely powerful. Jesus is engaged in a struggle with these forces. As God's son, Christ is the one who wins the victory over the powers of evil. 3. Another aspect of the gospel which Mark has to mention immediately because it is so basic: repentance and forgiveness. Jesus was the one who could, did, and does forgive. Only the gospel offers and gives forgiveness of sins! 4. There is another aspect of the gospel--faith. "Believe in the gospel" (1:15). The Spirit gives belief/faith as a gift, which allows us to realize our sinful nature and need to be saved. As a free gift, faith enables us to cling to Jesus as the Savior. 5. Among several other aspects of the gospel, one more should be stressed: the presence of the Spirit at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. "The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness," Mark says (v. 12). The Spirit is as essential to the gospel as Jesus Christ is--for without the Spirit we cannot call Jesus Lord. This may be the most overlooked aspect of the gospel in our traditional churches. But we may again be discovering how vital the Holy Spirit is in bringing us to faith. Luther had it all together when he summarized the church's position and his own in the single statement, "The Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel" (the explanation of the Third Article in the Small Catechism).
Mark packs a lot into the details of this Gospel. First, he notes that Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him -- the disciples who accompanied him when Jesus was especially concerned about secrecy. Together, like Moses and Joshua (Exod. 24:13) and Moses alone (Exod. 34), the four of them went "up a high mountain apart by themselves" (v.2). Jesus' "garments became glistening, intensely white," Mark says, and Elijah and Moses "appeared to them" and spoke with Jesus (vv. 3-4). Mark notes and emphasizes the whiteness of Jesus' garments, "as no fuller on earth could bleach them," to show the connection between the transfiguration and Jesus' resurrection. White was considered the color of the angels (Mark 16:5; Rev. 1:13-14), and the color of the clothing to be worn by the resurrected (Rev. 3:4). The appearance of Elijah and Moses points to the coming of the end of time. The people of Jesus' time expected Elijah to appear just before the end. Similarly, some people also expected Moses to appear at the beginning of the end. The transfiguration, then, was a glimpse of Jesus' glory. It confirmed Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ (Mark 8:29), pointed to his resurrection from the dead (v. 9), and showed Jesus as the one who would bring in the end of time. It was this glimpse of Jesus' glory that staggered Peter. He saw more glory then he had ever dreamed of seeing. When he saw it he had only one thing in mind: to try to grab it and hold it, if only for a short while. "Master," he said, "it is well that we are here; let us make three booths or shelters of some kind." Before Peter could start his building program, though, God himself spoke. Addressing Peter and the disciples, God confirmed that Jesus was the Christ " "This is my beloved son," he said. But then he added three short words: "Listen to him" (v.7). These words, "Listen to him," were a reprimand to Peter. Seeing all the glory, Peter wanted to see more, but God wouldn't give him any more than a glimpse. He directed Peter to his ears, steering him from his visions to Christ's word. The true mission of Jesus was to be the suffering Son of man who came for the cross to surrender all his glory to the emptiness and terror of death, for us. So, instead of parading his miracles, he hid them, emptying himself to make us his own. This points, too, to the kind of life we live under the promise. We may pray for visions, as the prayer of the day for this Sunday encourages us to do. But God answers or requests in the same way he answered Peter: "This is my beloved Son; listen to him." We will not see God, nor will we "glimpse the King in all his beauty" now. But we will hear him, and do hear him now. For he is with us, speaking to us, in our congregations, just as he promised. He is coming to us in his Word, coming with water, bread, and wine, to make us new, to bind up or wounds, exorcise our demons, and make us whole. God is stingy with sights and visions, but while he closes our eyes, he opens our ears. And someday, the sooner the better, he will open our eyes as well. For, "as it is written, 'What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,' God has revealed to us through the Spirit" (1Cor. 2:9-10).
Mark helps us avoid the pitfall of a one-sided emphasis on miracles by putting them within the context of Jesus' preaching. In our Gospel today there are several of them-- Mark recognizes these miracles as instances of Christ's freeing power, but doesn't stop there. The purpose of the exchange between Jesus and the disciples (1:35-39) is to tell us that Jesus didn't stop there, either. Seeing the acclaim and recognition that Jesus had won in Capernaum, the disciples expected Jesus to stay in the town and continue what he'd begun. But when they got up in the morning, they found Jesus in a lonely place, praying (v. 35). "Everyone is searching for you," they said, indicating that they expected him to return (v. 37). But Jesus turned the tables. "Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also," He said, "for that is why I came out " (v. 38). Saying this, Jesus told the disciples his purpose: to spread the good news, preaching and teaching throughout Galilee. Seeing the miracles and the kind of recognition they provided, the disciples wanted to stay in Capernaum, riding Jesus' miracle-working power into a more glorious kind of life. But Jesus wouldn't hear of it. "I must go and I must preach," he said in so many words. "That is my purpose." And later, when the disciples were more ready for it, he told them his purpose was to die (see Mark 8:31). He insisted on preaching the word and going to the cross. Jesus' manifestation did not take place in a super earthly realm of glory, but in towns like Nazareth and Capernaum with common, ordinary, everyday people. And it tells us that Jesus' real epiphany was not in the miracles, glorious as they were, but in the word and finally in the cross itself. The miracles are like illustrations, pointing away from themselves to Christ and the cross.
In this week's Gospel, Mark not only demonstrates Jesus' authority, but rules out three misconceptions about it to show its true source. The first misconception Mark rules out was held by the first-century pentecostals. They believed that Jesus' authority rested exclusively in his miracles. Mark corrects their misconception by placing the miracles in the context of Jesus' preaching and teaching. Mark sees no separation between Jesus' preaching and his miracles, but he gives priority to Jesus' preaching and teaching by placing the miracles in that context. The second misconception of Jesus' authority Mark rules out is that it was like the scribes'. The scribes stood on the shoulders of the past, deriving their authority from what had been said in tradition. By contrast, Jesus' authority was immediate, fresh, and underived. The third misconception is that Jesus' authority isn't in the power of his personal appeal, either. Mark rules out this third misconception by indicating the people's astonishment and confusion. The demon's recognition and the exorcism demonstrate both Jesus' authority and its true source. Unlike a wonder worker, Jesus does not put his power on display to prove something about himself. Instead, he silences the demon Unlike the scribes or a personality cultist, Jesus does not derive his authority from other people, past or present. He possesses true authority -- the authority only God can give and exercise. The exorcism illustrates what the crowd has already noticed but not understood -- that as the preacher and teacher of the kingdom of God, Jesus is the bearer of the kingdom. In him, God's kingdom breaks in to destroy the power of every other authority, so "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:9-11). Mark's purpose in this text is to reveal Jesus' true authority in contrast to the misunderstanding of it. Though the people of Capernaum recognized Jesus as the kind of person who commanded respect, they still didn't recognize the true authority of Jesus. That is the point of the exorcism in vv. 23-26. Possessed by a power far greater than his own, the man with the unclean spirit recognized Jesus immediately. "He cried out… 'I know who you are, the Holy One of God'" (v.24). The demon recognized Jesus as the bearer of God's word. As the "Holy One of God," Jesus was the one in whom God exercised his power and dominion over the earth, speaking his word. Jesus spoke the word and drove the demon out. That is Jesus' true authority -- the authority of God himself, the authority of the one who makes all things new. Still the people of Capernaum didn't recognize it. Though they heard Jesus' word and the word of the demon, though they saw the demon cast out, they didn't know what to make of Jesus. They scratched their heads in wonder, assuming that it could only be some new kind of teaching (v.27). There is an epiphany in this story. As Jesus taught and drove out the demon with his word, he showed himself to the people, making his power manifest. But it is a secret epiphany -- the people didn't understand what they saw. The secret was kept until the cross and the resurrection and then revealed only to faith. That is how God manifests himself to us -- in hiddenness, by hiding his word in our words, by showing his power in weakness. Only faith can see such sights, and only faith can hear such a word. For the sight is given only to our ears. Authority is the key word in this text. As Mark uses the word authority in this text, authority means primarily power -- the power of God. Jesus' authority is in his word. As he speaks it, he not only tells us something but does something to us. Just as his word drove the demon out of the man with the unclean spirit, his word forgives us and gives us faith. It is his authoritative word, his powerful word, which creates life in the dead and liberates the possessed.
The way God reveals himself to us is primarily through his word, the word we hear with our ears. To our way of thinking, seeing is more important than hearing. We say things like, "don't believe your ears," "You've got to see it to believe it," "Words are cheap," and so on. We put a lot of stock in our eyes, but not much in our ears. With God, it is the other way around. In fact, Jesus condemned the whole generation he spoke to for their desire to see signs and wonders (Matt. 16:4). And later in the next chapter of John, he removed himself from a crowd who followed him because of what they saw (John 2:23-25). He turned them away from their eyes to open their ears (Luke 11:27-38). The best statement of the tension between seeing and hearing in John's Gospel is Jesus' statement to Thomas: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe (20:29). Jesus condemns those who need to see signs and wonders to believe. Jesus commends hearing, speaking of the power in the word. "Truly, truly, I say to you," he said, "he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life" (5:24). "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." he said (10-27). The same kind of tension between seeing and hearing is present in Paul's letters. "For we walk by faith, not by sight" (2Cor. 5:7). As Luther once said, before God it is as if we have only one organ -- our ears. He may occasionally give sights, as he did in Jesus, but when he makes himself manifest to us, showing us who he is and what we can expect from him, he always does so through the word. The word is the Spirit's instrument, too, or means. Jesus spoke the word to Philip who in turn spoke it to Nathanael. Nathanael then came to Jesus to hear some more. This Gospel reveals to us that there is a priority of hearing overseeing -- the priority of the word of God. Through the Gospel, as it is read and proclaimed, God reveals himself to us. He is present with us in his Word to call us as Nathanael was called; to gather us as the disciples were gathered; to sanctify us as he sanctifies and makes whole all of his people. As Paul says, "Now we see in a mirror dimly." But "then," on the last day, when Christ is all in all, we shall see "face to face" (1Cor. 13:12). Our ears and words play a much bigger part in everyday life than we often realize. It is primarily through hearing that we communicate with other people. The Bible puts so much priority on the word of God because it is through his speaking and our hearing that God expresses himself to us and makes himself known. "No one has ever seen God," but "the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known." We Lutherans believe that when the Gospel is read and proclaimed God himself is speaking to us. In the sacraments, it is the word alone with the water, bread, and wine that makes the sacrament the power of God's forgiveness.