read Mark 1. Why are there four different gospels, each giving slightly different details about the story of Jesus’ life? The answer, I think, lies within the gospels themselves.
Here’s what happens in Mark 1: John baptizes people in the Jordan River; John baptizes Christ, and a voice from heaven says that Jesus is God’s Son; Christ is tempted in the wilderness; John is arrested; Jesus calls his disciples; Jesus casts out an evil spirit, who knows who Jesus is; Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and many sick people and casts out many demons; Jesus goes to an isolated place to pray; he leaves Galilee and preaches in many other towns; he heals a man with leprosy. The pace is dizzying. Why?
The traditional explanation is that Mark’s gospel is aimed at Jewish readers, familiar with the prophesies of the Hebrew Scriptures. While that is presumably true, if God inspired the Bible, then its purpose must be bigger than that. It must be written for all of us. Why is the gospel of Mark the shortest? Why is it only 16 chapters? Why is it so action packed? Why does Mark summarize in four words what other gospel writers take an entire chapter to explain?
Thomas Jefferson once apologized for writing a long letter, saying he didn’t have time to write a short one. There is power in a short description. It has a different effect than a longer one. Perhaps the clue to Mark’s purpose lies in the very first sentence of his gospel: “This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” Mark cuts to the chase. In his opening sentence Mark claims Jesus is the Messiah; Jesus is the Son of God; and that the story about Jesus is the Good News, or the gospel – in other words, that it’s true, and that he came to save. If Mark’s goal is to confront you with the astounding claims about Jesus, then to tell his story in an action packed way similarly forces the reader to confront the miraculous facts about Jesus’ life. Mark presumably doesn’t want the impact of Christ’s life to get lost in the details. By the way, he seems to be saying, in case you missed it: Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus works miracles. Repent and believe!
If you read the gospels, you will notice that Jesus speaks differently to every person he meets. Jesus is a personal God. He meets every person where they are. If you extrapolate this principle out to the way God inspired the Bible, then it stands to reason that the Bible is designed to meet every person where they are. Mark, therefore, presumably meets people in their skepticism. Mark confronts our doubts, excuses and rationalizations. There is a part of each of us that is able to rationalize any action: a lie creeps in, quickly and insidiously, that says: you can do whatever you want. You can be your own God.
No, Mark’s gospel says. Actually, you can’t. There is one God. He had one Son. That Son wants you to repent and believe in Him. Don’t listen to the lie. Not for even one second. Obey Him and live.
Sometimes, we need our truth straight up like that. Sometimes, we need the truth in a bracing manner. It’s like when you’re cramming for an exam. You’ve re-read the textbook. You’ve reviewed your class notes. You’ve prepared essay questions. Now all that’s left is to speed read your way through the highlights. Oh, right, you think. I remember now. There is a God, and I am not He.
It’s a relaxing, exhilarating, inspiring, energizing realization. Thanks, we think. I needed that.
So if the goal here is to confront us with the truth, what is the truth that we find in Mark 1? In other words, what is it about these details that strike us with the force of a blow? What pops?
The first question Mark 1 raises for me is: why does it begin with John the Baptist? Why did Jesus need a messenger to clear the way for him? Why did John the Baptist have to come first? If Jesus is God’s Son, wouldn’t he have been enough?
Yes, of course. Jesus is always enough, no matter what. But apparently there is something important about clearing the road. It’s like that old dating adage: if you want to find Mr. Right, you have to clear away all the Mr. Wrongs. Otherwise, there won’t be room in your heart. If you’re all clogged up with trying to fix the Mr. Wrong’s in your life, and you’re trapped in the impossible, head-banging task of trying to force them into being Mr. Right, you’ll miss it when the real Mr. Right saunters up to you, whistling. You won’t even hear the sound of his voice.
Apparently, hearing Jesus’ voice involves quieting down all the wrong voices.
Which brings us back to my original question: why do we hear Jesus’ voice in four different gospels? Again, the answer lies embedded in each gospel. Mark launches into the story of Jesus with “One day Jesus”… and he’s off and running. Mark begins the story not in the manger, but in media res – in the middle of things – with Jesus’ baptism. The heavens split apart – there’s a sense of circularity here – the heavens are torn open, just as they will be again on the cross. Mark’s gospel appeals, I think, not just to the part of us that needs confronting, but the part of us that recognizes patterns. We are all made in God’s image, after all, and God is the original pattern maker. He is the Creator. He is creative. Recognizing patterns is one of the signs of genius – and God places that ability in each of us. It’s fun to connect the dots. We enjoy it, just as we enjoyed doing it mechanically with our pencil when we were young. In telling the story by summarizing the events, Mark is boiling the details down to dots. Connect them, Mark seems to be saying. You’ll see for yourself what picture emerges.
As I mentioned above, another effect of Mark’s style – summarizing into details – is that I find myself asking questions about the details. Why does the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove? Why not a hawk? Once again, you can connect the dots on this one for yourself. What are the aspects of a dove? Answer the question on your own, and you’ll begin to get a picture of God’s style. There is a gentleness that descends from above, rather than a predatory, sharp-beaked, evil-clawed way.
And why do the people hear a voice from heaven when Christ is baptized? Why did people hear God’s voice out loud then, and not at other times? Why didn’t Christ walk around with a voice from heaven all the time, so that Christ’s life was like a narrated movie?
This raises the bigger question of how each of us experience God. Why can’t we have neon signs all the time: THIS WAY TO GOD! DON’T GO THAT WAY! BIG MISTAKE! GO THIS WAY! Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a violently loud GPS blaring all around us each day? Apparently not. In my experience, God speaks to me differently every day. When I was new to the faith, I had far more neon signs. Now, He speaks more subtly – I would like to think because He has taught me how to listen better. But the one thing I know about God is that He’s never predictable. He always surprises – and that’s because He is God, and I am not. Why, then does this loving God not speak out loud to us all the time? I don’t know, but I find I am most able to change when the voice that speaks to me is the voice of love that whispers softly to my heart. There is something in me that responds, for instance, when I hear Christ explain in the gospel of John: “my sheep know my voice.” I do. I hope I do know God’s voice – it’s more loving, kind, gentle, and strong than any human voice I’ve ever heard. I suppose it doesn’t have to speak out loud – we can hear it even when, perhaps particularly when, it’s quiet.
Mark then tells us that the Spirit “compelled” Christ into the desert. It’s a fascinating surprising verb. We think the desert cannot be God’s will for us, yet I can personally vouch that the desert made me kinder, sweeter, more tolerant, and more patient. It did so not through my own effort, but because the desert forced me to rely on God. Leaning on God’s arm, I found qualities in Him I was lacking in myself.
Mark doesn’t go into the temptation of Christ – we have other gospels for that. He just summarizes it. Jesus was tempted. He was “out among the wild animals” and angels took care of him. Matthew didn’t mention the wild animals in his gospel. So what’s up with the wild animals? I have no clue, but once again, each detail of this gospel sticks out like a banner.
I suppose, that as with the internal rhythms of all great works, the wild animals foreshadow the end to come. Even in the first chapter of Mark lies the hint of the last chapter. Perhaps the wild animals are there as a reminder that there lurks in every human breast the heart of a wild animal. Each of us has the propensity to sin. We each wrestle with the desire to obey God – and the equal opposing desire to be God. It was for this propensity to sin that God’s Son – for Mark is clear that there is no other way to view Jesus – died for us. One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and three years later, he will leave in shame – so that we can walk without shame.
“This is the Good News, about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” Mark begins with the beginning, and also the seeds of the end. It’s a fitting way to cut to the chase, for a story about a man who said he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Believing in Jesus is the beginning of your new life, and the end of your old life. It’s accepting that part of you should be living with the wild animals, but that God loves you so much, He wants you to live with Him in glory instead. Leave the desert of an empty life, and find the joy that transcends any desert experience. It’s the joy of running in the path prepared for you by the Son of God. The path is clear, true and ready for you. All you have to do is take the first step.
posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on November 21, 2011