Sunday, December 7, 2014

Who Are We Waiting For, and How Will We Recognize Him When He Comes? (Advent 2) Mark

E. Thor Carlson

"Who Are We Waiting For, And How Will We Recognize Him When He Comes?"
The Parish of Calvary - St. George's Church in the city of New York
December 7th, 2014
Advent 2

On May 19th, 1999, Star Wars: the Phantom Menace was released after a sixteen year wait. In other words, an eternity. For years rumors circulated that George Lucas was just about to film Episodes 1 through 3, but, after so much waiting, many began to lose hope. Succombing to despair himself, I distinctly remember my youth pastor throwing his hands up in the air and saying, “Oh, I’ll believe it when I see it.”  But then, after years of anticipation, the original three movies were re-released with new special effects, and while that was kinda cool kinda lame, hope for what came after was renewed. And then it happened. A movie trailer with footage of a new film, a new story, a new hope.  

I remember going with my youth leader and a few of his friends to a midnight showing, filled with excitement, only to have those hopes dashed two hours later. I had waited, I had kept watch, for so long, but when it came, well, I didn’t know what I was waiting for.

Last week you and I were told to keep awake, to keep watch--like watchmen in the night--for a sudden arrival. We’ve been told to keep watch for two thousand years, in other words an eternity. Only, unlike the newer Star Wars films (with the exception of Episode 3, of course), we're promised that it’s going to be worth the wait. This Advent season, as we watch for the Christ, the Son of God, we need to ask ourselves just who is it exactly that we’re waiting for, and how will we recognize him when he comes?

Our main sources for the life and identity of Jesus are the first four books of the New Testament--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These books are called Gospels--a word meaning good news. Now the word ‘gospel’ can mean the content of Christian proclamation, as it does in Paul’s letters. This is most often the way that Jake and I use the term. So you might think that these first four books of the New Testament would come right out and tell you what to believe about Jesus. But it turns out that three of the four Gospels are more subtle than that. They are not quite proclamation and they are not quite historical or biographical documents either. These first three narratives have an agenda, an extraordinarily subtle literary agenda. They don’t just tell you who Jesus is. Instead, they have a literary strategy that attempts to get you the reader to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?” They want to get under your skin and make you ask and answer the question, “Who is this man?”

The answer to the Gospel question will help us answer the question of advent: Who is it that we’re waiting for, and how will we recognize him when he comes?

The Gospel of Mark--the Gospel we read from this morning--is one of these first three narratives and is very popular today. This high regard for Mark is a relatively new phenomenon.  In contrast to Matthew, Luke, and John, Mark was said to be primitive, rough, undeveloped, written in bad Greek, not to be compared with the other three. Nobody thinks that any more. Many decades of scholarship have shown us that Mark has a deep theological and narrative structure that’s the equal of any of the other three and has a dynamic all its own. (1)

The Gospel opens with the prologue that we just heard read, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  From the outset, we, the readers, are let in on something that the disciples do not know until much later in the narrative. We are told in this short sentence that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Two important titles that we will need to keep in mind as we read the book. That is what we’re told, what we aren’t told is what kind of Christ, what kind of Messiah he is.

We start to develop ideas in the early chapters of Mark as we see him teaching, healing, exorcising, and acting the revolutionary. All this leads to the first high point in the middle of the narrative when, while on a journey with his disciples, Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” There it is... The question of the gospels. Who is Jesus?

They respond, “Some say you’re John the Baptist raised from the dead.” Others are saying you’re Elijah. Still others, one of the other prophets, maybe Jeremiah.  

Then Jesus turns the question away from what the outsiders think to what the disciples think. He asks, “But who do you say that I am?”

Who do you say that I am?” That’s really what the gospels are all about, and to understand the indirect literary strategy of the gospel, we must realize that the question is not just being turned toward the disciples, toward the insiders, but it is turning to face the reader, it’s turning to face me and you and essentially saying, “Dear reader, that’s the question, who do you say Jesus is?”

Peter gets the answer right. He confesses faith in Jesus as Messiah. He says, “You are the Christ. The Son of God.” Notice, it isn’t until this eighth chapter of the book of Mark that Peter finally knows what you and I--the readers--knew at the very beginning. Remember what we read in verse 1, the prologue, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Peter, like us, has discovered Jesus to be a teacher, a healer, an exorcisor, a religious revolutionary of sorts. But more than all of that, at this point in the narrative he sees Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God that he is. What we’ve known about from the beginning, Peter has now discovered. We and Peter are finally on an equal playing field.  

But working with what he’s seen and with what we already knew does not help him very long. For after Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus makes a prediction. He predicts that he will suffer and die and rise again. This Peter doesn’t like. He really doesn’t like it. He doesn’t seem to be listening to the the rising from the dead part. He heard the part about suffering and dying and that did not fit his picture of who the Christ is to be. It did not fit his Messianic paradigm. Peter is evidently thinking: The Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God is the King, the successor to David, he’s going to kick those Romans out and restore the kingdom to Israel. That’s the Messiah we want. Not a Messiah who is going to suffer. Not a Christ who is going to get killed. What Jesus is talking about doesn’t make any sense for Peter so he rebukes Jesus. He basically tries to persuade Jesus not to be that kind of Messiah. A Christ who suffers. A Son of God that no one wants.

Working with what we, the readers, were let in on at the very beginning, Peter gets Jesus all wrong. Jesus’s reply to Peter’s rebuke is that famous saying that shocks everyone who reads it. He says to his leading disciple, his friend, “Get behind me, Satan!” In calling Peter Satan, Jesus identifies Peter as one who speaks for the tempter. It’s supposed to be shocking. Working with what we knew about Jesus from the beginning, Peter gets it right only to get it so very wrong.

So who is Jesus? Who is it that you and I are waiting for? How will we recognize him when he comes?

What the author of Mark is doing here is very interesting from a literary standpoint. Up to this point his gospel is subtly and indirectly posing the question to the reader, “Who is Jesus?” but, as this episode makes clear, reader beware, don’t be too quick to answer. For as the narrative moves forward we learn more and more about him. We begin to realize that this isn’t just any King, this isn’t just any hero.

The answer to the Gospel question--the revelation of Jesus’s true identity--isn’t known until the chosen moment. It isn’t until the second highpoint of Mark’s Gospel that the narrator finally unveils it. This “messianic secret” isn’t revealed until Good Friday when a Roman centurion, standing at the foot of the cross, looks up to see Jesus suffering and dying and says, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

We do not know who Jesus is as Messiah until this very moment. The moment when we see an outsider, a member of the hated occupying powers, one who is unclean, one who had a hand in crucifying Jesus, a representative of the ungodly, recognize Jesus for who he truly is.  It is at this moment that we see this king do what kings don’t do, he lays down his life for all--both insiders and outsiders, you and me. This is Mark’s plan, to withhold the full revelation of Jesus the Christ until he undergoes a humiliating death on a cross of wood.  Where Peter, looking for glory, got it wrong, a sinner looking at the Cross got it right.

Notice, we can’t get the full impression of Jesus’s identity if we only read Mark in snippets. It is in reading the whole story that we are equipped to answer the question that Mark and the other Gospels poses to us. What’s more, the answer to this question helps us answer the question of Advent, because we know who we’re waiting for. One who gained power by giving it away. One who laid down his life not just for his friends, but even his enemies. One who bled and died so that when he comes again he might not condemn us, but embrace us.

And this is why we anticipate our Lord’s arrival this Advent season.  This is why we watch--like watchmen in the night.  For when he comes he will not disappoint like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. When he comes he’ll make the whole world new.

(1) Fleming Rutledge, “Power Belongs to God,” Delivered at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Salisbury, Connecticut, 01/22/12.

(2) The Teaching Company’s Phillip Cary’s has a fantastic lecture on the Synoptic Gospels in his “History of Christian Theology” class. Some of his ideas helped get it going for me.

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