The Unpardonable Sin, Baseball, & Doing the Will of God

Title slide showing a photo of the Pittsburgh Pirates playing at their home stadium

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
April 7, 2024
Mark 3:20-35.   

What is the unpardonable sin? As we’ll see in our reading this morning, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not forgivable. When I was an early teen, I thought this meant one could not say, G-D. Now, we shouldn’t say that word, but the idea of it being unpardonable was scary. Ever hit your thumb with a hammer? If that’s the unpardonable sin, should I give up hope. I’d committed the sin, along with most everyone I knew. And if there’s no hope, we’ll I might as well not worry about other sins. 

But what is this sin. After all, Jesus never clearly defines the unpardonable sin. I would later hear the sin described as one who repeatedly denied the call of the Spirit to repentance until it was too late. That’s the approached taken by the evangelist A. B. Earle, in his sermon titled “The Unpardonable Sin. He preached this sermon frequently while on the sawdust trail across the American West in 1866-1867. 

He told of a Civil War surgeon who patient artery was cut. He could only hold the artery so long. He knew when he let go, the patient would likely bleed out before he could sew it up.[1] He used this story to encourage those at his revivals to immediately get right with God. Earle pulled a few emotional strings by threatening damnation if they don’t accept Jesus. Interestingly, that’s not something Jesus ever did. Yet, Earle definition of the unpardonable sin seems closer to the truth than mumbling the wrong word in frustration. 

As one scholar noted, if we are worried about having the committed the sin, it is obvious that we haven’t committed it. Furthermore, there is no Scriptural record of God denying forgiveness for those who ask for it.[2] That’s the good news!

Before reading the Scripture

After two weeks further ahead in Mark’s gospel, we’ve moved back to the 3rd chapter. Here we see one of Mark’s literary techniques. He creates a sandwich. Here, he places Jesus’ teaching in the middle, between interactions with people.[3]

We will also see a new name for Satan, Beelzebub. There is some question as to the actual meaning of this name. Perhaps it derived from the ancient Baal gods, but we don’t know. Instead, the context in the passage clarifies its meaning, referring to the ruler of demons.[4] Or Satan. 

Read Mark 3:20-35

It’s baseball season. And the Pirates started off hot, winning their first five games! But that doesn’t have anything to do with today’s passage. 

Do any of you remember Red Barber? For a Southern boy, he did good. For many years, Red was the announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1953, he was stolen away by the Yankees. And in the 1950s, before my memory, the Yankees were the hottest things in Baseball and Barber was the hottest thing on radio. 

After his retirement, Red did a short weekly program for National Public Radio. This is how I came to know of him. During this era, I didn’t own a TV and caught the news on NPR.  

Sometime around 8:30 on Friday mornings, Bob Edwards, the show’s host, would give a call to Red at his Florida home. Bob and Red would chat about important things to the kingdom, like gardening and baseball. Red always stole the conversation from the younger Bob, whom he referred to as “Colonel.” “Fridays with Red” always made you feel good, and they kept the show going for 12 years. It was a sad day when Bob announced to his listeners of Red’s death in 1992. 

A year after Red’s death, Bob Edwards published a wonderful memoir titled Fridays with Red. If you’d like to be taken back to a simpler time, I recommend it. He tells this story in the book.

Red was also an Episcopal lay reader. He should have been a Presbyterian, as he grew up attending the Presbyterian Sunday School, but he married an Episcopalian. This is kind of like how things work in baseball. One farm team raises up a player and another team reap the benefits… I suppose our efforts helped strengthen the larger church with Red’s development. Red would become a favorite in the pulpit and often led worship services for the Yankees when they were on the road. (My cynical side thinks the Yankees are always in need of some good preaching.) 

Red titled his favorite sermons, preached many times, “Look Behind the Cape.” He described having once gone to a bull fight. He detested the afternoon. A bull slaughtered for sport wasn’t sportsman-like to Red, but when in Spain you do as the Spaniards. Red admitted, he found himself rooting for the bull. In the arena, the bull becomes confused. That’s why he always loses. Before being released from the chute, the handlers aggerate the bull. Then he charges the only thing he can see, the red cape. He becomes so focused on the cape, that he pays no attention to the matador, the one with the sword. 

Red said he even tried mental telephony, telling the bulling to “look behind the cape.”[5]

That’s good advice. Look behind the cape. What are peoples’ intentions? And, while we are at it, what are our intentions. Where do our allegiances lie? We should also look behind our capes before we go seeking what’s behind others. Jesus said something like this in the Sermon on the Mount.[6]

The third chapter of Mark’s gospel began with the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders breaking out into war. We saw this in verse 6, when the Pharisee’s recruited their enemies, the Herodians, to help do away with Jesus.

But the religious leaders have a problem. Jesus is gifted with great power to do wonderful things. And, because of his miracles, he draws huge crowds. 

So many people flock to Jesus, he’s left with no time to eat. His family is concerned, so they suggest Jesus is out of his mind. 

The scribes are now coming after Jesus on a new tack. They attempt to convince the crowd that Jesus’ powers are demonic. 

Look behind the cape! What are the intentions of the religious leaders? Is it to help those caught up in sin and evil? Or do they desire to protect their power? Jesus used his powers for the good! Not thinking about the good he’s done; the leaders want to do away with Jesus so they can continue to enjoy their privilege spot in society. 

But Jesus is clever. He doesn’t accuse the religious leaders of working for Satan. That would have resulted in each side calling the kettle black. Instead, Jesus asks a riddle, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” “Why would Satan do himself in? If Satan has the power over a person, he won’t give it up without a battle.” Then Jesus tells a parable which is key to understanding his work in the world.

How can a man enter the house of a strong man and plunder the strong man’s goods? On a quick reading, we might think Jesus refers to the crime of breaking and entering. But then, we realize Jesus isn’t talking about a thief. He’s referring to himself. 

The “strong man” house which Jesus breaks into belongs to Satan. But Satan’s possessions don’t really belong to him. So don’t think Jesus is encouraging robbery. Jesus frees people from Satan’s power by tying up the “strong man.” Only by doing so, can he free those caught in Satan’s trap of sin and deceit. 

Next, Jesus refers to the unpardonable sin. Again, as I said at the beginning of the service, this is a difficult passage to understand. In Jesus’ words here, we find encouragement at the possibility of forgiveness. But we’re also warned against suggesting the Spirit’s power in Jesus is demonic. If we want to experience forgiveness, we must be willing to accept Jesus’ offer. 

Finally, Mark lays the other slice of bread onto the sandwich by returning to his family. We’re told that Jesus’ mother and brothers are waiting outside for him. While we are not told whether Jesus goes out to greet them. Instead, Jesus uses this news to teach something else. “Who are my mother and brothers?” he asks. And then he answers himself, “Whoever does the will of God.” 

Jesus crowns this sandwich with this last teaching. We should turn it into a question we ask ourselves, as we look behind our own capes. Are we doing the will of God? Or do we have some alternative motive? Our faith must be centered on God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ. What’s important isn’t our wants and desires, but God’s will. Amen. 


[1] I discuss this sermon in detail in my article on Earle’s revivals. See Charles Jeffrey Garrison, “Bringing In Sheaves: The Western Revivals of the Reverend A. B. Earle, 1866-1867,” American Baptist Quarterly XXXV, #3 (Fall 2006), 247-272.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 224.

[3] Edwards, 117;  and Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 1996), 50

[4] Edwards, 120.  See also Hare, 50 and Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publisher, 1997), 115-116.

[5] Bob Edwards, Fridays with Red (New York: Pocket Books, 1993), 145. 

[6] Matthew 7:1-5. 

Solo Backpacking in Idaho, 1988

title slide with photo of camp sign and the Boulder Mountains

Hunkered down in a storm

dead tree high in the Boulder Mountains
Dead tree (probably from lightning) in the Idaho high country

Looking back, it was foolish. Out west, in the summer, one should never climb high passes late in the afternoon. But the summer of 1988 had been so dry. Afternoon thunderstorms were infrequent. I didn’t give it much thought. but should have known better. Hiking alone and cross-country made my decision even more dangerous.

I could have spent a lazy afternoon sulfur springs by the old Bowery mine, reading, napping, and soaking. But instead, I decided to make it back early and spend Saturday night in Ketchum. Or maybe I would head north to the Stanley Stomp. After a week of hiking alone, a cold beer and real food sounded good. So, I set out up the climb up the backside of Ryan Peak. But at around 9,000 feet, I found myself huddled in my sleeping bag under a tarp weighed down with ice.

The Storm

The storm blew up quickly, not long after I left tree line. I still had 1000 feet or so of vertical to cover when I first heard thunder. I hasty retreated downhill, to where the stubby trees began. Soon, lightning popped around the dusty mountains, dry from the summer’s drought that had burned up much of Yellowstone.  I could smell the ozone.

Then came the rain. I pulled on my rain parka as hard pelting drops of cold water assaulted. Quickly, I strung a line between two trees. I threw my tarp over the line, and quickly tied off the ends to rocks and logs as the nylon sheet flapped in the wind. Securing it enough not to blow away, I climb under it. Stripping off my rain jacket and pulled on a sweater and slid into rain pants to warm my wet legs. I leaned back against my pack, while watching lightning bolts pop around me. Waiting, I ate a candy bar and wondered again, what I was doing this high up in mid-afternoon.

The storm didn’t last long. When it had passed, I heard more rumblings from behind the mountains, so I set about making sure the tarp was secure and all my gear dry. Fifteen minutes after the first storm passed, the second one hit. This time the sky dropped hail and sleet. I again retreated to my tarp, which was soon covered in accumulating ice. Shivering with cold, pulled out my sleeping bag and covered it with a ground cloth and crawled inside. I quickly warmed up. I began to ponder the danger of fire from lightning strikes. 

My plan had been to spend this week hiking in Yellowstone, but so much of that park was burning that I decided to stay in Idaho where I’d been running a camp for the summer. This was my one week off and I’d planned to spend it in the backcountry. 

At least, I thought, we’re getting some rain. Of course, it wasn’t enough to reduce the fire danger and the lightning made it move problematic. However, I shouldn’t have to worry too much for at this altitude, even if a fire occurred, there wasn’t much to burn. 

Preparing for evening

After the second storm, I walked to a nearby stream and filled a pan with water for noodles. Coming back, I set up my stove and fired it up. The roar of the burner drowned out any other noise as I boiled water. Before adding noodles, I poured off a cup for some tea, then added noodles and let it boil while I savored the tea. At this elevation, it seems to take forever to cook noodles. When they were done, I drained off the water, mixed in some powder milk and the package cheese mix and was soon devouring a pot of macaroni and cheese.

My week on the trail

I’d been hiking all week. The first four days I did a loop within the Sawtooth Mountain Wilderness Area. Then I came back to camp, picked up more provisions, and set out on my second leg of my journey. I was dropped off just north of Galena Summit. I hiked up Grand Prize Gulch. Mostly, I hiked cross country, following streams flowing from the north side of the Bounder Mountains into the Salmon River. 

West Pass, Boulder Mountains, Idaho
West Pass

After crossing the pass at the end of Grand Prize Gulch, I dropped down into the West Fork of the East Fork of the Salmon River, or at least I think that’s the name of the stream. It’s certainly not a very creative name, but most of the streams in this part of the country seem to have such names. It was also just a small creek. I followed it a few miles stopping for the evening. I set up camp under lodgepole pines. After dinner, I sat around enjoying a cup of tea while watching the light fade from the valley. .


Birds woke me the next morning as the valley filled with light. The sun rays seemed muted a bit with so much dust and smoke from the Hell’s Canyon fire burning to the west. After my usual breakfast of oatmeal and tea, washed down with a pint of Tang, I continued hiking downstream. Soon, I came to a two-track road that hadn’t been used for a long while since there were no tire tracks in the dust. The road was probably built for mining, but I had a suspicion it was now only used occasional, mostly in the fall by hunters. 

Bowery Hot Springs

I continued along the path heading for the hot sulfur springs at a place on the map called Bowery. I could smell the sulfur before I arrived. Once there, I shed my pack and took a leisurely lunch, eating crackers, with cheese and peanut butter while soaking in the creek at the confluence of the water from the hot springs. There, where the hot and frigid waters met, I found a place where the temperature was just right and soaked my body. 

After lunch, I explored the area. There was an old mine that drifted back into the hillside, from which flowed warm water. I took out my flashlight and looked inside. I knew better than to go exploring. Mines are hazards, not just from cave-ins or unmarked shafts, but also from bad air and gasses that might quickly cause one to lose consciousness. Unlike most mines, which are quite cool, this one was warmed because of the hot water. From the entrance, I could see the supporting timbers had rotted. 

Heading toward Ryan Peak

Lupine along a trail
Lupine, this photo was taken on another hike in Idaho

In early-afternoon, I packed my stuff back up and continued, following West Pass Creek. A few miles upstream, I came to an old mining cabin. The roof had collapse and the logs were rotten. Looking around, I found a rusty shovel and a pile of old tin cans. I kept hiking. About 3 PM, left the creek, cutting cross country, aiming for the saddle west of Ryan Peak. I spotted snowbanks, tucked in under the high peaks, shaded from the sun. While climbing up a draw and breathing heavily, I surprised a large elk. The beast turned to look at me, allowing me a good view of his large rack. Then he fled. 

Climbing higher, the trees began to thin out and the slope became steeper. With no trail and a steep pitch, I began to zigzag, crossing back and forth over a small stream of snow melt. The trees became shorter. In the draw, by the trickle of water, Indian paintbrush and lupine with their tiny purple flowers grew. Such discoveries had been set aside once the thunderstorms hit. 

Evening

That night, after the storms and dinner, a third thunderstorm moved through the area. I went to bed early, reading till the light faded from the sky, then falling asleep. I dreamed of fires. Every time I woke, I’d looked around for flames and sniffed the air for smoke. 

Morning

I was relieved when morning arrived. Everything was fresh and clean; the dust had been purged away and sage scented the air. A cool light breeze blew out of the north, gently flapping the tarp, helping it dry. I fixed myself a cup of tea and a bowl of oatmeal. After eating, I wrote of yesterday’s adventures in my journal and read some Psalms. Then I packed up, shouldered my pack, and continued the climb. 

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I took a break at the top of the pass, tanking up on water. Dropping down the south side of the saddle, I came upon the trail to Ryan’s Peak and followed it as it zigzagged through the sage, down into the valley. I passed a few day hikers, the first people I’d seen in almost 48 hours. They were  As they headed up to the peak, we exchanged a quick greeting. I didn’t stop until I was at upper stretch of the North Branch of the Big Wood River. These waters flowed into the Snake River and through Camp Sawtooth, my home for the summer.. 

I paused for a snack while watching a man with a fly rod cast into a pond behind a beaver dam. He didn’t seem to be having much luck. After a short rest, I continued, walking the dirt road toward camp. I was surprised the ground was so dusty. When I got back early that afternoon, still in time to get to town for the evening, I discovered that although those at the camp could hear the storms and see the lightning the evening before, the camp didn’t receive a drop of rain.

Boulder Mountains look up from Idaho 75, mountain reflecting in a small lake along Big Wood River.
Boulder Mountains looking from the west along Idaho 75

Easter 2024

title slide with sunrise photo

Jeff Garrison 
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches 
March 31, Easter Sunday 2024
Mark 16:1-8

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, March 30, 2024

At the beginning of worship: 

I’ve told you this story before, but it’s one of the most moving conversion stories I’ve heard. In her book, Traveling Mercies, Ann Lamott writes about being totally down and out. It was 1984. She lived on a small houseboat on the San Francisco Bay. She had an abortion because the father was married. But something went wrong after she was released from the clinic. She started hemorrhaging blood. Instead of seeking help, she self-medicated through alcohol and drugs. She wanted to die. 

Throughout this time, she felt someone sitting at the foot of the loft where she had her bed. She turned on the light. No one was there. But she was sure it was Jesus watching over her. He was gone in the morning. However, for the next few days, she felt as if Jesus followed her like a cat. And, like a cat, she knew if she ever let him in, she could never get rid of him. But after about a week, she relented. She accepted Jesus into her life.[1]

Like Lamott, we may be down and out. We may be filled with grief. We may be looking for direction. And then Jesus shows up. Sometimes, like with Lamott, he’s by himself. Other times he shows up through the actions of another believer who reaches out to us. And Jesus offers hope. The tomb is no longer the end. Life is beautiful and continues. “Come, follow me, let me show you,” Jesus says. 

Before the Reading of Scripture: 

Last week, I talked about how short Mark’s account of the crucifixion is, when compared to the other gospel. Mark provides the basic facts, nothing more. “Just the facts, Ma’am,” as Sargent Joe Friday of Dragnet used to say. 

As it was with the crucifixion, so it is with the resurrection. This is especially if we only look at the original ending. The oldest manuscripts end at verse 8, leaving the reader in suspense. In the third century, there were some attempts to clean up Mark’s ending. A shorter and a longer ending was added. But this was couple centuries later. Most Bibles identity them as a shorter and a longer ending. 

There have been many debates about the reason why Mark’s ending. 

  • Was the original ending lost? 
  • Did Mark not get to finish his manuscript before he was torn away to be martyred? 
  • Is this an attempt at some literary move which forces the reader to complete the story themselves. 
  • Did Mark think that too many people were focusing on Jesus’ resurrection, and Mark wants to emphasize Jesus’ ministry? 

All of these are options as to why Mark cut his ending short. 

While Jesus’ doesn’t appear in Mark’s original ending, Mark continually makes it clear, starting in the 8th chapter, that Jesus would be killed and would rise from the grave.[2] I tend to think Mark wants the reader to finish the story. The empty tomb is frightening. The speechless women leave us pondering what happened and what this story means. 

Read Mark 16:1-8

Mark has an interesting way of telling the Easter story. Just after the sun rises, two women, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome, head to the tomb. We saw these women twice in our passage last week. First, they were off in a distance watching the crucifixion. Then, they saw where Jesus’ body was laid.[3]

They’ve come to the tomb for the sole purpose of anointing Jesus’ body. They know he’s dead., but hey want to prepare the corpse for its eventual decay. As Jesus’ friends, they carry with them spices and bandages. It’s their duty and a way to say goodbye and to put this part of their life behind them. Doing this act, just as we hold funerals, is a marker that allows them to say goodbye and then to resume their lives.[4]  

Because Jesus died late on the day before the Sabbath, he had to be quickly placed in the tomb before the Sabbath began at sunset. So, there wasn’t time to properly prepare the body for the grave.

These women set out to do what they were not able to do on Friday. Yet, they head to the tomb with some faith. After all, they know they can’t roll away the stone in front of the tomb. They have faith someone will show up to help. Along the way they discuss this problem. Unable to come up with an answer, they proceed with faith. 

Surprise at the Tomb

Then, when they reach the tomb, they find the unexpected has happened. The stone has already been removed. And when they look inside, instead of finding Jesus, they see a young man dressed in white. 

Obviously, he’s a messenger from God.  Seeing him, they’re alarmed, which seems to be an unnecessary bit of information. Of course, they’re alarmed. We’d be, too. There’s no body and there’s this strangely dressed man who seems to know their intentions. 

This young man acknowledges they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified. Certainly, those who suffered on the cross don’t rise from the grave. Yet, that’s what he said has happened. Jesus has been raised. They are to go and tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. 

And what do the women do? Scared to death, they flee. They don’t tell anyone what happened. After all, who’d believe them? That is the original ending of the book of Mark.[5] And it’s where I am ending the text we’re wrestling with today. 

Mark’s gospel compared to John’s

There is a reason Mark’s gospel contains the least favorite resurrection story. Most of us prefer John account, with its beautiful language and storytelling, which we heard at sunrise this morning. There, we’re told Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone. It’s still dark. She comes, probably wanting some quiet time with Jesus’ body, only to find the stone rolled away and Jesus missing. She runs and tells the disciples. Next, there’s the foot race between Peter and John to see which one will arrive first at the tomb.

While Peter and John check out the tomb, Mary Magdalene hangs around outside. A strange man comforts her. She takes him as the gardener. But when this man calls Mary by name, she recognizes him. Out of a deep devotion, she calls him Rabbi… Jesus has made his first resurrection appearance.

Mark’s Endings

But Mark ends his story with the women running away so distraught that they cannot tell anyone. It doesn’t seem right. Of course, they do eventually tell someone, how else would we know. A century or so later, in the end of the second or early in the third century, we have two additional endings of Mark’s gospel. One is short, the other is long. 

The long one contains several interesting appearances of Jesus along with a commissioning that speaks of them handling snakes and drinking poison, something not mentioned in the other gospels and certainly not done in most Presbyterian Churches. Besides, they seem to go against the command not to put God to the test. So that ending is questionable.

The original ending of Mark’s gospel leaves us wondering. How do we finish the story. Do we believe it? And, if so, does it make any difference in our lives?

Where Jesus’ Meets Us

Another way to understand the ending is to consider what the women were told. They were to tell the disciples that Jesus was going to meet them in Galilee. Why Galilee, we might wonder? Well, Galilee is where they’re from. They’re tourists or pilgrims in Jerusalem. They were raised and lived in Galilee. It’s where they work, and their families livet. In other words, Galilee is their ordinary life. 

And where does Jesus meet us? For some, it happens in church, but most often, I suggest, Jesus meets us where we live and work and play. Or Jesus meets us in our pain, as he did with Anne Lamott. In other words, Jesus meets us in the ordinary. 

Hope at the Empty Tomb 

We gather here today as Christians have gathered over the millenniums, because the empty tomb gives us hope and provides us with possibilities of what life is all about. We gather because once we investigate the empty tomb, our lives are changed. No longer do we need to look back, like the women did when they were ready to anoint the body with spices. 

We can now look forward into a new and exciting future being created by God. On Easter, we’re reminded not to only enter the tomb in sadness, but to pause and look around in awe and then leave amazed at what God can do.   

Conclusion

God’s power extends over death, so we no longer must be afraid of dying. God’s power extends over evil, so we no longer must be afraid of what might happen to us in this frightening world. God’s power extends over our lives so that we don’t have to live in fear that we’ll mess us. “Do not be afraid,” the young man said to the women, “for the tomb is empty.” Halleluiah! Christ is risen! Amen.  


[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 48-50. 

[2] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Commentary (Louisville: WJKP, 1997), 223. 

[3] Mark 15:40-41 and 47. See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/03/24/jesus-crucifixion-as-told-by-mark/

[4] The Jewish tradition honored the body but didn’t not try to embalm the body like the Egyptians. James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 491.

[5] There are several possibilities according to Bruce Metzger: 1. The evangelist intended to close his Gospel at this place. 2. The Gospel was never finished. Or 3. The Gospel accidentally lost its last leaf before it was transcribed. See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (1971, United Bible Societies, 1975), n7.  

Sunrise off Laurel Fork Road, March 21, 2024

Easter Traditions

Easter Tradition title slide with photo of me and my siblings from the early 1970s, along with a photo of a jitterbug

I can recall many Easter traditions from my childhood. Of course, we went to church. That was true regardless of the holiday. If it was a Sunday, we were in church. We often had ham with pineapple baked on top for dinner. And sometimes we’d go for a ride around Greenfield Lake, looking at the flowers. I can only remember going once to a sunrise service before I could drive myself. I think it was too much to get a family of six up that early!.

Me (to the left) with my siblings in front of my Dad's Ford Torino in the early 70s
In front of Dad’s Torino, early 1970s
from left; Me, my sister, my brother, & in front, our younger brother

But two traditions stand out. The first, before Mom allowed us to ditch our new church clothes for play clothes, we had to pose for a family portrait. My parents made us stand at attention in front of some flowers, generally azaleas which often bloomed in Eastern North Carolina around Easter. But one year, Dad had a new yellow Ford Torino that was brighter than any of the flowers in the neighborhood. They lined my siblings and me up in front of the car. It must have been around 1971 or 72. 

Before church, we always received our Easter basket, even though we had to sit them aside until afterwards because my Mom didn’t want us to get chocolate on our new clothes. Of course, this didn’t keep me from trying to sneak a piece of candy or two into church. Each basket came with a small gift. I’m pretty sure Mom prepared the baskets for us kids. It included eggs which we’d dyed the day before, along with a variety of candy. My favorite were the malt balls covered with chocolate and hard candy. It’s still a favorite just in case anyone is reading needs a hint. 

While Mom handled the candy and decorating, I’m sure Dad picked out the small gift, at least for us boys. I have no idea what kind of gift my sister received, but the males of the family almost always received some sort of fishing gear. Over the years, there were packets of plastic worms and a variety of lures, but the one that I will always remember was a yellow jitterbug with silver strips on top. This was the Easter after my brother and I received a Zepco fishing rod for Christmas. I was in the second grade. My brother’s jitterbug black. They were both larger lures. When it came to fishing, Dad’s ambition was large.

Interestingly, I thought I remembered what happened to those two lures. My brother’s ended up on a powerline over my Uncle Frank’s pond and for years you could see it dangling there, beside other lures and tackle, looking like a trotline for a flying fish. He grew tired of me joking about his failure to catch flying-fish. But my memory tricked me. A few years ago, when I told this story, my brother insisted he still had his jitterbug. The next time I saw him, he even produced it. So, it must have been another lure that my brother sacrificed to flying fish. 

I never lost my jitterbug while fishing. It remained in my freshwater tackle box; its paint having flaked a bit over the decades. Someone broke into my car and stole that tackle box when I lived in Utah. I only hope the lure still catches fish.

A jitterbug is an ideal lure to catch bass. In the evening, as the air cools, the fish move close to the surface to feast on bugs. The lure stays on the top of the water, and waddles back and forth, much like giant water bug. The fish hears and feels this movement across the surface and strike, ending up on the wrong end of a triple hook. 

Recalling this tradition of receiving fishing lures for Easter, it seems this is an appropriate Easter gift. My favorite post-resurrection story of Jesus is him on the beach, roasting fish for the disciples who’d spent the evening on the water. A few of the disciples were fisherman and Jesus tells them that they’re to continue to fish, only for people. They’re to continue to cast out metaphorically onto the water.

the author fishing at sunset in the Quetico Wilderness in Western Ontario
Fishing in the evening in the Quetico. While I don’t think I caught this pike on a jitterbug, I do remember catching a few bass on such a lure while on this trip.

Jesus’ Crucifixion as told by Mark

Title slide with photo of a cross draped with a purple cloth

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
March 23, 2024
Mark 15:20-47

Sermon recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, March 21, 2024

Introduction at the beginning of Worship:

Over the past few weeks, I have read two books most people would consider totally dissimilar. Both I reviewed in my blog this week.[1] One is the novel by Chimamanda Ngogi Adichie, a Nigerian born author, titled Half a Yellow Sun. The story, set in the 1960s, takes the reader from shortly after Nigeria received its independence from Britain through the Biafran Civil War. 

The second book is The Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson. He’s a favorite author of mine who writes non-fiction which reads like a novel. The Garden of the Beast is about the American ambassador Franklin Roosevelt appointed to Germany in 1933. Hitler had just taken over and Roosevelt had a hard time finding someone to assume the position. He ended up with William Dodd, a historian and academic who had spent a few years studying in Germany. Dodd took his family, and the book mostly focuses on his and his daughter, Martha’s, experiences. Do you see what I mean by dissimilar.

The inhumanity shown in both books

But both books show us how inhumane people can be toward others. In Half a Yellow Sun, the Igbo people are slaughtered in Nigeria, especially in the mostly Muslim north. The terror these people experienced was horrifying. As a result, they tried to pull away from Nigeria and create their own country. And the war was equally horrifying. We, as Americans, probably know less about the war because we were up to our necks in Vietnam at the time. 

Of course, we all know what happened in Germany. Dodd and his family were there at the very beginning. No one would listen to his warnings about just how bad things might become as Hitler militarizes the German people and scapegoats the Jews. 

Both books deal with a group of people demonized by those in power: the Jews and the Igbo. Sometimes, it is hard to realize that people can be so evil. But it continues. After the holocaust and Biafra, we’ve had the Kimber Rouge in Cambodia, the ethnic wars in Bosnia, the killings in Rwanda, and most recently the Russian strikes against civilian targets in Ukraine, the horrific Gazan attack in Israel followed by Israel’s brutal revenge in Gaza, and this weekend terrorist attacks on Russia. 

Our world is a mess. But this should not be surprising for Christians. For we believe in a God who came to us and unjustly suffered a horrific death at human hands. 

Palm or Passion Sunday?

Today is known as Palm Sunday, but it’s also Passion Sunday. We’re focusing on the latter. When you jump from the celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, Palm Sunday, to Easter morning, you skip the ugly side of humanity. The crucifixion is the central focus of our faith. It shows, not just our capacity for evil, but also God’s love which forgives our sinfulness and defeats death and evil. 

Introduction to the Scriptures

We’re jumping forward in Mark’s gospel, skipping over 12 chapters. I’ll come back to the rest of the gospel after Easter. Today, as I said, we’ll hear about the crucifixion of Jesus. I am going to break up the scripture into three readings. A different person will read each passage, and then I will follow the reading with brief reflections. 

This is a long piece of scripture, from the 15th chapter of Mark’s gospel, which begins with Jesus being led to his crucifixion and ends with his burial in the tomb. Before the first reading we learn of Jesus’ mocking by the Roman soldiers. Ironically, they call him the King of the Jews, but we discover he’s the King of Kings.[2]

Mark builds up to the Jesus’ death going back to the Pharisees and Herodians conspiracy at the beginning of the 3rd Chapter.[3]

Mark’s account of the crucifixion is brief. As one of my professors wrote in his commentary on Mark, “Jesus is not portrayed as a model of courageous faith to be imitated but as a unique instance in the history of God’s saving activity.” As Mark has already informed us, Jesus’ death is a ransom for many.[4]

In our service this morning, different people will read the various texts of scripture.

Morning:  Mark 15:20-32    

readers: Leslie Shelor/Jerry Potter


Reflections
One of the interesting things about Mark’s description of the crucifixion is that he doesn’t focus on Jesus. Instead, Mark focuses on those around Jesus, at least at first.[5] You have the soldiers who compel a foreigner in the crowd, an African, to take the cross. We’re not given a reason and left to assume that Jesus physical state was such he’d died before he got to the place of execution. 

Once on the hill, they strip his clothes and gamble for them, which fulfills prophecy.[6] Refusing the drink designed to deaden his pain is Jesus’ only actions.[7]  Everyone mocks Jesus: the religious leaders, those passing by, and even those crucified with him. One is crucified to this right, the other to his left. The staging of the crucifixion reminds Mark’s audience of James and John’s request to be on the right and left hand of Jesus in God’s kingdom.[8]

There’s irony in the mocking of Jesus. They all speak of Jesus not being able to save himself, not realizing that through his death he open salvation to all. 

Afternoon:  Mark 15:33-41 
reader:  Jack Palmer/Libby Wilcox

Reflections
Things around the cross change in the afternoon. First, the taunting from the morning disappears. Something strange happens. Darkness descends over the land. This is not a natural phenomenon, such as an eclipse. An eclipse would be quickly over and occurs during a new moon. The Passover always falls on the full moon. God called forth the darkness,[9] almost as if cosmos returns to its pre-creation state of chaos.[10]

Only now, does Jesus speak. But it’s not the gentle voice of our Shepherd Savior. Instead, we hear the agony of a man in pain. Jesus carries the weight of the world’s sorrows. Mark gives us both the Aramaic phrased cried out by Jesus along with a translation. He’s quotes 22nd Psalm, asking why he’s been forsaken. Jesus feels totally abandoned. 

But those watching don’t understanding. Because of the cry, they think Jesus calls on Elijah to come save him. Someone wants to give Jesus something to drink, perhaps thinking a bit of moisture in his mouth would make his cry more understandable. But others want to wait, curious if Elijah will show up. Because Elijah didn’t die but was taken up into sky in a fiery chariot,[11] it was thought he could back to rescue the faithful.[12]

But it doesn’t matter. Exhausted, Jesus cries out in pain and dies. The curtain in the temple splits. Mark doesn’t interpret this for us, but again we see Jesus is doing something new. The wall between God and us, symbolized by the curtain, has been torn down.[13]

We’re given two reactions to Jesus’ death. The first comes from the Roman soldier assigned to Jesus’ execution, who having experienced everything of the day, acknowledges Jesus as God’s son. While some question the meaning of the soldier’s words, the idea that a deified man would undergo such treatment would have been a scandal to anyone: Jew, Greek, Roman or barbarian. It would have been considered foolish.[14]

Did the soldier’s statement come from a revelation he had into the mystery of our faith?[15] If so, it would be just like Jesus, the one who encourages us to love and pray for our enemies and persecutors,[16] to have the first post crucifixion conversion be the one responsible for his execution. If that’s the case, there’s hope for us all.  

I have a feeling when we arrive in the kingdom, we’ll all be surprised by some of the others in heaven. 

The women are the second reaction. These women followed and supported his ministry. Now they gather to watch from a distance. While they don’t say anything, we’ll see them at the beginning of chapter 16 bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body. This action reinforces the idea of Jesus’ death. Once death descends, hope dies. They honor him by preparing his body and then will attempt to pick up their lives and continue. 

Evening Mark 15: 42-47  

readers: Barbara Wagoner/Jeff Garrison

Reflections
Our final scene is Jesus’ burial. Normally, the Romans kept bodies of those executed exposed. Crucifixion reminded everyone of Rome’s power. The message, “Don’t mess with Rome” was visually reinforced. The body remained to warn others. It was left to decay and to be picked at by birds. 

However, Rome was also practical and knew this went against Jewish sensibilities. The Hebrew scriptures forbid abusing the bodies of the deceased. Even a criminal deserved burial.[17]

Wanting to keep the peace, Pilate, after making sure Jesus was dead, allows Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body and bury it. Furthermore, as the Sabbath approaches, this meant they had to work quickly to get the body into a tomb before the sun set. 

Mark sets the stage for what happens next. The women watch They know where to go on the day after the Sabbath. 

Mark’s account of the crucifixion contains numerous reminders of Jesus’ death. He didn’t want his readers to think that perhaps the disciples took Jesus off the cross while still alive and, after a few days, recovered.[18] Dead and buried, Jesus takes our sin to the grave. He pays the ramson for our sin through this horrific death.  

Death by crucifixion was ugly and messy. It displays the worse of human behavior. Yet we know it’s not the final word. The crucifixion shows the extent God will go to reach a fallen human race. Somehow, through Jesus’ death, our sins are forgiven. We are freed from that burden and opened to the hope we’ll experience on Easter Sunday. Amen.


[1] https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/03/20/two-books-which-remind-us-of-the-reality-of-human-depravity/

[2] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville: KY: WJKP, 1996), 210. See also Revelation 17:14, 19:16).

[3] Mark 3:1-6. See my sermon on this passage at https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/03/10/the-plot-against-jesus/

[4] Hare, 211. Mark 10:45. 

[5] Hare, 2011. 

[6] Psalm 22:18.

[7] See Psalm 69:21. Luke links this drink to a charitable act by the women of Jerusalem, Luke 23:28. 

[8] Mark 10:27

[9] Hare, 215. James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 475.  The crucifixion happened during the Passover which falls on the full moon. Edwards also rules out a dust storm, but the spring is the rainy season in Palestine.

[10] See Genesis 1:1-2.

[11] 2 Kings 2:1-12.

[12] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishing, 1997), 376. 

[13] See Hebrews 9:1-5.

[14] 1 Corinthians 1:22-25. 

[15]  Edwards, 480-481. 

[16] Matthew 5:43-44. 

[17] Deuteronomy 21:23. Edwards, 487.

[18] In Matthew 28:11-15 we hear a similar account in an attempt to discredit Jesus’ resurrection. 

Two books which remind us of the reality of human depravity

Title slide with photo of the two book covers

The two reviews below may seem dissimilar. One is a novel set in  Africa, the other a non-fiction work on pre-World War 2 Europe. But both books remind us of human depravity. We learn how easy it is for a group of people to be victimized by others. It starts as they are demonized through language and rhetoric. And, if not checked, ends with violence and destruction.  Good people must speak up and defend those attacked when irresponsible people attempt to demonize one group of people for the purpose of gaining power. Even the Bible demands it, with laws which call for the protection of the vulnerable: aliens, widows, and orphans. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half a Yellow Sun

 (2006, audible 2017), 18 hours and 10 minutes. 

This novel covers a lot of ground. It starts in the early 1960s, shortly after Nigeria received her independence from Britain and goes through the Biafra Civil War. It also the coming-of-age story of a young boy, Ugwu, along with two sisters of a Nigerian businessman (Olanna and Kaviene), a professor (Odenibgo), and a British expat author (Richard Churchill). Except for Ugwu, the professor’s houseboy, the rest of the major characters are educated individuals with status. All (except Richard) are from the Igbo tribe. However, their privileges end with when a pogrom against the Igbo people lead primarily by Muslims of Northern Nigeria. They all know victims of the violence, which led to the breakaway of the state of Biafra, which mostly consisted of Igbo people. A Civil War resulted from the breakaway, which ended in 1970. 

The first part of the book focuses mostly on the setting. Ugwu, though his aunt, becomes a houseboy for Odenibgo. It’s a new experience for a boy from a village who has never seen running water or a refrigerator. However, the professor is kind, referring to Ugwu as “My Good Man.” He also insists Ugwu continue in school. Obenibgo home is often filled with other professors, who discuss the post-colonial politics of Nigeria. His home life changes when his lover, Olanna, another professor, moves in with them. Ugwu quickly becomes a part of the family.  

Themes within the book

We also learn about Olanna’s sister, Kainene. Both live a different world, as they travel back and forth to Britain, where they were both educated. Kainene later becomes involved with Richard Churchill.  

Much of the book is also about the relationship between sexes and marriage. There is much infidelity but also there are examples of great compassion such as Olanna adopting the child of a former lover of Obenibigo. Interestingly, some of the sex is set up by parents, such as when Obenibigo’s mother uses a village girl to entice her son away from Olanna, or where Olanna’s parents suggest a relationship for her to enhance a business deal. Other times such trysts are based on revenge.   

Through the interaction of these characters, we learn of the failure of colonialism. Britain forced together different peoples and tribes to artificially create the nation of Nigeria. At least through the eyes of the Igbo, they felt the Britain favored the Muslims in the north, which set up the tension that led to war. The Igbo people are traditionally from the southern part of Nigeria. Because they are hardworking, jobs took them to other parts of the nation. This leads them to be demonized, especially by the northern Hausa peoples. The ethnic tension led to a massive killing that throws everyone’s lives into turmoil. 

Half a Yellow Sun Meaning

It’s well into the book that the reader first encounters the term, “Half a Yellow Sun.” It’s the emblem on the Biafra flag, which shows the sun rising, reflecting hope in the future for an independent Biafra. Excitement and hope build among the Igbo people. Sadly, the optimism shatters as Nigeria reclaims parts of the new nation’s territory. Few nations support the breakaway state. Both Britain and the Soviet Union support Nigeria, while only France and a few African nations support Biafra. Those through whom the story is told sees Britain as only looking out for its oil investments in Nigeria, some of which was in the state of Biafra. 

The character’s struggles

While most of the main characters in the book are from a privileged class, they, too, experience terror. They have family members brutally murdered in the pogrom. They also lose their privileged status when they are forced to flee the Nigerian troops. Even at the end of the book, things are left unsettled, as Kainene remains missing. This was true for many people in Brifai after the war. 

Warning and recommendation

The reader should be warned of the squeamish nature of some of the stories. The killings during the pogrom as well as the horrors of war. Ugwo is conscripted into the Biafran army and excels in making explosions and setting mines for the Nigerian army.  But he also experiences terror and extreme behaviors. 

Half a Yellow Sun provides the readers insight into the difficulty of the transition from a colony to an independent state. It also shows both the pride and the trouble of Biafra, through the eyes of the Igbo people. While there are difficult parts to read, the book reminds us of the danger of demonizing others. 

Personal connections

I have vague memory of the Biafran war. At the time (I would have been 10-13) our nation’s eyes were more turned to Vietnam. I appreciate this book and met the author in 2010 at Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing and purchased the book at that time. Somehow, I lost the book, so I listened to this on Audible. I have also read her novel, Purple Hibiscus.

 

Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin 

(New York: Crown, 2011), 448 pages with a few photos, notes and an index.

Franklin Roosevelt had a difficult time finding an ambassador for Germany in 1933. Normally, such a post would have been a plum spot for a key supporter, but with Hitler’s rise to power, no one wanted to touch it. Roosevelt finally asked William Dodd, a history professor whose academic work focused on the American South. Dodd had spent time in Germany during graduate school before the First World War.  In his early 60s, Dodd saw this as one last chance to have his family together. He and his wife, their adult daughter, and adult son, along with the family’s Chevrolet, moved to Germany. 

Dodd as an ambassador

Dodd was an unusual ambassador. While he was paid $17,500 a year, which was a great salary during the Depression years, he was not independently wealthy. Upon agreeing to the position, he announced he would live within this salary, something that went against the protocol where ambassadors to favored countries were wealthy and lived far beyond their salary. He also showed more loyalty to Roosevelt than to the State Department which caused him problems. Roosevelt wanted him to do what he could to tap down the Nazi rhetoric against the Jews and to discourage the rising militarism in Germany. His superiors at the State Department were often aghast as his avoiding Nazi Party rallies (which he said would be as inappropriate as a foreign ambassador in the United States attending the Republican or Democratic Conventions. 

Much of Dodd’s initial duties in Germany was to protest mistreatment to American citizens. This included many young men who were beaten for not giving the Hitler salute during a passing parade of Nazis. Eventually, the Nazis said foreigners did not have to salute. Still, still some overly enthusiastic Nazis beat foreigners who didn’t show the expected respect. He also had to protest attacks on American Jewish businessmen. 

At first, Dodd hoped either the army or the people in Germany would revolt against the Nazi party. By the “Night of Long Knives” (when Nazi leadership took out the SA and top army officials) Dodd had realized the outlook looked bleak. Most of Larson’s review of Dodd’s work comes in the first 18 months of his four-year tenure. 

Dodd’s daughter, Martha

In addition to informing the reader of Dodd’s duties as an ambassador, much of the story centered around his wild daughter, Martha. Before heading to German, she had an affair with the poet, Carl Sandburg, a family friend. In Germany, she also had an affair with the American author, “Thomas Wolfe.” Upon arriving, she was sought after and dated a Nazi leader. One German thought the Fuhrer could benefit from a relationship with her and set her up to meet Hitler. He kissed her on the hand!

At first, Martha admired the enthusiasm of the Nazis. However, she soon came to realize the hatred behind the facade and moved away from such entanglements. She also dated an attaché in the Soviet embassy. She even went on a trip, by herself, to the Soviet Union. After the war and her parent’s death, she was investigated for her involvement with the Soviets (who she saw as the world’s hope to defeat Germany). She fled American and lived the rest of her life in Prague. 

Recommendation

Reading the book, it is hard to comprehend the Nazi hatred. They used hate to seek power, not letting anything stand in their way. They even changed the phonetic alphabet (how you spell out words so there would be no confusion). Prior to 1934, D was for David and S for Solomon. Afterwards, because David and Solomon were Hebrews, the phonetic alphabet was changed to Dora and Siegfried. The Nazi movement reminds us that language and rhetoric matters. Failure to speak out or challenge such can allow hatred to consume a people. This book needs to be read!

This is the fifth book I have read by Erik Larson and I have enjoyed them all. The first book I read, in 2005, was The Devil in the White City. I later read Dead Wake, Isaac’s Storm, and Thunderstunk.

Jesus appoints the 12

Title slide with photo of a cross with a purple cloth hanging on a rock church wall

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
March 17, 2024
Mark 3:7-19 

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, March 15, 2024

Thoughts at the beginning of worship:

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! May you enjoy some corn beef and cabbage today.

My first time in Ireland found me in Dublin on the Lord’s Day. I decided to worship at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which today is a Church of Ireland congregation. The ornate cathedral was built in the 13th Century, on a site where an older church had once stood. It’s also the site where St. Patrick supposedly baptized Irish converts. Of course, that’s questionable, as is much about Patrick’s life. 

Supposedly, at the age of 16, Irish pirates kidnapped Patrick from his home in England. They took him to their homeland, where as a slave he helped herd animals. In his early 20s, he escaped and made his way back home. There, he studied for the priesthood. He returned to Ireland as a missionary. While there is evidence of some Christian presence in Ireland before Patrick, in folklore he’s seen as the man who brought the gospel to the Irish island. 

What we can learn from Patrick

There are lots of folklore legends about Patrick, from using the shamrock clover to teach about the Trinity, to driving snakes out of the country. While we don’t know what’s true and what’s legend, I like the idea of the former slave helping to free his former owners from their own bondage through Jesus’ gospel. While it’s understandable for a slave to look at their master with contempt, Jesus gives different advice. We’re to love our enemies and work for the well-being of our persecutors, something the legendary Patrick fulfilled. 

Let me point out another thing. As we’ve been working through Mark’s gospel, we’ve seen that it’s all been about Jesus. And while there is truth to our faith being all about Jesus, it’s also true that Jesus depends on others, like the 12 disciples and Patrick and you and me to carry out his work. 

Before reading the scripture:

We’ve come to a transition point in Mark. As we saw last week, the Pharisees are willing to do whatever it takes, including conspiring with their enemies, to do away with Jesus. For the rest of Mark’s gospel, Jesus walks in the shadow of the cross. 

Next two weeks

On a side note, next week is Palm or Passion Sunday. I will jump ahead in Mark’s gospel to the crucifixion, followed with Mark’s treatment of the resurrection o Easter Sunday, before picking back up at the 3rd chapter the week after Easter. 

Perhaps because of the threat to his life, we’re told in today’s passage that Jesus and his disciples leave where they’d been (we assume it was Capernaum)., They head out to seashore. Of course, Capernaum is on the sea, so Mark must mean that Jesus went to a more deserted shoreline.[1] Crowds still follow him. Then he takes the disciples up to a mountain and names the Twelve. 

Read Mark 3:7-19

There are two things I hope you will take away from this passage. First, while the gospel is always about Jesus, it’s not just about Jesus. It’s also about us. And second, Jesus chooses us, not the other way around. 

Exploring our text

Now let’s look at our text. In a way, these verses serve as a transition between Mark’s opening, where he emphasizes the power of Jesus, to where the disciples receive power to do Jesus’ work. 

Jesus leads the disciples out by the sea. As I said, it must be away from the shoreline in Capernaum, probably to a more deserted shoreline. But perhaps not too far away as it appears his fisherman disciples has access to a boat. If Jesus took the disciples just to get away, he wasn’t successful. People now flock from all over to find him. 

Jesus draws the attention of people from all around

We’d seen earlier in Mark how John had folks following him from around Jerusalem and Judea. The territory from which Jesus draws followers is more extensive than Johns.[2]  In fact, there are so many people, Jesus has a boat waiting just in case he needs to back away. Furthermore, sound travels better over water (as long the wind and the waves are subdued), so addressing the crowd from just offshore allows his voice to be heard by more people. 

We are given no insight into what Jesus does with (or says to) the crowds. Instead, come because of his reputation as a healer, for he cured many. They weren’t coming because they thought he was the Messiah or the son of God.  

Jesus draws the attention of demons

However, we are reminded that the unclean spirits, the demons, are present. They know Jesus’ true identity and purpose. But Jesus doesn’t want the spirits to give him away. Mark creates tension as to Jesus’ identity, allowing his reader to decide for his or herself Jesus’ identity after he tells of the empty tomb.[3]

Calling disciples

In verse 23, we move to the second part of this passage. Jesus heads up on a mountain and calls those he wanted to come with him. This sentence is a little awkward and leaves us with questions. Did Jesus just call those who were to make up the twelve to head up the mountain? Or did Jesus take along all those following him and only appoint the twelve once they were on the mountain. Of course, it doesn’t really matter. 

Verses 12 and 13 shows that Jesus is in charge. Jesus calls and he appoints. The same is true in our lives. Jesus still calls people to serve in his ministry. 

The role of mountains

Furthermore, mountains are often seen as a place where God encounters people. Moses was in the mountains when he experienced the burning bush. Israel was by the mountain when Moses received the commandments. Elijah encountered God on the mountains, and later in Mark, Jesus and three of the disciples experience the transfiguration. As with those examples, something important is happening on the mountain during this time. 

Apprentices for Jesus

While our text reads Jesus’ “appointed” the twelve,[4] the word here in Greek means “made.” Made is probably a better translation as it implies that Jesus doesn’t just lay hands on their heads and then send them out. Jesus calls the 12 to be near him so they can learn by watching him before they are sent out into the world. 

We might say the 12 are apprentices to Jesus. Like a carpenter or an electrician works first as an apprentice to learn the trade, disciples are made by working alongside Jesus.[5]

Once the twelve are trained, Jesus grants them authority to go out into the world and continue his mission of not only calling the kingdom to be at hand, but to have point over the enemies of the kingdom. Jesus gives them the ability to cast out demons. 

The list of disciples

We’re then given a list of the 12. This is one of four places in which we’re provided a list. You can also find it in Matthew, Luke, and Acts.[6] The lists are similar, but not exact. Certainly, the key leadership remains the same.  The number here, 12, is more important than the names. It reminds Mark’s readers that Jesus is doing something new. There were 12 tribes of Israel and now there are 12 apostles.[7]

Verses 14 and 15 define their purpose. They are to be with Jesus. As I suggested earlier, they are apprentices. And they are to be sent out to further Jesus’ ministry, with the power over evil. 

Interestingly, this list includes Judas. You’d think Mark, writing three or so decades after the fact, would want to forget Judas. But he includes his name with a twist. Judas will betray Jesus. Mark again reminds us that Jesus walks in the shadow of the cross. There are forces out to get him. 

What does it mean for us?

What does this all mean for us, living two thousand years later? Jesus still calls those he can use to spread his message and do his work. Are we listening? Are we able to hear his call? If so, are we willing to spend time with him being prepared to do his work? 

Second, remember the call comes, not from ourselves or our own desires, but from our Savior himself. Of course, with Jesus at the right hand of God and no longer walking among us, how do we really know if we’ve been called? Such calls, we believe, are confirmed by the church which Jesus left behind to be his body in the world. 

Conclusion

As the church, as Christ’s body in the world, we should seek out those with necessary gifts and encourage them in their discernment as to whether they’re called to a church office or into the ministry. For the harvest is ripening and we need to be diligent in ensuring there are enough harvesters. So, if you feel a call, come talk to me or to an elder of the church. But don’t think it’ll be easy. For it requires spending time with Jesus and learning his ways. Amen. 


[1] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 103.

[2] Mark 1:5. See Edwards, 103.

[3] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 46. 

[4] Most text translates this verb as appointed, ordained, or chose. Both the NRSV and NIV use appointed. See https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Mark%203:14

[5] Edwards, 112. 

[6] Matthew 10:2-4, Luke 6:14-16, and Acts 1:13. 

[7] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to St. Mark (1991, Henrickson Publishers, 1997), 111.

Confessing is Good for the Soul (or so they say)

title slide with peaches and my grandmother
my grandmother
My grandmother, 40 some years later, in her 90s

In the early 1970s, as a young teenager, I would spend a couple weeks each summer with my grandparents. The evenings were often spent fishing with my grandfather, as I’ve shared before. But on other evenings, we did other activities. This one evening, we headed over to J. B. Cole’s Orchard in West End to pick peaches. Cole grew huge redskin peaches, as big as a softball. And when ripe, they were so moist that biting into one sent juice streaming down your chin. 

After dinner, I got myself ready. I strapped my trusty Ka-bar sheath knife on my belt. I don’t remember why I thought I needed it, but during these summers, I kept it close. At least I’d be able to defend myself if wild animal attacked us while there amongst the peach trees. 

Once we arrived, we each took a bushel basket and set out into the trees. My grandparents worked one side of the tree. I picked peaches on the other side, carefully placing the ripe peaches into a bushel basket. While it was a peasant evening, my stomach wasn’t quite right. On occasion, I released a fragrant whiff of gas.

“Jeff,” my grandmother called in a rather angry voice. “Did you cut one?”

“What?” I shout back while thinking “Did my grandmother ask what I thought she asked?”

“Did you cut one?”

I’d never heard my grandmother speak this crudely. She sounded like a one of the boys in my seventh-grade class. Why was she asking if I’d farted? It’s just not polite. And how could she even tell on the other side of the tree? I had quietly released the gas. 

Finally, I spoke quietly and confessed. “Yes, a little one,” I said. My face was red with shame.

“Don’t be doing that,” she said. “Put your knife away. These aren’t our peaches; they don’t belong to us until we pay for them.”

“That’s why she’s talking about,” I thought to myself. “How do I get out of this situation?”

I accepted my grandmother’s chiding, not wanting to admit to my misunderstanding. In my young teenage mind, it was better to be thought of as a petty delinquent than one with gastrointestinal issues.

That evening, after picking several bushels, we paid the man and took them home. That night, instead of a Pepsi ice cream float, we had peaches on our ice cream. There were peaches for breakfast. For the next couple of days, my grandmother busied herself canning peach halves in quart mason jars, saving up for winter cobblers. And that weekend, we churned a freezer filled with peach ice cream. . 

Confession is good for the soul, they say. I’m not sure that includes confessing for transgressions not committed, but since I’m sure there are a few misdemeanors I’ve overlooked, confessing for this one transgression didn’t do me any harm. I never told my grandma that I confused cutting a peach with passing gas. There was never a reason to bring it up, even when she was in her nineties. 

The Plot Against Jesus

Blog title slide with a photo of a cross with purple shroud hanging on rock wall of a church

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
March 10, 2024
Mark 3:1-6

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on Friday, March 8, 2024

At the beginning of worship:

In the opening part of his book, Losing Our Religion, which I reviewed in my blog this past week, Russell Moore talks coming of age in the church during the 1980s. He was told not to “conform to the pattern of the world,” except, it seemed to him when “the world’ was the remnant outpost of the Confederate States of America.” 

The cynical side of Moore wondered “if the gospel was just a way to mobilize voters for party bosses or to fund prostitutes and cocaine for preachers on television.” Remember all those scandals in the 80s? Thankfully, with the help of the writings of C. S. Lewis, Moore recovered from his cynicism and saw a different side to the church. This church “spans heaven and earth, time and eternity, awesome as an army with banners.”[1]

Twain and rascals in the ministry

There have always been reasons to be cynical about religion. In a newspaper article in the Virginia City, Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise, a young Mark Twain noted that “a man’s profession has little to do with his moral character.” He went on to say, “If we had as many preachers as lawyers, you would find it mixed as to which occupation could muster the most rascals.”[2]

The production of “rascals” among the religious elite is nothing new. It was going on during Jesus’ time. We must capture a vision of the church such as the one by C. S. Lewis, with its banners flying throughout history. Yes, the church will often disappoint us, but our Savior, Jesus Christ, remains faithful and still uses the church, as broken as we often are, to fulfill his mission in the world. There’s good news in this.  

Before reading the scriptures:

Throughout the second chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ popularity has grown as has the opposition toward him. It reaches a climax in the beginning of chapter three.[3] Jesus is back in the synagogue on the Sabbath. We’re not told where, but perhaps he’s still in Capernaum. Again, Jesus faces a dilemma. Does he heal a man on the Sabbath? Or is there something else going on here?

Sabbath laws

The Sabbath laws by the time of Jesus were complex. If someone was in immediate need of medical attention, it could be provided. First aid was okay. You could prevent a wound from becoming worse. But you were not allowed to heal. You could stop bleeding because the person might bleed to death. If life was in danger, you could act. Otherwise, the Sabbath was to be upheld. You were not even allowed to set a broken bone. That had to wait because it was not considered life-threatening.[4]

The Conflict

In our story this morning, there’s a man with a withered hand. People look at Jesus, wondering what he’ll do.  Of course, Jesus takes pity on the man and acts. This leads to another conflict with the Pharisees.

The Pharisees see Jesus as such a threat, they are now willing to join forces with their enemies to defeat Jesus! Religious extremism often leads to violence. When someone thinks they are “doing God’s work,” it is easy to justify any means to obtain the desired end. Of course, if God is truly Almighty, God doesn’t need us to compromise our morals to save his reputation. God can take care of himself. 

Read Mark 3:1-6

Our passage today ends Mark’s rapid-fire telling of stories of Jesus in action. Since the first chapter, we have heard only a little of Jesus’ teachings, and most of that we saw last week, at the end of the second chapter where Jesus answered the challenges of the Pharisees. Instead, we have seen Jesus as a man of action. He cast out demons, heals many people including a leper and paralyzed man. Mark has one more story. 

Man with a withered hand: Was Jesus set up?

Again, Jesus is in the synagogue and it’s on the Sabbath. A man appears with a withered hand. I almost wonder if the man was there on the Sabbath as bait, to tempt Jesus to act. Mark creates tension in the story as he speaks of everyone watching to see what Jesus does.  Otherwise, the man might hide his hand from the crowd and from Jesus. But we know nothing of his thoughts. 

Jesus, of course, understands this is a trap. In our last vignette of Jesus, we heard him teach the propose of the Sabbath, while claiming himself to be lord over the day. The Sabbath was made for humanity, not the other way around, Jesus said. The tension in the synagogue is tense. What will Jesus do?

Jesus’ questions

Jesus begins by inviting the man with a withered hand forward. “What kind of action suits the Sabbath best,” Jesus asks.  “Doing good or evil?”[5] Should we save or kill? 

1st Century Sabbath Laws

As I pointed out, from a strict understanding of the Sabbath, healing this man goes against tradition. He could be healed on the next day, and no harm would be done. The man isn’t in a life-or-death situation. Certainly, his hand diminishes his life, making it harder from him to earn a living, but people do get along with only one hand all the time. Yet, I’m sure the man would appreciate his hand healed as early as possible. 

Another question to ponder is if Jesus is really breaking the Sabbath here. While he heals the man, he doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t mix up any herbs or makes some kind of ointment. He doesn’t even massage the hand. Jesus just asks the man to reach out and as he does, his hand is healed. Perhaps, the real anger at Jesus isn’t for breaking the Sabbath but drawing out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.[6]


Jesus’ anger at hardened hearts

Jesus’ questions remain unanswered. He becomes angry because he realizes how hard their hearts have become. They care nothing about the man, only about trapping Jesus in a compromised position in which they can show he has violated one of their laws. It grieves Jesus for people to be so uncaring. But Jesus also has compassion and invites the man to stretch out his hand and as he does, it’s healed. 

Plot against Jesus

The Pharisees have now seen or perhaps heard enough. They go out and conspire with the supporters of Herod on ways to kill Jesus. From here on out, Mark has Jesus walk in the shadow of the cross. 

Pharisees and Herodians: An Unholy Alliance

Let me say a few things about this unholy alliance. First, the Pharisees supposedly hated all that wasn’t pure, especially a Greek culture brought into Palestine by Roman occupiers. They wanted a Messiah to sit on David’s throne and who would thumb his nose toward Rome. 

While there is some question as to exactly who the Herodians were, it’s obvious they were supporters of the half-Jewish king, Herod the Greek, along with the puppet kings and rulers in the following generations. The Herod dynasty, while nominally Jewish, made peace with Rome. After all, they owed their rule to the Empire. This was totally against the Pharisees, who were strictly kosher. They avoided anyone who had anything to with gentiles.[7]

What causes someone to violate their own principals? What causes someone to think winning is so important that any means can be used to achieve victory? Jesus’ death and resurrection shows us that might does not make right. As Paul tells the Corinthians, God uses the weak and the foolish to show the impotency of human power.[8] When the Pharisees finally got their wish and had Jesus crucified, they quickly learned the mistake they’d made. The risen Jesus proved far more powerful than the rabbi from Galilee. But that’s getting ahead of our story.

Who’s the one violating the Sabbath?

The second irony to the Pharisee’s plan, if we take Mark literally, is that they are the ones breaking the Sabbath. They go out and immediately plan for Jesus’ demise. Notice that word, immediately, one of Mark’s favorite terms. We can imagine them leaving the synagogue in a huff and meeting in the parking lot as they talk over what to do.[9]  So much for the sanctity of the Sabbath, using the day to plan a murder.

The Pharisees show the human tendency toward hypocrisy. They portray themselves as so pure but are willing to do what it takes to gain what will become a short-term victory. And, almost unaware of their actions, they break their own laws. They lack integrity. They lack character.  And we should admit that on occasion, we join their club. After all, none of us are perfect. But we should be careful and when we fail to live up to our calling, be willing to confess and to repent of our sin. For our hope is not in our victory, but in Jesus’ victory. Our hope is grounded, not in this life, but in the life to come by the one who shows us the way. 

It’s always easier to point out someone else’s sin

The Pharisees found it easy to point out what they saw as Jesus’ shortcomings. We’re the same way. It’s easy to point out the sins of others. But we must remember that Jesus accepts us as we are and invites us to follow him. Doing so means we must, as he taught in the Sermon on the Mount, cleanse our own eyes before we go trying to clean someone else’s eyes.[10] We need to search our own hearts and find out where we’ve been hypocritical, and then confess our failures to God as we trust in God’s mercy as shown in Jesus Christ. Amen. 


[1] Russell Moore, Losing Our Religion, (Sentinel/Penguin Random House, 2023), 32-33.

[2] I found this quote was found in Henry Nash Smith, ed., Mark Twain of the Enterprise: Newspaper Articles and Other Documents, 1862-1864 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964), 60. It is quoted in my article, “Of Humor, Death, and Ministers: The Comstock of Mark Twain,” Nevada Historical Society Quarterly,#38,3  (Fall 1995), 199.

[3] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark  (1991, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 105. 

[4] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 98-99. 

[5] I am using the words here from The Message translation. 

[6] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: W/JKP, 1996), 44.

[7] Edwards, 101-102. 

[8] 1 Corinthians 1:25. 

[9] Hooker, 108. 

[10] Matthew 7:1-5. 

Cross with a purple shroud on the rock wall of Bluemont Presbyterian Church
The Lenten Cross. on Bluemont Church

Losing Our Religion

Title slide with photo of book and a rock church in West Virginia

Russell MooreLosing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Sentinel/Penguin Random House, 2023), 256 pages, no illustrations and (sadly) no index.

I have followed Russell Moore from a distance for the past decade, finding him a voice of compassion and reason within the Southern Baptist Convention. It was sad to watch as he was pushed out of his leadership role. But I rejoiced when he became the editor-in-chief for Christianity Today. After the publication of this book, it quickly rose to the top of my to-be-read pile. I appreciate the grace Moore displayed in these pages, even as he deals with those who see him as an enemy.  

Moore acknowledges his book title is a riff off the hit song of the same name by the band, REM. But then, as he notes, we’re not called to a religion. We’re called into a relationship with Jesus Christ. We confess him publicly as Lord and Savior and strive to follow him in our lives. 

This book is part memoir. The author describes his experience in the Baptist tradition, starting when he walked down to the altar to commit his life to Christ. He noted that at such an early age, he had no idea as to where his commitment would lead. He told about those who called for Bill Clinton’s head after his affair within the White House. The leaders of the church took the moral high road with Clinton. However, many of the same leaders fell under the spell of Donald Trump. He recounted his battles within the Southern Baptist Convention after he refused to endorse Trump, a man he felt morally unfit to be President. 

A personal note: I don’t think preachers and religious leaders should endorse any candidate. But this is not a hard and fast rule. When candidates behavior and rhetoric are an affront to the values of our faith, we should speak up. Think of the Old Testament prophets. Furthermore, when candidates attempt to misled the faithful, as “wolves in sheep clothing, we have an obligation to challenge and to protect the faithful. Moore has been especially good at remaining focused on Jesus while challenging such dangerous ideology.

Moore did not hold back his opinion, especially after the events of January 6, 2021. He took offense at those who stormed the capital with signs reading, “Jesus Saves.” He noted the religious aspect behind the failed insurrection, which included the “Jericho March” that brought a religious theme with the same falsehood about the election before the riot.. Moore acknowledges that many faithful pastors found themselves blindsided when they spoke out against such misuse of the Christian faith. Reading this book, I continually kept going back to the Sunday after January 6. I recalled three people getting in my face that Sunday, before I could leave the chancel, upset that I had challenged the blasphemy of those using Jesus’ name in a riot. Click here to read my sermon from that day.

With additional issues such as sex abuse coverup within the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, Moore exposes an evangelical church enthralled with human power. He acknowledges that Christian leaders are always sinful, and the church has always dealt with the problem of hypocrites. But because the evangelical church appears to have sold out to power politics, he questions the church true allegiance. Is it to Jesus?

In five detailed chapters, Moore speaks of the church losing its credibility, authority, identity, integrity, and stability. He engages in many of the topics battered around in church circles these days including deconstructionism, tribalism, the cultural wars, hypocrisy, and nostalgia for what we fear to have lost. We can gleam much from Moore’s insights. He offers suggestions on how we can grow as Christians in each area. While Moore vision of the church he loves has grown larger than just the Baptist denomination of his youth, he does long for the church to experience a Baptist-like revival. But he also warns the church not to attempt to come up with its own program to revive American evangelicalism. To do so, the church would risk “reviving” the wrong thing and miss out on God’s true revival. 

Moore uses himself as an example of one growing in the faith. In the early years of this century, he attacked fellow Baptist Beth Moore (no relationship even though he joked about her being his mom) for her stance of women in leadership. He has since become a friend of hers and acknowledges his earlier defense of male leadership is not the major issue of scripture as he once thought. 

In addition to appreciating his insights, I realized many of the same authors influenced Moore and as well of me. Two of these include the poet David Wythe along with Wendell Berry. Moore tells a favorite story of mine from Berry’s Jayber Crow, in which Troy questions radical teachings which turn out to come from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I have used this story in several sermons including this one from April 2022

I recommend this book. The prophets of today, who raise questions about our allegiances, are no different than those in Biblical times. While Moore may not end up like Jeremiah, in a cistern, he has had his share of battles. Yet he remains gracious to others, including those with whom he disagrees, all while striving to be faithful to his Savior. Having committed himself to Christ, he realizes our hope is not in human power. Our hope is in God, who revealed his power in the weakness of the cross. (See 1 Corinthians 1:18-19). 

Let me leave you with a quote: “Christian nationalism is a prosperity gospel for nation-states, a liberation theology for white people.” (page 117)