Our Role in the Mysterious Growth of the Kingdom

title slide with photo of a fawn

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
May 19, 2024
Mark 4:21-34

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on Friday, May 17, 2024

At the opening of worship: 

Read Acts 2:1-4

Today is Pentecost, in which we recall the empowering of the church with God’s Spirit. As we just heard, God’s Spirit swept among the early disciples like flames, setting them on fire with the gospel. But because I’m focusing on Mark’s gospel this year, we’ll discuss the kingdom of God today. I think this theme works with Pentecost, for the kingdom can only come through God’s Spirit.  

We tend to think of the kingdom as something accomplished for us and given as a gift. I like to think of the kingdom as described in Psalm 23, a grassy place beside still waters. This idyllic vision has me semi-horizonal, propped up against a tree, chewing on broom straw while watching puffy clouds float overhead. When I get tired of that, I pull my hat down over my eyes and take a nap, enjoying the peace. 

But I’m not sure such ideas fits with much of scripture. One of the tenets of the Presbyterian Church is that we’re to exhibit the Kingdom of God to the world.[1] We may not always be good at that, but it’s our calling. And Pentecost, with those winds of fire rushing about, rouses us up from our naps, reminding us of the work to be done. But we’re also reminded of that invisible hand helping us.

Our scripture this morning contains a series of Jesus’ parables involving the kingdom. And two of the three parables relate the kingdom to farming. So back to that image of me napping up against a tree by the sill waters…. Jesus comes along, shakes me awake, hands me a gardening hoe, and tells me there are rows of crops to be chopped. The kingdom begins now, we’re a part of it. So, ask yourself, what’s God calling you to do?

Before reading the Scripture:

We’re continuing through Mark’s gospel. As we have seen throughout this series, Mark focuses more on narrative than teaching. We learn what Jesus did, including teaching, but often Mark doesn’t give us the content of such teachings. If you remember from my sermon three weeks ago, when I was last in the pulpit, there are two sections of Mark, each less than a chapter in length, where Mark inserts a string of teachings.[2] In the fourth chapter, Mark pieces together a group of parables which Jesus used to convey the meaning behind the Kingdom of God. Mark starts with the Parable of the Sower (or the Parable of the Soil or the Seeds) which we explored last time. 

Next, Mark recalls several short parables Jesus tells. We’ll explore these today. Most of these parables can be found in Matthew and Luke, but in different places in Jesus’ ministry, which indicates how Mark gathered them up and included them in this longer teaching section to give us an idea of Jesus’ teachings.  

Read Mark 4:21-34

These parables refer to the unexpected and surprising way God works in our world. The Kingdom of God is not equivalent to the heaven we often imagine, where we stroll around on golden streets. The kingdom is dynamic. It’s a light to be displayed. It grows. The Almighty is a God of creation, and God’s work didn’t stop at the end of Day 6. God continues to create. God builds a kingdom, and, in a way, we get to participate.

Verses 21-25

The first set of stories have to do with our role as Christ followers. If we have seen the light of Christ, we’re to help it shine for others to see. We get this same advice in the Sermon on the Mount, where we’re told to let our light shine so others may see our good works and give glory to our Father in Heaven.[3]

The purpose of light is to illuminate. But there is a veiled warning in the way Mark uses this story. The light will shine one way or another. And it will be illuminating all including our dirty laundry. We need to take the risk and come to the light and be made pure. 

The second part of this first set of stories almost sounds counter to the gospel. After all, Jesus speaks of the last being first,[4] but here the one who has more will receive even more. What’s this about? Does it fit with God’s economy that seems to reward the underdog? 

Here, Jesus must be alluding to faith, not possessions. Faith is given but must also be used.[5] An athlete can have a natural gift. But only by practice and through working out, can an athlete grow stronger, more proficient, and achieve success. Likewise, faith grows stronger with use. By repeatedly depending on faith, the amount we possess grows or strengthens. Faith, like our bodies, can’t be stagnant. If we don’t use it, we slide backwards. 

Verses 26-29

The second group of stories within our passage is about a farmer who plants seeds and then watches his field day and night. He knows he’s not in control of what happens. The seed germinates underground, out of sight. The farmer looks expectantly for the first sprouts.

I don’t know about you, but I get excited when I start to see green sprouts poke through the ground. And it’s amazing how quickly such sprouts take root and grow. In just a few weeks, a squash seed will grow from a couple of leaves about the size of a dime to long vines with huge leaves. As the farmer, we do what we can. We weed, water, and fertilize. But we’re still not in control. This is a perfect metaphor for the kingdom, which grows mysteriously. Yes, we can help it grow, but ultimately the growth is given by God.

This second set of stories contain elements of human freedom and responsibility. It’s freeing to know that God is in control because sometimes our best efforts don’t produce desired results. Farmers certainly know they can faithfully nurse a crop along only to have it wiped out by a hailstorm just before harvest. But what’s important here is not the harvest but the faithfulness. It’s important that we plant kingdom seeds, and then trust God. 

When we first moved to Utah, the house we lived in had a wonderful mini orchard in the backyard. There was an apple tree which, because of grafting, produced several types of applies. We also had a pear tree. There was an apricot tree which produced a wonderful harvest one year. The rest of the years we lived there it bloomed earlier and the buds froze. And then there was a mulberry tree which just made a mess. Except for the mulberry tree, I really appreciated the effort someone put into creating that mini orchard. We lived in that house for about four years. If I had planted such trees on day one, I would have never enjoyed a harvest. 

After leaving that first house, we moved into a house with a totally barren backyard. We were there for six years. I planted fruit trees, laid out terraces for herbs and vegetables. While I did enjoy vegetables and herbs, it wasn’t until the last summer I was there I received any fruit. 3 peaches! Hopefully, the next owner of that house enjoyed more of a harvest. It’s like that sometimes. As Paul reminds us, someone plants, someone waters, and God gives the growth.[6]

Verses 30-34

It’s interesting that Jesus tells so many parables about seeds. He began the chapter discussing grain. Jesus then uses another parable about grain and the farmer watching its growth. Finally, he ends the parable with a discussion of a mustard bush. 

It seems to be a bit paradoxical for mustard to be discussed. As a plant, it could be a nuisance to grain farmers. It shades the grain and takes up valuable space. It also becomes a haven for birds who feast upon the grain seed.  So, what is this parable about? 

This parable contains layers of meanings. Like the previous parable, we learn how the insignificant can become magnificent. The smallest of seeds becoming a great bush. Like a good storyteller, Jesus uses hyperbole here to bring home a point. The small seed stands in contrast to its growth. As one commentator writes, “The kingdom of God arises from obscurity and insignificance.” We’ll be amazed as God’s kingdom becomes real and more visible and wonder from where it came.[7]

There is also a deeper meaning in this parable about the birds nesting in the branches. This harkens back to the Old Testament prophets who spoke of birds resting in the branches of a tree as a metaphor of the gathering of all of God’s creation. In other words, Jesus alludes to the inclusion of the Gentiles. God’s grace applies to all people.[8] And that’s good (yet humbling) news to those of us who are not descendants of Abraham, but nonetheless follow Jesus. 


In these stories, Jesus reminds us of our calling to do what we can to build God’s kingdom. But we’re also reminded that the growth of the kingdom is beyond our control. At times we may not understand and feel discouraged, but we should trust that God has things under control. We do our part, and we trust God for the rest. 

In a way, individually, we’re like a foot soldier in a mighty army. We may not understand how our role helps achieve the victory, but we trust and follow orders. And our orders are to love God and to love our neighbors[9] as we trust God to make all things new. Amen. 

[1] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Order, 

[2]The other chapter with teaching is Mark 13.  See  https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/04/28/the-parable-of-the-sower/

[3] Matthew 5:15-16.

[4] Matthew 19:30, 20:16; Mark 9:35, 10:31; Luke 13:30.  See also 2 Corinthians 6:10, 8:9; James 2:5. 

[5] Bebe, in his Homilies on the Gospels (7th Century) says that those who hear Jesus’ words and observe them in their hearts will receive more. See also Morna D. Hooke, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishing, 1997), 134-135. 

[6] My paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 3:6.

[7] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 144-145. 

[8] Psalm 104:12; Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6; Daniel 4:9-21.  See Edwards, 145. 

[9] Mark. 12:30. See also Matthew 22:37 and Luke 10:27. 

Growth is mysterious. A newborn fawn along Fisherman’s Lane, next to Laurel Fork, May 17, 2024

The Parable of the Sower

Title slide showing bounty from a garden (lettuce, beets, onions, and a cucumber)

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
April 28, 2024
Mark 4:1-19

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, April 26, 2024

An introduction to today’s theme:

Around the 5th Century, a minor holiday arose within the Western Church, called Rogation Days. The word comes from the Latin and means “to ask.” The sixth Sunday of Easter was set aside as the day to observe the fast as they asked God to bless their crops. Remember, at this time, most everyone was involved in agriculture and if a community’s crops failed, it resulted in starvation. So, the beginning of the gardening season was an appropriate time to ask for God’s blessings.[1]

While the roots for this day was on the continent of Europe, the day caught on in England. It continued to be celebrated even after the Reformation, through the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Sadly, as happens with many good things, the day became one of revelry and drunkenness. When the Puritans had their revolution in the 17th Century, they ended it. Only recently has it come back through the Anglican Church as well as some Lutheran Churches. While we don’t officially celebrate the day, we should still honor its meaning and ask God to bless our efforts whether it’s working with the soil or another endeavor. 

But let me clear up something. Christians don’t worship the earth. Instead, we worship the God who created of the earth and all things seen and unseen.[2] This is an important distinction. Yet, because God is over all and whose providence provides what we need, it is appropriate for us to ask God’s blessings. We pray for the ground from which we plant our seeds, for the sun which warms the earth, and from the clouds from which the rain comes. 

We should remind ourselves that while we may work hard in the garden, there are things out of our control. Therefore, we pray for God’s blessings, which we’ll do at the end of our service this morning.[3]

Introduction to today’s text: 

We’re continuing our work through Mark’s gospel. I tried to lay out my preaching on this book while I was away and found that I only need 45 more Sundays to finish in 2024. So, I don’t think I’ll finish it this year, but we’ll continue working through it and then probably finish the last few chapters during Lent of 2025. That said, there’s a lot of good stuff in Mark, so hold on and let’s enjoy the journey. 

The Parable of the Sower is today’s passage. It’s familiar and found in all three of the synoptic gospels.[4] While we call this passage the Parable of the Sower, we could give it other titles for the Sower only appears in the opening verse. The parable of the soils or the parable of the scattered seeds have been suggested as other options. But none of these titles, including the Parable of the Sower, are found in scripture. The placement of such titles found in some Bibles came later, just as did the chapter and verse notions in scripture. 

In today’s parable, we will see again one of Mark’s literary techniques in which he creates a sandwich. Earlier, we saw Mark place Jesus’ teaching between two passages dealing with this family and his opponents.[5] Here, Jesus tells the parable, then teaches about the purpose of parables, followed by an allegorical interpretation of the parable. The slices of bread deal with the parable, the peanut butter represents the purpose between the slices.

Chapter 4 is also a departure from Mark’s normal style of writing. Most of Mark’s gospel consists of narrative. As we’ve seen in the first three chapters, Mark appears more interested in telling us what Jesus did than what he said. That changes in the 4thchapter, which along with the 13th, contain a large block devoted just to Jesus’ teachings.[6]

The parables in Mark 4 are all about the mystery of God’s kingdom. Next week, God willing, we’ll look at the other parables in the chapter. While some parables are easy to understand, these contain a riddle.[7] They remind us of God’s hidden work. 

Read Mark 4:1-20

Some parables lend themselves to sermons and to making statements about how we should live. We’re to be like the Good Samaritan and help those others ignore. Or, in the Prodigal Son, we should be like the father who welcomes his wayward boy home. We should even be like the younger brother who confesses his wrongs. We should not be like older brother who is unable to rejoice that his younger brother is restored into the family. Of course, the meaning of those parables go even much deeper, but at least on a simple level we can apply them to our lives. 

But what about the parable of the Sower? Where do we see ourselves in this text?  Are we the Sower? The seed?  The soil? How might we understand this parable? Does it have any influence on how we live?  Or does it help us understand the mystery of God’s kingdom? After all, Jesus proclaims at the beginning of Mark’s gospel the kingdom as having come near?[8]

As I noted before reading the scripture, the kingdom parables in the fourth chapter of Mark are riddles or puzzles. Jesus tells this parable to the great crowd that had pressed around him along the lakeshore. But when it’s just Jesus and the disciples,[9] he acknowledges they’ve been given the secrets to the kingdom, but others won’t understand.

The placement of this parable within Mark’s Gospel might help us to better understand its meaning. If you remember back a few weeks, when we finished our look at the third chapter, we saw Jesus being challenged by both the religious leaders of the day and his own family. While Jesus was popular, there are those who don’t accept his teaching. In the case of the religious leaders, they don’t think his deeds are from God.[10] How do we handle the failure of some seeds to produce? This parable shows us a way to understand.

Jesus sows God’s seed. The seed represents God’s word. But not all the seed takes hold and brings forth growth. Much of the seed falls on the hard paths and never germinates but is consumed by Satan. Others fall among thorns and choke out by competing interests. Others fall in in rocky soil and, while they first show promise, they are unable to establish roots. Only that which falls in good soil takes root and produces an abundance of harvest. This helps explain why the religious leaders and Jesus’ own brothers struggle with his message. 

For those of us who have spent much time in a church, the parable also rings true. We know how some people just don’t get it and stay away from the gospel. Others become so excited, like the seeds growing in a rocky soil that shoot up, only to be burned by the sun as they have no roots. Those are the ones who get excited, but after a short while, fall away. 

Taking the parable literally, it sounds like only 25% of the seed produced an abundance. That doesn’t sound very good, except in baseball. While batting .250 may not make you a superstar, it does mean you are still a valuable player. And if the whole team bats at .250, with a little defense, they’ll go far. 

This parable is best understood as a description of God’s kingdom. Like seeds we’ll be sowing in our garden, the kingdom’s growth is mysterious. While there are things we do to help the garden such as getting rid of rocks, not planting in compacted ground or among thorns, and watering in drought, it’s still up to God to give growth. After all, there are many things we can’t control including the weather or even, heaven-forbit, a swam of locust. 

But if we do what we can and trust in God, some of the growth of the kingdom will be astonishing and for that, we have hope and give thanks! God is in charge, we’re just to do our part of making the ground (whether our gardens or our souls) fertile so that the seed may take root. As disciples, which we read in verse 20, we’re to hear what God says. It’s imperative we listen to the one who sows. Amen. 

[1] For more information on Rogation, see J. Connelly’s article, “Rogation Days’ in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, J. G. Davies, editor (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986. See also https://theclewerinitiative.org/blog/what-is-rogation-sunday and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogation_days.

[2]  I was reminded of this recently reading Augustine’s  The City of God, Book 5 and Book 7:29. 

[3] Parts of today’s liturgy came from this UK site: https://worshipwords.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Complete-service-Blessing-Gardeners-PDF.pdf

[4] Matthew 3:1-23 and Luke 8:4-15. 

[5] See Mark 3:20-34 or my sermon on the text: https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/04/07/the-unpardonable-sin-baseball-doing-the-will-of-god/

[6] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 126. 

[7] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: W/JKP, 1996), 52-53. 

[8] Mark 1:14-15. See my sermon on the text: https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/01/14/you-catch-em-hell-clean-em-jesus-begins-his-ministry/

[9] Verse 10 indicates that Jesus was with just those around him including the 12, so we may assume there were more than just the 12 named disciples, but without “the very large crowd” indicated in verse 1. 

[10] Hare, 54. See Mark 3:20-35 and my sermon, https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/04/07/the-unpardonable-sin-baseball-doing-the-will-of-god/

harvest of lettuce, beets, onions, and a cucumber on a bench
Spring Harvest from my garden on Skidaway Island (2018)

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. 

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.   


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

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

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

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

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. 

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. 


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.

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

Jesus and the Law Concerning Fasting and the Sabbath

Title Slide with photo of Lake Superior shoreline

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
March 3, 2024
Mark 2:18-28

Sermon taped at Mayberry Church on Friday, March 1, 2024

At the beginning of worship:

What is the purpose behind laws? 

Some people consider laws a burden on personal freedom. After all, why can’t I drive at 90 miles-an-hour. I’m a good driver. Who’s to be harmed? Of course, if we get beyond our narcissism, we know such behavior can harm innocent people. So, we have laws which set boundaries and forbid dangerous behavior. Ultimately, I suggest, laws protects others and benefits society. If we truly looked out for others, there would be little need for laws. But we tend to think of what we want and forget about how we might impact others. So, laws become necessary. 

God provides us laws. Think of the 10 Commandments as boundaries. If we get outside the boundary, we can cause harm to ourselves and to others. But inside it, we can enjoy life fully. 

Sadly, sometimes we get so hung up on the law itself, that we worship it more than God. Or we use it as a weapon to push agendas which have nothing to do with the original purpose behind the law. We’re going to see this in today’s sermon.

Before reading the Scripture:

As we’ve begun working our way through Mark’s gospel, we have seen a parallel track of events happening. On the positive side, people are excited by what they hear from Jesus. They are in awe of his power, as he heals the sick and frees people of their demonic possession. Words get around. Jesus can’t go anywhere without a crowd gathering. 

But as the crowds grows, so does the opposition to Jesus’ ministry. At first, it was evil spirits or demons. Then came the scribes and, as we saw last week, the Pharisees.  Next Sunday, we’ll end this section of Mark’s gospel with the Pharisees willing to make a pack with evil, to do away with Jesus.[1] Of course, they won’t accomplish this goal until much later. But the seeds are sown which will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion. 

Another thing we’ll hear in today’s reading is what Jesus teaches. In previous encounters, we’re told Jesus taught. Mark, however, hasn’t yet provided details.[2] Instead, we have seen Jesus’ power. But now Mark, in his proclamation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, tells us some of what Jesus taught. Jesus uses parables and stories and draws on the Old Testament to convey his message. 

I’m combining two stories today. They parallel each other so they kind of go together. While I could preach on each passage separately, if I did that for every passage, I won’t get through Mark during 2024!

Read Mark 2:18-28

Our text begins with Mark informing us that John the Baptist, like Jesus, had disciples. These disciples, like John, live the life of a religious ascetic. They avoid the pleasures of life. From what we find in the other gospels, they abstained from alcoholic drinks and only ate what we necessary to sustain life. 

In Luke’s gospel, we read of Jesus saying: 

“For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’[3] 

In our text for this morning and from the one I just read; we see Jesus in a Catch-22 position.[4] He faced a paradox and can’t win. Of course, Jesus was no glutton or drunkard, but neither was he a religious ascetic like John and his disciples. Jesus just can’t please those in powerful positions. By the way, this is by design. By having such silly no-win games, those in power can maintain control. 

Many of the Pharisees fasted twice a week. They want to be seen as being good, over and above everyone else. Two things we should note here. 

First, Jewish law only required a yearly fast, on the Day of Atonement. Other fasts could be called such as during times of calamity, but nowhere does the law require the frequent fasts as called for by the Pharisees.[5]

Second, regularly and frequent fasting seems to have been a requirement made up by the Pharisees to display their spirituality. They wanted others to see their holiness. Jesus addresses this in the Sermon on the Mount, telling them they have received their rewards as he encourages his followers to pray and fast privately. Jesus is not against fasting, but he is against pride.  And perhaps there is nothing more dangerous than religious pride. When we think we’re right, we can be fooled into ignoring the obvious. 

Jesus then uses three analogies to make his point. The first is a wedding. No one would think of fasting at a wedding feast. In those day, these celebrations would go for a week with lots of food, drink, and entertainment. Those invited were to enjoy the party. While Jesus doesn’t say he’s the bridegroom in this text, it’s implied. He’ll use this analogy again in a parable found in Matthew’s gospel, as he speaks of his return.[6] Later, the risen Christ will be seen as the bridegroom to the church.[7]  

While Jesus is with the disciples, they need to enjoy his company. Then Jesus hints at what will later happen. There will come a time that the disciples will fast, after he’s gone. Of course, those present would not have known what we know, that Jesus will be crucified. 

The second and third parables deal with common household examples. You don’t sew on an unshrunk fabric on old cloth, for it will shrink and tear again. Nor do you put new wine in old wineskin, for the fermentation process will cause it to swell and will break the skins. Jesus is doing something new.  He launches a new paradigm which require new cloth, new wineskins. 

Our next story deals with the Sabbath. As with fasting, the Sabbath laws been added to over the years so that they have become a burden to the people. The disciples were out walking and went through a grainfield. Hungry, they pulled off some of the seed to eat. This was allowed in Jesus law. You could eat from a neighbor’s field; you just couldn’t put the sickle to it or harvest it. But since fast food restaurants didn’t exist, taking a handful of grain was allowed. But that’s not the problem raised. The problem is the taking of grain on the Sabbath.[8]

Jesus responds by recalling a story from the time of David about how he and his men ate bread that had been set aside for the priest. Even in the Old Testament, you were allowed to do certain things of the Sabbath for the safety of others including animals. But the Pharisees, to drive a wedge between Jesus and his followers, accuse them of breaking the Sabbath laws. 

Jesus ends his response with a reminder of the Sabbath’s purpose. It was made for us; we’re not made for it. Again, as I said earlier about good laws, they’re for our wellbeing.  How can we take care of ourselves and others? When the law becomes a way to show or to prove our holiness, we’ve got it wrong.

Last Sunday, I spoke about how Christians should have joy in our lives. Unnecessary laws help those in power maintain their power, while stripping us of joy. As followers of Jesus, we’re to be guided by two laws: loving God and loving others.[9] When we impose additional religious laws arbitrarily, we’re no better than the morality police of Iran, running around imposing their strict interpretation of the Koran. 

The Christian faith is not about rules, it’s about a relationship with God through the Son. And that relationship leads to other relationships as we accept God’s grace and extend such grace to others. 

While the law is important, for it helps us to see our sinfulness and guides us as we strive for godliness,[10] it should never overshadow grace. Mark wants us to understand that Jesus is doing something new. And we should rejoice. Amen. 

[1] Mark 3:1-6.

[2] See Mark 1:21-22, 2:2, 13. I’ve address the lack of detail as to Jesus’ teachings in these sermons: https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/01/21/jesus-in-the-synagogue/ and https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/02/18/good-friends/

[3] Luke 7:33-34. A parallel passage is found in Matthew 11:18-19. 

[4] Catch 22 comes from Joseph Heller’s World War 2 novel by the same name. The “catch” was that if you were crazy you didn’t have to go into combat. But, if you knew that combat was crazy, it meant you weren’t crazy, so there was no way out. See https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/catch-22

[5] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 88.

[6] Matthew 25:1-10.

[7] We see this in Revelation. In 18:23, we hear of the bride and the bridegroom (church and savior) being withdrawn from “Babylon” (which represents Rome). In chapter 21:2, we read of a cosmic wedding. See Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 41. 

[8] See Deuteronomy 23:25 and Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson, 1997), 102-103. 

[9] Mark 12:29-31. 

[10] The Reformed Tradition traditional speaks of three uses of the law: 1. To bring us into a realization of our sin, 2. To help us strive for godliness, and 3. To create fear in ootherhearts to restrain bad behavior. 

Jesus, a Friend to All

Title slide with photo of waves breaking on Lake Superior

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
February 25, 2024
Mark 2:13-17

At the beginning of worship:

Religion often gets a bad rap. People see us as dour and lacking fun. Remember Billy Joel’s 1977 hit, “Only the Good Die Young?” The song is upbeat, but the lyrics are a little disturbing as he describes a boy trying to lure a “good Catholic Girl.” Part of the lyrics go: 

You’ve got a nice white dress and a party on your confirmation 
You’ve got a brand-new soul, and a cross of gold 
But, Virginia, they didn’t give you quite enough information 
You didn’t count on me 
When you were countin’ on your rosary,

Of course, teenage romance has little to do with the joy of life. We’ve all been there and it’s as much about heartache as about joy. Real joy, the joy we find in Christ, can be present in good times and bad. Billy Joel got it wrong. It’s not about momentary pleasure, such as making it with a girl. Real joy, real happiness, comes from knowing God our Creator knows and accepts us, flaws and all. In Jesus’ life and ministry, he showed such love as he enjoyed the company of people, including those often excluded from society. 

Before reading the scriptures:

Last week, the passage we explored ended with Jesus scolding the scribes who thought his forgiveness of sin was blasphemous. While they were chastised, the crowd was amazed with Jesus. He provided a paralyzed man the ability to walk. As we can imagine, Jesus’ fame continued to grow. 

In our text today, Jesus goes out by the sea, by which the city of Capernaum sat. Perhaps Jesus is still trying to get away by himself for some reflection and prayer, but if that’s the case, it wasn’t going to happen. As we’ve seen in other places, a crowd gathers around him. 

In a passage that echoes Jesus’ call of the fisherman,[1] Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector to follow him. 

Think of Levi more as a customs agent than an IRS agent. The first century IRS agents would have been a Roman citizen, not a Jew.[2] However, Jews were employed locally to levies custom duties. 

Capernaum, on the borderland to other providences, was a site for traveling merchants to pay their tariffs. Or, he could have been taking a toll on the fish brought into the city. There is evidence for such tolls also being collected during the first century.[3] If that’s the case, Levi would have known the fishermen whom Jesus had called. 

Regardless as to Levi position, he worked for the occupiers and engaged with the gentiles. Therefore, he was despised by those who considered themselves upright Jews. 

Let me point out something else. While Jesus calls Levi to be a disciple, his name does not appear in Mark’s list of the 12 disciples later in his gospel. However, Levi was “son of Alphaeus. Perhaps he changed his name, as later we find the list of disciples included a “James, son of Alphaeus.”[4]

The other option is Levi remained in the larger group of disciples that followed Jesus. Using a baseball analogy from the end of spring training, Levi didn’t make the cut for the majors. He remained in the minor leagues. We don’t know what happened, but that’s okay, for this story has a deeper meaning.

After calling Levi, Jesus attends a banquet with many such people who were social outcasts. Jesus, in our text, pushes the boundaries of his day to spread God’s extravagant love. We also continue to see opposition to Jesus grow.

Read Mark 2:13-17

Perhaps the Presbyterian Church’s greatest gift to the larger church is the opening question of the Westminster Catechism. In the patriarchal language of the 17th Century, the question is asked, “What is the chief end of man?”  The answer, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” 

I love this answer. It’s beautiful. The focus is on God, as it should be. But our role is one of praise and joy. Sadly, not all our ancestor’s lived up to this worthy goal.

The critic H. L. Mencken defined the Puritan movement, one of the strands that make up the Reformed Tradition, as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”[5]

But that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. We are to be gracious and loving. And if we desire godliness, should take our clue from the Almighty and be slow to anger and abounding in mercy and love.[6]

In today’s passage, we see through Jesus’ actions a display for how God loves the world and those who in it. Jesus calls an outsider, a tax collector, one who was seen as a traitor to his people. And like the fishermen earlier, Levi leaves behind his lucrative business and follows Jesus.  

Jesus doesn’t do this in a vacuum. He doesn’t slip into Levi’s home in the darkness of night to convince him to sign up as a disciple. Instead, he calls Levi in front of the crowd of people. Jesus wants the crowd to see the radical nature of his ministry, one that reaches out to those normally shunned by society. 

The gospel proclaimed by Jesus and told by Mark shows compassion to those who on the sidelines. It destroys the human tendency to separate people into groups of “good and bad.” As a Christian, we believe as Paul says, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory” and that those who “call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”[7]

Last week I told you about reading Russell Moore’s book, Losing Our Religion. In a section of the book where he speaks of Christians losing our identity, he has some harsh words about the misappropriation of “Spiritual Warfare” by those who think they are fighting a culture war. We must be careful when we equate human beings with demons, Moore insists.  Metaphors like “rats,” “insects,” and “animals” to describe those who we perceive as enemies damage the gospel’s message. Essentially Moore calls for us to love others, not demonizing them.[8]

Jesus demonstrates to the crowd his love for the other by calling Levi. Perhaps Levi was as overjoyed as another tax collector, Zacchaeus, for he throws a big party.[9] Again, this notion that as Christians we are not to have fun isn’t found in Scripture. We can imagine Levi with all his friends in a great party. Sinners and tax collectors are present, we’re told. 

And notice that this isn’t just a meal. Perhaps it even foreshadows the Messianic Banquet at the end of history. Everyone reclines, which implies a closer gathering. They are not just taking care of body needs by eating but are enjoying each other’s company.[10]This immediately raises the hair on the back of the necks of the Pharisees. This is Mark’s first introduction of this important faction within first century Judaism. 

The Scribes of the Pharisees (some ancient manuscripts say Scribes and Pharisees[11]) question Jesus’ righteousness. After all, why would a righteous person, one who ritually clean, sit down and enjoy a dinner party with those who are unclean, who are sinners. 

Furthermore, if you look closely at the text, you’ll see that they don’t take their concerns to Jesus. Instead, they go to his disciples. This classic triangulation, going behind one’s back to cause a rift is alien to the gospel.[12] God wants to bring people together and they’re doing their best to break them apart. 

Jesus overhears what they’re saying and responds with a proverb that both rings true but is also somewhat of a backhanded slap. “If you’re well, you don’t need a physician, but if you’re sick, you do. And I’ve come not for the righteous, but for the sinners.” Of course, if we’re honest, we know none of us are truly righteous. We’re all sinners. Only Jesus was perfect.[13] His quip here maybe implies something different. Let me paraphrase Jesus’ words: “If you think you’re righteous, you won’t see a need for me in your life. But if you know you’re sick, if you know you’re a sinner, I’ll be a breath of fresh air, I’ll be the good news.”

When we compare the Jesus of the gospels to the churches and Christians of today, what do we see? “Jesus gained a reputation as a lover of sinners, Philip Yancey wrote, “a reputation his followers are in danger of losing.[14] Sadly, we’re often more like the Pharisee’s than Jesus. 

When I was a pastor in Michigan, The Olde Town Tavern, a bar and grill had a seedy reputation. It had been in the community for years. For the first several years there, I never step foot inside. But one day Ken, one of our saints who has since gone home to be with Jesus, suggested we go there for a burger. I immediately learned what I had been missing. They had the best burgers in town! And the folks were fun to be with. For the rest of my time in Michigan, I was a regular. 

Shortly after enjoying this burger, the fact I had been seen in the tavern came up in a Session meeting. I wondered where this conversation was going. But cutting the conversation off was an older Elder in the church. He told a story about one of my predecessors, the beloved “Rev. Sharpe.” Sharpe served the church from the mid-1920s until his death in 1958. He was also known to often go and sit at the bar and talk with the patrons. 

Friends, we must not forget those whom others shun. As followers of Jesus, we are not the judge. As Jesus shows, we’re to relate to those on the outside as we do to those on the inside, as friends.[15] Amen. 

[1] Mark 1:16.  For my sermon on this passage, go to https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/01/14/you-catch-em-hell-clean-em-jesus-begins-his-ministry/

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2002), 82; William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 101

[3]. Lane, 102; Edwards, 83.

[4] Mark 3:18. 

[5]  H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy see https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/34745-puritanism-the-haunting-fear-that-someone-somewhere-may-be-happy

[6] See Psalm 86:15, 103:8, 105:8 among others. 

[7] Romans 3:23 and 10:13. 

[8] Russell Moore, Losing our Religion, An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Sentinel: A division of Penguin/Random House, 2023), 131-134. 

[9] Luke 19:1-10.

[10] Edwards, 85.

[11] See footnote in the NRSV for this verse.

[12] On triangulation see https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-triangulation-in-psychology-5120617

[13] Hebrews 4:15.

[14] Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1997), 158. 

[15]  Moore, 189. The Bible calls us to be “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Timothy 3:7 and 1 Peter 2:12), 189.  

waves on Lake Superior
Waves after a storm on Lake Superior (July 2012)

Good Friends

title slide with photo of Kure Beach, NC

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
February 18, 2024
Mark 2:1-12

At the beginning of worship:

Last Sunday, I spoke about atonement. In our story from Mark’s gospel, we see that Jesus essentially trades places with the leper. I suggested this foreshadows what Jesus does for us on the cross. There, Jesus pays the price for our sin. 

However, we must be careful and not attempt to bind God in our own ideas. Yes, Jesus trades places with us to atone for our sin. But whether such substitution atonement for our sin is required can be debated.[1]

Ultimately, we must confess, the forgiveness of sins is something only God can do. And how God achieves forgiveness for us is up to God. We’ll see another way one is forgiven in today’s scripture passage. Jesus forgives a man without him asking for forgiveness, and long before his crucifixion.[2]

And forgiving sins gets Jesus in trouble. Upsetting the apple cart will cause that, and Jesus certainly did his share of upsetting the proverbial apple cart with the religious folks of his day. We should always be careful and remember that God is in charge. 

Before reading the Scriptures:

Let me recap the last couple of Sundays. Two weeks ago, we saw Jesus leave Capernaum so he could preach in the towns and synagogues of Galilee. Then, last week, we saw how he healed a leper when he was out on this mission. We don’t know how many towns and synagogues Jesus visited. We’re only told about this healing. It made Jesus so popular that he was unable to continue going into the towns because of the crowds. So, he begins to teach in the countryside and allow people to come to him. That’s all we learn about this mission. 

As we begin the second chapter, we learn that Jesus has returned to Capernaum. But, of course, the crowds find him, which is our stetting for the story today. 

Furthermore, we now are informed of opposition to Jesus’ work. Jesus came to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.[3] By proclaiming God’s kingdom, Jesus implies that this world doesn’t belong to Satan or evil powers, but to God. And we’ve seen how the minions of evil, spirits, and demons, challenged Jesus. Now we’ll see the attack coming from the scribes, the religious leaders of the day. 

Read Mark 2:1-12

Jesus returns to where his ministry began, Capernaum. I get a sense from the text that he may have been tired from his Galilee wanderings, and he retreats to his home. But it doesn’t take long for the word to get out that the hero has returned. Again, as we’ve seen, people flock to see Jesus and he resumes teaching. The room fills with people. People block the door, and we can imagine fill the yard around the house in the hopes to listen in through the windows This crowd reminds us that there were no fire marshals in the first century to regulate how many people could safely gather in one spot. 

Again, as we’ve seen before,[4] Mark leaves off the details about what Jesus said. The story instead illustrates something else. Mark shows how the opposition to Jesus grew. While Jesus heals a man, the story goes deeper than Jesus just being a Great Healer.

A group of people bring a paralyzed friend in the hope Jesus can help. We’re not told who they are or how they are related to one another. We only know they are on a mission. And their mission, the healing of their friend, demonstrates their faith. 

As they arrive, I’m sure, they’re overwhelmed. There are so many people who have gathered around the home in which Jesus is teaching that there is no way to get their friened inside. But these are determined friends. 

Palestinian homes at this time often had steps on the outside that led up to the roof terrace. Back then, space was a premium and it was economical to have the steps outside. The roof was an important part of the home in an arid climate. Especially in the morning and in the evening, when the sun wasn’t intense, people would hang out up there. It was a place to eat dinner and dry clothes and watch the sunset. These roofs were supported by beams, topped with reeds and limbs, and then covered of clay.[5]

These determined friends, noticing the empty roof, take their friend up the steps. They dig through this roof and four of them, each holding onto a corner of the man’s mat, lowers the man down to Jesus. It’s quite comical, I think. With the digging and commotion, it’s a wonder Jesus continued to teach. 

Imagine the dirt and reeds falling. Jesus and those around him brush twigs and sand from their hair. And then, descending as if in an elevator, the paralytic drops before Jesus. The friends of this man set things up in a way in which Jesus must act. There’s no way he can ignore the unnamed man. 

The faith and determination of this man and his friends impress Jesus. He says something that at first seems out of character. “Child, your sins are forgiven.” By calling the man a child or son, I don’t think Jesus meant that he was a kid. It was more endearing term which implies that, like a child, he’s totally dependent on others.[6]

But what about his sins. We read this situation and immediately think, he doesn’t need forgiveness, he needs healing. (Of course, we all need healing). But there was a belief at the time, supported within the Hebrew scriptures, that illness was often related to sin.[7]

If you think about it, sometimes someone can be so ashamed by what they’ve done that the shame incapacitates the person.[8]Now, they may still be able to walk, but they have a hard time functioning in society. Shame, which results from sin (unless one is a psychopath and without a conscience[9]), can be destructive. However, the man in the story appears to have many friends, which makes me lean toward thinking his illness comes not just from shame. 

We are not privy to the cause of this man’s illness. In a way, this story is not about the man healed nor his friends. It’s an encounter with the scribes. Jesus plants a clue as to his identity, but they are too blind to see.

Jesus, by forgiving sins, raised the eyebrows of the scribes, the religious leaders of the day. This was blasphemy, they think. Only God can forgive sin. And they’re right.

If we think about what Mark does in his gospel, he makes the case that Jesus is God. Jesus’ power is divine. He dominates evil spirits, heals diseases, controls the weather, and rises from the grave.

Knowing the scribes think that Jesus’ blasphemy deserves a good stoning,[10] Jesus decides to have some fun. He confronts their thoughts and the condition of their hearts. Then he asks a question that seems simple, but it’s not. “What’s easiest, saying your sins are forgiven or commanding the man to stand up and walk?” The first, the forgiveness of sins, implies the power of God. Unless you’re God, to pull that off is impossible. Furthermore, how can it be demonstrated? We don’t know the condition of the heart of another person. 

But the latter, telling a man to pick up his mat and take it home, can be observed. So, Jesus, to demonstrate his power (he’s the Son of Man), orders the man to pick up mat and take it home. And he does. Interestingly, as I pointed out earlier, neither inflicted man nor his friends say anything. They essentially serve as a prop to make a point to the scribes. While Jesus is impressed by their faith, from that point out, this is a story of conflict between our Lord and the scribes. 

As I’ve said, the scribes are right. Only God can forgive sins, but they are unable to see the divinity of Christ. I think Mark tells this story so that we might accept Jesus’ divinity. Jesus has the power to heal us, to forgive our sin, and to offer us life everlasting. Are we going to be like the scribes, who judged Jesus in their hearts? Or will we be like those present who were amazed and glorified God?

We must be careful in our judgements. I’ve been reading Russell Moore’s Losing our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America. He writes about how the religious leaders of his day decided the way for them to protect their position of authority was to make an alliance with those they hated, Imperial Rome. Summing up this thought, he warns of the danger of atheism in the church, with the most destructive form of atheism being those which think they believe in God.[11] Sadly, some people may proclaim faith, but their faith is in themselves. 

Were the scribes protecting God (who doesn’t need protection) or protecting their own power? Jesus, I think, exposes their atheism. They believe, not in God, but in themselves. 

What might we take from this passage? Certainly, we should see the divine nature of Jesus. We’re called to worship Jesus as Lord and Savior and God. We’re called to follow him and to place his interest above our own. 

Next, we also might take a lesson from our unnamed disciples in the story who brought the man to Jesus. Who might we help bring someone to Jesus? First, as we see in this story, discipleship is a group effort. Second, we need not to be deterred by obstacles (such as the crowded home). If we make the effort, as we see in today’s text, Jesus just might reward our faith by responding. Amen. 

[1] There are several theories of atonement. Gustad Aulen, Christus Victor (1931) outlines three main theories (Ramson, Substitution, and Moral Persuasion) and then presents a modified form on Ramson (Christ the Victor). 

[2] Brian K. Blount, Go Preach! Mark’s Kingdom Message and the Black Church Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998), 174. 

[3] Mark 1:15.

[4] See Mark 1:21ff or my sermon on the text:  https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/01/21/jesus-in-the-synagogue/

[5] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 74-75. 

[6] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 36.

[7] Cf. II Chronicles 7:24, Psalm 103:3, 147:3, Isaiah 19:22; 38:17,57:18. William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 92. Even in the New Testament you find such thoughts.  James 5:14-16 appears to be a link between sin and sickness.

[8]See Hare, 36; and Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishing, 1997), 85-86.

[9] For a brief definition of sociopath and psychopath and anti-social personality disorder see https://www.verywellhealth.com/sociopath-vs-psychopath-characteristics-and-differences-5193369

[10] Blasphemy was punished by stoning. See Leviticus 24:13-16.

[11] Russell Moore, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Sentinel: Penguin Random House, 2023), 81.