The Battle Over Tradition

Title slide with photos of Mayberry and Bluemont, two rock churches along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches 
July 14, 2024
Mark 7:1-23

This sermon was recorded on Friday at Bluemont Church. This was, before the events of yesterday evening. In have made a number of changes to the sermon, and completely re-wrote my opening remarks. Read the text to see my response to yesterday’s events.

At the beginning of worship:

At the beginning of worship this morning, it’s important that as Christians we pray for former President Trump and along with those who died yesterday evening and their families. I’ll do this in our opening prayer. 

As followers of Jesus, we shun violence. We follow a man who, even when receiving the most painful and inhumane treatment ever conceived, still prayed for his persecutors and refused to allow his followers to fight back. Only the complete trust in God allows such a response. 

Whatever your political views may be, I encourage you to set the example of civility in the days ahead. We are called to be peacemakers, to love our everyone, and to work for the wellbeing of all. Those are our marching orders. Only such actions can foster the type of society envisioned by the gospel. Retaliation by individuals is never right. That’s the role of government. 

My previously prepared opening remarks this morning now seem out of place. I had planned a humorous look into how we lean toward the Pharisees. If you want to hear those remarks, I invite you to go watch what I posted on YouTube, as I recorded that sermon on Friday. Instead, I encourage you to think about the conflict we’ll see in the scriptures this this morning between Jesus and the Pharisees considering yesterday’s events. While our Savior didn’t hold back words and was even sarcastic, he never called for violence in response to the Pharisees attack on him and his disciples. 

My revised “Prayer for Today” to be used at the opening of worship:

Faithful God, we come before you this morning with concern and anxiety in our hearts. We are frightened by the events yesterday and pray for the recovery of former President Trump and for others who were injured in yesterday at Butler, PA.  We ask that you hold the families of those who died in your arms and comfort them. Help us, O God, to tone down the rhetoric, and to lift up your visions of peace and justice for all. Give us the ability, as followers of your Son, the ability to be peacemakers. And keep us remindful that you are in control, that we might trust your plans for the world. This we pray in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever. Amen.

Before reading the Scripture:

In the seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel, we find a shift in themes. Jesus is once again being attacked by the religious leaders.[1]The section we’re reading in many translations is titled, “The Tradition of the Elders.” Personally, I don’t like that title as it sounds too close to a book introduced in the early 20th Century Russia titled, “Protocol of the Elders (actually the full title is the Protocol of the Elders of Zion).”[2]

The book was supposedly written centuries earlier describes how the Jews planned to take over the world. The work is a forgery but gave Russians a reason to persecute the Jews. Of course, from their history, it doesn’t seem they needed such a reason. The book also found receptive ears by the likes of Adolph Hitler and other antisemitic conspiracy theorists to this day. 

Let’s refer to our text as something else other than the Tradition of the Elders. I suggest we call it “The Battle over Traditions.” As for traditions, we all seem to be slaves of them. How many times have you ever said, “we don’t do things that way?” We’re enslaved to the past. One of the more truthful things Karl Marx said was that “the tradition of past generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brain of the living.”[3]

In this battle over tradition, Jesus and the Pharisees duke it out. What’s important? Appearance or what’s in our hearts? Let’s see what Jesus has to say.

Read Mark 7:1-23

Washing our hands before eating seems an odd line to draw in a battle. After all, we’re bombarded with the message to wash our hands. Our moms instilled this in our heads. When the flu is prevalent, public health officials remind us of the need. The same went for the COVID outbreak. Every public bathroom is required to have a sign reminding employees to wash before returning to work. It’s good hygiene. Let’s get rid of the germs.[4] Who can argue with that?

So, what’s the problem with the Pharisees questioning Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands? We might also ask Jesus this question. 

First, germ theory has come a long way since the 1st Century. Back then, they didn’t know about germs. 

Second, the idea of washing one’s hands regularly wasn’t in the law. The law required the Priests to wash their hands and feet before doing their work at the temple. In times, the Pharisees extended this to apply to everyone and before food.[5] The act of washing hands became an identity marker and helped differentiate between the faithful and the heathen. 

Let me suggest that you wash your hands before eating. But don’twash them for religious reasons. At least don’t think you’re being religious when washing your hands. Wash them out of a public health interest. The idea of doing such an act to receive God’s favor is the theology of pagans. We follow the God of grace. God loves us all, whether our hands are clean or dirty at the dining room table.

We can assume in our text this morning that the Pharisees looked for something to discredit Jesus. They think they got the perfect topic when they see the disciples eating with dirty hands. Interestingly, Mark, in verses 3 and 4, explains some of these rules. Remember, as I reiterated again last week,[6] Mark writes to a non-Jewish audience. If he wrote for the Jews, there would be no need to explain. They would understand the issue. But non-Jews, the gentiles, would be confused.[7]

Jesus shifts the topic from outward forms of piety, such as washing one’s hands, to an inward piety. In this way, he’s much like the prophets and he even quotes Isaiah,[8] who condemned Israel’s hypocrisy, for saying one thing and doing another. If we think we can get by just by show, and not by changing our hearts, we are mistaken.

Jesus then goes into a long discussion over the 5thCommandment, that is to honor one’s father and mother. He speaks of the practice of Corban,[9] which is dedicating possessions to God, but still using such possessions during our lives. If a parent was in need, they could refuse to help because such resources have already been committed. This is a lot like Jesus telling us that before we make a gift in the temple, we should make things right with others.[10]  

Jesus has a problem with us taking an oath, which we also see in the Sermon on the Mount. Taking an oath will make us feel as if our future acts are bound.[11] So, if we promise to give our possessions to the temple, and then find the need of our parents will require what we plan to give, we could get out of the commandment to honor our parents. Our oath would take precedent. However, Jesus says, basically, if you do this, you’re still breaking the Commandments. Don’t be looking for ways around the law!

After shutting down the Pharisees through examples and some biting sarcasm,[12] Jesus turns to the crowd that always seems to be close by in Mark’s gospel. In a different way, he tells them the same thing. It’s not what’ goes into our mouths that defile us, it’s what comes out. In other words, it’s what we say and do, how we live, how we treat others. 

Afterwards, Jesus is alone with the disciples who are often clueless in Mark’s gospel. It’s no different here. Jesus must explain to them in even a simpler manner. Here, we learn that Jesus isn’t talking about food regulations, but about the heart, from which evil may arise. John Calvin describes our hearts as “factories producing idols.” This is why we must protect our hearts, for they can bring destruction upon us. 

Jesus lists a series of sins. While he starts with sexual sins, he extends this list to include others sins even more common. After all, most of us have done something wicked, or have been deceitful, or envious. In our idol talk, we slander our enemies. Some of you may have said such things while watching the news yesterday evening. And who among us hasn’t been prideful in some point in our lives? 

What’s the intention of this passage? I think Jesus tells us it does us no good to pretend to be a Christian. If we only go through the motions, to maintain the traditions of the past, without developing a relationship with Jesus Christ, we’re still lost. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that true prayer is not doing it publicly (like in a restaurant) to draw attention. Instead, we should pray privately, where we can be honest with God.[13] The same goes for our lives. We’re not to do things to draw attention to ourselves.

As followers of Jesus, we seek to honor him, not to inflate our own egos. And that means following him, and not the ways of human tradition which often misses the point. We guard our hearts, work to develop a relationship with Jesus, as we love and care for others. Amen. 

[1] We’ve seen this several times in Mark’s gospel. See 2:18-28, 3:20-35, and 6:1-6.

[2] See

[3] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte as quoted by my grandmother’s cousin, Francis M. Wilholt, The Politics of Massive Resistance (New York: George Braziller, 1973), frontpiece. 

[4] See Chelsey Harmon, Commentary on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

[5] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: W/JKP, 1996), 81.


[7] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 206-207. 

[8] Quote in verses 6 and 7 come from Isaiah 29:13 (in the Septuagint). 

[9] For a description of Corban, see Edwards, 210-211. 

[10] Matthew 5:23-24. 

[11] Matthew 5:33-36. 

[12] For comments on Jesus’ sarcasm, see Edwards, 209. 

[13] Matthew 6:5-6. 

Jesus and the Disciples: More Adventures on Water and Land

title slide with photo of a sailboat heading upwind

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
July 7, 2024
Mark 6:45-56

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, July 5, 2024

At the beginning of worship:

We’ve just celebrated the Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day. While the rain may have damped the celebration, I’m sure most of us were happy to receive it. 

Two hundred and forty-eight years ago, our forefathers and mothers came together to declare their independence from kings and tyrants. And while we have not always lived up to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, we have offered the world a vision of hope and new possibilities. 

But I am concern when people want America to be known as a Christian nation. I am not even sure of what that means. There’s no such thing found in scripture.[1] Throughout our history, attempts to change the constitution to name America a Christian country have failed.[2] I think that’s a good thing. As Christians, we should be proud Americans. But as Christians, we tie our identity to our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, not to a nation.

We follow Jesus. We shouldn’t have to pound our beliefs into others. It should be evident in our lives. Others should, as the old gospel hymn goes, know we are Christians by our love. And if they don’t, instead of us thinking there is something wrong with them, we should examine what we’re doing. How can we be more like Jesus?

Jesus’ ministry, as seen in Mark’s gospel, involved wandering around Galilee, showing his love in acts of kindness and grace. That’s the goal worthy of those of us who attempt to place Jesus at the center of our lives. Yes, proclaiming Jesus as Lord is important; it’s what preaching is about. But more important is showing the love of God to others. 

Before reading the Scriptures:

Today, we’ll finish off the sixth chapter of Mark’s gospel today by looking at the events that happened the night and early morning after Jesus fed the 5,000.

Geography is problematic with today’s reading. Jesus sends the disciples off to the other side, to Bethsaida. And then, a few verses later, we’re told they had crossed over. However, Bethsaida was located on the north side of the lake, beyond Capernaum. You’d get there, not by crossing over, but by sailing along the shoreline to the top of the lake. 

And then, instead of arriving at Bethsaida, they go on shore at Gennesaret. It’s located on the same side of the lake as where the feeding took place. Last week, I suggested that ministry often comes to us despite our plans for something else. That’s the case here, for in Gennesaret there is much work to be done. 

Why did they not go to Bethsaida? Perhaps because the wind was too great to make the headway needed. But it doesn’t matter. Wherever Jesus lands, ministry opportunities abound. . 

Notice also the disciple’s reaction to all that had happened and is taking place. In less than twelve hours, they’ve seen the miracle of the feeding, of Jesus walking on water, and of him again demonstrating control over the weather. And yet, they still don’t get it. Maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we struggle with faith.  Let’s hear God’s word… 

Read Mark 6:45-56

Having fed the crowd, Jesus sends off the disciples while he heads up the mountain to pray. Mountains in Mark are often a place of retreat and rest.[3]

Mark now resumes his fast-paced storytelling. We’ve seen this earlier, in the first three chapters of the gospel. “Immediately” as we’ve witnessed, is one of Mark’s favorite words.[4] We get the sense as soon as the disciples picked up all the leftovers, Jesus has them aweigh anchor and stow it so they can set sail (or row the boat). While Mark’s urgency shows the nature of the kingdom slipping into a lost world, here I wonder if the urgency of their departure has to do with Jesus protecting their egos. He wants them to leave before they soak up the praise of the crowd who benefited from the miracle.[5]

I hope that by systematically going through Mark’s gospel, you have begun to see some patterns and gain some insight into what Mark wants his readers to understand. Several of Mark’s themes are again picked up in our reading today. 

While the disciples are not threatened by a storm, as they had been earlier in Mark’s gospel,[6] they still experience difficulties on the water this night. The wind slows their progress. This, Jesus watches, perhaps from the mountain where he prayed. Then, at the fourth watch (or early morning as our reading translates it), which would be 3 AM, Jesus approaches the disciples’ boat. Interestingly, here Mark, who may have been writing to a Roman audience, uses the Roman style of timekeeping. The Romans had four watches at night. The Jews divided the night into three watches.[7]

Oddly, Mark tells us that Jesus was planning on passing them by. There are questions about the meaning of this passage. Presumably Jesus wants to go ahead of them to their next location. But the disciples spot someone walking on the water and think the worse, crying out it’s a ghost. At this point, Jesus’ speaks, calms their fears and climbs into the boat. At this point, the wind cease. 

As it was with the feeding of the 5,000, Mark doesn’t explain how Jesus pulls off walking on water. Some have sarcastically suggested he knew where the rocks were, or maybe he was walking on a sandbar, but that’s not supported by the text. Mark wants his readers to know the divine nature of Jesus. But the disciples don’t get it. We’re told they are astounded. They don’t understand. Their hearts are hardened.  But Mark continues to focus on Jesus and not the disciples, so he quickly moves on to the next adventure. 

They land in Gennesaret, a rich agricultural valley located just south of Capernaum. It’s not really a village or town, but a rural area densely populated with farmers.[8] Again, people flock to Jesus. While the disciples may not get Jesus, the people of this region of Galilee, like those in other areas, can’t get enough of Jesus. Again, they flock to him as he’s getting out of the boat. All those who are sick are brought to him. As it was with the woman who had bled for 12 years, just touching his cloak is enough to heal.[9]

The word used here and translated as “healed,” can also mean “saved.” People are healed and saved, a fitting ending to this period of Jesus’ ministry.[10]

What can we learn from this text?  

First, the opening of this story provide insight into Jesus’ spirituality. He sends the disciples off ahead of him so he can retreat into the mountains to pray. Ministry takes place in the context of other people, but it also takes a toll. Jesus’ actions affirm the need for us to spend time alone with God. If we try to always work and be busy, we’ll burn out and not have anything left to give. So be kind to yourselves and take a break when needed. 

Next, we see again how Mark prefers to show Jesus’ Christology rather than telling us about it. Instead of saying Jesus is God, Mark demonstrates it. Of course, the disciples mistake Jesus for a ghost. We’ve seen how Mark prefers to limit what he tells about Jesus’ teachings. Instead, he wants to show us Jesus’ actions. English teachers and writing coaches encourage students to show not tell. Mark demonstrates this lesson magnificently as Jesus walks on water, calms the wind, and heals the sick.  Jesus is God, which is something we should experience instead of only knowing intellectually. 

And finally, think of the disciples. They witnessed that incredible miracle as Jesus fed the 5,000 with just a few loaves and fishes. They’ve experienced a series of miracles, one after another, but still don’t get Jesus. Their hearts, we’re told, are harden. That may be, but it’s also the case that if the disciples struggled with Jesus’ identity, we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. We shouldn’t worry if we don’t fully grasp Jesus’ identity. Instead, we should honor and follow him. If we still have questions, we can approach Jesus in prayer and ask for clarification and insight into his nature. 

Jesus reveals himself in Word and Sacrament. We’ve heard the Word. We’ve seen how Jesus calmed the disciples despite their misunderstandings, and how he had mercy on those who were sick. Now we will come to the table where we pray for Jesus to reveal himself in sacrament. Amen. 

[1] While the Old Testament tells the story of Israel, which was a theocracy, such a vision is absent in the New Testament. The church is envisioned as a place where national, racial, status, and sexual boundaries are broken down. See Galatians 3:28. 

[2] Around America’s centennial (1876), there were such attempts, but they failed. 

[3] Ulrich W. Mauser, Christ in the Wilderness: The Wilderness Theme in the Second Gospel and its Basis in the Biblical Tradition (1963, Eugene, Oregon: WIPF and Stock Publishers, 2009), 109-110. 

[4] See for my discussion of  immediacy in Mark’s gospel. 

[5] In John’s gospel, after feeding the multitude, Jesus must deal with a larger crowd coming and demanding bread. See John 6. 

[6] Mark 4:35-41. See

[7] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 198. 

[8] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 1996), 73. 

[9] Mark 5:25-34. 

[10] Edwards, 203. 

Sailing upwind in the Warsaw Sound

A Grand Picnic (and a call to feed the hungry)

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
June 30, 2024
Mark 6:30-44

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on Friday, June 28, 2024

At the beginning of worship:

We live with the mindset of scarcity. We ponder questions like, can I afford this? Will I have enough to retire, to live well until my death? While it’s good to maintain control over our expenses, some people become so concerned and worried over finances that it consumes their lives. They have no faith. Some build up massive bank accounts and then die. Others become hoarders, holding on to everything, and leaving their kids with a mess to clean up. 

While scarcity is real in our economy, I want you to ponder this: abundance is the foundation for Jesus’ economy. 

Before reading the scripture: 

Over the past two weeks, I’ve spoken about Mark again creating a sandwich narrative in the passage we’re exploring. The first piece of bread had Jesus send out the 12 on a missionary adventure across Galilee. Then, while they’re gone, we have the filling. Mark discusses John’s death at the hands of Herod, which we looked at last week. Now the disciples return, as we’ll see today, which completes the sandwich. Part of Mark’s intention here, linking their missionary activity with John’s death, may have been to stress the danger of discipleship. There are forces in the world against the good news and sometimes the cost of discipleship is high.

But the return of the disciples sets the stage for another miracle and more insight into the nature of discipleship. It also provides a contrast to Herod’s banquet which led to John the Baptist’s execution. While we’re not given the menu for Herod’s banquet, we can assume it was rich with a variety of meat and bread, fruit and wine. Royalty dinners are elegant affairs. 

Jesus throws a different kind of banquet. He feeds the multitude with a simple fare. Bread and a few sardines, a typical lunch of a Palestinian peasant. The simple things are a blessing. Let’s look at the text:

Mark 6:30-44

The Galilean crowds flock to Jesus. We see this reoccur throughout the opening six chapters of Mark’s gospel. Even when their religious leaders challenge Jesus and those outside of Galilee fear his power (as we saw in the fifth chapter[1]), the folks in Galilee can’t get enough of Jesus. 

The twelve disciples have just returned from their independent mission work and Jesus suggests they get away. Maybe he wants to debrief them as he gives them a break. They’ve been so swamped that they’ve not even had time to eat. 

So, Jesus and the twelve, perhaps borrowing one of the fishermen disciples’ boats, sail down the lakeshore in search of a secluded place to land. But seeing them slip out of the harbor, the crowds follow the boat from the shoreline. The way Mark describes it, we can envision someone shouting, “There they are.” Pointing to a boat on the lake, a crowd builds. The crowd moves up and down the hills along the shoreline, following the boat. Maybe the wind was light, so the crowd can keep up with the boat bobbing offshore. By the time the boat steers for shore, the crowd had beat Jesus and the disciples, and are their ready to catch the lines and help secure the boat. 

While Jesus could have been upset that his plans for a getaway with the disciples had been ruined, he certainly didn’t let it show. Instead, he had compassion. Drawing on an Old Testament metaphor, he describes them as “sheep without a shepherd.”[2]So Jesus begins to teach. 

There is a useful message here. While we may do all kinds of planning in the church, often our most important ministry happens during interruptions. While plans have their place, as follows of Jesus, we must be open to God’s Spirit working by bringing to us opportunities to share with others. If we are so busy or so focused on a goal that we can’t pause and listen to the needs of others, we’re not following Jesus. We’re doing our own work. Look for those around us who are lonely and troubled, needy and confused, and offer a kind word or gesture toward them. 

Of course, Jesus seems to have gotten a bit carried away with his teaching. The sun makes a beeline to the western horizon. His disciples become concerned. They need to eat and there are no McDonalds or grocery stores nearby. They’re in the wilderness. Food is a real concern. 

Photo beside a small chapel in the Honduras mountains
Next to a chapel in Honduras

Years ago, I was on a mission trip in Honduras. One day, we took a medical team up into the mountains to a village 2000 feet above the town of Jesus de Otoro. I was the logistic person, so I had the pleasure of setting up lunch for the physicians and nurses operating the clinic. The lunch was being made back in town and was to be delivered to us by noon. The clock struck 12 o’clock and no lunch. Waiting, I tried to reach someone back in town. Finally, I got a hold of someone, and was assured lunch was on its way. In fact, they said it should have already arrived. We waited and waited. 

Finally, another guy and I went to the two little stores in town, brought junk food (mostly chips, crackers, candy bars, and soft drinks). At least the workers would have something to eat. Lunch arrived later that afternoon, as the car had broken down on the way up the mountain. 

Jesus shows us that it’s important to take care of physical needs. Sometimes we do the best we can as I did in Honduras. 

Jesus tells the disciples that instead of him saying a benediction and sending the crowd on its way, they should feed the crowds.[3]This stuns the disciples. How can they feed so many people? Even if they had the money, even 200 denarii (the equivalent to a year’s wages), there would be no place to buy food.  So, Jesus, realizing the disciples are not able to take care of the needs of the crowd, asks them to inventory the food available. It’s not much, just five small loaves and a couple pieces of fish. 

But Jesus takes control of the situation by having the disciples organize the crowd into groups. Having people in groups help ensure all will be fed. Then he looks up to heaven and says the typical Jewish blessing upon the food.[4] We’re not told that he asked God to multiply the food, only that he gave thanks for it. Then he began to break up the loaves and fish, feeding everyone.

We’re told that all were fed and were filled. The “all” here is important.[5] No one is left out. Jesus isn’t concerned if there were those who might not have been included because of kosher laws or anything like that. He wants everyone to have their fill. And, when dinner is over, the disciples collect the leftovers and there’s a basket for each of them.  

Another interesting insight into this story is that the crowd may not have even known it was a miracle. Jesus has everyone sitting in groups and its he and the disciples that are around the bread being broken. The bread comes from the huddle of Jesus and the disciples, not in view of most people.[6] Jesus didn’t do this feat to show off. His purpose was to care for the needs of people. 

We learn a couple of things from this passage. First, Jesus’ heart breaks when he sees people wanting to grow closer to God but in need of a leader. He wants his disciples to show and to do the work he’s called them to do. Our main priority, as followers of Jesus and collectively as the church, is people in need of God. We need to be open to listening to people’s questions and to encourage their search. 

A second thing we learn is Jesus’ concern for people’s physical needs. Jesus doesn’t want people to go hungry. You know, the story of the feeding of the multitudes can be found in all the gospels.[7] Feeding the hungry has always been an important ministry of the church. 

Even today, both Mayberry and Bluemont encourage people to collect 2 cent a meal and give it as a special offering to help feed those who struggle with food security.[8] While 2 cents may not be much, if we all did it for every meal, it would provide roughly $22 a year per person. When you multiply that by the number of people in our families and in our churches and throughout the presbytery, we can make some nice size grants to those ministries providing hungry relief in our communities and around the world.  

Furthermore, a gift of 2 cent a meal is certainly not something we should brag over. Instead, think of it as just doing our part to care for others. 

While it doesn’t matter how much you give, just placing a jar at your table and dropping a few coins in at every meal should remind us of Jesus’ concern for the food security of others. And the act of dropping in coins may also make your prayers more real, for we are prompted to consider our responsibilities for the wellbeing of others. 

As the five loaves and two fish illustrate, a little bit can go a long way. Keep that in mind as you make your offerings for those who are hungry in the world. Amen. 

[1] Mark 5:17.  See

[2] Numbers 27:17, 1 Kings 22:17, Ezekiel 34:5. 

[3] In the Message, verse 37 is translated the disciples’ request in this way: “Pronounce a benediction and send these folks off so they can get some supper.” 

[4] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: W/JKP, 1996), 77. 

[5] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 193. 

[6] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 168. 

[7] In addition to this text, see Matthew 14:13-21 and 15:32-39, Mark 8:10, Luke 9:10-20, and John 6:1-15. 

[8] See

The Death of John the Baptist

title slide with photo of rocks along shore of St. Mary's River at DeTour Village, Michigan

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
June 23, 2024
Mark 6:14-29

At the beginning of worship

Over the past twenty-some years, I have invested a significant amount of time reading Robert Caro’s lifetime work, a multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. As he was President during my elementary school years, this work provides an insight into the world of my childhood. To date, Caro has published four volumes (which vary between 600 and 1200 pages). He takes the reader from LBJ’s birth through him becoming President at the death of John Kennedy, and the 1964 election. Along with a lot of other people, I’m still waiting on his final volume which takes us to this death in 1973. 

Caro’s interest in Johnson came from his study of how leaders use power. As with many people, Johnson is a tragic figure. He wanted so much to be President, but he also had a fear of being a failure like he saw his dad. His father may have been one the only honest politicians from Texas, and for which he suffered. Johnson couldn’t let that happen to him.[1]

When those in power abuse their position to maintain their authority, innocent people become victims. It happens today but it’s nothing new, as we’ll see in our scripture this morning. Those of us who follow Jesus have a higher calling than to just maintain our influence. We’re called to be truthful, to acknowledge our failures and sinfulness, and to realizes that regardless of what happens, we’re accountable to God. 

Before reading the scripture

As I’ve explained earlier in our work through the gospel of Mark, the book focuses on Jesus. There are only two passages in the book which isn’t about him. Both are about John the Baptist. The first looks at how John points to Jesus, so it’s still about Jesus. In fact, Mark’s introduction to John is more limited than what we find in Matthew and Luke because Mark wants us to focus on Jesus.[2]

The second place in the gospel where Mark diverts from talking about Jesus is when writes about John’s death. Mark inserts this story into the meat of one of his sandwiches, between the sending of the disciples out two-by-two and their return. Here, in these verses, Jesus isn’t mentioned, except that reports of his ministry caused Herod to fear that John had been raised from the dead. This passage is about how John’s death foreshadows Jesus’ death.[3]

Last week, we saw how Jesus sent the disciples out, two-by-two, to cover the villages of Galilee. While the disciples are away, Mark tells us this story. Immediately following this story, Mark’s metaphorical  sandwich is completed with a second slice of bread consisting of an announcement that the disciples have returned placed on top. 

Read Mark 6:14-29

Herod is paranoid. It seems to run in his family. His father, Herod the Great, fearing a rival, killed all the infant boys around Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth.[4] While the Herod in our story today likes to be considered a king, he’s not really one. That was a title conferred on his father. But Herod Jr (or Herod Antipas as he is known—and this is confusing for there several rulers who go by the name Herod in scripture) rules a fraction of the territory his father governed. The actual title given to him (which is used in the gospels of Matthew and Luke), is tetrarch.[5]

This Herod is cunning yet charming. Jesus refers to him as “a fox.”[6] Sounds appropriate. Foxes can be cute and a pain in the rear, especially if you have chickens. He lures his half-brother’s wife, Herodias,[7] to leave her husband and marry him. 

To take a new wife, Herod had to dispose of the wife who was the daughter of Aretas, another regional king. This enraged his father-in-law. It led to a war a few years later. Herod’s troops were defeated. A few years after this, and either because of his military loss or his insistence on being given the title of a king, Rome had enough. Herod and Herodias were exiled to Gaul[8] (which would now be France and parts of surrounding countries). 

John the Baptist called Herod Antipas on the carpet for his adultery. Today, political leaders don’t like truth-tellers when it goes against their self-interest, and it was the same way back in the first century. So, Herod had John arrested as we learned of early in Mark’s gospel.[9] John’s arrest set up the events for what happens in our story this morning. 

The entire Herod clan were decadent. They seem to enjoy lavish dinner parties and the one in our story must have been something else. Herodias’ daughter, from her first husband, does a wonderful dance. She delights her stepfather and the guests. So, Herod grants her a wish, up to half of her kingdom. 

She must have been young, for she runs and asks her mother what she should request. And her mother, who had willingly left her first husband for Herod, also had a problem with John. So, she asks her daughter to request the head of John the Baptist. 

We can’t blame the girl here. She’s just doing what her mother tells her, but we can blame the mom who uses her daughter for such an evil act. Such parents are terrible and should never be a parent. 

The request troubles Herod. But he’s a weak man and afraid how it would look for a so-called king to renege on his promises. He’s no better than his wife. He gives the order and John’s head appears on a silver platter. I wonder what happened to the appetites of the guest who witnessed the spectacle. 

By the way, this became a favorite subject for artists during the renaissance.[10] I haven’t seen or heard of any modern artists who have picked up on the theme, which is probably good. 

Herod, a weak and paranoid man, hears about the deeds and teachings of this wandering preacher in Galilee. He immediately fears the worse. He thinks John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. The way Mark inserts this story, we look back in time at John’s death, which had already happened. Mark has told us in the first chapter that Jesus’ ministry only began upon John’s arrest.[11]  Now that Jesus has become famous, Herod Antipas is fearful. 

The disagreement between John, Herod and wife parallels the Old Testament story of Elijah struggles with King Ahab and his wife Jezebel.[12] In both cased, the leaders are weak, and their wives encourage them to commit atrocities. In both cases, God’s prophet confronts the powerful. Elijah prevails, but John loses his head. 

There’s a parallel between John’s death and Jesus’ forthcoming death. In both cases, you have a man executed without having been convicted of a crime. Those who claim that Jesus is like someone else whom they think has been unjustly condemned overlooks this fact. Pilate, in whose hands Jesus’ fate was held, told the crowd that he found nothing to charge Jesus.[13] Nor was there anything legal about John’s execution. It was a weak leader abusing his power to fulfill a promise and not look bad. Jesus’ execution was because a weak leader wanted to avoid a riot and appease the crowds. Neither man was found guilty in court. 

There’s also a dissimilarity between what happened to John and Jesus. After his death, John’s disciples collect his body and provide a proper burial. Jesus’ disciples ran away and hid. It’s left to others, mainly Joseph of Arimathea, to bury Jesus.[14] Mark may have been offering a subtle criticism of Jesus’ disciples for abandoning Jesus out of fear.[15]

What can we learn from this story? First, as I pointed out, this is the center of a sandwich, fitted in between the disciples being sent on a mission and their return. Perhaps equating John’s death with discipleship, will help us understand what Jesus will later say in Mark’s gospel, that whoever wants to follow him must pick up their cross.[16] Discipleship comes with a cost, and sometimes that includes our lives. For we must put Jesus first, over everything. 

From the point of view of Herod, we learn not to write checks that can’t or shouldn’t be cashed. In other words, make no promises we can’t fulfill without resorting to evil. A simple promise to a young girl got him into trouble and ended John’s life. Perhaps this is why we’re encouraged not to make oaths and to just let our yeses be yes and our no nos.[17] Furthermore, we learn that character matters. The stealing of another man’s wife and the adultery it entailed has consequences. 

Finally, there are times when the faithful are required to speak truth to power even when it inconvenient or it endangers our lives. But if we don’t speak the truth, who will? We should trust God, place our hope in Jesus, and refuse to be intimidated by those in positions of power. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Thankfully there’s grace when we fall short. Amen. 

[1] I was reminded of LBJ’s struggle with failure in a post by Scott Hoezee, who introduced me to Caro’s biographies of LBJ. See

[2] See

[3] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 183.

[4] Matthew 2.

[5] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 159.

[6] Luke 13:22. 

[7] Many of the more reliable ancient manuscripts have Herodias as also the daughter, but Mark is confused. Joseph provides her the name Salome. See Hooker, 158.2 and 161. 

[8] Edwards 184, notes the banishment occurred in 36 AD, three years after Herod’s defeat but gives no reason. Hooker, 159, suggests that the reason for banishment had to do with Herod’s desire to be called a king. 

[9] Mark 1:14.

[10] See

[11] Mark 1:14.

[12] See 1 Kings 16;29-22:40.

[13] See Matthew 27:24, Mark 15:12-15, Luke 23:4, 20-24, and John 18:38.

[14] Mark 15:32. See also Matthew 27:56-57, Luke 23:56, and John 19:38. 

[15] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1996), 75. 

[16] Mark 8:34.

[17] Matthew 5:37

full view of shoreline of St. Mary's River near DeTour Village, MI, during snow
Snowing along the edge of the St. Mary’s River, DeTour Village, Michigan

The Challenges of Going Home

Title slide with photo of a rough mountain road

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
June 16, 2024
Mark 6:1-13

At the Beginning of Worship

The movie, A River Runs through It, is a great Father’s Day movie, as it tells the story of a loving father and his two sons. At one place in the movie, Norman MacLean has just returned from college in the East to his home in Montana. At a fourth of July party, he falls for the flirty Jesse Burns of Wolf Creek. As the two began to grow closer, Jesse’ brother Neal returns home for a visit. Both Norm and Neal grew up in Montana, but it’s evident that Neal hates the place while Norm embraces it. 

Norm loves to fish and his relationship with Jesse almost ends when he’s encouraged to take her brother Neal with him and his brother, Paul, on a fishing trip. Paul is leery of the idea, betting that Norm will be a bait fisherman, not a fly fisherman, and will show up with worms. But he agrees to go because he’s been asked by his brother. 

Sure enough, Neal shows up late, with a can of worms. He’s also drunk and with the prostitute he’d met the night before. He tells the brothers he’ll meet them later and they decide he’s not worth it. While they spend the morning fishing, Jesse’ brother gets himself into more trouble, for which Jesse blames Norm.[1]

As those who have moved away from where we grew up understands the tension when we return home. Are we like Neal and want to be seen as making it in Hollywood or doing something incredible with our lives in a failed attempt to cover up our failures, which in his case was alcoholism. Or are we like Norm, torn between the academic world of the East and the wild rivers of the West. And do we worry how others might accept us when we return home, which caused Neal to put on airs. 

Regardless of how we’re accepted, when you’re away and then return, things are different. Some people, like those in Jesus’ hometown, may be jealous, envious, or even question as to who we are and what we have done. And if they’re jealous or envious, there is little we can do to change the situation, as Jesus experienced in our text today.[2] Here’s where the truth lies in Thomas Wolfe’s well quoted title, You Can’t Go Home Again.

Before the Reading of Scripture

Our text today contains two stories. The first involves Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth. If you remember, his ministry has mostly been focused in and around Capernaum, along the Sea of Galilee. Early in the gospel, we learn Jesus came from Nazareth.[3] In Jesus day, it was a small village, with less than 500 people. Jesus left this village and headed down to the Jordan River where John was baptizing, then he went out into the wilderness to be tempted.[4] When he returned to society, he settled in Capernaum, where he taught in the synagogue and casted out evil spirits.[5] Now, he returns and teaches in his hometown synagogue. The reaction is mixed, but essentially, they reject Jesus. With the people’s obstinance, he’s unable to do any great miracles while among them. 

But Jesus didn’t let this rejection get him down. Instead, he doubles down by expanding his ministry. He’s been training the disciples all along. Now he sends them out two-by-two, to hit all the towns of Galilee. 

Read Mark 6:1-13

Our text begins with Jesus making the journey from the shore of Lake Galilee to his hometown. It required a twenty-five-mile walk. For us, with cars and paved roads, such a journey isn’t a big deal, but when walking, it would have required a long hike through rough terrain. 

Once home, they invite Jesus to teach in his home synagogue. It’s always a daunting task to preach or teach to those who have known you since you were in diapers. I remember the first time I preached at Cape Fear Presbyterian, the church I attended from age 9 through college. There in the pulpit, I looked out and saw my sixth grade Sunday School teacher and former youth group leaders stare me down. It made me nervous. These people knew me.  

By the way, I’m going back to preach at this church in October for their 80th anniversary service. But by this point, most of those who taught me as a kid are no longer sitting in the pews, having joined the triumphant church in the life to come. 

At first, the crowd in the congregation is amazed at Jesus’ teachings. In Luke, we’re told Jesus read from Isaiah and things went well until he proclaimed the prophecy fulfilled in their hearing. This was too much for the crowd and after a tense exchange, they tried to hurl him off a cliff, but he slipped away.[6]But as we’ve seen, Mark often avoids giving us the details on Jesus’ teaching. 

Instead, Mark shows how the crowd went from thinking well of Jesus, to questioning of his authority. How did this carpenter get so wise?[7] After all, he’s just Mary’s boy, which may have been a slap at Jesus, as if they hinted Jesus was without a father (and you know what that would make him). If it wasn’t a disparaging remark, it could have been that Joseph was long dead; however, that doesn’t appear the case as we’re shown in John’s gospel.[8]It appears this was an insult directed at Jesus.[9]

In addition to knowing his mom, they also know his siblings. Here, we are given a list of brothers but not sisters.[10] Although Jesus’ teachings and action challenged it, first century Palestine was a patriarchal society. 

Furthermore, the acknowledgement of siblings seems to have been embarrassing to some, especially after the notion of Mary remaining a virgin throughout her life became popular in the early church. Some have tried to explain this away as the kids being Joseph’s sons from a first marriage, but that’s just speculation. Others suggest the “siblings” are really cousins, but that doesn’t fly because Greek has distinctive words for a sibling and a cousin.[11]

Jesus responds, reminding them that a prophet has no honor in his hometown and among kinfolks. The people of Nazareth, who refused to believe in Jesus, were the ones who suffered as he was unable to pull off any great miracles. This isn’t because of Jesus’ lack of power, but because God works through us. If we don’t believe and reject God, we limit ourselves as to how Jesus might help us. However, Jesus does help heal a few people, so not all must have shunned Jesus. A few may have believed.

After such a rejection, most of us would probably slip away and lick our wounds. But that’s not Jesus’ way. Instead, he doubles down. It’s now time to expand his ministry by sending out the disciples two-by-two. This effort is to ensure that all the villages in Galilee may hear the good news and experience the miracles of grace. 

Jesus gives the 12 what they need to be successful They have the power they need to take over his mission. He provides two instructions. First, they travel without preparation. They carry only a staff and the clothes on their backs. They are not to take food or money or a bag for possessions. In their travels, they must depend on God and the hospitality of those they meet. 

The second instruction has to do with how they relate to those they meet. They are to honor everyone. If someone poor offered them lodging, they are to accept it and stay there even if someone else offers better lodging. It’s a way of honoring everyone! Furthermore, if the people in a village are not interested, they are to move on without making a fuss except to clean off their feet. This was a tradition of Jews leaving a gentile area. By the disciples doing this to the Jewish villages in Galilee, they remind the residents of what they’ve missed. 

Their mission is successful with many demons cast out and people healed in addition to hearing the call to repentance. 

Our text today reminds us that our Christian faith and ministry is more than just proclaiming the gospel. Jesus’ ministry always involves taking care of the physical and mental needs of those who also hear the good news of the gospel. 

The text also reminds us that while grace comes from God, we must be willing to accept it. Otherwise, we’ll be like the folks in Nazareth. 

Furthermore, while the gospel is a positive message, it also acknowledges the reality of evil in the world.  Yes, we’re to lift up the positive, for there is much good in the teachings of Jesus and how we are to live and to get along with others. But we also must combat the negative which exists in the world.[12] Evil, as I discussed a few weeks ago in a sermon, is out to destroy.[13] It must be challenged in the name of all that is good, in Jesus Christ who reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

[1] “A River Runs Through It” was a 1992 movie directed by Robert Reford and based on the novella by Norman Maclean and found in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (University of Chicago, 1976). 

[2] The idea of the envied person being trapped came from Scott Hoezee’s reflection on Miguel deUnamono’s,  story, “Abel Sanchez”

[3] Mark 1:9. 

[4] See  

[5] See  

[6] Luke 4:16-30. 

[7] A variant reading in a minority of ancient manuscripts read “son of the carpenter and Mary.” See Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishing, 1997), 152. 

[8] John 6:42. 

[9] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 171-172.  For an alternative position (that it wasn’t an insult) see Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 1996), 69

[10] His family has already questioned Jesus’ ministry in Mark 3:21, 31. See Two of his brothers would become leaders in the post-resurrection church. 

[11][11] Edwards, 173, Hare, 69. 

[12] Hare, 72. 

[13] See

A two-track mountain road
A two track mountain road

Jesus and the Man Living in the Tombs

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
Mark 5:1-2
June 2, 2024

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on Friday, May 31, 2024

At the beginning of worship: 

Bob lived on the edge of society in Virginia City, Nevada. Some people were afraid of him, but most just took pity on him. He was never known to harm or threaten anyone. Bob mostly wanted to be left alone. He lived outside of town in a shack but would come into town and dumpster dive for food and alcohol. He carried around a gallon glass jug. Going through the dumpsters behind the saloons, he’d search for whiskey or wine bottles and pour the dregs into his bottle. He drank this gross cocktail. 

I once tried to invite Bob into a potluck we were having at church. He ignored me. A member of the church then suggested that we fix a plate of food and sit it out on the steps by the boardwalk. We did this about the time Bob would be heading by the church on his way out of town for the night. When the diner was over, the plate of food was gone. That was Bob’s way. He didn’t want a handout. He just wanted to be left alone. 

I’m not sure of all of Bob’s problems. Some said his mind was fried on drugs. He had once been somewhat normal. In the early 70s, I was told, he had even run for sheriff.[1] There are things that happen to individuals that we may be unaware. We must be compassionate, do what we can, and ponder what Jesus would do. 

Today, in our gospel story, we see that folks like Bob and those even in worse shape didn’t scare Jesus. He saw something worth saving and using his divine powers, interacted with them and freed them from their bondage. 

As the old saying goes, “God don’t make no junk.” And while we are not able to help everyone, we shouldn’t give up on anyone. Instead, we pray for them and do what we can (or what they will let us do) for them. As followers of Jesus, we should be known in the community as those who care for even those who society deems as unlovable. 

After the reading of Scripture: 
Last Sunday, we explored the passage of Jesus calming the storm as he sailed with the disciples across the Sea of Galilee. After the tempest calmed, they sailed on and arrived across from the water from Galilee. It appears evil wants to keep Jesus out of this territory. As I noted last week, large bodies of water were seen as evil’s domain in the Hebrew world view. So, the storm could be interpreted as evil’s attempt to keep Jesus away from this new territory. And, as we’ll see, once Jesus walks on shore, a man seriously infected with evil spirits confronts him. 

Jesus and the disciples are in a territory unlike Galilee, which includes many gentiles. While not mentioned in the text, we know a Roman garrison is included among the gentiles. They stand ready to move into Galilee or to Jerusalem if trouble arose. Rome kept a smaller presence in the predominately Jewish enclaves to appease Jewish sensibilities. 

As I read this passage, I encourage you to consider the humor in the story.[2] I’ll explain what I mean in my sermon.

Read Mark 5:1-20

What does Jesus have against pigs? Four thousand hams and enough spareribs to feed Carroll County washed to sea. And think of all the bacon. Having come from Eastern North Carolina, where pig pickings are major social events and eating “high on the hog” isn’t an empty phrased, I’m saddened by such a lost opportunity. Just thinking of all those ribs sauced up and slow roasting over hickory coals makes my mouth water.

Of course, it’s obvious what Jesus had against pigs. As an obedient Jew, he followed the law which prohibited the eating of pork. As Christians, we can be thankful for Peter’s vision at Joppa, where he learns that such things are not profane.[3] But that came later. When this incident occurred, the God-fearing people were under the old law. 

Jesus and his disciples had crossed into gentile territory. Since gentiles didn’t adhere to Jewish law, they eat pork. I wonder if the presence of so many pigs, an incredible number of animals in the pre-factory farm days, was to feed the Roman garrison? It’s possible, and if so, those who hear of the story would chuckle at denying their enemy of a barbecue. 

But let’s go back to the beginning of the story. Jesus steps off the boat and immediately a crazy man runs up to him. The guy must have been quite a sight, running around howling. Strong, he broke chains used to subdue him. He lived in a tomb, which makes him unclean from a Jewish perspective.[4] But it may be the only place he can live because he’s been banished from the city. After all, who wants a werewolf running around. At least, as far as we know, the dead didn’t complain about his demeanor. 

The dialogue begins, seemingly between Jesus and the man. However, it soon becomes apparent the dialogue is between Jesus and the evil spirits residing in the man. Mark provides enough detail about this encounter to show the power of evil. This possessed man is strong and uncontrollable. But Jesus’ power is greater.[5]

There’s a jockeying for position going on. As I pointed out in an early sermon with Jesus confronting demons, in the Biblical worldview, names were thought to have special powers and to name someone or something implied domination.[6]

So, the demons address Jesus as “Son of the Most High God,” as if by calling him out they can control Jesus. But Jesus has power and demands his name, which the demons respond, “It’s Legion, for we are many.” A legion was a unit within the Roman army that consisted of 4,000 to 6,000 men. 

Of course, Jesus’ power from God transcends all other powers. He orders the demons to leave the man, but grants them their wish not to disappear, but to inhabit a herd of swine. For a Jewish audience hearing of this encounter, they would have thought this hilarious. The demons enter the swine and then do what evil does best. It destroys. Not only are the demons done in, but they also take with them a bunch of pigs to their deaths. Of course, Jesus doesn’t address the economic loss here.[7] Instead the purpose of the story to express Jesus’ power. 

There are three theological truths I’d like you to glean from this text. The first is one Mark has been making, Jesus is divine. As God in the flesh, Jesus has power to evil and has come to set about a change in the world. He dethrones evil. 

Because of Jesus’ power, we can trust him to cure any troubled soul, and there was none so troubled as this man. 

Second, the story confirms the nature and intent of evil, which is to destroy. Eventually, the demise of the pigs would have been the man’s destiny had Jesus not intervened. Evil seduces and then destroys. It often masquerades as good or desirable, and then, once in position of power, shows its true face. Scripture takes evil seriously, but at the same time shows us we shouldn’t fear it. When we sign up for God’s side, we are assured of the outcome. God’s power is greater than any combinations of evil spirits. 

A third theological truth we learn from this passage involves the man. He was a victim. Jesus never blamed or condemned him. He needed help. Instead of blaming the victim for his own plight, as we too frequently do, Jesus freed the man from that which kept him in bondage. 

The man is thankful and wants to travel with Jesus across the sea. But Jesus instead gives him a calling to tell what happened to his own people. Mission always starts in our backyard. 

In addition to the theological truths of the passage, there are practical applications. Just as the man ran from the hills to meet Jesus on the lakeshore, we too are to take our troubles to him We don’t have to bear the burden of bondage by ourselves. We can trust Jesus. 

And those of us who have experienced the grace of our Savior, like the healed demonic, have a story to tell. We are to proclaim and tell others what Jesus has done for us. 

Finally, this passage reminds us that no one is beyond God’s grace. God’s love extends even to those shunned from society. So don’t write people off. Love them, like Jesus loves. Amen. 

[1] Long after I left Virginia City, I heard that a local sheriff deputy had a confrontation with Bob. Feeling threatened, he shot him. Bob died. People were so upset at the deputy, for no one had ever seen Bob be violent toward others, that the deputy had to leave town.  

[2] For a discussion on humor in the passage, see Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville: KY: WJKP, 1996), 65.

[3] Acts 10.

[4] According to Jewish law, contact with the dead required a period of cleansing. See Numbers 19:11-14. 

[5] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson, 1997), 142. 

[6] See my sermon on Mark 1:21-28.

[7] For a discussion on this see James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 159. 

St. Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah GA, with azaleas in bloom
St. Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia during the Spring

Sailing in Rough Waters with Jesus

Title slide with a photo of a sailboat in fog heeled over in the wind

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
May 26, 2024
Mark 4:35-41

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, May 24, 2024

At the beginning of worship

Mark Twain had an acquaintance, a saintly woman, probably a Sunday School teacher, who was deathly ill. Nothing could be done. The doctors gave up. But Twain knew just what she needed. Standing over her bed, he shared his good news. She was greatly relieved. Twain confessed to having had a similar problem. “I beat it by giving up some of his bad habits,” he said. “Pretty soon, the starved illness left my body for more fertile ground. Just give up a few bad habits,” Twain assured the dying saint. 

“But I don’t have any bad habits,” the woman proclaimed. “None?” Twain asked. “None,” she assured him. “I don’t run around with men. I don’t smoke, drink, dip snuff, curse or even bite my nails. I’ve been a good woman, almost without fault.” A frown came over Twain’s face and he bowed his head and said, “I’m afraid the doctors are right, there’s no hope. You’re a sinking ship with no ballast to throw overboard.”  

I don’t recommend Mark Twain’s variation of fasting. I’m thankful we don’t have to try to please the Almighty by giving up stuff to win God’s favor.  That’s the theology of pagans and shamans. Instead, as Christians, we accept God’s grace and then, order our lives in such a manner that they praise God. Yes, we’re to give up sinful ways, but not to get God’s attention. We give up our sinfulness out of thanksgiving for what God has done.

Before reading the Scripture

We continue our journey through Mark’s gospel. In the last two sermons, we’ve seen how Mark broke away from his traditional structure of telling what Jesus did and provided examples of Jesus’ teaching.[1] Today, Mark returns to his narrative structure, as he tells a story found in also in Matthew and Luke’s gospels.[2]This passage is linked to the previous passages by a boat. Jesus taught the parables in a boat, now they set out across the Sea of Galilee.[3]

The calming of the sea is the first of three miracles Mark recalls in rapid succession. Following this miracle, we have the healing of a man possessed by demons and the raising of Jarius’ dead daughter. These stories were not haphazardly arranged. Mark reveals aspects of Jesus’ sovereignty—his power over creation, evil, and death.[4] In other words, through these three events, Mark makes a Christological statement, demonstrating that Jesus’ power is equal to God’s and implying, through examples, Jesus’ divinity.[5]  

READ MARK 4:35-41

It’s Memorial Day weekend and for many people that means the beginning of boating season… Isn’t this an ideal passage for today? 

You know, there is nothing more dangerous to the safety of a vessel on the water than having the crew panic during a chaos. When things get dicey, all hands need to be “on deck” and willing to carry out their assigned task to make sure the boat safely handles the trouble. 

Having grown up near the coast and spending a lot of time on the water, this is a favorite Bible stories. I appreciate both the fear of the disciples at the power of a storm and the comfort that comes from having someone like Jesus, who assumes control when danger lurks.

Let’s look at our text for the morning. Three problematic questions are raised in this passage. The first comes from when the disciples wake Jesus and ask: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing.” What kind of question is this? There’s some cynicism in the tone with which they ask it, as if they believe Jesus has the power to save them, but they are unsure he’s going to act.  

Did the disciples think Jesus would let them drown? Maybe…  It must have been a shock for them to find Jesus asleep. After all, they’d toiled to reef the sails and control the rudder. Their hearts raced as they batted down hatches and tightened knots. And then, soaking wet, they observe Jesus napping. While the disciples can’t appreciate this at the moment, Jesus’ sleep shows his trust in the Father to protect them.[6]

There’s a parallel between this story and Jonah. If you remember, Jonah booked passage on a ship heading away from God’s call. As the ship sails out into the sea, out beyond the horizon, it encounters a storm. The vessel fills with water. The sailors, taking Mark Twain’s advice, throw cargo overboard to lighten their load and keep their vessel afloat. Then the crew spots Jonah, like Jesus, fast asleep.       

Jonah tells the deckhands he’s disobeyed his God, the God of heaven, maker of the sea and the land. Jonah then suggests they cast him into the sea to appease God. But the sailors don’t want to do this; they continue trying to save their ship. After all, tossing passengers overboard would hurt their bookings. Who’d want to sail with such a crew? But the storm continues and soon these seasons sailors are at wits-end. So, they toss Jonah into the waters, and witness the power of God over the seas.[7]

In both stories, we see the power of God, the power of the Creator who calmed the ancient waters and separated land and sea. God’s power extends over all which is why Jesus can stand amidst the howling winds and command the sea to calm and the winds to cease. 

Now we now come to the second and third problematic questions, which I link together. Jesus asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?” On a human level it’s obvious why they are afraid… We all would be afraid. It’s natural. After all, things are out of our control. We like to think we have a grip on life and don’t like to be in situations where the forces of nature, or the forces of other people, control over our ability to act and respond.

Jesus’ questions here are often seen as a rebuke. God is a God who has power over nature, then God is to be feared, not nature.  Furthermore, if God is good and has power over nature, we should willing place our faith and trust and seek guidance from such a God for his love tempers our fear and calls us back to him. 

The sea frightened the Hebrew people. Israel wasn’t a maritime nation. They lived in a desert; they farmed and herded animals. What few fishermen there were, sailed on inland lakes and seas. However, like we see in this text, even lakes can be dangerous. 

Large bodies of water, in Scripture, are often portrayed as the reservoir of evil.  Think about it. What is one of God’s first tasks at creation? God tamed the chaos of the waters, separating water and land. The apocalyptic visions we have in Daniel and Revelation depict evil coming from where? From the sea![8]Symbolically, in scripture, the sea is the Devil’s Triangle. It’s frightening. These formerly nomadic people wanted to keep their feet on dry land; they don’t like venturing out into the ocean.

If we grasp this ancient Hebrew concept of the sea harboring evil, then we can understand the deeper meaning to Jesus’ actions. Jesus’ power over the sea is also an indication of his power over evil—not just over a bunch of demons, but the whole system of evil. When our lives seem to be chaotic, when wickedness seems to have control over us—then our friendship with Jesus is even more valuable because he calls us to believe and trust in his power and will keep us safe when evil confronts.  

Yet, we must admit, tragedy is a reality. Not all ships caught in a storm survive. Some sink; others miraculously endure. There seems to be no rhyme or reason why one event ends in triumph and another in disaster. The frailty of life should drive us to our knees in humility. We owe our lives and our continuing existence to God.  

The hope this passage offers has nothing to do with whether our prayers during times of peril are answered in the way we expect. The hope offered comes from the calming presence of our Savior. Even during the midst of a storm, Jesus remains by our side. 

Artists have portrayed ships on stormy seas with Christ at the helm as an interpretation for the church. The ship in a storm demonstrates the difficulty of our lives on this planet. But the reminder of Christ at the helm, having things under control, reassures us. 

We live in a world of uncertainty. But as Jesus reminded the disciples, a crisis is no time to panic. Instead, we must trust in God. As Paul reminds us, nothing in life or in death that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[9]

A sermon by Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian of the early church, brought this text into the lives of his listeners. His words still ring true: 

When you have to listen to abuse, that means you are being buffeted by the wind. When your anger is roused, you are being tossed by waves. So, when the winds blow and the wavs mount high, the boat is in danger, your heart is imperiled, your heart is taking a battering… On hearing yourself insulted, you long to retaliate; but the joy of revenge brings with it another kind of misfortune—shipwreck. Why is this? Because Christ is asleep in you… You have forgotten his presence. Rouse him…. Let him keep watch within you.[10]  

Although I joked about it earlier, Twain’s suggestion of throwing our bad habits overboard isn’t a bad idea. But if we desire smooth sailing, ridding ourselves of ballast is only a small part of the answer. We must turn the helm over to the one who calmed the seas. He can calm our hearts. Amen. 

[1] See and

[2] For my sermon on the Luke passage, see

[3] Mark 4:1. See also Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 1998), 61.

[4] William Lane, The Gospel of Mark: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 173.

[5] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 151-152.

[6] Edwards, 149. 

[7] Jonah 1. 

[8] Daniel 7:2-3 and Revelation 13:1f

[9] Romans 8:38-39

[10] Augustine, Sermons 63.1-3, as quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament II: Mark (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1998), 65. 

Sailing in fog with boat heeled over in wind
A foggy and windy day of Skidaway Island, Georgia

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

[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 and

[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:

[4] Matthew 3:1-23 and Luke 8:4-15. 

[5] See Mark 3:20-34 or my sermon on the text:

[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:

[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,

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

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

[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