As you know from last week, one of my favorite stories of redemption and late bloomers is that of Mark. Unlike John and Matthew he was not a disciple or an apostle. Unlike Luke, he was not a Gentile observer of the early Church and he did not travel, except briefly, with Paul. He was the young man who ran away naked from Gethsemane, deserted Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey, was mentored by Peter in Rome and then martyred in Egypt.
Most scholars believe that the gospel was written from Rome where his main source was Peter and Mark was, in a sense, taking dictation. You get the sense of that right from the first in the style. Sentences are short. Things move quickly. There is very little transition between the events. Where the others develop the stories in sometimes elaborate detail, Mark makes a statement and moves on.
Look at the way he handles these first events compared to the other authors.
A. John’s appearance and baptizing. “And so John came baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
1. Luke devotes 18 verses to the ministry of John before the baptism of Jesus.
2. John devotes half a chapter
3. Matthew almost an entire chapter
B. The coming of Jesus
1. Mark has no birth or boyhood stories of Jesus. That’s why we never use Mark at Christmas.
2. Luke has several chapters on his genealogy, birth and boyhood.
3. Matthew has two chapters on the genealogy and early life of Jesus.
C. The temptations in the wilderness
1. Luke has a full account of all the temptations
2. John has no account of the temptations
3. Matthew’s account is as complete as Luke’s
4. Mark has two verses
As I read Mark I have a picture in my mind of a reporter with a notepad writing furiously trying to keep up with the person he is interviewing. It’s almost shorthand or phrases that he may expand on more fully later. Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t and they just remain short phrases. Then, I see that same reporter at his typewriter typing as fast as he can to meet the deadline. When he finishes he rips the paper from the machine and yells, “Copy!”
Everything is here but you have to dig for the details elsewhere. Mark was not the one to write the novel. He left that for others to do. He was like Jack Webb on Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
I want to look at only two things in the first chapter this morning: the ministry of John in Mark and the temptations of Jesus through the eyes of Luke.
The Ministry of John
It is important to see that John’s call to repentance must have come at a time when people believed repentance was necessary. Otherwise, why would people from Jerusalem make the trip out into the desert to be baptized by him? Why would people from all over Judaea and the whole region of the Jordan do the same? This was not a message of only individual repentance but of national repentance. Large numbers of people were conscious of the sense that something was wrong that required repentance. It was not just the occupation of the Romans. It was not just civil unrest or a bad economy. There was a general spirit that something was wrong and John had a message that was relevant. Likely there were any number of prophets telling people that “the end is nigh” but people were listening to John. Perhaps repentance and not dark despair or mindless optimism was what would save the nation.
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.
John was not just preaching repentance and baptism. He was indicting the whole community about what was wrong. Selfishness and greed. The abuse of privilege and power. G. Campbell Morgan said that John was plowing up the conscience of the people. The corruption of the leadership – Roman and Jewish – had reached down to the foundations of the society. People had become numb to it. It had become normalized.
All of this is context for the coming of John and the condition of the people. They were looking for revival in the midst of corruption, heavy taxation that went to supporting lavish lifestyles of the rulers and building programs, cynicism about leadership, discouragement and resentment. They were looking for a Messiah. They were fed up with the whole system – top to bottom – religious, political, economic, secular. The word of God comes to John in the wilderness just at this time…and the people go out to the wilderness to hear him. They are looking for something or someone to believe in. Someone who is not an insider. Someone who has spent time in the wilderness. Someone who will speak the unpleasant truth.
What would a community or country look like if people followed the preaching of John today? What would be the signs of genuine repentance?
- those with two tunics or extra food would share with those who have none. Goodwill, PATH, church food pantries and the Salvation Army would not have enough room for everything. It would not just be a campaign for fans in the summer and donations at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It would be people choosing to pull back on their own lifestyles to take care of others.
- honest in dealing with each other. “The distinguishing feature of the diamond industry lies in the typical diamond transaction: trade in diamonds invites extraordinarily lucrative opportunities for industry players to cheat, most notably to steal another’s diamonds. Although the law makes certain security measures available, diamond merchants have systematically rejected use of public courts and state-created law to enforce contracts and police behavior. Instead, they rely on a private system that is less costly, more reliable, and thus superior to state-based alternatives. Diamond merchants reliably fulfill contractual obligations without the threat of state intervention, and this reliability in turn enables these merchants to credibly commit to fulfilling obligations. This ability to enforce contracts that public courts cannot enforce, and thus that potential industry rivals cannot enforce, propels the Jewish community success.”
- contentment with pay. The idea that money can’t buy happiness has been disproved by science, at least up to a point. Experts say that happiness does increase with wealth, but the correlation peaks at earning $75,000 per year. The lower a person’s annual income falls below that benchmark, the unhappier he or she feels. But no matter how much more than $75,000 people make, they don’t report any greater degree of happiness.”
It would be a good place to live, wouldn’t it? That’s why people thought he might be the Messiah. In fact, we can get a sense of what it would be like in Acts 19. Paul encounters some disciples in Ephesus who had received only the baptism of John.
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.
I imagine there was a whole community of Christians attempting to follow the ethical teaching of John and likely with some success. The community motto could be “Do the right thing” but it could not last for long and Paul knew it. John knew that as well. He knew repentance and trying to create a better society was only a partial answer. People will always find loopholes. They will always look for shortcuts and exceptions. Eventually,, it would need to be baptism of the Holy Spirit. If a whole community were to adopt a set of principles John preached, it would be a kind of utopia. We see similar efforts today to build a society that will provide for everything, eliminate disparity in wealth, feed everyone, require and enforce legitimate uses of power, and encourage people to be content with what they have.
Of course, the problem is the same that Paul confronted. It is our version of the baptism of John without the power of the Holy Spirit. We can imagine the perfect society but so much of what we do to implement it only ends up in making things worse. Why? Unredeemed human nature. We can imagine a perfect society but all we do is create a tyranny to enforce it. Leon Kass said, “It is notoriously difficult to get people to do what is good for them without tyrannizing them.” He is right. We can create political correctness – both left and right. Socialism, Capitalism, Communism, are all versions of the baptism of John. That’s the frustration of only having the baptism of repentance and adopting rules and regulations that will govern our human behavior. There is no Holy Spirit. There is no supernatural power to do the things we believe are necessary for that righteous society.
Christians fall into the same trap when they loosely quote 2 Chronicles 7:14. “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
We think we can repent as a country or as a community and it doesn’t work that way. First, America is not Israel or God’s treasured possession and, second, all we do is encourage others to practice the baptism of John and try to make things better on our own. We end up with more restrictions, more rules, more attempts to enforce good behavior. We all have our own ideas of what it would mean to heal the land. But, there is no Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not occupy a country or a nation. It occupies people. So, the harder we try the more frustrated we become. The more we try to create the good society or the Christian country in the power of even the best people the more we have to regulate and oversee. Unregenerate people cannot create a regenerate community.
Do we give up on ethics and honesty? No, but we recognize that we swim against the stream – against the requirements of God himself – and we need to be cautious about movements that are trying to create heaven on earth with means other than the Holy Spirit.
The Temptations of Jesus
“At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”
Look how creation has changed from that original Adam. The Creator himself is driven into what the world has become. It is a scorched wilderness and the animals are wild and threatening. This is no idyllic retreat for Jesus. This is not Nazareth or Galilee. This is a dangerous place. It is the dark world we live in today with wild people, wild circumstances, wild threats and ever present disaster.
But it is also a world that has not been abandoned by God. There are still angels that minister to us. There are still angels that feed our souls and protect us from harm. In other words, the world is both. It is dangerous and it is inhabited by good – all at the same time. I like the way Frederick Buechner puts it. “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.”
The temptations are real. They are not generic or the temptations we all face. They are tailored just for Jesus. He faced them all his life – not just here. Had they not been real then this would have been a morality play about how good Jesus was because he was not really tempted. He was just pretending to be tempted but he was above it all. No, Satan knew what would most tempt the human Jesus.
Turn stones into bread.
Take care of yourself. Be self-sufficient.
Fix the problems of the world. “You have compassion and now you will have the power to relieve all the suffering and injustice of the world.”
People want miracles. They want to follow a man who produces them. They want bread and circuses – not preaching and certainly not suffering. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor said rightly to Christ who has returned: “People will always trade their freedom for bread – bread and circuses. What you offer them is too costly.”
The temptation of authority and glory.
He showed him “in an instant” – literally a small pinch of time. Satan always shows a glimpse. He always shows quickly while God’s view always reveals in time and slowly.
Satan promised him two things:
Authority – the liberty to act with no restraints. The right to do what you will to do.
Glory and respect – all the earth will not only do what you want but you will have the greatest reputation on earth for as long as you live. It’s not tyranny when they choose it.
Not a tyrant who is hated but the most respected man on earth. The best and the brightest with all the power to accomplish the good you know you want to do. Great plans for good require great power.
Jesus might have been thinking “What can I accomplish without the liberty to act on my own. How can I lead people to what I know is best unless I have authority? What can I accomplish without a reputation, a “brightness” that will attract people? What could I accomplish if I had resources that are so much greater than what I have now? I could do so much more good.”
It was a practical trade. He could play God but not be God. This is what everyone thinks it would be like to be God – not to be humiliated, to suffer and then die.
The final temptation:
Certainty – God will never be absent. He’ll be there all the time to fly in and save me. I don’t have to work without a net. “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”
Protection from real life – the desire for special treatment from a loving Father.
No failures or setbacks – to never have a Capernaum. “He could do no miracles there.”
What does the final verse say about Satan? He went away to wait for a good time to return. When was that? The Garden of Gethsemane. All the power of evil was concentrated on Jesus and the same temptations. After all, it was not healing and miracles that threatened Satan but the sacrifice of the cross. It was not a successful ministry with millions of followers but the willing separation from God and the resurrection.
I think that is why Jesus told the disciples to pray they would not be, like him, led into the wilderness of temptation. He had been through it and knew the power of it. It was not the temptation of having a second dessert, or telling white lies, or even having an affair. It was being led into temptations that were so powerful and custom made that only the Spirit of God could protect him.
Each of us have our own three. It may not be the desire for certainty or self-sufficiency or glory but it is something that requires us to repent daily and to turn back to a life of obedience that does not require happiness or success or constant rescue in order to be faithful.