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J.E.S.U.S. His Life. His Mission – Making Room For Jesus, Mark 1:1-8

Making Room For Jesus
Mark 1:1-8

Auburn Sandstrom, professor of writing from the University of Akron, tells her story:

I was curled up in a fetal position on a filthy carpet in a cluttered apartment. I’m in horrible withdrawal from a drug addiction. I have a little piece of paper. It’s dilapidated because I’ve been folding it and unfolding it. But I could still make out the phone number on it.

I am in a state of bald terror. My husband is out, and trying to get ahold of some of the drugs that we needed. But right behind me, sleeping in the bedroom, is my baby boy. I wasn’t going to get a Mother of the Year award. In fact, at the age of 29, I was failing at a lot of things. So, I decided to get clean. I was soon going to lose the most precious thing I’d ever had in my life – that baby boy.

I was so desperate at that moment that I wanted to make use of that phone number – it was something my mother had sent me. She said, “This is a Christian counselor, maybe sometime you could call this person.”

It was 2 in the morning, but I punched in the numbers. I heard a man say, “Hello.” And I said, “Hi, I got this number from my mother. Uh, do you think you could maybe talk to me?” He said, “Yes, yes, of course. What’s going on?”

I told him I was scared, and that my marriage had gotten pretty bad. Before long, I started telling him other truths, like I might have a drug problem. And this man just sat with me and listened and had such a kindness and a gentleness. “Tell me more … Oh, that must hurt very much.” And he stayed up with me the whole night, just being there until the sun rose. By then I was feeling calm. The raw panic had passed. I was feeling OK.

I was very grateful to him, and so I said, “I really appreciate you and what you’ve done for me tonight. How long have you been a Christian counselor?” There’s a long pause. He said, “Auburn, please don’t hang up. I’m so afraid to tell you this … He pauses again. “You got the wrong number. I’m not a therapist, but I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.”

I didn’t hang up on him. I never got his name. I never spoke to him again. But the next day I felt like I was shining. I discovered that there was this completely random love in the universe. That it could be unconditional. And that some of it was for me. And it also became possible as a teetotaling, single parent to raise up that precious baby boy into a magnificent young scholar and athlete, who graduated from Princeton in 2013 with honors.

In the deepest, blackest night of despair, if you can get just one pinhole of light … all of grace rushes in. One pinhole of light, one little opening, and all of grace rushes in.

Today we’re starting a new series of sermons on the Gospel of Mark. And as we walk through Mark together, we’re going to encounter, and be shaped by, the real Jesus. Not the Jesus of popular culture or conservative or liberal politics. The Jesus who rubber stamps what we already think or what we want to believe about ourselves, about God, about the nature of reality itself. We aren’t going to encounter the Jesus most of us see, a Jesus of our own making, formed in our image. We’re going to meet and have real encounters with the real Jesus, who challenges every one of us, whether we have attended church since the day we were born and haven’t missed a service since or whether we’ve never darkened the doors of a church outside of a wedding and a funeral here and there. This is the Jesus who refuses to fit into the boxes we make for him and try to stuff him into, who refuses to conform to our expectations. This is Jesus, the Christ, God in the flesh, who says that in knowing him we know God; who tells us that he is the only pathway into the presence of God, into relationship with God. The Jesus who, if we’ll open the door of our messed up lives just a crack, rushes in like light filling a room, bringing healing and hope and the loving embrace of God.

Mark is the shortest of the four gospels, and is most likely the one that was written first. And according to early church writings, it was written by Mark in or around Rome at about the time of St. Peter’s death, and is Mark passing on what Peter told him about his time with Jesus. And Mark wrote to encourage Christians who were under fire in Rome. Like Peter, they were being brought before governors and magistrates who tried to get them to deny Christ, revile his name, and recant their faith, or face punishment, and even death. Mark is Peter and Mark’s pastoral response to troubling times and stressed out, overwhelmed, fearful followers of Jesus. Turn with me to Mark 1:1-8.

Mark would have made a great journalist. In one short sentence – 12 words in total – he tells us exactly what, and who, he is writing about. Matthew starts with a masterful but long genealogy of Jesus before proclaiming him king of the Jews 16 verses later. Luke begins with an 82 word sentence to introduce the story of Jesus, the savior of all. John begins his book with a deeply theological, mystical explanation of who Jesus is. Mark does none of those things. Like a master journalist, he introduces his book and jumps into the story.

And he starts by telling us that he is bringing us good news. That’s what the word “gospel” means. It means joyful tidings, or good news. It was a word often used in the ancient world by couriers carrying news of liberation or victory. News of military victory or the birth of the crown prince or an anticipated monarch’s ascension to the throne.

In our own history, it would be the news traveling around the 13 colonies that Britain had surrendered – that the ragtag colonial army and the state militias really had defeated one of the world’s superpowers. America would be a nation. Or news of the document signed by Abraham Lincoln freeing all of the slaves held as property in the United States. It’s the vision of Francis Scott Key through the porthole of the ship, seeing the American flag still flying after the fort was bombarded all night long. “Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?” It word traveling from Europe that Germany had surrendered, that World War 2 in Europe was over. Or later that Japan had surrendered, and the War was over. Our soldiers were coming home. It’s the news that your loved one has come through the long surgery and is going to make a full recovery. That the cancer is gone. They’re going to make it.

Good news. But not just any good news. The best news. News of victory and liberation. Good news filled with deep joy. That’s what gospel is. And that is exactly how Mark describes the life of Jesus. Good news. The best news you could get. That’s why we call each of the four books written about the life of Christ in the pages of Scripture gospels. They are good news. Great news. News that brings deep joy and celebration.

That’s how Mark begins. By telling his desperate readers – men and women and children facing punishment and torture and imprisonment and death that he has good news for them. And right from the get-go, we encounter a Jesus who refuses to fit into the boxes we try to stuff him into.

Put yourself, for just a minute, into the shoes of the persecuted Christians in Rome. What would be good news, gospel, to you in that situation? That angelic armies have attacked and defeated the Roman armies and Caesar has been deposed. St. Peter has been freed and now sits on the Roman throne and the Roman armies have sword their fealty to him. It’s now legal to worship Christ. Or maybe even, St. Paul has converted Caesar, and Caesar has now declared Christianity to be the national religion throughout the empire. Or that Caesar has at least decided to stop persecuting Christians and you’re free to go. But that isn’t what Mark told them.

No, he told them about Jesus, God in the flesh, who faced torture and death in Jerusalem, just as they were facing it in Rome. That he had been raised to life in victory over death, taking the sting out of death. That yes, they may die if they refused to deny Christ, but they wouldn’t die alone. The one who had died FOR them would walk WITH them as they passed from this life to the next and they would never be outside of his loving embrace. That whether they died at the hands of an executioner in Rome faithful to Christ, or on the battlefield fighting Caesar’s wars, or at the hands of robbers, they were in Christ’s hands.

And we can trust that, because God is a God who keeps his promises. Look at Vv. 2-3. The word “Isaiah” doesn’t actually appear in the original Greek text. Credit is given to Isaiah in our English translations, but the text actually reads “In the prophets.” This is actually a mash up of three Old Testament texts that even non-Jewish Roman Christians would have been familiar with. You know what a mash-up is right? It’s like two different songs by two different recording artists that are put together like they’re one song. That’s what Mark does here.

The first is Isaiah 40:3. “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

The second is Malachi 3:1. “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”

And then the third one is kind of in the background. It’s Exodus 23:20 – the promise of God to the Israelites as they crossed the Jordan River and entered the land God had promised to them. “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.”

The wilderness. Untamed. Dangerous. Wild. God led the Israelites through the wilderness, providing for and protecting them on their way to the salvation he had planned for them. The wilderness is where they encountered God on their way to salvation. Exodus through the wilderness and into God’s salvation. God had done it once, in Israel’s history. And he was doing it again, in its fullness, through Jesus. Where does Mark’s gospel begin? Look at the first part of V. 4. The wilderness. Confusing and wild and untamed and dangerous. Not a bad description of life sometimes, is it? And yet it’s there, in the wild places, the dangerous places, the confusing places of life that God calls out to us, meets us, draws us close to him, and leads us into the life that he has for us.

Now, when a world leader goes somewhere, and advance team goes ahead of them, right? A team whose job is to secure every place the leader will be and make sure that every needed meal and accommodation is safe and secure and ready. The same was true in the ancient world. Of course, they didn’t have email and cell phones and the internet to give a city notice. But when the emperor was coming to a city, and advance team would show up weeks ahead of time, and their job was to level hills and fill ditches and clear debris and reconstruct roads right into he center of the city, so that there was nothing to hinder the travel of the king and the protectors who traveled with him. Their job was to carve out the appropriate space for the king. And that is what John the Baptist was doing.

But this passage isn’t really about John. It’s about Jesus. John was just the advance team. When the president comes to town, no one goes to see the secret service do they, even though they’re everywhere. No, we go to see the president. The focal point of even this passage isn’t John, it’s Jesus. John was just the advance team, calling people to join him out in the wilderness.

To do what? To repent of their sin. Look at Vv. 4-5. To repent is to turn. John called the people out into the wilderness to consider their lives in the light of the holiness of God. To take an honest look at their behavior, at their thoughts, at their intentions, to see all the ways in which they fell short. Not so that they could wallow in self pity or shame, but so that they could confess it and turn away from it. In order to turn to Christ, we have to be willing to turn away from all that is not Christ. That’s how we make room for Jesus. We turn away from everything that isn’t him.

When an addict who is working the twelve steps of recovery gets to the second step, they’re asked a very direct and penetrating question: “In what ways had your addiction become your god?” In other words, “the addiction had become the god of your life. You turned to it for things that you needed to be turning to God for. In what ways do you recognize this?” Truth is, we’re all addicts. Maybe not to nicotine or heroin or alcohol or gambling, but we’re all addicts. Something that is not God sits on the throne of our lives. It’s the same thing for all of us, even if it looks a little bit different in each one of us. That thing is sin. Sin is simply putting self in the place that only God has a right to sit. Sin, at its core, says, “Only I have the right to determine what is right and wrong for me.” That’s ultimately what a king does, right? They determine what is right and wrong for their people, and they enforce that standard with laws and prisons and the power of their military and law enforcement.

Now, look at Vv. 6-8. John’s message was simple. The true king, the Son of God, is coming. I’m just the advance team. My job is to prepare the way. Because the king is coming.

So who, or what, sits on the throne in your life. Ultimately, apart from Christ, it’s you. Is it YOUR safety, YOUR security, YOUR performance, YOUR power, YOUR comfort, YOUR pleasure. Those are the things we seek when we’re sitting on the throne. And the result is chaos. Wilderness.

The Old Testament book of Judges paints a very clear picture of this. It describes the period of time AFTER Joshua and the conquest of the promised land but BEFORE Israel was given a king to shepherd them. It was a time of great darkness for the people of Israel as they consistently turned away from God, with each person doing what was right in their own eyes. The phrase “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” appears seven times. And between, descriptions of the deep sin of the people.

You see, when I do what is right in my own eyes, sometimes, that will be what is also right in God’s eyes. But over time, it’s going to trend more and more toward right is right for me, and for me alone. And that may mean that I have to sacrifice you to do what is right for me. That’s the descent of sin. That’s what happens when we refuse to get off the throne of our lives and let Christ sit there in our place. To allow his rule and reign and standard to take authority and begin to shape how we live and relate to one another.

The king isn’t just coming for a visit, or to set up a vacation home he’ll visit occasionally. He’s coming to stay. He’s coming to rule. He’s coming to establish another sector of his kingdom, and that sector is the kingdom of you. But for him to do that, you have to get off the throne and bend the knee to him. And he wants to lead you out of the wilderness and into his salvation. Will you let him? Is there an opening for him? All it takes is one pinhole of light, and all of grace rushes in. Let’s pray.