“GO BACK TO GALILEE”
Mark 16: 1-8
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
September 13, 2015
I write better when I read good writing. Just prior to writing this sermon, I sat down and read an article by the brilliant sportswriter Joe Posnanski about George Brett’s 1980 season. Posnanski writes so well he can bring drama to an event that is 35 years old and whose conclusion is well known. Of course, I don’t just read about sports and baseball; I read all sorts of things, and I can tell when I’ve been reading something good, something not merely about spinning a yarn or conveying information but something with some poetry to it, something that is truly art. I think that, for most of us, when we read something good our brains wake up; when we read a sentence that is so artfully crafted that we have to read it to someone else; when an idea is described in a manner that changes the way we think; when a description is so vivid we feel as if we were there. Sometimes it feels like I have to plow through a dozen books to experience one moment of literary bliss; but when it comes, all the banal stories and wooden sentences feel worth it because they have led me to a few exquisite sentences about George Brett’s at bat against soft tossing Jays lefty Mike Barlow in Kansas City on August 17, 1980. Good writing, really good writing, just changes the way you see things.
And so, if we are going to spend some time talking and thinking about the Gospel of Mark, there is something I need to tell you. The Gospel of Mark is not good writing. I’d love to tell you differently, I’d love to stand here and tell you that it’s as good as the Psalter or Romans or even the Gospel of John, but it’s not. Mark was not a good writer. In fact, he wrote like a 5th grader. His sentences are short and not well constructed. His vocabulary is limited. He uses the same words over and over; it’s as if somebody dared him to use the word “suddenly” 57 times in 16 chapters. And think of it this way, how often do you hear people quoting Mark’s Jesus? Not very often. Matthew shares a lot of Mark’s content; so when someone wants to use one of those stories, they often choose Matthew. He was a better writer, after all. And there is none of the soaring imagery from the other gospels. There are no beatittudes, no prodigal son, no “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” None of that. And what about his beginning? There is no stable, no shepherds, just a few words about John, which feel almost perfunctory, and then Jesus appears, roaming around Galilee, getting baptized and doing stuff. Want to read some good writing? Check out the first words John ascribes to Jesus, “What are you looking for?” he asks two disciples, but the question is really to the reader. Why are you reading this? We are engaged. Mark is not so great. The first words he attributes to Jesus are so direct, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of heaven has come near, repent and believe the good news.” Well, alright, we think to ourselves, guess I’ll keep going.
And all of this, of course, pales in comparison to the end of Mark. It was so weak that people added on to it. Open up your Bibles to the end of Mark. Go ahead. See that? There’s the true ending of Mark in verse 8; then there are the ends that other people added later. This is the only Gospel that’s like this, where later, readers, dissatisfied with the ending, decided to add on to it. So what were they so unhappy with? Well, it’s almost like someone like me, who sometime has a tough time figuring out when to end a sermon, took over and thought, well, “they didn’t tell anyone for they were afraid” seems like a good place to stop, and besides, I’m hungry. The Gospel just sort of ends. And, then, embedded there in the Greek is the ultimate proof that Mark just wasn’t a very good writer. Do you know what the last word of the entire Gospel is? It is the Greek word gar which means, “for.” He ended the Gospel with a preposition! Even back then, people knew better than to end a sentence with a preposition!
So, as you know, I had a birthday recently, and one thing that always comes on a birthday is cards. We get loaded up with cards. Now, I have a question for you, do you ever really read the cards? I mean the stuff written by the greeting card company? The little joke or the poem or the sentimental prose? Do you read that? I have to admit often I just skim that and I go straight to the part that is handwritten. Now I will confess to you that often the best writing in the card is the stuff that was done professionally. Those poems aren’t bad and the jokes are pretty funny, and, well, to be honest, not many people give me the really sentimental cards, but it is the best writing; but what means something to me, I don’t know about you, is the note written by my friend or family member. When they write their little message to me, that is the part that I remember, the part that I really think about or am moved by. And why is that? Because those words are the real words, and sometimes the most beautiful words in the world; the best writing we will ever read are not the most prosaic or the most artistic, but simply those words which ring true in our hearts, those words from loved ones which say what we mean to them, or those words which express our truest feelings, hopes and dreams. The best words are the true words, I think.
And it is in this way that the Gospel of Mark excels about almost all others. It is the oldest Gospel, you know, written sometime in the first century when somebody realized that someone had better write down some of these stories about Jesus before the first witnesses all disappeared. So they did. And such was the power of Mark’s work, so clearly did it enter the hearts and inspire the minds of its readers and hearers, that two later Gospels, Matthew and Luke, borrowed heavily from it. Mark, you see, did not set out to write something beautiful with the best words and the perfect syntax, but, instead, he simply set out to convey the truth. And he tells us what he knows to be true; and his words have inspired so many that they have found their way through the centuries into our hands, and now they are ours to read.
And what about that ending? The one so many people set about changing? Well, they just missed the point of the whole thing. Mark knew what he was doing, at least that’s what most modern biblical scholars believe: he was, in his final words, teaching us how to follow Jesus. What does the angel say to the women? After explaining that Jesus is raised, he says, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Where should we go, as readers? Well, back to Galilee, of course, and where does the Gospel of Mark begin? Well, Galilee, of course. Jesus is risen, go back to Galilee, Mark teaches us, and there, in the stories of his life, teaching, miracles, healing, friendships, hardship and all, there in the story of his life, we will, each subsequent generation of Christians, we will find the risen Lord.
Over the coming weeks, we will go back to Galilee; we will read and hear the great stories of Jesus’ life, and we will do all of this as we were instructed, in light of his resurrection. You know, there is great writing that amazes us and awes us, and then there is writing that simply and humbly goes about the business of changing our lives. For 1,900 years the Gospel of Mark has changed lives, and has done it with all its bad
Greek, its poor sentence structure, its tired vocabulary and its abrupt ending. And maybe, just maybe, you’ve reached one of those stages of life where you know your life needs to be changed again. Where you understand that things just don’t feel right. Well, fear not, Jesus is here, in your life. Just go back to Galilee and you will find him. Amen.