Breakthrough - Mark 1:1-20

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 5th November 2000.

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It was the largest invasion force ever gathered on the face of the earth. 8,000 bombers and fighters, 284 warships, 4000 landing craft and assorted ships contained 156,000 troops. Nothing less would do, said the experts for what was codenamed ‘Operation Overlord’, the Normandy D-day landings whose purpose was to liberate an occupied Europe from the tyranny of Nazi Germany.

And perhaps we would have thought that something similar might have been gathered by God when he determined to liberate a world which lay captive to the tyranny of Satan, a sort of celestial task force. Just as the big guns blazed away from the battleships on what Hitler proudly called ‘Fortress Europe’, we might have expected a few cosmic fireworks on the day God publicly began his ‘mission impossible.' So it comes as something as a surprise and maybe to some of us a disappointment that when we turn to Mark’s account of that great divine breakthrough, God begins by talking. You might call it preaching, communicating a message which Mark designates ‘Good News’ - Gospel. It starts with a message from the Old Testament. It continues with a message from the last prophet and finds it climax in the message of a carpenter. And you know what? That is the same method God is using today to bring men and women to himself and save a world hurtling towards self - destruction. So do turn with me to Mark chapter 1 as we look at this amazing passage under three headings: a divine initiative, a new beginning and a required response.

Now the first thing Mark wants us to grasp is that our rescue is a divine initiative, it is solely God’s idea and solely God’s work.

Just think about it. What is the great cry of people today regarding God? Isn't it the cry for proof? ‘If there is a God, let him demonstrate that he exists. Let him show that he cares.' This is the way the agnostic writer James Mitchell puts the question: ‘The value of a god must be open to test. No god is worth preserving unless he is of some practical use in curing the ills which plague humanity - all the disease and pain and starvation, the little children born crippled or spastic or mentally defective: a creator god would be answerable to us for these things on the day of judgement - if he dared turn up.' Well Mark has some news, some good news for people like James Mitchell because God has already turned up and not only began to heal as a sign of what would eventually be completely fulfilled at the end of time, but in time he has dealt decisively with the fundamental problem which is the cause of all the ills in his world, the problem of our pathetic little rebellions which the Bible calls sin.

Now just in case we are a little slow on the uptake, Mark takes no risks and makes it abundantly clear at the outset who the main character in his historical narrative is; Jesus Christ, he tells us in v1 is the ‘Son of God.' Now you can’t get it any plainer than that can you? The very name ‘Jesus’ which means ‘The Lord saves’ reveals his humanity; someone who lived at a particular time in a particular culture made of flesh and blood. But he is also the ‘Son of God, a term which reveals his divinity. The great German Reformer, Martin Luther once said this about Jesus which sums this up ‘ He ate, drank, slept, waked; was weary, sorrowful, rejoicing; he wept and he laughed; he knew hunger and thirst and sweat; he talked, he toiled, he prayed... so that there was no difference between him and other men, save only this, that he was God and had no sin.' And that this wonderful individual is God going saving people from a life of futility and an eternity of misery is unpacked for us in the remaining verses.

First, there is the testimony of Scripture with this combined quotation from the OT - Malachi 3: 1 and Isaiah 40: 1 (read v2). Now the interesting thing about the Malachi quote which appears first, is that when the prophet originally gave it, God said through him, ‘ I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.' And what do we see happening? Well, we see the messenger all right, John the Baptist, who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus. So the implication is obvious. Jesus is God. The same goes for that quote from Isaiah, prepare the way for a good man, another religious leader? No, ‘prepare the way for the Lord.' - Jehovah. Jesus is Jehovah.

Secondly, we have the testimony of the prophet - vv 4 - 8. Have you ever wondered why hundreds, maybe even thousands travelled all this way to hear John give his sermons? And some did travel. Jerusalem was about 20 miles from the Jordan river and some 4, 000 feet above it, so it was a long and rocky descent to get there. Well, it wasn't because they admired his dress sense and eating habits. It was because there hadn’t been a prophet for 400 years, that is the length of time from Elizabeth the first until now. What is more, they knew their Bibles and the prophecy of Malachi and so the whole atmosphere would have been electric, full of expectation, ‘Maybe God is going to do something at last, the King is coming. Let’s go and find out.' So what do we find the prophet saying to them ? Well, several things. But according to v 7 the heart of his message is this : ‘After me will come one more powerful than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. I baptise you with water - the symbol, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit - the real thing’ Do you see what he is saying? If the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, then only God can give the gift of the Spirit which is God. So, if Jesus gives the Spirit, he too must be God, he can be nothing less.

But thirdly, we have the testimony of the Spirit himself v 9 - 10. (read). In Isaiah 64 we have the prophet pleading to God ‘ Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.' Here that prayer is answered, as the heavens are torn apart, the Holy Spirit of God - comes in all his purity and peace, like a dove in fact and alights upon Jesus - anointing him, publicly declaring the he is the Christ, the King, which is what the word Christ means - anointed one.

And if that were not enough we have God the Father’s testimony - v 11 ‘ You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.' Now we only hear the direct voice of God in the NT on two occasions, this is one of them, and in each case he quotes Scripture - Psalm 2 ‘You are my Son’ and Isaiah 42 ‘ my chosen one in whom I delight - well pleased.' So if you want to hear God’s voice today, you go to the same source - the Bible, God does not decide to say anything new here, he simply applies what he has already said and declares it to be fulfilled in Jesus. And God has nothing new to say today either which he has not already said in the Bible.

And to complete the testimony of the Trinity, we have the words of Jesus himself. We have had the witness of the Father and the Spirit, and now the Son v14 - 15 (read). Notice what he does. He proclaims the Good news of God, that is it is a message from God and about God, yet in v 1 Mark has already told us it is good news about Jesus - well of course it is, for he is God who is bringing the message. Something new is happening, proclaims Jesus, the time has come, the kingdom of God is near. You bet it was. God’s saving kingly rule was standing right there before them in his person, for this is the King who has come to claim back the world for himself. You enter this kingdom by turning around from going your own way, which is what repent means, and personally coming to the King.


Now lets think through the practical implications of this. If Jesus was and is, in fact God, he alone has the right to speak on all the big issues affecting each one of us: life and death, God and man, our needs in God’s sight, the way in which we can find God. You see, when it really comes down to it, no one knows the answer to these big questions. And whatever attitude anyone takes is a matter of faith - trust. So either it is faith in Christ or faith in your own or someone else's personal opinion that what Jesus says isn’t true. Therefore, when you become a Christian it isn’t a matter of engaging in some blind leap of faith, it is a matter of transferring the object of your faith from your own opinion with all its uncertainty to the person and authority of Jesus Christ. It isn’t that Christians have their heads in the clouds while the agnostic or atheist have their feet firmly planted on earth. Concerning these great issues we all have our heads in the clouds left to ourselves. The Gospel simply calls people to put their feet firmly on the rock of Jesus. Now let me ask you: have you done that? I am not asking whether you believe in God or whether you admire Jesus or even go to church, play the organ, sing in the choir. You can do all of these things and not be a Christian. I am asking whether you have personally come to him, having looked at the facts and said: ‘Yes I know who you are, and I know why you came, I am totally yours’ Because if you haven’t, then whatever you are, you are not yet a Christian.

And when you do that, you will discover in your own experience that this is a Gospel about new beginnings - having a totally fresh start.

Just look at the way Mark carefully crafts his work driving home the point that the coming of Jesus signals a new start for humanity. In the original, the opening words in verse 1 are identical to the opening words of the Greek translation of Genesis 1, the first book in the Bible - ‘In the beginning God’, here it is the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus the Son of God. Something radically new is about to begin, something as momentous as the creation of the universe at the dawn of time. So read on.

And the picture continues in v9 with the baptism of Jesus. Just as in the opening chapters of Genesis we read that the creation of the world came out of the deep waters with the Spirit of God hovering or brooding over creation like a bird, resulting in a glorious world which God declares is good. So here Jesus arises out of the deep waters of baptism, anointed by the Spirit who descends like a dove. This too is declared by God to be pleasing to him.

Then look at v12 (read - 13). Just as the first Adam, the representative of humankind was tempted in a garden and failed and so was thrown out of Eden by God, so Jesus, the second Adam is literally thrown into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted and he succeeds. The wilderness representing the wasting, devastating effects of Adam’s rebellion, a garden made barren. Spiritually the whole world is one massive wilderness. As the first Adam was surrounded by animals over which he was to be master but lost control, here is Jesus the second Adam surrounded by wild animals, over which he is now the master, they do not harm him. As Adam having once been excluded from the garden is preventing from re-entry by angels - the flaming cherubim, Jesus the second Adam having triumphed over Satan is ministered to by angels.

Do you see how at every point Jesus came to reverse the effects of the fall, that moral and spiritual fault line which runs through our very being? For centuries people have dreamed of bringing about Utopia, the term having been coined by Thomas More. Through social engineering, education, political programmes. And what we have been left with is a litany of disasters and disappointments. Why? Because the real problem lies not in our environment or our genes but in our estranged relationship with God. We are so spiritually diseased we cannot address the real problem and we don’t want to. That is why Jesus had to come. God alone as a man could do that which we as mere men and women cannot do. And what he began when he came to earth the first time, restoring men and women to God and the creation to himself, he will complete when he comes the second time. So what are we to do in the meantime? Well, lets look at our third heading - a required response - vv 14 - 20.

I am sure that some of you have seen those programmes of dangerous drivers taken by police cameras. Those scary situations where for whatever reason the Fiat Uno is trundling down the motorway on the wrong side of the carriage way. To put it mildly, that is a very dangerous thing to do. What they need to do, of course is to get off the motorway, turn around and start moving in the right direction. Well, that is exactly the sort of thing Jesus is saying here when he talks about repenting and believing the Good News. Stop believing the lie that this life is the be all and end all, that God is a myth, that we can make our own way through life and come out the other end unscathed. Instead get real, stop and turn around and believe the truth which is in him.

And what that entails is illustrated by the calling of these disciples. They were to stop what they were doing, turn and follow Jesus and do the job he was to give them that of being catchers for the kingdom, drawing others into his saving rule - ( v17 - 18 read) And there is no greater task than that because it is work which lasts into eternity. Did you notice the sense of urgency about it all? ‘The time has come’, there cannot be any delay v20, God is in your midst, don’t be so stupid as to reject his kind offer, get yourself a life and come and work for me, says Jesus.

Let me read you something. It is a challenge a Communist once threw out to a Christian: ‘ The gospel is a much more powerful weapon for the renewal of society than is our Marxist philosophy, but all the same it is we who will finally beat you.. We communists do not play with words. We are realists, and seeing that we are determined to achieve our object, we know how to obtain the means. Of our salaries and wages we keep only what is strictly necessary, and we give up our free time and part of our holidays. You, however, give only a little time and hardly any money for the spreading of the gospel of Christ. How can anybody believe in the supreme value of this gospel if you do not practice it, if you do not spread it and if you do not sacrifice neither time nor money for it.. ? We believe in our communist message and we are willing to sacrifice everything, even our life, But you people are afraid even to soil your hands.'

Now the tragedy is that with one or two notable exceptions, he is right. Far too often we play Christianity, we do not live it. For many of us it is more of a hobby than a matter of life or death. We have succumbed to our prevailing culture, the culture of pleasure and passivity. G.K. Chesterton sums up what is true for so many of us when he writes in his ‘ A defence of rash vows ‘ Let us have the pleasure of conquerors without the pains of soldiers; let us sit on sofas and be a hardy race.. let us have the splendour of offering ourselves without the peril of committing ourselves.' Is Christ asking too much of you to give up an hour or two a week to come to that meeting where you can get into the Bible so you can live it and share it more effectively? Is it such a pain to offer to help out in some practical work in the church, or in the teaching children And do we really care enough for our student friends, our neighbours to do at least something so that they can hear of the saving love of Christ, beyond throwing a few coins onto the collection plate when it comes around? . I do not apologise for being so direct, for I know the coldness of my own heart too well. My friends, we have what that communist could never have, the power of the Gospel, the presence of the living God in our lives. Can we therefore not have even a modicum of what he had in terms of dedication? We certainly should. Jesus says ‘The time has come, The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the Good News.'


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