December 23, 1776, Thomas Paine wrote “These are the times that try men’s souls” in reference to “summer soldiers” who fought well in Spring and Summer but gave up and went home in the cold. It was a statement read to the Colonial army at Valley Forge before they crossed the Delaware River and attacked the British.
Let me paraphrase this for the Body of Christ. These are still the times that try the human soul. The ‘fair-weather believer’ will, in 2020, shrink from the service of their Lord. Unsettled, uncertain, and unprecedented describe the last year.
This was the second Thanksgiving Phyllis and I had alone. The first being 1980 when we moved to Abilene Texas. I couldn’t sneak pieces of turkey to John as I carved it. There were no kids begging to watch their shows. In some ways it was empty.
There have been other eras in which times seemed empty and without hope. I came across a meme the last week or so.
“It’s important to remind people of the true meaning of Christmas: ghosts terrorizing rich people in the middle of the night until they agree to pay their employees more”
In fact, Charles Dickins wrote A Christmas Carol because he’d read of girls seeing dresses six days a week for 16 hours a day and of “8-year-old children who dragged coal carts through tiny subterranean passages over a standard 11-hour workday (Broich).” We have laws that protect children, but such unprecedented times are still the reality for some in our world. Remember the controversy of Nike and Adidas and the use of sweatshops and child workers?
I want you to know that God’s people are not free from ‘fair weather’ christians. I’ve known more than a few from pastors to people with a seemingly unshakable faith. Something happens and they fold up their tent and fade away into the mists. We cannot force them to believe. But we can work in our own lives so that we don’t run the risk of becoming just one more ‘church drop out’.
I want to suggest that Mark 1:1 is our starting place. Let me suggest we return to something that is elementary to us, God’s Son, Jesus.
Mark 1:1 reads, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." With Mar there is no Mary or Joseph. We don’t hear of Herod or a census nor are there angels, or shepherds. It is as if Jesus just fell into history at a point and Mark started the story. The lack of no nativity doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It just means Mark wasn’t led to tell the stories he’d heard from others.
The beginning may be temporal having to do with the time of Jesus’ coming. Yet the word has other senses. Remember axioms in geometry or algebra? They are rules that ‘just are’ you can’t prove them, but they are believed as a grounded starting place for math.
“Beginning”, as Mark uses it, "can also denote the 'first things,' 'elementary principles or the 'rudimentary elements' (Guelich 8)." In verses, 2-3 Mark reaches back into the lives of Isaiah and Malachi in order to show how Jesus fulfills their prophecy. This “’ beginning’ is not just a moment in time, it is a step-in eternity (McKenna and Ogilvie 24).” This truth doesn’t start in zero AD but before the world was formed. John writes the same thing, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the Word was God” Jn. 1:1
Jesus and his calling that starts off Mark. Jesus and His purpose for coming to us are equally ‘set in stone’ facts with which people have to deal each day. Thus, the object of this beginning is the gospel.
It is not a gospel, like one among many, but “the gospel”. And uses it “in the absolute sense (Guelich 8).” The clearest translation for the term Gospel is Good News. It is the “’ reward for good news’… the good tidings of God’s redemptive act in Jesus Christ (Bratcher and Nida 2)." This gospel is the starting place for Advent. Todd Outcalt writes,
"Advent begins—and in fact, the entirety of the Christian journey begins—at the point where we accept Jesus as our Guide and begin to walk with his calm assurances in the midst of our fears (Outcalt)."
Keep this in mind as we continue through the next few months. Science can fail us, but Christ does not. Political wins and losses may elate or discourage us, but Christ is Lord of lords and King of kings.
It can be very tempting to become ‘fair-weather followers’ and walk away when the world is in such turmoil. Such people are not ‘bad’, but they have just not been grasped by the gospel and held captive. God takes the initiative of wrestling with us and holding tight to those who He saves because the good news, takes place only through His son, Jesus.
For Mark Jesus is not just a name. He is The Messiah or the Christ. He isn’t the ruler who wanted to ‘Make Israel Great Again’. He was about as far removed from the expected military and political leader as you get. He is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.
2He had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
He transforms lives. He raises the dead. He restores withered hands. He touches lepers and lets a woman touch him. He breaks the social rules of His day. He eats with those who are hated. He teaches those who are unlearned. He feeds throngs and blesses children. Jesus is not the hero comes to put things right. This time.
You noticed that, didn’t you? This time… He is coming back and, as Mark 13:32 says about the timing “no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”. We are to remain on guard and stay awake. Why? So, when he does return, we are ready for Him, and not caught unawares.
Is anyone tired of wearing masks and the various closures and lockdowns? What you’re feeling is called “COVID fatigue”. The attitude that says “we've been doing this a long time, I thought it was a short-term situation, it's going on and on and on and I'm getting tired of it, and I'm tired of wearing a mask, and I'm tired of putting my life on hold (Cuomo).” Such fatigue wears on us till we forget about a mask once then twice etc. Then when we can’t breathe, or our child or parent can’t breathe we get back with the program. But it’s too late. The saddest situations are the 30-year-old who went to a COVID party thinking it was a hoax. His nurse reported he told her,
‘You know, I think I made a mistake.' And this young man went to a COVID party,” she said. “He didn’t really believe. He thought the disease was a hoax. He thought he was young and invincible and wouldn’t get affected by the disease (NBC News).”
To remain alert and awake today means masks and social distancing. Spiritually it involves knowing the times in which we live. Is the return of Christ right around the corner? I don’t know. A great many situations and tragedies have given rise to speculation on Jesus’ return.
We, his people who wait for our Lord’s return need to do this Let us pray.
Bratcher, Robert G., and Eugene Albert Nida. A Handbook on the Gospel of Mark. New York: United Bible Societies, 1993. Print. UBS Handbook Series. p2
Guelich, Robert A. Mark 1–8:26. Vol. 34A. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1989. Print. Word Biblical Commentary.
McKenna, David L., and Lloyd J. Ogilvie. Mark. Vol. 25. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1982. Print. The Preacher’s Commentary Series.
NBC News. "‘I Think I Made a Mistake’: Young Man from Texas Dies After Attending COVID-19 Party." https://www.nbc12.com.2020. Web. 25 Nov. 2020.
Outcalt, Todd. Let Us Go Now to Bethlehem: Daily Devotions for Advent and Christmas. Upper Room Books. Kindle Edition.
Paine, Thomas. "Thomas Paine: American Crisis." Ushistory.org. Web. 26 Nov. 2020.
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