Sermon Manuscript – 3 February 2008

INTRODUCTION

During my Army days, I was on this infantry training course learning to do what are called “section attacks.” That’s taking a group of eight soldiers and attacking trenches and machine-gun posts, essentially. Now this course took place over the summer, and this one day we were doing these attacks – one after the other – as the thermometer climbed. The temperature got up around 35 degrees Celsius by around lunchtime, and suddenly I began to stumble as we marched. I knew that I was in trouble, and finally, my instructor ordered me to sit down in the shade, and they called a truck to drive me to the clinic, because they were worried about heatstroke.

It was a long drive. The Gagetown training area is huge, and it took about twenty-five minutes of hard driving to get to the camp. Once there, the medics were worried. They stripped me right down to my boxers (yes, this is a rather humiliating story), shoved a mug of water in my hands, poured more water all over me, and hooked me to an IV bag full of saline solution. And over the next three hours, I watched no less than thirty other soldiers dragged into that clinic suffering the same symptoms. It got so bad that 60% of our company were heat stress casualties that day, and they had to call off the exercise. As for me, after no less than five 1-liter bags of IV solution were put in me, they trucked me back to the barracks and told me to rest for a full day before returning to duty.

That was a close call. I didn’t get heatstroke, but it was a really bad case of heat exhaustion. And I thought about that as I read this passage. See, I was twenty-two years old, in the prime of my life, the best physical condition I’d ever been in. I wasn’t irresponsible – I had drunk several canteens full of water that morning, had kept my head covering on. I had all the right equipment. I did everything right. I was surrounded by a group of tough, well-trained, experienced instructors and a group of good fellow students. Yet there, in the middle of the sticks, the middle of the wilderness, far from civilization, I suddenly developed a life-threatening condition. Despite everything I did. Despite everything I could do. I was helpless, and my life at that point depended not on anything I did but on help from outside.

The wilderness is a dangerous place. Even when we’ve done everything humanly possible to keep it under control, it can still kill you.

AN ODD START

God really doesn’t do things in ways we would expect, does he? Look at where the good news of Jesus Christ begins. It doesn’t start in a fancy temple, covered in gold and silver. It doesn’t start in a soaring cathedral with stained glass windows and carved statues and million-dollar paintings. It doesn’t start on a national TV network with blinding lights and a huge stage in a 50,000-seat football stadium.

The good news of Jesus Christ begins in the wilderness. It begins in a desert. The good news of Jesus begins in a hot, dusty, barren, empty, seemingly endless wasteland. Doesn’t that seem strange? The God of the universe takes on human flesh, and the good news of His coming begins not in a dazzling display of His wealth and glory but in a place of utter abandonment and emptiness.

Mark starts his Gospel with the words, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” What is the beginning here? Mark starts his Gospel with the story of John the Baptist. That’s unusual. Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy, for instance. John begins with the Word being with God in eternity past. Why does Mark start with John the Baptist?

Because Mark’s point is this: God is calling his people back to the wilderness. Mark uses the word “wilderness” four times in the first thirteen verses, twice in our passage. This part of Mark, these first eight verses, explain how we get there. That’s what we’re going to look at today.

WHY THE WILDERNESS?

But first, we have to see why the wilderness is so important, and what it means to us.

What is this wilderness? In our story, it is the desert on the far side of the Jordan River. Across the Jordan, on its eastern side, the opposite side from Judea and Jerusalem and Jericho and the whole promised land – this is where the Good News begins. The Gospel, the story of Jesus Christ, begins in a place so inhospitable that it is famous today for only one thing: the Dead Sea. A rocky, barren hell of a place.

But to a Jew, this wilderness meant a great deal. This wasteland is where God led His people in wandering for forty years. This wilderness is where God fed them, watered them, guided them, gave them His Law. This desert is where God appeared in a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day to be with His people. This desert is really where the people of God were formed. Where they were given their identity. Where God made a covenant with them, binding Himself to them, making them His own, declaring them His people and Himself their God. The wilderness is, to a Jew, a place of beginnings. And in the Old Testament, we see prophets like Elijah retreating into this wilderness to commune with God. The wilderness is a place where God meets with His people.

Why does God like the wilderness? Because there, His people understand that they need Him. When you’re in a desert, you’re in trouble. In a wasteland, there isn’t much food and water. The day can kill you by heatstroke. The night can kill you by hypothermia. In the wilderness, you’re helpless. Without help, you’ll die. To survive, you need supplies. You need help. Israel found this out the hard way. The only reason Israel survived in the wilderness was because God gave them food, because God gave them water, because God organized them, because God led them day and night, because God protected them from raiders and marauders. God provided. God gave. In the wilderness, the people of Israel had nothing to give back. They couldn’t put God in their debt. They couldn’t buy Him off or earn anything with Him or do Him any favours. All they could do was look to Him and trust Him and receive the gifts of His hand.

So John appeared in the wilderness and called the people to the wilderness – to a place of emptiness and need. He called them to a place where they didn’t have it all under control. He called them to a place where they couldn’t do it on their own, where their smarts and their strength were not enough to let them survive, where they needed God to live. The wilderness is where God is! That is the beginning of the Gospel! That is the start of the good news, coming to the wilderness. Salvation begins in the wasteland, recognizing that we can’t do it, that we’re not good enough, that we need everything given to us from God’s hand. The Christian life is life in the wilderness, a constant dependence on God for everything. The Christian life is not a life of comfort and plenty, but one of sacrifice and struggle and dependence on God to guide and provide. There’s an old saying: Jesus came to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. It’s true.

God’s calling each and every one of us into the wasteland. He’s calling His people to a place where they know they need Him. He’s calling us to recognize and live in light of the truth that every breath we take, every beat of our hearts, is a gift from His hand. He’s calling us to acknowledge that we absolutely, desperately, need Him to survive. If you’re grieving, or scared, or ashamed, and you don’t know how you can go on by yourself, this is where God is calling you. He’s calling you into that scary and harsh place because there is where we learn to lean on Him. If you’re in a wasteland or wilderness right now, don’t waste your opportunity. God is a provider and a protector.

That’s the wilderness. That’s our first lesson: God’s calling us to live in the wasteland. And now we see how to get there.

PASSING THROUGH THE WATER

When Israel left Egypt, they headed for the wilderness. Anyone remember how they got there? They had to pass through water. They went through the Red Sea, right? The way to the wilderness is through water. That was true for the physical wilderness. And you know what? The way to the spiritual wilderness is the same. It goes through water.

Here is John, crying out in the wilderness, and all the people are flocking to him. From Jerusalem. From Judea. All those places were separated from the wilderness by water. What lay between the Promised Land, the land of comfort and plenty, and the wilderness where John preached? The river Jordan. To get to John, just to get near him to hear him, they had to get wet. They had to cross the Jordan.

But that wasn’t all. John had this curious habit. He wasn’t just content with getting them over the river. He called them to respond to his message by being dunked in that river. He was baptizing them as they came in the Jordan River.

What did that mean? What was the significance of this baptism? As he baptized, what were the people doing? Confessing their sins. They laid out the things in their lives that fell short of God. They admitted their failings, their shortcomings, their rebellion, their wickedness. As they confessed, they shed themselves of the burden of sin, bringing it all out of the darkness of their souls into the light, giving it up to God. They confessed – they acknowledged that they were unworthy. They freely admitted that they were not good enough – that they were actually evil. This is our second lesson: To get to the wilderness, we must confess our sins to God.

John would have had no time at all for a “self-esteem” gospel or a “positive confession” message. Real confession is negative – it lays out our faults and expresses our grief for our sins. Real confession does not enhance our self-esteem – it tears down our pride, humiliates us, makes us lowly and needy in the presence of God. This is the message John preached. This is how he prepared the way of the Lord.

Have you done this? Have you ever laid out your life before God, dredged up the bad stuff from the depths of your soul? Have you ever admitted your sins and wrongdoing to God and grieved for them? See, no one comes to Christ unless they come needy. We don’t do Jesus a favour when we come to Him – He has mercy on us, gives grace to us. We’re the needy ones. We’re the ones who need help. And until we recognize that, until we accept that, we’re basically saying to God that He’s unnecessary, that He’s optional. Until we come to that point, we haven’t gone to the wilderness yet. God wants us in that wasteland, but to get there, we have to leave an awful lot of stuff behind. We have to face some pretty ugly stuff before we get there.

REPENT!

Not just confession, either. John was preaching a baptism of repentance. What is repentance? To repent – that’s a word that people love to make fun of. There’s a popular video series out there that makes fun of a guy with a bullhorn crying for people to repent. Even Christians make fun of this. So what would they say about John the Baptist? I wonder, if we lived back then, some cool and up-to-date pastor would be making plays ridiculing the guy in the camel hair crying for repentance.

The word “repent” literally means “change of mind.” That’s not just a change of opinion. It means a whole new way of thinking, a whole new perspective on life and the world. It means a whole new way of living. To Jews and Christians in the ancient world, and to us today, it meant a 180-degree turn away from your old life and the start of another. See, it’s not enough just to confess your sin. Confession without repentance is just a pity-party. Confessing sin without doing anything about it, without turning away from it, says that you really don’t think it’s actually a bad thing. No, true confession – real, grieving, penitent, self-denying, humiliating confession of need and failure – leads to repentance. It leads to a determination to put the sin behind you and draw nearer to God, a commitment to get as far away from that old life as possible.

When we say, “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved,” we don’t mean simply accepting that the facts about him are true. The book of James tells us that even the demons do that. Saving faith is not just a head thing. It’s not just facts. Real faith is a desperate thing, a recognition that without Jesus we are lost and going to hell, and a trust that Jesus is enough and is all we need to be saved. Real faith is treasuring Jesus, loving Him and valuing Him, and no one can love God and sin at the same time. Faith without repentance, without a commitment to live for Him and stay away from sin, is no faith at all. That’s our third lesson: The way to the wilderness is through not just confession, but repentance for sin.

Do you believe in Jesus? If you do, ask yourself: Does my life show it? Have I had a change of mind, a change of heart? Am I really heading in a new direction, on a different road, drawing nearer to God?

OUR REAL NEED

Confess your sins. Turn your life around. But – why? Why bother with all those unpleasant things? Why put yourself through all that pain and anguish? Because confession and repentance – faith, in other words! – these things lead to what we really need. John’s baptism was of repentance into the forgiveness of sins.

Look at the people who came to John. They come in droves, and what do they see? They see what they truly need. And what was their need? It wasn’t money. John had none. They had plenty, living in the Promised Land. Their need wasn’t comfort, for they had houses and apartments and palaces and halls and lush pastures and swimming pools. John had a few bare rocks, and the Dead Sea – what comfort could he offer them? Their need wasn’t food and water – they all had pastures and flocks and fishing nets and shops and springs and wells. John had locusts and a bunch of very angry bees guarding his dessert. Their need wasn’t self-esteem – Jesus’ ministry later shows us that the Jews were quite proud of their lineasge, quite happy with who and what they were, so happy, in fact, that they would rather crucify Him than change.

No, John’s message was simple: confess. Repent. Be baptized. In other words, “You people suck!” Why such a harsh message? Why so confrontational, so judgmental? What so many people today think is old-fashioned or traditional or confrontational or “fire-and-brimstone” or offensive is, in fact, what Mark calls “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Think about that! The harshness and judgment in John’s words paled in comparison to the judgment that would come when the Mighty One he talked about arrived. John’s assignment was to prepare the way of the Lord, to ready the people to meet Him. They weren’t ready yet. They weren’t acceptable. That’s why he came. John’s message was one about their real need – forgiveness. The journey into the wilderness leads to forgiveness of sins. That’s our fourth lesson.

See, John was a forerunner. He was clearing the way for Jesus Christ. God became a man, lived a perfect life, died as a substitute for sinners who deserved to go to hell, and rose again to show that he had conquered death and bought salvation for anyone who believes in Him. John called for confession and repentance, so that people would understand that God cannot tolerate our sin. John then baptized them, to show that God’s grace washes away sin and makes us clean. John pointed to Christ. He called the people into the wilderness, into a place of desperate need, and there showed them the One who would meet that need.

WHERE ARE YOU NOW?

This is the message today. God is calling you into the wilderness, calling us to the place of forgiveness of sins. We get there by faith, which means confession of sins and repentance. So – where are you now? Are you in Judea and Jerusalem, deep in a busy and comfortable life, leaning on your job and possessions and your own effort and works to get you through life? Are you self-sufficient, safe, sorted out? Then you’ve got a journey ahead of you. God’s calling you into the wilderness. That doesn’t mean literally leaving this world and retreating out into a desert, like a monk. That would be missing the point. A wilderness is a place of need. You’re not there until you face that need, realize that you need God. Examine your life. Use God’s Word as your standard. Confess your sins to Him. Repent – turn away from your old ways and lean on Jesus.

And if you’re a Christian, and think you have most of this stuff already under control, this applies to you, too. Confession, repentance, faith – they aren’t one-time acts. They are a lifestyle. If you aren’t regularly faced by your need, regularly reminded that you depend absolutely on God, regularly convicted of sin and the beauty of forgiveness, then chances are you’ve left the wilderness and settled comfortably on the other side of the Jordan again. God calls us to live a life of faith. That’s a wilderness life.

Some of you may be struggling with assurance. That is, some of you may believe, and yet you are overwhelmed by how bad you’ve been, or how many times you’ve failed. If that’s you, listen to me: You’re already in that wilderness! You’re already there! This is a good thing. God does not bring His people into the wilderness to destroy them. He brings them into the wasteland so that He can feed them, and clothe them, and make a mighty and healthy nation out of them, and teach them to honour and praise Him. That takes some unpleasant discipline at times. Yes, we all fall short. God wants us to recognize that. But we recognize that so that we can see just how good God is. So that we can appreciate just how generous and loving He is. If you struggle with assurance, and don’t know how God can accept you, remember that it doesn’t depend on you! Jesus did the work! Jesus was the acceptable one! Lean on Him. Cling fast to Him. Trust in Jesus to keep you safe and wipe those tears from your eyes. Remind yourself, “I was bought at a price.” Remind yourself: “He who began a good work in you will surely complete it.” Remind yourself: “It is the Father’s will that none of those He gave to Christ will perish.” Keep believing. Keep going. Don’t try to escape the wilderness. Accept your neediness and count on God – He will pull you through.

– Jeff Jones

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Sermon Manuscript – 13 January 2008

INTRODUCTION

When I was in basic training, there was a girl in my platoon who really struggled. She struggled with the tasks and skills they taught, but not nearly as much as she did with the physical work. The poor girl was very overweight, and every time there was a run or a forced march she struggled to keep up and eventually fell out. I remember walking beside her once on a five-kilometre march and she was so exhausted she had trouble controlling the rifle she was holding. Her muzzle kept smacking my own rifle, and once or twice she nailed my knuckles so hard she drew blood.

Because she had do much trouble physically, she didn’t do well on the tasks we were assigned. Since they were team tasks, and because the military is a very performance-oriented culture, the other people in the platoon were hard on her. One time, I had twisted my ankle and was at the clinic getting it wrapped, and I heard crying next door. It was this girl – I recognized the voice – and she was pouring out her frustration to one of the staff there. She said that she found it really hard, that she couldn’t do anything right, and that it especially bothered her that the others were starting to resent her. She felt like she was letting down the team.

It was just training, so there wasn’t anything vital on the line, but to be honest she was letting us down. The platoon needed everyone to contribute, or the performance of the whole would suffer. She was a really nice person – it was nothing personal, but there was a job that had to be done and she simply wasn’t up to it yet. I’ll never forget that day in the clinic, though. She knew she was disappointing others, and she was crushed.

I can identify with that. I’ve had people counting on me and let them down. I think we all have. We’re sinners – we’re not perfect. It seems sometimes that, in our Christian walk, we can’t do anything right. We sin. We neglect prayer and Bible reading. We hurt others intentionally or by accident. What then? How do we get back on our feet, be a faithful and productive member of the team again?

Today we’re going to do something different. This sermon is not off just one text. It is a biography, a sketch of a Biblical figure who let the team down. We can learn from him. His name is Mark.

MEET JOHN MARK

First, let’s read Acts 12, verses 11-13: When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer.

I want you to notice a few things. This is the first mention of John Mark by name in the Bible. His given name is John, which means “the grace of God.” Like a lot of early Christians, he has a second name, which is how we know him today: Mark. John Mark.

Second, Mary, Mark’s mother, is mentioned, but not her husband. He must have died and she must have been a widow. And she’s got a big house – big enough to hold “many gathered” there. At that time, most houses were tiny three or four-room structures of only a few hundred square feet. We see here that the family has a servant, as well. Big house, at least one servant – Mark must have grown up in a wealthy family.

Not just wealthy, either. Mark’s family is deeply involved in the church. Peter is miraculously released from prison, and where does he go? He must have known the Christians would be meeting at Mary’s, which suggests that this was a regular meeting place. There are some early church traditions that say Mary’s house was the place of the Last Supper. We can’t know that for sure, but it’s possible – it was certainly big enough.

Let’s review what we know about Mark so far, and we’ll move on down to verse 25. He’s Jewish, and he was born “John.” He’s picked up another name, a Latin name: Mark. His father is probably dead. His mother is a wealthy woman with a big house and at least one servant. And Mark’s family is Christian and involved in the Jerusalem church.

Let’s move on to Acts 12:25: And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark. This is interesting. Mary is not the only relative of Mark we know about. Colossians 4 tells us that Barnabas is actually Mark’s cousin. Barnabas and Saul – that’s Paul – had come down from Antioch to visit Jerusalem with money to help the church there deal with a famine. Their mission was finished, and they’re going home to Antioch. And they pick up Mark and bring them with him. This was probably Barnabas’ idea.

Next chapter: 1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.

Mark comes with them back to Antioch, and there Paul and Barnabas are sent on a mission trip to Cyprus. They bring Mark with them as their “assistant.” The Greek word there is used elsewhere of a person who helps with writing or administration, so there’s a good chance that Mark was acting kind of like a secretary. He might have been taking notes of the preaching and using them to do follow-up instruction with new Christians after the preaching was finished. Regardless, here he is on the mission field, and he’s assisting Barnabas, his cousin, and Saul.

So we know these things: Mark left Jerusalem and went on a mission trip with Paul and Barnabas. We know he was their assistant, maybe in a writing or administrative role.

MARK LETS THEM DOWN

Now we come to a crisis in Mark’s life, and in Paul and Barnabas’ ministry. Look down to verse 13: Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem. They leave Cyprus and sail north, landing in what is now Turkey. For some reason, Mark leaves. He goes home. All the way back to Jerusalem.

Why did he leave? We don’t know for sure. Scholars have had a field day trying to speculate on reasons. Maybe Mark was discouraged by how hard the mission was getting. That part of Turkey – Asia Minor – is very mountainous. Maybe the idea of doing all that travel, by foot, in the mountains was a little too much to take – kind of like walking from Kananaskis to Canmore to Banff to Lake Louise. Not easy.

I have a professor who thinks differently. Galatians tells us that Barnabas fell under the influence of false teachers, just like Peter did, and that Paul had to correct the situation. Those false teachers taught that Gentiles had to obey the Jewish law to become Christians. Obviously, Barnabas was a good Jew, and struggled with the freedom and grace that came with Christ. Did Mark think the same way? Notice that when they left Antioch, verse two and seven, it says “Barnabas and Saul.” By this point, though, in verse 13, it says “Paul and his companions.” Had Paul assumed the leadership from Barnabas? Did Mark struggle with this? That’s one possible idea. But in the end, we can’t know for sure. We do know that Mark left them in the middle of the mission and went home.

This action had consequences later. Turn with me to Acts 15, verses 36 to 41. And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Paul felt so strongly that Mark should not come on the mission that he separated from Barnabas. Barnabas, for his part, just as stubbornly thought Mark should come, so he took Mark on his own back to Cyprus. There’s a few lessons we can learn from this, and we’ll get to those in a minute. For now, I want you to notice the tone here: Mark let them down. Mark wasn’t reliable. Mark failed them.

MARK RESTORED

But that’s not the end of the story. Turn with me to Colossians 4, verses 10 and 11: Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me.

Paul is writing Colossians from Rome, and he is in prison awaiting trial. Mark is with him. Now this is probably ten to twelve years after Mark’s departure in Perga. And look what Paul says about him. Two things. First, he specifically instructs the Colossians to welcome Mark if he visits. Now, Colossae is not all that far away from Perga, where Mark first left Paul and Barnabas. Did they know what happened? Did Mark have a black mark on his record among some Christians? The fact the Paul makes these explicit commands seems to suggest that. Second, Paul says about the three Jews he just mentioned, including Mark, that “they have been a comfort to me.”

What a change! Once Mark disappointed Paul. Now he comforts him. Once he failed Paul. Now he’s building him up. Once Mark caused division and grief in Paul’s life. Now he’s held up as a source of friendship and companionship. In Philemon verse 24, Paul calls him a “fellow-worker,” a fellow-slave of the Master.

One of the saddest comparisons in the Bible can be found between this passage and the end of 2 Timothy. In verse ten, Paul relays Mark’s greetings and talks about what a comfort he is – we’ve already seen that. Well, just a few verses later, verse 14, he sends greetings from another man, a guy named Demas. These men – Mark and Demas – were Paul’s coworkers and partners in Rome. Now turn to 2 Timothy. These are Paul’s last written words. He is in prison again, in Rome, and now he knows he is going to die. And Paul is almost alone, except for Luke. Where did all the others go? Read verses 10 and 11: For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.

Titus and Crescens are gone on missions. Luke’s there with him. And here is Demas again – but he’s gone. In love with the present world, he has deserted Paul and left. Paul has been abandoned again.

I think it’s one of the most poignant moments in the whole New Testament that, when deserted yet again, when grieved and disappointed yet again, Paul asks Timothy to bring none other than Mark back to Rome. Demas abandoned the mission, just like Mark had. Mark won’t. He won’t make that mistake twice. And Paul wants him by his side again. He is “very useful for ministry” – from Paul, that is high praise indeed.

And Paul’s not the only one to think so highly of Mark. Turn with me to 1 Peter 5, verse 13: She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. Now, when Peter talks about “she who is at Babylon,” he’s writing in code, so to speak. Babylon is a symbol for the seat or headquarters of evil and oppression. In the early church, who oppressed and persecuted the church? The Roman government. “She who is at Babylon” is almost certainly code for “the church at Rome.” Mark not only served with Paul in Rome, he also served with Peter there. And Peter is very warm towards him: “my son,” he says. Peter loved him.

What a turnaround! Once he let down Paul and Barnabas – now he’s a comfort to Paul. Once he couldn’t wait to get back home to Jerusalem, leaving others in the lurch to do it. Now he’s even farther away, in Rome of all places, helping the apostles build that church. Mark’s grown up. He’s made things right.

What can we learn from this? Let’s find out.

A DISCIPLE NEEDS MENTORS

Remember that the last time I preached, I talked about the boy Jesus. I pointed out that he had good examples in his life. What about Mark? Who were the important influences for him? I count four.

First, we have his mother, Mary. She’s wealthy, but she freely shares what she has. At the risk of being condemned or arrested by the Jewish authorities, at the risk of losing all that wealth and comfort, she hosts Christian meetings in her home. Remember the servant Rhoda, how she wouldn’t let Peter in? They were afraid. They were threatened. Yet Mary put all her possessions, her own home on the line for the church. Mark had a courageous and faithful mother. Courage and faithfulness. We need people like that in our lives. And we need to be courageous and faithful, as an example to others.

Next, we have Barnabas. Like Mark, this name is actually a second name. His real name is Joseph. He’s from Cyprus – no wonder he took Mark there. This second name of his, Barnabas, means “Son of Encouragement.” Don’t you think that’s a fitting name? It was Barnabas who took Paul under his wing after his conversion, who introduced Paul to the early Christians and the apostles when everyone was still afraid of him. It was Barnabas who encouraged and mentored Paul. And it was probably Barnabas’ idea to bring Mark along on the first trip. Barnabas fought to give Mark a second chance after he screwed up. He was willing to separate from Paul in order to give Mark that chance. Barnabas didn’t give up on him. He encouraged Mark, gave him another opportunity.

Sometimes, we need that. We all screw up. We all let people down, we all fail the cause of Christ. We all fall short of the glory of God in many ways. Barnabas is a picture of grace. God is the God of second chances. He uses people like Barnabas to show that restoration is possible. Christians need examples and leaders and mentors like Barnabas, who stick with them when they screw up, who offer grace when it isn’t deserved.

Third, there’s Paul. A lot different from Barnabas. He’s a former Pharisee, and he’s a very precise, logical, exact, demanding person. Mark let them down? The mission is hard, and we can’t afford risks. He feared what would happen to the mission if Mark came along again. He had to choose between his call to missions and the chance to set Mark straight, and he chose the former. Paul set a high standard for those with him. He didn’t lower it. He didn’t bend it or adjust it to make it easier for Mark.

It may seem harsh, what Paul did. Yet Mark needed that. Mark needed to learn, the hard way, that Christian service and the Christian life is not for the faint of heart. Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow him – that is a picture of suffering and death. If you think the Christian life is meant to make you comfortable and safe in this life, you’ve misunderstood the Gospel. Christians have to be prepared to give everything – even their lives – for Christ. Mark didn’t understand that at first. But I think that, when he saw Paul’s reaction to his coming a second time, when he saw Paul so concerned that he separated from Barnabas over it – I think Mark got it. Paul’s refusal to bend his standards for Mark, Paul’s stress that Mark’s earlier behaviour betrayed a poor understanding of the cost of discipleship, made Mark re-examine his priorities. I think Mark worked extra hard after that to prove to Paul, to himself, and to God that he meant to be a good disciple. Mark needed a swift and painful kick in the pants from somebody, and so do we all. We need uncompromising, blunt people like Paul.

And finally, we have Peter. Mark probably came back home to Jerusalem after his mission trip to Cyprus. He probably walked in the door of his mom’s big and comfortable house, and found out it didn’t feel so comfortable anymore. He was probably haunted by memories of how Paul had reacted to him. Mark was probably down, feeling the magnitude of his failure, finally grasping the seriousness of his mistake. And somehow, coming home wasn’t making it feel any better.

But there in the home, with the other Christians meeting there, was Peter. The apostle Peter. Think about Peter for a second. Here is a guy who accompanied his mentor on a teaching mission. Here is a guy who, when the going got tough, when things started looking bad, bailed out. Sound familiar? Peter had gone so far as to deny he even knew Jesus that fateful night he was arrested. How must have Peter felt after the Resurrection, standing there before Jesus on the seashore, wondering if he would ever be trusted again? Wondering if he could ever do anything useful? Wondering if God would ever be pleased or happy with him again?

I think Peter saw Mark and knew what was going on. He saw a man who had made a serious mistake. He saw a man who had let other people down. He saw a man questioning his own place in the Kingdom. He saw Mark that day – and in that man, he saw himself, twenty years before. And Peter did the same thing with Mark that Jesus did with Peter that day on the seashore: he invited the young man over and asked him to help him feed the sheep.

The early church tells us that Mark became Peter’s interpreter, recording and arranging Peter’s teaching and sermons for others, making them understandable. Somewhere along the way, Peter and Mark wound up in Rome together, working to strengthen the church in the Empire’s capital. This was hard work. This was very dangerous work – it would eventually cost both Paul and Peter their lives. This time, Mark didn’t run.

If you want evidence of just how complete Mark’s turnaround was, go to the book of Mark. He wrote that. Mark took what he learned from Peter and others, and he wrote what was probably the first-ever Gospel of Jesus Christ. Mark’s was the first, and it was so well respected that Matthew and Luke used it as a reference when writing their own.

IF YOU THINK YOU SUCK

We’re all disciples. We’re all learning to follow Christ, every one of us. We’re all on a mission, to glorify God by making disciples for Christ. And we’re all sinful. We all make mistakes. Every one of us has, or will, drop the ball in a crisis. Every one of you can probably think of a time when someone trusted you, someone was counting on you to get something done or to be there. And you let them down.

Maybe it isn’t public, like this was. Maybe it’s just between you and God. Maybe you’ve sinned, and bigtime. Maybe you feel like you’re just a horrible person, and that there’s no way God will accept you now.

Where do we go from there? Where do we go from that point where we’ve failed? How can things be set right?

There’s two things we have to remember. First, if you feel like you suck and you’re not good enough, well, that’s because you aren’t. You do suck. Listen! We’re sinners. God’s standard is perfection – none of us has got there yet. It’s a journey. It’s growth in holiness, getting better and stronger over time. God doesn’t lower the bar. He expects and demands perfection. But Jesus is our perfection – God looks at us, who are saved, who believe in Jesus as our Saviour, and He sees the perfection of Jesus, not our sins. And in daily life, we have the Spirit who is constantly pushing us forward, ever closer to perfection. The reason you feel bad is because you are supposed to. When we sin, the Spirit convicts us – not to send us to hell, not to punish us, but so that we know what needs to change and so that we are motivated to deal with it. God wants us to move on, to stand up and try again. He’s not here just to make us feel better. He’s here to make us better. Sometimes that takes making us feel bad about our sins.

DON’T TRY THIS ON YOUR OWN

And He doesn’t want us to do it alone. That’s the second thing. That’s what God gave the church to do. God has given us a body of believers to walk beside us. And what a body of believers. Different people who can help in different ways.

There are Christians like Mary, who are generous and kind, who open up their homes and make you part of the family, whose faith is firm and a great example to others, whose courage inspires us to sacrifice for Christ.

There are Christians like Barnabas, sons and daughters of encouragement, who will lift you up in the midst of the pain, who will give you something to do so you can begin putting the pieces back together, who will work to strengthen those weaknesses.

There are Christians like Paul, seeing things as black and white, who will let you know what God’s expectations are, who love God and you too much to let you get away with thinking sin’s not that serious, who will give you the proverbial kick in the pants and ask you, “What were you thinking?”

There are Christians like Peter, who have been there, who have let others down, who can put an arm around you and say, “Yeah, me too,” and who will turn your eyes back to Jesus Christ and tell you, “Look at that cross. You know what that means? It means it doesn’t depend on you. It means God loves you so much that there’s grace no matter how far you’ve fallen. It means Jesus came to lift you up and make you better than that, and He will surely do it.”

So hear this message from the story of Mark. If you’ve screwed up, if you’ve sinned, if you feel bad for something you’ve done, don’t stop there. You don’t have to stay there. God has given you the opportunity to get back on your feet again. He’s given the opportunity to become better, to become more like Him. He’s given this community of believers, and in our midst are Marys and Barnabases and Peters and, yes, Pauls. You need them. He’s given His Holy Spirit. Call out and confess those sins, and ask for forgiveness, and ask for the strength to do better. Don’t try to restore yourself – self-help doesn’t work, because it depends on the same dummy who screwed it up the first time to make it better. God’s our Helper. If you need help, don’t leave here today without finding it. There’s a whole room of people here who can work with you, and on you. Don’t be afraid to come to Jesse or Gerry or myself after the service and talk.

God’s purpose is to restore us, to make us like Christ. If you want to be like Christ, He’ll make it happen. Let’s pray.

– Jeff Jones