Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist (April 25)

Mark 14:51-52; 15:46; 16:5-6

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    St. Mark was just a young man during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  We know this, not only because of the tradition which identifies Mark as the rich young man who at first turned away from following Christ, but also because of a little story that only Mark includes in His Gospel.  Mark inserts this brief account as a way of identifying himself and the contact he had with Jesus at a very crucial moment. 

    Here’s the scene:  Jesus had just been arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The disciples had all forsaken Him and fled from the armed group that came out to arrest Him.  And then Mark writes this,  “Now a certain young man followed Jesus, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body.  And they laid hold of him, and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked.”

    Some have suggested that the upper room where Jesus had just met with His disciples was in fact in the house of Mark’s family.  We know that after Pentecost Christians gathered in this house to pray for Peter when he had been put in prison (Acts 12:12).  So it is quite conceivable, after Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet and instituted holy communion on this night in which He was betrayed, that a curious young Mark had followed them from his house to Gethsemane, keeping His distance to spy out more of what was going on.  This would explain why He was only clothed in a linen garment.  He may not have been expecting them to go anywhere at that time of night and hastily wrapped this linen garment around him when they left so that he wouldn’t lose track of them.  But whatever the reason, this young man, Mark, was there at the scene of Jesus’ arrest and only escaped by leaving His garment behind.

    Now why does Mark include this account in His Gospel?  What are we to learn from this little story?  Well, I believe the key to understanding Mark’s point is the linen garment.  The word for this garment in the Greek indicates that this was a very fine piece of cloth, of the more expensive variety.  Mark’s family was well-to-do.  And this particular kind of garment crops up only two times in all of the New Testament.  It is what Mark wore on this evening before Good Friday, and it is what our Lord’s body was wrapped in when He was buried.  It is written in Mark 15, “Then [Joseph of Arimathea] bought fine linen, took Jesus down, and wrapped Him in the linen.  And he laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock.” 

    It is no mere coincidence that this type of linen shows up only two times in the Scriptures, first on the young man, Mark, and then on the Savior, Jesus.  Mark is trying to teach us something.  And here is his point: This expensive garment represents the things of this world–worldly wealth, worldly loves, the passing and fading glories of this life.  This is what Mark is wrapped up in.  And this is what we wrap ourselves in to cover the shame and nakedness of our sin.  Here in this garden is a picture of what we have done ever since the days of Adam and Eve.  We hide from God.  We keep our distance from Him.  We envelop ourselves with earthly stuff and earthly pursuits that help us to ignore the reality of our nakedness and our fallenness before God.  We drape ourselves with the approval of our friends and the praise of people.  We cover ourselves with our own supposed goodness, denying the truth of what still lies beneath.  We trust in our own thinking and our own abilities to protect us from the cold night air of death.  However, we are really only shrouded in deceit.  In the end all of these worldly garments will be stripped from us, exposing us for who we are.

    But in fact such apparel must be stripped from us.  We must be rid of the dark clothing of our rebellion and our unbelief, so that we may receive new, eternal garments.  We must no longer be those who follow our Lord at a distance and then flee at the first sign of conflict.  Rather, we must humbly and penitently follow Him all the way to the cross.  For it is there alone that we find help and deliverance.  There at Golgotha Jesus wears the filthy rags of our sin.  There He bears our shame.  There He is clothed with all of our idolatry and our worldly loves, and He receives in His own body the hellish judgement and wrath that they bring.  Jesus is wrapped in our faithlessness and fallenness, and He suffers them to death on the cross for us.  Jesus stands in our place; He wears our mortal clothing in order that we might be wrapped in His immortality and share in His life.

    Do you see now the connection that Mark is making with this linen garment?  The garment of sin is taken off of Mark–and off of you–and put onto Christ.  The Lord wears your sin all the way into the grave, where He leaves it to rot forever.  No longer does sin have any power over you.  For it is dead and buried in Christ’s tomb.  He paid the full price to redeem you from it.  Satan and the grave cannot harm you any more.  For Christ rose in victory over them on the third day.  His resurrection in the body means that you are entirely forgiven and fully restored to God. 

    Mark records the account of Jesus’ resurrection in such a way as to amplify this truth and to lead us to see the new clothing that we have in Christ.  Very early on that Easter morning, the women came out to the tomb.  The stone had been rolled away from the tomb.  Then Mark records this, “And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed.  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He is risen!  He is not here.  See the place where they laid Him.’” Notice that Mark describes the angel as “a young man,” the very same Greek word used to describe the young man in the Garden of Gethsemane.  But notice also that this young man is wearing “a long white robe,” a different sort of clothing than the previous linen garment.  What are we to make of this?

    I believe that there are two things going on here.  The first is that Mark wants you who hear this Gospel to see yourselves in that long white Easter robe.  Just as you are to identify with the fearful, fleeing, naked young man in Gethsemane and repent, so also you are to identify with this angelic, shining, white-robed young man and rejoice–believing in your hearts that Christ has indeed been raised from the dead for you, confessing with your mouths the same joyous Easter Gospel that this angelic messenger proclaims.  For so you are saved.

    Through Jesus’ cross and empty tomb, you truly have been changed and made new–from sinners to saints, from unclean to holy, from darkness to light.  Having been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, you are robed in His perfect righteousness, the flowing garment of His forgiving love.  It is written in Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  The very life and presence of the crucified and risen Lord is now your clothing.  So it is that in Revelation the faithful are described as “those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”; and again, “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

    And there is a second thing that is going on in Mark’s resurrection account with this young man in the tomb.  Mark refers to the angel in the same way that he had earlier referred to himself in order to reveal His purpose as an evangelist.  For he and the angel were not all that different.  The angel was sent from God to announce the good news of the resurrection; Mark was sent from God to proclaim and declare the Gospel of the risen Jesus.  The angel was a messenger, and Mark was a messenger, one who recorded the saving words and works of Christ so that they might sound forth in and through the Church until the end of the age. 

    You, then, are like the angel, too.  For the words of the Gospel have also been put on your lips, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.  You, too, are given to confess the living Lord, both here in the divine service and out there in your daily callings, so that those who must confront the grave and its immovable stone might know Him who broke down the doors of death and who now brings life to all who believe.

    Before we conclude, it should be noted that St. Mark was not always perfectly saintly following his conversion.  Once he was taken along as an assistant on a missionary journey.  But he soon got cold feet and returned home.  Perhaps he was still a bit spoiled from his wealthy upbringing and couldn’t handle the stresses of this work.  The sinful nature that had earlier caused him to turn away from Christ on the road and flee from Him in the Garden still dogged him here.  But Mark now lived in the forgiveness and the renewing mercy of Christ.  Eventually he would return to assisting in missionary work.  In fact, he became steadfast and faithful in these tasks, for St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry.”  We see in Mark, then, a wonderful picture of God’s love for us, how the Lord doesn’t forsake us when we fall and when we fail, but He forgives us and lifts us up and gives us a new start.  Later, Mark would serve as an assistant to the Apostle Peter, under whose guidance the Gospel of Mark would be written.  By the grace of God alone, Mark has his place as an evangelist in the church.

    It is traditional in Christian art for Mark to be depicted as a lion.  Some say this is so because His Gospel begins with the roaring voice of John the Baptist in the wilderness.  Others say it is because Mark’s Gospel is one of action, stressing the powerful works of Christ.  But perhaps one could say most of all that Mark is depicted as a lion because He sets so clearly before our eyes the One who is Himself  the Lion of the tribe of Judah, namely, Jesus, our Lord and our Redeemer.

    For this, brothers and sisters in Christ, let us all give thanks to God.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

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