Sunday, November 18, 2012

Farewell Mark, hello Luke

Texts: 1 Samuel 1:4-20, 2:1-10 (Hannah's Song) * Mark 13 1-8, 24-28, 32-33 (destruction of the Temple)

Periodically, predictions about the end of the world crop up in popular culture. The next projected doomsday is just five weeks away -- December 21st, 2012, based upon a reading of the Mayan Calendar of ancient Central America. At the winter solstice next month, this Calendar ends one 5,000 year-long cycle and begins another. Some people think that earthquakes will wipe out all of humanity on that date.

The latter disaster scenario was the premise of the blockbuster movie "2012" released three years ago. But despite how close Dec 21, 2012 now is, I have not seen much mention of this fearful prediction this Fall. This pleases me because like many people, I don't take such predictions seriously.

I mention the end of the world for two reasons: first, the church calendar begins a new year two weeks from today with Advent; and second, each church year ends and begins with Jesus' apocalyptic prediction about the destruction of the Temple and about the end of days that we heard today in our Gospel reading.

The title of this sermon, "Farewell Mark, hello Luke," refers to the fact that with the start of the new church year on December 2nd, our church along with many others shift the focus of our weekly worship from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of Luke. In fact, today is the last time that the weekly suggested Bible readings includes a passage from Mark until November 30, 2014. And like the first reading from Mark assigned 12 months ago for the first Sunday in Advent on November 27th 2011, the last one today also comes from Mark's apocalyptic 13th chapter. But more on the apocalypse later. For now, I will focus on our church calendar.

Here in Borderlands, we follow a three-year biblical reading list, which has been used by many denominations, including the United Church of Canada, for the past 20 years or more. When I was a child, my father didn't follow such a list. He chose a text to preach upon each week as he saw fit depending on the time of year (Christmas and Easter being the most obvious examples) or the needs of the the community.

But today, most churches follow an assigned reading list, the Lectionary. It is a way of reading through much of the Bible over a repeating three-year cycle. Each year focuses on one of the first three Gospels: Year A covers Matthew; Year B, which we are just finishing, covers Mark; and Year C covers Luke. Selections from the fourth and final gospel, the Gospel of John, which is quite different from the first three, are read during Easter each year; and the rest of John is covered in Year B, the year of Mark. John is added to the Year of Mark since Mark is quite a bit shorter than either Matthew or Luke. In fact next week, which is the final Sunday of Year B, the Gospel reading for Reign of Christ Sunday is from John.

The Lectionary doesn't only focus on the four gospels, of course. There are 23 other books in the New Testament and 39 books in the Old Testament; and the Lectionary tries to cover them as well. Each Sunday, the Lectionary suggests four readings: one from a Gospel, one from an Old Testament book, one from a New Testament letter, and one of the 150 Psalms. On most Sundays, I only chosen two of those four readings, with a bias towards the Gospel selection, and sometimes I take a few liberties with the suggestions to fit other purposes.

This three-year cycle leaves out some of the Bible -- small bits of the Gospels, a few passages from the letters of Paul and the other letters, and quite a bit of the Old Testament. But I like how it tries to be thorough, and how it weaves these readings around the yearly church calendar of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and the long Season After Pentecost.

Reading lists for Scripture have been around for as long as Judaism and Christianity have existed. The three-year Lectionary cycle which Borderlands and many other United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches now follow has its roots in the Vatican II Council of the Roman Catholic Church of the 1960s; and I think the Lectionary is a wonderful example of inter-church cooperation. The widespread use of this list has led to a greater emphasis on the seasons of the church year and to the creation of new aids for worship leaders. It also means that with our reading today, we say goodbye to Mark for two years.

Five years ago this Fall, a New Testament course I was enrolled in also made a switch from Mark to Luke. In the first half of the course, we had focused first on Matthew and then Mark. When we returned from Reading Week, our professor began by saying three things: one, that we would now turn to Luke; two, that we would use a different method for studying it (namely the response the text evokes in the reader rather than an historical or scientific analysis of the text); and three that he would start us off by giving his response to Luke. He told us that he didn't much like it!

I was pretty shocked by his statement. How could a seminary professor, an ordained minister in the Lutheran church, and the teacher of future United Church ministers say something negative about Luke, one of the four Gospels upon which so much of our faith and tradition are based?

Eventually, though, I came to understand my professor's viewpoint. He objected to Luke when he smoothed off some of the rough edges in the stories of Jesus found in Mark. He recognized that Luke was a more sophisticated writer than Mark and was a skilled storyteller. But perhaps some important things found in Mark might be missing in Luke.

Now, this course on the Gospels did not lessen my own affection for Luke. But I appreciated our teacher's main point that there are differences between the four  gospels and that having four of them instead of one gives us a richer view of Jesus. So I will now offer a bit more about what we learned about the four gospels.

Scholars think that the first Gospel to be written is Mark, probably in the year 70. Matthew and Luke come about 10-20 years later, and both of them copy Mark, often word for word. Commentators make a big deal when Matthew and/or Luke make deletions or changes to Mark as they copy him.

Matthew and Luke also add to Mark some sayings of Jesus, such as the Beatitudes, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and of the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. Each one also adds some material that is only found in either Matthew or Luke. John comes last, about the year 100, and while John may have had one or more of the first three gospels in front of him when he wrote, he tells a quite different story from the first three with a different tone and emphasis. For these reasons, John is known as the spiritual gospel.

This set of ideas about the gospels explains a lot: why so much of Mark is repeated in Matthew and Luke and why John is so different. It also allows us to see how different early Christians interpreted Jesus' life and message.

There is much that I love about what is unique in Luke's portrayal of Jesus: the birth narrative with stable and shepherds, the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Luke adds after the reading about love of God and love of neighbour that we read from Mark last week; the parable of the Prodigal Son; the story about walking with the risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus, and so on.

I look forward to trying to preach to the the needs of this community in relationship to the Gospel of Luke during the new church year, which we begin in two weeks. It is not that I will never mention Mark again in a sermon until November 2014, since the changes and additions that Luke or Matthew make to Mark can sometimes show us important things. But as always, we rely on the Spirit's guidance when we read, interpret and act upon the sacred writings of our tradition.

When discussing biblical scholarship, it is also helpful for someone like me who loves intellectual puzzles and arguments to remember that we don't worship the Bible. We worship God: the Sacred Ground in which live and move and have our being. Scripture readings, sermons, and prayers are only crude attempts to point us towards God in Christ and to remind us of the values of love and justice that we hold sacred. We rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to help us limp towards God as we pray, preach, and carry out our work of loving service to our community.

Which brings me back briefly to our two readings from this morning -- Hannah's song, and Mark 13. Hannah's song from 1 Samuel also points us towards Luke because Mary's song of joy and liberation, the Magnificat, which she sings when she learns she is pregnant with Jesus. Mary's song seems to be modelled on Hannah's and is found only in Luke. We will read the Magnificat with joy this year on Advent 4, December 23rd.

Our other reading, Mark 13, with its warnings of wars, earthquakes, and falling stars  probably does not point towards the end of world next month. Instead, it probably betrays the dire times when Mark wrote down the stories of Jesus. As Mark was writing, the Roman-Jewish war of the late 60s was coming to a close. Jerusalem was burned to the ground. Tens of thousands of Jews were killed, and the Second Temple was utterly destroyed. Perhaps it is this context which gives the Gospel of Mark such relevance and immediacy today. Like Mark's community, we too live in an time of wars and rumours of war, of which this week's fighting between Israel and Gaza is one of the latest and most frightening instances.

When Mark told the story of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem to face his death, his first hearers could relate to the horror of it all too well. But by the time Luke copied and changed Mark's version 15 or 20 years later, the horror of the destruction of Jerusalem was starting to fade in memory. Luke's community was trying to live inside a Roman Empire that did not seem as violent and hostile to Jews and Christians as it had in the time of Mark. So Luke emphasizes different things than Mark; and I believe that our Bible is richer because of this.

The end of the world will come some day. But as Jesus said, "About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come."

With Hannah, we look forward in hope to a time when the poor are raised up and the oppressors are overthrown. With Jesus, we look forward to a new heaven and earth even though its birth pangs may be frightening. And each one of us looks forward in hope to union with God in Christ at any moment, and at the end of life.

So this Fall, as we end one church year and start a new one in two weeks, may we approach the stories of Jesus, whether told by Mark or Luke, Matthew or John, with our hearts open to their mystery and power. May we continue to rely upon the Holy Spirit to guide us in our worship, in our understanding, and in our work of service in this community. And with God's help, may we do all this as Christ's followers on the path of faith hope and love.

Thanks be to God.


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