In the Gospel of Mark, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is defined by three events. First, there is his baptism in the Jordan in which he comes up from the water and he hears the voice that declares who he is. Second, there is his time in the wilderness, a time of hunger, searching, and temptation. I’ve thought about – and prayed and preached and written about those first two – a bunch of times. But I’ve spent less time with the third defining event that Mark gives us. And that is the arrest and, later, the murder by the state of his cousin John.
One of the weird things that many people, maybe even most people, do is to imagine that hardship and suffering are things that will not happen to them. We are aware that time passes and that aging exists. But we are surprised when we cannot run as fast or as far as we once did and we begin emitting grunts and sighs when we bend over to pick something up.
We are aware that loss and grief and unfairness exist. But we are surprised when these things descend into our lives like a lightning bolt, when the phone call comes that changes everything. Sometimes our very faith is shaken.
We are aware that death exists. But we are surprised to learn that it exists for us. When my friend Don was dying he said to me, simply and wistfully, “I didn’t understand how short life was.” Don was one of the smartest and wisest people I have ever met: how could he not have understood? People are constantly saying “Life is short.” But somehow, I knew exactly what Don meant. And I suspect that, when my own death nears, part of me will be just as surprised as Don by the shortness of this life.
Jesus grows up in a volatile and dangerous world. Disease, pandemic will show up without warning. A farming or fishing or carpentry accident can change or end a life in an instant, and there is no ambulance to come to the rescue. And the army of another land walks the roads, ready to build their crucifixes on a hill for any or no reason.
And yet if Jesus is fully human – and Jesus is fully human – then maybe knowing that all of these things exist does not stop him from reckoning that, somehow, they apply to other people.
The taking of his cousin John will change that.
It is not long after the two of them have reunited and John has lowered Jesus into the waters of the Jordan that Jesus receives the news that the soldiers have come for John. That John is in prison. This is the van that comes in the night, the door kicked in, the flashlight shone into the face of the sleeper who awakes into confusion and terror. And then the house left empty again, the bedsheets still warm but no one in them anymore.
If Jesus is fully human – and Jesus is fully human – then when the news reaches him that John is gone he may utter those words,
I can’t believe it.
And this will not entirely be a figure of speech or a metaphor. Part of him – a big part – will be unable to believe that someone whom he knows and loves has been taken to empire’s prison, a prison from which few return alive and from which fewer still return without scars.
In not so long he will learn that John is not among the few. That empire has killed him.
This shattering, awful, unjust grief will shape the rest of his life.
Mark is the most urgent of the Gospels. It has this driving and driven quality. Mark loves the word immediately. And I always figured that told us a lot about Mark (and it does). But it also tells us a lot about Jesus. Because, after John’s death, Jesus understands that there is a holy urgency to this life. The things he is called by the Father to do: he needs to do them immediately. He needs to do them now.
John being taken, John being killed. This trauma has given him the difficult gift of understanding what Don did not understand until the end of his days. That this life is short.
When I think about my own regrets, the things I have done and left undone, many of them are about saying or doing cruel or selfish things. Many of them are about not taking a risk when I had the chance to do so. And many of them are about acting as though this life were something other than short.
A number of years ago, my beloved father-in-law, Bob, went on a pilgrimage to Greece, to a series of ancient monasteries. My brothers-in-law and I were all invited. But I didn’t go. I didn’t go because the trip was expensive and I didn’t make a whole lot of money working in the performing arts. And I didn’t go because I thought that there would be other opportunities. But there was no second trip. Bob is dead now. I didn’t understand how short life is.
More recently, I imagined that I would invite my friend and teacher here to Grace to preach. Bill was an amazing preacher: y’all would have loved him. And Bill was a bunch younger than Bob, I reckoned I had lots of time. But last spring Bill abruptly died. I didn’t understand how short life is. I could keep on giving examples. My regret is magnified because I have made the same mistake more than once. I keep on not understanding.
The same Don whom I was talking about earlier: He said something about the Lord’s prayer that I’ve thought about often. He said that the word that he thought was super important came right at the end. It was the word Now. As in Now and Forever. Amen. Don would encourage you to pray that prayer hitting that word hard, repeating it, now, now, now. using your arms to pull the world into yourself.
Now, now, now.
Give us today our daily bread. Now.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Now.
On earth as it is in heaven. Now.
I do not wish grief upon you, nor loss upon you, nor the injustice upon you. I hope that you do not have to endure anything like what Jesus endured when John was taken. And if you have endured such a thing, know that I am so, so sorry.
I do hope that you and I come to understand what Jesus understood in that loss, what shaped the rest of his life. This life is short. It is a fleeting, beautiful gift.
So, if you are called to speak words of love, speak them immediately, speak them now. If you are called to do works of mercy, do them immediately, do them now. If you are called to forgive, do so immediately, do so now. If you are called to take a holy risk, do so immediately, do so now.
Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbour. Love yourself. Right now.