Happy New Year to all of you and all of you at home. Let’s turn to Mark 1. And if you need a Bible, there are Bibles near you here. Hopefully at home you can grab a Bible. We’re going to be going through the prologue in Mark 1 in a few minutes.

Bob Goff tells of a time when he and his wife, whom he calls “Sweet Maria,” were sitting on their back porch holding hands, looking out across their yard, across the path to the bay that they live on. They were watching couples walk along the path, when a young man began to wave at them awkwardly and continued waving to a point where Bob finally had to get up and meet him to find out what he was doing.

The young man said, “Hi, I’m Ryan, and I’m in love. I want to ask my girlfriend to marry me right here in your backyard in front of the bay. Is that possible?” Since Bob is always ready for action, he immediately said, “Oh, yes …  yes!” expressing joy in that possibility. And then Ryan kind of floated off.

Thus every couple of days, Ryan paced down the walkway, waited for Bob to come out to greet him, and ramped up the original request. The first time it was just, “Can I ask my girlfriend to marry me in this spot?” Then it was, “How about on your back porch eating dinner?” Bob responded, “Well, what can I make for you?”

The next time Ryan asked, “Can we dance afterwards? Can twenty of my friends serve us dinner? Do you have a boat?” Bob continued to accept each additional request: “Yes, I have a boat. It’s on the dock right there. I’ll even drive the boat. You two can be up front on the front deck, and you can ask your girlfriend to marry you.” And Ryan floated off once again. By this point, Bob was all in. So, he called the Coast Guard and planned his own surprise.

A few days later, Ryan and his girlfriend came walking down the pathway. Ryan suggested they go up to this porch. Ryan’s girlfriend was hesitant. “We don’t even know them.” True. But they went up on the porch, ate dinner served by twenty of their friends, danced afterward, and went out on the boat. As the sun set, more of Ryan’s friends stood on the shore with candles spelling out, “Will you marry me?” while Ryan got down on one knee and proposed.

And she said, “yes.” At that very moment, the Coast Guard, closing in with their fire boats, shot off their water cannons as the crowd on the shore cheered. It was quite the engagement!

Now, why do we love a story like that? Why do people want to be a part of something like that? People can’t help but smile at that story. Why? Well, part of it is what love does to a person. The audacity to go up to complete strangers and ask such huge requests can be motivated only by ridiculous amounts of love.

But, there’s something else. The other piece that fascinates me is the imagination — what it took for Ryan to see all of these things happening, to see the surprise on his girlfriend’s face before it was even on his girlfriend’s face, to see the unfolding of all these events before they happened. God has given us that gift. Animals don’t have that ability. Humans are made in the image of God. The Creator has created human beings in his image with the capacity to think about things before they actually happen, and then to carry out that plan.

I used to think that some of us are just naturally wonderless. Some people have extremely vivid imaginations, and some of us are a little more dense. I’ve come to realize that all of us have imaginations, but we manifest those imaginative abilities differently. For example, if you feel any kind of empathy, there’s a piece of imagination in there. To be thoughtful toward someone else requires you to get out of yourself and into their position. In one sense, narcissism is imagination turning completely inward. Narcissism is an inability to really think about someone else without thinking about yourself. We all have imaginative abilities. Anytime we are resourceful or creative or artistic or insightful, we reveal pieces of imagination in us.

Now, some of us also have way more imaginative abilities than we realize, primarily because a lot of our imaginative energies are so tied up in fear and anxiety that we act as if we don’t have imaginations. We imagine what could go wrong in the future. We relive in our minds in vivid detail where we failed in the past. We second-guess ourselves with a thousand mental scenarios, and we paint pictures of what others are thinking, whether they’re thinking what we’re thinking they’re thinking or not. All of that is imagination, but it’s just going to places that are not necessarily truthful or helpful.

And these musings can find confirmation in our fallen world. Yes, people do really hurtful things, and we are broken, and we live in a broken world. That kind of imagination can actually find examples in the real world and can lead us toward cynicism. Cynicism suffocates and strangles the life out of wonder.

Childlike wonder can quickly be viewed as childish, delusional, something I gave up long ago. I believe only what I see, and what I see is not worth believing. We become data-driven and unsurpriseable. And if there is a toxin that society could take to kill wonder, it seems like 2020 was a perfect recipe.

The gospel of Mark, however, is a workshop in wonder. We are being discipled in awe. People who came into contact with Jesus Christ were repeatedly astonished. It is impossible to truly look to Jesus and be bored. Let me say that again. It is impossible to truly look to Jesus and be bored.

Let me show you some examples. We don’t have time to do a complete study this morning of “amazement” in Mark. Look at chapter 1, verse 22, “They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority.” Verse 27, “And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority!’” Chapter 2, verse 12, “They were all amazed and glorified God.”

“Amazed” is such an interesting word. In Greek, it’s “existemi,” which means “to be beside oneself.” People were blown out of their minds to the glory of God. In chapter 3 Jesus is described as “out of his mind.” In chapter 16, verse 5,

“And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed.”

And by the way, that verb is used only in Mark. There are four uses, all four in Mark, two of them right here.

“And he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and [and here’s a different word for amazed] astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone.”

That’s a great translation. Literally, it means that they were “kidnapped by shock.” The women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome) were seized by shock. What English word do you think we get the Greek word “ekstasis” from? Ecstasy … not the drug.

They were ecstatic. They were kidnapped by surprise. This idea is all over Mark. And it’s so remarkable that the more common Greek word for surprise in the New Testament, “thaumazo,” is the word Mark uses the least. The rarer the word, the more often he uses it. So, even in the word choice, when talking about surprise, Mark is surprising. But more than that, he is surprising in the way he tells the story. Look back at chapter 1, verse 1:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

What a shocking way to begin! No Christmas story, no genealogy, no family history. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God.” Let me show you three surprising elements in this prologue to Mark, verses 1-15.

First, the good news of Jesus is promised, yet unpredictable. Promised. You’ll see that in verse 2 Mark quotes a combination of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3, defining John as the messenger who prepares the way of the Lord. And that sentence, “prepare the way of the Lord,” could be paraphrased “remove every obstruction on the highway of Yahweh,” God’s covenant name. So, God promised that everything that’s happening would happen. And it is happening. In that sense, it’s somewhat predictable.

It’s also unpredictable. Look at chapter 1, verse 4. John just appeared. If you had never read the Bible before, you would be saying, “Who’s John? And where did he come from?” John appeared. And he appeared out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere. He is the voice shouting, crying out in the midst of barrenness, the wilderness, harshness, promising the coming of God himself. Notice his ministry seems unpredictable in Mark 1:4, “Baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John’s baptism is a call: Come to the wilderness, come under the water, come out of the stagnation of social norms and personal sins for the forgiveness of sin.

His appearance (chapter 1, verse 6) is shocking. He’s “clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist.” Any Jew would be thinking about Elijah, a shocking Old Testament figure, who also wore a garment of hair and a belt of leather (2 Kings 1:8).

But Mark chapter 2, verse 7 says this about John: “He preached, saying, ‘After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” Whoa. Sandals? So, this coming one is just like any other person? He wears sandals, but he baptizes with the Spirit. He is human. He is divine. Everything that John says is surprising. His message is promised, yet unpredictable.

Secondly, the good news of Jesus is beautiful, yet brutal. John baptizes Jesus, who identifies with our sinful humanity, but is sinless. As Jesus emerged from the water in chapter 1, verse 10, Mark uses one of his favorite words, “immediately,” which he will use more than all the other gospel writers combined. And as Jesus came out of the water, he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him (literally “in” him) like a dove. That verb “torn open” is most likely going to make a hearer familiar with the Old Testament think of Isaiah 64:1: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.” “Rend” — “tear open” the heavens and come down.

The only other time we will see that verb in Mark is at the very end of Mark in chapter 15, verse 38, when Jesus died, and the veil of the temple was ripped open. God is revealing himself. And as the heavens are being torn open, a voice comes from heaven in verse 11, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” God the Father is quoting Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1 to express trinitarian love. Just imagine that scene — the Son comes out of the water, the Spirit comes down from above, the Father speaks love over his Son. There is no more beautiful scene in all of history. Ben Witherington writes of this,

“Israel was called by John to come out to the wilderness, turn from their sins, and so renew the covenant with God and thus renew their sonship status. Yet, ironically, it is Jesus who is portrayed as heeding this summons and receiving the assurance that he himself was God’s Son. Thus it appears that Mark wants us to see Jesus as being portrayed as true Israel here.”

All the promises are “yes” in Jesus. But we cannot stop here. We miss part of Mark’s message if we stop at the end of verse 11 because this gospel of Jesus is not only beautiful in these loving words from heaven, but it’s also brutal. In Mark 1:12, the one who is loved is led into the wilderness, the place of testing. Surrounded by wild beasts and demonic forces, Jesus experiences the full range of physical and spiritual temptations. There were angels, beautiful helpers. And there were animals, demonic forces, horrific temptations, spiritual attacks. Beautiful, yet brutal.

Third, the gospel of Jesus is joyful, yet jarring. The gospel of Jesus is surprising in the fact that it is joyful, yet jarring. And notice the jarring and the joyful occur together. In Mark chapter 1, verse 14, John is arrested. This is extremely jarring. Israel longed for a military messiah to vanquish Rome and free God’s people. And John, the one proclaiming and preparing the way for the messiah, is arrested! What kind of kingdom is this? It’s extremely, confusingly shocking!

And yet, as John is arrested, Jesus arrives. Mark wants us to feel the shock of both of these events. Jesus arrives, proclaiming the good news of God. The time is fulfilled. This is the decisive moment in history where God’s dominion, his kingdom, is drawing near. And notice that the core of the announcement is the shocking call that is both jarring and joyful.

Repent. “Repent and believe the good news.” Repent is jarring. You’ve got to turn around. You can’t go the way you’re going. You’ve got to stop thinking the way you’re thinking. You’ve got to start thinking a totally different way that leads to a completely different way of living. That’s jarring to any of us.

But it’s joyful because this good news is news that brings joy. The news that brings joy travels with a call to repent, to turn around, to turn from stifling, suffocating self-rule, to turn to the surprising kingdom of God.

On Christmas morning, our family read the un-Christmas Christmas story, Mark 1:1-15. And I asked my family, “Why no Christmas story? What was Mark thinking?” And we talked about a lot of very interesting possibilities because Mark doesn’t directly tell us. But we know that the book of Mark was most likely written in Rome around 66-67 A.D. Empire-wide persecution had not begun yet, but some persecution had. This is close to the time that Paul and Peter were martyred, and Christians were wrapped in skins of wild animals and thrown to the lions or the wild dogs. Imagine if Mark were not writing a biography of Jesus. Biography wasn’t his point, or he would have had a genealogy or some family background or stories of Jesus’s upbringing. Instead Mark is writing a Jesus journal, a Christological collage of key elements regarding who Jesus is, for a specific purpose, written to Christians who are wondering what it looks like to really be a follower of Jesus in the face of this antagonism.

And if that’s the case, imagine what it would have been like for these Christians to read Mark 1:1-15: “John appeared in the wilderness.” I feel like I’m in a wilderness. Society viewed him like a freak. He called the people to come out of their comfort zones into the wilderness to hear the Word of God. Does that resonate with anyone? He unsettled their schedules, shifted their norms, brought them out to the wilderness to hear from God. Jesus came with a message of repentance, the Jesus who was loved by his Father, yet led into the wilderness. What does that mean to you? Those of you who feel very much like when you’re in the wilderness, your Father no longer loves you. No, the one who had love spoken all over him was the same one who was led into the wilderness to be tested and tempted by Satan.

And notice, even the wild animals are mentioned. Why are they mentioned? John was arrested in verse 14. This is the same word that is used in Mark 9:31, 10:33, 14:41 of Jesus as he is delivered over to be killed. So, when it says John was arrested, it doesn’t mean he just spent a night in jail. It is proclaiming the fact that he’s probably going to be killed. Now, imagine what this would mean to Christians when they first heard this. Whatever my view of Jesus is, the reality is so much more surprising.

When I was in 7th grade, my friend’s house caught on fire and burned down. His family walked through the woods to my house in the middle of the night, and he came to my bedroom and tried to wake me up. I don’t think I do this normally, but for some strange reason, I began to incorporate his words into my dream. He began to shake me, saying, “My house burned down, Peter! My house burned down!” And I was dreaming of someone’s house burning down but was still sound asleep. Finally, I woke up and had to hear the bad news. Your house burned down? But then I also heard the good news. You all escaped! And the better news, which came later, God used this burning of the house to wake up this family spiritually. And over the next year, all six of them came to Christ. This was shortly after I had become a believer. It was right about the same time my mom became a Christian, and then shortly after that, my dad became a Christian. And one by one, the Lord was saving a bunch of us in that neighborhood.

Mark is like that wake-up call. Come out of your dream world and imagine reality. Yes, there is bad news: We’re in a wilderness with a real enemy who’s seeking to deceive and destroy, and our own heart condition is way worse than we could imagine.

But yes, there is good news: Jesus, the Son of God “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). However bad our condition, his love is so extravagant, it makes the audacious claims of Ryan — the Ryan I introduced to you at the beginning of the message — seem puny. This is the kind of love like none other.

So, one of our main prayers as we begin this journey in Mark is that Spirit will use Mark to awaken a faith-fueled imagination, to shock us out of our sleepy cynicism, our crusty bitterness and timidity, and to make us surpriseable. And I want to ask you to cry out for three things:

First, let’s pray for an honest, humble view of ourselves and the world. We need to take back imagination from the sci-fi world. I know that’s what we often think of. If somebody has a vivid imagination, they’re into sci-fi. Okay, that’s great, but it’s much more than that. Imagination is a gift from God. And the fact that you’re disconnected from reality doesn’t mean you have a better imagination; it just may mean it’s going off into areas that are not helpful. Mark helps us expand a true imagination, a faith-fueled imagination, by giving us an honest, humble view of ourselves and the world we live in.

The whole book of Mark turns on the disciples. Mark exposes their blindness from the beginning of the book to the end. But as the book goes along, their eyes are opened, and they begin to see themselves and Jesus rightly. The first half of the Mark, chapters 1-8, is about who Jesus really is; the second half, chapters 8-16, is about what Jesus does in giving his life on the cross. The whole book moves in the direction of waking up to the way things really are.

Secondly, let’s pray for an increase in faith-fueled wonder. Wonderlessness is one of the primary ingredients of hopelessness. And the shortest route to wonderlessness is allowing our faith to turn in on itself. When we find confidence in our ability to figure things out on our own, we will either move up toward delusional encouragement (that’s not based in reality)  or down toward debilitating discouragement. It is only when we truly look to Christ that we begin to receive a renewed mind, a sanctified imagination.

Last, let’s pray for a release of creative capacity. Many of us feel weighed down, overloaded with what-if’s, if-only’s, should-be’s, and could-be’s. Let me say that again: Many of us feel weighed down, overloaded with what-if’s, if-only’s, should-be’s, and could-be’s. And it’s not just many of us … the Spirit of God is opening my eyes to how much I am weighed down with these things.

We only have a limited amount of mental bandwidth. And how much of that mental bandwidth are we tying up with hypothetical fears and anxious possibilities? What might happen to us in the future? What happened in the past? If you have a steady flow of news media, then chances are the wonder is being sucked out of your soul.

If our creative capacity is spent on fearful things that we imagine will happen or on things we wish were different or on things we suppose that people are thinking or doing — whether they’re thinking or doing those things or not — we are suffocating our imagination. We will become predictable, irritable, prickly, and defensive. We will lose the ability to laugh at ourselves, which, by the way, takes a bit of an imagination.

C.S. Lewis has been described as having an “omnivorous attentiveness,” an insatiable hunger to see what most people miss in the midst of the mundane — whether it’s a sunset or your neighbor’s face, whether it’s something familiar, something difficult, or something divine. And the only way we are going to be set free to truly flourish in faith-fueled imagination and then in creative capacity, is if our eyes are on Jesus Christ.

We cannot look to Jesus and be bored. It’s impossible. No one’s done it. If we think we’ve looked to Jesus and we’re still bored, we don’t get it. Jesus sets us free from our own stifling bondage to his transforming freedom. Look at 2 Corinthians 3:17:

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [Freedom to live, love, ask really big questions like Ryan did, trust, wonder…] And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

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