Texts: 1 Samuel chapters 1 and 2 (the miraculous conception of Samuel); Mark 13:1-8 (the destruction of the Temple)
Why do we read one or more passage from the Bible every week? Should we continue to do so? And how and why do we give authority to the books of the Bible? These are some of the questions I touch on today.
The title of this sermon, “Farewell Mark . . . Hello Luke,” refers to the fact that with the start of Advent and a new church year on November 29, we will 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 our weekly Bible readings will include a passage from Mark until December 2017. And like the first reading from Mark twelve months ago on the first Sunday in Advent on November 30th 2014, the last one for this church year also comes from Mark’s apocalyptic 13th chapter.
Here at Mill Woods United, we follow a three-year biblical reading list called The Revised Common Lectionary. It has been used by many denominations, including the United Church of Canada, for the past 30 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 community.
But today, most churches follow a reading list. This helps us read 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. John is added to Year B 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 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, it 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 choose one or two of these four readings, with a bias towards the Gospel selection, and I take a few liberties with the suggestions to fit other purposes.
This three-year cycle leaves out a lot of the Bible — small bits of the Gospels, a few passages from the letters of Paul and the other letter writers, 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 that we and many other churches follow has its roots in the Vatican II Council of the Roman Catholic Church of the 1960s. The widespread use of this list has led to a greater emphasis on the seasons of the church year and new resources for worship leaders. It also means that with our reading today, we say goodbye to Mark for two years.
Eight years ago this Fall, a New Testament course in which I was a student also made a switch from Mark to Luke. In the first half of the course, we had focused 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 by giving his response to Luke. He told us that he didn’t much like it!
I was surprised by this. How could a seminary professor, an ordained minister in the Lutheran church, and the teacher of future United and Presbyterian ministers say something negative about Luke, one of the four Gospels upon which so much of our faith and tradition are based?
Eventually I came to understand the professor’s viewpoint. He objected to how Luke smooths off the rough edges in the stories of Jesus found in Mark.
This course on the Gospels did not change my own response to Luke. But I appreciated the teacher’s 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 now offer a bit more about what we learned about the four gospels.
Scholars think that the first one to be written is Mark, probably in the year 70. The key reason for this hypothesis is the passage we just read from Mark about the destruction of the Temple. Jesus is thought to have died in the Year 30, but the Holy City of Jerusalem and YHWH’s Temple were not destroyed by the Romans until the Year 70. Scholars believe it was the shock of the destruction of the Temple that motivated Mark to write his narrative of Jesus, one that paradoxically located the good news of resurrection in the execution of Jesus.
Matthew and Luke are thought to have been written about 10-20 years later, and both of them copy Mark, often word for word. Commentators make a big deal when Matthew 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 those found in the Sermon on the Mount. Each one also adds some unique material.
John comes last, about the year 100, and while John may have had one of the first three gospels in front of him when he wrote, he tells a quite different story from the first three.
This set of ideas about the gospels explains why so much of Mark is repeated in Matthew and Luke and why John is so different.
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 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 needs of this community in relationship to the Gospel of Luke during the new church year, which we begin in two weeks.
When discussing biblical scholarship, it is also helpful for someone like me who loves intellectual puzzles 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 briefly to today’s readings from First Samuel that tell of Hannah and the miraculous conception of her son Samuel. Like much of the Old Testament, there is a lot in this story I don’t like.
The story assumes that Hannah’s infertility is the result of YHWH’s action. It assumes that her desperate prayers for a son lead YHWH to reverse this action. And it assumes that it is a good thing that Hannah hands over the infant Samuel to the priest Eli at Shiloh to be his servant.
One way to tackle the distaste I feel towards biblical stories like this is to treat them as dreams. Obviously, YHWH does not decide that a woman will be infertile but then magically allows her to conceive based upon prayer. Obviously the anonymous authors of First Samuel have no idea if Hannah sang a song after handing her son over to Eli as his servant. Perhaps interpreting it as a dream would quiet my distaste for the details and open me to new spiritual insights.
Something similar might be useful for the stories of Jesus in the four Gospels. I have been captured by these stories less for their details than for the overall arc of death and resurrection they present. This arc reminds me of how often I mistake an idol for God and how a new life closer to the heart of God’s Love can arise from death.
Remembering the arc of death and resurrection can help us accept God’s Grace to reshape or discard any human tradition, including the books of the Bible themselves. In this way, the resurrection of Jesus points beyond the Bible. Shaped by the stories of Jesus, nothing need stand between us and the Holy Mystery we call God – including the Bible itself.
So as we end one church year next week and start a new one in two weeks, I pray that we approach the stories of Jesus — whether found in Matthew, Mark, Luke 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 and work. And with God’s help, may we do all this on Christ’s revolutionary path of faith, hope and love.
Thanks be to God.