On Wednesdays, after lunch, we have a Zoom call, me and Lynn and Lynne, intending to explore the Gospel of Mark together, following a study guide. We agreed, when we started this, that each session would probably last about 40 minutes, so there was no need to pay for the full Zoom – which would give us as long as we liked in each meeting. Week one, we had a break at forty minutes and finally managed to get back on together. Week two, the same break but this time we all got back to the meeting a little bit quicker. On week three I realised this was going to continue and maybe even get more disjointed, so I paid up. That week our meeting lasted 2 hours ( but on the good side we got half way through the planned lesson)
We are so studious, eh?
Well, yes, but mostly no. We spoke of cakes and bread, and family, and chickens, and covid (of course!) and prayer and vegetables and incubating eggs and – oh yes, the Gospel of Mark. The lives of Lynn and Lynne are very very unlike mine; they have real live husbands, and gardens, and chickens, and they grow green stuff and eat it, and they talk about sourdough (Lynne is good at it, Lynn is not) while I have no husband, no garden, and quite like eating weetabix and doughnuts (not together. Although….) . They’re simply lovely. I feel as if I am in a Lake Wobegon story as I listen to them skipping back and forth, their images freezing a bit now, wavering a bit now, and then back with us, peering up Lynn’s nose, seeing Lynne’s husband wandering past in the background, Lynn’s grandson gesturing for a cup of tea. I am largely a spectator to this domestic stuff but I love listening, just as I love reading Garrison Keillor’s gentle stories as I wait for sleep to come along.
So, that was week 7 of lockdown, a quiet week in Lake Whereweare. Lynn and Lynne on Zoom. Coffee and cake on a delivery run. Sermons on youtube. A few texts. A couple of emails. A lovely surprise delivery. A quiet week. Silence and loneliness and long long days enough to drive you mad if you let them. I nearly let them. I so nearly let them. Dark thoughts, lost thoughts, a bit of despair. You know, a few minutes.
The Gospel of Mark is really interesting. In that first study, three weeks ago, when our homework had been only to read the first chapter at least three times, we each gave our reactions. We hadn’t read any commentaries, we had just read it. My immediate reaction was that this first chapter read like the opening of a drama. As a screenwriter and playwright I’m familiar with the need to set the whole story up, engage the audience and make them care right from the very first image. TV is merciless. TV producers are brutal. Set it up, set it up, set it up! And that’s a big ask, when the writer is also wanting to deliver shade and light, tone and texture and character. But Mark does it! Mark absolutely does it. Mark, as the screen writer with Jesus as the action hero. Fabulous.
In that first chapter, listen, we open with the prophecy about Jesus, so we know who he is even before he steps into shot… there’s John the Baptist, a strangely dressed, wild figure, waist high in the River Jordan… there are the reeds and the bushes at the rivers edge, there are the crowds, jostling to be washed clean (but not clean enough) … we see all that in 20 seconds.
John speaks, the crowd listens, another twenty seconds… and behind him, maybe out of focus but drawing near, Jesus is already approaching…. John speaks of the Holy Spirit. Right then, before Jesus arrives, John speaks of the Holy Spirit.
As Jesus nears, John sharpens, focuses… heads turn to see who he’s looking at.
Cut to Jesus entering the water…. 20 seconds…
Underwater shot, swirling water, cut to a startling close-up, Jesus coming up, breaking the surface of the water, as the sky is ripped apart, and a voice “You are my Son, whom I love”
Wow, what a set-up. A minute. At the most.
And then the rest of this short chapter? Wild animals, mysticism, John imprisoned (later to be beheaded, do we hint at that, do we allow the menace to creep in?) , Jesus proclaims “The time has come”, he gathers his first followers, dazzles the accepted authorities of the time, heals the mad and the sick, takes his message all over Galilee, is mobbed and pursued and driven into the hills for prayer and peace.
Oh, man, I want to write that film.
But the wonder of it, the reason my eyes tear up when I think about it properly, is that in that short chapter of just 840 words, we see so very much of the mystery and the wonder of God. And the more I look into that simple action packed sequence of amazing scenes, the more profundity I see. Take a tiny phrase from the very first dialogue in our film;
‘but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’
It’s so easy to skim over these words. We are so familiar with the concept of the Holy Spirit, and looking back we see Pentecost, we know the work of the Holy Spirit, those of us who are Christians know his presence daily… but listen, listen, the Holy Spirit was a strange concept to John and to his followers, crowded there on the banks of the river. Why did he use those words when the concept of the Holy Spirit was barely known? He’s mentioned only 3 times in the Old Testament – Genesis 1, Psalm 51, and Isaiah 63:10.
Why did John the Baptist – how did John the Baptist – talk to the crowd about the Holy Spirit? And then, then, listen, right then, the sky split open and God spoke and ‘the Spirit descended on him like a dove’. The timing blows my mind.
Do you think that maybe the Gospel writer Mark was bunging stuff in to validate his beliefs, to somehow twist the truth and pre-empt and ‘justify’ the claims he was making about Jesus? Rewriting rather than recording? No, he wasn’t doing that. Mark wrote this gospel about 40 years after Jesus’ death. I remember clearly what was going on 40 years ago, and everyone I knew then will have their own memories. I have recently written my autobiography and I know that old friends and acquaintances will recognise the events I wrote about and will soon yelp and protest if I have made up any of them. Mark was writing a history, not a story. A true drama, not a fiction. If it had been a fiction it would have been ripped to pieces by his contemporaries and enemies.
So, there we are, for thousands of years, in our sacred writings, there are only three mentions of the Spirit of God. They are passing mentions. There is no devotion or commitment to the concept. When Jesus walks into the scene, the sky splits open, the Spirit comes down, and God speaks. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, there in our very first scene.
It blows my tiny mind.
Yes, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Whereweare, but there’s a raucous celebration going on in my heart.