The Undercover Messiah

Last week, I talked about the importance of developing a sense of awe and wonder as it relates to who God is and what God has done.  This morning, I want to begin a sermon series that I hope will create that same sense of awe and wonder as we look at the life of Jesus.  As I said last week, it’s so easy for us to read about Jesus in a casual way that doesn’t give it much thought – Jesus healed a man, Jesus walked on water, Jesus raised a man from the dead, it’s all pretty normal stuff because we’ve heard it so many times.

            But if we truly are the body of Christ and we want people around us to see Christ living in us, then we need to develop a greater appreciation for who Christ is.

I have a good friend who was in graduate school many years ago.  This school had invited a well-known preacher from a congregation of over 1000 members.  He was asked to say a few words to the class about how to get churches to grow.  This preacher suggested that all of history can be understood in terms of a few great men.  These men have such magnetism and charisma and influence, that they were able to shape their whole time period in history. 

They say, for example, that John F. Kennedy was such a man, that when he walked into a room, a magnetism radiated from him so that every head in the room would turn and take note of his presence even without him speaking a word.  The same could probably be said of other great world leaders.

But – getting back to the story – this preacher suggested that great movements have always been built around great personalities, and therefore great churches need to be built around a great man.  Then he went on to say that the minister is the person that churches need to be built around.  One of the students in the room quietly said something that all of them were thinking, “Why don’t we just build the church around Jesus?” 

Now I don’t dispute the importance of good leaders in the church – including the preacher – but a church that is built around anyone other than Jesus Christ is eventually going to fail.  The church must be centered in Christ. 

            And so, for the next several months, I want us to focus our attention on Christ.  We’re going to see how he lived, how he dealt with people, how he taught, how he reacted to problems.  And as we look at Jesus, I want us to try to figure out what we can do to build this church around him, to make this church look more and more like Jesus.  In just a moment, we’re going to begin a journey into the gospel of Mark. 

            But first, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there has been a lot of interest lately in putting superheroes on the big screen.  We’ve had movies about Spiderman, Captain America, Hulk and the Black Panther.  And of course, we can’t forget that Superman and Batman have been around for decades.  I grew up with many of those superheroes, back in the day when comic books were 10 cents apiece, and you could actually afford to collect them. 

            And I liked a lot of different superheroes, but it really didn’t matter which character it was because the storyline was always pretty much the same.  Somebody would get into trouble and the superhero would suddenly appear, perform some incredible feat of strength and save the day.  

            But the one thing that I never quite understood was the way they all conducted their lives in complete secrecy.  Many of them wore masks.  Everywhere they went, they left people wondering – “Who was that man?”  And I’ve always thought, “Are people so stupid they can’t recognize Superman when he puts on a pair of glasses?”  Be honest – would you have trouble recognizing me if I did this? (I’d have trouble recognizing you!)

            But, on a deeper level, I’ve often wondered why all the superheroes wanted to be anonymous in the first place.  They were all so very secretive.  I mean, if I were a superhero, I would leave a calling card and say, “Hey, if you ever get into any trouble, just give me a call!”  But no, they always felt it was important to leave people wondering: “Just who was that masked man?”

            I say all that to make the point that Jesus was also someone who left people wondering who he was.  It wasn’t that he had some alter-ego where he was Christ when he wore a special cape, and he was just plain Jesus when he didn’t.  And it wasn’t really the case that Jesus tried to hide who he was.

            But Jesus amazed people with what he was able to do and with the things that he said.  And then when he left town, I think there were a lot of people who asked each other the question, “Just who was that man?” 

As we begin our look this morning at Mark’s story of the life of Jesus, we find Mark telling us from the very start who Jesus was.  He doesn’t beat around the bush one bit.  His gospel begins with these words – “This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1, NLT). 

Mark wants us to know before we read anything else that Jesus is the promised Messiah, and he is the Son of God.  But as Mark’s story unfolds, we’re going to find that Jesus often tried to keep his identity a secret which seems to be a rather curious thing to do.

But there was no doubt about who Jesus really was.  In Mark’s gospel, we find numerous witnesses to the identity of Jesus.  For example, there were demons who bore witness to Jesus.  In chapter 1, a demon-possessed man says, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”(Mark 1:24)  In chapter 5, another demon-possessed man cries out, “What have I to do with you, Jesus, Son of the Most High?” (Mark 5:7)  The demons knew who Jesus was.  They knew that he was indeed Christ, the Son of the living God.

After a while in Mark’s gospel, the disciples will eventually come to understand that for themselves.  For example, there is Peter’s confession in chapter 8.  After Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you think I am?”, Peter replied, “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:29)

And even Jesus, toward the end of Mark’s gospel, bears witness to his own identity.  When the high priest asked him the question, “Are you the Christ?”(Mark 14:61), Jesus answered in the affirmative and said, “I am.”

            And so, from the very outset, Mark wants to make sure that we, the readers, know who Jesus is.  “This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1, NLT).   

            There’s a story that’s told about the great scientist Albert Einstein.  As the story goes, he was walking in front of a hotel and he was mistaken for a bell boy by a wealthy lady who had just pulled up.  She ordered Einstein to carry her luggage into the hotel, and, according to the story, he did it.  He received a small tip, and then he continued on his way to his office to ponder the mysteries of the universe.

            Whether that story is true or not, it’s a charming story, because we know who Albert Einstein is at the very outset of the story.  We know something that lady didn’t know – that that strange-looking man with the wild hair was one of the greatest intellects of our time.

            And that’s the way it is in the gospel of Mark.  If you don’t know who Jesus is, then a lot of what happens in this gospel isn’t going to make much sense to you.  So, while it would take some people – including the disciples – a long time to catch on to who Jesus really was, Mark wants us to know his identity from the very beginning.  “This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1, NLT).  

            Mark not only makes that statement, but then he backs it up with evidence.  Right off the bat, he’s going to present three witnesses who can testify to the identity of Jesus:

First of all, in verses 2-8, there was John the Baptist.  The purpose of John the Baptist was to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3).  His message in verse 7 was this: “Someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals.” (Mark 1:7, NLT)

Then, in verses 9-11, Mark tells us that after Jesus was baptized, God gave his affirmation of who Jesus was.  The heavens opened, the Spirit descended and God said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)

Then, in verses 12 and 13, even Satan bears witness to who Jesus is.  Satan comes to Jesus in the desert to tempt Him.  Now, Matthew will fill in all the details of those temptations, but it’s obvious that even Satan understood who Jesus was. 

            Mark doesn’t want his readers to miss the point that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus is the Son of God.  But the great mystery in this gospel is that, immediately after Mark goes to all this trouble to identify Jesus as the Christ, he spends the next ten chapters telling us how Jesus tried to keep his identity a secret.  It is as if, right after Mark introduces Jesus as the promised Messiah, Jesus puts on his sunglasses and goes undercover.

            I heard about the boss of a big company who needed to call one of his employees about an urgent problem.  He dialed the employee’s home phone number and was greeted with a child whispering, “Hello?”

            The boss asked, “Is your Daddy home?”  He whispered, “Yes.”

            “May I talk with him?”  The little boy said, “No.”

            The boss really wanted to talk with an adult, so he asked, “Is your Mommy there?”   “Yes.” “May I talk with her?”  “No.”

            The boss knew that this child wasn’t home all by himself, so he said, “Is there anyone there besides you?”  The little boy said, “Yes, a policeman.”

            Wondering what a police officer would be doing there, the boss asked the child, “May I speak with the policeman?”  “No, he’s busy.”  “Busy doing what?”  “Talking to Daddy and Mommy and the fireman.”

            At this point, the boss was getting a little bit concerned and got even more worried when he heard a loud noise through the phone and he asked, “What was that noise?”

            The child said, “A hello-copper.”  At this point, the boss was quite alarmed.  He said, “What is going on there?”

            The child said, “The search team just landed the hello-copper!”

            By this point, the boss was concerned and frustrated, and he asked the child, “Why are they there?”

            Still whispering, the young voice replied with a giggle, “They’re looking for me!”

            I want to suggest to you that something similar is going on in the gospel of Mark.  Because all through the first ten chapters of this gospel, Jesus is going to tell people to keep his identity a secret.  We even find a couple of examples in the first chapter:

In verse 25, when a demon plainly identifies Jesus as “the Holy One of God”, Jesus tells the demon to “Be quiet!” (Mark 1:25)

In verse 34, Mark tells us that Jesus continued to drive out many demons.  And again, he tells us that Jesus “did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew him.”  (Mark 1:34)

The same thing happens again in chapter 3 (3:11-12).  The demons knew who Jesus was, but Jesus strictly forbade them to tell anyone.  He didn’t want his identity to be revealed.

In chapter 1, Jesus healed a man of the dreaded disease of leprosy.  After the man is cured, Jesus tells him to “say nothing to anyone”. (Mark 1:43)

And that continues all throughout this gospel.  Time and time again. Jesus heals somebody and then he tries to keep the healing a secret.  Time and time again, somebody witnesses a miraculous and powerful evidence of the identity of Jesus Christ, but they’re instructed not to tell anyone.  Notice a few examples:

There’s the raising of Jarius’ daughter from the dead in chapter 5.  “[Jesus and his disciples] came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly… But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. And he strictly charged them that no one should know this.”(Mark 5:38, 40-43)

Don’t you know that had to be a difficult command to obey?  Jesus raises your daughter back from the dead and then he says, “Don’t say anything about this to anybody.”  I don’t know about you, bit I’d have a hard time keeping that to myself.

            Then there’s the healing of the deaf and dumb man in chapter 7.  “They brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue…And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And Jesus charged them to tell no one.”(Mark 7:32-33, 35-36).  

            Then there’s the healing of the blind man in chapter 8. “And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him…Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.” (Mark 8:22-23, 25-26).  

It’s curious enough that Jesus didn’t want these people who had seen his miracles to say anything.  But it’s even more surprising that Jesus told his own disciples not to tell people who he was!

There’s Peter’s confession in chapter 8.  “[Jesus] asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:27-30)

And you would expect at this point that Jesus would say, “That’s it!  You’re right!  Now get out there and share that with everyone you meet.  Tell them all that I am the Christ.  Tell them that I am the Son of God.  Let’s get the word out!”  But no, the very next verse says, “And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.”

            In the next chapter, it happens again.  After the transfiguration, Jesus “charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” (Mark 9:9).

            Time and time again, Jesus tried to keep his identity a secret.   It happens much too often in this gospel to be accidental.  In the first two-thirds of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is the undercover Messiah.

Now the question that raises is this:  Why?  Why would Jesus want to keep his identity a secret?  It’s not because he didn’t believe that he was the Messiah.  And it wasn’t because he was modest and just didn’t want people talking about him.  It has been suggested that maybe it was because Jesus wanted to avoid controversy with the Jewish leaders and thus prolong his life.  And that may have been a part of it.  But I’d like to suggest that one of the reasons Jesus didn’t want anything to be said is because the Jews were so confused about what the Messiah was all about.

You see, being the Messiah meant something different to Jesus than it did to his disciples and the other Jews.  The image of the Messiah as a military and political leader was very much ingrained in Jewish thinking.  They were convinced that the Messiah would lead an uprising that would push the Roman armies into the Mediterranean Sea, and then restore the great kingdom of David.  The Jews saw the Messiah as a political liberator, a king who would lead their nation back to glory.

And so, during the lifetime of Jesus, revolt was in the air.  Everywhere you turned, there were men claiming to be the Messiah leading rebellions.  I’ve read that Jewish historians recorded at least 64 different people who claimed to be the Messiah.

And every Jew waited for God to do what Isaiah had prophesied, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2).  But let’s be honest.  When Jesus showed up, the mountains didn’t shake and the nations didn’t tremble. 

Jesus didn’t even come close to meeting the expectations of the Jews.  Because while the Jews were looking for a Messiah, they were looking for a certain kind of messiah, someone who fit their notion about what a “Messiah” should be like.

And Jesus wasn’t that kind of Messiah.  He didn’t want to be understood in those terms.  And he made it clear that he came to be a Messiah of a completely different sort.

Instead of being a conqueror, Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”(Mark 10:43-45)

And it was not until Jesus began his march to the cross that he began to be identified publicly with the title of Messiah.  Now, that’s who he was; Mark makes that clear from the very beginning.  But it was the cross that defined what being the Messiah was all about.  And so, Jesus didn’t want people to view him as the Messiah until they first understood what it meant to be the Messiah.

You see, the real secret in this gospel is not that Jesus was the Messiah.  Rather, the secret was what it really meant to be the Messiah.  The Messiah would be Isaiah’s suffering servant who would meekly place his neck on the chopping block to die as a ransom for others.  The Messiah would serve others rather than being served.  Instead of being a leader who kill his enemies, the Messiah would willingly die for his enemies.

Now what does any of this have to do with us?  I think it has a lot to do with us, because it’s so easy for us to misunderstand Christ, to have a false concept of him.

We’ve all got this physical image of Jesus in our minds and in our Sunday School lessons that can’t be even close to reality – and yet we continue to picture Jesus with long, flowing hair, his face thin and handsome, his skin milky white.  Philip Yancey once describes this image as “a Mister Rogers before the age of television.”

But I think our misconceptions go beyond the physical appearance.  To some people, Jesus is the means to a successful and wealthy life.  He wants his followers to be rich and successful, and serving him is the way to get there.  Their Jesus is the one who will help them get the Lexus, the house up on the hill, and financial security.

Others want to see Jesus as an American patriot.  This is his nation and Jesus wants this country to succeed more any other country in the world.  Still others picture Jesus as a literal king on a literal throne in the literal city of Jerusalem.

But, can we just put aside all our misconceptions and allow Jesus to define himself for us?  Can we put aside our misconceptions of what it means to be a “Messiah” and a “King” long enough to allow Jesus, here in the gospel of Mark, to describe what kind of Messiah he really is?   

Because once we do that, I think we’ll discover that Mark portrays a Messiah far different from the one most people envision.  He tells us about a Messiah who wanted to be a servant, a Messiah who was willing to suffer.  

Jesus’ followers had to give up their Messianic misconceptions in order to understand who Jesus really was and what it really meant for him to be Messiah.  And we have to do the same thing.  So, my question for you is this – are you willing to let Jesus define for you who he is?  

Philip Yancey has written these words:  “The more I studied Jesus, the more difficult it became to pigeonhole him. He said little about the Roman occupation, the main topic of conversation among his countrymen, and yet he took up a whip to drive petty profiteers from the Jewish temple. He urged obedience to the Mosaic law while acquiring the reputation is a lawbreaker. He could be stabbed by sympathy for a stranger, yet turn on his best friend with the rebuke, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’  He had uncompromising views on rich men and loose women, yet both types enjoyed his company.  His extravagant claims about himself kept him at the center of controversy, but when he did something truly miraculous, he tended to hush it up….Two words one could never think of applying to the Jesus of the Gospels: boring and predictable.”

Again — Are we willing to let Jesus define for us who he is?  Furthermore, are we willing to let Jesus define for us who we ought to be?  Will we allow ourselves to be open to new understandings of what discipleship is all about?  Because I’ll warn you right now.  Mark intends to define “discipleship” in a way that is very different from our common expectations.  And as we explore the gospel of Mark in the weeks ahead, we’ll talk about those differences.

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