Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were teammates on the great New York Yankee teams of the 1920’s and 30’s. Both were superstars, two of the greatest hitters who ever played the game. They took turns leading the league in home runs and batting average, as they led their team to one World Championship after another.
The two men made a great pair on the ball field, and they got along well. But apart from baseball, they were as different as two men could be. Ruth was outgoing, Gehrig was bashful. Ruth would party as hard as he played, drank way too much, and needed to be around people and action all the time. Gehrig did not smoke or drink, did not like to go out, and kept to himself. Ruth was loud and arrogant, Gehrig was quiet and humble, never saying any more than he had to. They had completely different personalities.
The disciple Peter and the early apostle Mark were also very different, and, also made a good team. It is believed that Mark, who was not one of the twelve disciples, wrote his Gospel along with the eyewitness Peter, Jesus’s hand-picked leader of the disciples. Peter, being a fisherman by trade, was probably illiterate and needed a writer.
The little bit we know about Mark is from the Gospel of Acts, where he comes off as undependable and perhaps weak. The only place Mark is recorded as doing anything is in Acts chapter 15, where it says he deserted Paul and Barnabas on one of their missionary journeys. Perhaps because he found the work too difficult, but we are not told the details. But for whatever reason, Paul made it clear he did not want to work with Mark anymore.
Peter, on the other hand, was bold, always the first to speak, always eager to jump in on anything. Once he pulled out a knife and wounded a man in an attempt to defend Jesus. Another time, when he saw Jesus walking on the water in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, he got out into the water to attempt to do the same. He sunk, and had to be rescued by Jesus; but one has to admire the courage needed to make the effort. Peter would try anything, and always had something to say, though oftentimes he stuck his foot in his mouth. Yet, unlike Paul, Peter was willing to work with Mark.
Peter, like Babe Ruth, was a big talker. Mark was like Lou Gehrig, saying no more than he had to. His Gospel is the briefest of the four, often telling the story with a minimum of words. One can imagine Peter, going on and on, describing to Mark the stories from the life of Jesus in the most elaborate detail with much colorful commentary; and then Mark, editing our all but the basic facts.
Take for example the way Mark begins his Gospel. He simply says, “The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That’s not much of an opening. There is little preparation for what is to come. There are no angelic pronouncements, no prophecies, and no virgin birth, as in Luke. There are no Wise Men from the East and no explanations in dreams, as in Matthew. And there is no deep theological prelude like we have in John. Just, “This is the beginning of the story of Jesus.”
The account begin in the middle of the story. Jesus is already an adult, and has already lived ninety percent of his earthly life. Those who know the Scriptures will be able to pick up on the clues that Mark gives along the way. But everyone else will have to depend much on the fuller accounts written later by Matthew, Luke, and John.
Mark is more subtle than the others, and his first subtle clue is John the Baptist. Whereas the other Gospel writers would give John more lines, and explain more fully who he was, Mark would give him just one spoken line, two verses long, and offer a brief description of the man. John, said Mark, lived in the wilderness, wore clothing made of camel’s hair, and ate locust and wild honey. To someone who knew the Old Testament Scriptures that would sound like Elijah the one who would appear again just before the Messiah returned. That would be the first clue, and in case anyone missed that, Mark also quoted Isaiah chapter 40:3, about the voice calling in the wilderness (where John lived), to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
Mark’s one line summary of John’s message is in Mark 1:7-8: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Mark wastes no words, and in the very next verse tells us that John baptized Jesus. The story tells us no more about John, nor does John speak at baptism. Mark simply tells us that it was John who baptized Jesus. The focus has already shifted to Jesus, but again, Mark’s few words leaves us with questions. We might wonder, for example, why Jesus even had to be baptized since John’s baptism is for the forgiveness of sins (verse five).
But the man of few words gives no explanation, instead moving right on to the next unexplained event in the story. Right after Jesus came up out of the water a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Someone reading the story for the first time, only ten verses into it, would wonder what that is all about. But again, no explanation, just on again to the next story, the account of the temptation in the wilderness, as Mark’s fast paced, sparsely told story, continues.
But Mark’s low-key way of telling the story is consistent with the low-key way that the Son of God chose to make his appearance on earth. The setting seems all wrong. Here is this man, destined to be the most influential person to ever live, not to mention being the Son of the Almighty God; and he begins his ministry standing in line with a bunch of sinners, waiting to receive a spiritual cleansing. If he is this all-powerful, long awaited Messiah, what is he doing there?
By offering no explanation, Mark challenges those who think they know what to expect from God. God, in Christ Jesus, will surprise and challenge everyone throughout his ministry in the Gospel of Mark. Those who are most confident in what they think they know about God, are the very ones who will be surprised and challenged the most. And just because we are familiar with the story, we must not think we have it all figured out. God continues to surprise and challenge everyone. After all, this is God we are talking about and we should not be surprised if we never do get it all figured out.
So Mark continues on, telling the story, apparently feeling no need to offer any explanations along the way. And even if that was not the way Peter told it, that was, it seems, the way Peter was forced to live it. Jesus went through his whole ministry often raising more questions than he answered, and creating more misunderstandings than he clarified. The disciples were often getting it all wrong, but they knew that they were in the presence of someone who, though they could not always understand him, was here to change everything.
After one particularly difficult time, when many of his followers were objecting to Jesus and leaving him, Jesus asked his disciples if they also would be leaving. Again, it was Peter who spoke for the group, this time getting it exactly right, saying “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:66-69).
And of course, where else would you go for that? That much, they all did understand, and that would keep them close.