Sunday, February 11, 2024

Sermon: “A Mountaintop View of Mark’s Gospel”, Mark 8:27-9:8 (February 11, 2024)

When we refer to a “mountaintop experience”, we generally mean any moment of revelation or transcendence, regardless of where it actually takes place. It’s a solid metaphor; after all, a mountaintop is both literally and figuratively far above the monotony of everyday life, where the air is fresh and the view is clear – ideal conditions for an epiphany. It’s no wonder that so many important biblical moments take place on top of a mountain: Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of Isaac, Moses’ encounter with the burning bush and receiving of the Ten Commandments, and of course, Jesus’ transfiguration. It’s hard NOT to gain new perspective on top of a mountain. It’s the sort of place where the heavens and the earth meet, where we can see and understand the divine in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

So, in honor of Transfiguration Sunday, before we dive into the nitty-gritty of Mark’s gospel during Lent, let’s take this opportunity to look at the bigger picture of the narrative – to see the “mountaintop view” of Mark, if you will. Just as was the case for Peter, James, and John in the scripture reading, not only will it help us to see and understand Christ more clearly, but it will also give us a better idea of “what we’re getting into” before we actually get into it. So let’s get started!

Mark is one of the “Synoptic Gospels”, along with Matthew and Luke. They’re grouped together in this way because unlike John’s gospel, these three books are very similar in content, scope, sequence, and even wording. They largely use the same stories to share the gospel in different ways to different audiences: Matthew, to those in the Jewish community; Mark, to Gentiles from the perspective of the Jewish community (likely Gentiles who were Jewish converts); and Luke, to Gentiles in their own context. Matthew and Luke seem to have used Mark’s gospel as a starting point for their own, each of them including stories that they independently felt were important as well as adding in stories from an additional unknown source. At the end of the day, 97% of Mark’s content is repeated in one way or another in either Luke, Matthew, or both gospels.[1] This (understandably) leads to a LOT of conflating the three gospels, but the truth is that they’re all still very different.

Since the vast majority of Mark’s gospel is “remixed” in Matthew and Luke, we might be tempted to think that its inclusion in the biblical canon is unnecessary – since everything in it is covered in the other Synoptics, we don’t need it. After all, it’s the shortest of the four gospels, and it leaves out a LOT of what we might consider “important details about Jesus’ life. Most notably, it excludes any sort of birth narrative altogether, and original versions of the text lacked any information about what happened post-resurrection (more on that later).

But this is actually what makes Mark such a valuable gospel. Not only does it help us to understand what sorts of stories were most important to some of the earliest Christians, but it’s an opportunity for us to think more theologically, rather than leaning on the details of the story to inform our faith. Mark is the “read between the lines” gospel, the one that only includes the broadest strokes of the story so that you have to figure out what it all means for yourself. The very first sentence Mark writes tells us that this gospel is “…the BEGINNING of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Not “a comprehensive summary of the good news,” not “the WHOLE good news,” but “the beginning of the good news.” Mark recognizes that Jesus’ life on earth was only one part of God’s story – a vital, but ultimately very small part – and he invites us to continue discovering more parts of it, both unspoken in the text and within our own lives.

Because of its brevity and succinctness, Mark is also known for being a fast-paced gospel. Things are constantly moving, events happening one after the other without a break. Mark uses the Greek word for “immediately” 42 times in his gospel; 12 times in the first chapter alone (for context, it’s only used 17 times IN THE ENTIRE REST OF THE NEW TESTAMENT). This also contributes to a relentless sense of dramatic tension in the narrative – Mark’s Jesus explicitly predicts his own suffering and death three separate times (including once in today’s reading) but the disciples either misunderstand or reject these predictions every time. Because things are moving so fast – and because the audience knows what’s coming – Mark is like an anxiety attack in literary form. As a colleague put it, “it’s like driving 60 miles an hour over speedbumps.”[2] See if you get this sense as we read through the gospel from beginning to end, as it was originally intended it to be read.

Another important characteristic of Mark’s gospel to be aware of is the so-called “Messianic Secret”. Throughout the narrative, Jesus repeatedly orders those who witness his miracles or recognize him as the Anointed One to keep quiet about what they know (verse 30 in this week’s reading is just one example). Throughout history, there have been multiple proposed explanations of the Messianic Secret, but none have given us the answer with any certainty. The first theory was that it’s a Markan strategy used to explain why the Gentiles in his audience might not have heard much about Jesus previously; later theories suggest that it might be due to a mistranslation, that it was a tactic used by Jesus to control his celebrity or to avoid conflict, or that it was theologically not yet the time for Jesus’ full nature to be known. You may recall that my very first sermon this year proposed a theory that the Messianic Secret was a way for Jesus to continue blurring boundaries during his life.[3] But the fact is that we don’t know – and may never know – why this feature is so prominent in Mark’s gospel. As you hear the Messianic Secret in context over the next six weeks, see what you think – which theory makes the most sense to you?

Although I could go on about the book of Mark and what makes it unique, I’ll leave you with one final item of note: there are at least TWO endings of this gospel, possibly three (all of which we’ll be reading on Easter Sunday). The first 8 verses of chapter 16 are considered to be the original ending, serving as a sparse epilogue to the account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, rather than a part of the story in and of itself. This version tells of three women going to the tomb and finding it empty. The women are “overcome with terror and dread, and…they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” That’s it. The end. This version is undisputed and considered to be authentic to Mark’s gospel.

But archeologists have found several different versions of Mark’s gospel with different endings, and so in most English translations, chapter 16 also includes an additional verses 9 - 20 – and in some cases, there are actually two verse 9s! Although most scholars agree that these were later additions, they don’t agree as to why they were added. Were they trying to replicate a different, long-lost ending? Were they the contributions of later communities who were uncomfortable with the questions left unanswered by the original ending? Were they the result of editing multiple traditions together? Certainly, the longer endings make for a more satisfying conclusion to the story – but what might they be distracting us from? …And I’m actually going to leave it on that unresolved note, in honor of Mark’s original ending.

So, now you probably know a lot more about Mark’s gospel than you knew ten minutes ago. The question is: so what? Why is any of this stuff important to know? I mean, it certainly can’t HURT; worst-case scenario, it’ll give you some fun facts to pull out at holiday parties or during bar trivia. But best-case scenario, it will hopefully give our Lenten dive into Mark deeper meaning. As we become wrapped up in the hectic moment-to-moment nature of Mark’s gospel, our understanding of this “mountaintop view” will help us remember to think about the bigger picture: what ultimate message might Mark be trying to convey? Why does he make some of the literary choices he does? What important details are being left unspoken, and why? What mysteries are meant for us to dwell in? What does this gospel have to offer us that the others don’t?

Mark may not be the gospel that we turn to when we want to hear our favorite gospel stories retold in abundant detail…but armed with this mountaintop view, maybe it can start to be one we turn to for other reasons. May God grant us ears to hear the gospel in a new way through this old text in the coming weeks. Amen.


[1] See for a neat infographic of the gospels’ shared content.
[2] Rev. Laura Nile Tuel, “A Cost Benefit Analysis”, (
[3] Rev. Katey Schwind Williams, “Blurred Lines”,

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