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Minor Men With a Major Message: John Mark – The Man Who Copped Out And Came Back

Mark 14:43-51

When you get right down to it, we know precious little about the writers of the four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are names clearly carved into our consciousness, but most of the details of their lives are not available to us. Interestingly enough though, we may know more about Mark than any of the others. He was the man who copped out, dropped out, and came back. But I am getting ahead of myself here, so let’s start at the beginning…

Mark copped out in his support of Jesus Christ.

John Mark—that was his full name—was born in Jerusalem, fifteen or so years after the birth of our Lord. His father died when Mark was very young, but he did manage to leave Mark and his mother, Mary, comfortably fixed. Now Mary was one of the early followers of Jesus. Her large and commodious house became a base of operations for Jesus and His disciples when they were in Jerusalem. In fact, on the night of the last Passover Jesus was to celebrate with His disciples, it was to Mary’s house, to the Upper Room there, that they came.

The boy, John Mark, was always delighted when Jesus came to the house. Jesus’ powerful personality, when blended with His warm sense of humor and loving concern, would have had a magnetic pull upon any young person, but that seems to have been especially true for John Mark. It must have meant a lot for this fatherless boy to have such a man around.

However, on the night of this particular Passover, there was no smiling or laughter. Oh, Jesus Christ greeted young John Mark with affection, but His eyes seemed to be focused on something far away. During the early part of the evening, John Mark assisted his mother with their hosting responsibilities. But as the evening wore on, weariness took over and the young man headed off to bed. However, before he could drop off to sleep, something unusual happened. He heard one of the disciples leave the house alone. The boy’s curiosity was aroused. It was quiet for a while, then he heard the group sing a hymn and begin to leave. For some reason he could probably never fully explain, Mark got up from his bed, wearing nothing but his sleeping robe, and followed the group as they left his house.

They went down the hill, outside the city gates, across the brook Kidron, and into the olive grove called Gethsemane. It was a favorite place for Jesus and His disciples. Mark watched from the shadows, as Jesus took three disciples deeper into the grove, while the others prepared to bed down for the night. Mark continued to follow from a distance. Jesus then left the three disciples and went to a private place to pray. Mark, from his hiding place, heard that prayer. He heard Jesus’ groans of agony. He saw the drops of cold, hard sweat. He also heard Jesus upbraid the three disciples for failing Him, for sleeping when He needed for them to be awake. There in the bushes, Mark resolved to himself that he would never fail Jesus. He would stand” by Him. He would not turn away from this Jesus he loved.

Suddenly, the quiet of the night was shattered by the clatter of swords and the pounding of marching feet. A squad of soldiers pushed its way into the privacy of Jesus’ prayers. They were led by Judas, the one who had left Mark’s house earlier. The soldiers proceeded to arrest Jesus, and all the disciples fled for their lives. Mark thought he was safe until one of the troopers spotted him and tried to capture him. Somehow, with the agility which belongs to the young, John Mark managed to slip out of his sleeping robe, leaving the cursing soldiers standing there holding it while he ran off naked into the darkness. Finally, in the safety of his home again, Mark had time to reflect on what had happened. He realized that he had been no better than the other disciples. He had not stood up for Jesus. He had run away also. He had tried to be faithful, but he failed.

That is an especially hard thing for a young person to face. Older people, it seems to me, are a bit better at handling failure. If they are altruistically oriented, then when they fail, they are troubled only because they have let others down. If they are self-centered, then when they fail they feel bad only because they do not look good in the eyes of others. But young people see failure on a deeper level. Failure calls into question their whole sense of identity and self-worth. To cop-out because of a lack of courage is perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a young person.

That is why Mark would have been so devastated by this experience. Courage, you see, is the basis of all other virtues. You can talk about having faith, but your faith will never be valid until it takes courage to hold onto it. You can talk about wisdom, but that will mean nothing unless you have the courage to act wisely. You can think of yourself as a loving person, but love is worthless until you have to have the courage to pay a price for it. No virtue is possible without courage. And young John Mark saw himself as being without courage. He saw himself as a failure.

We know that is true because years later, when Mark wrote the Gospel which bears his name, he was the first to write about the content of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. From his hiding place, he was the only one who heard the prayer. And he also wrote in his Gospel these words referring to himself: “A young man followed him with nothing but a linen cloth over his body, and they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” After all those years, you see, Mark could not forget how he had copped-out on his Lord Jesus Christ. The fact that he would write that, when no one else would have known had he not revealed it himself, measures well the scar this incident made on his spirit. He had tried and he had failed.

Of course we all fail. The first time we tried to walk, we fell. The first time we tried to swim, we almost drowned. The first time we stepped up to the plate, we struck out. The first time we tried to sew, we stabbed our little finger. There is nothing really so terrible about failure—unless, of course, it leads us to stop trying. At least when John Mark failed, it did not stop him from trying again. But let us continue his story…

Mark not only copped-out in his support of Jesus, but later he dropped out in his service of Jesus.

After the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the house of Mary and her son, John Mark, became a hive of Christian activity. It was in that house that the risen Christ appeared to His disciples. It was in that house that the disciples gathered to pray after Peter was arrested by Herod. And it was to that house that Peter went after his miraculous release from prison. The house became the headquarters, the rallying point, and the sanctuary for the early Christians in Jerusalem. It was to that house that Paul came to talk of his conversion and of his desire to spread the Gospel. It was at that house that Barnabas, John Mark’s cousin, first met Paul and went on to become Paul’s partner in mission work. So there was much Christian activity about the house, and John Mark was right in the middle of it.

Therefore, when Barnabas and Paul decided to embark upon a missionary journey, John Mark, who wanted to try again, asked if he might go along. Permission was granted. I am sure John Mark was thrilled at the chance to demonstrate that he was not a failure anymore.

For a time things went well. The mission encountered success and there was an excitement to the travel. Unfortunately, though, the glamor soon began to wear off. What started out as a great adventure for Mark, turned into difficult, challenging, day-to-day work. The romance of the venture began to seep away under the pressure of a daily routine of hard, sometimes thankless labor. When they reached Pamphylia, they encountered deadly opposition to their work. Paul was almost stoned to death. Mark decided then and there that he had had enough. Luke, writing in the Book of Acts, captures it all in a single sentence: “Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem.” He dropped out. He quit. He failed again. He had given his word and he had broken it.

That is a terrible thing to do. Nothing can tear and fray human relationships like giving your word and breaking it. And no excuse will lessen that failure. Words are what hold life together, and when we break our word it is a tragedy. You see, when our word cannot be trusted in life, then we cannot be trusted.

Of course, it happens all the time—even in the church. People take vows when they become members of a church about being regular in attendance and in participation, about being faithful in their stewardship of time, talent, and treasure, about sharing their faith and meeting the needs of others. Yet, so many times, these people do not keep their word and, before long, they fall by the wayside.

That is what happened to Mark. He wanted to keep on trying, but the sting and the stench of breaking his word, of turning tail and running again—that followed after him. You see, we read later in the Book of Acts that when Paul and Barnabas were planning their second missionary journey, Barnabas wanted to give his cousin, John Mark, another chance. Paul said: “Absolutely not!” So Mark’s reputation as a quitter was spreading and it hurt him. Yet, for all of that, Mark still did not give up completely—and consequently God did not give up on him. There is yet more to his story.

For Mark copped-out in support of Christ, and he dropped out in the service of Christ, but eventually he came back to the glory of Christ.

Not so long ago in Detroit, a museum put on display two paintings by Rembrandt. The art critic for the newspaper visited the museum and said that he thought one of the paintings was a fake. Experts were brought in to examine the paintings. They declared that indeed one of the paintings was a fake. When asked how they had arrived at that conclusion, they said: “When Rembrandt painted, there were always many mistakes in his pictures, which he covered over. But in this particular painting, there were no mistakes. It was too perfect to be a Rembrandt.” Do you hear that? Rembrandt, out of his mistakes brought masterpieces. And that is precisely what God did for John Mark. Out of his mistakes, God brought a masterpiece.

We know that because, later on in the Book of Acts, Mark proved himself to be an able missionary and ultimately he was reconciled to Paul. Paul who would not have anything to do with Mark after he quit in Pamphylia, later wrote to the Colossians: “Receive Mark.” And he wrote to Philemon, “Mark is my fellow laborer.” And he wrote to Timothy: “Get Mark and bring him with you for he is very useful to me in my ministry.”

Mark also became a secretary and confidant to Peter. Peter, in his first epistle, refers to Mark as “my son.” We now know that the books of our Bible, I and II Peter were letters dictated by Peter, but reported by Mark. Furthermore, Mark wrote the Gospel which bears his name. It was the first Gospel written. It actually contains the stories of Jesus which Mark heard from the sermons of Peter—he collected those stories, arranged them in chronological order, and thus produced the first Gospel ever written. And the tradition of the church says that in the end, Mark laid down his life for the sake of his Christ.

You see, Mark kept on trying. That is the real message of his life. He had persistence and perseverance. And how much poorer the world would be if those two things were not amongst us: persistence and perseverance. William Carey worked for seven years before he made his first convert in India. Adoniram Judson worked for seven years before he made his first convert in Burma. David Livingstone worked for fourteen years before he saw successful results in Africa. Adam Clark, who wrote the first great commentary on the Bible, worked for forty years to bring it to conclusion. Persistence and perseverance—God has both in double measure. Therefore, in our service to Jesus Christ, we need to be both persistent and persevering.

Arthur Gordon tells of a businessman who died. At the memorial service, a young black man delivered part of the eulogy. With deep emotion this young man said: “This man supported me when nobody else did. I failed and I failed and I failed, but he never gave up on me. Anyone can support a success but it takes a rare and wonderful person to have faith in a failure.” Of course, that is why God is the most rare and wonderful of all. He never gives up on us in this life. My friends, please do not ever tell me that God has run out of patience with you. Please do not ever say: “I am too big a failure for God.” Nobody can outdo God when it comes to patient, persistent, persevering love.

I heard about three baseball umpires who were talking about how they called balls and strikes. The first one said: “I call them as I see them.” The second one said: “I call them as they are.” The third one said: “Until I call them, they ain’t anything!” That is the way God is. He makes the final call and until He makes that call, nothing really counts. We learn from John Mark that no matter how frequently or how seriously we fail, we are to keep pressing on. In the end, God can make masterpieces out of our mistakes.

By the way…

The Gospel of Mark is not finished. Somehow across the years maybe a scribe forgot or a scroll was lost—who knows?—but the Gospel of Mark stops abruptly—almost in mid-sentence. His Gospel is an unfinished Gospel, a Gospel being written still. If that is true, then you who are disciples of Jesus are writing the Gospel chapter by chapter, day by day, in every moment of your living. Therefore, I ask you

“What will be the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to you?”

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