Saturday, February 4, 2012

Out with Purpose

When they found Him, they said to Him, “Everyone is searching for You.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1.37-38)


Some of us can remember when celebrity automatically inferred achievement. Celebrated people accomplished something worth celebrating and we regarded those who enjoyed fame without earning it as anomalies. They served no real purpose, and as a rule—which holds true even now—they tended to overstay their welcome. Lacking a substantial legacy, they were forgot before they were gone. With media now tasked to feed our bizarre, postmodern obsession with non-notables, anyone who surrenders personal privacy and pride to a camera crew can be famous. We’ve created a new brand of fame that severs the vital link between celebrity and celebration.

This is of little consequence going forward. Whether we’re onboard or not, the famous-for-being-famous ship has sailed. Yet its costs are felt in reduced appreciation for celebrated figures of the past. Prior to now, people set out with purpose and became celebrated in the process. If anything, fame was a burden, not a prize, and it challenged those it favored to harness its power for greater good. As we see in Sunday’s Gospel, Mark 1.29-39, celebrity increased one’s responsibility to wear it lightly and use it wisely.


The Gospels operate on the pre-modern supposition that Jesus’s fame indicates substance of character—so much so that they don’t even bother with explaining how the provincial carpenter’s Son comes to grips with His destiny. Luke alone gives us a glimpse of Jesus as a boy, suggesting He may have known as early as 12 that He’d been born to save the world. Other than that, however, the Gospels’ unfortunate disinterest in the “lost years” from 12 to 30 encourages us to imagine He’s an overnight sensation—an assumption the writers would no doubt find laughable. Ancient life isn’t conducive to sudden fame. Word doesn’t spread quickly enough to support publicity campaigns or faddish followings. Daily existence is too arduous and time-consuming to chase after up-and-coming stars. In first-century Palestine, one achieves celebrity by embracing a heightened sense of purpose and applying oneself to realize it. In other words, purpose breeds performance. Or, as the proverb goes, “the proof is in the pudding.” Any time the Gospels mention Jesus’s fame, they expect us to connect it with His life’s purpose and His ability to act on it.

The fame-faithfulness connection is particularly crucial to Mark, which presents Jesus as a Prophet of unimpeachable integrity Whom God endows with divinity at His baptism. This is why Mark isn’t concerned with Jesus’s birth and youth; in Mark's eyes, the real story begins when Jesus is “adopted” as God’s Son at 30. Thus, once he records Jesus’s baptism, Mark rushes to demonstrate He’s a prophet unlike any other—as seen in last Sunday’s Gospel, where Jesus’s teaching and cure of a possessed man astonish synagogue worshipers—while this weekend’s Gospel enlarges on the fame theme. In essence, Mark cites Jesus’s celebrity as de facto verification of His divine claim. Jesus’s purpose breeds performance that, in turn, puts proof in the pudding.

The Message is the Miracle

As Mark tells it, no sooner does Jesus leave the synagogue than He learns that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law has taken ill. He heals her and word of the miracle spreads so rapidly that the entire town crowds around Simon’s door by sundown, bringing its sick and disturbed to Jesus. He spends the evening curing many of various physical and emotional diseases. The next morning, before sunrise, Jesus finds a solitary place to pray. When the disciples discover He’s missing, they hunt Him down and tell Him, “Everybody’s looking for You.” Apparently time didn’t permit Him to heal everyone and many have returned. Our stereotype of the infinitely caring Christ hits a snag with Jesus’s reply, however. Instead of agreeing to meet those He didn’t heal the previous night, Jesus tells the disciples it’s time to move on. “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also,” He says. “For that is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1.38) For Jesus, the message matters more than the miracles.

Reaching people with the Good News of God’s love is His life’s purpose. The miracles merely make Him famous; in what must be record time, He’s celebrated for His ability to perform supernatural acts. But being a famous miracle worker is only useful to Jesus inasmuch as it expands His reach. It opens doors for Him. Verse 39 informs us, “He went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” Today, we might say reports of miracles cause the Jesus phenomenon to go viral. Yet celebrity and recognition that come from such rampant attention are only a means to deliver life-changing truth to multitudes. Because Jesus’s words overflow with healing and freedom, the message is the real miracle. No one who hears and believes it is ever the same.

By All Means

Central to following Christ is our faith that God creates each of us as unique reflections of the divine nature, to fulfill specific purposes. The traits, passions, and vision we possess have been placed in us to work miracles. While our capacity for good works admittedly falls short of Jesus’s scope and standards, we are all famous for amazing talents and abilities. Some of us are known as peacemakers. Some have gifts of wisdom and kindness. Some are driven by selfless compassion for those without light and hope, others by courageous desires to restore righteousness where injustice prevails. The list of attributes we're given goes on and on. But once we accept the uniqueness of our making and its purpose, we can make miracles happen wherever we go. We don’t really care about fame or celebrity. Instead, we recognize that the reputation God blesses us to acquire opens new doors to deliver Christ’s life-changing, utterly miraculous message of unconditional love.

“This is what I came out to do,” Jesus says. Coming out with purpose is what we do as His followers. It really doesn’t matter how we’re perceived. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul essentially describes his approach to fulfilling God’s purpose as a chameleon-like endeavor. “While I’m free to act and think on my own,” he writes, “I place myself in service to others so that I might reach them. To Jews, I am a Jew. To those who don’t abide by the Law, I have no use for it. To the weak I become weak.” He sums this up in verses 22 and 23: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”

We’ve been given everything we need to live lives of purpose. What’s asked of us is setting aside short-term gratification and questions of adequacy so that we can apply and master our gifts for greater good. Proclaiming Good News and working miracles can be exhausting and challenging. Yet we do it, because that’s what we do—not for fame, but for the sake of the Gospel, which advances on works we’re known for. So what makes you famous in your world? What talents and proclivities are at your disposal to further Christ’s message? Whatever you’ve been given to fulfill God’s purpose, by all means, use it. Be who God created you to be and when necessary become what others need you to be so that you can pass along the life-changing Word and share in its blessings.

All Wise and Loving Creator, envelop us with a heightened sense of purpose. Embolden us with self-honesty to celebrate our unique traits and talents. And empower us with the will and wisdom to use our miracle-making gifts for Your kingdom’s benefit. Amen.

God endows each of us with gifts that make us famous in our worlds. But fame is merely a medium, not a reward, for realizing God’s purpose in our lives.

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