If you are old enough to remember the televised Billy Graham Crusades for Christ, perhaps you can remember the song “It Is No Secret What God Can Do” being sung by the booming baritone of Cliff Barrows, the Crusade’s version of a Jewish cantor. “What he’s done for others, he’ll do for you.” The song seems precisely to express a central thrust of this passage from Mark. There is no keeping secret the things that God has done in Christ. For, the more God does, the more urgently and forthrightly the story is told.
But, any careful observation of the church today would reveal that the song is wrong. There does seem to be a secret. The Gospel of Mark is famous for its sense of secrecy. In this portion of his gospel, the secret is presented but it is kept rather unsuccessfully. Jesus tries to hide in the region of Tyre, but is discovered there and begged by the Gentile woman to cast a demon out of her daughter. After this unsuccessful vacation from the needy throngs, Jesus goes back to work in the area of Galilee. Here, he tries to perform the healing of a deaf man away from the spying eyes of the crowd. He even strongly warns the people not to report what they have witnessed. But, the people disobey Jesus and proclaim the message boldly and broadly.
God’s people today are much better at obeying this strange command of Jesus, the warning to keep the secret. Most of his other commands are a challenge, even to believers. How can we really turn the other cheek? Go the extra mile? Love our enemies? Forgive unceasingly? Love God with all our heart and soul and mind? These things come hard to people. They are difficult commands to follow. Finally, in this story, we have an admonition from Jesus that is easy to follow. As if we, too, were sternly warned not to tell anyone, many present day followers of Jesus all too gladly keep the secret.
It is no wonder, then, that the church, which once grew like a firestorm, now seems to have hit a fire wall. We live in what is called the post-Christian era, the time when governments no longer give preference to Christian teachings. Formerly “Christian” countries have now become mission fields. For a long time I subscribed to a magazine called the Christian Century. It was founded just over a hundred years ago at the beginning of the 20th century, when its first publishers thought that they were seeing the dawn of a new Christian era. But now nearly 2 decades into the 21st century, we no longer believe in a Christian century. Believers still gather in churches, but they gather in dwindling numbers.
Why? Because of the secret: if God is doing anything in people’s lives, Christians aren’t very noisy about it. I don’t suggest that it is because God is inactive. It is, rather, that God’s word is not being urgently spoken. There are, to be sure, pockets of evangelical fervor. There are corners of Christendom where the faith is on the rise due to the urgent sharing of God’s love. But in many places, the church has ceased to grow because God’s people are like the deaf and dumb man—hard of hearing and slow of speech.
Perhaps it is because there is privilege in being the recipient of a secret blessing. Any earthly treasure has a limit. If shared too broadly, it ill be dissipated and will eventually run dry. The vast mountain reservoirs that hold the drinking water for the San Francisco Bay area were drained to mere ponds several years ago when a drought hit the area. Water rationing took effect and those caught wasting water were heavily fined. At that time there was an outcry when it came to light that the rich and famous people who had private wells instead of drawing from the public reservoirs had no concerns. They didn’t need to ration their water use. They could water their lawns, fill their pools and indulge in wasteful habits. As long as their supply was kept private, there was plenty. Except there wasn’t. Those private wells are, deep down, fed by the same aquifers as the public ones. Private waste was still a public harm.
You might get the impression from Christians today that the resources of God’s love are similarly finite. Those who bathe in God’s grace know the blessings of salvation and the comfort that faith brings. But, there seems to be little urgency for sharing the good news. It is as if spreading God’s love around would be a squandering of resources that can’t be afforded. “Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one.” The crowd did not obey. But, we do. All too easily, the gospel is kept within the church walls.
This is not just a preacher’s indictment of the church. It is also a confession. Even as pastors, we are aware that it is far easier to proclaim Christ from the pulpit than it is to preach in the marketplace or in a stadium. Within the church walls, where the crowd gathers expectantly, the good news of God’s love is spoken freely. Outside, it is easier to keep things to ourselves and not report what we have witnessed.
Several years ago, on one of his last crusades before he became to ill to continue them, Billy Graham was making plans to hold a crusade in one of the great geographical bastions of Protestantism, Fargo, North Dakota. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans, Congregationalists — even Baptists abound in this area of the country. It is one of the remaining places where church activities are still at the center of social life for many people. Church attendance is relatively high, youth groups are large, and most people profess to be Christian. When the news of the crusade hit town, many of the local clergy banded together to try to keep the event from taking place. Holding a crusade in their town implied that there was a spiritual problem in Fargo that the local churches weren’t addressing. The event planners, on the other hand, intended for the crusade to do what it always does, to proclaim Jesus to people who are eager to hear the good news. In the end, the crusade took place, and as a special concession to local concerns, Billy Graham affirmed that there was much good work being done by local congregations. He also encouraged people who were moved by his message to find a local church in which to practice their faith. His proclamation was outside the walls of the church, but Graham proved to be a partner in the gospel with those who did their work primarily within the established church.
There is no shortage of supply in God’s love. Sent to the chosen, Jesus also ministered to the Gentiles. His compassion knew no boundaries. In the end, Mark makes it clear that Jesus’ ministry is to all people. Except for Peter and a few demons, the only person in Mark’s gospel to get the secret of who Jesus is was the Roman centurion. Finally, it is he who proclaims the truth: “Truly, this man was God’s Son” (15:39).
The message of Christ is not to be hoarded. It can’t be hidden. Its home is in the church, but it is a message that cannot be kept secret. The prayer for believers is brief and powerful: “Ephphatha!” Be opened. Even those who believe can be hard of hearing and slow of speech. But, God has always found a way to get the word out.
People always ask me, “What can we do to grow the church?” And the answer is simple and straight-forward: “Don’t hide Jesus.”
His compassion cannot be contained. His word cannot be restrained. God will use us to make his love known. We are more than recipients of grace. We are also its messengers. And when God so works in our lives as to move us to share our faith, we may find ourselves astonished and acknowledge with the biblical crowd: “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
So, I don’t know about you, but I’m telling.