Why It’s a Really Bad Idea to Play with Rattlesnakes: A Sermon for the Festival of St. Mark, Evangelist on St. Mark 16:14–20

St. Mark iconSermon audio here.

Thank God for St. Mark. He’s the author of the “second” Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), and he understood the Gospel. Mark has no Christmas story. He wants to get right to the point. The word “immediately” occurs 41 times in his book. This creates a sense of urgency, even as our Lord was urgent in His mission to save sinners. That mission is, of course, accomplished on the cross, so it’s no surprise that Mark spends 2/3 of his book in Holy Week. Jesus came to die. We preach Christ crucified. That’s what Mark’s Gospel is all about. To him, and to the Church, nothing else matters.

Mark wrote so that you might believe that Jesus is your Savior from sin. The words St. John uses to describe the purpose of his also serve as a nice summary of Mark’s Gospel:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name,” (St. John 20:30–31).

It comes as no surprise then, that the Holy Gospel appointed for the feast of St. Mark is all about the Gospel.

“And [Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned,”” (St. Mark 16:15–17).

The reading then goes on to lists some signs that will accompany this central message of Scripture (Christ crucified), and the book concludes by saying,

“And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs,” (St. Mark 16:20).

Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins. That’s the point of the Bible. That’s why St. Mark wrote and it’s why the Church exists. People get confused about the reason for the Church’s existence sometimes. They think it’s about having activities or feeding the hungry. These things are good and the Church should do them, but they aren’t why the Church exists. The Church exists to preach Christ crucified. You can have activities and feed the homeless elsewhere. They are not the Gospel. The Gospel is Christ crucified. This is the Church’s proclamation. She exists to forgive sins. Anybody who bashes the practice of confessing sins to a pastor understands nothing of the Gospel. The same is true of those who force people to confess.

So it’s truly meet, right, and salutary that we remember St. Mark today and thank God for him. St. Mark refuses to let us forget that the Church exists to proclaim the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, for the sake of Jesus.

Unfortunately, a lot of Christians miss the point. They like to take obscure passages out of context and base their entire religion on these things. There are churches out there that say vipers are as vital to their services as the Bible itself. Talk about missing the point. Last year a Pentecostal pastor from Kentucky named Jamie Coots said he believed he and his followers were called by God to handle venomous serpents during their church services. Each of the 10 times he had been bitten he had refused medical treatment, saying his faith would heal him. After one of the bites he lost part of his finger, and the 10th bite proved to be fatal.

I’m telling you right now: if I ever let poisonous snakes loose in this church, immediately call up Dan Gilbert, our district president, and file charges against me to have me defrocked. And then call the police and have me arrested.

Can somebody tell me how rattlesnake wrestling in the sanctuary preaches Christ crucified? This isn’t much different from the way many Christians treat the book of Revelation. From the beginning of Genesis through the end of Jude, the whole Bible is about Christ crucified. But about 200 years ago “rapture theology” was invented out of thin air.

This very distorted view of the End Times is based in large part on a serious misreading of the book of Revelation and was popularized in the Left Behind books. This view of the End Times comes totally out of left field and contradicts the very clear teachings of Scripture. The Bible teaches that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. He will not rapture away the faithful, leaving their cars abandoned and clothes in piles, and then give unbelievers another chance to repent during 7 final years of tribulation. Like snake handling, this theology treats the Bible as if it were about something other than Christ crucified.

Playing with poisonous snakes has nothing to do with preaching Christ crucified. In fact, it undermines the Gospel, right along with the rapture, speaking in tongues, open communion, contemporary worship, women’s ordination, and even having flags in the sanctuary. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Anything that doesn’t point to Christ crucified in some way has no business being in the sanctuary.

But back to the snakes. This practice is based on a serious misunderstanding of a passage from tonight’s Holy Gospel.

And [Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (St. Mark 16:15–18).

The first thing to notice in this passage is that the Gospel is the main thing, not the signs. The signs—the exorcisms, tongues, serpents, and poison drinking—were given to accompany the message. On top of that, this commission was given to the apostles, all of whom are dead.

This is the “What Would Jesus Do” mentality, only applied to the apostles. We are neither Jesus nor apostles. They could do things we can’t, and that’s by design. Gregory the great says,

“These [signs] were needed at the church’s beginning. The new faith needed to be nourished by miracles to grow. When we plant a vineyard, we must water the plants till we see they have begun to grow in the earth, and when they have once taken root we cease to water them constantly,” (ACCS, Mark).

Once the church was established, these miraculous signs were no longer needed.

Certainly Jesus could have given the ability to handle snakes and drink poison to future generations of Christians, but He didn’t. How many snake-handling preachers have to die before we figure this one out?

If you think you’ve read something in the Bible has nothing to do Christ crucified, you’ve read it wrong. If St. Mark were alive today, he would be appalled to learn that some people thought his Gospel promoted the handling venomous snakes. His message is the Gospel of Christ crucified, and that’s still the message of the Church today.

So what do the signs we find at the end of Mark’s Gospel have to do with the cross? Let’s go down the list. “In My Name they will cast out demons.” Isn’t this what takes place whenever the Gospel is spoken? You were conceived and born into sin and under the power of the devil, but the Jesus made you His own in Holy Baptism. Baptism casts out Satan. It’s an exorcism, it casts out demons. The same thing happens whenever we speak the Gospel.

“They will speak in new tongues.” Isn’t this what happens whenever someone is brought to faith? Are we not called to abandon the profanity of the old life, utter the holy mysteries, and declare the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light? (Gregory the Great; ACC, Mark). What is this but speaking in new tongues? This is not some ecclesiastical gibberish that nobody can understand. It’s preaching Christ crucified, which the old tongue would never do.

And then we come to the handling of serpents and drinking of deadly poisons. The Church Father Ignatius once warned some Christians to refrain from foods that heretics foist on the gullible, mixed like deadly poisons. What is the food of heretics other than false doctrine? Scripture constantly warns us about the dangers of false doctrine, because like poison, false doctrine kills. It’s a denial of the Gospel. Where we speak the Gospel purely, the Holy Spirit works forgiveness, life, and salvation. False doctrine obscures the proclamation of Christ crucified. People end up thinking Christianity is about playing with rattlesnakes, and worse, if they end up dying without knowing what the Gospel is really all about, they perish for all eternity.

Augustine said the reference to drinking deadly poison without harm indicates that Christians who believe and follow the gospel are guaranteed immunity from heresy (ACCS, Mark). In other words, a proper understanding of the Gospel guards against false doctrine.

And that’s really the point of celebrating the festival of St. Mark tonight. It’s a reminder that in all things, “we preach Christ crucified.” Everything in the Bible has to do with Christ crucified. Anybody who says otherwise is a false teacher. Scripture is about Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross for your sins.

And then, the final miracle St. Mark records will be true of you: “They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover,” (St. Mark 16:18). Not the phony-baloney Pat Robertson style faith healings they fake on The 700 Club. This thinking is much too narrow. The healing Jesus promises isn’t that cheap. This is the healing our Lord has in mind, according to 1 Corinthians 15:

You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain,” (1 Corinthians 15:26, 42–44; 50–58).

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Mark 16:14–20
Festival of St. Mark, Evangelist: Why It’s a Really Bad Idea to Play with Rattlesnakes
Zion, Summit: https://www.facebook.com/zionlcms
Immanuel, Hodgkins: https://www.facebook.com/immanuelhodgkins
Steadfast Throwdown: http://steadfastthrowdown.org/
Around the Word Bible Studies: http://www.whatdoesthismean.org/bible-studies.html

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