Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Beginning of the Gospel (Mark 1:1-8)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;” the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In the movie, The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews begins to teach the VonTrapp children to sing with a simple and familiar song. She says, “Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start. When you read, you begin with A-B-C. When you sing you begin with DO-RE-MI.”

On this second Sunday of Advent, we are starting with the very beginning of the Gospel according to St. Mark, which, interestingly enough, begins with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” First things first, and that’s what we’re going to spend a little time talking about today. May we pray.

I grew up, like many in my generation, watching Sesame Street. In one of the songs on Sesame Street, three dancing books told about the structure of a story – every story has a beginning, middle, and end. What’s the part designed to capture your attention and make you want to read or hear the rest of the story? The beginning. In my journalism classes and as assistant editor of the college newspaper, which paragraph in the story was the most important? The beginning. In my sermons, I know that I have a limited window to tell you something that will make you want to listen, and do you know where that window is? The beginning.

Today, we are looking at the beginning – the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Mark. There are four gospels in the canon of Scripture: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each begins differently. Matthew, writing to a primarily Jewish audience, begins with the genealogy of Jesus, establishing him as a son of David and son of Abraham. Luke begins with the events leading up to Jesus’ birth. John begins with a carefully-crafted theological statement about the eternal relationship between God the Son and God the Father.

Mark jumps right into the action the moment before Jesus really appears on the public scene. His desire is to present Jesus as a servant, requiring no genealogy or birth narrative. It is the beginning of the Gospel. Interestingly enough, scholars agree that Mark is the first Gospel written. It comes after Matthew because the Biblical editors saw the Jewish genealogy of Jesus serving as a bridge between the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, but Mark is, in fact, older, having been written at least a decade before the others.

What does Mark place at the beginning? The most important thing about Jesus is that he is good news.

It reminds me of two 90-year-old women, Barb and Rose, who loved to play softball together their whole lives. Rose died, and a few weeks later, she appeared to Barb in a dream. Barb said, “Rose, tell me – is there softball in heaven?” Rose said, “Oh yes, there’s softball. It’s always spring, it never rains or snows, and we can play all we want without getting tired or having to deal with aches and pains!” Barb said, “That’s great news!” Rose said, “Yes, but I have some bad news as well – you’re scheduled to pitch next Tuesday.”

However, the good news of Jesus Christ, the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Mark, comes without any corresponding bad news. The good news of Jesus Christ is this: in him, God is come to earth. The good news of Jesus Christ is this: in our darkness, God’s light shines. The good news of Jesus Christ is this: from the chains of our sin, reconciliation with God is now possible. The good news of Jesus Christ is this: once we were no people, but now we are God’s people.

There is no corresponding bad news. There is no other shoe to drop. Jesus Christ is good news - news of liberation, of light in the darkness, of reconciliation to God, of living lives that show love of God and neighbor, of a life filled with hope and meaning. In the coming of Christ, all that becomes possible, and that is the good news. It is only bad news if we are living in darkness and we want to continue living in darkness, if we are living in sin and content to keep wallowing in it, if our lives are hopeless and we desire no hope, if we live selfish, self-absorbed lives full of our own preconceptions, judgments, and preferences, and have no interest in allowing the light of Christ to come in and show us a more excellent way.

The good news is this: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The Gospel begins, for each of us, when we recognize the light of Christ, and choose it over darkness. Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the book Treasure Island, was often ill as a child, and as dusk fell one cold winter evening, his nurse found him pressed against the frosty pane of his bedroom window. She said, “Come away from that window, child, you’ll catch your death of cold!” Young Robert didn’t budge, he simply pointed to an old lamplighter making his way through the dark streets, lighting the streetlamps along his route. He said, “Look, there’s a man poking holes in the darkness.”

The Gospel begins when the light of Christ pokes holes in our darkness. In this Advent season, we prepare our hearts for the coming Jesus, who pokes holes in the darkness, that the light and love of God might shine.

But that’s just the beginning. Friends, there is still more to the story. Recognizing the light of Christ and inviting him into our lives is an important beginning, but it is a first step. There is yet more to the story. After Mark has established Jesus as God’s good news to all, he quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”

In those days, if you knew that a king was coming to town, great preparations were made for the king’s arrival. One of the preparations was a road project that, for its day, would make completing I-485 look like a Sunday School picnic. Think of what roads were like in those days - narrow, winding, twisting roads, full of ruts and holes and bogs, dusty in the dry weather and muddy in the wet. And yet, when a king was coming, a town would have the road leading into town straightened, widened, and completely smoothed out. It was a massive undertaking, yet it was how a town welcomed the king - providing easy access and removing all potential barriers to the king’s entrance into the town.

Likewise, as we prepare for the coming of Christ in the world, we are called to provide easy access and remove all potential barriers to his entry into our lives. We prepare the way of the Lord, we make his paths straight - a barrier-free route into the depths of our being. We do so not only out of respect, but out of reverence and submission - taking away those barriers is our way of saying, “Jesus, you are my king, I submit my life to you, you are my Lord, and I invite you into my life to live and reign in me.”

Prepare the way of the Lord - give Jesus full access to your life and grant him the authority and control that is rightly his. One of the things I love about this imagery - referring to the way of the Lord, a highway for our God, is that it suggests travel, movement, a journey. It reminds us that the Christian life is not static, but is much more like taking a trip with Jesus than it is about thinking certain thoughts and knowing certain things about Jesus. It means Jesus is on the move, and we are invited to travel with him.

The kingdom of God, which will come in the person of Jesus, is more concerned with journey and process than it is with a specific place, a building, a mindset, or a way of life. We are, after all, disciples, followers, of Jesus, and my experience has been that’s it awfully hard to follow by hunkering down and staying still. God is on the move on earth in Jesus, and we are called to follow.

Prepare the way of the Lord. The earliest followers of Jesus weren’t called Christians, did you know that? Christian, a derogatory term meaning, “mini-Christ” wasn’t applied to the followers of Jesus until many years after his death and resurrection. No, before they were called Christians, they were simply known as “followers of The Way.” The movement wasn’t called “Church,” it was simply, “The Way.” Being people of the Gospel, participants in the good news of Christ, requires a journey with Jesus. Prepare the way of the Lord, we are still people of the way, following Jesus, traveling with him, going where he leads, doing the things he did and now continues to do through us.

The Gospel begins when Christ pokes holes in our darkness. It continues when we journey with Jesus and poke holes in the darkness of all those we encounter. But, as I learned on Sesame Street, every story has a beginning, middle, and end. So what’s the end of the Gospel story? Every story has one, you know, and the Gospel is no exception. So, what’s the end of the Gospel?

Well, what if we were to think of “end” not as a destination, not a final place, but as a goal? If we think of the “end” of the Gospel as its “So what?” Think through that with me. The Gospel begins when Jesus pokes holes in our darkness. It continues when we join Jesus on the journey and poke holes in the darkness of all those we encounter. We do all that for what? So that the fullness of the kingdom of God may come upon the earth, so God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

That means we’ve still got some hole-poking to do, for there is still much darkness in the world. There is still liberty to grant to the oppressed, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, wrongs to right, injustice to overthrow. There are chains to be broken, wars to end, hope to bring, wounds to heal. There’s a lot of evil in the world, and sometimes in the church, and in ourselves, sometimes, too - a lot of dark places in need of light.

Even so, a new light is dawning on the horizon. This Advent, let us turn from the things of darkness, and gently poke holes in the darkness of others, to the end that the kingdom of God may come upon the earth.

May we pray.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus. We prepare the way for you to come straight into our hearts, to poke holes in our darkness, to live and reign in us, to shine your light through us. We celebrate you as the good news to all people. Set us free. Break our chains. Take away our bent to sinning. We give ourselves to you. Get us out of the way, and lead us in Your Way. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.

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