On Your Mark
November 30, 2014
Michael Bridges, from contemporary Christian band Lost & Found says that the original gospel went this way: “[panting] He is risen!” “Who?” “Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth” “Who’s he?” “Son of Mary” “So what?” And so on, from there.
The Gospel of Mark is almost as succinct, and nearly as rushed: 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…. John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness…..” There is no genealogy establishing Jesus’ pedigree; there are no angels, no shepherds, no poetic hymn to the Word of God. Like a starter’s pistol, the first verse rings out: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” And Mark’s narrative is off and running. On your mark, get set, go!
It seems natural to take that first, verb-less sentence simply as a title, as the announcement of what follows. Here is the beginning of the good news. Then immediately we launch into John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!’”
Which leads one to ask…what does this have to do with Christmas? We all know who belongs in the Christmas story: the shepherds, the angels, the animals, the Wise Men, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus. John the Baptist? No! Who has ever seen John the Baptist in a Nativity Scene? Or on a Christmas card? We have the stable, the manger of hay, the star above…but no wild man. No hairy, unkempt, crazy-looking guy wearing camel’s hair, a piece of locust caught between his teeth and dried honey in his beard. John the Baptist is Martha Stewart’s worst nightmare.
So what is he doing here, on the first Sunday of Advent? Where is Mark coming up with all of this?
Mark, the gospel-writer may write as if he’s in a race, but he knows his Holy Scriptures. He reaches back to the 6th C BC and quotes the prophet Isaiah:
Comfort, o comfort my people, says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term…. A voice cries out: in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low….Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together.
God will be visiting God’s people, and gives directions for the way to be prepared. Notice that, according to Isaiah, God does not say “Tell the people to get ready and when they have done so, I will come to them.” John the Baptist, and Isaiah before him, announce that God is coming whether the people are ready or not.Prepare the way! Mountains will be torn down, valleys will be filled in, rough places made smooth -- whatever it takes!"
So, Mark's Gospel announces that this plan is, once again, about to be fulfilled.When Isaiah wrote, he was speaking of the end of exile for the Israelites in Babylon. When John the Baptist uses Isaiah’s words, he is announcing the coming of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. The time of fulfillment is drawing near.
Up to this point, no one had ever written a “Gospel” before. Mark probably thought of his work as biographical. But when he uses Isaiah’s words “good news” – or ‘gospel’ - he names a new genre, a new kind, of literature. This is not merely a biography. Mark is telling us about the beginning of a new era, a time and place in which God has entered human history in an unprecedented way.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…” It is the beginning, all over again. God, the creator and author of all things is not finished, but is at work renewing and restoring and recreating; offering a new opportunity for healing, forgiveness and freedom; birthing a new realm and new lives.
In Jesus Christ, we have been brought home from our exile. On this foundation we can begin building our new community. In him we can ground our hope for a new world.
Hope is the key word for today. In this Advent season our worship services will be taking a look at the traditional Advent themes in a not-so-traditional order: hope, peace, love and joy. Hope seems to me to be necessary for the other three. But hope also seems to me to be in short supply these days.
- There are still foreclosed houses for sale on my block;
- adversarial, partisan politics still rule the day;
- I still know plenty of people looking for full-time jobs that don’t seem to exist.
- Race relations in our country are still charged with anger and bias and recrimination.
It’s a challenge to be hopeful.
A couple of days after the grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darrin Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, National Public Radio reporter Audie Cornish interviewed Rev. Willis Johnson, pastor of the Wellspring Church, a predominantly African-American congregation in Ferguson. Rev. Johnson wasfirst photographed shortly after the shooting in August, when the Washington Post published a photo of him trying to talk down an angry 18-year-old in those initial protests.
Last week, 3 ½ months later, the radio reporter asked him what he was feeling in Ferguson now. “More so than anything,” he said, “this community, its people and even this pastor are tired. It is a challenge to be hopeful when you are continuously faced with some of the very disturbing and dispiriting things that have taken place over the last a hundred and some seven days. I mean, it's hard to sit in your home and watch things around you take ablaze. It's not good. It doesn't feel good. It doesn't look good. And you're left wondering, what good is in this?”
What good is in this? What hope do we have? What good news did John the Baptist announce, and is it still good news? When Mark wrote “This is the beginning of the good news,” did he mean that the words at the end of his gospel were the end of the good news?
It would be fair to suppose that the end of the gospels of the New Testament, would recount Jesus’ death, the empty tomb discovered by his disciples, his resurrection appearances to them, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that inspired them to spread the good news about all of this to the rest of the world. Indeed, this is what Matthew, Luke and John do.
But the end of Mark’s Gospel hardly seems like good news at all. The women enter the tomb, find no body there but instead a white-clad figure who tells them that Jesus has gone ahead to Galilee and that his disciples will see him there. “So they went out,” the last verse reads, “and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Period.
We don’t know what the women did. We don’t know if the disciples got the message they were supposed to get. We don’t know what they did or did not understand. What good is in Mark’s non-ending to the good news? It’s a challenge to be hopeful with this kind of gospel.
Unless…the reason for this peculiar, open-ended ending of Mark’s is a signal: a signal that the story doesn’t end here, it only gets going. And that means that his whole gospel, not just the first verse, is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. When he writes "This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God," he doesn't mean just “Now I’m starting my gospel,” rather he means that his entire gospel, the whole thing, is just the beginning. While Mark’s good news may begin with John the Baptist, it doesn’t end with an empty tomb and frightened women…it continues on…to this day, it is unfolding still, in our lives.
This odd ending of Mark’s is not really about whether the disciples got the message or not, or about what they did or did not do. It’s about those of us who get the message, and who can now continue the unfinished gospel. Suddenly the story is in our hands.
“It's hard to sit in your home and watch things around you take ablaze,” Pastor Johnson said. “It's not good. It doesn't feel good. It doesn't look good. And you're left wondering, what good is in this? But yet,” he continued, “I'm still hopeful and believe that there's a better day to come.
“[The day after the grand jury decision was announced my son] asked me - he says dad, can I go protest? Can I lead a chant? And I'm sitting here like, this is not the morning for that, son.
“But I hope that he is encouraged to know that he has the space, the opportunity, the right to stand for something. I pray that he understands that we live in a society - while it is challenged, it is also full of possibilities and that he has a responsibility to shape what it will become - that it doesn't have to look like what it looks like now.
“And I think there is a generation that is rising up who will not allow themselves to be defeated. We just need to figure out how to channel that and purpose that in a direction that will bring us to a greater and more sustainable end.
“And somehow we've got to keep giving our best - doing our best. And I know this is going to be shocking to some people, but at some point, we've got to figure out how we love the hell, literally, out of people and systems and circumstances. We've got to love this thing forward.”
The world doesn’t have to look the way it looks now. We can – we must – love it forward.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. To be at a beginning means that we are not prisoners of the past. We and our blessed and foolish nation need not be bound to our greed or fear, our idolatries or regrets. We can begin again. As can each one of us.
What do you hope for? What new beginning are you waiting for? How might you use this Advent season to consider a change, a re-dedication, or a new discipline that will connect you more closely to God and opens you to living as acontinuation of the good news of Jesus Christ?
Now is the time to think of starting again. Now is the time to ready ourselves for the Lord’s coming. “You know what time it is,” Paul writes to the church in Rome, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. The night is far gone; the day is near.”
One change you might consider this Advent is to spend more time in prayer. Not just on Sundays, but every day. We’re going to help you on Sundays, though, by offering more time for prayer and meditation in our worship services. We will also provide a quote that might help focus your thoughts on the theme for each Sunday. You might consider taking the bulletin home and using the quote, or the Scripture lessons, or both, in your daily prayer time.
Hope opens something in the human heart. Like shutters slowly parting to admit a winter dawn, hope permits strands of light to make their way to us, even when we still stand in cold darkness; but hope also reveals a landscape beyond us into which we can live and move and have our being. With hope, closely held interior thoughts are gently turned outward; deep desires, perhaps long hidden in secret corners of our heart, might be lifted up to the light. At times, hope peels back the edges of our imagination to see what lies underneath – a changed life, a new resolve, a yes pregnant with possibility. In other moments hope dares us to unfold a layer of desire – for relationship, for clarity, for courage.
Pamela C. Hawkins, Simply Wait
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. To be at a beginning means that we are not prisoners of the past. We can begin again. This is the hope of our faith.
Darrik Acre. “A Way Made Ready.” Preacher’s Magazine. Second Sunday in Advent : December 4, 2005 http://www.nph.com/nphweb/html/pmol/pastissues/2005%20Advent/webdec4.htm
Mark Allan Powell. Commentary on Mark 1:1-8. December 7, 2014.http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2266
Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, Matt Skinner, David Lose. Sermon Brainwave, #387 - Second Sunday of Advent. November 30, 2014. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx
Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, David Lose, and Matt Skinner, Sermon Brainwave
#207 - Second Sunday of Advent. November 27, 2011. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=240
David Lose. Just the Beginning. Sunday, November 27, 2011.http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1496
“Ferguson Pastor: 'It Is A Challenge To Be Hopeful.'” National Public Radio. November 25, 2014. http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=366620553
John Stendahl. “On Your Mark” The Christian Century, November 20-December 3, 2002, p. 16.