Hard Beginnings, Good News and the Call To Live a Better Story

Photo Credit: Aaron Audio via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Aaron Audio via Compfight cc

As someone who has taught rhetoric and composition at the college level, I wonder if Mark had anyone read over his gospel narrative before shipping it out to the masses. This opening of his lacks panache. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That’s it? Nothing more? No birth narrative or background story or soaring prologues like the other gospelers? It’s as if he followed the advice to just start writing to get the words flowing, since you could always come back and edit later. But it appears as if he never came back.

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent based on Mark 1:1-8

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Full stop. And then these words about Isaiah’s prophecy and John the Baptist crying out alongside the Jordan. If I had been editing Mark’s work I would have told him to slow down, to go a little deeper. What’s the beginning? Is it John the Baptist? Or Jesus’ birth? What is this good news? Might you start a little earlier in the story? Where did John or Jesus come from? Could you do a bit more with this?

“All beginnings are hard,” so writes Chaim Potok at the start of his breathtaking novel In the Beginning. The protagonist, a man named David who becomes a professor of the Hebrew Bible, states, “The man who guided me in my studies would welcome me warmly into his apartment and, when we had sat at his desk, say to me in his gentle voice, ‘Be patient, David. The midrash says, “All beginnings are hard.” You cannot swallow all the world at one time.’”[1] The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

So Mark begins with this prophetic voice proclaiming a message of repentance and forgiveness to prepare the way of the Lord. For the valleys would be raised up and the mountains brought low and the paths made straight to prepare the way. Repent. Seek forgiveness. Turn around from that which is separating you from God, one another and from being your deepest and truest self as you were created by God to be. Mine the depths of your soul and open yourself up to the love of God. Yearn for healing from God for the things that weigh you down. Strike out into new territory as one renewed no longer concerned primarily with your own wants and desires but looking outward and seeing the needs around you. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

The paths have certainly been a bit rough for us as a country lately. The past two weeks have exposed the reality that we’ve not come as far as we had hoped in terms of racial equality. While the outcome of the grand jury in Ferguson had been muddied by the disparate evidence and testimony in the case of Michael Brown—and if pushed I would personally say that given the disparity a day in court would have been a better outcome, the decision of the panel investigating the demise of Eric Garner in New York seemed much more clear cut. The grand jury had to determine only if there was enough evidence to move forward in the case against Daniel Pantaleo in applying too much force in Eric’s arrest. The incident had been caught entirely on camera. While Eric was a large man, the strength exerted to arrest him and bring him down wasn’t necessary. His cries of not being able to breathe should have been met with concern. Since this all made it on video, the surprising decision not indict Officer Pantaleo has been met with stinging rebuke from across the political spectrum, from both conservatives and progressives alike.

So why talk about this at church? Why discuss politics and the news of the day when a warm and fuzzy sermon getting us ready for Christmas would be much preferred? My answer is simply this: I cannot turn a blind eye to such blatant injustices in our country. I cannot stand before you and preach about the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ and the need for the mountains to be made low and the valleys to be filled up without seeing the mountains and valleys in our own world. As a white educated male living comfortably in suburbia, I’m on the mountain side of that equation. I have benefitted from white privilege whether knowingly or not. My brothers and sisters of ethnic and other minorities have clearly had a harder road. I say this not to lay on guilt, because I do not feel guilty personally about who I am and where I have come from, but to encourage us to participate in the spreading of the good news, to stand alongside our sisters and brothers declaring that Black lives matter to God. Yes, of course, all lives matter, but those of us who can check off every box indicating our part of the dominant culture often don’t have to worry about a risk in heading out from our homes. All people who have the sacredness of breath in them matter to God.

“’Comfort, o comfort my people,’ says our God.” “All beginnings are hard.” “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

What I really want to ask Mark our gospeler is what he meant in that opening. Is the story the beginning of the good news, or is it something else? The sentence niggles me; I cannot simply let it go. Maybe it’s not just a throw away line that needed to end up on the cutting room floor.

Interestingly, the ending of Mark’s gospel is just as stark. “So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s it. No resurrection appearance, no words of comfort from Jesus. Simply that the women came to put spices on the body, found the stone rolled back and the body gone and then they fled and said nothing to anyone. If I had problems with the beginning, let me tell you that ending is wretched. But the women did say something to someone, didn’t they? They didn’t keep silent forever. The story of the resurrection got told and spread and the good news moved out. Mark’s gospel is just the beginning of the good news about Jesus, because it keeps going and going. Maybe it’s only the beginning because the story doesn’t end with the end of Mark’s narrative at the resurrection. It stretches forward to even us.

As we near the end of this year and the beginning of the next and as we ready ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child, we can invite the good news to freshly begin its work in us. We are invited to turn back from those things that weigh us done and repent and seek forgiveness not because God longs to lord our failings over us but rather because God longs to bring us freedom. We cannot move forward without beginning with those things that separate us from God and destroy our relationships.

Once we seek forgiveness, we can move forward in making straight paths and walking in the way of the Lord. This takes intentionality and living a better story. I’ve spoken many times about Donald Miller’s life changing book entitled A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I learned while editing my life. He begins with these words: “If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers. You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen. The truth is, you wouldn’t remember that story a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back. Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.

“But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to be meaningful. The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make life meaning either. Here’s what I mean by that:”[2] which leads him to the first chapter. It takes work to live a great story, but I think we all desperately want this. To have our lives make a difference in our own lives and in someone else’s life too.

And so I am inviting all of you to join with me in reading this book together in the New Year. An all parish book study. We’ll figure out logistics in creating small groups and people who can host a group in their home. I sincerely believe that we live into the good news in community, and by meeting together and talking about a book that encourages us to live meaningful lives will greatly impact all of us.

All beginnings are hard. All stands we take to live more meaningfully, to share the good news of Jesus Christ, to make it known that all human beings are beloved by God and deserve to be treated with dignity, all these choices are difficult. But that’s the beauty of the gospel story, of good news, that although it might be difficult to begin, once we start we’ll experience transformation in our own lives and see it in the lives of others. Mountains will be made low and valleys lifted up, and the uneven ground shall become level. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” May it live on in us. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.

 

[1] Chaim Potok, In the Beginning. New York, Ballantine, 1997. Pg 3.

[2] Donald Miller. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2011. Pg. xiii.