Monday, December 5, 2011

The Beginning

“In The Beginning”
Mark 1:1-8
December 4, 2011/Second Sunday of Advent

“In the beginning
There was the cold and the night
Prophets and angels gave us the fire and the light
Man was triumphant
Armed with the faith and the will
Even the darkest ages couldn't kill”[1]

            This is the beginning of a song by Billy Joel called 2000 Years.  I thought I knew most of Joel’s work until a friend of mine gave this song to me.  When I chose the title for my sermon this week – which is a traumatic experience for me most weeks because I tend to be title impaired – this song kept running through my head.
            So I listened to it several times, and finally Googled the lyrics so I’d get them just right.  I particularly like the line about the prophets and the angels giving us the fire and the light.  I don’t know that Billy Joel was referencing any particular prophet or angel, but certainly the prophets and angels we find in scripture bring fire and light.  Certainly we are in the season of the church year when prophets and angels take on new meaning.
            We’ll be hearing more from angels in a few weeks, but today our words come from prophets.  Specifically we hear the words spoken by God to the prophet Isaiah and from John the Baptizer. 
            I think it’s safe to say that John the Baptist brings a little fire.  Mark’s version of John reads a little less fiery than some of the other gospels.  We don’t get the phrase “brood of vipers” from Mark’s version of John, but I believe that the fiery intent is still there. 
            In fact, in comparison to the other three gospels, Mark’s opening is different all the way around.[2]  One commentator made the statement that he used to think that Mark was lacking in creativity because it started in such a boring kind of way.   “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  This scholar believed that was a pretty lame way to get started.[3] 
            So let’s think about how the other gospels start the story.  Matthew’s:  “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. “  Or Luke’s:  “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us…”  And how can we ever forget the beginning of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 
            In comparison, then, I guess Mark’s opening lines do sound a little tame.  But then again, maybe they aren’t.  Mark is the only one of the four gospels that calls itself a gospel.  Mark announces from the very beginning that this work is a gospel.  It is a work of good news about the One who brings good news, the One who is, actually, good news in human form.  Jesus Christ.[4]
            There is no second guessing what Mark is trying to get across here.  Jesus Christ is the Messiah we have been waiting for.  He is the Good News.  He is the Son of God. 
            So in the beginning of the gospel we know exactly who Mark believes Jesus to be, and it is urgent that all those who hear, who read, who listen believe that as well.  As we work our way through this gospel over the next year, we will see that there is an urgency to Mark’s gospel.  He uses the word “immediately” over and over again to show that the events happening with and to and because of Jesus Christ the Son of God were of vital importance and taking place right then in their immediate midst.
            There is an air of expectancy, of great anticipation to Mark’s gospel and that is evident in these opening verses and in the story he tells of John the Baptist. 
            In the beginning is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  No subtlety, no pretense.  Just what it is.  This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 
            And true to fashion, Mark doesn’t talk about the birth of Jesus.  There are no mangers or shepherds or heavenly hosts singing alleluias.  He moves right ahead to John the Baptist.  Remember the words of Isaiah?  A messenger who will come from the wilderness?  Crying out to “prepare the way of the Lord”? 
            Well here he is.  John the Baptizer.  John appeared in the wilderness.  John, whose dress and diet were strange.  John, whose message was “Repent.”  John came from the wilderness, just as Isaiah prophesied, and called for repentance in the form of baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  And according to Mark, all the people in the Judean countryside and all of the people from Jerusalem flocked after John, this strange and wild prophet, and followed him to the river Jordan. 
            And while they were gathered around him, waiting for their chance to be baptized, John proclaimed to them, “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.”
            Immediate.  Urgent.  This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  In the beginning is Jesus Christ.
            Mark doesn’t have time to waste words.  He is writing to and for a people who are under siege.  They were under assault by the Roman army, who were planning to utterly destroy the city of Jerusalem and its temple.  At this time there were two disparate Jewish lines of thought.  One was Zionist.  As they faced the Romans, it was believed that God would intercede on their behalf in the form of military might.  The Romans would be crushed because the Hebrew God was on their side and moving decisively in history.  So the Messiah they longed for would be a mighty warrior. 
            But Mark counters this with another understanding.  God has interjected himself into human history, but it has happened already with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth a generation before the gospel was written.  Most of the people who interacted with Jesus missed what he was there for.  They missed the incarnation of God in their midst.  They missed the point entirely.  
            But Mark is telling them that they have another opportunity, another chance, a new beginning.  At this critical moment, at this turning point with the world and all that they know and understand in peril, they have the ability to look back and see how God has acted in history.  They can repent, just as John the Baptizer called those who gathered around him to do. They can see God in the past and realize that God is also in their present and in their future. 
The Greek word for repent is metanoia which literally means to turn around.  So Mark calls on the people he writes for to do just that.  Turn around.  Turn back to God.  See God.  See God in Jesus Christ.  Because when you can see God in Jesus Christ, you have infinite reason to hope.  God is not far off.  God is right here, with us.  Even though Rome is at the doorstep, God with us is our greatest reason to hope.
And isn’t hope, isn’t expectancy, what Advent is all about?  This isn’t just a time of casual waiting, like we might do waiting to see the dentist.  This is a time of expectant waiting.  It is fervent waiting.  And fervency is at the heart of Mark’s gospel.
You see, just as we talked about the beginning of Mark’s gospel, I think we also have to talk about the ending.  The ending of Mark’s gospel is so controversial, that different, later scribes wrote different endings to try and tie it up neatly.  In my Bible, which is the New Revised Standard Version, the endings are called the shorter and the longer versions.  But here is what is considered to be the original ending. 
“So they (the disciples) went out and fled from the tomb , for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.”
It’s definitely not a neatly boxed up little ending is it?  But I don’t believe that Mark wanted it to be. I think he wanted it to be put back on the readers’ shoulders figuratively and literally speaking.  The original disciples ran away afraid.  What will you do?
That’s a question that we all must ask isn’t it?  What will we do?  What is our hope?  Do we believe that God is with us, in our past, in our present and in our future?  If so, how are we preparing the way?  What will we do?
It’s on us.   We can run away afraid, telling no one.  Or we can see this Advent as another chance, a new beginning, a time to turn around, to recognize that God continues to do a new thing in our midst.  This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  It is our beginning.  What will we do?
I close as I began.  With Billy Joel.
“There will be miracles
After the last war is won
Science and poetry rule in the new world to come
Prophets and angels
Gave us the power to see
What an amazing future there will be

And in the evening
After the fire and the light
One thing is certain: Nothing can hold back the night
Time is relentless
And as the past disappears
We're on the verge of all things new
We are two thousand years.”

Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”

[1] Billy Joel, 2000 Years from River of Dreams
[2][2] Karoline Lewis,
[3] Rolf Jacobson,
[4] Lamar Williamson, Jr., Interpreter’s Commentary on Mark

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