Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Beginning of the Good News

Mark 1:1-8
            Where’s Mark’s joke? Or poem? Or news story? The author of this gospel doesn’t ease the reader into the text. BOOM, it starts. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…” We don’t get an angel, shepherds, a dream, or even a longer description of the prophet, John the Baptizer. Instead, we are plucked right into the story.

            We know that Mark is the earliest written gospel that we have. We are talking about a story that existed in a similar written form to what we have in our hands, in our homes, in every hotel room, in our own language- a story marked just under two thousand years ago. Why doesn’t this gospel have the birth narrative or any of the larger details from Matthew or Luke? Why isn’t there a longer, more poetic entry like in John?

            Interestingly, Mark’s gospel originally ended very abruptly as well. What we consider the last chapter of the story had only 8 verses. It reads: When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they 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 a fairly abrupt conclusion to the story. Of course, something happened beyond that because the story squeaked out somehow. So imagine people noticing early Christians, early followers of the way. These would have been people dedicated to their community, perceiving some equality among different classes, castes, and races, dedicated to healing, sharing, and showing mercy. Their lives were different enough that they gained attention.

            “Why do you do this?” someone might have asked one of the disciples in the temple court. “Tell me about your group,” one woman might have urged another in the marketplace. “Speak to me about this Jesus,” one slave might have whispered to another one the way to the river.

            Most people begin a story with the most exciting part, the part that is the most incredulous. In the case of Jesus, that would be resurrection, right? After all, his teaching about righteousness and justice echoed the prophets in words that were already familiar, if not followed. His healings were miraculous, but there were other healers. Rising from the dead, people seeing angels and not dying, reports that he had appeared, in resurrected form,- this was the big news.

            So, the followers of Christ would likely share this part of the story, but you can imagine people who were skeptical, suspicious, or curious saying, “But who was he? How do you know he was different? Where did this all start?”

            So, they would go back- not to the miraculous birth story, which was a standard starting place, but to the spot where Jesus’ story diverged from the other prophets in history. From Elijah and John, from Moses and Amos, the story begins abruptly with the “beginning of the good news”- the quick entry into what makes Jesus different.

            We do not actually live in a time in which people are fundamentally different from when this gospel was written. People still think of the end of the story first- heaven, resurrection, reunion, future. Yet, the heart of the gospel, its immediacy, is not in what it can offer tomorrow or at the end of time as we know it. The good news of Jesus Christ has a beginning… it has already begun. If it has already begun, then it has a direct impact on the world today.

            The basic reality of what it means to be people of God, people who perceive the good news of Jesus Christ, is that we are carrying that message into the world. What does that mean in the plainest English possible? This a book written for people facing oppression, economic hardship, and religious division. They needed hope in the promise of God’s future actions and help in seeing the present effects of that promise.
People today need to hear, to see, to taste, to touch, to feel, to be welcomed by, to be told, to be whispered to, to read, to sing, to smell, to perceive in all kinds of ways that we who are children of God do not believe we are waiting in vain.

We may not be entirely sure what happens next. That’s okay.

We may not be fully clear on how to explain all the ins and outs of doctrines and church hierarchy. More power to us.

We definitely don’t know what God’s timeline for Christ’s return is. Can’t do anything about that.

We can, however, speak a word of truth in a time of dishonesty. We must point to God’s preference for the poor, the outcast, the rejected, the disheartened, the oppressed, and the neglected. We have to speak to the realities of injustice, racism, classism, constant warfare, and the valuing of things and power over the gifts of creation.

These are not ambiguous ideas. They are not too big to grasp. Each of you, at this very moment, has a scene, a story, a news clip, a bit in your mind that you have turned over and over. A thing that you have wondered if you should do something about. Is it your place to comment? Will someone else do it, if you don’t? If you wait long enough?

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ… It’s not an actual sentence because it has no verb, no action word. The action is in you. The telling of the story, the living out of its implication, the slowly growing faith that the life of Christ is not about tomorrow, but about today. The action, the movement, the cycle of the story- beginning and end- are in you, through the Holy Spirit. 

Frankly, it is an abrupt beginning for us all- starting when we are splashed or soaked by our baptisms and then brought into a family that is supposed to walk with us on the same path. We go out and we come in to this place. We struggle. We wrestle. We wonder. Yet, we are never let go from the task of telling the story, of living its call, of trying to shape the world according to the truth of God revealed in Jesus.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ happens again and again and again. As much as you hear it, you should tell it. As much as you tell it, you should live it. As much as you live it, people will be drawn to it. As people are drawn, the world shifts. This is what it means to be Advent people, to believe that the promised return has present implications. We don’t need the birth narrative. Mark didn’t.

We simply must, and we can, embrace the sudden truth of God among us- the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ- as the start of the story that changes us and changes the world.

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