All the beginnings
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8 ESV)
Where is the beginning? If I asked you to tell me about yourself, where do you start? At the first point where we met? At the time you moved in to your present house or job? When you’re born? Maybe when you’re conceived or rather more who your parents are? Should you go back further along your family tree? Where is the beginning?
The Christian Church arbitrarily sets this time as the beginning of a new church year. Our calendar says the new year is not for another 24 days. But the season of Advent involves – the beginning of God’s personal rescue through the incarnation of Jesus which we celebrate at Christmas and the beginning that we look to either via our deaths or the Lord’s return – when we will see what we have believed – Jesus in all his glory and those in Christ standing and praising and rejoicing in the life that has no tears, sadness, pain, or death.
So when we hear our Gospel today – according to Mark – we are transported into the mystery of the beginning. Blunt. Stated up front. No niceties – thanks for listening – hope you’re well – straight into it – The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. What part of the story does Mark tell?
Echoing Genesis comes to our minds with the ‘In the beginning’ – does Mark intend to go that far back? – most scholars say no – but I wonder if there isn’t an intention to draw our attention to God’s activity. So Mark simply says ‘the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. The truth is stated. It is not debated but declared that Jesus Christ or Jesus the Messiah is the Son of God. Mark doesn’t give us any Christmas details but travels hundreds of years earlier to the prophet Isaiah and presents Jesus as the fulfilment of the prophet’s work. The prophet prepares the way of the Lord. He is in the wilderness for that is so often where God works with and on his people. Life is never straight forward, there are always bumps and sidetracks and dangers and detours usually self inflicted or self generated but now God wants his people with him – on the straight and narrow – though I hesitated to use that phrase because we hear it as legalistic and moralistic but I think it is simply true that straight paths are simply easier to travel, more joyous, safer – God’s holy highway (look up Isaiah 35).
This is the beginning in terms of God’s personal involvement with rescuing people who try and make their own way through life – cut their own path – forge their own track – maybe over the lives and bodies of others – and it is always harder, crueller, and so much more unnecessary than travelling God’s way but we are a stubborn and forgetful people – and so God is coming himself into our midst. If he just turned up in all his holiness and majesty we would cower, head away from him as fast as we can and call on the mountains to fall on us – in fact we would be destroyed – so God comes ‘safely’ – in human flesh. The herald, the messenger, is John the baptising one, out in the wilderness – a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And that has always been the key for relating with this God for he will dwell only with sinners – he comes to forgive – and only sinners – repentant sinners see the need.
Now the world – in this case all of Judea and Jerusalem – went out to John and all were baptised. The world, it seems to me, always has itchy ears and often runs after the latest spiritual idea, fad, thought, guru – we’re always prepared to do ‘stuff’ in our desire for spiritual fulfilment. But John points out that our ‘doing’ is not the point. It is not what we do that is important, it is what we receive that counts. So John points to another – greater than him – who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. And the message is clear – receive this One – receive this Spirit – don’t reject or try and control him, like humanity does with all the deities we create – you won’t be able to do that with the one who comes after John. He is so powerful that I’m not worthy or able to stop and untie his sandals. That’s actually a strange picture to use because that menial task was viewed as so menial that Hebrew slaves were prohibited from doing it for their masters, though a son or a disciple might do it – though even some rabbis said that a pupil was exempt from this task even though he was obligated to many other kinds of slave type service. If John is a messenger from God and he is not worthy to perform a task regarded as so menial he was excused from it, then how powerful and strong is the one coming after him?!
How strong and powerful indeed?!
Isn’t that the point though? Mark’s gospel – indeed all the gospel accounts – indeed all the New Testament and the life of the early church and the church down through the ages to us today all stand under the shadow of a cross. The world knows of the crucified – they are weak – they are caught – they are humiliated – they suffer – they are dead – they are losers – don’t be like them. And in general we would agree. Except we’re not talking generalities – neither were the apostles – nor was the early church – in fact neither was John the Baptist. We’re talking specifics – a specific person – a time and a place – this isn’t an everyman fable – a fairytale we can tweak – this is history – and his story – about Jesus.
I struggle at times to talk with the world about God because when I’m asked questions about God – when I’m told the latest spiritual theory or fad – or when I’m challenged about God and why I believe – really how can I, an apparently intelligent person, believe? – I find myself more and more stopping the conversation and asking something like ‘Which god are you talking about? What’s his / her / their name?’. And people are often stumped by the question because they have a general concept – a fluffy cloud almost – just a blob that is their target – called ‘God’ which for some reason they don’t like. And so I find myself asking questions about beginnings. When did they first know his name to reject him? Or when did they start to reject the concept of God?
And depending on the answer – or depending on message I want to teach or share – I, too, go to the beginning – and maybe there are many of them – baptism; God’s patience and mercy and forgiveness and love which are always prior anything we do; the incarnation and Christmas and Jesus; or maybe I go back all the way to a garden and that beginning – creation, sin, and the rescue plan God sets in place – but no matter where I go – God is there already working. The mystery is that he, who is almighty, acts humbly. He who is glorious hides in shame and scandal to reach us. He who is omnipresent localises himself in words, water, bread and wine so that we can come to him and have new beginnings each week, even each day.
What doesn’t change is the gospel – is Jesus – he is the Son of God – and we still fundamentally begin and end each day with ‘Lord, have mercy’ – and ‘thank you for tying my sandals so I don’t trip up yet again’.
It is the only way to live each day!
- Mark 1:1 - 8