Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“The Beginning of Good News”
Rev. Art Ritter
December 6, 2020
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; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “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.”
On the website of the American Book Review, editors have selected what they believe to be the 100 Best First Lines of Novels. Here are a few of the selections:
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.” Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
“Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, 1984
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
I read of an interview with an Olympic champion swimmer. She was asked to speak about the hardest part of her successful career. She answered, “The beginning.” The interviewer commented, “When you were younger and just learning how to swim competitively?” The swimmer answered, “No. The beginning of every single day when I have to get into the pool. Just getting into the pool is the hardest part. After that it is easy.”
The beginning is perhaps the most important part of any story. I have heard some writers remark that they spend a great deal of their time struggling with the beginning of their stories because those early words set the scene and establish the framework of the story. One author has written that it was the beginning of his tale, his first few sentences that inspired him to write the rest of the book. It is said that some authors don’t actually write the early sentences of their manuscript until they have completed the rest of the book.
I know that the hardest part of each weekly sermon is the beginning. I sometimes struggle with a good way to ease listeners into the meaning of the Scriptures, to grab your attention so that you will want to listen to everything that follows. Donald Juel writes, “The function of story openings is to create expectations. Engagement requires expectations and hunches. The story may provide surprises, but even surprises depend upon a shared sense of what can be anticipated.”
The gospel of Mark starts like this, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The author of Mark doesn’t waste any time. He gets right to the point. Gospel scholars recognize that Mark is known for its brevity. The favorite word of the author is the word “immediately” which he uses repeatedly throughout the gospel narrative. Compared to Matthew and Luke and John, Mark’s gospel is a Reader’s Digest condensed version- short and to the point. The author of Mark leaves much up to the reader. For example, the Easter story of Jesus is extremely short and allows the reader to decide for him or herself what to do with an empty tomb, no body, and no resurrected Jesus.
Mark starts the gospel with the line about beginning and then heads into the words of Isaiah from centuries earlier.
“See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness; Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
And then Mark immediately introduces the character of John the Baptist, a man who wears camel’s hair, dines on locusts and wild honey, and offers a popular baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
There is no birth narrative of Jesus. There is no Mary nor Joseph. There are no angels or shepherds. There are no wise men or stars. There isn’t a crowded inn or a stable and there isn’t even a manger. There is no genealogies and no epic song to God’s eternal word. Rather than starting the story with a pregnant Mary or an apprehensive Joseph, Mark begins with a sentence about the good news of Jesus being born.
I have read that there is a great deal of scholarly debate about that very first sentence in the gospel of Mark, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” What does beginning mean and where does the beginning begin and the beginning end? Are the verses that we heard today the entire “beginning?” Is the story of John the Baptist the actual “beginning?” Preacher and scholar Tom Long writes that he believes the “beginning” is nothing less than the complete gospel of Mark. Whatever happened to Jesus from baptism to temptation to teachings and healings to crucifixion to resurrection is the beginning of a larger story, a more complete gospel message that the world will begin to hear through the words and actions of Christ’s believers. All that Jesus did was just the start, the prelude. And the story, that good news, continues this day even among us.
Scott Hoezee writes that when we hear the story of Jesus from the viewpoint of the gospel of Mark, it is like starting the story of the Three Bears by hearing the part about Goldilocks running out of the bears’ home in her pajamas. That’s not the way we used to hearing it. Heard in this way, we would really miss all of that stuff about porridge and chairs and the testing of comfortable beds. It is hard to believe that this is the way Mark wanted to begin the story of good news- with a strange man wandering around the wilderness, screaming at us about our sins. It doesn’t make sense that Mark describes a beginning that doesn’t seem like much of a beginning.
Yet Mark’s concise description of that beginning is a picture of God moving in an untamed place and in an uncertain time. Just as God created the world amid darkness and void, God begins here with a cry of good news in the midst of the wilderness. And we can certainly relate to that. It sure seems as if we live in the wilderness. We yearn for that good news in our landscape of pandemic and conflict and anxiety and fear. We search for something hopeful in the midst of despair and pain. While we might prefer an easy escape in the songs of angels or the guiding of a bright, shiny star, Mark’s gospel tells of God’s promise of a beginning, of the potential for something new to happen in the very wilderness where we live. Mark’s gospel has John the Baptist challenging us to then hit the road to make it happen. It is not a story book happily ever after tale with a happy ending. It is a tale of a beginning of honesty and truth and a call to change. The wilderness God who makes a way where there is no way will dwell with us and walk our human steps and travel our human valley. We have the task of living the story and telling the good news ourselves.
On a plaque that marks the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln near Hodgenville, Kentucky, this conversation is recorded. “Any news down the village Ezra?” “Well, Squire McLain’s gone to Washington to see Madison swore in and Ol’ Spellman tells me this Bonaparte fella has captured most of Spain. What’s new out here, neighbor?” “Nuthn’, nuthin’ a’tall, cept a baby born to Tom Lincoln’s. Nothin ever happens out here.”
Mark’s gospel speaks the same kind of story. Nothing happens here that appears to create much earthly splash. The details of story aren’t remarkable. It takes place in the middle of the wilderness, a place where extraordinary things aren’t especially likely. Yet this is where it all begins. This is the beginning of the good news. Into that world the promise of God came. Into our world comes that same beginning. God is still with us, working through us, continuing the story of good news among us and in us and with us. John the Baptist simply reminds us, “We are not yet what we have been called to me.” This is only the beginning. The story will continue.