(Sermon for Sunday, December 4, 2011 || Advent 2B || Mark 1:1-8 )
The Gospel writer Mark wastes no time telling us what the story he is writing is about. The very first words of his account of the Gospel proclaim without hesitation: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Whereas Matthew begins with a genealogy that links Jesus back to Abraham; whereas Luke begins with a short address about his research methodology; whereas John begins with a mysterious poem about creation, Mark just hits the ground running and never looks back. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Now, until I started thinking about this sermon, I had always taken this verse at face value. The “beginning” that Mark is talking about is simply the launch of the story he is telling. The “good news” is the marvelous effect of the life, death, and resurrection of the main character, whose name and identity Mark helpfully provides at the end of the verse: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The immediate, no frills manner, in which Mark relates the rest of the Gospel, makes this face value interpretation of the opening verse quite attractive. However, just because Mark’s narrative tends to hurtle forward from one encounter to the next, doesn’t mean that the narrative has no depth or intricacy. With that in mind, and because Advent is upon us, let’s slow down for a few minutes and really digest this first verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
In today’s parlance, when we hear the term “good news,” the two words are usually embedded in the sentence: “Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” We’ve all used this conversational staple.
“The good news is no one was seriously hurt in the accident; the bad news is the car was totaled.”
“The good news is I found the recipe; the bad news is we’re out of eggs.”
In meetings, around kitchen tables, on the bus, we use the words “good news” to talk about the sometimes funny, sometimes bland, sometimes serious details of our lives. These two words are so ordinary, so normal. Because they sound so common, I wonder how we encounter the words “good news” when we hear them right at the beginning of Mark’s account of the Gospel. Perhaps Mark is really excited about the story he is going to tell. Perhaps Mark is employing a specific term that Jesus’ himself or his first followers used to describe his message. Either way, Mark is almost certainly doing something that we 21st century citizens would miss entirely because of our modern connotation of “good news.”
You see, in the first century Roman Empire, of which Israel was an occupied region, the term “good news” had a special connotation. The word was used exclusively for propaganda about the empire and usually about the Roman emperor himself.
“Good News: the Emperor won a victory in Gaul!”
“Good News: the Emperor’s wife has given birth to a strapping infant boy!”
“Good News: the Emperor has had another birthday!”
The Roman propaganda machine churned out these ancient press releases, and the strong arm of the military bade the cowed citizenry of occupied countries to celebrate. This was one small way that the Empire kept control of all that conquered land.
So when Jesus and later Mark proclaim their own “Good News,” they are tacitly setting their story, their message, their view of who’s really in charge squarely in the face of the Roman establishment. The “Good News,” which Jesus and his followers proclaim, is a stark challenge to ruling order of the day. Indeed, Mark shows his faith and his gutsiness in the simple act of writing those two words on the page.
Okay, file the challenge away for just a minute and let’s back up to the first two words in the verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The beginning. I’ll confess, until this week, I never thought there was something odd about these two words, which open Mark’s account of the Gospel. But think about them for a second: the beginning. The two words obviously start the story. They’re on page one. They would have been at the top of the scroll in Mark’s day. Why does Mark need to tell us that we are reading the beginning of the story when we are obviously reading the beginning of the story?
Perhaps Mark isn’t just stating the obvious. Perhaps this “beginning” is greater than “the opening verses of Chapter One.” Perhaps the “beginning” that Mark has in mind encompasses the entirety of his sixteen-chapter Gospel. Now we’re on to something.
If the whole, entire Gospel is the “beginning of the good news,” then the natural question becomes, “What is the middle and end of the good news?” And this is where followers of Jesus Christ down through the centuries come in. Jesus lived the beginning of the Good News. Mark, along with Matthew, Luke, and John, wrote down the story of that beginning. And you and I are characters in the middle of that same story begun two thousand years ago. You and I are players in the unfolding drama of the Good News. You and I have taken up the narrative of the Gospel that God continues to tell in our lives.
Alright, go ahead and un-file the challenge we talked about a minute ago. Remember that Mark’s usage of the term “Good News” was a gutsy, implicit challenge to the ruling order of the day. This ruling order touted their empire as the “Pax Romana,” the “peace of Rome.” Of course, this “peace” was accomplished through conquest, coercion, occupation, and fear. But Jesus Christ replaced this so-called “peace” with a peace of his own invention. Jesus’ own Good News, his own triumph was accomplished through welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.
Of course, when these two versions of “peace” clashed, the broken, imperial establishment utterly crushed Jesus. However, by not fighting back, by sacrificing himself to halt the cycle of violence, Jesus succeeded in his challenge, even though he died. But even then, the story was just beginning. With his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that his version of the Good News is truly the Good one. As characters who have now appeared later in this same narrative, we have the opportunity to take up the same challenge that Jesus and Mark after him championed. The Pax Romana of our day rules through apathy, self-centeredness, greed, and (as then) fear. But when find ourselves in the middle of the story begun in the Gospel, we find the strength and courage to combat those evils with Jesus’ own arsenal of welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.
Now, I’ll end this sermon with some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first? The bad news. Sure. The bad news is there is still so much brokenness in this world, so many places where God’s Kingdom seems so far away. The good news is that with God’s help, we can challenge the ruling order of our day and bring the wholeness of the Kingdom to those broken places. The good news is that we are the current characters in the story begun in the Gospel. The good news is that the story isn’t over yet.