The Beginning of the Beginning

(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 the Patriots won their game; the bad news is so-and-so outside linebacker broke his leg and is out for the season.”

“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.

Nets and new creations

(Sermon for January 25, 2009 || Epiphany 3, Year B, RCL || Mark 1:14-20)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is out for a stroll along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. As he walks along, he notices the fishing boats tacking for deeper waters and trawling the shallows. He sees Simon and Andrew casting a net into the water. He sees James and John mending their nets in their boat. He calls out to them, “Follow me.” “And immediately,” says Mark, “they left their nets and followed him.” Immediately, they left their nets and followed him.

Now, I tend not to read the Bible metaphorically. Adding layers of interpretation to the words on the page usually serves to obfuscate rather than enlighten. This morning, however, I pray you indulge me one teeny-tiny metaphor. The four disciples Jesus calls in the Gospel leave their nets to follow him. They were fishermen, so working with nets came naturally to them. But, in landlocked West Virginia, we have little cause to handle fishing nets. So, I ask you, what are the “nets” to which we cling that prevent us from following Jesus? Put another way, what would be different about our lives if we left our nets and followed Jesus?

We could go into all the normal “nets” that ensnare us: grubbing for more stuff, distracting ourselves with the superficial glamour of the world, entering the wrong relationships. These certainly are nets, and they do trap us. But there is another, more insidious net that excels at holding us back from following Jesus.

This insidious net keeps us from practicing discipleship. The net entangles us when we confuse following Jesus with following the “idea of Jesus.” This is a strange turn of phrase, so let me unpack it. The “idea of Jesus” infiltrates our consciences when we forget that the events of the Gospel continue to play out today. The “idea of Jesus” disguises the person of the living Christ beneath layers of doctrine, history, and popular misconception, until he becomes a farcical shadow of himself, more akin to the Easter Bunny than the one true God. The “idea of Jesus” is so much easier to follow than the real Jesus because the “idea” makes far fewer demands on our lives and never asks us to become disciples. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Discipleship is commitment to Christ. Because Christ exists, he must be followed. An idea about Christ, a doctrinal system, a general religious recognition of grace or forgiveness of sins does not require discipleship.”*

Think of it this way: A good portion of Americans love the “idea of soccer.”**  They love that there is a sport that the world plays together. They love seeing small foreign children running after a ball in the dust on TV. They love the big leg muscles and celebrity status of David Beckham. But very few Americans ever actually want to play soccer. There’s way too much running and way too little scoring for most of us.

In the same way, we often find ourselves taken with the “idea of Jesus.” There was once this cool guy who said some great stuff about love and acceptance. He collected a lot of enemies because he made friends with outsiders. He kept the wine flowing at this wild party. This “idea of Jesus” looks great on paper. But, like paper, the “idea” is flimsy and two-dimensional. The real Jesus, the living Christ, springs from the page, full of three-dimensional vigor, and he calls us to a life of true discipleship.

This is where the net comes in. If we are deluding ourselves into thinking we are following Jesus while we go about our lives as if nothing has or will change, then we are following the “idea of Jesus” instead. Following the Jesus who calls his disciples away from their nets necessitates change. Again, Bonhoeffer says, “Following Christ means taking certain steps. The first step, which responds to the call, separates the followers from their previous existence. A call to discipleship thus immediately creates a new situation. Staying in the old situation and following Christ mutually exclude each other.”**

We run back to our nets because this newness frightens us. When I moved to Alabama at age 12, no one could understand my thick Rhode Island accent, I called the water fountain a “bubbler,” a dusting of snow was a blizzard, the Red Sox weren’t on TV, and I didn’t know that saying “sir” and “ma’am” was integral to my survival. My life was different and uncomfortable and humid. I just wanted to go home. But, in the slow march of years, Alabama became home.

When we leave our nets and follow Jesus, we give up the trappings of the illusory homes we have built for ourselves. We step out of our comfort zones, and hopefully we never get too comfortable ever again. As we strive to follow Jesus, we may wonder why we never reach a new normal, why that initial feeling of discomfort persists. Then we realize that following Christ means continual renewal, constant reshaping. Paul says that if “anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). As new creations, we are not new a single, solitary time, but every hour of every day. This newness keeps us from becoming complacent, keeps us from sitting in our boats as Jesus passes by. The discomfort propels us forward like dissonance in a Beethoven sonata. Indeed, a piece of music comprised of pleasing, consonant chords would be exceedingly boring. Likewise, following Jesus means dragging our comfort zones along behind us as we constantly step out of them.

Following Jesus is necessarily a nomadic existence. Our home is not a place, you see. Our home is a person. When we follow Jesus, we give up the trappings of our illusory homes for a true home by his side.

The flimsy “idea of Jesus” can only provide us a home built on the sand, which collapses whenever the winds and rains come. The “idea of Jesus” may bring us to church one day a week, but it will not instill in us the desire to seek Christ the other six. It will not demand that we encounter Christ in every person we meet. It will not motivate us to interrupt our net-mending to serve the poor or pray for guidance or praise God for the simple fact that we are marvelously made.

Because it makes no demands on us, the “idea of Jesus” causes us to mistake self-satisfaction for discipleship and comfort for salvation. But the real Jesus does not call us to be comfortable. He calls us to be free and invites us to use our freedom to choose a life of service in his name. If we do not actively seek to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, if we do not take seriously our role as disciples, then we will be complicit in allowing our Lord and Savior to drift into the obscurity of legend or tall tale. As Søren Kierkegaard puts it, “Discipleship…really provides the guarantee that Christianity does not become poetry, mythology, and abstract idea.”****  Following Jesus means offering ourselves as conduits for turning the abstract into the concrete. Put another way, as the Letter of James says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (Jas. 2:15-16)

Jesus, the true Jesus, calls to us. He is not an idea or a design on a T-shirt or a cool guy who said some nice stuff once. Jesus, the living Christ, walks up to each one of us and invites us to a new life of hope and love and tears and pain and joy and freedom. He looks each one of us in the eye, says, “Follow me,” and radiates the abundant grace that allows us to do so. Join me in praying that each one of us will meet his gaze, leave our nets, and follow him.


* Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2001. p 59. (Italics mine)

** I borrowed this idea from the hilarious blog Stuff White People Like.

*** Ibid. 61-62

**** Ibid. 59 (in footnote)