And now it begins

When does the story of Jesus start? It starts with us.

Full Text: 

And now it begins

January 3, 2015 – Mark 1:14-15

 

            Today the Narrative Lectionary takes us into the gospel of Mark.  It actually did so last Sunday, but I wasn’t quite ready to let go of Christmas.  Since there is no story of the birth of Jesus in Mark, I decided to delay these readings for one week.

            The two readings together for last Sunday and this Sunday make up the entire first chapter of Mark.  I didn’t want to read the whole first chapter – even the single readings are quite long – so I chose just the first 15 verses for the reading.

            But after working with the text this week, I’d like to limit the focus further to just two verses – 14 and 15:

            Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.’

            I believe that this could be considered the theme statement for the whole gospel.  I’ll be returning to it again and again over the next few months.  But to give you an introduction to the gospel of Mark today, I’d like to go from here back to the beginning of the gospel.  And then I’d like to go from here forward into the gospel.

 

            The gospel of Mark begins with the words – The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  The question is – What does this mean?  What is the beginning of the gospel for Mark?

            Are Mark’s words simply a marker, directing the reader to begin at this spot, with that verse, at a time when books were rare and there may have been some confusion about the first line?

            Are Mark’s words intended to introduce the words of the prophet Isaiah (which in turn introduce John the Baptist) so that we are assured of the long history behind this brief story?

            Are they intended as a kind of chapter title – the gospel of Jesus begins with his baptism by John, the announcement of his divine son-ship, and his time in the wilderness – all of which precede the beginning of his own ministry?

            Or is it, as some have suggested, the title of the whole gospel – that the open-ended closing verses of the Easter story are an invitation to us?

            I’m not sure.  I don’t know if anyone does.  It may be more than one of these.  What I do know, however, is that the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is a turning point in the narrative.  So, these words serve as a beginning:

            Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.’

            First there is an ending: “Now after John was arrested…”  This is a show stopper.  Up until now, John has been a rock star.  He has drawn record crowds from all over the countryside and even from Jerusalem – everyone has been going out to him.  He has raised expectations.  He has lifted hopes.  He has gotten people to believe again.

            But then it’s over.  John is arrested.  All that John has been doing has come to an end.  His preaching has been silenced.  His work of baptism is over.  If the kingdom of God has really arrived, you sure wouldn’t know it.  John is in chains and things come to a screeching halt.  That’s the way the world works.

            It is not, however, the way God works.  There is an end, but there is also a beginning.  John steps aside – or rather is dragged off the stage – and Jesus steps onto it.  So, the good news of Jesus Christ, son of God, begins.

            Then Jesus calls disciples.  He casts out demons.  He heals the sick.  He continues to preach the good news.

            To be sure, there is still resistance.  We can track the resistance by following the questions.  Jesus is teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum.  A man with an unclean spirit is present.  The spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?”  After Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, the people have their own question – “What is this?  A new teaching?”

            In chapter 2, as we will discover, the questions do not stop – Who can forgive sins but God alone?  Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?  Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?

            For each question, Jesus has a response – Stand up, take your mat and go home.  Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous, but sinners.  The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath.

            Even more, Jesus has a life.  He lives his life in a particular way, shaped and driven by a particular mission, a mission to which he calls his followers.  As they approach Jerusalem, James and John ask a favor – to be given seats of honor in his glory.  This angers the other disciples.  But Jesus says, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve, to give his life, that many people might be liberated.”

 

            For them, this means liberation from the centrality of the temple in Jerusalem as the only place of worship – the only place where people have access to God.  For them, it also means liberation from the priests who are in control of that access and of whatever benefits faithful people receive from God.  For them and for us, it means that our relationship with God comes though Jesus and Jesus alone – and that not even the death of Jesus can stop God from working in the world.

            Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.’

 

            This is the Second Sunday of Christmas.  Most of us, and certainly most of the world, have moved on from Christmas.  We’ve even moved on from New Year’s.  What is occupying our attention now is football.  This weekend, the bulk of the college bowl games were contested.  Only the national championship game has yet to be played.  After today the NFL also moves into the playoffs which will culminate in a few weeks in the Super Bowl.

            The ancient Romans didn’t have football.  They had chariot races.  There were 120 official Roman holidays and on most of them there were chariot races.  The biggest venue for these races was the Circus Maximus.  The race track was one-half mile long and one-tenth mile wide. 

            I learned about Roman chariot races in the 1959 movie, “Ben Hur,” which starred Charlton Heston and won 11 Academy awards.  It was originally produced in 1924 and will be produced again this year – 2016.  There is much more to the story, but the part of the movie that impressed me the most as a child – and the only part I remember – were the chariot races.  I don’t know if there was a specific length to the race, but the excitement came watching each charioteer trying to make the others wipe-out.

            This happened most often at each end of the oval.  There was something called a “meta” – a turning point – at those spots marked by three pillars.  That’s where the fight in the race was most fierce.  Good charioteers knew how to aim and draw as close to that point as possible in order to make a good turn and hence to gain an advantage.

            “Meta” is what Jesus is calling us to – not a competitive race, but a turning point.  The word ‘repent’ in Greek has that word in it – metanoia – change of mind or turning of mind.  Jesus is the meta – he is the turning point for the kingdom of God.  And he is the turning point for us.

 

            Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.’

            It is Jesus himself who has brought the kingdom of God near.  It is Jesus himself who bears the kingdom of God.  It is Jesus himself who is the good news.

            And this is the beginning of the gospel for us – when we hear this proclamation and respond by following Jesus.