“The Beginning of the Good News”

Mark 1:1-8

December 10, 2017 – Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor

East Rochester & West Walworth: Zion United Methodist Churches

 

Mark 1:1-8

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.”

 

 

Prayer.

 

I just completed the book

 

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“The Sistine Secrets

Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican”

by Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner.

For anyone who loves Dan Brown’s gripping novels

Of secret messages and ancient symbols,

Or, for anyone who have been blessed to visit Rome

And gaze up and absorb the Sistine Chapel ceiling,

This is a must read.  

 

One cannot understand Michelangelo’s work

 

 

While overwhelmed with awe, if distracted, or from a distance of 65 feet.

The great artist used these three simple precepts

… awe, distraction, and distance …

To slip past Pope Julius the Terrible and his censors

Messages that held far deeper meaning;

Messages that were in direct opposition to Church teaching at that time.

Messages that could have cost Michelangelo his life.

 

Michelangelo opposed the Church’s persecution of Jews.

The only Biblical figures Michelangelo paints to represent the redemption of humankind, are Jews; prophets and judges.

The non-Biblical figures painted were those from Plato’s teachings,

Not from the teachings of the official Church sanctioned Aristotle.

Appealing to the Popes vanity,

Michelangelo uses his image for the Prophet Zechariah,

Yet hidden behind in the images of circling angels and cherubs,

One is displaying “the fig”

(the thumb sandwiched between the index finger and the middle finger)

Towards the Pope’s image,

In a cleaver offense,

Similar to the contemporary “flying the bird.”

In one of the Creation panels,

Michelangelo paints God facing away,

As if opposed to the Pope and his Mass taking place in the chapel below,

All the while, exposing his bare backside.

Consider it a defiant “mooning” of a corrupt and oppressive Church.

 

I love it!

 

There is deeper meaning in much of the world around us.

Indeed, the word “intelligence” comes from the Latin root “intelligere”

Which means to realize or to understand,

Especially understanding on multiple or deeper levels.

 

 

There is deeper meaning beyond the mere obvious in

The opening of the Gospel of Mark.

To understand it more deeply and thoroughly,

One has to be willing to move beyond the surface moralism

Of John the Baptist teaching and baptizing in the wilderness

for the repentance of sins.

Of course, repentance is an appealing message

And it would have attracted a lot of people;

all the people from the countryside

And all the people from the city

(as Mark puts it)

To come, repent, and be baptized by John in the Jordan River.

Everyone sins.

Who doesn’t want to come clean?

All want to be cleansed of sin.

This attracts large crowds.

 

But is this the entire purpose of the Gospel author, St. Mark?

It’s a good message.

I’ve preached it many times myself.

Who can be against repentance of sins?

But is this the whole message of this passage about John the Baptist?

 

Like Michelangelo, the Gospel author of Mark leaves us some interesting clues.

 

1. The opening of the Gospel of Mark

Doesn’t dawdle in lineage or birth narrative, as in Matthew and Luke.

The opening verses, like the Gospel of John,

Steps directly into the Jordan River and

Begins with a statement of belief;

A theological flag stuck in the ground.

 

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“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (1:1)

 

In its Greek context,

Out of which Mark was being authored in the first century,

Good News connotated Good News from the battlefield.

Good News was the result of the good guys winning and the bad guys losing.

The war that Mark saw raging was the war between good and evil,

The time before the Christ and the time after the Christ,

The era before the cross and the era that followed.

Good news comes to Mark from a place of struggle,

Battles with Satan, the Roman Empire, and with organized Judaism.

It is through this lens of struggle that we will come to view

The entirety of the Gospel of Mark in the coming year.

 

Good News from the front!

Mark is telling his first-generation Christians.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the Good News

And he has come.

 

Mark cites the Prophet Isaiah,

Quite possibly led by the similar account found in the Gospel of John,

Which we will experience next Sunday.

Mark cites the very words we heard read earlier in the service.

(Isaiah 40:1-11)

 

This is Isaiah’s struggle:

He found himself in Exile, with the rest of God’s chosen,

Punishment for their prior sin,

Ancestors who had turned their back upon God.

Exile had been long, hard, and cruel;

But now it was over.

God chose Isaiah to speak his will

To communicate release to his people:

 

 

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” God says to Isaiah,

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” (Isaiah 40:1-2)

 

The Good News from the front is that the struggle of exile is now ended,

The battle is now done.

Prepare the way of the Lord!

As is typical of most prophetic call narratives,

The Prophet is reluctant and puts up a number of excuses to wiggle out his prophetic responsibility.

Ah, people are like grass, he complains,

They ebb and flow, wither and fade.

People are so wishy-washy.

 

Silence!

 

Speak! The Lord commands. “Cry out!”

Get up to a high mountain, O Zion!

Get up on top of Mt. Zion.

Lift up your voice and say to the cities of Judah,

“Here is your God!”

(Isaiah 40:9)

Proclaim to Jerusalem,

Adorned at your feet as you stand upon Mt. Zion,

Here is your God!

 

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Here is your God

Is the message leading off Mark’s Gospel.

Here is your God

John the Baptizer proclaimed.

Here is your God

Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

 

Even in the midst of exile, struggle and battle

John the Baptist announces to the world

 

 

That God is here.

God reigns.

The word of God stands forever.

 

Like Michelangelo’s hidden message,

Mark highlights the Gospel opening message,

Drawing from the prophetic depths of Isaiah:

From the midst of struggle,

God is here.

 

From the midst of struggle,

God is here.

 

Can you apply this message to your life?

Ask yourself, “what is my greatest struggle?
Is it your marriage? Or your singleness?

Your loneliness?

Is your greatest struggle

Your anger?

Or your job?

Is it your relationship with your son or daughter, father or mother?

Is it a paper to be turned in or a test to pass?

Is it that bully who just can’t be avoided?

What is my greatest struggle?

Is it addictions, temptations, greed, or control?

Is it fear, uncertainty, or unbelief?

 

Whatever is your greatest struggle,

God is here.

God reigns.

The word of God stands forever.

 

Simply put, there is nothing you and God can’t handle together.

On your own, good luck.

The world will crush you.

With Jesus Christ, the Son of God,

Whatever your struggle is,

Together, you and God will triumph.

Good News is victory from the battlefield.

 

2. There is a second, nearly hidden, subtle,

Sistine Chapel ceiling type of message

that the Gospel of Mark hides in these awe inspiring opening verses.

His message to us is about power.

Again, power will be a common lens through which we will experience Mark

Over the course of the coming year.

 

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John the Baptizer 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.”

(Mark 1:7-8)

 

The celebrant doing the baptizing

Is commonly known as the one with power.

The celebrant is recognized as the authority,

One who can open the door to the kingdom or keep it shut tight.

 

But here, the one being baptized is recognized

As more powerful than I.

Jesus asks John to baptize him.

Mark recalls Jesus teaching in the third chapter

 

 

“But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”

(Mark 3:27)

 

Strength is a king-of-the-hill type of proposition.

The strongest rises to the top,

Subduing all those underneath.

You can’t plunder a strong man’s house until

You first defeat the strong man,

Make him submit,

And tie him up!

 

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Jesus represents the new strong man,

The new strength revealed to the universe,

Truly the strength of God, made flesh and dwelling among us.

This strength gives victory to the cross.

This strength gives victory over death, signified by an empty tomb.

This strength endures forever with the gift of the Holy Spirit;

Not yet present, but future promised for the first time,

By the words of John.

 

God’s strength is revealed in Jesus.

Consider for a moment what this means to you and me.

Ask yourselves, “how am I weak?”

“In what circumstances am I aware of my weakness?”

“Who makes me feel weak?”

Complete the sentence, “I feel weak and inadequate when …”

 

Is weakness due to a physical infirmity? Age? Disease? Chronic condition?

Is weakness due to insecurity, fear of confrontation, or fear of failure?

Is your perceived weakness due to the size of your bank account, economic status, or social status?

 

The second hidden gem in this introductory Gospel passage is that

No matter how weak you or I might be,

No matter how weak you or I might believe ourselves to be,

God makes us strong.

 

God’s strength complements and compensates for our every weakness,

Real or perceived,

You or I may experience.

Jesus is the sign of this new strength.

His willingness to die for your benefit and mine

Reveals his commitment to our redemption.

His resurrection,

His victory over the grave,

Is a demonstration of his greatest strength of all;

The ability and willingness to give eternal life to all who accept his gift.

 

3. There is one last message I’d like to reveal in this opening to the Gospel of Mark.

Mark cites the prophet Isaiah.

Notice, however, John the Baptist is dressed like Elijah,

A prophet who came 400 years before Isaiah.

What’s up with that?

 

 

A brief synopsis of Elijah’s story,

As  found in 1st and 2nd Kings,  would be helpful.

(This underscores the fact that

To understand the Gospels,

One has to study and understand sacred Hebrew texts;

Our Old Testament.)

 

Elijah defended the worship of Yawhew, the Jewish God, our God,

Over that of the Canaanite deity Baal.

Elijah’s prophetic voice was to turn the people back

To a strict deuteronomic interpretation of religious law.

King Ahab and his pagan wife Jezebel

Despised Elijah and his prophecy.

Elijah defeats and kills 450 of their pagan prophets in a divine contest.

They threatened to kill Elijah and pursue him into the desert.

In his life, Elijah raises the dead,

Miraculously resupplies flour and oil to a compassionate widow,

Returns to Mt. Horeb where Moses received the Ten Commandments,

Confronts the king Ahab for his treacherous dealing purchasing a vineyard,

All the while, condemning the people for turning away from God and His word.

In the end, Elijah is whisked away into heaven in a chariot of fire in a whirlwind.

 

John the baptizer dresses like Elijah,

Yet, in the Gospel of John,

Proclaims he is not Elijah.

Why is this important?

 

One only needs to go to the Book of Malachi where it is written,

 

 

"Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

(Malachi 4:5)

Jesus identifies John the Baptist as the spiritual successor to Elijah, saying

“He is Elijah who is to come.”

(Matthew 11:14)

 

All of which it is to say,

By way of the prophets,

Elijah and Malachi,

 

 

God keeps God’s promises in and through Jesus.

 

God keeps God’s promises.

God promised to send Elijah before the Son of Man.

God did, by sending John the Baptist to prepare the way.

God sends to us Jesus,

To redeem and save the world.

You are still God’s people,

Both when you’re in exile and when you live in the providence of life.

 

This is the important message hidden in the actions, dress, and behavior

Of John the Baptist:

God keeps His promises.

 

Consider once again,

What this means to you and me.

God created you in God’s own image.

You are chosen by God, as an ancestor of Abraham,

To be a great nation, in perpetuity.

You are loved by God so much He sent us His son, Jesus,

Because, our loving God is deeply invested in our final outcome.

You are so precious to God,

That until our final outcome is determined,

We’ve been given the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit,

To guide, strengthen, and support us through every moment of our lives.

God has given us the Church,

Into which we have shared the same baptism as did Jesus,

To be Christ’s Body,

At work in mission and ministry until God’s kingdom come

And Christ returns.

 

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God keeps God’s promises.

And so should we.

 

As baptized Christians

We have promised to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,

Reject the evil power of this world,

And to repent of our sin.

We have promised to resist evil, injustice, and oppression.

And we have confessed Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior,

Placing our whole trust in his grace,

Promising to serve him as our Lord.

 

As proclaiming Christians

We profess our faith through the sacred creeds of the Church.

We proclaim the Gospel from our pulpits, and interpret it for the benefit of all God’s children.

We proclaim Christ crucified, resurrected, and ascended into heaven,

With the promise to return again.

 

As practicing Christians

We vow to be loyal to Christ’s Church.

We vow to support the Church with our prayers,

Our attendance in worship,

Our financial gifts and talents,

And with our service.

 

God keeps God’s promises.

And so should we.

 

In our opening words from the Gospel of Mark

We hear proclaimed the obvious message of baptism and repentance.

We also have revealed to us three more subtle but essential truths:

Here is our God! Our struggle is ended!

God’s strength emerges, and is revealed in Jesus!

God keep God’s promises!

 

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Stand upon the mountain and speak:

God is here.

God is strong.

God keeps His word.

To God be the glory!

Amen.