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Just the Beginning

Reverend Philip Stringer

Mark 1:(1-3)4-11

LET US PRAY: Enlighten our hearts, O God, through the hearing of your word and the meditations of our hearts, that we may be strengthened in faith and bear a bright witness to the world, through Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. Amen

When I was in my mid-“20’s,” I was in an interview with a pastor to determine if he and I might be a good match for each other for my seminary internship. Whomever I wound up with would be my supervisor for a full year. It was an important decision. We had a number of questions for each other, but one of my questions of him was, “what do you like to do for fun?” I figured that what one does in their free time says a lot about their personality, and quite frankly, how interesting and enjoyable it might be to be around them.

Imagine my surprise when, after a moment of thought, he said, “I like to do the dishes.”

Of all the possible answers he could have given, I have to say that THAT was not one that I would have remotely considered!

In spite of that answer, we had a good interview and, I ended up doing my internship with him. Over the course of that year I discovered that Bob did, in fact, have some interests besides doing the dishes. But it took me a few years longer to understand why he had given that answer.

The ministry of the church never ends. People’s lives are in flux and their needs constantly changing. Programs and activities and plans go on and on and on. Very rarely does one ever have a sense of “closure” with one’s activities. It’s never finished. It’s never done.

But the dishes! You start with a dirty pile. You perform a very clear and simple task, and then you are done! And what you have is clean and bright and fresh! Done!

Most of you can probably relate to that feeling of overwhelming chaos in your own lives, too. Because it’s not just ministry that continues on and on — most of life is like that. Life is dynamic — unfolding and ongoing. And that is true, not only for us. Today our gospel text reminds us that what God is doing is not finished, either.

Mark seems to want to make this point with us when he begins to tell us the story of Jesus. He prefaces his gospel account with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Did he mean that the good news of Jesus begins with his baptism? Was he just telling us the setting? “Our story begins in the wilderness”— Or did he mean that the entire account of his life, death and resurrection is the beginning of the good news? We can’t be sure what he intended, but I suspect it was the latter. Mark seems to want to make it clear to his audience — clear to you and me — that the coming of Jesus and all that he did on earth is just the beginning of what he has in store for us.

The good news of what God is doing in your life BEGINS with what Jesus did long ago. But I would take it a step further yet and say that all that God has done in your life up to this moment is only the beginning of what God has planned.

Just like the rest of Mark’s gospel, the opening verses are short, quick and to-the-point. The symbol the church has used to describe Mark’s gospel is a lion because it is fast, forceful and direct. Mark doesn’t beat around the bush — he doesn’t waste time with flowery details or musings about the meanings of things or the feelings of people. He just plows forward and whisks us through the story — and because of that it would be easy to assume there isn’t much more for us to consider than the words themselves. Mark rushes forward, but when we slow down to consider what he tells us, some amazing things begin to happen.

It is not a coincidence that there is another place in Scripture that begins by talking about the beginning. The book of Genesis begins, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.”

In Hebrew thought, the sea is the realm of chaos and death. But the Spirit of God moves over the deep and draws forth land, and vegetation and animals — from the chaos, God draws forth all things and puts them in their proper place.

According to Mark, the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God begins — not with Jesus — but with a wild man in the wilderness named John. In fact, of the 8 verses that are officially part of our Gospel reading today — FIVE of them tell about what John is like and what he is doing. Only TWO of them mention Jesus: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”

In Genesis, creation is drawn out of the water — and what does God say? “It is good.”

In Mark, Jesus (the Word that moved over the waters) comes into the wilderness and to the water — and when he emerges out of the water, the Spirit descends on him — and what does God say? “I am well pleased.”

Does your life ever feel out of control? Of course it does. We work hard to put things in order — but it is always temporary at best and never really complete. Sometimes it is the business of our lives that overwhelms us. There are so many responsibilities. So many obligations. There are doctor appointments, or deadlines at work are bearing down, there are taxes to be filed, the house is falling apart, friends and family want our attention, the church needs leaders, the holidays have tapped us out . . . .

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could manage all of these things like a pile of dirty dishes? Just throw them in the sink, give them a good cleaning, stack them to dry and be done!

But there’s a problem with the dishes, isn’t there? What’s going to happen to the dishes after they’re clean? They’re going to get dirty again. And they’re going to need to get washed again. Because doing the dishes doesn’t really end, does it? And neither do the tasks and obligations and responsibilities of our lives.

In the beginning, the Spirit of God drew forth life and creation from the chaos. And it seems to me that Mark wants us to know that God’s work of creation continues on. Mark tells us that Jesus is the new creation that emerges from the waters. The Spirit of God moves over the chaos of this world. Jesus is born into it and walks with us; the new “terra firma” upon which we can depend.

And that’s not all. In these opening verses of his gospel, Mark not only looks back to Genesis — he also looks forward to the crucifixion and resurrection. In chapter 15, after Jesus has been crucified, Mark writes that, “Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

It is not a coincidence that Mark tells us at the beginning of his gospel that when Jesus was coming up out of the waters of baptism, “he saw the heavens torn apart.”

In the world view of Genesis, there is a barrier set between heaven and earth — the realm of God and the realm of people. The curtain of the temple represented this barrier. It separated the outer courts of people from the Holy of Holies — the inner dwelling place of God where we cannot go.

Mark tells us that in Jesus, the barrier between you and God is destroyed. Jesus shows us that the dwelling place of God is with us. Jesus, Emmanuel, is gathering us into the presence of God.

In Genesis, it was on the third day of creation that dry land emerged from the chaos and there was life. After his death on the cross, it was on the third day that Jesus emerged from the tomb. Jesus, the new creation in whom we have life.

I know that’s a lot of theological, Bible study rambling drawing of themes together — but it seems pretty clear that this is at the heart of what Mark wants us to know.

Sometimes it is the business of our lives that throws us into chaos — but sometimes it goes even beyond what we do. Sometimes, there are things beyond our control that affect us. A loved one is suddenly and terribly torn away from us. Our health or the health of a loved one changes. Robbers shoot and kill a policeman over $200-worth of beer. Nations rage against each other. The planet groans under the strain placed on its resources.

Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the choices we make, and sometimes the unpredictability of life and this world overwhelm us and pitch us into chaos without our doing. But today Mark proclaims to you the coming of Jesus — not as a finite, punctiliar moment in history, but as an ongoing event. His baptism and ministry; his death and resurrection — his coming to you in the waters of baptism — these are just the beginnings of the story.

The one who moved over the waters of chaos is still master over them. The Word made Flesh who came out to the wilderness still comes into the wilderness of your life. And as he rises above the chaos and trouble of your life, he draws you forth with him. He proclaims that your place is with him. It will ALWAYS be with him. And if you think THAT is good news, just you wait and see — because this is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. AMEN

Mark 1:1-11

1 The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ.[b]

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]

who will prepare your way,

3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord;

make his paths straight,’ ”

4 so John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And the whole Judean region and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with[f] water, but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”

The Baptism of Jesus

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. 11 And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved;[h] with you I am well pleased.”

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