Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 10, 2017
Mark 1:1-8 Commentary
Imagine yourself a Kindergarten teacher who gathers a group of wide-eyed five-and six-year-olds onto the square of carpeting in the classroom that is reserved for “Story Time.” You smile into their innocent faces and begin your story.
“Once upon a time a little girl named Goldilocks was fast asleep in a lovely little bed—a bed that she thought was just right for her. But one morning as she opened her eyes and prepared to stretch out her arms to help herself wake up, she was scared half to death to see three bears staring at her! So even though she was still in her pajamas, Goldilocks jumped out of bed, ran out of the house, and then went on to start having a real adventure as she tried to find her way back home through a thick and dreadful forest.”
Were you to do this, the faces of those innocent little Kindergarteners would no doubt quickly darken as scowls would come upon their lips and even young brows would furrow. Any number of them would quickly jump all over you to say, “That’s now where that story begins! That doesn’t make any sense to tell it that way. You have to start at the beginning, with porridge that’s too hot and all that stuff! Start over, teacher! Start at the real beginning!”
Kids can be pretty unforgiving when you change a well-loved story. Even slight changes earn a child’s ire! (I remember nearly nodding off at times while reading stories to my kids and this would now and then make me miss a word or a phrase in a familiar story. I never got away with it!)
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
That’s where Mark starts his story and before we’ve even had time to figure out what that opening line means, Mark takes us farther back into the past to the words of a dusty old prophet named Isaiah from centuries and centuries earlier. And in this Advent Season, not a few people would want to object as vigorously as any five-year-old hearing a fractured version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”
“That’s not the beginning of the story! That’s not even fitting for this season. Come on, Mark, go back, get back to angels and shepherds and stars and stables and mangers and all that good stuff. This is Advent not Epiphany. It’s Christmas, for pete’s sake, and the last place we want to be in December is in the middle of some dry, dusty wilderness where someone is screaming purple-faced at us about our sins.”
Were we able to say that to Mark, he’s likely be nonplussed. Mark is, after all, the one evangelist in the New Testament who is forever in a hurry to get the story of Jesus told, as I point out in a short essay at the head of this year’s Advent sermon resources page. He writes at a break-neck clip, motoring along his narrative through his favorite little Greek adverb, euthus, “immediately.” Everything in Mark happens immediately, right now, fast. There is no time for narrative niceties and no time to lose. The greatest story ever told needs to be told and tell it Mark will.
Mark knows that we must begin in the wilderness. We must begin with John. We must begin with getting baptized because if you’re not willing to meet the Savior with repentance in hand, then you may not find any motivation to meet and greet the Savior at all. Mark knows that Jesus came for but one reason: to liberate the cosmos from its bondage to sin and decay. If you have no interest in seeing your own complicity in all that, then you’ll have no more use for Jesus showing up in your life than you would for a plumber who showed up on your porch on a day when—to the best of your knowledge—you did not have a plumbing problem in the world. In such a situation there’s really nothing to do other than to tell the kindly plumber to toddle off.
But Mark’s beginning means something else. It means that at the end of the Advent day, all the stuff we want to constitute the real “beginning” of the story—the stuff that is to us what the too-hot porridge was to the Three Bears—is not the core of the story after all.
Yes, Virginia, you can tell the story of Jesus without Bethlehem’s stall. If Mark were the only gospel we possessed in the church, a great deal of what fills up our imaginations in the month of December would disappear but the one thing that would not disappear would be the Gospel, the core of which is recognizing Jesus as the One sent from God to save us from our sins.
Of course, in God’s good providence, Mark is not our only gospel. We have three other wonderfully composed portraits of Jesus that round out the picture of our Lord, and that’s a profoundly good thing. And since two of those other gospels—and one in particular—tell us a lot about the birth of Jesus, it’s fitting and fine to note that and celebrate it.
But if we forget what Mark taught us, if we forget what the real core of it all is, well then the gospel story for us is finally no more meaningful than . . . well, than a fanciful tale about talking bears and an overly curious little girl.
Mark tells us he is presenting “the beginning” of the gospel, but scholars will tell you that it’s a little difficult to know just how much of what follows constitutes that beginning. Does “the beginning” end at verse 8? Are verses 1-8 the preamble, “the beginning,” with the real story getting started in verse 9 the moment Jesus appears from out of the heat vapors emanating from the desert floor to get baptized by John? Does “the beginning” go all the way through verse 13 at the end of Jesus’ time of temptation in the desert?
Or, as Tom Long and others have suggested, is “the beginning” nothing less than the entire Gospel of Mark? Does “the beginning” = Mark 1-16 and so right on up to the point in Mark 16:8 when Mark concludes on such an unfinished note of fearful post-resurrection silence that the reader is forced to say, “This is clearly not the end of the story—there has to be more to it than this!”
Maybe just that is the point. The gospel cannot end where Mark leaves it in chapter 16:8. There has to be more. But maybe that’s because to Mark’s way of thinking, even the entire story of Jesus, from the appearance of John to the resurrection of Jesus, is only the merest beginning of a gospel that—as the Apostle John would later say—is really bigger than the world can contain (cf. John 21:25).
Advent is the beginning of the new Church Year. We re-set the ecclesiastical clock and bring everything back to the starting line as the Son of God becomes flesh and gets born into this world. It’s the one time when the rest of the world at least vaguely tracks our theological and spiritual location in the Church. You can pass through the whole of Epiphany without ever hearing an Epiphany hymn being played on a department store’s Muzac. The Season of Eastertide is for most people a one-day event marked by a ham dinner or a lamb on the barbie. Mostly and in most seasons of the Church Year people outside the Church have no idea what we’re thinking about or singing about inside the Church.
Advent is different. True, no one calls it “Advent” in the wider society. The whole shebang from slightly before Thanksgiving in the U.S. to around New Year’s Day is generically called “Christmas,” but at least people have the basic nub of understanding of what we’re doing in worship across four or five Sundays. If someone who had not gone to church in fifty years were to slide into a pew somewhere in December, he would not be the least bit surprised to hear what Scripture readings were being proffered and what music was being played and sung.
But for all the attention the world—and let’s just admit, also the Church—gives to Advent/Christmas and all that goes along with this season, Mark is here to remind us that even all of that is not really the beginning of the gospel. The Christmas Story is not the beginning, it’s just a tiny piece of the entire gospel which is itself, in its entirety, only “the beginning” of a cosmic tale so vast, we’ll never comprehend it but can only let ourselves get gracefully and delightfully caught up in it all.
A voice in the wilderness. A single voice calling out from the midst of evil chaos. And it is a voice that comes “in the beginning” of what Mark wants us to understand is a new creation story parallel with the first creation story “in the beginning” that we read in Genesis 1. A voice calling out in the void to create a new world. It reminds me of that lyric image from C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” book The Magician’s Nephew when the children witness Aslan creating Narnia through his lone voice singing in the pre-creation darkness.
“In the darkness, something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it . . . Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale; cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently one by one as on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out . . . If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.” (C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, Collier Books, New York, pp. 98-99).
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