Today we begin Mark’s gospel at the beginning. Unlike Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel, Mark doesn’t offer us any birth narratives – no shepherds, no choirs of angels, no wise men, no Mary or Joseph or babe in the manger. Instead, Mark’s good news begins with John the Baptist, the wild man in the wilderness. We get one sentence, a sort of title - “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Then we get what Mark tells us is a quotation from Isaiah, though it actually is a mashup of words from Isaiah and Malachi, with a few words from Exodus tossed in – and then we meet John.
John is a strange, memorable, charismatic character. We’re told that John appeared in the wilderness, and that he dressed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. We might not think too much of John’s wardrobe – maybe if we used to watch shows like “Project Runway”, we might want to send his wardrobe back to the drawing board - but it would have had a message for those who saw him. In the time of Jesus, there was an expectation that before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord, the prophet Elijah would appear (Malachi 4:5). In the Old Testament, Elijah was described as a hairy man, dressed in a leather belt. (2 Kings 1:8). So John’s appearing in the wilderness dressed as he was would immediately have reminded his listeners of Elijah or perhaps other Old Testament prophets – just as if we here in Philadelphia walk by Independence Hall and see a re-enactor dressed in a colonial costume with a powdered wig, we would recognize them as portraying Ben Franklin or George Washington or Thomas Paine or one of the other American revolutionaries.
We’re told John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and that people from the whole Judean countryside and as far away as Jerusalem, came out to see John, confessing their sins. Now, it was sort of funny yesterday, at least to me, but at the breakfast yesterday, we had our Santa up on stage, but it seemed to me that most of the kids weren’t actually all that interested in him…..mostly the kids seemed to like the breakfast and maybe the arts and crafts, and every now and then Santa would jingle his sleigh bells and go “Ho Ho Ho, Meeeerry Christmas” as if to remind the kids that he was there….I felt a little bad for the guy. But people walked for miles and miles, often traveling for several days in many cases, and without the benefit of a Motel 6 along the way, to see John. And they didn’t come to give John their Christmas lists….instead they came to John to confess their sins, and to be baptized as a sign of their repentance, as a sign of their desire to start over. John had a real following – in fact, the records of non-Christian historians of the time such as Josephus had much more to say about John than about Jesus. John the Baptist was big stuff. To this day, the Mandeans, a small religious minority in Iran and Iraq, continue to revere John the Baptist, and baptism is still a major part of their rituals.
What would have drawn people so strongly to John? What would have led the people to travel so far just to hear him rant and to get dunked in the Jordan? They came because they had a sense that they had lost their way, and needed to start over. Whatever they had going in their lives wasn’t doing it for them. The Roman occupation was oppressive and limiting, and the rituals of the Temple in Jerusalem or of their local faith communities still left them feeling empty, left them feeling that something was missing. Indeed, it was their own sense that their lives had become bad news, for themselves or others, that led them to seek the good news offered by John. As Jesus would later say, healthy people don’t go looking for a doctor; only people who know they are sick seek to be healed. And John gave them a chance to confess their sins, to leave the bad news in their lives behind, to reconnect to their faith community and start over.
How about us? Are we satisfied with our lives as they are? Or are we open to the promise, stated by John and later by Jesus, of life as it could be? The beginning of the good news of Jesus means recognizing the bad news in our own lives, and turning away from it. We tend to think of turning to Jesus as a one-time event – and indeed, there are some things such as baptism that only come once. At least in our tradition, if people have already been baptized, we honor that baptism and don’t ask them to be rebaptized again. We give thanks for every faith community that has been a part of each person’s spiritual journey. But my experience is that Christian discipleship, after that first big commitment to follow Jesus, is a series of re-commitments, as we become more sensitive over time to the brokenness in our lives and the brokenness in our society, as attitudes and behaviors that at one time seemed perfectly ok are exposed as being deeply unfaithful to the way of Jesus, as we turn to God over and over again for deliverance from our own unfaithfulness and that of our society, and for healing and renewal.
I’d like to go back to that first verse in Mark’s gospel, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” It’s a sort of title, which we may read before moving on to the next verse, but there’s more there than we may realize. In the culture of Jesus’ day, it would have been read as a sort of royal proclamation. When a new Roman emperor would come to power, there would be a similar announcement – “The good news of Caesar Augustus” – and Roman emperors also took upon themselves the title “son of God.” And so by using this same language of royal proclamation, Mark was making a political statement. The readers of Mark’s proclamation were asked to make a choice – do we rejoice at the good news of Caesar, or the good news of Jesus? They weren’t being asked to be loyal to Caesar and maybe include a little bit of the good news of Jesus around the edges of their lives….to follow Jesus was to turn away from Caesar. The same is true for us. To turn to Jesus means to turn away from everything, in our personal lives and in our society, that is not consistent with the way of Jesus. Before we say or do anything, we may want to ask, “What would Jesus do? Where would Jesus be? What would Jesus say?” We may want to compartmentalize and say that Jesus cares about these things over here, but not those things over there…..but if we believe in turning our lives over to Jesus…..well, that has implications for our whole lives, all of our lives, not just Sunday morning.
We might also ask what that title, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the son of God”, is referring to. Is it just referring to the verses about John the Baptist? It’s likely that Mark meant those words – “the beginning of the good news” – about his whole Gospel. What we read in Mark’s gospel is just the beginning. As people read Mark’s gospel and turn to Jesus – as we read Mark’s gospel and recommit to the way of Jesus – the good news continues in our lives. The words of Mark’s gospel are just the beginning of the good news of Jesus, good news which continues in our lives, if we let it. If we let it.
In a few minutes, we’ll be receiving a new member into Emanuel Church, as we did last Sunday. It’s a joy when new people join the community. While we do not rebaptize people, they will be renewing their baptismal vows to reject evil and follow in the way of Jesus. As they make promises, may we recommit ourselves to living so that the good news of Jesus is visible in our lives. Amen.