Monday, February 7, 2011

King of the Beginnings

Preached Sunday, February 6, 2011
Scripture readings: Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:1-11

Imagine living in a small Greek-speaking village, thousands of years ago, and your land was invaded. The enemy was only a few days journey away, and your country’s army passed through your village on its way to battle.

They would commandeer, they would draft, all the men of your village who were of fighting age, including the teenagers. After all, all of them had played with spears and bows and arrows as children, and trained and hunted with them when they got older. They would fight in the flanks, on either side of the main army.

Families would watch their fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, go off to battle, danger, and death; whether in defeat or in victory. Think of the fear of that day.

Days passed, but the fear didn’t pass.

Then you spotted a young man far off, running toward your village. You recognized him as he drew near. He belonged to your village. His face was in agony from miles of running. He reached you so breathless he couldn’t speak; although every one was shouting for news. Gasping he said one word: Victory!

That is the gospel. Well that is the beginning of the gospel. The young man would describe the details of the gospel when he had caught his breathe, and more after you had given him something to drink, and sat him down. You would live the consequences of that gospel for the rest of your life.

The word Gospel means good news; but (more than that) it means great news: exceptional news, good news of great joy which shall be for all people. During the centuries when the Greek language moved into the ancient Middle East, the meaning of this word moved with it into the villages of Galilee and Judea where everyone would know a little Greek. Gospel described this special kind of news. It was great news.

Gospel was not a bit of writing. It was not a biography, or a story, or a book of any kind. Gospel didn’t mean a book until a number of books had been written about the gospel.

The Gospel according to Mark was, according to tradition, the first to be written and Mark starts this way: The beginning of the gospel. He didn’t mean the beginning of his book, because this kind of book had never been written before. It was the beginning of the gospel because it was the beginning of all the good news that followed from Jesus. It was the beginning of the good news about Jesus that comes down to us today. It was the beginning of the good news about Jesus that will change things forever.

It was the beginning of the good news about Jesus: about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)

This particular beginning is important for a number of reasons.

Beginnings are really “God-things”. Beginnings are sort of God’s business. They are the kind of thing God really likes to do. If we like to think of ourselves as being God’s people, do we reflect this by being beginning-oriented, ourselves?

We live in a fear-dominated world, and fear has so much to do with endings. Are we at the end of American success? Are we at the end of our liberties? Is the human race going to put an end to its self by creating an environmental catastrophe? Is the technological world going to come to an end because of a solar surge? Is the earth going to be hit by a giant asteroid that will bring all life on earth, as we know it, to an end?

It’s true that things end, but God’s business is in beginnings. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In the book of the prophet Isaiah, the Lord said, “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:17) In the Book of Revelation John wrote: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” (Revelation 21:1)

In the stories of creation, in the Garden of Eden, the serpent Satan tried to put an end to things. He did this by making us the enders of things. We ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in an effort to be like God (in essence in an effort be little gods of our own) which is where all of this world’s evils come from. We ended our peace with God, our peace with each other, and our peace with God’s creation. (Genesis 3:1-19)

We broke fellowship with God. We put ourselves outside of his life and his light. We put an end to human life as God created it to be, and we created a world where human nature is deeply independent from God.

But God did not let us be completely successful in putting and end to human life as he created it. We lost the life of peace with God, and God began a new way of life for us. This new life is not based on unbroken peace. The new human life which God has begun is based on the promise of recreated peace. God promised our first ancestors that one of their own offspring would crush the head of the serpent Satan. (Genesis 3:14-15) God promised to recreate peace and wholeness.

Since our first father and mother became aware of their nakedness (which is a way of saying that they were aware of their failure and their sins), God made them clothing from the skins of animals. (Genesis 3:21) Within this story, God’s people have understood that there was the shedding of blood and the giving of life in order to cover their nakedness, their failure, their sins. This represented the promise that God himself would cover their sins. These were signs of God’s promise to recreate our peace with God, by his own effort, by his own labor on our behalf.

God took our end in his hands and created a new beginning for us. God is in the business of creating beginnings.

The Gospel of Mark was the first written version (that we have) of that new beginning: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Remember that the word gospel is very much a word that fits the news of a crucial battle that has been won. So Mark tells us that the gospel has begun because of a battle fought on a cross. In this battle God prevented the end of the human race as he created it to be. And God has given it a new beginning in the peace that has been won through the cross and the resurrection.

Mark quotes from the prophets to describe how the new beginning first became public. John, (as Mark tells it) is, “a voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.” Mark is the messenger and Jesus is the Lord.

Mark (along with Matthew, Luke, and John) is careful to keep two things close together in our minds about who Jesus is.

Jesus is truly human. Jesus was descended from David and so he was a member of the old royal family that was wrapped up in the promises of God. But David’s family was a human family and descended from Adam and Eve, just as we all are, and so Jesus was qualified to crush the serpent Satan’s head and win our freedom. (Mark 10:47-52; 11:9-10) Jesus got tempted, as we all are. (Mark 1:12-13) Jesus had a mother and brothers. (Mark 3:31-35)

And Jesus is truly God. Jesus has the power, and right, and authority to forgive sins. (Mark 2:1-11) Jesus has power over the creation, and can control the wind and the waves, as he did when a storm came up on Galilee while he and his disciples were crossing the lake in a boat. (Mark 4:35-41)

The word Christ means Messiah, the anointed one, who is descended from David and yet is also the king of the kingdom of God. And who must the real king of the kingdom of God be? (Mark 12:35-37)

Beginnings are really God’s work, or they are the work we do through the grace of God working in us. Mark is telling us that anyone who belongs to Jesus has received this new beginning and is a part of its work.

Paul said something very much related to this. Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Jesus, the Son, shares the work of creation with his Father, and we are his workmanship. Jesus is the King of Beginnings, and he has begun to rule in us. The truth is that he has been starting this work of beginnings, now, for thousands of years. But this is a kind of work he is very interested in. So here we come, after all these years, with the gospel (the great news) beginning something through us.

You and I belong to the kingdom of beginnings. We live a life that is caught between two very different worlds. We belong to a new world that has a different set of rules than many people in the world are ruled by. Some people are ruled by the rules of ending. We are ruled by the rules of beginning. It’s true there are things that are ending (or seem to be ending) all the time, but the ends are really beginnings of something new. They are part of the next development in the good news.

The king of beginnings gives us the authority to begin things. We can begin to love. We can begin to forgive. We can begin to serve. We can begin to heal. We can begin to work on things that other people are trying to end. We can begin to learn what we have not learned before. We can begin to practice what we don’t seem to be good at. We can begin humility. We can begin quietness. We can begin everlasting life. The prophet Jeremiah said this long ago. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:22-23)

The kingdom of this world makes us old, but the kingdom of God makes us young. When I was getting ready for college, I applied for scholarships. It was summer when I got the results of one of my applications. My Baci (my Polish grandma) was staying the summer with us. We were standing in the kitchen when I opened the envelope and read that I had gotten one of my scholarships.

My mind was on money a lot, and this was not a very big scholarship. And I was young and blasé. Being blasé was as near as I could get to coolness.

But my Baci wasn’t cool. Her voice went up an octave and she said, “Oh Denny, that’s so wonderful.” And she grabbed me in her arms and twirled around with me as if she was dancing.

My Baci knew how to enjoy good news completely. I didn’t.

But we have been given the keys to the kingdom of beginnings by the king himself. So many people lack these keys. Or they lack the joy and the thankfulness they need to use them well. Let’s take to heart the fact that we have great news of what our Lord Jesus has done. Let us use the new life he has given us in the kingdom of beginnings.

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