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There is a lot of talk about news in our world today. We have access to news not only on television (for those of us who still have cable) but we have access to news feeds 24 hours per day. We may be constantly deluged with information all the time if we so wish. If you’re like me, sometimes it gets to be too much. Sometimes I feel that if I don’t turn CNN off I will actually go insane. Sometimes I feel that I don’t want to look at my newsfeed on Facebook or whatever social media platform you look at your newsfeed on. In parts of our world, there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on even what constitutes news as different people seem to look at the same events through vastly differing lenses.
Yet this morning we are being asked to consider news. Throughout these weeks of Lent from now to Easter Sunday, we are going to be considering news. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is how Mark begins his Gospel. Which is the word that’s been translated “good news” here by the way. Evangelion in Greek. Where we get our word evangelize – tell the story of Jesus. Show the story of Jesus. Live the story of Jesus. A “Gospel” wasn’t a literary form at the time Mark wrote the word. It hadn’t yet come into common usage to describe the first four books of our Bible with a capital G.
Mark is announcing the beginning of good news. The good news that is still going. The good news that is being played out in our lives as we follow Christ. This is what we’re going to be looking at over the next 7 weeks. “What Is This?” is broken down into two questions by Mark. These are the questions that we’re going to be looking at over the coming weeks. The first question – What kind of Messiah (chosen one, anointed one) is Jesus Christ? The second question – What does it mean to follow such a Messiah?
Mark careens through the sixteen chapters of his good news almost breathlessly. Someone has compared it to the way a child would tell a story. “Then we went to the beach. And I built a sandcastle. And I saw a crab. And I tried to catch it. Then a big wave came and washed my sandcastle away. Then we had ice cream.” “And” is a big word for Mark. As is the word usually translated “immediately”. It occurs over 30 times in the story. There is a strong presentation of Christ as the divine Son of God. There is also a strong presentation of Christ’s humanity. There are details that are not found in any other Gospel. Jesus had sisters! There are tender moments that Mark includes, such as Jesus taking a young child in his arms as he explains that the Kingdom of God belongs to the least of these. There is the time that Jesus castigates his disciples for keeping children away from him. At the end of that scene, Mark adds that Jesus takes them in his arms and blesses them.
He is announcing good news. The good news of the Kingdom of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah. This is how Mark begins. The good news begins as it is heard in the silence. The good news begins as it is heard in the wilderness. We need to be silent in order to hear it. These weeks of Lent invite us to be silent in the face of this good news. When we are silent we learn that the good news of which we speak, the good news in which we are invited to take part, the good news upon which we are invited to base our lives, is based on very old news. It’s based on a very old proclamation.
Hear ye! Hear ye! This is what the old town criers used to shout. Extra! Extra! Read all about it! This was the cry in later years. We don’t have people making such cries now, and maybe that’s part of the problem. We need something to get our attention.
Listen to the voice of the prophet.
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness…”
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
It’s a mixture of three texts. One taken from Exodus – the first of God’s great delivering acts in the Old Testament. One from Malachi – promising God’s presence in the Temple and a renewal of God’s people. One taken from Isaiah, promising that a way would be made for the people of Israel to return from exile.
Mark gets right to the action. No explanation of who John the Baptizer is. Only that he is proclaiming a message of good news based on old proclamations of good news. John comes striding out of the desert dressed like an OT prophet, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. There’s no explanation here as to how this works. There is no theology of Baptism here for Mark – only that the three are somehow intertwined. There is no explanation about who the proclaimer is or who’s making the way. We are simply given the news that way is being made.
We are asked to make a decision.
To prepare a way ourselves by repenting – by changing one’s thinking – by turning toward God. The cry once sounded like this:
“Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies, and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
Repent. Make the choice to turn toward God. Whether it’s the first time or the 501st time. Repent in dust and ashes, confessing our need for God. Confessing our need for forgiveness. This is one of the great things about the traditional church calendar – periods like Advent and Lent. Periods of time in which we become intentional (or more intentional) about our turning toward God. You may choose Lent as a time to fast from something. We’re encouraging everyone to follow a series of Lenten readings which you can receive via email. There are also hard copies of the readings at the back of the sanctuary. Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation, is how Paul put the news to the people of Corinth. Now is the time to repent, to confess our wrongdoing – the things we have done that we ought not to have done, and the things that we ought to have done and have left undone. To recognize our need for the one for whom we are not fit to even untie his sandals.
The one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Another echo of the prophet who proclaimed, speaking for the Lord, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
I will give you life. This was the promise.
And here comes the bearer of the promise. Mark gets right to it as usual. Jesus appears in the same wilderness. The place of God’s protection. The place of testing. The place of the people’s rebellion. The place of repentance. The place of God’s grace and provision. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Mark doesn’t include things like the conversation between the two of them. John protesting that he is the one who should be baptized by Jesus. Mark simply describes the act.
Which leads inevitably to the question “Why was Jesus baptized?” Surely he had no need for repentance and forgiveness! That’s right, he didn’t. In his baptism, Jesus is identifying himself with humanity in every way. He is identifying himself with you and me. Someone has described it like this – “He (Jesus) associates himself with sinners and ranges himself in the ranks of the guilty, not to find salvation for himself, not on account of his own guilt… but because he is at one with the Church and the bearer of divine mercy.”
He is at one with those who follow him. He calls us brothers and sisters. Our invitation friends is to take up this call to follow him. We’ll spend the coming weeks looking at what it means to take up this call, but it’s really something we do all of our lives.
Prepare the way of the Lord was the call of the prophet. In this scene, we have the one who makes the way. The one who is the way. The one through whom God brings us back to himself.
The one who is perfectly in tune with his Father. We have this beautiful scene as Jesus is coming up out of the water. Many had undergone John’s baptism, but none with this result. As Jesus is coming up, the heavens are coming down. Heaven is meeting earth, as it were, united by the Son of God. We have an answer to Isaiah’s cry of lament that we looked at before Christmas – “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” We have a picture of the unity between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. “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. And a voice from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
Friends let us hear ourselves addressed in those words as we identify with the one who has identified himself with us. You hear talk on the news I was talking about earlier about things like identity politics. We are tempted to base our identity and our worth on any one of a number of things. In hearing this story we’re invited to claim our identity in Christ as beloved children of God. You are my beloved daughter; with you, I am well pleased. You are my beloved son; with you, I am well pleased.
Over these next seven weeks may our turning toward God make us ever more aware of this truth. This good news. May our consideration of what kind of Messiah this is, and what it means to follow him bring us ever closer to the one who loves us. May these things be true for us all.