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I read the following in an article entitled “They’re Not Coming Back” recently. The article is about church attendance post-pandemic:
“The story many are not acknowledging is that we are a traumatized people. For each and every one of us – all at once – our world stopped. And, now, every single person – from the ones present to the ones we claim to miss to the ones we don’t even know yet – everyone is recovering from a shared trauma. The events we’ve walked through have had many questioning their livelihoods, their safety, and their relationships.
And if the church hasn’t offered answers for those questions yet, then we need to figure out how to do so now. We need to figure out what it means to be a spiritual trauma center for our communities. We need to reintroduce ourselves as a place that can tend to the wounds this pandemic has opened. Each church needs to consider how they might evangelize to their neighbours (and some of their own members) – almost as if they were launching a new church in 2021.”
We have come back to church this first Sunday of Lent, 2022. Let this be the start of evangelizing/re-evangelizing. What would constitute good news for people today? What would constitute good news for you today? “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There is a wonderful ongoingness in Mark’s Gospel – which is Mark’s good news. (Of course, the good news isn’t Mark’s, and we don’t believe it based on Mark’s authority or anyone else’s authority, any more than I would ask you to believe anything based on my authority. We believe that this is good news based on the one who is named here Jesus Christ, the Son of God.)
There is a wonderful ongoingness to this good news with which we will pointedly sit over the next 7 weeks and probably for a couple of weeks beyond that. Why do we come back to the good news as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in turn, each year at this time? We’ve read them before many of us. We’ve heard sermons on them before, many of us. Countless sermons in some cases I’m sure. Why do we come back to them? We need good news. I need good news. I need to hear news that goes beyond the latest market figures/basketball standings/endless speculation about what might or might not happen and why (or why not). George Buttrick, the great Harvard teacher of preachers, used to say that every preacher, just before entering the pulpit, should think, “I have wonderful news to tell these people.”
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God. The kingdom of God is near! But what kind of kingdom is this? What kind of king is this? What does it mean to be a child of this sovereign? We’re going to be looking at these questions about this good news over the coming weeks. The invitation is to turn to him. What does turning to Jesus mean in light of the trauma that has been suffered over the last two years? The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God is how Mark begins the story. In order to give us some more understanding of the beginning of the story, I want to look at how the story ends. Turn with me to Mark 16. The most original ending of Mark’s Gospel came at verse 8. Jesus has been raised (spoiler alert but we all knew this already). Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome go to the tomb. I’m going to skip right to the end reading from verse 5- As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
I have to tell you it took me a long time to come across this piece of information. The story stops. Was this a mistake? Pages missing? No more papyrus available? I think rather that Mark is asking a question of those who are hearing the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God. “What are you going to do with it?” The promise was that he would meet them in Galilee. Let us go back to Galilee and meet Jesus there. Someone has put it like this: “The resurrection call to meet Jesus in Galilee is an invitation to go back once more to the beginning. It is an invitation to begin again, to experience insight after blindness, victory after defeat, renewed discipleship after failure. It is an invitation to recognize the true nature of the Christ, the Son of God, in the light of the passion and resurrection.”
We have been through a trauma which has been experienced in different degrees. What we are going to find is not a triumphalist Christ who promises that every day with Him will be sunshine or that he exists mainly to foster our self-indulgence or self-comfort seeking or complacency or indifference to him or whatever our lives our demonstrating in terms of what we believe or don’t believe about Jesus.
Let’s go back to the beginning and let us pray to God that our spirits capture or recapture some of the strangeness/peculiarity of what is going on here. I don’t mean strange in a pejorative sense here at all. I’m not talking weird or creepy or some negative sense of the word “strange.” I’m talking earth-shattering/earth-changing “newness” of this good news. If this were some sort of minimalist play, the curtains would open, the stage would remain dark. We’d hear a voice call out from the wings “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” If it were a movie the screen would be dark. Silence. Then “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Jesus is his name, don’t use it lightly. It’s very precious to many. There’s just something about that name. A common name. He’s from a common town, though we don’t know that yet. It means “to rescue” or “to deliver.” The Christ. Not Jesus’ surname but “the chosen one” or “the anointed one” because at one time kings were smeared with olive oil as a sign that they were being given a task.
In Jesus’ case, the task is to make a way. It’s been talked about for years and the voice comes from offstage again, this time it’s the voice of God - “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” (read Isaiah 40:4-5) We’re getting back to the good news here, back to basics. We hear this almost every Christmas and we shouldn’t restrict it to Christmas. We’re not talking about an actual road here. Sometimes a way is not a way. Sometimes, as we’ll find out, talk of yeast is not about a loaf of bread. Sometimes, a loaf of bread is not simply a loaf of bread. Jesus is the one who has made the way. Jesus is a way-maker.
John the Baptist appears in the middle of the stage. Spotlight on him. A picture is lowered behind him showing the crowds who are coming to him at the river as he proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now we’re talking about turning to God. We’re talking about confessing. We’re talking about forgiveness. We’re talking about being made clean. We’re talking about guilt and shame being taken away. We’re talking about new life. Don’t get too hung up on me, John the Baptist tells the crowds. He tells them, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Spotlight on the man who has appeared stage left. The one who has come down from up north. Stay on this scene with me. I know we’ve read it in other Gospels but I want us to stick with what Mark is giving us here. This God-man who is both fully divine and fully human lines up with lost humanity and identifies with us fully. In the person of Jesus, God has thrown in God’s lot with us; God has come alongside us; God lines up with us and aligns Himself with us.
“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.” The heavens are torn apart. Someone has said that the relationship between heaven and earth has been permanently changed. God is not ensconced away in a distant heaven or ensconced away in a building. God is at loose in the world. A prophet had once cried out “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”(Is 64:1a) For any age, this is a cry that signifies dissatisfaction with the status quo. Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down. I can’t go on like this. We can’t go on like this.
In the person of this man who is coming up out of the water (which is a welcome scene for those who practice baptism by immersion), the heavens have been torn open. The world is in a new situation and to get behind him is to find ourselves situated in that situation. The way is going to be made, the way has been made. If we’re familiar with the story we remember what we will read in a few weeks. This man will give a loud cry and breathe his last, and the curtain of the temple will be torn in two, from top to bottom. This tear is irreparable. There’s no going back. The way has been made to live, life lived in communion with God.
The two actors in our play would freeze at this point and a voice would once again be heard from offstage. “You are my son, the Beloved. With you, I am well pleased.” Another voice might echo the words of the Psalmist, “I will tell of the decree of the Lord, he said to me “You are my son…” The words spoken to Abraham “Take your son, your only son…whom you love…” The words spoken through Isaiah “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” Hear this good news about Jesus. About his identity. About his sacrifice. About the justice he brings. Hear those words spoken to us. You are my son. You are my daughter. The Beloved. With you, I am well pleased. The Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove.
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him. Such a spare account of this story in Mark. I know we know details from other Gospels but I want us to focus here on what Mark tells us. The wilderness. We all know what it’s like to be in the wilderness. The last two years have been for many a kind of wilderness experience. It’s a place of unknowns, of questions, of questioning God, of hard times, of testing. It’s also a place where we are made into the people of God; where we encounter God in ways we never would have if we had never been in the wilderness in the first place; where we know God’s presence and God’s promise. The wilderness is a time of testing, and we find Jesus there. We’re going to be hearing stories from members of our Blythwood family of how they’ve known God’s presence with them over the last two years. In his humanity, Jesus identifies and aligns himself with us fully. He was with the wild beasts – they may be seen as representing the dangers of the wilderness, or they may be seen as a picture of the day when the lion will lie down with the lamb as they are with Jesus. And the angels waited on him. The angels ministered to him. The angels served him. Do we believe in ministering angels? Absolutely. I hope I’ve entertained one somewhere, somehow, unaware though I may have been.
This is just the prologue and right now these are a lot of words. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God. This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. The heavens were torn apart. He was tempted by Satan. This is just the beginning. Mark’s invitation is for us to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the chosen one, the anointed one, the son of God. As someone has said, this is not the end of the discipleship journey, but the beginning. Jesus' identity is not in mere words, but it is borne out in his life, his death, his resurrection. Who we are called to be as his followers is to be borne out in our life, our death, and in our resurrection. One of the experiences of the wilderness for the people of Israel was renewal. May we find the same over the coming weeks as we move with Jesus toward the cross. May it start this morning as we gather around his table. Amen