Each year in the weeks between Christmas and the start of Lent, recommended Scriptures for worship focus on the early stories about Jesus.  In these first chapters of the Gospels, we read about what Jesus did first:  his process of “becoming” the one we ultimately know through the stories of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, his teachings and his persecution and Crucifixion—how did this spiritual giant begin, and what were the stories that shaped his early life?  In the next several weeks, Jana and I will preach about these stories of “Becoming Jesus…”  And this week we’ll focus on beginnings.   

It’s a new year, and I imagine that, like me, you have seen plenty of news stories, articles, “best of” lists, invitations to make a resolution, and other references to the closing of the last year and the starting of a new one.  One appeared on my phone this week from NPR; it was called:  “50 Ways to help you move forward in 2024” and was divided into the categories:  Career, family, finances, fitness, getting organized, health, hobbies, home, mental health, and relationships…each one with its own subheadings.  By the time I finished scanning it, I had 50 new reasons to feel bad about myself! 

The new year and its practices can be overwhelming and shame inducing, and yet there is a kernel of truth about the start of a new year—we often need a reminder to start over, think again about some aspect of our lives, and accept a new beginning.  And that is inconsistent with the good news of Jesus Christ; it is about starting over.  The story of Jesus is all about God making a fresh start with Creation, and every version of the story begins with that idea. 

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry is understood differently depending on which Gospel you read.  Luke and Matthew tell the “Christmas” stories most of us are used to, telling of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and wise men, the manger; and John offers the philosophical reflection “In the beginning was the Word…”  Mark’s Gospel, which we read this morning, does none of the above.  Mark starts with a shorter introduction that seems to skip Christmas altogether.  But Mark does indeed talk about a beginning.  Today’s reading, his first verses, start:  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…”   

It’s no accident that Mark starts with “the beginning of the good news.”  My old friend and mentor Bill Placher once wrote in a commentary:  Mark wants us to know that “the whole story that follows is a beginning” (Placher, “Mark” in Belief Commentaries, 13)  Everything that we will hear in the story of Jesus, from start to finish, is about starting over, experiencing forgiveness and renewal, taking a fresh run at things.  With his opening words, Mark recalls the beginning of the Old Testament—“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” Mark wants to return us to that frame of mind, when God made the world and called it good, full of promise and possibility—this too is the starting point of the story of Jesus. 

The phrase “good news” (euangelion in the Greek) is much more expansive than we usually think.  As the same Bill Placher writes, If you look back at the usage of that word other places in scripture, you see that this is an entirely different form of victory and good news than anything else we experience in the world.  Regular good news comes to us in all kinds of forms.  Good news is—“proclaimed by imperial heralds [in the Bible]—or [in our own time] by presidents or hedge-fund managers or fan magazines telling about the stars— [but this good news is of an entirely different kind] and will thereby raise questions about the ultimate importance of those other forms of news” (Ibid., 15)  That is how Mark starts the story of Jesus. 

This is how Mark’s story of Jesus begins—with that one sentence.  Then, immediately, there is John the Baptist, whose role is to announce the coming of Jesus.  John is crazy—or at least that’s what folks probably thought of him.  John it says, is clothed in camel hair—not the kind old Presbyterians wear as a sportcoat, but a rough animal skin—and he’s on a diet of locusts and wild honey which he eats for survival as he preaches out in the wilderness.  John had not always looked that way.  In the Gospel of Luke, we’re told that he is the son of the priest Zechariah.  So John would have grown up not in the wilderness, but near the Jerusalem Temple.  He was a child of the very small upper class in a society with little-to-no social mobility, and he would have been his father’s heir apparent in the Temple.  He trades it all—the comfort and status and privilege and heads out to the wilderness.  So yes, everyone would have thought he was crazy.  But then again, maybe he’s onto something that the rest of us need to figure out.  For it also says that multitudes went out to see and to hear John and to be baptized by him.  And Jesus goes too; this is where his ministry begins.  And why?  What is John preaching?  He tells people to “Repent,” which sounds like threatening stuff to us, but I like the way theologian Brian McLaren says it, he says repent means “rethink everything,” “question your assumptions.”  (McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, 88)  And unlike a resolution to shed a few pounds or take up a new hobby, repentance is the best kind of thinking we might do about our own lives and the world in which we live.  Shake yourself out of what you’ve told yourself is the limit of what is possible, and consider that there might be good news so powerful it could change your whole life.  That’s what the story of Jesus is going to be all about. 

Most of this sounds kind of individual, but there was a powerful social component to John’s message.  The world into which Jesus was born was dominated by the Roman Empire.  Regular people were mostly pawns in the efforts of local puppet kings to shore up what wealth and power they could before Rome took the rest away.  This is the world into which Jesus was born.  But John the Baptist refused to take part in all of that, and so would Jesus.  They still lived in the midst of that reality of power and oppression, but they refused to be defined by it, and said the same to all who would listen to them.   

We too live in a world where we often seem unable to escape the dominating influences of our own day:  political strife, rampant materialism, the anxiety that arises from the constant consumer messaging that whatever you have isn’t enough—we too can refuse to be defined by that stuff.  And just like in Jesus’ time, faithful living is often not about walking away from the world, but walking with the world in a different way.  In the midst of the global crises we face:  climate change, wealth inequality, the wars and refugee migrations, local crimes and mental illnesses that accompany all of the world’s stress—of course Christ is not inviting us to ignore these things.  So when we read this is the beginning of the good news, we are invited to believe that God has something to say to us about engaging life in the world differently.  Like John and Jesus, we can be in the world but not entirely of the world, not paralyzed or hopeless about the problems, but resilient enough in our faith that we can engage life in a new way. 

All of that sounds radical; it sounds like a different and better life can only be had if you drop everything, quit your job, abandon your family, and head out to eat locusts and wild honey.  It doesn’t have to be so dramatic as all that.   

I read a social media post this week, forwarded from an old friend. It read this way:  “I ended 2022 in an alcohol-soaked, frustrated rage at my job, my life, my relationships, and ultimately at myself.  It was scary for me and those around me, and things got worse before they got better.  I ended 2023 sober, happily cuddled in bed with a partner I love so dearly, and who has stood by me through so much that the gratitude and joy is overwhelming.  I *lot* has happened in between that I won’t get into, but as an overall trajectory I’m pretty happy with it, and pretty sure I’m walking the right path.  Wishing a peaceful 2024 to all!” 

That old friend of mine who changed her drinking habits was apparently caught in a web of addiction that had come to define much of her life.  Her post is remarkable; and yet escaping from such a thing is quite common. Everyday, in all kinds of places, including in churches like this one, groups of people gather together to walk away from a way of life they will no longer allow to define them so that they can be free to live a better life.  Addiction is but one example.  Every day, people decide to depart from all kinds of things:  systems of materialism and comparison to one’s neighbors, calendars that are way too full and harmful expectations that others have set for us, the despair that comes from the news cycle, and they choose to say, “I’m just not going to be defined by that anymore—not in the way I once was.”  I don’t have to do that.  My life can be centered in something else. 

The story of Jesus Christ has the power to reshape the whole way we look at life in the world, through the simple but profound words:  love and grace.  For while we live in a world where power and money, merit and revenge, guilt and shame often carry the day, the message of Christ is that God created us good and loves us.  There is nothing you can ever do to remove that promise, that acceptance, that forgiveness, that grace and love from your life.  As Mark says:  “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”  This year, you are invited to hear it.  Amen.