first things

It’s amazing, it feels like summer lately even though the calendar tells us we are in mid-November, swiftly approaching the holidays, as many retail stores have been making all too clear with their displays of trees, lights, ornaments and tinsel. Soon, the Christian season of Advent will be upon us.

Advent, as you are probably aware, is a season of waiting, of anticipation, that spans the four Sundays before Christmas. Many people light advent candles and children often open advent calendars, both of which are ways that we mark our waiting. This Advent waiting reminds us both of the Hebrews who waited for the coming of the Messiah, but also serves to remind us that we still wait for that time when God will make all things new.

But if the stores can get such a long headstart on Christmas, why can’t we in the church as well? What if we get a head start on Jesus before we start singing about him being in a manger? What if we take a look, before we get swept up in the pageantry of the Christmas season, to pause and look more closely at the man that this nativity baby was to become? At Easter it is often common to remember and contemplate the final days of Jesus’ life and to commemorate the ‘last words of Jesus’ so why not, before the Christmas season, take a look at some of the ‘first words of Jesus.’

Of course, we do not mean the actual first words, mama or dada or the like, as we do not have a record of what those might have been for the baby Jesus as he grew up.

But what about the first words of Jesus as we have them recorded in the gospel accounts, his first public words and the context in which they were uttered? Before we get wrapped up in all of the commercial packaging of the celebration of his birth, the “Jesus is the reason for the season” what if we take a look at what Jesus said was the reason for, well, for Jesus?

So listen with me to the word of God, as we find these first public words of Jesus as told by the Gospel according to Mark in the first chapter, beginning with the first verse. Listen for the Word of God.

Mark 1:1-15

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“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,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming 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 John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “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.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 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.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

In the book of Mark we do not have a Christmas story, the traditional nativity scene of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels and wise men.

If we were to make a nativity of the opening scene of the book of Mark we would likely have a river, a somewhat odd looking guy wearing fur and eating bugs, a lot of people (the text says that ‘everyone from Jerusalem and people from the whole Judean countryside went out to John at the Jordan). As the scene unfolds we begin to catch a glimpse of one guy, coming all the way from Nazareth, probably about 100 miles away, on foot. It must have taken him awhile to get there—an average walking pace is about 3 miles an hour, so that would potentially be a three day’s walk. Instead of baby Jesus in a manger, we’d have grown up Jesus with a lot of dust on his sandals.

The last time I was with all of you I was living in Orange County, and waiting to be ordained. Since then I have finally been ordained, as a ‘designated tentmaking evangelist’ and I have moved to live in a small community in Mexico. It is my grandmother’s house that I’ve moved into and it is surrounded by a yard which, before I started working in it, had been long neglected and overgrown. Over the past couple of years I’ve been slowly working my way through the overgrowth, trimming, digging up, and planting. It is common amongst my friends down there to realize that if they call me on the phone and I don’t answer, I am probably out working in the yard. One of my favorite things to do is to make a path for the rainwater, so that it creates almost a stream through the yard when it rains, and allows more of the water to soak into the ground. This not only keeps the rain runoff from getting too much and out of control, but it also helps to bathe the dry ground in fresh water.

A few weeks back, in October when we were having all that rain, I found myself outside digging around in the garden in the mud…in my pajamas. I had meant to just go outside to check on the water’s flow, but one thing lead to another and I wound up in the mud, digging, my pajamas getting wetter and wetter, and trying to keep them from getting muddier and muddier. I knew it was a bit odd, but I was occupied with my task. All of a sudden I heard a car pull up on the road outside. Sure enough, as I looked up at the car, I saw my  Doug, Kathy and Leslie–who had come for a visit. They took one look at me, soaking wet, muddy, and in my pjs, and burst out laughing.

…..

John the Baptist must have been quite a sight. Clothed in camel’s hair secured by a leather cord, and eating a rather interesting diet of bugs and honey. Why are we told all of this? We are not given wardrobe information for anyone else in our story, not Jesus, not the crowds, just John. If we stop to think, one wonders why the author of the book of Mark includes these details. Is it just to make him sound a bit weird? His strange appearance doesn’t seem to be off-putting though—the text tells us that all of Judea and Jerusalem were coming out to John at the Jordan. Maybe they were just going out to see a crackpot in the wilderness, outside the city? But they weren’t just going out to see John or to gawk at this strange sight; they were getting baptized by him.

Sometimes, when we read the Bible, we have become so accustomed to it that we don’t see what is actually in front of us. I am a photographer because I like to help people see that which they somehow overlook when not guided in the direction of a particular image. Mark is giving us a photograph of John, inviting us to pause and take a closer look at this unusual man. For those who knew their Hebrew Scriptures would know that John was not the first person to be described in this way.

Elijah, one of the Hebrew prophets, was described as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” who lived out beyond the normal borders of society. Elijah, coincidentally, did not die, as it is told in the book of Second Kings, but was simply surrounded by a chariot of fire and taken into heaven. Where did this miraculous event happen? None other than the banks of the Jordan River. The same Jordan River where we now find John.

But so what? So what if there is this guy who seems to look like Elijah and happens to be found in the same place where Elijah had last been seen? What’s the big deal about that?

That is where the writer of Mark gives us another clue. “It is written in the prophets…I will send my messenger ahead of you, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make his paths straight.” There are actually two quotes here, one from Isaiah and one from Malachi. Both passages talk about the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the one who will turn the people back to God and make the world a place of peace, justice and harmony—the one who will make things right.

But Malachi goes further…”Lo I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes…” The reason Elijah matters is that it was believed by the Jews of the time that before the Messiah would come and usher in the day of the Lord, that time when all would be made right, that day for which the people of Israel had been waiting…before that day would come, first Elijah would return, a precursor, a messenger announcing the coming Messiah.

John even seems to echo this belief himself, proclaiming that “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…I have washed you in water, but he will wash you in the very Spirit of God.”

…..

One of the results of this summer we seem to be having in November is that it has brought with it some beautiful sunsets. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to catch any of them, but from where I live in Mexico, they are hard to miss as they paint the sky with pinks and oranges and yellows. You can’t spend too much time watching sunsets in Mexico without someone bringing up ‘the green flash.’

The green flash is a phenomenon that occurs right as the last bit of sun has sunk below the horizon. If the view is clear and there are no clouds or smog to get in the way, the story goes that this flash of green can happen just as the sun disappears. It is a story that I’ve heard all of my life, and to be honest, I sort of thought it was the product of people having too many cocktails, rather than there being any sort of real occurrence. I assumed that the green flash would be just that, a flash of green lighting up the sky, impossible to ignore, obvious to all who were paying the least bit of attention, like a bolt of lightning casting a green hue across the horizon.

It turns out, the green flash is much more subtle than that. You’ve got to be watching for it. You’ve got to be paying attention. And even when you are, you might miss it. It’s less of a shout, more of a whisper. I always assumed that because I hadn’t seen what I expected it to be, that there was no green flash. It hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps I might be staring it in the face and not even see it right in front of me.

…..

And so onto the scene walked Jesus. Jesus who had traveled a few days journey to get to the Jordan where John was baptizing, immersing the whole of the region in water as a sign of repentance, of turning, of a fundamental shift. John had already warned them, this is only the beginning. What I’m doing, what you’re doing by coming out here to me, this is just the start, this is the first step. There will be another and that other will bathe you not just in water, but in the very Spirit of God. I’m doing this to prepare you for that.

And then, just like that, Jesus enters our nativity scene, getting baptized by John just like the rest. But when Jesus comes up out of the water something new happens. The text says ‘he saw the heavens opened’ but literally it means the heavens were ripped open, were torn or rent apart. And the spirit like a dove came down upon him saying, “you are my beloved in whom I delight.” And immediately the Spirit drove him further out into the wilderness, alone, tempted by the adversary.

If this were a movie I think we’d stop right here and say, what? After all that build up, all of that careful stage setting in showing that this John the Baptist was actually fulfilling the role of Elijah, who was the one to appear before the Messiah, the anointed of God, came upon the scene and made all things right, brought the world into justice, peace and harmony…

And everyone has come out to the wilderness to prepare, to make themselves ready for this big event that the Jewish people have been anticipating, toward which God has been guiding all of history…and then Jesus shows up and the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends upon him.

And just when we are waiting for a green flash to proclaim itself across the entirety of the evening sky, it is much more subtle than that. Instead of stepping onto the stage and proclaiming, here I am, the one you’ve been waiting for, the chosen of God, the anointed one, the Messiah, the Spirit drives Jesus from that place out into the wilderness to wait for 40 days.

After that 40 days Jesus shows up back in Galilee, back where he started, and utters his first public words as recorded in the book of Mark: “Now is the time to turn around, for the reign of God is here, right now, so put your trust in the good thing that God is doing.”

It sounds a little bit like a passage you will likely be hearing in the coming weeks, a passage that comes from Luke’s gospel: “And the angel, the messenger, said, fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.”

Or, to put it as Mark does, “This is the beginning of the good tidings of Jesus the anointed Son of God…”

Did you catch that? When we first read the passage? The first line of the book of Mark isn’t a sentence at all—an English teacher would call it a fragment. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the anointed.” Some might call it a title or a heading. The only problem is, if you keep reading the book of Mark, there are no more headings, other than this one.

If you spend much time with the Gospel of Mark you will see that it is not always neat and tidy, cut a dried. Often Mark leaves us hanging, without answers, without conclusions. In fact, what is referred to as the ‘shorter ending of the book of Mark’ ends with the women coming to the tomb after Jesus has risen, seeing an angel, and fleeing in fear. Even in our text this morning, we have suggestions more than assertions. The prophets have written about a messenger, an Elijah-like figure. And here we have John. John talks about preparing the way for someone greater. And then Jesus shows up. Mark gives us enough of the story to draw us in, to invite our participation, to cause us to wonder. But he doesn’t give answers. That he leaves up to us.

Jesus comes onto the scene and his first public words are, “Change, turn around, turn from the way you were going and toward something new, for there is good news, there are good tidings, the kingdom of God has come near, have confidence.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ…

Perhaps, the author of Mark is suggesting, I’m going to give you the beginning, but it’s up to you to keep the story going.

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