+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
“Providence granted us a Savior who has made war to cease … with the result that the birth of our god signaled the beginning of Good News for the world.”
On Thursday evening, the church gathered to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We heard the song of the angels, recounted the wonder of the shepherds, sat with Mary as she pondered everything that had happened. In our exuberance, a statement like the one above wouldn’t have felt out of place. You might be surprised to know, however, that this statement wasn’t about Jesus. In fact, it was inscribed by someone who would likely never have heard of Jesus at all. The “good news” this writer proclaimed was about the birth of the Emperor Augustus, who was himself called Savior, Son of God, and Lord.
When we read the opening line of Mark’s Gospel and his conviction that the book that follows is itself the beginning of “good news”, we are reading a statement that would have astounded those who were reading it for the first time. They would have known the claims made about the Roman emperor. They would have been familiar with the idea that “good news” wasn’t necessarily good for them. What was it about this Jesus that made the story of his life important enough to be called “good news” among people who would have been skeptical of that phrase?
It doesn’t take Mark long to start explaining what the good news looks like. Where the Gospel of Luke takes two full chapters describing the birth and childhood of Jesus, Mark abruptly introduces an adult Jesus who immediately gets to work. From the time of his appearance on the scene to the end of this morning’s reading, Jesus is on the move, with signs of what makes him unique featured prominently. John, the strange messenger foretold in Holy Scripture, tells the people of a “more powerful” person who will come after him and bear the Holy Spirit to others. At his first appearance, Jesus – that more powerful person – is addressed by a heavenly voice who confirms his identity as a divine Son and affirms the favor that he enjoys. The Holy Spirit immediately drives him out into the wilderness to prepare him for his mission and ministry by putting him into direct confrontation with Satan, the embodiment of opposition to God. As quickly as John shows up, he is removed from the scene, and Jesus takes center stage for the remainder of the work, bringing his own message of repentance. Then, in short order, Jesus’ presence and the force of his will compels four men to abandon their families and vocations to become his disciples.
It’s a stunning opening that, frankly, ambushes us with the kind of rhetoric and imagery that makes Jesus impossible to ignore. At his baptism, the heavens themselves are torn apart! A voice from heaven calls him a beloved Son! Jesus himself announces the inauguration of God’s reign on earth! A simple command changes the lives of four men forever! Twenty verses in, we know that Jesus means business, and that the story that will continue to unfold over the next fifteen chapters will be unlike any other story that has ever been told.
So what are we to make of this opening? What is the good news for us as we continue through this Christmas season and into a new year? I’d like to suggest a few ways that the beginning of this story continues to be a word of good news for our lives.
The first is that the announcement of Jesus to those first-century people is still as true now as it was then: “The time has been fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near!” We live in the hope and expectation that the reign of God which broke out when Jesus entered the scene is still present in our midst, that we are still able to catch glimpses of that kingdom breaking out around us in various ways. We’ll learn more in the weeks and months to come what that kingdom looks like, but it is enough for today to know that God’s reign is not in some other place or time, but right here and right now.
The second is that the Holy Spirit that descended into Jesus at his baptism was also given to us in our baptism. Put another way, the same Spirit that made Jesus capable of the amazing deeds that will be recounted throughout Mark’s Gospel also dwells within us, strengthening us to be disciples of Jesus and granting us the grace to live in obedience to his teaching.
The last thing to take away from this morning’s reading is that it represents just the beginning of this good news! The gospel of Jesus continues to unfold in our own day through Christ’s presence in the church, meaning that we who bear the name of Christ are given the joy and responsibility of bearing the good news that began with Jesus’ appearance on the banks of the Jordan as we go from this place into our own lives. In word and deed, we have the opportunity to share what God has done in Jesus with those we encounter each day, helping them to see how God’s reign is breaking out in their lives as well.
Brothers and sisters, we are in the midst of a time of reflection on beginnings. As we continue through the season of Christmas and prepare to ring in the New Year later this week, may we be inspired to consider the good news that is a gift to us and to our whole world. May we wonder anew at who Jesus is and what he has accomplished for us and for creation. May we ready ourselves to look at the story of his life with fresh eyes and an openness to knowing him more deeply. Finally, may we strive to learn what it means to be a faithful follower of God’s Son today and in the days to come. Thanks be to God! Amen.