God's Story, Our Story: The Beginning of the Good News
Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Mark 1:1-20
Part I: Introduction
The Bible is ultimately a story about who God is and how God is on mission in the world. But the Bible is also our story. We find ourselves in this story—as supporting characters, where our ordinary lives are caught up in God’s extraordinary work of salvation for the whole world.
God’s Story, which has been building up all through the OT, reaches its climax in a baby born in Bethlehem, the Messiah and Savior of the world we’ve just celebrated in this season of Christmas. “Joy to the word, the Lord is come!” we’ve sung many times. “Let earth receive her king! Let every heart, prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing!”
Today begins a new season in the church year—the season of Epiphany. Ephiphany means “to make manifest.” It is a season of celebrating that the light has come, and it is about “seeing” more clearly who Jesus is and how he is the center-point and climax of God’s Story and our story.
Starting today, the Narrative Lectionary takes us into the Gospel of Mark. Whereas up to this point we’ve been leaping from one part of God’s Story to another (and at times they’ve been really big leaps), between now and Easter we’re going to slow down and move more methodically through Mark’s Gospel. So hear the Word of the Lord from the opening chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Read Mark 1:1-20.
Part II: the Beginning of the Good News!
I said that we were going to slow down and work our way through Mark’s Gospel, but “slow” is hardly the word to use for Mark’s storytelling! Mark wastes no time getting down to business. He doesn’t begin with a genealogy like Matthew or a lengthy birth narrative like Luke, not even a prologue like John. Mark gets right to the point with a crisp, single sentence introduction: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
If we had to come up with a title and heading for Mark’s Gospel, this would be it. The word gospel literally means “good news,” and it’s a Greek word that was used in the ancient world to announce a military victory in the battlefield or that a new king had been born or a new king had been enthroned.
And that’s exactly what Mark is announcing in this explosive opening sentence. A new king has come! And this king is bringing a new kingdom. But this king and his kingdom will look radically different from anything the world has ever known. For this is God’s kingdom, and the one who would rule is this Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah.
The Jewish people had been waiting a long time for this Messiah and his kingdom. And while they differed in their expectations of what it would all look like, there was general agreement that it would be the fulfillment of God’s promises from prophets like Isaiah who talked about a day when God’s power would be set loose in the world in order to bring salvation to his people.
Mark’s opening sentence is sounding the alarm: the time is here! At long last, God is on the move and is bringing the salvation he long ago promised. And where does the story begin? Not in Jerusalem, where you’d expect. Not in that holy city where the temple stands and the religious and political leaders have everything well-managed and under control. No, this good news bursts open out in the wilderness with a wild desert preacher who thunders out from his wilderness pulpit: “Get ready! This new king is coming!”
John the Baptizer calls people to repent, to turn around and change their lives, so that they might be ready to get in on this new thing that God is doing. And we’re told that people come out in droves to confess their sins and be baptized.
Then Jesus, the Messiah, comes. And he is baptized by John in the Jordan. Not because he had sins to confess like everybody else, but as an act of solidarity with humanity. And also so that God might reveal his identity to us: the heavens tear open, the Spirit descends, and the voice of God speaks, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”
Next, Mark tells us that Jesus is immediately driven out to the wilderness by the Holy Spirit where he is tempted by the devil for forty days. Here we see Jesus acting out the great drama of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, Israel’s journey through the wilderness (40 years) into the promise land. Whereas Israel failed to be obedient to God, Jesus is perfectly obedient and overcomes the devil.
Mark tells us all of this in only thirteen verses! Mark is the shortest of all four gospels, and you can see why. His tempo is vigorous. His style is abrupt. There’s an air of breathless excitement in nearly every sentence he writes. Mark’s gospel moves swiftly with purpose and surges with a sense of urgency.
Then we come to the beginning of Jesus public ministry, and the primary message that he would preach throughout the rest of the gospel. I want to slow down and spend the rest of our time this morning here.
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.
This is the message of Jesus’ life and ministry in a nutshell. It’s crucial to Mark’s whole story. Listen again: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.
What does Jesus mean when he announces, “The kingdom of God has come near?” It may strike us as a strange phrase because we live in a western democracy. As we’ve already talked about, it meant that the time had finally come for God to act in a decisive and powerful way to bring salvation to his people. It was the time when God was going to do what he’d been promising all these years and set things right in the world.
Put simply: the kingdom of God is about God’s will being done here on earth as it is in heaven. But Jesus didn’t only preach about this in-breaking kingdom. He is also the one who embodies it. It’s coming in him! He himself is the message!
The rest of Mark’s gospel will involve Jesus giving us glimpses of what this kingdom looks like in his own person and actions—casting out demons, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, raising the dead, calming the storms. All these things are like windows into the future of what it will be like when God completely renews his creation, when his kingdom is fully here. Satan and his demons will have no power. Sickness and pain will be no more. Death will be destroyed. Everything will be made new and be the way it’s supposed to be!
So that’s the first part of Jesus’ message: God’s kingdom is breaking in now! And you don’t want to miss out! In fact, Jesus calls us to join up with him and join in this movement of God. And this leads to the second part of his message. How do you join up and join in? Two words: repent and believe.
Repentance literally means to “turn around”, “change directions” or “change one’s mind.” More than just feeling remorse for the ways we mess up and act selfishly, repentance is about changing direction and going the other way. It’s about switching stories, changing the script (so to speak) by which we live our lives. We trade in the old scripts that tell us who we are and what gives our life purpose and step into a new script--God’s Story of how he is doing a new thing in Jesus Christ, the true King of creation.
But we can’t do this on our will power. We can only repent—turn around and go in a new direction and step into God’s Story—if God gives us the grace to do so. We don’t turn from our sin and then turn towards God, rather we turn towards God first, and in doing so, turn away from our sin. And we can only turn towards God because he has first turned towards us. This is what makes the gospel good news! It’s primarily about how God has found us, come near to us, turned towards us, so that we can now turn towards him.
That’s what this second word is about: believe. Belief is more than intellectual assent or checking off some theological categories. It’s about placing our trust in Jesus, and obeying his commands. It’s the difference between saying “I believe airplanes can fly” and actually being willing to board an airplane. Put most simply, belief is about following Jesus. It’s about attaching ourselves to him and giving him our ultimate allegiance. It is about becoming his apprentice, which means becoming like him in all we desire, think, say and do.
That’s why Jesus sums up his message about the Kingdom by inviting others, like Simon and Andrew, James and John to “follow me.” True faith, true belief, is expressed in the act of following. Not just what you say, but most importantly, how you live. We trade in the old scripts that tell us who we are and how to live and start living by this new script of life in God’s kingdom.
My favorite musical of all time is Les Miserables. I loved the movie too! It takes place in 19th century France and tells the story of Jean Valjean, who after spending 19 years in prison, is released on parole. A theme that runs throughout the story is this key question for Valjean, “Who am I?” Is he just a number – “Prisoner 24601” or does he have a name? Is it possible that he can have a fresh start, a new beginning, or is he forever a prisoner to this old script of his past sins? Valjean becomes a brooding, bitter man as he tries to re-enter society as an ex-con.
One of my favorite scenes is when Valjean is taken in by a Catholic bishop, who offers him food and shelter. One night, Valjean steals most of the bishop’s valuable silver, and the police catch him. If Vajean is convicted, he will go back to prison. The police drag Valjean before the bishop and dump out the sliver as proof of Valjean’s guilt. The bishop looks into Valjean’s desperate and shame-filled eyes, and he does something unexpected. He tells the police that he gave the silver to Valjean, and grabs two silver candlesticks and tells Valjean that he forgot to take these as well. It is such a powerful moment of grace.
After the policemen leave, the Bishop calls Valjean his “brother,” as if giving him a different identity. As if inviting him to turn around, change directions, step into a different story. It’s an invitation to enter and receive the kingdom of God. The Bishop tells Valjean that he must use the silver “to become an honest man”and that his soul now belongs to God. Because of the bishop’s mercy, Valjean’s bitterness is broken.
The rest of the story shows how Valjean strives to live into this new story as one who belongs to God. There will be plenty of other challenges, and at each juncture, he keeps having to make a choices. He keeps returning to this key question, “Who am I?” and is reminded that he is not his own but belongs to God. This sense of his identity gives him courage to do what is right, even when it involves enormous risk and sacrifice. He raises an orphan who is entrusted to his care at her mother’s death, testifies in court on behalf of man who has been falsely accused, even shows mercy on two accounts to Javert, his parole officer, who has spent 15 years hunting him down. He saves a young man, his future son-in-law, from death, though it almost costs him his own life. Valjean returns good for evil wherever he goes, and at the end of his life, he longingly enters Glory. It is a beautiful and compelling story of redemption.
It’s the beginning of a new year. Even though the church new year started in Advent, there is something about January that brings with it a sense of new beginnings. And this is the message of the opening part of Mark’s Gospel today: the beginning of the good news…which means that there is good news for us all. No matter what script we’ve been living by, no matter what’ve we done or left undone, we can have a fresh start. We can begin again. We can step into a new story and be made new. By stepping into this new story of God’s kingdom that is breaking in right now, we are joined to Jesus and join up with his mission to make all things new. This is what the call to discipleship is all about.
You don’t have to have it all figured out. You don’t have to have your life all together. You simply have to say, “Yes” to Christ’s call to follow him and start the journey of going with him. This is the kind of journey where you learn as you go. To paraphrase the great Karl Barth, all of us remain beginners when it comes to discipleship. None of us gets to the level of expert.
Do you hear Jesus’ calling out to you today?
“Turn around. Trust me. Learn from me” Jesus says. “Let me show you how you can be part of a story so much bigger than just yourself. Let me teach what it means to live your life by a different script. Come, Follow me.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.