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 Good News Begins Here

Sermon - 1/08/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 1:1-14

So just as Fred read for us from the first page of the Bible [earlier], our sermon text begins with the first page of Mark's gospel, which actually is the oldest of the four gospels. The church leaders, for whatever reasons, chose Matthew as the first in location, but Mark is generally regarded as the oldest. So then, reading from the first chapter of Mark, I'm going to read verses 1-5 and 9-15:

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

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” ’,

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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.


9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

When that author that we commonly refer to as a Mark (because the Gospel itself never gives us his name, but tradition says it was Mark) sat down to write his gospel (the first to put this story of the good news into that narrative form), he did not begin by filling out a title page -- you know, Title, Written By, Date, Published By. There was no dedication page -- "I dedicate this to my mother", etc.

Instead, he simply begins in Greek with 5 words: beginning, of, good-news (which is one word in Greek), Jesus, Christ. In English, it takes more words to say that: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. You may note in your text, it continues "the son of God". If you look at the little tiny footnote that I always teach about, that phrase "son of God" does not appear in the oldest manuscripts, likely was added by someone later on, probably still late in the first century.

So Mark, at any rate, just begins simply with this: Here is where the good news of Jesus starts. And that seems fitting for us, at the beginning of the year, here on the first Sunday in the Epiphany season, to begin then with this text.

And what's interesting, then, in Mark's gospel, is that is that he says nothing about the birth of Jesus. We think of that as the beginning. You know, nothing about the visits by the shepherds, or the Magi, or the appearances of angels, or the journeys to Bethlehem or to Egypt. None of that pageantry and celebration that we just finished doing, un-decorating the church this past Wednesday. Evidently for Mark, that doesn't appear to be important. Rather, the beginning of his gospel, this fabulous good news for the world starts with this proclamation of John the Baptist, followed by the baptism of Jesus.

Now, I don't know if Mark didn't know these stories that are so dear and important to us (that we find in Matthew and Luke), or if he simply decided that they weren't important. Whatever the case is, it is clear that for Mark the good news begins first of all with this proclamation of John: "Prepare the way of the Lord".

And then, after the baptism, the proclamation of Jesus: "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near [or "at hand" in many translations], repent and believe the good news". So, what does that mean?

Well, first of all, let me say just a little bit about what it does not mean.

Santa Claus came early to the Bryant household, with some very special good news. A sure sign of the coming glory of the kingdom of God, of triumph of good over evil -- tickets to the Rose Bowl :)

Now, being in the Rose Bowl, of course, is not nirvana itself. I am not so shallow as to suggest that playing in the most prestigious college football game in the country could be associated with heavenly perfection :)

Winning the Rose Bowl, on the other hand. . . . :)

After 95 years! And to be there, with your family, I mean it was heaven:


Now, here's the irony. To get into the Rose Bowl, all those 100,000 screaming football fans, be they righteous Ducks or wanna-be Badgers seeking their own version of heaven, you had to walk past a slew of demonstrators at every entrance, warning us of the path to hell for our hedonist extravaganza:

I want you to take special note of this sign -- "Escape Hell, Believe Jesus":

And look down below that, it's hard to read, it says "Not Church":

Evidently (and I checked this out on their web site) they consider what we do here as being phony. Pseudo-church. They have the real church, the real message, the real good news. We do not.

Mostly what I got from their signs was this very negative feeling, this focus on sin and how bad we are, you know -- no person is righteous, our idolatry, etc.

So I took to heart the discovery of a Duck fan who had one of those roll-up signs, that when you expand it says "Go Ducks".  And in that sign, he found God:

So, taking that as a divine sign of good things to come, I entered into the arena with gladdened heart, to do battle :)

Now, we all know the good news of Jesus really isn't about winning football games, as fun as that may be. But I have to tell you that holding up big signs for Jesus isn't it either.

My problem with the sign-holders was not just this in-your-face means they were using (that strikes me as a little incongruent with the humble servant attitude taught by Jesus), my bigger problem is with the assumption behind their message, which in fact I think is probably shared by most Christians (who would never be as bold as this particular woman -- almost screaming at people as they walked by):

Namely, that we are all victims of sin, and like Adam and Eve, we have fallen from the paradise of Eden, and thus (in this perspective), the good news of Jesus is about how we can return to that pre-fall state. To be restored to the grace of God. We sometimes refer to this as the paradigm of the fall from Eden. That is, it describes in a nut-shell the primary problem of the human condition -- we have fallen out of paradise, out of favor with God, because of sin, and thus we need a Savior to save us from that.

Now, one need not the understand the story of the Garden of Eden, and Adam & Eve and all of that, as a factual-historical account, to embrace the fall as an accurate metaphor for our separation from God.

But what if that paradigm is wrong? What if it doesn't work for some people? Like these particular Duck fans [above] walking by who just saw it as a joke. They don't feel any sense of that sin, of that fallen-ness. Is it then our job that we have to convince them of how bad they are so they can receive the good news?

What if, as theologian Matthew Fox puts it, we live not in a state of original sin, but in a state of original blessing? The challenge, then, is to rediscover that blessing, that diving light, that presence of God that is in of all of us.

Consider this [click play to play the video below while reading the following sentence]: the predominant paradigm for the modern world is not of a fall from an earlier paradise, but of an evolution out of an earlier primordial order into an ever growing state of complexity and higher consciousness. . . . wait for it:


I couldn't resist :)

As long as we continue to proclaim a message out of the old paradigm of the fall in this modern world of an ever-evolving reality, we will become the Kodak of modern spirituality -- proclaiming the virtue of Kodachrome in a world of digital cameras.

Retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong has been one of those prophetic voices in the wilderness calling for the church to repent of its stubborn, ancient ways for years now. I just got this flyer last week of a seminar he's conducting up in Salem entitled "Shifting the Christian Paradigm from Salvation and Atonement to Life and Wholeness". In in, the blurb says: "It's time to do away with such words as Savior, Redeemer, and Rescuer in the Christian vocabulary. These words all assume an anthropology of the past that is no longer operative. There was no perfect creation from which we have fallen into sin that requires divine intervention and rescue. There is rather an evolving pattern of life that issues a new consciousness and an expanded humanity. Can we tell the Christ story in this radically new context?".

Well, Spong is never one to hold back his opinions for fear that he might upset someone with his radical views, but I'm going to go hear him out. I'm not ready to give up some of that language, I have to tell you. The notion of Christ as Savior, I think in particular, for even without the idea of the fall or original sin, the world is still very much in need of saving. The environment is in trouble, the economy is in trouble, our public institutions and schools are in trouble. Heaven knows, everyone knows, government is in trouble. People are in trouble, families are in trouble. And I deeply believe that the way of Jesus way of Jesus is the way of salvation for the world.

But it is not the case, I believe, that we have fallen from grace as if there were a time when everything was right with the world. I mean, what time would that be? Would it be the 1980s? Remember Iran-Contra, and the Exxon Valdez, and Reaganomics? Would it be the 1960s, or 70s? The Vietnam war, Cold war, urban riots and bellbottoms? Would it be the 40s and 50s, with its Jim Crow laws and legal segregation? And we all knew the rightful place of women, right? Would it be the 30s, with its Great Depression, the rise of Fascism?

Maybe the turn of the century, prior to women's suffrage, you know, that began all this trouble :) How 'bout the Civil War, or before the Civil War? Legalized slavery? What about 1776, the founding of our country on the ideals that made us great -- like, only white, male, property-owners could vote. And slaves were 3/5ths of a person, and Native Americans not even that -- savages.

The Middle Ages? Crusades, plagues. The time of Jesus? Life-expectancy about 35. Roman methods for dealing with dissent make modern-day Syria look like the champion of human rights that President Assad thinks they are.

You see, we think we live in a world of increasing violence, because our news is filled with all kinds of violence -- if it bleeds, it leads. Terrorism, and mayhem. It turns out, contrary to popular opinion, that death by violence actually has been decreasing steadily since the dawn of human history. Steven Pinker, who is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University made news recently with a lecture at TED (now, if you don't know what TED is, ask a young person -- stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design). Big event, held all around the country, you can find it on YouTube.

At any rate, this address he gave at a TED conference caused quite a stir. He demonstrated in a review of studies by anthropologists that we are steadily killing fewer and fewer people as we progress as a society. During the 20th century, there were 100 million deaths in war. That's a big number. But if we were still in tribal societies engaged in tribal warfare, you would expect to see 2 billion deaths (at the same rate of death from those times).

Well, what about homicide? Every Western nation has seen a decrease over the last 500 years in murder. In one particular place in Britain they can go back as early as the 15th century and can show that there was 24 murders for every 100,000 people. Today, it's less than one per every 100,000. From year-to-year there may be some variance, but overall, as a society as we advance, the violent death continues to decrease.

We often romanticize ancient times when in fact they were very brutal. Few of us would have survived past the age of 40. My point is that it is a fallacy to believe that there was a time -- recent or in ancient history -- that we can somehow return to that makes the world a better place.

Note that the prophet in this text does not say "I'm sending a messenger behind you, go back!". Right? I'm sending a messenger ahead of you. Nor do you prepare a way in the wilderness to return to the wilderness -- no, you prepare a way in the wilderness to go through it, to come out of it.

The kingdom of God is not the ideal world of yesterday, it is about claiming the future that God intends for us in this world, today.

The beginning of the good news, Jesus says, is here -- the kingdom of God is at hand. It is available to us now, not in some nebulous far-off fantasy land.

Now, one more popular mis-belief that I need to deal with. We always associate repentance with what? Sin, right? You think of repentance, you think of sin. Yet, Jesus says nothing in this text about sin, he simply says 'repent and believe the good news'.

You see, repentance is about much more than renouncing sin. Literally, it means 'turning around', changing directions, to live with a different orientation that turns towards God. It can mean turning away from a life of selfishness (we might call that sin), to a life of service. Or turning away from a life of violence to a way of non-violence.

To announce repentance in the same breath as the nearness of the kingdom of God is not to say that the world is ending and therefore you need to get right with God, to the contrary, it says you need to get right with God so you can share in the beginning of the world's transformation. See, the way of Caesar's empire is a dead end. The way of Christ's reign is life-fulfilling.

And in those first five words of his gospel, Mark is not telling us that this is the beginning of the story about Jesus, he is telling us that Jesus is the beginning of the story about God's good news for our ever-evolving world. This is just the start. Here is a new way of life, the way of Jesus in the community of God, that stands in direct contrast to the empire of nations.

And it begins here, when we treat every person as a child of God regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, physical ability, politics, or religion.

It begins here, when we repent of our own greed and prejudices, hate and addictions, and un-Christ-like attitudes and behaviors, and tend to the log in our own eyes before we worry about the speck in someone else's.

It begins here, when we live with passion, when we love with abandon, when we sing with joy, when we dance with the light for the original blessing of God's grace and goodness that is in each of us.

It begins here, when we sit and eat with those who are hungry, when we drink with those who are thirsty, when we welcome those who are rejected, when we befriend those who are lonely, when we listen for the deaf and we speak for the voiceless.

It begins here, when when we live in the nearness of that place Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.

This is good news.


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