The Story Begins, December 6

The Story Begins

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8 -13; Mark 1:1-8

Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Catskill, Palenville, Quarryville United Methodist Churches; December 6, 2020

 

The author of Mark begins the gospel with these words:  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Straight-forward, no nonsense sort of reporting, thank you very much, which is not a bad description of the whole gospel of Mark.  Mark is the storyteller who moves, fast, from happening to happening.  He uses the Greek word ‘eutheos’ – translated as both ‘immediately’ and ‘straight away’ – eleven times just in the first chapter of the book.  Jesus in Mark is on the move.  Mark has a story to tell, and he tells it, straight away.

 

Mark is the earliest gospel we have, and it is written probably about year 65 in the first century of the Common Era, a good thirty years or so after the death of Jesus.  There were other Christian writings before Mark was written.  Paul’s letters are almost all written earlier than Mark, and there are other gospels which scholars have found pieces of – including gospels of Thomas and of Mary.  Mark is the earliest written account of Jesus’ life that the churches agreed was useful enough to copy and share and use for general instruction and worship.  Like the other gospels, it’s probably not a first-hand account.  Instead, it’s a summation of one early church’s understanding of who Jesus was and why he mattered.  We call the author Mark because it’s easy shorthand, but we don’t really know who he or she is.

 

We began the Christian year last week as Advent started.  Advent leads us into Christmas, Jesus’ birth among us as a human child, the baby in the manger and the angels announcing the birth. But as logical as it seems to start a story at the beginning of a year or at a child’s birth, in real time, the story of what became Christianity begins at the resurrection.  It was in the experience that Jesus was alive, that even death couldn’t hold him down, that God’s love in Jesus was bigger than and longer than death and life as they’d known them, that the disciples of Jesus realized that everything was now different.  It was different because of Jesus.  Now his spirit would never leave them alone again, and they would never be the same.  This is the good news that would spread like wildfire, changing hearts and lives, creating new communities in love that broke down dividing walls, offering people a new home in the power and spirit of God.  Jews and Gentiles, together.  Slave and free, men and women – all baptized into one body, serving the world in the name and love of Jesus, their Savior.

 

They shared their witness to the new life they’d found, by telling the story – the story of the crucifixion and resurrection, the story of the new power of the Spirit, and the story of the life of the teacher who was now their Lord and Savior.  Like churches today, the communities weren’t hugely different from one another, but they told the story somewhat differently, emphasizing different parts of the story of Jesus as they told it.  Telling the story and inviting others to know Jesus and the power of his Spirit has always been central to Christian practice and tradition.

 

The story those early Christians told was not entirely new.  The God who raised Jesus from the dead was not a new kid on the block.  The heart of the story they told is always that Jesus is strongly connected to the God who freed the Israelites from slavery so long ago, a manifestation of the same power, the God who gave the law and spoke through the words of the prophets.  Mark begins his gospel with Jesus’ baptism by John, but first Mark explains that John is living out in the wilderness, he is living out the words of the prophet Isaiah.  John is a voice, crying out in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’  All four gospels tell of John the Baptist, and make this connection between him and Isaiah, preparing the way by calling people to repentance, preparing them for whatever it was that God, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, had in store.  Jesus.  That’s what God had in store for the world.  And it is that happening, that coming of God into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, that all the gospels bear witness to.  Christmas in the celebration of the incarnation, that embodiment, that decision and accomplishment of God to dwell among us, within the confines of mortal time and space, out of God’s deep and abiding love for us.  Jesus comes as a light, shining in the darkness, a light that opens our eyes to hope and guides our way forward.  We are saved because of God’s decision for incarnation. We are redeemed by the God of the ages, who does a new thing for us in Jesus.  This is the story that Mark tells, that Matthew and Luke and John all tell as well.  And it’s the story that’s ours to tell, at Advent, at Christmas, and throughout the year.  We tell it in words, as the hymn we sang said.  We tell it in songs and in art, as Christians have done generation after generation.  And we tell it most powerfully through what we do.  We feed the hungry and clothe the naked; we build and sustain a community of love and forgiveness, because that’s how we have found life in Christ; we listen, and make the struggles of others our own because that’s what love does; we shine a light of hope in the depth of the night of selfishness and cynicism and despair, because we know that God is faithful through even the most difficult of days.

 

We don’t shine a light because we’ve made it through and we’re sitting at the top of the mountain, gloating over our success.  You and I both know that we’re walking the same rough road as everyone else is.  The sickness and death that break the hearts of our neighbors break our hearts as well.  The addiction that seeks to claim the souls of people who’ve lost hope claws at our door as well.  Which is why we light today’s Advent candle as Jesus the Way, not the Destination.  Our story is one of a journey.  Our journey is easier because we’ve made the choice to let Jesus guide our steps.  We have chosen, quite deliberately, to make our home in the love of God. That choice changes our lives just as it changed the lives of people in the early church so many centuries ago.  Because of that choice, we know that the comfort Isaiah speaks of is real, that God carries us like baby lambs when we are weak.  Because of that choice, we affirm the truth of the Psalm, that

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;

Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,

And righteousness and peace will look down from the sky.

 

We are living in difficult days.  We do not face these difficult days alone, nor do we face them without hope.  We are those who have heard the story of salvation and new life that comes to us in Jesus, and we have made that story our own.  As we prepare our hearts and homes for the celebration of the incarnation among us, tell the story, let the good news be at the heart of your joy.  Let us find new ways of living and sharing Christ’s love, and that story we tell – through our songs and our actions – may it be good news, of great joy, to all who hear, who witness, and who are drawn into the new life of love in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

 

 

 

Isaiah 40:1-11

40Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

 

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.

You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,

for he will speak peace to his people,

  to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,

that his glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;

righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,

and righteousness will look down from the sky.

The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

 

Mark 1:1-8

1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
 who will prepare your way;
3the 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

 

 

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