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Middle of a Love Story
Text: Mark 1:1-15
The beginning begins in the middle.
Unlike in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the story of Jesus in Mark begins with a grownup man. A grownup man on his way to work at his new job. There is no story of the baby Jesus in the manger in Mark, and there is no story of the young wise Jesus speaking in the temple. And unlike in the Gospel of John, there is no cosmological poem.
In Mark, the story is exactly the story of the ministry of Jesus in the world and his subsequent execution and resurrection. Mark starts out fast and ends suddenly, the story told quickly. In those days, out of the blue, Jesus came from Nazareth, Mark says. Out of the blue, but not unexpected. Mark quotes Isaiah. And from John the baptist we hear that someone powerful is on his way. Someone is coming. Here is Jesus. Jesus is the one of whom John speaks. It is not a chance meeting.
The Gospel of Mark is slightly out of order in the Bible. It was the first written Gospel. Mark coined the word “gospel”—which simply means “good news”—as a sort of biography or extended story of Jesus. And Luke and Matthew use Mark as one of their sources for their own stories. So if things were ordered chronologically, we should have Mark, and then Matthew and Luke, and finally late-comer John. The first word of the New Testament would be the first word of Mark: Beginning. Just like the first word of the Old Testament, of the Bible: Beginning.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Something is happening here. Something is changing. A beginning is a break from what went before. It would have been easier if Mark had just said: The good news of Jesus Christ. It would be much simpler. Then we would know that it was just a story Mark was going to tell us. Let me tell you about this guy Jesus. Here are some things about Jesus. But this is not just a story. Something is different.
What is beginning? Maybe it simply the telling of the story that is beginning. Mark might be saying: This is the beginning of the story I’m going to tell you. In that case, does the story end when Mark ends it, as we heard two weeks ago, with Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of God and Salome fleeing the empty tomb in amazement and fear? “They said nothing to any one; for they were afraid.” The end. Does Mark mean to wrap things all up in his little book? Or maybe the story is the beginning of a much larger story. In that case, the story does not end with the end of Mark; Mark’s part is just the beginning. The story continues for years, up to us, and beyond.
And it does not really start with Mark, either. We know little of the life of Jesus before his ministry. What we do know about occupied a very small portion of his life. No matter which Gospel you consult, you’ll find the ministry of Jesus spanned less time—maybe half the time—than it takes to get a college degree.
Mark has news to share with us. It is good news, Mark says. The good news of Jesus. The word “gospel” means a good message, a good note, good news. The kind of news you get when you hear about the birth of a child, or impending marriage, or graduation, or peace after war, or success after struggle. That’s great news, we say. Life and renewal and hope have come. The news is in the announcement. But it is the event itself that is good.
What is the good news of Jesus Christ? Some say it the news that Jesus brings. It is something that Jesus reveals to us by his words and deeds. Some say it the news that Jesus is. His death and resurrection. Some say it his very existence that is good. God with us, Immanuel we sing at Christmas. God is here in the flesh, a person. That’s good.
Imagine we had never heard of Jesus who came from Nazareth. Imagine Mark was a friend of ours, writing this letter to us, telling us about Jesus. What would we think? Would we think Mark had sent us a term paper on some great historical hero? Would we think Mark had sent us some complicated instructions about how to live? Would we think Mark had written down some dogma for us to adhere to?
Or wouldn’t we instead, on reading this letter, think that Mark had fallen in love? Wouldn’t we read “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” to say “I’ve just met this amazing person and my life has been changed, and maybe everything will be changed.” The beginning of Mark is the beginning of a love story. The passion of Mark is for the things Jesus did and said. And for the life Jesus led. And for the very existence of Jesus. All those things, just as the passion we have for someone we love. It is complex and simple at the same time. And as in a good love story, we see our passion equaled (or bettered, really) by Jesus’ love for us.
The story that Mark tells is a story of the love of Christ for people. That is the story of the other Gospels, too. And the story of Paul’s epistles, and the rest of the New Testament. This passion, given and received, is what you hear in the gospels and letters. It is what makes it good news to Mark.
But the story does not start with Mark and his buddies. It is the story of the whole Bible. It is the story of the God we know. The whole Bible is a love letter, a love story. It is a story of a God whose primary way of being with the world is not to judge and demand but to love the world. God created the world, God shows us beauty, God makes us laugh, God gives us love for one another. Those are gifts of someone who loves us. In Jesus, God comes to be with us, to heal us, to be moved to tears with us, to be angry with injustice done to us. Those, too, are gifts of someone who loves us.
This does not mean that we find the relationship always to be smooth, or that we do not get angry with God, or find God to be missing or silent. Or that sometimes the spark of our desire is softened by long-time, 2000 year old familiarity. But Mark’s words show us that the foundation of that relationship is passionate love for one another.
The Gospel of Mark is the beginning of the love story of Mark for Jesus. But in the story of the world, Jesus comes in at the middle. The story has been ongoing. Jesus is like the older brother in a family we already know and love well, but whom we haven’t yet met because he’s been away. We love him immediately because he is kin. But we fall in love with him because he is himself. For Christians, as the brother embodies the family, Jesus is the embodiment of God. God is revealed in Jesus. The son of God. Let me introduce to you my son, God says. This is my son, the beloved. The whole Bible is good news. Jesus is Mark’s good news. And ours.