December 6 is the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. While I don’t recommend a sermon that deconstructs Santa Claus in the presence of tearful children and horrified parents, I do think that the story of Nicholas can be a good sermon illustration and open the door for parents to share a deeper sense of the meaning of giving and receiving Christmas gifts. I think the icon of St. Nicholas makes him look a lot more like John the Baptist than like Santa Claus (This image is in the public domain). The Wikipedia article on St. Nicholas of Myra gives a good summary and some references:
For me, the season of Christmas really begins with this festival and runs at least through January 6, the Epiphany of our Lord. And since the season of Epiphany is really an extension of Christmas, we tend to keep many of our Christmas decorations up at our house until Ash Wednesday.
Gospel Reading – Mark 1:1-8
To begin…The gospel according to Mark contains the testimony of the best Christian theologian in history. A frantic father brings his demon-possessed child to Jesus for healing. In his desperation, the father cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). This father represents, I think, the audience for Mark’s gospel. Mark preaches to people in desperate straits – people who know they need help but who can’t figure out how to get it. It is important to keep that desperate father in our thoughts whenever we try to preach on a passage from Mark.
Last week we heard that the coming of Christ is not the end of anything. Now we get to the real beginning. We will get two weeks of John the Baptist here at the beginning of Year B. There will be significant crossover and perhaps even some duplication from this week to next week. The benefit is that it is not necessary to say everything about John the Baptist in one week. The liability is that we might struggle to have enough to say for two weeks.
Prepare for God’s coming! The good news is that God is coming, ready or not. In a time when we have perhaps been alone too much, God’s coming may be especially good news. In a time when we feel isolated, abandoned, and cut off, it’s a real joy to think that we welcome God into our midst. Advent is the prelude to Incarnation, the good news that God is with us. In this time when we are called to go away from one another, to be socially distant from one another, God comes to us, in the midst of our wild and lonely places. In this time when we are threats to another and threatening to one another, God comes to us with the gifts of healing and rescue.
Verse one has no main verb in it. It is not a sentence but is, rather, the title of this little book. So, the whole of Mark’s work is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Since there is no verb, the phrase is (I think, intentionally) ambiguous. It is the beginning of the story that Mark tells. And the telling of the story can begin the working of the gospel in the life of the world and in the life of the hearer. This also will help us understand the apparent lack of an ending to the gospel text in chapter 16. The gospel has no ending in it. It is all about beginning. The ending gets worked out in the life of the disciple community.
Commentators see the obvious connection between the first chapter of John’s gospel and the first words of the book of Genesis – “In the beginning…” I have not seen, however, the same sort of connection made to the first words of Mark’s gospel. A few commentators have referred to these first eight verses as Mark’s “prologue,” in the same way we might refer to the first eighteen verses of John’s gospel.
Of course, the words in John are a verbal copy of the Genesis language. But I think Mark intends to echo those words as well. Verse one is the beginning (Greek = arche’) of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is also the beginning of life as God intends it. Verses two and three really function as epigraphs for the book – sort of like the quotations that many writers would put on a front page of a book or at the head of each chapter.
Verses two and three set brief anchors and chart the direction of the good news. The creating Word in Mark is spoken through the prophets and recapitulated in the proclamation of John the Baptizer. Again, this is perhaps why the gospel of Mark ends so abruptly in chapter sixteen. The gospel according to Mark is not the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning.
I’d like to press this a bit further. Mark’s gospel begins with prophetic words in the midst of the wilderness, a place of chaos. John’s words point to the water of the Jordan and baptism. Jesus comes up out of the water and is declared God’s beloved Son. He is the human being in this new garden. Immediately following this creation, the Son is tested (tempted). In this new creation, Jesus triumphs over the tempter, and the real good news ministry can begin (in verse 14).
“A beginning,” writes Frank Herbert in Dune, “is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” As a lifelong sci-fi fan and a Dune devotee for the last thirty years, I’m excited to hear that a cinematic Dune reboot is in the works for 2021. Herbert understands the importance of beginnings for how a story unfolds and ends up. Mark understands it even better.
Some application questions…
We could ask our hearers about their own beginnings. Next week we will think more about what it means to be a witness. So, if you go that route next week, you might want to hold off on asking for faith stories or other “beginning” narratives this week. But we could ask our listeners to think about other ways in which the Holy Spirit has begun something in me or in us or in the world.
We could remind our listeners that each day is a new beginning in our baptismal journeys as disciples. We could invite our congregants to watch for and even to report back any new beginnings they might notice in the coming week. And it will be helpful to remind folks that this beginning takes place in the wilderness, with the cry of a lone voice of faith.
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