Sunday, January 05, 2020

Begin as you mean to go on — a sermon on Mark 1

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Begin as You Mean to Go On
Mark 1.1-45 (NIV)
5 January 2020, NL2-17/18

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way’ –
‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.”’
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’
At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.
When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’
‘Be quiet!’ said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.
That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all who were ill and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’
Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’ So he travelled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’
Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.
Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: ‘See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.’ Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

Do you know the saying “begin as you mean to go on”? It’s often said to ministers beginning a new call, because the temptation is to start off doing everything, skipping days off and being everywhere all the time, in an effort to get to know people. But that makes it extremely difficult later to set boundaries and to take holidays and sabbath time and to make choices about which good things are our thing to do and which may be someone else’s calling. So they say that we should start from the very beginning with our day off boundaries and our holiday plans and a schedule for fitting in sermon preparation and visiting and prayer and personal development, and then we will hopefully be equipped to discern along the way when to flex and when to hold firm.

The saying is true in other contexts too, I think....and makes sense at the beginning of the year and the beginning of the decade, to think about how we want to go through this year and try to begin as we mean to go on. That’s the sentiment behind New Year’s Resolutions, after all. 

And here at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, it seems that both Mark and Jesus are beginning as they mean to go on. Mark has a story to tell and he doesn’t have any time to waste—it’s important and he wants us to be swept along in the urgency and excitement of God made flesh, walking among us, bringing the kingdom of God right here and now. Throughout Advent we heard “the time is surely coming” and now it has come. The time is here — God is with us. And he has no time to lose in transforming people’s lives and the world and everything we thought we knew. From the moment Mark opens the story, things are happening, people are talking, there’s healing and new life and challenged norms and expectations.

There are about a dozen different things I wish I could talk about in this chapter of the gospel, but we would be here all day if I started in on everything I think is exciting or interesting just in this segment of the story. So I won’t do that, but I will encourage you to go back and read this chapter again at home, to let the story soak in a bit. Mark is fast-paced and easy to read, you’ll feel like you’re in the midst of the action as you go. 

So I have narrowed it down to three things I want to highlight this morning, though I hope you’ll go back and savour all the fascinating parts of the story at home!

First: when Jesus calls the first disciples, many of our western English translations say that he told the fishermen “I will make you fish for people” — like he was just changing the task that they were doing. But in the original Greek, it says “I will make you fishers of people.” That sounds like such a small difference, but it is actually a big deal. Jesus doesn’t call them to simply a different task — he changes their identity. No longer are they identified by their work, now their identity is defined by their relationship to Jesus. Which is the same thing that John the Baptist had said — that he baptised with water, symbolising a change of circumstances, but the one coming after him would baptise with the Holy Spirit, symbolising a change of identity. When we come to follow Christ, we are transformed from the inside out. Being a Christian is not only a matter of doing certain tasks, but also a matter of being. It is who we are, and what we do grows out of that identity, our behaviour and actions are reflections of our inner life being transformed by Christ.

Second: in this one chapter, Mark shows us Jesus acting in and transforming every sphere of life. He is in the workplace, calling disciples....he is in the synagogue, the place of worship...he is in the private realm of the house....and he is in the public square. In each place he heals people, changes their circumstances and their realities, and shows people what he means when he says that the kingdom of God has come among us. There is no aspect of life that is not touched by Jesus’ transforming power.

Third: when Jesus goes out to pray in the wilderness after a long day of healing and teaching, the disciples come to look for him. When they find him, they even claim that everyone is looking for him. They want him to come do more of the miraculous things he did yesterday....but Jesus responds by saying that their vision is too limited. They do not see him for who he is, they only see what they want him to be. So he says “let’s go to the other towns so I can preach there too — that is why I have come.” Jesus is clear about who he is and what he is called to do. Even in the face of other people’s agendas for him, he stands firm. This is the first, but not the last, time that the disciples misunderstand because they have placed their own ideas of who Jesus is ahead of who he actually is. 

We are entering the season of epiphany, a season of revealing and understanding. In this season, we will be invited to have perfect 2020 vision, to see clearly who Jesus really is, so that we can also see clearly who we are meant to be as his followers. That will mean removing some old lenses, and looking at what Jesus actually does and says, not only what we have been taught or what we think he ought to be like. In the process, we may find clarity about our own calling in this difficult new world as well.

And in this season of epiphany, the time when we look for how Jesus is revealed to the world, I also invite you to join in a new form of revealing. We will read Mark’s gospel from beginning to end between now and Easter. So each week, read one chapter of the gospel and then go about your week looking for things that seem like they might be a modern illustration of some aspect of the chapter that week, and snap a photo—or do a drawing, or make a craft, or whatever works for you. It doesn’t have to encapsulate the entire chapter, just one bit of the story. Send it to me and we will use them to compile a modern illustrated version of the gospel according to Mark—the gospel in 2020 vision. Who knows, perhaps what you see may help someone else understand the story of God-with-us a bit better too.

Let’s begin as we mean to go on, looking for Christ revealed in the world, for we need an epiphany more than ever.

May it be so. Amen.

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