very story needs a good beginning. Every story needs to establish an essential goodness that is threatened or lost. The plot of the story then becomes the struggle of the characters to save or
regain this goodness. For example, the Lord of the Rings begins with a portrait of the idyllic land of the hobbits, filled with a wholesome agrarian community that almost feels lifted right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The memory of this Eden becomes a driving force for the two hobbits, around whom the story turns, giving them strength to persevere in their quest against evil in the world.
Or if hobbits and elves aren’t your thing, the movie, “Up” begins with a moving opening sequence, completely devoid of dialog, that establishes a life-long friendship and relationship between a man and woman. Before our eyes, in just a few minutes, they fall in love, grow up, get married, live a full and wonderful life together, and grow old. It’s a beginning so powerful that it is hard not to tear up when the woman dies with her elderly husband by her side in a hospital. Though we met these two characters literally minutes before, we begin the story with a profound sense of the connection that has been broken, of the love that has been breached by death. We understand the goodness the old man has lost, loneliness that must be overcome, and the reconnection with life and with meaning that must play out in the story.
What you don’t expect is for a story to begin with what sounds a lot like an ending. You don’t expect a story to begin with the hero’s return from their great journey. You don’t expect the story to begin with the epic battle between good and evil having already been won. You don’t expect a story to begin with “happily ever after.”
Yet, that is exactly what we find in the Gospel of Mark. The Good News of Jesus Christ begins like this; God’s promise is at last fulfilled!
God’s promise is fulfilled.
It is the story of the people of God. It is the story of promises made by God and the story of promises broken by God’s people. Promises made and promises broken, it is the foundation of sacred scripture. Promises made and promises broken, it animates the human encounter of God across most of our history. God promises to be our God, to watch over us, to provide for us, to protect us. But we cannot maintain our end of the promise. We cannot retain our fidelity to God.
So, God calls us back. God leads us back to right relationship. God forges the promise with us yet again, and the story repeats. Through times of great prosperity and peace, the story plays out. Through time of famine and exile, the great story turns again. Through it all, God’s promise hangs before us. And, through it all, we know in our heart that we are unable to keep the promise.
It’s maddening. We hear it in the Prophet Isaiah’s words, spoken during the exile of God’s people in the Babylonian Empire. “Cry out,” the voice of an angel commands him. “What’s the point?” Isaiah responds. “Your people are grass, their faithfulness is like the flower of the field. God’s promise is spoken to them, but the grass withers and the flower fades when the breath of God is before them. What’s the point?”
“Yes, the grass withers,” the voice of the angel continues, “yes, the flower fades. But the word of our God stands for ever. God’s promise will be fulfilled.”
For half a millennium, Isaiah’s question waits. Little in the world changes. Sure, the actors come and go, prophets rise up and wither away, empires grow and fade from history, but the story doesn’t change. Then, a crazy-looking man in the Judean wilderness appears, preaching a message of repentance and the proclamation of the coming of the messiah.
Mark sees this and writes that God’s scripture has come alive and God’s promise is fulfilled. It is a bold move to start your story with the promise being fulfilled. It is even bolder when it doesn’t look like it.
It certainly didn’t feel like God’s promise had been fulfilled to the people who gathered to listen to John the Baptist and to be baptized by him in the Jordan River. Life was hard. They were a people conquered, exiles in their own land, under the power of a great empire. They longed for God’s promise to be fulfilled, yes. They had a pretty good idea of what God’s salvation and deliverance would look like when it came at last. It was not John. God’s promise wouldn’t look like a man clothed in camel’s hair and leather belt, a man whose breath betrayed that he ate nothing but locusts and wild honey.
Even to Mark’s community, to whom he wrote this Gospel some seventy years after John’s voice last cried out in the wilderness, it probably didn’t seem like God’s promise had been fulfilled yet. The faithful were nothing more than small communities of people scattered throughout Israel and the surrounding empire that gathered together in people’s homes. It was a tense time. Some of the Jewish people were rising up in resistance against the empire in a conflict that led to the destruction of the Second Temple. These early Christian communities, already viewed with suspicion by the empire, were trying to distance themselves from the Jewish conflict. They were trying to distance themselves from the very tradition that Jesus had called his own. People were dying. Persecution was real. If God’s promise had been fulfilled, it certainly didn’t feel like it.
Two millennia after Mark’s community last gathered together and looked out upon the world with fear and trepidation, it still doesn’t feel like God’s promise is fulfilled. Israel is still beset by violence. War still reverberates across the world and rumors of war are whispered in anxious tones. In our own country, in Puerto Rico, the New York Times estimates that over 1,000 people have died in the long lingering aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
It isn’t much different in our own lives. We still struggle with relationships and raising children. We still feel the stress of work and making ends meet. We still watch as loved ones, as we ourselves, battle with cancer, battle with addiction, battle with Alzheimer’s or dementia. The goodness that we find in our lives is still beset by our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world around us. The love and joy in our life is still breached by death.
And through it all, Mark proclaims that God’s promise is fulfilled. So, either Mark is crazy, or he sees something we do not.
Years ago, I was attending a conference in Austin, TX. During some free time, a group of us were exploring downtown Austin, to see what there was to be seen. A few of us went together to attend worship at a little orthodox church. But one person in our group went off by himself and struck up a conversation with a homeless man, seated and leaning against a wall. The homeless man was passing the time by making sketches on an old pad of paper of the people he saw as he sat watching the world go by around him. As their conversation came to a close, the homeless man tore off a sheet from his old pad of paper and handed it to my fellow conference attendee. Later, when we all met back up, he pulled it out to show us, and on the sheet of paper was a drawing of Christ.
What Mark saw in John’s wilderness ministry, what Mark saw in his own small community of early Christians, what we ourselves could see in the world, if we had but eyes to see it, is God’s promise being fulfilled. What Mark saw, what we can see too, is Christ in our midst.
It is so easy to feel overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world. It is so easy to say to ourselves, “God is not in this mess.” But there is another reality to which the life of faith awakens us. It is the only true reality, the reality that reveals to us that God is at work in our world, not in spite of our brokenness, but through our brokenness. It is the reality that God alone is sovereign so that all things, like a great river, lead us back to God. It is the reality that even the things that separate and isolate, the things that destroy and breach, are no obstacle for our God and cannot keep our God from us.
Come, my friends, let our faith awaken us to the world as it is. God has given us eyes that we might see it. God has given us ears that we might hear it. God has given us tongues that we might raise our voices with Mark from the high places of the world and proclaim that the promise is fulfilled.
Here is your God! The powers of this world have no more claim over you. Even death has lost its sting. The Lord our God is at hand and the Good News of Jesus Christ has begun.
Preached by Adam Yates