Tuesday, January 5, 2016

“The Starting Line” - January 3, 2016

Text: Mark 1:1-20

You have a big literature test tomorrow on Romeo and Juliet.  It is 10:30 at night and your test is at 8:00 in the morning.  This would not be a big deal except for one small issue: you haven’t actually read Romeo and Juliet.  In fact, you don’t know anything about it.  All you can think of is from that Pointer Sisters song – “like Romeo and Juliet, Samson and Delilah” – apparently, “when they kiss, oohh, fire.”  You decide that bit of information will not get you very far on the test.  You don’t have the time and can’t imagine staying awake long enough to actually read the book.  What do you do?

Of course! You do what slacker students have done for generations.  You turn to Cliff’s NotesCliff’s Notes publishes guides that explain literary and other works in a brief format that summarizes the story and describes the plot, characters, and so forth. 

Detractors claim that Cliff’s Notes allows students to bypass reading the assigned literature.  The company, however, claims to promote reading of the original work and that the study guide is not intended as a substitute for reading the book.  All I know is that more than a few students have opted for the 75 page Cliff’s Notes version rather than the 425 page novel.

Why do I bring up Cliff’s Notes this morning?  Most of our students are gone, so I am not offering this as a public service for those who may not know about Cliff’s Notes.  (And I might add that I never used Cliff’s Notes myself, but then again, they don’t make Cliff’s Notes for Inorganic Chemistry.)

I bring this up because as I read the opening chapter of the Gospel of Mark, I found myself thinking about Cliff’s Notes.  Mark has a rather spare writing style and much more so than the other three gospel writers, he gets right to the point.

John begins his gospel with this great cosmic statement about the pre-existence of Christ – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  And then he goes on the say, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  It is basically John’s theological take on Christmas.

Matthew and Luke each begin with the story of Jesus’ birth, told in different ways, with different details.  Apparently, both felt that the way to begin telling the story of Jesus was with his birth – begin at the beginning, if you will.

Not Mark.  Mark just jumps right in at the outset of Jesus’ ministry, and it is a quickly moving account.  In the 20 verses that we read this morning, we go from a statement of purpose to the ministry of John the Baptist, who preceded Jesus, to Jesus’ baptism, the temptation in the wilderness, a summary of Jesus message at the outset of his ministry, and the calling of the first disciples.  You get all of that packed into 20 verses.

For purposes of comparison, to get past Jesus’ baptism and temptation through the calling of his first disciples takes 90 verses in Matthew and 220 verses in Luke.  Maybe you can see why I thought about Cliff’s Notes.

Mark was the first gospel written, and there is a sense of urgency about it.  Matthew and Luke are similar to Mark in structure, especially once you get past the birth narratives.  These three similar gospels are called the Synoptic Gospels as they have many of the same stories and a similar sequence - the same basic synopsis.  Matthew and Luke both used Mark along with other sources as they wrote their gospels. 

John was written later.  It is more reflective and deals more with the meaning of Jesus’ ministry rather than just reporting on it.  John sometimes follows a different chronology and includes more unique material.

As Mark sets out, he is creating a new genre – a gospel.  The first verse reads, “The beginning of the gospel (or good news) of Jesus Christ.”  He is not just referring to the first episodes that he reports on, but he is talking about the entire book.  The whole thing, the whole Gospel of Mark, is just the beginning of the Good News.

First, John the Baptist appeared.  A voice in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, calling for repentance, calling for people to turn their lives around.  John is a rough character – clothed with camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey.  A kind of scary figure, it seems to me, as Mark described him, but something resonated deeply with folks.  He was preaching what people needed to hear.  We read that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” 

It is hard to imagine something like that taking place.  Think of somebody arriving on the scene, dressed strangely, with odd personal habits, calling on people to change, to repent.  Not blaming others, not elevating himself or even really trying to call attention to himself, but calling on individuals to turn from sin and announcing that one who is greater will be coming.

And this strange figure is not in a major media market, he is not in New York or LA or Chicago, he is not even in Des Moines or Ames.  He is out in the middle of nowhere, sets up shop in the wilderness, out by a creek somewhere.  He doesn’t make it easy to get to him, doesn’t try to be accessible for people.  You won’t find him online and he doesn’t even have a Twitter account.  It is not at all convenient and his message is certainly not easy and yet people flock to him, confessing sins and being baptized.

Something about John, something about his message, resonated with people everywhere.  Here at the beginning of a New Year, it may resonate with us.  Like the people of that day, we may know that we need to make changes.  We can grasp when something is genuine and authentic and I think we have an intuitive sense of time, of knowing what we need to do and knowing when the time is right.  John’s simple message, delivered without bells and whistles, just served up straight, was that people needed to turn their lives around, and that he was there to bring this message simply as the warm-up act.  That was it, but for some reason, people responded.

Among those who went to John out in the wilderness was Jesus.  John had said that he was not worthy to tie Jesus’ sandals, yet Jesus came to him for baptism.  People always wonder: if John is offering baptism as an act of repentance then why did Jesus need to be baptized?  Jesus was without sin, right?

I look at it in a different way.  Jesus came to identify completely with us, he took on fully the human condition, and in coming to John for baptism he was identifying with us and with the movement that John had started.

Mark reports the baptism in a very straightforward way – kind of like the old show Dragnet – just the facts, ma’am.  Jesus came from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan River.  The heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended like a dove and a voice from heaven said, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

For Jesus, this baptism was an affirmation of who he was.  There was an outpouring of the Spirit and the message that he was God’s beloved son.  Baptism can hold that same meaning for us.  In baptism, God says to us, “You are my beloved daughter.  You are my beloved son.  You are all my beloved children.”    

The Spirit had descended like a dove and brought this conformation of Jesus’ identity and calling, but then immediately, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.  Did you catch that part?  Jesus did not just wind up in the wilderness by happenstance.  He did not just decide to get away for a while.  The Spirit drove him, led him, into the wilderness.

Again, Mark gives us a pretty lean account.  There is no fasting, no hunger, no details about struggle as we find in other gospels.  The Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness, and the sense is that this was not an enticement to sin as much as it was a time of testing - a time of deciding what it meant to be Jesus, a time of preparation for his ministry.  He was tempted by Satan, we read, but Satan is not this towering figure.  Angels minister to Jesus the whole 40 days, and God’s intention is not for Jesus to fail this test.

I kind of like the fact that Mark goes so quickly, immediately from Jesus’ baptism to the temptation.  It is such a brief account that we are invited to think about the baptism and temptation together, as one continuing event, rather than to consider them separately.  When you do that, it becomes clear that baptism led to the temptation.  John is in the wilderness, Jesus goes to John to be baptized and is then sent out himself into the wilderness.

Commitment, it seems, leads to temptation.  Like Jesus, when we commit ourselves to following God’s way, it will not necessarily be easy, and there will be conflict.  It almost has to be that way.  If you do not have any commitments, then you really can’t be tempted.  To be tempted means that you have made commitments.

A New Year is a time when many of us make resolutions of various sorts.  And almost as soon as we make a resolution, there will be temptation to backpedal on it.

You decide to cut down on sweets and inevitably somebody comes by with some brownies.  You decide to exercise more, but it is too dark and too cold to want to get up and go to the gym in the morning.  You want to read more, there is college basketball on TV and they came out with a new version of Candy Crush, so what are you supposed to do?

There are a slew of temptations we face, and a lot of them are temptations that we barely even recognize as such.  When we decide to follow Christ, we choose to be guided by love, but in the world we live in, it is so easy to base our decisions on fear.  I mean, with the world the way it is, fear just seems more reasonable.  You can’t be too safe.  Rather than love our neighbor, it is pretty easy to fear neighbors who are different. 

Bombarded by advertising telling us that life will be better if we just drive the right car or wear the right clothing or drink the right beer, we can be tempted by consumerism and the desire to acquire and amass for ourselves – while we ignore those who are in real need.  It’s subtle – we may not even realize it; it just kind of happens.

In a world where there is plenty of hatred, we can be tempted to fight hatred with hate.  We can be tempted by laziness – not so much lying around on the couch, although that can be part of it, but letting others think and decide and do for us.

Temptation is all around us, if we are honest about it, and there is a sense in which our commitment to Christ brings about this temptation.  Following Jesus is going to bring us into conflict with some of what we find around us.

Fred Craddock pointed out that it is the committed people who get tempted.  “Jesus is not tempted because he has departed from God’s will,” said Craddock.  “Jesus is in the desert because he was led by the spirit….  it’s usually the obedient and not the disobedient who are struggling, being opposed and tested…”  Craddock continues, “Jesus did not use the power of the spirit to claim exemption or to avoid the painful difficulties of the path of service.”


William Willimon told about leading a Sunday School class, and one Sunday morning the topic was temptation.  The class was asked if they had any personal examples of temptations they faced, and a young salesman was the first to speak.  “Temptation is when your boss calls you in, as mine did yesterday, and says, ‘I’m going to give you a real opportunity.  I’m going to give you a bigger sales territory.  We believe that you are going places, young man.’”

“But I don’t want a bigger sales territory,” the young salesman told his boss.  “I’m already away from home four nights a week.  It wouldn’t be fair to my wife and daughter.”

“Look,” his boss replied, “we’re asking you to do this for your wife and daughter.  Don’t you want to be a good father?  It takes money to support a family these days.  Sure, your little girl doesn’t take much money now, but think of the future.  Think of her future.  I’m only asking you to do this for them,” the boss said.

The young man told the class, “Now, that’s temptation.”

We are generally not tempted by those things that are clearly, obviously awful.  We are tempted by those things that have good within them but which perhaps subtly ask us to give up or maybe renegotiate those things that matter the most.

Mark’s to-the-point writing style helps us to consider Jesus’ baptism and temptation together, and it seems to me they are very much connected.  They may even be two sides of the same coin.  Following Jesus means there will be conflict – at times with others, and certainly within ourselves.

The temptations we face are not so much about what we believe; they are about the way we live our lives.  Baptism is about professing our faith in Jesus, but that faith is more than a just a set of beliefs.  Christian faith is about choosing to follow Christ through the way we live.

And so baptism is not the finish line – it is not an obligation we need to get done or a way to get a free ticket into heaven.  It is more like a starting line – it marks the beginning, or at least a new beginning on the road to following Jesus.

If we are following the road Jesus took, it won’t always be easy – we can be sure of that.  But through it all, we have the promise that God is with us, and we are God’s beloved children.  Amen.

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