Monday, January 19, 2015

The Gospel: Where to Begin?

And So It Begins

Gospel Lesson: Mark 1:1-11 (KJV)

Homily Text: Mark 1:1-8

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;
2 As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
5 And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
6 And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;
7 And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
8 I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
9 And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
11 And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

“Start with the beginning and tell us your story.” But where do I begin to tell my story? Maybe my birth. Or my marriage. Or my ordination. Or my transfer to the REC.  
The writers of the four Gospels also had to decide where to begin telling the story of Jesus. John went back behind Genesis 1 to the Father and Son in eternity before “God created the heavens and the earth": “In the beginning the Word already was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Matthew and Luke begin with the conception birth of Jesus, but Luke tells his story from the perspective of Mary while Matthew from that of Joseph.
But Mark begins his Gospel with the opening of the public ministry of Jesus.

1. The Inauguration of the Gospel
The word “Gospel” means “good news” and has two backgrounds. One is Roman. They celebrated big events in the lives of the emperors - birthdays, attainment of adulthood, taking the throne. They considered these turning points in history. The published records of these festivals were called “gospels.”  Mark’s book is a gospel because in Jesus history has reached its great turning point. If you think about the history of the world as a play, Jesus’s ministry is the climax and everything that follows in the denouement when everything is worked out and resolved. God is bringing about a new world order, a new age of salvation for the the world.
The word “gospel’ also has an older background in the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Isaiah foresaw the time when God would discipline and judge his people for their stiff-necked rebellion against him by sending them into exile in Babylon. But Isaiah also foresaw that God would intervene again in mercy and salvation and comfort his people.  When this time arrived the good news should be announced:
O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! (40:9)
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth! (52:7)
Mark realized that what Isaiah foresaw was bigger than God’s mercy to Israel that followed the Exile in Babylon. In Jesus God had come to accomplish salvation for the world and to establish his gracious and saving kingdom in the world. This is good news!
The good news that the turning point in the history of the world has come and that God has intervened and accomplished salvation for the whole world is “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It is the good news of...
...Jesus, the man born of Mary, the last Joshua, the Deliverer and Savior who will lead his people out of the wilderness of sin, defeat their enemies of guilt, death, and judgment, and bring them into the blessings of  salvation - forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, emancipation from slavery to the devil.
...Christ, the Messiah whom God has chosen, appointed, and equipped to establish his saving rule, the King who will not disappoint and fail as all human rulers do, whose kingdom of grace and mercy will triumph and never end.
...the Son of God, who is man but more than man,  the God-Man, who is God of God, light of light, very God of very God, not an adopted Son but a natural Son who is himself God and who has all the privileges, prerogatives, and powers of God’s Son, the Son whom God the Father loves and with whom the Father is well-pleased.
The Mark who wrote this gospel is probably John Mark who shows up in the book of Acts as an assistant to Paul and Barnabas on the first of the three missionary trips of Paul recorded in Acts. But Mark did not last long and soon returned home. We don’t know why, but Paul thought it proved his unreliability because, when the time came to go on a second mission, and Barnabas proposed they take Mark, Paul wouldn’t have it. He and Barnabas ended their partnership because of their disagreement about Mark. Later, however, Mark became associated with Peter. Many believe Mark’s Gospel preserves the preaching of the gospel by Peter who had denied his Lord. There is an interesting connection of Peter’s and Mark’s lives. Both had failed the Lord publicly. Yet here is a Gospel written by Mark recording the gospel preached by Peter. The gospel is for those who have failed, even those who have failed in public ways, who need forgiveness and restoration. People like you, like me.
The original readers of Mark’s Gospel were Christians in Rome who had it hard when Nero was Emperor. But Mark writes to say, “Nero’s cruelty and persecution does not change that Jesus is our Savior and Messiah and the Son of God. Jesus is still the turning point of history and this is still the new age of salvation. Don’t give up. He is still your Savior and King, and he is will you.”
Perhaps you have failed the Lord. Perhaps you are discouraged by the state of affairs in the world. But Jesus Christ is good news for those who have failed - who have messed up big time. He is good news for those who are overwhelmed and discouraged.

2. The Preparation of John
As Mark introduces us to the good news about Jesus, he tells us that John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus’s public ministry.
This ministry of preparation was predicted by the Old Testament prophets. Mark pulls together two quotations, one from Malachi and one from Isaiah.
As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
In the ancient world, a king would send a messenger to announce to people that their king was coming to visit them and that they needed to make preparations for his arrival. This meant doing things like repairing roads and anything else necessary to be ready for the visit. God had promised that he, their King, would come to deliver his people, but before his coming he would send a messenger to prepare his way. Mark tells us that God came in the Person of his Son, Jesus the Christ, and that John the Baptist was the messenger God sent to prepare his people for his coming.
John’s ministry was carried out in the wilderness south of Jerusalem on the banks of the Jordan River. He dressed like a man who lived in the wilderness wearing a camel hair tunic and leather belt. He ate the food of a man of the wilderness, locusts and honey. His appearance and demeanor resembled the prophet Elijah. His ministry and message were like Elijah’s who Elijah appeared on the scene suddenly to warn of judgment and to issue a call to God’s people to repent and return to the Lord.
The Lord had not said anything to his people through a living prophet for 400 years, but now, as the time has come for Jesus to commence his public ministry, God speaks through the prophet, John the Baptist. As word spread throughout Judah and in the city of Jerusalem great crowds went out to hear John.

John’s message had two themes.
The first theme was the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
If the time for God’s decisive intervention is arriving in Jesus, then there are two possible outcomes for everyone - salvation or judgment. To avoid judgment and receive salvation people must repent. To repent means to turn away from sin to God. Repentance is more than feeling sorry we have let ourselves or others down or being sorry we are suffering the consequences of sin. True repentance is revealed in what we want - do we wish we could commit sins without consequences or do we wish God would change us and free us from our sins?  Do we turn away from sin only because of fear or do we want our lives reoriented to God? Repentance is going back to God.
But we will go back to God only if expect he will be merciful and forgive us. So long as we expect condemnation and rejection and to have our sins held against us, we will avoid God as long as we can. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the remission or forgiveness of sins. The reason Jesus was baptized was, not because he had sin and needed to repent and be forgiven, but because we have sin and need to repent and be forgiven. By being baptized Jesus identified with us and took our sins upon himself in order to be our Savior. The whole point of the coming of Jesus and particularly of his death was to make it possible for us to go back to God, confess our sins, and receive forgiveness.
Those who wanted to return to God and have their sins forgiven received John’s baptism. John’s baptism is not Christian baptism for those who had received only John’s baptism needed to receive Christian baptism. But there are similarities. Both are about cleansing and renewal. In Christian baptism God calls us to a life of repentance and promises us forgiveness and cleansing by the blood of Jesus.
How often should you repent? How often may you repent? You should and may repent as often as you sin. You should and may go back to God as often as you have left him. His promise is to forgive us when we repent and return to him, not because we deserve it, or earn it, or because we have made up for our sins by feeling sorry enough or doing enough good to make up for it, but because of Jesus and what he has done for us. We do not need another baptism but to look to back on our baptisms as God’s seal of cleansing and promise of renewal and new life in Christ and of the door of repentance opened to us:
...the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives… (Article 16).
The second theme of John’s message was proclamation of the supremacy of Christ:
There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.  I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
There one who seems to be another disciple of John’s. But he is in fact far mightier and greater than John, because John has baptized his followers with water but this One will baptize his followers with the Holy Ghost. John has in mind Old Testament prophecies that connect the blessings of salvation with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Isaiah foresaw judgment “until the spirit be poured upon us from on high” (32:15). The Lord spoke to exiled Israel through Ezekiel:
Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you... (36: 25-27a)
Jesus who is who is baptized with the Spirit to carry out his ministry as the Messiah and Savior at the moment of his water baptism by John will baptize his people with the Holy Spirit. The ministry of the Spirit is to give to God’s people what Christ accomplished for them by his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The Spirit gives to us the realities to which our baptisms point.
The One who appears to be John’s disciple will be John’s superior. He so great that the roles will be totally reversed. John is not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. The rabbis taught that students should serve their teachers in the way a slave would serve his master, except in such humbling service as untying the sandals. The student was exempt from such things. But John, the teacher, says he has a disciple who is so great that John is not worthy to perform even the service of a slave toward him. John is not worthy as much as to kneel at his feet and untie his sandals.
Why does Mark tell us the place John took in relation to Jesus?  Just so that there will be a record of how Jesus’ ministry was introduced by John? No. It is so that we will share John’s view of Jesus.
John prepares the way for the coming of the Son of God.Jesus’s coming means that the decisive point of history has been reached. Both judgment and salvation have been irrevocably set in motion. Jesus has come to baptize us with the water and the Spirit.

John’s ministry calls on us to turn from our sins and to turn to God by turning in faith to Jesus.  As we turn to Jesus for salvation John also calls us to get over ourselves and our obsessions with our reputations and rights and to join him at Jesus’s feet in humble trust and  joyful submission.

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