A beginning        

Isaiah 40.1-11

Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13

2 Peter 3.8-15a

Mark 1.1-8

  ©Suzanne Grimmett

If everything that ever existed in the universe is measured and tracked on a 24- hour clock, it puts human history into astonishing perspective. Human existence numbers less than 80 seconds of that 24-hour day since the Earth came into being.

While such a statistic may make us feel small and insignificant, it might also help us put into perspective the times when we feel we are waiting forever for a situation to change. The writer of the second letter of Peter reminds the early Christian community that God’s timing is not our own; that ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.’

This may be a helpful tonic for that oft quoted saying, “history is just one damn thing after another.” The linear progression of events seems to be something we take for granted, and yet sits uncomfortably with a God who breaks into this story, disrupting the expected and beginning something entirely new, again and again.

 We are just beginning this new year with the Gospel of Mark and while we may think of Advent as a time spent waiting for Jesus to be born at Christmas, this Gospel begins not with a baby but with a wild-eyed prophet crying out from the wilderness. The message here is not about Mary, Joseph or the witness of the shepherds but very clearly about the initiative of the God who breaks into our world, meaning that nothing will ever be the same again. The opening line of Mark is direct and powerful; “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Although this may seem to still fit into our linear understanding of time, the Greek does not have the definite article; there is no “the” beginning but only “beginning”, as if there have been other beginnings and would be many more. The Gospel of Mark is also famous for not having a clear ending, with some earliest manuscripts finishing with the awe-struck disciples fleeing the empty tomb.

We are also not meant to miss the resonance with another beginning- “in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” What we are meant to see is that this is another creation moment- where once again something utterly new has emerged into being through God’s own loving initiative. This emergence of the Divine in earth is as life and light, bringing peace and new hope.  Like the creation of sun, stars and moon, waters and land and all that creeps upon the earth and swims in the oceans, it is declared to be good.

This word for “good news” – in Greek euangelion- conveys more than just peace and joy, however. It is a politically loaded term, generally associated with news of military victory, and in the Roman world, related to the propaganda around empire. And the title of the coming Messiah as ‘Son of God’ could not be more political. The writer of the Gospel has in clear sight the conviction that the emperor was divine and his proclamations were sacred writings. The first euangelium is the news of the emperor’s birth, with one ancient inscription recording it as: “The birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of the joyful messages which have gone forth because of him”.[1] Everyone in the Roman world knew who the ‘son of God’ was.

From the beginning, as Ched Myers writes in his powerful commentary, Binding the Strong Man, the writer of Mark’s Gospel is taking clear aim at Caesar and all the legitimating myths of empire. In this first line Mark heralds the arrival of “an anointed leader who is confirmed by the Deity and proclaims a kingdom.”[2] But this is to be a kingdom that is diametrically opposed to the kind of empire that rules from the central strongholds of wealth and power, maintaining control through the threat of violence and military action. It is proclaimed in the wilderness, emphasising that this kingdom will appear along the margins and for those whom the empire has marginalised. This Messiah was bringing, as we said in our opening candle liturgy, “the peace that comes from justice”. This stands in contrast to pax romana which showed no interest in lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry or releasing the captives. This is to be a new beginning where hope breaks through and a new reign of peace can be known, even amidst times of persecution and oppressive rule. The way of Jesus, the anointed one, leads not to a crown of power and victory, but to a cross which paradoxically carries our violence and our shame even as it liberates us.

What of those who have come out to the wilderness from Jerusalem and the centres of power to the desert to see the wild man John? How can it be good news for them who are comfortably fitting into the machinery of empire or the structures of religion approved by empire?  Well, for them, good news could be found in their willingness to trek beyond their comfort zones and allow the work of repentance to take hold in their hearts. Sometimes the good news doing its work can lead us at first to acute discomfort before it becomes comfort to the broken hearted.  There is a powerfully liberating hope to be found in the promise of a new beginning- a new creation possible for all where love and mercy invite us into a just and compassionate way of being together. It is not a promise that all will be easy, but it an invitation to persevere in the faith and believe the good news. We are called to attend to where the Spirit invites us daily to turn, to begin again, and be part of creating in all our relationships and communities a space, as the letter of Peter says, “where righteousness is at home.”

Mark’s Gospel should remind us of beginnings. John the Baptiser promises a new beginning for those who wish to take that step of repentance into the Jordan. When we, (and today Charlie), are baptised into Christ and the family of God, the liturgy is also full of references to beginnings, taking us back to the oldest stories through scripture, from the moment eons ago when light shone from darkness and the earth flourished with new and diverse life. The symbol of water reminds us of the liberation from slavery through the waters of the Red Sea, and the beginnings of a new community of peace practicing justice. Mark’s Gospel draws on these themes as he describes the scene in the wilderness where John’s prophetic call and the holy grace of repentance prepare the way for the incursion of the Divine on earth. This incursion is not just the beginning, but the way that makes beginnings possible again and again as we stumble on the journey to creating the peace that comes from justice and a love that sets the world alight with mercy.

If you find yourself in a stuck place where there seems no way out and no relief in sight, know that while it may seem an eternity, change always comes and God is the great initiator of unexpected freedom and release. Sometimes our pain can help us attend to the voice of love. The wildernesses of our lives can release surprising new growth and flourishing in a way that is as glorious as it is unexpected. Mark’s Gospel should remind us that it is not all about us- that there is a power beyond us bringing to birth new life within us and amongst us. We are simply called to stay awake and pay attention. Good news is coming. Once again, in the vastness of time and space, beginning is coming, new creation is underway and the end of the story is not yet written.  May we all be part of its writing, alert to the new beginnings in whatever wilderness we find ourselves, and to the presence of the Christ who comes to us, calling us to the kingdom way of love with mercy and peace with justice.


[1] Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (10 vols. G. Kittel and G. Friedrich, eds.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)

[2] Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (p. 123). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.