A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, January 14th 2023
Unfortunately, there was a technical fault with the livestream this week.
How do you start a story? ‘Once upon a time’ is a traditional way of doing so.
Here’s how the Gospel writer called Mark goes about it: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (1:1) Yes, as Maria sings in the Sound of Music, ‘ let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start …’
Today, we have two Bible readings which start at the beginning. That’s appropriate for this time of year because we in the Church are at the beginning of telling or re-telling the story of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Christmas is over. A URC minister colleague asked on Facebook last week whether, having returned at night from a church meeting, it was still ok to eat a mince pie at this time of year. I replied, ‘No! Christmas isn’t for months and months yet. It’s much too early to be eating mince pies!’ Mine was a minority view. Oh well, only 346 days still to go until Christmas.
Christmas is over. Last week we rounded it off by celebrating Epiphany, with the visit of the magi, the wise ones. This week we’re back at the beginning of Mark’s gospel story.
Mark wants to focus on the beginning of the ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I think Mark does that with another beginning in mind: the beginning of everything in all the universe; the beginning as imaginatively portrayed at the beginning of the book which begins the whole Bible: Genesis chapter one. It begins, ‘In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.’ (1:1)
We are told is that there was nothingness, ‘while a wind from God swept over the waters.’ (1:2) Written originally in Hebrew, that ‘wind from God’ could be translated into English as ‘breath from God’ or perhaps even ‘the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.’ Next in Genesis, we hear the voice of God: ‘then God said, ‘let there be light”; and there was light.’ (1:2)
I suspect that Mark wrote the opening of his gospel (the word ‘gospel’ by the way, means “good news”); Mark began his good news story about Jesus, with Genesis 1 in mind.
Both are ‘in the beginning stories’: ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth’; ‘the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’
In both, water features prominently. In Genesis the wind/breath/spirit ‘swept over the face of the waters’; in Mark’s Gospel the action begins at the waters of the River Jordan (5), where John is offering a baptism in water ‘of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (4), but proclaiming the arrival of one who would baptise people with God’s Holy Spirit. (8)
In both readings, the Spirit of God is front and centre, sweeping over the waters at creation, then also seen by Jesus as he emerged from the baptismal waters: ‘he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.’ (10)
And then, at the Jordan, as the Spirit descends upon Jesus, once again we hear the voice of God. At the beginning of all things, the divine voice declared, ‘let there be light.’ Now, in the Gospel, as Jesus’s ministry on earth is about to commence, a voice came from heaven, declaring, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (11) Beginning, water, spirit, voice in both of these Bible passages.
I don’t think that this is a coincidence. I believe that the repetition of ‘beginning’, ‘water’, ‘spirit’ and ‘voice’ tells us something vitally important about God, about the world we live in, and about ourselves. It tells us that God is at work on the widest of wide stages – creation, the universe – and that God regards it as ‘good’: ‘and God saw that the light was good.’ (1:4) God cares for the universe that God created and sustains and regards it as ‘good.’
Yet we know that not everything on earth – on this little part in God’s great universe – is good. We see the evidence of that on our daily news. We know how things fall short of being good in our relationships, and in our personal experiences in life. In fact, when we look within ourselves, when we review our lives, we know that we too sometimes, perhaps more often than we would like, fall short of ‘good.’
Which is where the ‘good news’ – the ‘gospel’ – concerning ‘Jesus Christ the Son of God’ comes into play. Mark the Gospel writer, that good news writer, wants to share with us the conviction that God has not only been working across the wide stage of the universe, but also has chosen to work in and through one specific person, who was born and has lived upon earth: Jesus Christ. And that’s why Mark puts the baptism of Jesus front and centre at the beginning of his Gospel.
At one moment, in the context of this part of the waters of creation which goes by the name, the River Jordan, as God’s Holy Spirit hovers over those waters, like a dove, God speaks. The voice from heaven declares, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’
Now some people wonder why Jesus came to be baptised by John if John’s baptism was one of ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ After all, if Jesus was without sin, why did he need to get baptised? Others reply, Jesus did not need to do so, but chose to do so in order that he might demonstrate his solidarity with those of us who fall short of being good as God would have us be good.
That’s a discussion or another time, though because our Gospel writer, Mark, isn’t much concerned about that. His version of events is focused upon who Jesus is and what he is here to do. He’s God’s Beloved Son, soaked in God’s Spirit, remaking this part of creation, including remaking us, so that once again God can look upon us all as good.
How’s Jesus going to do that? Well, in the year ahead, as we work our way back around the story of his life, we’ll hear about him doing that in a couple of ways. First, he’s going to demonstrate what life looks like when it is lived in the good way. He’ll teach, and he’ll heal, and he’ll bring together a group of followers, instructing in them in the way to live and to share the good news of God’s love for us.
Second, he will take that to the ultimate – he’ll die for it, in opposition to all those powers, principalities, and practices that oppose what’s good in the world. And then, God, whom we will have encountered in Jesus, will not let things conclude there. Instead, the same God who spoke life into being at the beginning of the world will bring Jesus through death and into life, in his resurrection.
This is the great true, good news /gospel story. God has created things as good, and also remakes everything as good, doing so through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of the Spirit-filled Jesus: ‘And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’
So, in the days, weeks and year ahead (before we get to Christmas again!), may that same God allow us to hear and to respond to the good news about Jesus Christ; and may God gift us the wisdom and power of Holy Spirit that we are able to follow faithfully in the way of Jesus Christ, the Beloved One. Amen.