Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections on the “Name that is above every name…”

Read the text here: Philippians 2:1-13
This weekend we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.  This is a festival that does not land on Sunday very often and it provides us with a wonderful opportunity to consider the Holy Name of God and the Holy Name of Jesus – in whom we are baptized and in whom we have our calling, our purpose and our very lives as Christians.  Therefore I would like us to consider two of our lessons and lay them side by side – Psalm 8 and Philippians 2:1-13.

O LORD, our lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth. (Psalm 8:1, 9)  Actually the first two words of this Psalm are “O Yahweh, our lord” which immediately reminds us that God has a name and that name is Yahweh.  Out of respect, however, this name is never spoken – especially among the ancient Israelites.  The word “LORD” (spelled with capital letters) is spoken instead, even though the name Yahweh appears in the Hebrew.  Now what does the name itself mean, and what does it tell us about God? In Exodus 3, after encountering the burning bush and receiving a very clear call to return to Egypt to lead the people of Israel out of captivity, Moses asks God a question: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me’ and they ask me, ‘what is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Ex. 3:13-14 – pew bibles p. 39).  God’s response: “I AM who I AM.”  In Hebrew this is haYah haYah.  Notice anything familiar?  Yes, the first three letters of the name Yahweh appear after (what we would consider to be) an article.  So, who is God?  God is “I AM” – being itself, being personified.  The name Yahweh is a special word that is a form of the Hebrew verb “to be.”  Psalm 8 then goes on to describe a creator God of great power and might; a God who is powerful enough to create the heavens and the earth and who has created humanity “a little less than divine.”  A God who is worthy to be worshipped and glorified and who gives us our lives and our purpose.  It is this God of which that humanity is a reflection (Genesis 1:27 – p. 1). 

And here is where we run into trouble.  It is so tempting for us to think of God only in these terms – power, glory, might.  The problem with this is that 1st, this is not the whole story and 2nd, there is a great temptation for us to see ourselves only in the reflected glory of God.  So when, in Psalm 8:6, we read that God has given over to humanity “dominion” over the creation – we tend to interpret this line that well, we are in charge now and can do whatever we want.  So we see the creation as ours to exploit and use as we see fit, and we see ourselves reflected in the glory and power of God.  So power, might, wealth, glory all become for us a part of what we believe we are called to pursue and acquire.  This attitude has been a sad part of Christian history since the beginning and is, unfortunately, as much a problem today as it was 2000 years ago.  Everything from the “Prosperity Gospel” to the temptation to see ourselves as God’s crusaders – standing up for God, defending God in the various ways, seeing ourselves and our group or even our nation as God’s special, unique group – these are all manifestations of this misreading and misunderstanding of the Bible.

Remember, Luther said, we are to always – ALWAYS – read the bible through the eyes of Christ, through the lens of the Gospel.  So let us turn to St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Of course, people in Jesus’ time struggled with the same problem.  Jesus being proclaimed “Messiah” or “Christ” led those folks to the exact same problem: “The Messiah is supposed to be the great and powerful and mighty liberator who will free us militarily and with violence from the Roman oppressors” was the general belief. Unfortunately, that is not what the Messiah does.  Paul is addressing this issue when he quotes this ancient hymn which is found in 2:6-11.  Who is the Christ? Paul answers – Christ is the one who refused to bask in the reflected glory of God, but who instead emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness… humbled himself… obedient unto death…  What a different way of understanding who God is, who Jesus is and what our calling is as Christian disciples!  The name “Jesus” means “God saves;” in Hebrew the name is “Yahowsua” (or in English – “Joshua” – “Jesus” is the Greek form of Yahowsua/Joshua).  Did you notice the first three letters of the Hebrew: Yah?  Yahweh – God – being itself saves and constantly saves – how? Through Jesus the Messiah – how?  By emptying himself, taking the form of a servant/slave…?  Why – love – amazing, incredible and incomprehensible love (John 3:16 – pp. 71-72).

When we are baptized into Christ we take the name of Christ it is becomes a part of who we are and how we are defined as Christians; it becomes a definition of our calling.  When we are baptized into Christ we are emptied and then filled with the love and grace of God and sent forth to be servants of God, humble and obedient.  As much as we humans would prefer to stand in the reflection of God’s glory and power, the Gospel deflects this and we stand, by virtue of our baptism, in the light of God’s love, as reflected in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God; God incarnate; the one through whom God is offering salvation!
Yahweh - יהוה 

I Am that I Am – haYah haYah   היה היה
Jesus = Yahowshuwa = Joshua  יהושוע 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Reflections on the Christmas Gospel – Luke 2:1-20

Read the Christmas Gospel here: Luke 2:1-20

Fear Not!
And there were shepherds abiding in the field keeping watch over their flock by night; and lo the angel of the Lord came upon them and the glory of the Lord shown round about them and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said until them, fear not, but behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people!  For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord!
Fear not!?!  Are they kidding?  These poor shepherds on night shift have the job of watching and protecting their sheep during the night.  They have to be alert. Being a 1st century shepherd could be described as hours of boredom, interspersed with moments of terror.  For in the darkness it would be very easy for a predator to sneak up undetected and attack the flock and do significant damage before the shepherd could do anything about it.  And we need to remember that these flocks represented someone’s wealth, though probably not the shepherds, as they were most likely hired hands.  But in the days before banks people would often put their wealth into livestock.  So the life of a shepherd was tough.  There was the risk of watching over someone else’s sheep, but not only that, but shepherds were considered to be the scum of the earth.  Shepherds were looked upon as dirty and disgusting men who were outcasts from society.  But yet it is to these men that the angel appears with an announcement.  Fear not!” says the Angel! What a thing to say. Fear and anxiety were part and parcel of the life of a shepherd.  The life of a shepherd was a life lived on the edge.
Throughout the Gospel Jesus is constantly saying the same thing to his disciples and others whom he encounters: Do not be afraid!  As Jesus is walking out towards the disciple’s boat on the water he tells them, Do not be afraid; before some of the healing miracles, Do not be afraid; at the empty tomb, Do not be afraid!  I do not hear these words of Jesus as a suggestion – but rather as a command!  “The Kingdom has come into your midst – do not be afraid – follow me… to the cross!”  Perhaps one of the most important times Jesus uses this phrase can be found in Luke 12:32: Do not be afraid little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom…  The context for this is Jesus’ teaching during the Sermon on the Plain and he is addressing a variety of issues – eating, drinking, clothing, striving after possessions, wealth, power and status – all of the things that tend to be right at the root of human fears.  All of this is like chasing the wind, Jesus suggests.  And as we strive after the wind and we struggle and fall short fear begins to grow.  The fear that we will not measure up, or the fear that we will fall short and not succeed in acquiring these things that we think leads to a fulfilling life all of this leads us to fear.  And , as “Star Wars” Master Yoda reminds us, “fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”  For fear shuts us down and closes us off from others.  Fear clouds our minds and controls our actions.  Fear enables us to be manipulated by those who would exploit our fears to turn our backs on others or to do horrific things to others – especially others who are different from us in some way, or who we see as a threat.
Fear not! Says the angel to the shepherds.  For God has entered into this world by being born as a human baby.  Fear not! Says Jesus to his disciples of every age.  For Jesus has brought the Kingdom of God into our midst and we now have nothing to fear.  God provides for us and calls on us to reach out to others, especially those (like the shepherds) who are different, rejected and despised; and to recognize the image of God in all whom we meet.  Fear not!  Jesus is risen!  The powers of this world – the powers of greed, power-mongering, injustice, oppression, selfishness, hate and death have been defeated.  In the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus the powers of God’s love, grace, kindness and forgiveness have emerged victorious.  There are times when it might not seem so and times when we are overwhelmed with fear and doubt and darkness.  But Christmas reminds us that it is into just such darkness that God is born among us in Jesus.  God enters into this darkness and defeats these powers of darkness – chief among them being fear.
On this Holy Night/Day, the Gospel story we have all heard so often calls on us to consider our own fears.  To peer into the darkness in order to see what it is that oppresses us; what it is that holds us back; that keeps us from reaching out to others and moving forward.  What are your deepest fears and how do they affect how you live your life?  And then, hear the words of the Angel: Fear not!  For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy – for unto you is born this day… a Savior who is Christ the Lord.  Thanks be to God! 
Have a blessed Christmas!
To listen to Pastor Duncan's Christmas Eve Sermon - click here: "Fear Not!"

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Reflections on the texts for Advent IV - "Bread"

Read the Gospel - St. Mark 2:23-28

And Mary said... "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."  (Mary's Song - The Magnificat - Luke 1:46-55)

We begin our reflection on this Gospel passage back in Genesis – Genesis 41.  The Pharaoh of Egypt has been having dreams – something about cows and corn – and these are troubling to him.  Now, the Pharaoh was a powerful man.  He had control over the lives of all of his subjects.  So, Joseph – the favorite son of Jacob – is brought before him in chains and told to interpret.  Famine is on the way, Joseph tells them.  And he adds further that you – the King - can ignore this warning or you can act on it in order to prepare.  Pharaoh knows that to ignore such a warning would be foolish.  Controlling food is one way of controlling the people, but if the food runs out and people begin to starve then power and control is in jeopardy.  Joseph is put in charge of preparing for the famine and it is averted – in Egypt.  But back in Canaan, where Jacob and his brothers are still living, things are not going so well.  Hunger is rampant.  When they finally come looking for food it is Joseph who is able to use access to bread as a tool to trick and trap the brothers.
Bread is central to the story of God’s involvement with human history.  From this story of Joseph to the story of God providing Manna in the wilderness and on beyond that, hunger and the access to bread is central.  And the point that the bible makes over and over and over again is this: the use of bread as a tool for maintaining power and control is condemned and is not God’s will.  Those who engage in this stand outside of the Kingdom of God and are roundly condemned.  See the holiness code of Leviticus (listed at the end of this article) or the prophecies of prophets such as Amos (5:6-15 for one instance).  Hunger is not God’s will and the use of hunger as a tool of power is contrary to the will of God.
Jump ahead now to 1st century Palestine, around the time of the birth of Jesus.  Herod the Great is the ruler and serves as the Roman puppet.  But Herod is brutal and rules with an iron hand.  And he knows how to maintain his power – keep people hungry!  This way they will be dependent.  Herod, also a great architect, builds massive grain storehouses that he maintains and keeps under careful guard.  His own private storehouses are filled to overflowing.  In fact 70 years later when his fortress-palace of Masada was taken over by the Zealots as a last stand against the Romans, there was enough grain left over to support the Zealots for years.  In other words, there was no way for the Romans to starve them out, they had to come up with another plan. (See below for a picture of the ruins of these grain storehouses).
Contrast that then with the text for today.  Jesus’ disciples are hungry and pick grain and eat it on the Sabbath, thus breaking the rules for the observance of the Sabbath day.  Jesus is confronted and defends his disciples pointing out that the needs of people – that is, feeding hungry people – is more important than strict observance of the rules of Sabbath observance.  “The Sabbath was created for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”  It is the same issue that comes up over and over again, which I have outlined above.  Using access to bread and hunger as a tool for power is against the will of God and is condemned.  And it doesn’t matter if it is religious or political power.  Hunger is against the will of the creator.
So. what does this have to do with Christmas?  A lot!  Christmas is the time when we celebrate the Incarnation: that God is born into this world in Jesus of Nazareth; and that in Jesus, the Realm of God is now made present.  That grain or bread is provided to the hungry and that they eat and are filled is a sign of the Realm of God come into our midst (see the Feeding miracles); but continuing and pervasive hunger is against God’s will and a sign that the Realm of God has not yet come in its fullness.  Hear the words of Mary’s song from Luke 1 – God cast the mighty down from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.  We may not like to think that God has preferences, but the Bible and the Gospel make it pretty clear that God is on the side of the victim and is against those who inflict suffering – and hunger is suffering!
The celebration of the Incarnation at Christmas is also a sign that those of us who are called to be Jesus’ disciples have some responsibility to provide bread and to do what we can to alleviate hunger. As Christians, as followers of Christ, we simply cannot pretend that hunger does not exist.  It does – in our world, our nation, our state and our community.  And we cannot ignore it.  As a part of our collective Christmas observance perhaps we need to include the hungry and those in need.  I realize that many people are very generous around Christmas time and that is wonderful.  But let us also remember that in a month there will still be children who are hungry; there will still be those who are in need.  I believe this text today is lifting up for us the importance of keeping this issue always in sight.     
There is a reason we use bread for Holy Communion.  The Body of Christ given for you – is not represented to us as fruit or cheese or anything else.  It is bread!  Bread is a sign of the Realm of God come into our midst; a sign that God is at work through us – God’s people – working against the reality of hungry; that God is at work opposing those who would use hunger as a tool for control and power.  As we take the bread, we are filled with God’s grace and sent forth from the table to love and serve and to work against the power of hunger.
Above are the ruins of the storehouses at Herod's fortress/palace of Masada.  Herod also built a palace called the Herodium outside of Bethlehem.  It had similar storehouses of grain.  When Mary and Joseph neared Bethlehem this structure would have been the first thing they saw.  It is hard to miss.  The contrast between the conditions in which Jesus was born and the Herodium are extreme. Jesus is born in a dark, dirty, smelly cave.  A place where there was probably little bread or any other things that would have made the birth easier.  Mary and Joseph were probably hungry and cold.  They were accompanied there only by a couple low-life shepherds.  But there within view of the cave stood the Herodium with its full storehouses of grain and its full cistern of water.  It seems to me that to look at contrast kind of puts Mary's words in a new light: that is, when Mary sings about casting down the mighty from their thrones and sending the rich away empty.  (BTW - I took this picture).
Another note: We have been using Pr. Adam Hamilton's Christmas study video this year called "The Journey."  In part 3 he talks about this issue and about hunger and points out, as I did above, that hunger and poverty is part of the story of the birth of Jesus.  His congregation in Leawood, KS does something really unique which I think is worth sharing.  Each year they designate their Christmas offering - the entire offering - to be given to alleviate hunger.  The offering is split between local agencies and those who work against famine in Africa.  Not only that but they encourage their members to consider giving to this offering an amount equal to whatever they spend on themselves for Christmas.  So if you are going to spend $500 buying presents, then he encourages you to give $500 to this offering towards alleviating hunger.  Perhaps it might cause some to reconsider the amount they spend on Christmas in the first place - which would be a good thing too.  As Pr. Hamilton notes in the video: "Christmas is not your birthday!"  Amen. 
The Link to this congregation's website: Christmas Offering at Resurrection

Scripture texts for meditation:
David eats the Bread of the Presence – I Samuel 21:1-6
Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream – Genesis 41
Amos 5:6-15
Holiness Code – Leviticus 23:22, 25:35, 37
The Feeding of the 5000 (and the 4000) – Mark 6:30-44, 8:1-10
One last thought.  Every year there is always hoopla and airtime taken up with denouncing the supposed "war on Christmas."  This "war" (which is sort of akin to the "Keep Christ in Christmas" movement) seems to focus on things like greeting folks with "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."  This is nonsense.  There is no "war on Christmas" - it is just media babble.  But there is a "war" (though I do not like to use that word) on the poor.  The latest statistics suggest that 1 in 2 Americans are now living below the poverty line.  The gap between the poor and the rich is widening more and more.  The very rich have enriched themselves at the expense of workers, farmers and hard-working Americans - and yet they pay less tax than the rest of us.  It is despicable.  One presidential candidate suggested that the Occupy Wall Street protesters need to get a job and a bath - except, there are no jobs to be had.  That is the point, which he doesn't seem to get.  Another candidate seems to think that since we have such a problem with obesity among the poor this means they have plenty to eat.  Which simply goes to show how terribly out of touch and misinformed he is. We have a responsibility.  Hunger is not acceptable.  Hunger in America is not acceptable.  As Christians we are called to work in every way we can against the powers that create hunger, that victimize the poor and that ravish our economy for their own benefit.  This Christmas, may all of us make reaching out to the poor and the hungry a part of our Christmas journey.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Reflections on the Gospel – Mark 1:4-15 - Walking Through the Wilderness of this World

Read the text here: Mark 1:4-15

Walking Through the Wilderness of this World

Have you ever noticed that a lot of the stories in the bible are set in the wilderness?  Now to be clear, we are talking about wilderness, Middle East style. Not the American wilderness.  As rustic as the American wilderness might be, for the most part the American wilderness is still a fertile place.  The American wilderness is a place of woods and game, vegetation and a myriad of animals; a place, while not without risk, where nevertheless one could survive for a time (if you know how). The wilderness of the bible, to the contrary, is the wilderness of the Middle East and is not such an inviting place.  The wilderness of the bible is a place of complete desolation; a place with little to no vegetation or water, few animals; it is a desert environment with extreme temperatures.  This is a place where one would be hard pressed to survive for any length of time.  But yet, this place figures importantly into the stories of the Bible.
Beginning right away in Genesis, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden.  Where do they go? Into the wilderness of the creation, and there they have to settle and live.  This place is different from the Garden, in this wilderness of the world life is hard and one must struggle to survive.  The wilderness then becomes a place of stark reality; a place of abandonment, of loss, of conviction, of consequences; it becomes a place of testing and endurance.  But that is not all, the wilderness also becomes a place where God is found and where God is profoundly present.  When Adam and Eve are banished from the garden, God does not remain behind alone. God goes with them into the wilderness.  When Cain is banished for murdering his brother Abel, God goes with him.  Perhaps one of the first important stories where the wilderness is featured is found in Genesis 22.  Abraham takes his only son – Isaac, the son of promise – into the wilderness for sacrifice. And there, Abraham is prepared to sacrifice his beloved son.  But there, caught in the thicket is a Ram. God provides a Ram for the sacrifice, Isaac is spared and the entire experience is one of testing and refining of the faith of Abraham.
         In Exodus, Moses leads the people of Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and into the wilderness, where they then wander lost for 40 years.  This wilderness experience then becomes for Israel a time of loss, anger, unfaithfulness, struggle and confusion.  But at the same time, this wilderness experience molds and shapes Israel into the people of God.  For it is there in the wilderness that the people of Israel encounter God in a most profound way.  The testing of the people in the wilderness leads to a life-changing and life-affirming experience of the presence of God.  Like in the story of Adam and Eve and Cain, God is with the people every step of the way; like in the story of Abraham, God provides Manna and water for their absolute needs and the experience shapes them all and puts them on the path to the promised land.
It should not be surprising then that Mark begins his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ in the wilderness.  John the Baptizer is there, in the wilderness – like Elijah – calling the people to come out to him.  Remember it was believed that the God of Israel resided in the Temple (Holy of Holies) in Jerusalem, but here we learn that all of the people of Jerusalem were coming out into the wilderness to be baptized by John!  They were going in the opposite direction from where God is supposed to be!  They enter the God-forsaken wilderness and there they find God reaching out to them, inviting them to repent, to turn around and go in the opposite direction; there they find God promising them forgiveness and grace and assuring them of God’s commitment to the Covenant.  And not only that there in the midst of the scene God provides.  Like the Ram caught in the thicket which God provides for Abraham; like the Manna from heaven provided to the starving people of Israel who are wandering lost in the wilderness, God provides none other than God’s only Son, the ultimate Lamb of God, who is also there in the wilderness and comes to be baptized with the people whom God loves.
            We too live in the wilderness of this world, wandering lost, feeling forsaken at times.  The symbol of the wilderness is very real to us and to our experience of life. It is our place of testing and struggle and it molds and shapes us even as it threatens to overwhelm us.  “The wilderness can be the despair that denies hope, the cynicism that goads us to believe that our doubts are truer than our insights, the grief that binds us to our losses, the hostility that will not let us enjoy friends or family, or the addictions that degrade us, forcing us to give away all we have. Our spirits often drive us to wildernesses of our own making: desolate, lonely, god-forsaken places populated with all sorts of wild beasts.” (1)  But there we find God, reaching out to us, providing for us.  It is there that we find Jesus, who comes into the wilderness to confront the evil and overcome the powers that dwell there, and to restore a garden-like, Eden-like, quality to our lives.  No matter how desolate the wilderness of our lives appears to be, God is there, in Christ.  God is there, loving and caring and offering forgiveness and grace and providing for our needs.  If we only might look up we might see the Manna showering upon us, or the Ram stuck in the thicket or Jesus standing there besides us.  And like Abraham and the people of Israel, we are shaped and molded by our experience of God in the wilderness and we are set on the road of the discipleship, where we are led, like Isael, towards the promised land.

(1) The quotation is taken from the Smyth & Helwys Commentary on the Gospel of Mark - page 93

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Reflections on the Gospel - Mark 1:1-8

Read the text here: Mark 1:1-18
Beginnings and Endings
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)
As beginnings go, there is really not much here.  In the Greek there are exactly 5 words that are followed by words of the prophet that introduces John the Baptist and there we are: immersed in the story.  No extended introduction with a genealogy (Matthew), no birth or childhood stories (Matthew & Luke), no extended philosophical musings on the incarnation (John).  Nope, Mark is short and sweet and to the point.  Mark is in a hurry to tell this story; Mark is in a hurry to get to the climax = the Passion.  From this non-beginning beginning Mark jumps from event to event in Jesus’ life and ministry at a fast pace.  There are no extended sermons and there is really no time to catch your breath.  After all, Mark is proclaiming the “Gospel,” the “Good News,” the “Glad Tidings” of Jesus Christ, the Son of God!
But that one word – “Gospel” – brings with it the power of dynamite.  Mark doesn’t have to use many words to get this story started.  This one word packs the power of a rocket booster to propel us into the story.  In our time, this word – “Gospel” – really means only one thing.  It is used to describe the proclamation of Jesus as Lord, crucified and risen!  But for Mark’s community and those who received this telling of the story that word had other meanings.  The Greek word – evangelion – was the word that was used to describe official Roman proclamations.  If the empire had triumphed in battle somewhere and thus, brought Roman Peace (pax Romana) to a region; or if a new divine emperor had taken power; or if there was some great news of the glorious empire then the “Gospel” of Roman divine mandate was proclaimed throughout the empire.  For Mark’s audience, this word was then associated with the powers of oppression, the powers of peace through violence, the powers of death and darkness.  So that word packs a punch for here, Mark is proclaiming a “Gospel” of the true power of God; the “Gospel” of freedom, grace and forgiveness, the “Gospel” of true peace (Shalom), the “Gospel” of life and light, the “Gospel” of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Jesus Christ! Not the emperor!  God’s son is this peasant from Nazareth, which is a no-where place!  What a proclamation! No wonder Mark can’t wait to tell the story!
So after those first 5 words we are introduced to the voice of the one who is called to prepare the way.  Who is this?  Mark tells us his name is John.  But he is dressed like Elijah, he is preaching repentance like Elijah and he is located in the wilderness around the Jordan river (not Jerusalem!) like Elijah!  Is this not Elijah?  The very last two verses of the last book of the Old Testament make this promise:
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to their parents….. (Malachi 4:5-6)
You see – it is Elijah!  Come at the end of all time. But wait, Mark used the word “beginning.”  Is this the end or the beginning?  Elijah is in the wilderness calling the people to repentance, but this Elijah is John and his end of time proclamation also is preparation for a new beginning.  Ending? Beginning?  Both – and!  God has involved himself in the human experience from the beginning of time. God has always been at work.  But John represents an end of one way of God’s being in the world and the beginning of a new way.  John represents the end of the centrality of Jerusalem and the Temple; John represents the end of the time of the prophets and kings.  On the other hand, John represents a new beginning where God recommits to the covenant; John represents a new beginning where God himself is born into this human world; John represents a new beginning of a time when God will shower his beloved creation with forgiveness and love and grace.  Endings and beginnings – all bound up together in these opening verses of this Good News of Jesus Christ.
            We will again be confronted with this very issue at the end of the Gospel of Mark when we hear how the women went to the tomb on the first day of the week to anoint the body, but the body was gone and instead there was an angel who proclaimed that Jesus was risen! “And the women fled from the tomb and said nothing to no one, they were afraid for….”  The end!  An end that isn’t an end, that leaves us hanging – just like the beginning that doesn’t ease us into the story.  Mark apparently doesn’t do beginnings and endings.  Or does he? 
Perhaps Mark is trying to tell us something else.  Maybe Mark is making the point in the first part of chapter 1 that this beginning is also an ending!  This isn’t Elijah, because then it wouldn’t be a beginning – but at the same time it is the new Elijah – John who is preparing the way for the new beginning of the story of God’s love and grace as shown forth in Jesus!  Maybe Mark is making the point that the conclusion of chapter 16:8 is not really the end of the story – but that this ending is also the beginning of the new age, the Kingdom come into our midst and made possible only through the death and resurrection of Christ; a beginning of a story that is still ongoing and includes us – here – now in 2011/2012.  This is not accidental.  This is not incidental.  This is an essential part of the entire Gospel: the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning!  Ultimately it is the cross of Christ which represents the ultimate ending which turns into a beginning.  The cross is an instrument of torture and death, an instrument of the power of the world to bring God's work to an end.  But it is not the end, because of the resurrection it is the beginning - a new beginning.  A beginning of a new part of the story of God's amazing love ad grace and forgiveness.
Below is one of my favorite works of Renaissance art - it is the "Crucifixion" by Matthais Grünewald.  In the center is Jesus on the cross.  To the left (as we look at the painting) is Mary and John and Mary Magdalene in mourning.  But on the right side is John the Baptist pointing a boney finger towards the cross.  From the beginning to the end and beyond it is the cross which is central and which gives our lives meaning; it is the cross which continues to give us new beginnings.  Luther said each day we should begin the day by crossing ourselves and each evening we should end the day by crossing ourselves to remind us that we are claimed by Christ and that through the cross God continues to give us new beginnings.