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.