Last Monday I asked a question in our Bible study class. After we read this text from Mark, I asked, “Where would you begin telling the story of Jesus?” We had a lively discussion as we looked briefly at the beginning of all four gospels and shared our own ideas. After class, I decided to try asking the congregation the same question, so I send an email to everyone I have an address for. I didn’t phrase the question clearly in the email, so some of you may have been confused and not known what I was asking.
I received several responses which were as varied as the ideas shared in the class. I thank those of you who took the time to respond. It’s something I have wanted to try and this was a good opportunity. I’ll do it again soon.
· Everyone’s favorite is the sweet reading from Luke which we hear every year at Christmas Eve worship. Many families also have the tradition of reading it together on Christmas Eve. So, for most of us, it is what the Christmas story sounds like. And the Christmas story is the place to begin telling Jesus’ story.
· A few folks mentioned the story from Matthew, which includes the appearance by the angel to Joseph, and the visit of the Magi. Matthew’s Gospel reminds us Jesus is a Jew, and Matthew seeks to prove that he is the Messiah they have been looking for. This is also a good place to begin Jesus’ story.
· Several folks said they would start with John’s “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s beginning is cosmic. Jesus was there at the beginning; he has always been with God, and he is God.
· Some people said they knew little about Mark and wanted to learn more about his way of telling the story. So, starting with something we know less about would be a new place to begin Jesus’ story.
So, let’s look at what Mark does say. Mark’s very first word in Greek – the original language for this text – is “arche” which means beginning, or first, or highest. (In English, we think of archbishop, archaeology, arch enemy, archangel.) This leads us to consider the other books in Scripture that begin the same way. In the book of Genesis, in Hebrew, the very first word is “Bereishit” – which means “in the beginning.” By starting his Gospel with the same word, “In the Beginning,” Mark is saying, “This is a new beginning. This is a new relationship with God.” We also see here a strong connection with John’s Gospel, which was written about 30 years after Mark’s Gospel.
In Mark, there is no story about a baby, no visiting angels, no shepherds, no Magi. John the Baptist is not related to Jesus. Mark jumps right into the story with a declaration: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” From the very first word of the story, the reader knows the point of telling the story. Jesus is the Son of God, and that’s good news.
After this announcement, Mark tells us about John the Baptist, who came to announce this good news. “Repent and get ready!” “Make everything as easy as possible for the one who is to come. He is powerful, and worthy of honor.” As important as the people around him think John is, he claims he is not even worthy of washing the muck of the road off of Jesus’ feet as he enters the house.
It’s important to look at the beginning of any story – and then to see how the story ends, because then we know how to read what happens in the middle. In the case of Mark, the story begins with the proclamation of a new beginning and ends at the empty tomb. The women leave the graveyard amazed and terrified. They head toward the Galilee, where Jesus has promised to meet them.
There are several endings for Mark, as ancient editors tried to make the ending match the other gospels. But we should respect Mark’s intent. His purpose for ending the story the way he did is to demonstrate that the story of Jesus goes on, into the Galilee, around Israel, around the Mediterranean Sea, and around the world.
After 2,000 years, the story has still not ended. It continues through us. The story of God’s relationship with us began with creation, continued with the Flood, the family of Jacob, the Exodus, the Exile and return. The story of God’s relationship with us took a new direction with the coming of Jesus on earth, whether we start the story with his birth, with his first appearance on the scene with John the Baptist, or with the beginning of time.
Defining where to start the story helps us explain to ourselves and to others who Jesus is in our lives. What’s important for us is the impact a relationship with God through Jesus makes in our lives.
Mark chose to begin with what it means for us that Jesus came to earth. For him, it was not essential to tell the stories of his birth. For Mark, the presence of Jesus meant a new beginning to the relationship between humans and God, based on forgiveness. This word of grace was being brought by none other than the Son of God, so it can be believed as absolutely true.
This week, I invite you to ponder where you would start telling the story of Jesus’ birth. Would you begin with the birth stories, with his appearance on the scene with John the Baptist, or with the creation? As you define the story, are you telling it to people who already know Jesus? Or to people who have never known him? Which details are necessary, and which can be left out, as you seek to tell the story?
Please pray with me. God of mercy and power, you came to us as your beloved Son, the very human Jesus, to make it clear how much you love us and want to share your forgiveness with us. Help us to hear your story and make it our own, so we may share it with others. Amen