Sunday, December 07, 2008

How to Build on a Good Beginning

[This sermon was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Mark 1:1-8
Andrew Greeley, the priest, novelist, and sociologist, tells a fictional story that, especially in these days of financial crisis and corporate bailouts, has the ring of truth to it.

“Once upon a time,” Greeley writes, “there was a company which was in a bad way. The last three CEOs had been dummies. The company's stock had lost 60% of its value, its market share…decline[d] by thirty percent, [its] bright people were leaving, morale among the employees was at rock bottom.

"The worst part of the trouble was that the product they made was still the best in the market. But the previous leaders had been lazy and mean and had spent most of their time awarding themselves and their friends huge bonuses. They paid [no] attention to advertising or marketing.

"Finally, a new board was appointed at the stockholders’ insistence. They fired the last CEO with a thunderous denunciation. They warned the employees that all their jobs – and their pensions – were in grave jeopardy. The workers were terrified.

"Finally the new CEO arrived. He was expected to fire half the workers, cut back on expenses, and give the company the good shaking that everyone said it needed. Instead, he [walked] around the building, smiled at everyone, assured them that everyone would be all right, and that he didn’t plan to fire anyone. ‘Another fool,’ [some] said.

"Then he met with the union leaders to get their suggestions. They told him the truth that the product was [still] the best in the business. “I thought that too,” he said. Then he hired [a] new marketing and advertising director, brought in [a] new advertising and public relations firm, and launched a very clever television campaign. By that time, everyone in the company admired him and worked hard for him. In six months the company was well on the way to recovery.

"‘You catch more flies with honey,’ a top executive said of him…[But] the new boss, [quoting three different psalms from the Old Testament], merely said, "‘The fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom. 'But,' he added, 'it's only the beginning.’”

Our Gospel lesson for this morning takes us to the very start of the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, in many ways, is the strangest of the four Gospels in the New Testament.

Mark uses what might be called “caveman Greek,” especially in comparison to the poetic writing in John’s Gospel or the lucid, precise prose of Luke.

And if Matthew is the religious scribe, Luke the historian, and John the poet-philosopher, Mark seems like the crazed journalist on a deadline. He conveys the good news about Jesus Christ, God come to earth as a human being, with few words and little explanation.

We see this in the first verse of our Gospel lesson, the first verse of Mark’s Gospel. It says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

To our English teachers, that probably will sound like fingernails on a chalkboard. There isn’t a verb in sight! It’s a sentence fragment. What was Mark thinking?

Well, I believe that this was a deliberate choice on Mark’s part. For me, the clincher for believing that can be found in Mark 16:8. It’s the passage that says that after being told on the first Easter that Jesus had risen from the dead, the women who had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus body ran away terrified and because of their fear, at first told nobody what had been revealed to them.

Scholars believe that, years later, for whatever reasons, the first Christians tacked on to Mark’s gospel reports of the risen Jesus meeting His disciples. That doesn’t mean that the tacked-on reports in Mark 16 are untrue. They’re all true, I believe. But by ending his gospel at chapter 16, verse 8, Mark was confirming what he hinted at in the sentence fragment that starts the book. Just as the CEO in Greeley’s story knew that having a good product was only the beginning of making his company successful, our knowing the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—our knowing the Christmas story that we will celebrate in just seventeen more days, on Christmas Eve--is only the beginning of the gospel.

When I was in high school, I took journalism and got involved with the high school newspaper, The Occident. In my junior year, I wrote editorials. In my senior year, I was the news editor. And, if I may say so, for a high school publication, The Occident was no rinky-dink operation. The paper was published every two weeks, usually eight pages in length, sometimes up to sixteen. The faculty advisors, Mrs. Becker and later, Mrs. Dritz, could be ruthless in their critiques of our work. One of us might submit a story of which we were proud, for example, and then be asked, “So what? You haven’t shown why this story matters. It just sets there. You need to revise it. We can’t take up space in the paper with stories that don’t engage the reader.”

Mark doesn’t tell the story of Jesus just to flap his jaws, see his name in print, or to entertain us. He wants to engage us. He wants us to become part of the story of Jesus.*

If Mark heard that, after considering his gospel, you and I were content with a Christian life in which we sat for an hour each week for worship on Sunday mornings, listening to a preacher yammer and reciting the Lord’s Prayer and a Creed, he would be appalled.

Mark isn’t interested in good religious practice, per se. Neither is Jesus. Neither is God the Father or God the Spirit.

God became flesh in Jesus Christ on the first Christmas in order to make it possible for you and me to have God’s forgiveness for our sins, to have purpose as we live each day on this earth, and to have eternity with God.

That story can not be allowed to simply set there. Believing in Jesus is a good beginning. But the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, demands and deserves a response. By the lives we live after we’ve come to believe in Christ, we move beyond the beginning of the gospel that Mark has told us about.

Last Sunday, the First Sunday in Advent, Mark’s gospel conveyed one of the ways Jesus said that we could respond to Him: to wait expectantly for Jesus' return at the close of history. We said that we can wait well first, by spending time with God each day through reading His Word and praying and second, by reaching out to others with His love.

Today, in Mark’s account of John the Baptizer’s ministry at the Jordan River, we see another way in which we can both respond to Christ’s death and resurrection for us AND anticipate His return. We commit ourselves to the discipline of repenting for our sins—turning back to God, placing ourselves in the hands of the God we know in Jesus Christ.

When we do this, we experience forgiveness of our sins, the reconciliation with God that makes it possible for us to live each day in peace and power, look forward to our futures with anticipation, and even to be reconciled to others.

True story. On a Christmas day back sometime in the 1980s, a young man was walking on the side of the road, south on I-85, just below High Point, North Carolina. He was trying to hitch a ride.

He hadn’t been home in two years. In that time, his family had heard nothing from him. There had been a blowup with his mom and he left, traveling across the country, working odd jobs he could find. He’d worked at filling stations and fruit stands, as a taxi driver and a farm hand. He'd been a nursing home orderly and an assistant to a plumber. Now though, the anger seemed to have subsided. He was ready to go home.

He was just thirty miles away, but no one seemed interested in picking him up. “Mom,” he said to himself, “I’m tired and hungry, but I’m coming home.” A few trucks occasionally passed by, but nobody stopped.

Then, suddenly from across the road, he could heard that someone was shouting at him. “Mike! Hey, Mike, come here!” The hitchhiker, Mike, was surprised to see that the man calling out to him was his stepfather. Mike ran across the road. “Get in, son,” his stepfather said, “We’re going home.”

“How did you happen to be here?” Mike asked his stepdad after he’d settled into the pickup truck. “I came to pick you up,” he explained, “Drove straight here.” “But how did you know I’d be here? I didn’t write. I didn’t call.” “Your mother sent me. Just this morning in her prayers for you, she knew you were coming and that you were on I-85 just below High Point.”

The God Who led a son back to his home wants to lead you and me to our home with Him for all eternity.

Repentance, turning back to God, isn’t a one-and-done thing. Everyone here this morning knows how temptation and sin, in spite of even our best intentions, can work on us, striving to tear us from the hope and peace that God offers to us through Jesus Christ.

By coming to God, as the masses from Jerusalem and the Judean countryside did in response to the preaching of John the Baptizer, we respond to Jesus. We make our lives available to Jesus Christ. We submit to becoming what Martin Luther called, “the Holy Spirit’s workshop,” allowing God to remove the sin and the bad habits that keep us from being the loving, just people we were made to be and who, deep in our souls, we want to be.

Jesus became human, died, and rose for us. But that’s only the beginning of the Gospel. He’s a Savior Whose grace and love demand a response because He will not force Himself on us. He will only transform the lives of those who, day in and day out, pray, as we were taught pray in song when we were kids: “Come into my heart. Come into my heart. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in today. Come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”

If you know that song or even if you don't, sing that with me now, would you? “Come into my heart. Come into my heart. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in today. Come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”


*In his commentary on this passage, Brian Stoffregen does a fantastic job of showcasing Mark's goal of seeking to engage the reader.

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