A Different Beginning
Mark 1:1-20, selections
Our first scripture is the traditional epiphany story: God being revealed by a star that leads magi to the Christ child. Our second scripture is a different kind of epiphany: God being revealed by a voice – by voices – that reveal who this Jesus is, that lead the most ordinary people to change what they’re doing and follow.
It comes from Mark’s gospel, and Mark doesn’t have anything about Jesus’s birth. For Mark, the good news is not that Jesus is born, but that Jesus shows us that the world the way God would have it has come near – what we translate as “kingdom”.
For Mark, the epiphany, or moment of revelation, comes not with a vision of a star, but with the sound of a voice – or multiple voices. Listen for God speaking:
Mark 1:1-4, 9-20
1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” ’, 4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.’ 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
New Year’s Eve, I was reminded of the power of a voice. Scott, my spouse, had reminded me that Clemson was playing Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. His good friend we call Big John grew up in Clemson, was a place kicker for the Tigers, and we were in Black Mountain, NC seeing Scott’s family, where John also lives and owns a restaurant with a bar.
If you are a college football fan, and maybe even if you aren’t, you know that Clemson has had a great season. Big John most avid football fan we know. We made plans to watch the bowl game over dinner at his restaurant. We walked in, and every TV had the game on. Clemson fans all over the place… the volume was turned up and folks were cheering.
John himself was delayed, and texted that he would catch up with us later that evening. We knew he would be thrilled that Clemson beat Oklahoma to play for the football championship. When he showed up at our house, the first thing he asked us was if the sound had been on – we said “yes” – thinking “of course.” John was furious, though – “They’re not supposed to have the sound on. The place is not a sports bar. It’s a place where people can come and talk. You can’t have a conversation with that on.”
After I had picked my jaw up off the floor that the biggest Clemson football fan I know didn’t want the sound on, it occurred to me that John has watched a lot of football games. He has heard many announcers, and he knows the power of a good one. Big John knows how a sports caster’s voice influences your experience of a game – how a “boo-yah!” gives you a “boo-yah” feeling – the tone, the energy, the intensity while a player is rushing: “Touchdown!” A good voice hooks even those of us who aren’t huge fans, lifting us out of whatever else has been the focus of our attention. A good voice turns a moving image into a living experience. Big John knows the power of a good voice.
The writer of Mark’s gospel also knew the power of a voice, especially in the announcement of a gospel, of good news. Mark we knew we needed good voices to focus our attention, so that we might have our own epiphany, our own living experience of God in Jesus. He begins with his own voice – “good news” – then borrows the prophet’s, the voice of one crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. Mark doesn’t just describe John – we hear his voice – almost play by play – announcing the one who is coming. And once we get to see Jesus, coming to be baptized, we don’t just see him or the water, or the heavens torn apart, we hear the voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Almost got the “boo-yah!” in there.)
When Jesus returns from the wilderness, we hear his voice, proclaiming that nearness of God’s way on earth, calling people to change – to turn their attention away from whatever they’ve been doing. Having just returned from the wilderness for forty days, when he said “good news”, it was intense. Not only do we see the effect he has on those ordinary fisher folks, we hear him calling them – “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Simple words, but with an extraordinary impact.
Mark really is like the best of sports announcers, not just narrating, but inviting us into a living experience. The epiphany is not this one-time event, but a way in which our whole imagination is captured, our souls are shaped, so that we begin hear God in all kinds of ways, recognize announcers in all kinds of events and people.
Mark’s gospel – good news – of the nearness of God’s way for the world -raises questions for all of us: whose voices are speaking good news right now? To our world? To our church? To you? Whose words draw us in so that our souls are changed, so that we want to change for the sake of something better? It’s not the ones who yell the loudest, or who even tell us exactly what we want to hear.
The good voices, the best voices, are calling us to prepare for something different all the time. The best voices remind all of us that we are beloved, simply because we are God’s. The best voices remind us that God’s way – God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven – is not too far off, invite us, compel us, to live like it. The best voices call us to follow, to do what we were made to do, and to be part of that.
What good voices have you heard this past year? Who announced good news to you – that you are loved, that you are called? Who has helped you see, because of what they said, that God is not just far off somewhere, but at work, part of your living experience in the here and now? Whose voice has helped you learn how to make a difference in the world, however big or small?
Because we all hear voices – so soon after Star Wars opening, it’s tempting to think they are like Obi-Wan’s voice coming back to Luke: “use the force Luke!” A part of me keeps waiting for someone with a voice like WAMU announcer Kojo Nhamdi to show up and make the world all right. But if you are here having the slightest bit of hope for this new year, that all is not lost, that God has not left us here to just keep making messes, if you have heard somewhere that you were put on this earth for a reason, the good news is still alive.
Good voices come in all kinds – don’t have to be preachers – work colleagues, family members, teachers, coaches, children, roommates, total strangers. Good voices can speak through books or blogs. They don’t necessarily tear apart the heavens; they can sound a lot like your grandmother.
If you’re waiting for a voice for this year, you’re in the right place. A voice calling out, from the waters that flow through this font, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased. A voice calling from this table, “God’s way for the world is not far. Repent, be changed, believe this good news.” A voice from the doors: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. You are part of the plan.”
In the midst of all of the world’s voices, may you hear the One who calls you!