Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 4, 2011

2011.12.04 “Back to the Beginning” – Advent 2011

Central United Methodist Church

“Back to the Beginning”

Pastor David L. Haley

December 4th, 2011


“The good news of Jesus Christ — the Message! — begins here, following to the letter the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

Watch closely:

I’m sending my preacher ahead of you; 
          He’ll make the road smooth for you. 
          Thunder in the desert! 
          Prepare for God’s arrival! 
          Make the road smooth and straight!


John the Baptizer appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and, as they confessed their sins, were baptized by him in the Jordan River into a changed life. John wore a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild field honey.

As he preached he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism — a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit — will change you from the inside out.” – Mark 1: 1 – 8, The Message



        Late on a recent Sunday night I sat down to watch Terence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life. The film, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes film festival, is the impressionistic story of a Texas family in the 1950s. It follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn), through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years, as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Like so many of us, Jack finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origin and meaning of life while questioning the existence of God.

        But as I said, it was late on a Sunday night, and I kept passing out. I woke up every now and then to see an orange flicker on the screen, pictures of galaxies and planets, massive waterfalls, even dinosaurs. Completely confused, I decided it was time to go to bed.

        The next day, I looked up some reviews, to try and figure out what was going on before I tried watching it again. It turns out, what Terrence Malick does, is to place Jack’s family and Jack’s life – and ours along with it – into context: specifically, the history of the universe. That flicker of flame on the screen; that’s God. Galaxies and planets; that’s the Big Bang and creation of the universe. Massive waterfalls; the creation of the earth. Dinosaurs; the evolution of life.  

         Not in other words, but in images, Malik seems to say, to keep our lives in perspective, go back to the beginning. There’s a lot that went on before we got here, and there’s a lot that will go on after we’re gone, until 5 to 7 billion years from now when the sun will turn into a Red Dwarf and engulf the nearest three planets, including earth, possibly what St. Peter was referring to in 2 Peter, chapter 3. Which makes us feel pretty small, self-absorbed, and fleeting. Nevertheless, by the whisper of prayers throughout the movie, Malick also seems to say, God hears our prayers.

        Today, 2nd Sunday of Advent, to keep our lives in perspective, we do something similar: we go back to the beginning. Back to the beginning of the story of Jesus, back to the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas.

        If you have compared the beginning of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – you might have concluded that Mark has a rather lame opening, especially when compared to the other Gospels. In Mark one finds no genealogies as in Matthew, no angels or shepherds or birth in a manger as in Luke, no hymn to the eternal Word. Surely Mark could have come up with something more creative than “The good news of Jesus Christ begins here . . .”

         Given how the Gospel of Marks ends, in the middle of a sentence (Mark 16:8), some have jokingly suggested that perhaps the whole first page of the codex, containing both the beginning and the ending, fell off somewhere along the way so that the real beginning and ending got lost.

         But here’s the thing: As suggested by Michael Bridges and George Baum, of the Christian duo Lost And Found, the original gospel may have been just three words: “He is risen!” (Actually it was accompanied by heavy breathing due to running from the tomb: (huff, huff, huff) “He is risen!”  But then the questions began.

         “Who’s risen?”

        “Jesus is risen!”                                                  

        “Jesus who?”

        “Jesus of Nazareth!”

        “Who’s Jesus of Nazareth?”

         “The King of the Jews, the Messiah, the Son of God.”

         “Who’s his mother?”

         “OK, let’s start over and go back to the beginning.”

        How do you tell the story of the Gospel? According to their audience and purpose, each Gospel chose to begin in a different way: Matthew with Jesus’ genealogy, Luke with Jesus’ birth, John with Jesus’ divine pre-existence, and Mark: Mark with the story of John the Baptist preaching out in the wilderness, where Jesus shows up to be baptized. If we only had Mark’s Gospel, Christmas might be quite different; in fact, it might not exist. To which some of us might say, “Glory to God in the highest!”

        But even with this odd beginning – as is usually the case in the Bible – the more you know, the more you get out of it.  So when Mark quotes part of Isaiah 40, he’s quoting the whole thing.

        Have I ever told you the story of the prisoners?  There’s a jail full of prisoners, one of them is new. On the first night, the new guy hears someone call out, “No. 1.” Everybody laughs. Then someone calls out, “No. 3.”  Everybody laughs. The new guy asks the guy nearest him, “What’s that all about?”  The guy says, “Well, we only knew a few jokes, and we got tired of telling them over and over. So we just gave them numbers, and call out the number instead.”  “I see,” said the new guy. After a few minutes someone calls out, “No. 7.” Dead silence, nobody laughs. ”What was that?” asks the new guy.  “Oh that – that was Bob – he never could tell a joke.”

        When Mark quotes Isaiah 40, “A voice cries out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert, a highway for our God” it’s like he’s saying “No. 1.”  In alluding to Isaiah 40 he’s quoting the whole thing; he’s not only explaining who John the Baptist is; he’s also explaining who Jesus is, and what’s about to happen. “The glory of the Lord is about to be revealed.” “Here is your God.” “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.” Mark is saying: “The good news about Jesus? It really began way back there in Isaiah, when God promised comfort to God’s people in exile.  God’s true comfort is now showing up!”

        Of course, it’s not just the beginning of Mark, 1, verses 1 through 8, it’s the whole sixteen chapters that are just the beginning. Maybe that why, after Jesus’ resurrection, the story ends so abruptly: after all, how do you end a story about one who was dead, who lives again?

        That’s why down through the centuries, we who are caught up in the story, who now find ourselves in the story, keep finding it necessary to go back to the beginning and start over, like children learning the alphabet. Once a year we go back to the beginning to hear the story again; to keep learning new things, to keep seeing new implications, to gain new insights, and most importantly, to put more of it into practice in our own lives.

        We do so in this way, because we can’t go back to where Jesus’ story began to become a part of our lives. Was it a place, in our home or in a church where our parents taught us or took us?  Was it a time, like Jack in the Tree of Life, when we took an inventory of our life and realized something was missing, and that we were part of a larger story, beyond ourselves? Was it a time when, like Israel of old, we felt in exile, far away from God, and the comfort and presence of God revealed itself in our life? I have a friend who told me that one of his proofs of God is that recently, when he was down and depressed, not one but five of his friends (one of whom was me) called him out of the blue, after a long absence, to ask how he was doing.  Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 

        Whenever we lose our way, as a church or as individual Christians, it’s time to go back to the beginning, back to the story of Jesus. No matter how badly we’ve failed, we can start out again, seeing and living in the light of God. No matter how isolated and alone we may feel, we can begin again, to look for and find God in our life together, week after week. No matter how routine and stagnant we may feel our lives have become, we are both comforted and challenged by John the Baptist’s promise:

        “The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism — a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit — will change you from the inside out.”  

        Sunday by Sunday, week by week, season by season, through the years, has that happened?  Have we been changed from the inside out?  Do we evidence new ideas, new attitudes, new yearnings, changed behaviors? How is Christ changing us from the inside out? What crooked ways have been made straight, what rough places made plain? 

        In the days and weeks and months and year ahead, you can be sure we’ll see more of the same: more rancorous and partisan political rhetoric, more consumerism, more foreclosures and joblessness, more deferrals of dreams, more difficulties along the way. Caught up in this story, we have the chance to declare something new, something different, something more, as we invite people into relationship with the God who creates light out of darkness, who gives life to the dead, and who rejoices in new beginnings.

         Oh, and that movie – Tree of Life – how does it end? On a beach, in heaven, apparently – which is good because I’d love to end up on a beach – where Jack and his family, and who knows, maybe you and me and all families, are reconciled and made new. 

         Perhaps the English poet T. S. Eliot was right, when he said in his poem Little Gidding, that:

         “We shall not cease from exploration
        And the end of all our exploring
        Will be to arrive where we started
        And know the place for the first time.

                         –      T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding (No. 4 of ‘Four Quartets’), V.


        Back to the beginning. “The good news of Jesus Christ — the Message! — begins here!”  Amen.






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