A sermon on Mark 1:1-13 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 12 August 2018

Today, I want to invite you to a dance. And to be honest, I’m not very good at dancing. So it is a metaphorical dance that I’m inviting you to. Because today we are looking at the beginning of the gospel. Mark chapter 1, verse 1 says,

 “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

The gospel means good news. Glad tidings. Like the announcement of the birth of a healthy baby boy or girl. Something has happened and it can change the life of everyone for ever for the better. That’s gospel.

The gospel is about Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. It is about his life, his deeds, his teaching, his death and remarkable resurrection. Jesus is the living Lord and he lives for you. That’s the gospel.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Because today we are looking at the beginning of the gospel. Not the oak tree, but the acorn from which it grew. Not the grand cathedral, but the foundation upon which it rests. That beginning is firstly, the promises of Holy Scripture. It is secondly, the ministry of John the Baptist. And it is thirdly, the dance of joy and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and it is that dance that I want to invite you to.

So firstly, the gospel begins in the promises of Holy Scripture. For the gospel announces a new beginning. A fresh start better than any New Year’s Resolution. A chance to put an old you behind, and to embrace the you that God made you to be.

The gospel announces a new beginning, but it is not new. It is old, founded on the eternal purposes of God revealed in the centuries old promises of the Bible. Mark writes in verses 2 and 3,

“It is written in Isaiah the prophet: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way. A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for me.”

Now although Mark says that it is written in Isaiah, in actual fact only verse 3 comes from Isaiah. Verse 2 comes from the book of Malachi, chapter 3, verse 1. Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament, and the Old Testament finishes with this promise still echoing from its pages:

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come.”

The promise is that God is coming. The Lord is on his way. He will establish his righteousness. He will right all wrongs. He will wipe away all tears. He will crush evil under his feet. And before he comes, he will send his messenger who will prepare the way.

Mark lumps this promise with Isaiah, because the promise of verse 3, which comes from Isaiah chapter 40, has the same message.

“A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.””

Isaiah speaks here of a message calling out in the desert. In a wild, uninhabited place, where life hangs in the balance, and death always lurks nearby. The desert is a place of testing, where people are pushed to their limits. If they fail the test, they may be destroyed. The desert is harsh and unforgiving. But if they pass the test, they may be cleansed and renewed and from the desert may emerge someone who is very different from the one who entered it.

Israel wandered in the desert for forty years. From the time they were set free from their slavery in Egypt and passed through the waters of the Red Sea, to the time they crossed the Jordan river and entered the Promised Land. They wandered in the desert for forty years. Not because they were lost, but because they were being tested by the Lord. They came out of Egypt as a rabble of slaves, and those who rebelled against the Lord their Saviour, perished in the wilderness. They were purified and renewed, and a very different people crossed the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, ready to serve the Lord.

Isaiah’s promise is that a new deliverance is coming. A new creation. Those whose lives have led them to a wilderness of hopelessness and fear can rejoice, because the Lord is coming. He is on his way. But before he comes a voice will ring forth in the desert to prepare the Lord’s wandering people for his coming.

There is a saying in England that wherever the Queen goes, she smells fresh paint. Royal visits are announced months, even years in advance. And all that time is used to smarten up the town or school or hospital for her visit. A protocol team swoops in and teaches everyone how to bow and what to say. Because her Majesty is coming and everything and everyone must be ready.

The message at the heart of the Old Testament is that the Lord is coming. He is on his way, and his way will begin in the wilderness. He will come to his wandering people in the desert. But before he comes, he will send someone ahead of him to get his people ready for his arrival.

The gospel begins firstly in God’s promises in the Bible. It begins secondly in the ministry of John the Baptist.

John the Baptist has to be one of the most colourful characters of the whole Bible. Hear him thunder in Matthew’s Gospel as he speaks to the Pharisees:

“You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath.”

That’s a man of strength. That’s a man of character. That’s a man who speaks his mind without any “Pretty please” or “Do you mind?” Not a nice man. But a good man. A great man. And his lifestyle matched his words. He lived in the desert. He ate locusts and wild honey. Like Elijah he wore clothing made of camel hair with a leather belt around his waist. Everything about him screamed that here is a prophet with a word from God. Maybe not what we want to hear. But what we need to hear. And thousands flocked to him at the Jordan River. There at the boundary of the Promised Land, where their forefathers had crossed to go in, John called them to come out. And they came out from all Judea and even from Jerusalem.

And his message for them was, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” The Lord is coming to purify and renew his people, to meet them in the wilderness and to lead them out, to gather his people and to bring them rest. John was the messenger sent before the Lord. He was the voice crying out in the desert. The one sent first to get everything ready for the Lord. But not with just a lick of paint and “stand up straight”. John did not come to give the people a thin veil of religion so they could pass the test of the searching gaze of the Lord. No he came to facilitate a deeper, more profound change. A new creation. A change of mind. A change of heart. A change in the fundamental direction that people led their lives. To repent. Not just to bring them to feel sorry for what they’d done, but to bring them to the point where they realize that life can’t keep going the way it is. Not just to do new things, but to become new people. To commit to a change that leads to new values and new decisions and new behaviours.

And as a testament to that commitment they were baptized. Plunged into the water of the Jordan. Not just to wash off the surface dirt so that they looked good. But to drown their old selfish way of life with the lies they’d believed in and with the lies they’d lived, so that the person that emerged from the water was someone different. A new creation creating a new creature. Set in a new direction with a new purpose. Because the Queen may be happy with a lick of paint, but the Lord is coming to find new people.

This was John’s ministry. To be the servant, but not the master. To be the messenger, but not the sender. To be the first, but not the last. To be great, but not the greatest.

As John himself testified,

“After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

This is where the gospel starts. With the promise of the coming of the Lord and with John who prepared his way. And then came Jesus. Out to the wilderness. Out to the place of testing. One among the crowd of wanderers. But not wandering himself as if he were lost. But with a specific purpose in mind: to submit to John’s baptism.

And as he came out of the water, Jesus saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him   like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.”

Here we see at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark the same Father, Son and Spirit who were at work at the beginning of the whole Bible.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering like a dove over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”

In creation we see God, his Spirit and his Word at work. At the beginning of the new creation promised in the Scriptures we see the same three, Father, Spirit and Son at work. The Father acknowledges his Son, the Son he loves, the Son he has sent. And the Spirit equips and guides him for his ministry.

We worship one God. But in this one God we worship, we see not a simple unity, but a complex trinity. Our God is not a lonely God who must create to have someone to love. Instead he is a being in fellowship, who is held together by love. A God who loves without us, but who does not will to remain without us. But a God who draws us into his love. Who made us because of his love. Who made us for his love. Who came among us out of love.

This is the eternal dance of God. God is not just one being who stands at the centre of everything and expects everything else to dance around him. Rather, he is a fellowship of three who love each other and find their centre and completion in each other. The Father rejoices to see his Son. The Son lives to serve his Father. And the Spirit is the energy of love that binds them together. These three move in step like three stars circling a common centre of gravity, like a trio dancing round about and interweaving with each other.

Here we see the heart of the gospel in the God of love’s love for us, inviting us to join the dance. What did John say? “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Not plunged into water and then released again to live on dry land. But plunged into the creating and recreating Spirit of God and then never let go.

Jesus came to baptize us with his Spirit. So that the Spirit becomes the air we breathe, the environment in which we live and move, the fuel for our work, the inspiration of our thoughts, the strength in our limbs, the hope in our heart, and the compass by which we take all our bearings.

This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. John came baptizing with water to prepare the way for the Lord Jesus who would baptize us with his Spirit. Jesus came into our desert, where life is fragile and death hangs over us. He came into our wilderness, not only to share it, but to make it bloom with life. He came among us wanderers, that he might gather us home. He met us outside the Promised Land, so that he might lead us in.

Jesus the Lord has come. Jesus the Son of the Father’s love was anointed Lord by the Spirit. And he invites us to repent. Not just to spread a fresh coat of paint. But to change us from the inside out. So that we stop standing still and expecting everyone else to dance around us. But to be led by the Spirit into the eternal dance of the love and joy of God in the way of Jesus.

It may not be the whole gospel. But this is how it begins.