The gospel according to Mark stands out among the gospel accounts we have in our Bible. It is the one gospel story that cuts right to the chase. No mention of Mary and Joseph or any other of Jesus’ relatives, no birth story, no stories from Jesus’ childhood – no, after a one sentence introduction, immediately we encounter John the Baptist, proclaiming a baptism of repentance. And then the very much grown-up Jesus is baptized, and then his story unfolds at an almost breathtaking speed. Mark doesn’t come to play. Mark wants to get the message across, right here and right now.
And what is this message? Mark summarizes it in the one sentence introduction to his gospel, the very first verse of chapter 1: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Now I don’t know about you, but the term ‘beginning of the good news’ seems peculiar. Why doesn’t Mark just sit down, write down all the stories he’s heard about Jesus, and simply gives them the title ‘The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’?
Now I believe that Mark must have slipped in the word ‘beginning’ on purpose. And, by the way, the Greek word we have here, ‘arché’, can mean beginning, but also foundation, or even head (insert pic arch) – the English word ‘arch’, which comes from ‘arché’, originally was something that is above our heads.
So whatever Mark writes down is the beginning, the foundation, the overhead of the good news of Jesus Christ. Which implies it is not the entire good news, that there is more. And I will get back to that in a minute. (take pic down)
Now let’s talk about the good news for a moment. We probably all have something in mind when we hear ‘good news’. It’s something that makes us happy, or gives us relief. A new baby is born in the family, we get the job we wanted, the physician tells us that the cancer is gone, or health officials proclaim that there are ways to beat COVID-19. Good news!
The good news Mark and the other gospel accounts talk about can be summarized as follows: the kingdom of God, a kingdom of everlasting peace and justice, has come near! And that’s something to be joyful about. But there’s a caveat, a damper. And we experience it through the message of John the Baptist, this brooding and ascetic figure right at the beginning of Mark’s gospel: Repent!
And the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth in the gospel according to Mark echo that: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
The coming of Christ, the imminence of the kingdom of God are ‘good tidings of comfort and joy’ – but at the same time also ‘good tidings of discomfort and joy’. For the message John AND Jesus give us is quite clear: Turn around! Change your hearts, change your minds, change your perspective to prepare yourselves for what is at hand. And, as we all know, more often than not change is uncomfortable. Because it questions many of the things we have grown used to and rips us out of our comfort zone. Because change is always a challenge.
The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the kingdom of God come near challenge us: to assess and change our ways. To love our neighbor. To pray for those who harm us. To actively live into God’s kingdom of peace and justice. To die to our existence so that we may have life eternal.
In the gospel stories, Jesus Christ does all of the above, and more – and sets the tone for us. Yes, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in whom and through whom the kingdom of God is right among us, is good news. But it is just the beginning. Or the foundation. Or the overhead. (Insert pic to be continued) If the story of Jesus Christ was a TV series, there would be a line at the end, ‘To be continued…’
And the story continued. After Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, his followers become the ‘body of Christ’ here on earth. We hear about it in the books of the New Testament that follow after the gospels, like the Acts of the Apostles, and the letters by Paul, Peter, and others. Christ’s followers spread the good news of God’s kingdom come near in word and deed – and encounter immense challenges as they do so. Because whatever they say and do challenges others to forgo the status quo and turn to God and their neighbor. (take pic down)
Fast forward about 300 years. The story continues. Today, December 6th, is the feast day of a saint who is revered even by Protestants – especially in the Netherlands, many parts of Germany, and many a seafaring nation or region: I’m talking about St. Nicholas of Myra.
(Insert pic St. Nicholas treats) Today those familiar with German customs mostly know St. Nicholas as someone who puts little gifts into shoes children put in front of their door on St. Nicholas Day. Here in the U.S. St. Nicholas, quite strangely, morphed into Santa Claus, a jolly old elf. (take pic down)
But there’s more, much more, to St. Nicholas. (Insert pic St. Nicholas icon) He lived from about 270 – 343 AD, grew up in a Christian household, and eventually became bishop of the coastal town Myra in Asia Minor – which is today’s Turkey. He is said to have performed numerous miracles, but in his day he first and foremost was known as a fierce defender of Christian orthodoxy – just as a footnote, he most likely is one of the authors of the ‘Nicene Creed’, which we still recite on occasion – as a protector and benefactor of the poor, and as someone standing up against injustice. (take pic down)
One of the earliest attested stories of Saint Nicholas is one in which he saves three innocent men from execution. (Insert pic St. Nicholas saving innocents) As these three were about to be executed, Nicholas appeared, pushed the executioner’s sword to the ground, released them from their chains, and angrily chastised a juror who had accepted a bribe. (take pic down) (last paragraph from Wikipdia article about ‘Saint Nicholas’)
St. Nicholas, in the tradition of Jesus Christ and the early Christian followers, continued to spread the good news of God’s kingdom come near by challenging those around him – and admonishing them to change their ways.
This also shines through in two of the legends about Nicholas – even if they may have been embellished over the centuries, there probably lies a true kernel in them.
The first legend is about a severe famine in Myra. (insert pic St. Nicholas ship) As a ship carrying grain on its way to some other destination docks in Myra, Nicholas pleads with the captain to sell the starving people of Myra some of that grain. The captain at first doesn’t want to – after all, the cargo is destined to be sold in some other port – but in the end, he is moved by Nicholas’ pleas and the plight of the people of Myra, changes his mind, and unloads part of the cargo. And, miraculously, the ship was just as heavy in the water as before all that grain was unloaded. Did I mention that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of all sailors and seafaring merchants in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions? (take pic down)
The second legend is a much better known: a poor man in Myra had three young daughters. He didn’t have the money to provide them with dowries and was forced to sell them into prostitution. Nicholas wanted to help the man financially, but the man was too proud to accept help. (insert pic St. Nicholas 3 girls) So Nicholas came under the cover of darkness to the house of that family and threw some gold coins through the window – other versions say through the chimney – and the coins happened to land in some stockings hung to dry by the fireplace – or in some shoes lined up next to the window (or fireplace). But that’s beside the point: Nicholas saved these children from a horrible fate. By doing so, he challenged the status quo of his time. And thus became a bearer of good news and the kingdom of God come near in word and deed.
Not surprisingly, St. Nicholas to this day is also the patron saint of all children. And children, young and old, still celebrate St. Nicholas Day all over the world to this day. (take pic down)
Fast forward about 1,700 years. The story, the good news, which began with John the Baptist and Jesus Christ calling for repentance, continues – with us. There may never be legends told about us – but as followers of Christ today, we are spread the good news and word and deed, according to our gifts and abilities – by allowing ourselves to be challenged and to challenge others to live into the vision of God, which is so different from what we experience in this world.
We hear the tidings of discomfort and joy: The kingdom of God is at hand! This is the good news. To be continued…
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