am told that in Minnesota you can step across the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It is no more than a tiny stream. It is amazing to me that a river so mighty can begin in such an inconspicuous way.
Perhaps we have a similar experience as we read the first chapter to the Gospel of Mark. The message of Christ has raised up nations and brought them low, launched and defeated armies, started large social movements and destroyed others. Think of all that has been done in the name of Jesus Christ and how inconspicuously the Gospel begins according to Mark. Here we find none of the thunderous poetry used by John to describe the pre-existent Christ. We dream no dreams and no angels visit with us. Caesar Augustus and Herod seem pretty far away. No excuse here for Christmas trees or mob-ridden malls or long hours putting together services of lessons and carols--thank God! All Mark offers to us is John the Baptist, Martha Stewart's worst nightmare, smelling like a camel and calling people to change their ways.
Hey! I've been to seminary and I've been to New York City and Washington, D.C. I can tell you that there are plenty of people in this world who smell like camels and who call for repentance. John is nothing special. Like a single misplaced snowflake or the smallest sound can cause an avalanche, so Mark contends that this completely ordinary beginning is the beginning of the gospel going into the entire world. This is so typical of Mark; his original ending to the gospel has no resurrection in it. It just stops, with the women leaving the tomb and talking with nobody. In between these two zero significant events, we find Jesus downplaying his own miracles and teaching in parables that nobody can understand.
"The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ...." Mark must be kidding.
But he's not! God's ultimate let's turn the entire world upside down strategy begins in a small way that nobody notices but that has enormous consequences. It is the power of one, isn't it? This locust and honey-eating wild man lights a fire that keeps the whole world burning. And initially nobody even sees the match.
Some years ago I watched one of those World War II movies in which one character was giving lessons to another character about how to destroy a dam. The pupil anticipated that enough dynamite would be fired off to send the entire dam skyward. But the teacher explained that far less explosive power was needed. Place a few sticks in critically vulnerable places, blow them up, and then wait patiently. Silently, but certainly, the pent-up water would do the rest of the job washing the dam downstream.
So it is with the Gospel, according to Mark's telling. It begins with a whimper, and not a bang, but it explodes eventually, taking everyone by surprise with its power.
Of course, John the Baptist sees very little of this. Before Jesus' own ministry takes off, John is imprisoned and beheaded. So typical of these biblical characters-they show up, make their contribution to the story, drive the narrative forward, and then they disappear. The other night as a family we did our Bible reading and came to the part about Simon of Cyrene being pulled from the crowd and being forced to carry the cross. My son expressed some curiosity about this man, and I told him that tradition has it that Simon was of African descent and that probably the church recalled him because he became a Christian later. But I was giving an inadequate answer. Why does Simon of Cyrene show up here? The answer is straightforward enough: For the cross to get up the hill so that Jesus can die for the sins of the world, somebody had to carry it. Like John the Baptist, Simon played a small but critical part. Then he dropped out of the narrative altogether.
You and I might be judged in the same vein. The biblical canon is not closed. What an extraordinarily foolish thought! You and I are still writing the Bible by carrying the narrative forward. We may not see our names in print, but our actions too represent new chapters in the Gospel story. We make our own beginning in the service of God's larger plan. You and I represent the power of one, the power of one person being transformed by the Gospel and living a life of conviction.
In the past year we have watched debacles such as what happened at Enron and WorldCom. As if pure ourselves, we have demanded that heads roll. But let's consider these and other scandals from a different angle. Who first blew the whistle? Who first said that the emperor is wearing no clothes? Who-like John the Baptist-stood out in the wilderness of moral stupor and clandestine corruption and called for repentance? The end result, we hope, is a nation committed to financial integrity, but it began with one or two persons who like mighty oaks were no more than nuts who stood their ground. So it was with the beginning of the end of the Nixon administration with "Deep Throat," who has yet to be identified. So it was with the FBI after September 11, when one woman stepped up and told the truth about the need for reform.
Do you remember the biblical story of the Exodus? Do you remember who first showed resistance to the autocratic rule of Pharaoh from the very beginning? Was it mighty Moses? No. Neither was it his mother nor Pharaoh's daughter who got the ball rolling. It was Shiphrah and Puah, two midwives, barely mentioned, easy to pass over, who made the first move toward the liberation of the Israelites.
William Sloan Coffin, alluding to the innate sinfulness and brokenness of humankind, said this: "I'm not OK, you're not OK, and that's OK!" We are sinners. But through sinners such as you and me and John the Baptist and various whistleblowers and midwives, God has released the mighty torrent of God's will for salvation and liberation.
On the one hand, you and I find here a reason to feel pretty good about ourselves-"God doesn't make junk," as the old saying goes. God sees us as co-creators, ambassadors for Christ, agents of reconciliation, purveyors of God's loves, peacemakers, children of God and possessing many qualities that make us special and unique in God's service and in God's plan of salvation. The Gospel beginning with John the Baptist gains new life to our own contribution to it.
But on the other hand, there is an ethic here that calls us out of our current complacency with the social order. Recently, almost daily, you and I have been bombarded with news about how our natural environment is blessing us with the means to overcome many human problems. The ethic that arises from this discovery is clear: You and I, for our own survival, must preserve the environment. From toxic waste to the indiscriminate burning of rain forests, we must cease destroying our ability to address our most vexing challenges.
If plants and animal life have become so precious to us, should not human life be just as precious? If God can take such a one as John the Baptist, crying out in the midst of the wilderness, and begin the Gospel in such an insignificant way, does this not mean that every life--no matter how apparently insignificant--is thereby made significant? In our culture currently, we tend to treat human life in all of its forms pretty lightly. We see the death penalty as a way of addressing individual human sin. We view abortion as an exercise in individual freedom, saving us from the inconvenience of human responsibility. We ignore the deaths of 30,000 to 40,000 children every day from war and deprivation as somehow less critical than our own individual privilege and pleasure.
How can you and I, as people of faith, be so content with death and so negligent toward life? Do we not grasp that between those whom we actively kill and those whom we permit to die through our neglect, we are robbing ourselves of prophets, priests, and princes who are created to make their own contribution to the greatest story ever told? How can we be so sure that this guilty murderer is not the next Moses or this child aborted is not the next Lydia or those children left in poverty, the victims of hunger and war, not the ones who will cure cancer or discover how to handle cold fusion so that it will take us to the stars? How do we know when we are so unappreciative of human life that the person standing next to us is not the next John the Baptist calling the nations to repentance and calling us to a new beginning?
Several years ago I visited Washington, D.C, to see the sights. As I toured, I noticed all the people who were begging for handouts and those who were talking with imaginary friends. They are still there by the way, and if I were a politician in Washington, D.C., I would find it difficult to lead the rest of the nation with any sense of accomplishment or pride when I could not address adequately the need on my own doorstep. Of course, you learn to blind yourself to their presence, and so I did. I ignored the human carnage around me. As I walked, I used a map. The quadrants of the city confused me. Certain that I was headed for a particular museum, I began to stride boldly in the wrong direction. I became aware of a very short African-American man beside me, speaking to me. The passing traffic deafened me so I couldn't hear what he was saying, but I decided it wouldn't be something that I wanted to hear, so I picked up my pace. Soon, however, I reached a busy street corner and had to stop. At that moment, the man stepped in front of me and put his hand on my arm. Now I had no choice; I had to hear what he had to say and attempt to protect my wallet at the same time. I bent down toward him-I'm sure the aggravation on my face. "Young man," he said to me, "I don't know where you are going, but I can assure you that this is the wrong way. You are headed into the wrong part of Washington and putting your life at risk. Turn around now and go back to where you came from." Repent, in other words. I don't know how this shabbily dressed man changed my life, but no doubt it was for the best. I had ignored him but suddenly he was precious to me. It appeared that I could not live without him.
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ begins inconspicuously according to Mark, with an ordinary man, using ordinary words to drive forward an extraordinary narrative of salvation for all humankind. It is the very ordinariness of John the Baptist and all those we find in the Bible that reminds us of how extraordinarily important all human beings are, including all of us. We have an important contribution to make to God's good news as does potentially every human life. Let us treat one another as precious.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, you make no junk, and all people are precious in your sight. Help us to live cherishing one another. Amen.