Where to Begin?

For many years, each spring semester, the late Reynolds Price, professor of English at Duke University and noted novelist and poet, taught a small group seminar titled, simply, "The Gospels." It was consistently one of the most competitive classes in the curriculum during registration, with a waiting list that grew by the hour. The class centered on close readings of the gospels of Mark and John, which the course description venerated as "documents largely unprecedented in world literature." After studying these two gospels, students began the one assignment that the class required--an original gospel of 30-50 pages, based on the readings and discussion of the seminar. As you might imagine, students panicked. I had more than one friend who went without sleep night after night as the deadline approached! How can one possibly write an original gospel? What must be included and what can be left out? How do you convey the deep meaning of the life of Jesus in your own words? Where do you begin?

This daunting, overwhelming challenge was precisely what faced Mark as he sat down with pen and parchment to record his story of the life of Jesus. He began without precedent or guide, simply convinced that the story must be told; and tell it he does, in dramatic and rapidly unfolding fashion.

Mark has no time for a lengthy introduction that eases listeners into the narrative. No space for a story of the miraculous birth in Bethlehem or a detailed survey of Jesus' family tree. Instead, readers are cast into the wilderness where John the Baptizer appears, preaching repentance, change, and forgiveness of sins. No sooner does John predict the coming of the Messiah than Jesus arrives on scene. All of Advent in eight frantic verses. Mark proceeds at an almost breathless pace, barely pausing to describe characters or setting, so focused is he on the plot itself, so compelled to tell the gospel story in his own words.

Anticipation is high when Jesus arrives at the Jordan River, where John has been preaching and baptizing. The dramatic climax of the scene is the baptism of Jesus, complete with descending dove and a voice from heaven that declares his divinity.

In my original, optimistic gospel for Professor Price's class, this scene would set the stage for a mega-ministry, with vast popular appeal and a steadily growing impact over the state of affairs in Galilee and even in Rome, the very center of the world. After all, Jesus' baptism takes away any doubt that he is the Son of God. From this moment, his power should be unquestioned. Justice should roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. This moment of divine recognition should cause Caesar to hand over his crown or cower in fear. This wilderness baptism is the perfect beginning to a world-changing story.

But this is what can be so frustrating about Mark's Gospel. Jesus' life and his ministry are not marked by immediate success or recognition of divine authority. Instead, the same Spirit who descended at his baptism drives Jesus farther out into the wilderness, where he will spend forty days tempted by Satan, surrounded only by wild beasts and angels. No multitudes. No fan club. The ministry of Jesus, like the Gospel of Mark, begins in the wilderness.

And so we come to the beginning of Lent in the Christian year. We commence this sacred season of reflection and repentance, of spiritual discipline and renewal, in the wilderness. It is the place where pretense fades away and honest vulnerability becomes possible. In the wilderness, we are unable to keep up the public image of effortless perfection that plagues us. We are freed to confess the messy reality of our lives. We are tempted to forget the promises of God, we are threatened by the danger of the unknown, and all the while we are watched and waited on by the divine. The wilderness, like it or not, is where we live our lives. It is the place between certainty and doubt, between hope and fear, between promises made and promises kept. In the wilderness, Jesus finds his voice and his vocation, and when he emerges forty days later, his words echo those of the Baptizer: the kingdom of God has come near; repent; believe.

Early in his seminar, Professor Price observed that Mark is the only gospel writer who gives his book a title. In the first verse of the first chapter, Mark declares that this story is "the beginning of the good news." It is such a hopeful title, especially in our time when so many pray daily that there is more good news to come, somehow, someway. If Mark's story and Jesus' life are just the beginning of the gospel, then we have reason to believe in more than what surrounds us. If this is only the beginning, we can strain our eyes and stand on tiptoe as we look for more good news that is sure to follow.

Jesus' life was full of adversity and suffering and defeat. He did not replace all unjust earthly rulers or lift all the lowly and oppressed. Sometimes the two thousand years that have passed since seem to have brought little change as well. We read of needless deaths, unending violence, innocent suffering, justice denied. All around us are those who lack the basic necessities of life, who go hungry or live in fear, whose grieving is unceasing, whose isolation is unbearable. In the wilderness of our lives, we hurt one another, break promises, accept lies as truth, and fail to love our neighbors. The kingdom has not yet arrived in its fullness; we can be sure of that. No, we seem to be stuck, year after year, sacred season upon sacred season, at the beginning of the gospel. This means that the moment of God's breakthrough in Jesus Christ has just begun and is not yet entirely visible.

Still, even out here in the wilderness, there are times when God's presence is unmistakable. Moments when the extraordinary breaks through the thin veneer of the ordinary and blinds us with its brilliance, when angels outnumber wild beasts. Those moments come when we face the fear of the wilderness and gather the courage and the strength to take the next step, moments when the kingdom comes near. 

Several years ago, I was attending a Sunday afternoon book club in a small town in North Carolina. The participants in the club were the pastors and lay leaders of local congregations--Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, and Presbyterians. That day we found ourselves sharing personal stories of faith formation. How did you become a Christian? Where did your faith journey begin?  One by one, members of the group described how we had been raised by loving and faithful parents who brought us to Sunday school and church, told us the stories of Jesus, and helped us to grow in maturity of faith. Each story sounded something like that, until there was only one person left to speak. As tears formed in her eyes, she said, "I am a Christian because the Christian church saved my life." Suddenly, the chatty group fell silent. She described how she had been abandoned by her parents as an infant. Sent to a foster home, she was neglected and abused for the first six years of her life. At age seven, she was adopted by a local family. Not knowing what to expect, she spent the first night wide-awake in her new bed, afraid and anxious. The next morning, a Sunday, the family got up early, had breakfast, and got into the car. "It was my first time at church and I had no idea what to expect. We walked into the Sunday school classroom, and the teacher's face lit up. 'Welcome, Janet, we've been waiting for you.' Then she read the Bible story for the day. I will never forget the feeling. Jesus says to his disciples, 'Let the little children come to me. Do not stop them.' I knew, knew with all of my heart, that he was talking to me. I knew that I was home. I am a Christian because of that moment. A new beginning, the kingdom in the midst of the wilderness.

As we set out on this Lenten journey, remember the truth of your baptism: you are claimed; you are chosen as God's beloved; you are empowered to set out in search of your voice and your vocation. The work is not easy in this wilderness called life. But the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God is this: in him the time has been fulfilled; the kingdom of God has come near. Our human lives have been invaded by the presence of the Divine and nothing will ever be the same. And that is where to begin.

Let us pray: O God of new beginnings, walk with us on this wilderness journey, that we may reach the joy of your resurrection with changed hearts and renewed minds. Amen.