Back to the Beginning
Anyone who writes - stories, poems, sermons, thank you notes - can tell you that the hardest part of writing is what? Getting started.
As I said at the outset of worship, beginnings are hard because there’s rarely one way or right way to begin.
Starting a new job or a new year, settling into a new house or bringing home a new baby (as if there’s any other kind of baby), falling in love with a new person, finding our way in a new city…the newness of it all can be exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying.
There is just so much possibility - possibility for good, yes, but also the possibility that we might mess it all up, lose our way, falter, or even fail.
Because although there may be no right way to get started, there are most certainly wrong ways, and no one wants to get get off on the wrong foot.
After all, you never get a second chance at a first impression. There’s a lot of pressure on that first line in a novel or your pick up line at the bar.
The opening chords of a song, the first image in a trailer, the lede for an article: they either suck you in or they don’t. They either get the party started or ensure that it’s over before it’s even begun.
There’s a lot of pressure when it comes to beginnings….a lot of pressure indeed. So imagine how the gospel writers felt as they searched for just the right place and just the right words to begin the most important story of all.
Matthew begins with a genealogy full of scandalous Easter eggs. (A fun sermon for another time).
Luke begins with all the formality of a letter; a letter to his dear “friend” Theophilus.
John, perhaps afraid that he might leave something out, takes no chances and begins all the way back at the beginning of the beginning itself.
But Mark, the shortest and most succinct of all the gospels, cuts right to the chase:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Because that’s what this is. Good news! So don’t put it down. Don’t look away. “Extra! Extra! Read all about it,” says Mark.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
And what is this good news, but the best news of all?
The news that no matter how badly you’ve messed up, lost your way, faltered or even failed, that you - yes you - even you - can begin again.
Because the kingdom of heaven is coming… always coming.
That’s the weird, wonderful, magical thing about our faith and our scriptures and the way we tell this story of the Emmanuel - this story of “God with us” year after year.
The beginning of the Good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God” is about what was, but also about what is and what will be, all wrapped up in one big glowing ball of “forever tries.”
The good news is that you don’t have to be afraid to get started. You don’t have to live in fear of messing up or losing your way, faltering or failing, because Jesus the Christ - the Son of God of all people - will never stop coming for you.
Not to get you. (So relax). Or conquer you. Or enslave you like that other “son of a…god” who calls himself Caesar, but to rescue you, to liberate and empower you to become someone new… someone God can use to change the world.
Friends, the good news is that we don’t have to live the way we’ve been living one minute longer if the way we’ve been living is hurting us or anyone else.
We don’t have to remain a prisoner to our past or in lock step with the systems of oppression that dominate our present.
All the destructive patterns and dysfunctional relationships,
the sin and the shame we drag around like Jacob Marley on steroids…
we don’t have to keep carrying all that,
we don’t need to be bound or determined by all that,
held down or hurt by any of that,
for one moment longer.
Because the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ explicitly states that you and I… we can repent.
In fact, it’s an imperative, “Repent!” meaning you kind of have to do it. It’s part of the deal.
John goes out ahead of Jesus proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And if for some reason you missed him in all his locust eating glory,
hollering out there by the river Jordan in his camel hair
like Barney Rubble on a bender, well…
Jesus is just going to say the very same thing.
Before we’re even out of chapter 1, Jesus will begin his ministry preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The good news my friends, is that we can repent, and boy are you are in luck tonight, because here at First Churches, thanks to Jonathan Edwards, we still have some leftover fire and brimstone. Yeah, I got it out special just for vespers, so suck it up and hold still. This will only hurt for a minute.
Friends, I know that the whole idea of repentance gets a bad rap, but repentance doesn’t have to be a painful, shameful, or frightening affair. It can be, but on the whole repentance really is a gift, God’s gift of a new beginning. The good news is that you can change, and if you can change then so can the world.
Repentance is simply the opportunity to stop, take stock, identify those parts of our lives or our behaviors that are leading us the wrong way - you know, our um…what’s the word? Our sins! - and say, “no more.” Repentance literally means to re-think. The greek word here is metanoia - meaning to change one’s mind.
Repentance is the chance to do things differently. It is the opportunity to turn away from the sins that are hurting us back to the love of a God who has not abandoned us;
a God who will never give up on us,
but is in fact always coming toward us,
the better to help us up and out of the messes we make of our lives
and the lives of those around us.
And I know when I say, “repentance is simply this” or “simply that,” that simple is not the same thing as easy. I know repentance can be hard. But my friends, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.
Honestly, it can feel so good to let go.
It can feel so good to come clean…so good to begin anew,
at peace with one another and God such that we might extend God’s peace to the world.
Because…. peace…. I mean can you think of anything more important right now?
Can you think of anything our world is crying out for more in this moment?
Imagine peace in the Middle East? Peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Imagine peace in Sudan. Peace between Ukraine and Russia. Peace in Haiti?
Maybe even peace here at home?
I know that in some sense this is always the case. Humanity has always lived with war and the rumor of wars. But this year, I don’t know, peace feels more needed then ever.
This year it all feels a little closer to home, as if the spirit of conflict has moved into our lives in a permanent way like a grudge you just can’t shake. We don’t just have a front row seat to wars unfolding in other countries, we’re now engaged in what feels like an endless war within our own.
There is such a high level of disdain and disconnect that has entrenched itself in our communities and our families. And the timing couldn’t be worse. I mean one look at the headlines is all it takes to remind us that we’ve got huge problems right now - problems like climate change, mass migration, the threat of nuclear war, and right now, because of this war, an alarming rise in anti-semitism and islamophobia - big problems we can’t solve unless we all work together.
But how can we work together when half of our country hates the other half? How can we work together when we can’t agree on anything? How can we work together when our shared reality has been so thoroughly eroded, stolen for the sake of power and profit by cruel and shortsighted men?
People are frustrated and frightened by the enormity of the challenges before us, and frankly that does not seem to bring out our best. We want to make things better, but all too often, in our quest to solve these problems, we lose our way and end up making things worse.
We shame and we scold and we demean those with whom we disagree, all of which makes us feel better in the moment but doesn’t lead to the change we wish to see. Snarky memes and clever soundbites, are not winning the hearts and minds of those we most need to reach. In fact, our words and our actions, more often than not, only seem to be making things worse.
This is a huge problem given the seriousness of the bigger problems we are facing, and it’s not getting better. I’ve read dozens of think pieces over the years about how to overcome this divide and the only thing they all seem to agree on is that no one knows where to begin.
Except maybe Mark.
Except maybe John.
Except maybe Jesus.
Maybe the place to begin is the same as it has always been and will always be. Right here. In our hearts.
Friends, I think what we see here at the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the son of God, what we are brought face to face with at the beginning of every Advent, what we encounter every year here on the banks of the river Jordan, is the hard truth that the kingdom of God is slow, patient work that proceeds exactly one heart at a time.
And the even harder truth that the only heart you will ever control is your own.
Yes, everybody needs to repent. Yes, there are a whole lot of people out there who will need to change - probably even more than you - before God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done.
But it’s also true that the only one you can ever really change is yourself.
“Peace,” to paraphrase Anne Lamott, “is an inside job.” You can choose to do better with God’s help. But you can’t make that choice for anyone else.
So maybe leave off trying so hard this Advent, and instead stop… and listen. Don’t be afraid to heed the Baptist’s cry. Now is the time to make peace in your own heart, peace between you and God.
Because the world can’t change until you do and the good news is that you still can.
It won’t be easy.
Beginnings never are.
But it’s a good place to start. Amen.