Beginning and Endings

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

You know as well as I do that beginnings matter. Friendships, new jobs, your first worship service at a congregation, whatever it is, beginnings matter. That’s true in preaching too, of course. Which is why we work so hard to craft an opening for our sermons that invites our hearers into the sermon and orients them to what is to come. Yes, beginnings matter. And Mark knows that as well.

Which is why it’s probably not a bad thing that we’ve heard this part of Mark’s gospel before. (This will be, in fact, our third or fourth time over some of this terrain in the last three months.) Given the distinct contexts in which we have listened to the passage — Advent, Baptism of our Lord, Epiphany, and now Lent — we hear something different each time. This time around, I would direct our attention to the presence of hardship, loneliness, sacrifice, and even violence that permeates these early verses. This is not by accident, as Mark’s theology is greatly influenced by the Isaiah passages on the suffering servant. (In this regard, see Sarah Henrich’s excellent commentary.

As we start our Lenten journey, these somber notes seem to jump to the fore. Immediately after his baptism Jesus is driven by the same Spirit that confirmed his identity out into the wilderness, the iconic place of testing, temptation, and struggle in Israel’s history. His ministry then commences when John is taken by force and arrested, the prelude, as we know, to John’s murder. Jesus declares that the time is fulfilled, and he will not use that word again until the moment when he also is arrested and taken by force, also to be killed.

Mark’s beginning is not just somber, it’s dark, foreboding, ominous. And that’s valuable for us to remember on this First Sunday in Lent. Not, of course, to overdue the somber and penitential nature of Lent, but rather because parts of our life are dark, somber, ominous, and at times violent. This passage — and, indeed, all of Lent — speak to an important if at times difficult-to-name element of our life in this world. For as we spoke about last week, we can too easily fall into thinking that because Jesus is so good, he’d really want nothing to do with us — the real “us” that is, not the person we’re trying to be, hoping to be, promising to be, or whatever. But the real us — warts, failings, sin, brokenness and all.

Some years ago I preached a sermon all about God’s grace and how God wants so desperately to draw us into God’s love. After the service, a young woman said on her way out, “Those were beautiful words, Pastor, but I don’t think you’d say them if you really knew me.” The ache in those words stays with me still. How many of our people — and truth be told, on any given day, how many of us — wonder the same? Could God possibly love us if God new just how broken and at times dark our lives can be?

Yes! This passage reminds us that Jesus came into darkness and violence precisely in order to be joined to our brokenness and to redeem it. Lent reminds us that whenever we find ourselves in the wilderness of disease, loneliness, joblessness, depression, or all the other things that challenge us, Jesus has been there before and meets us there in order to bear our burdens with us and for us.

Mark’s beginning is dark, you see, because it is realistic. More than likely, Mark was writing to people acquainted with suffering and hardship. Whether they have been persecuted for their faith or merely caught up in the confusion of the Roman War that destroyed the Temple is unclear, but it’s tremendously clear that Mark wants his people to know that at the end of the day the only place you’ll find Jesus revealed for us is precisely in the places of our pain, brokenness, and vulnerability.

So, yes, this is a dark beginning. And, truth be told, it will get darker. But take note: it’s in the darkest part of the story that God’s love and mercy is revealed most clearly, clearly enough that even one of those who put Jesus to death can finally see God at work in and through this broken man. Kevin Costner, one of the eulogists at Whitney Houston’s funeral this past Saturday,
shared that as famous and successful as Whitney was, she was forever plagued by a fear that she wasn’t good enough, wasn’t pretty or talented enough, to measure up. Deep down, I suspect, we all share that fear. But as Costner wished for Whitney, we might also promise our people this week, that when you are standing before your heavenly Father, the one revealed in the man hanging on the tree, “don’t worry. You’ll be good enough.”

Beginnings are important, Working Preacher, but so are endings. And the Lenten journey we commence today will have a good ending, as we hear the promise that not even death could hold the Lord of mercy and grace. Thanks be to God for your commitment to telling this story from beginning to end to the health and salvation of your people.

Yours in Christ,

PS: Thanks to those linking my new website to your congregational newsletter and bulletins. The Lenten devotions start on Ash Wednesday. In the meantime, there are articles up already on leadership, poetry, and this week, on preaching. You can find it all at “…In the Meantime,” or simply type into your web browser.