The Beginnning of the Good News

Mark 1:1-8

High John de Conquer is an American myth alive from the time of slavery. Listen as Zora Neale Hurston describes High John for us. “High John came to be a man, and a mighty man at that. But he was not a natural man in the beginning. First off, he was a whisper, a will to hope a wish to find something worthy of laughter and song. Then the whisper put on flesh. His footsteps sounded across the world in a low but musical rhythm as if the world he walked on was a singing drum. The black folks had an irresistible impulse to laugh. High John de Conquer was a man in full, and had come to live and work on the plantations, and all the slave folks knew him in the flesh.

The sign of this man was a laugh, and his singing symbol was a drum beat. No parading drum shout like soldiers out for show. It did not call to the feet of those who were fixed to hear it. It was an inside thing to live by. It was sure to be heard when and where the work was the hardest, and the lot most cruel. It helped the slaves endure. They knew that something better was coming. So they laughed in the face of things and sang, “I’m so glad! Trouble don’t last always.”

Old Massa couldn’t know, of course, but High John de Conquer was there walking his plantation like a natural man. He was treading the sweat-flavored clods of the plantation, crushing out his drum tunes, and giving out secret laughter. He walked on the winds and moved fast. Maybe he was in Texas when the lash fell on a slave in Alabama, but before the blood was dry on the back he was there.

Old John, High John could beat the unbeatable. He was top-superior to the whole mess of sorrow. He could beat it all, and what made it so cool, finish it off with a laugh. Distance and the impossible had no power over High John de Conquer.”1

High John was, in the words of Brian Blount, “a human creation that represented divine intention…a promise from the end-time that provoked perseverance and championed change in the here and now time.”2 High John was born in the midst of great suffering and evil. He was born out of the hope and faith that freedom was on its way. We can learn from High John. He appeared where and when he was most needed, and couldn’t be defeated. He was the beginning of freedom, and beginnings are important.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” “The beginning of the good news…” In that first sentence you have the whole gospel. In that first sentence,

Mark tells us what no one else in the gospel is able to figure out until halfway into the story, and then only incompletely: that this Jesus whom you are about to meet, who is about to take the world by storm is “Christ (i.e. messiah) and “Son of God”.

As the story unfolds, as Jesus begins to heal those who are broken, as he starts to feed the hungry masses, as he begins to touch the ones who are not supposed to be touched, and embrace those who are not supposed to be embraced, as he begins to speak words and engage in actions challenging the powers that be, as he begins to serve God, others will come to know. It will occur to them, and they will respond either by following or resisting. But this is the beginning, Mark tells us. Soon Jesus will take the world by storm, but right now he is just promise on the lips of the Baptizer. Like John de Conquer, the whisper will put on flesh, but right now he is still a whisper. “The beginning of the good news…”

This word “beginning” is an important one, I think. In the original Greek, the text doesn’t say the beginning; it just says beginning (arché). That is the first word in Mark’s good news story. It is also the first word in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. It means genesis. This is the new creation, Mark is saying.3

Imagine for a moment you are a first century reader. It is a time of war. The mighty legions of Rome are bearing down on this little backwater territory of Palestine. Factions among the leadership of the Jewish rebellion are fighting, biting and scratching for power, while the common people are struggling with every day matters of life. Now the eyes of the world were focused on them…and not for deliverance. God’s people were longing for the Messiah to come and deliver them. There is suffering and profound uncertainty. In the middle of all this, in the midst of their wondering whether God was going to pull them out of the fire or not, the whisper of new creation is a powerful one.

We are not first century readers. We are twenty–first century readers; but I believe that the whisper of new creation, of new beginning, is no less powerful.

I believe that the word that opens Mark’s Gospel, “beginning,” means more than just chapter one, verse one. It means even more than a new beginning 2000 years ago in the arrival of Jesus Christ, Son of God. What the season of Advent tells us is that it means a new beginning/a new creation for me and you.

Our faith is about new beginnings. In the midst of our present day war, as markets rise and fall, as our college and retirement savings shrink, as we wonder whether we will make it through the day, as we wonder if we have messed things up beyond repair, or if we have been hurt beyond the reach of recovery and healing, as we face our profound suffering and uncertainty, we hear Marks word: beginning, and it is good news.

Every Sunday we use heavy words like confession and repentance. These activities and addressing the sin of our lives and world are not meant to beat us up, or make us feel guilt, or to say ‘I told you so’, or to shame us into to doing better or trying harder next time. We celebrate Advent, we confess, we repent so that God’s grace can set us free from the brokenness that binds us, the situations that try us, the despair that hangs over us. These spiritual activities are meant to clear our ears so that we can hear the whisper, “beginning…new creation…for you.”

The sacrament of this table of grace reminds us–it whispers in our ear– “here is a new beginning.” There is nothing that the world can do, there is nothing you have done, there is no situation or circumstance in your life that can put you beyond the reach of the savior who is even now waiting to arrive. Our faith is all about new beginnings in the here and now time. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God, my savior.”

Zora Neale Hurston describes High John a bit more. “Sho, John de Conquer means power. That’s bound to be so. He come to teach and tell us. God don’t leave nobody ignorant, you child. Don’t care where He drops you down, He puts you on notice. He don’t want folks taken advantage of because they don’t know. Now, back there in slavery time, us didn’t have no power of protection, and God knowed it, and put us under watch-care. Rattlesnakes never bit no colored folks until four years after freedom was declared. That was to give us time to learn and to know. ‘Course, I don’t know nothing about slavery personal like. I wasn’t born till two years after the Big Surrender. Then I wasn’t nothing but a infant baby when I was born, so I couldn’t know nothing but what they told me. My mama told me, and I know that she wouldn’t mislead me, how High John de Conquer helped us out. He had done teached the black folks so they knowed a hundred years ahead of time that freedom was coming. Long before the white folks knowed anything about it at all.”4

May you hear the whisper this Advent. And in the holiday and many days that follow, for you and for the world, may the whisper put on flesh. Amen.

1 Zora Neale Hurston, “Sometimes in the Mind,” quoted in Brian Blount Go Preach!: Mark’s Kingdom Message

and the Black Church Today, Orbis Books (March 1998) p. 2-4.

2 Bount, Go Preach!, p. 3-4.

3 Thanks to Tom Long for this observation in his lecture at the Festival of Homelitics, 5/19/08.

4 Bount, Go Preach!, p. 5.

December 7, 2008

Rev. Paul Heins

First Presbyterian Church

Logan, Utah

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  • Breakfast Encounter

    Last Friday morning, I stopped by my GP’s office to let them draw some blood for a test and to get my flu vaccine for the year. Because of the blood test, I had to ‘fast,’ arriving for the blood draw without having any food that morning. When the phlebotomist had drawn the blood and given me the shot, I went to a nearby diner to get some breakfast. Little did I know I was about to witness something extraordinary.

    While I was eating my pancake, egg, and piece of sausage and reading a book about Oscar Romero, a young man went up to the counter to pay. I didn’t notice any of this, of course (occupied as I was with not only Oscar Romero’s life and ministry to the poor of El Salvador, but also all that butter and syrup…) until the young man started yelling at the woman behind the counter.

    “Swipe it again!” is what drew my attention.

    She did, and the card must have been denied a second time. She ran it again, and the look on her face told me the same thing happened. Denied.

    The young man was getting more agitated and saying things to her under his breath. I was paying more attention now, and she asked if he had another card she could try.

    “No! I don’t have another bleeping card!” he yelled at her. Except he didn’t say bleeping.

    Now I’m not a stranger to harsh words. I’ve said them myself. Usually when I’m trying to get a rusted bolt off an old machine and it finally comes loose, taking some of my knuckle skin with it. And I think I quietly swore under my breath in January of 1988 when the Washington football team beat my beloved Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, 42-10. There have been other times too. But never, ever at a person.

    Upon being sworn at, the young woman stared at the man like she didn’t know what to do (how could she?). Tears were about to appear. And the air in the room went real still. Like in the movies. I’m sure the background music was still playing, but it seemed deathly quiet at that moment.

    I was about to get up and walk over to the counter—not exactly sure what I was going to do once I got there—when another man who had been eating nearby wandered up real slow, eyes staring at the young man. He was a tall guy, with white hair under his old IFA ball cap, probably in his sixties. He asked the young woman, “What seems to be the problem here?”

    And that’s when the young man made what I thought was a fatal mistake: he answered when he hadn’t been spoken to. “It’s nothin’. My card won’t work,” he spat back.

    I thought a fight was about to break out, but the older man, his eyes searing into the young disgruntled one’s face, reached for his wallet and said to the cashier, “Aubrey, I’d like to pay for this young man’s meal, if that’s okay with him.” And after getting out some cash, he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, not one of those friendly pats on the shoulder, but one of those firm grips that, well, made me think he was making sure the lesson was going to stick.

    I’ve had those kinds of hands on my shoulders a few times over the years. Perhaps from a coach, maybe from my dad once or twice; they happen when a boy or young man really needs to start paying attention.

    And after staring at him for what seemed like an eternity, the old guy said, “Be kind.” And then walked away.

    The young man left the restaurant and climbed into an oversize truck that was parked right out front, cranked up the volume on his radio, and left some rubber on the road as he departed.

    I went into the church office sometime later to finish my sermon, but I kept thinking about angry people and hurt people and kind people and people who teach lessons to those who could use them. I also thought about people who have a head full of kind words who refuse to tolerate ugliness.

    I hope I can be someone like that.

    I have a feeling Aubrey earned a whole lot of tips that morning. She deserved them.

    Be kind.

    That’s all for now.

    —Pastor Derek

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