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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