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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  • Patience–for the Lord is Near

    I don’t often read from the book of James in the New Testament.  It’s a relatively short book, with instructions for Christians ranging from words about poverty and riches to warnings against judgment upon others, and finally to instruction on patience in the midst of suffering.

    Patience in the midst of suffering…  I confess that doesn’t sound very appealing.

    Suffering comes in so many forms, and all of them are significant and legitimate. Suffering varies, of course, and as a person living in the United States of America, I’m often reluctant to claim that I suffer from anything egregious. I have food, shelter, companionship, and various freedoms. But we do suffer. We suffer from lots of things. Isolation, job loss, self-doubt, economic uncertainty, criticisms or judgments from others. Criticisms or judgments from ourselves. There is no doubt that in one way or another we are even suffering from this COVID-19 pandemic. I miss you all. Meg and I are your pastors. We should be seeing you each week and praying with you, rejoicing at the good things in life, and comforting each other amidst the difficult time in life.

    It’s impossible to determine when we might get to the end of this, but I feel like we are about to turn a corner thanks to the hard work and miraculous creativity of scientists who are making COVID-19 vaccinations possible. I was in Colorado for a few days at the end of January to visit my father again, and it was such a blessing to drive him to a hospital where we received his first vaccination shot. The next one will be available in a few more weeks, and only then will I feel more secure about him, and the rest of us, making it through this.

    While reading James recently I came across this passage in the fifth and final chapter.

    Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

    James is writing to a group of people in first century Palestine who are wondering when Christ will return. He suggests they be patient for the coming of the Lord. I hope they were able to be so, because here we are two thousand years later…awaiting that same return. But in the midst of our ‘waiting’ we’ve learned something else about the Kingdom of Heaven. We don’t have to wait for the return of Christ for Christ to be present in our lives and across this world. The Kingdom of God is at hand. We help bring it about. We help bring about that kingdom of love and grace and comfort.

    James goes on to suggest that just as a farmer waits for his or her crop to sprout up and grow with the rains and flourish for time of harvest, we too must be patient. He then instructs them to strengthen their hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Patience. It’s been a long time, but I hope and pray we are doing well with patience during this pandemic.

    I am still in shock that around 3-4,000 Americans are dying each day from COVID-19 or related complications. It is staggering. The number is higher around the world. How do we mourn such a time? I’m not exactly sure, but perhaps the season of Lent which begins on February 17th will give us some room to do just that.

    This all brings me back to one of the central purposes of us as a congregation—the faithful worship gathering that we hold each week. I thank you for your patience and support while we worship on YouTube and occasionally via Zoom. I’d rather be in person with you, but not at the risk of anyone’s health or life. It’s a bit strange to me, being the church in this ‘digital age’ forced upon us by quarantine and social distancing. We’re doing our best, and I hope we’re doing it well. But I’m having a struggle with patience as I dream about seeing you all again in person. Session continues to discuss future plans; we will continue with our current setup for now and pray for a day when vaccinations are widespread and transmission rates approach zero. Not only for the sake of our worship, but also because of the value we place upon the health and well-being of each person.

    I’d like to also thank you for the love and support you have extended to my family as we’ve grieved my mom’s death on December 28th. My father received many cards from you, and he sends his thanks; they were all very meaningful. As you know my parents regularly visited Logan and enjoyed worshiping the Lord with us. Dad says when we’re back in person for church you can be sure he’ll be around to worship with us again. He, along with all of us, can’t wait to hear the Praise Band, Chancel Choir, and Westminster Bell Choir live and in person. Once again, thank you all.

    As James pleaded to those early Christians living in very uncertain times, may we strengthen our hearts, for indeed the Lord is near.

    Peace be with you all,  


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