You can tell a lot about a story by the way it begins. Every Thanksgiving, Lauren’s family has the tradition of watching the slapstick comedy National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, starring Chevy Chase. Perhaps you’ve seen it. The way this movie begins says a lot about the way the rest of the story is going to play out.
In the opening scene, a family station wagon comes around a curve in the road, set against a grey wintery background. In the car, we meet the Griswold family, with Clark and Ellen (the parents) singing perfectly harmonized Christmas carols to the annoyance of their two kids in the back, Rusty and Audrey. They are off on their annual outing to chop down a Christmas tree.
On this drive, a pickup truck starts tailgating them and then zooms past. Suddenly, these two cars are in a cat and mouse game of who can stay in front of the other. As they go back and forth passing each other, no one seems to notice the big semi that has pulled up beside them. When Clark makes one last attempt to pull in front of this pickup truck and leave them behind him, he ends up swerving his car in-between the wheels of the semi. The kids in the back look panicked. Clark’s wife, Ellen, starts saying the Lord’s Prayer. The only hope for Clark is to just swerve the car right back out from underneath this semi. With one quick jolt of the steering wheel, they are out. Only now they are headed quickly towards a snow bank which they hit at full speed, sending their car up and through the air and crash! They go right through the sign and into the parking lot of the very Christmas tree farm toward which they were headed. As you might guess, this opening to Christmas Vacation tells us…this is only the beginning of what will end up being a ridiculous Christmas vacation. The rest of the flick is filled with fighting in-laws, Christmas lights that aren’t twinkling, unplanned house guests, and a Christmas turkey that’s been cooked so long, it shrivels when carved.
The beginning of a story can tell you a lot about the rest of the story and today we start at the beginning. It’s the very beginning of the gospel of Mark. It’s first words – The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It almost seems like the title of the book. But we know the beginning of the story of Jesus, don’t we? I mean we don’t even need to keep reading. An angel whispers in Mary’s ear, “You are going to have a son.” The only problem is that Mary is not married to Joseph yet and is said to be a virgin, so how could she be having a child? Well it is the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, of course. Joseph and Mary stay together. On their way to Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to baby Jesus in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn. Shepherds watch over their flocks by night. Wise men come from the east following a star and bringing gifts of incense, gold, and myrrh. This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God….right?
Wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but it isn’t the beginning of the story according to Mark, that’s for sure. Matthew and Luke are the gospels that give us the birth story that Christmas pageants are made of. But in Mark, there is no birth story of baby Jesus. None. We’re not sure why—maybe the author of Mark’s gospel didn’t know anything about the birth of Jesus or perhaps he didn’t think it was all that important. Otherwise, he would have included it. No, for Mark’s gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ begins with John. In the wilderness.
For Mark the story of Jesus begins not in a womb but in the wilderness, with a strange looking man. Even back in those days, John the Baptist’s style left something to be desired. He had unkempt hair, an animal carcass for a robe and honey-dipped bugs for dinner. Out there in that wilderness, he preached one sermon. Over and over again. About the need to prepare the way for the Lord by repenting of sins and being cleansed with baptism. But it must have been a good sermon because people from every direction started coming out to him in the wilderness. They confessed their sins and were baptized by the cleansing waters of the Jordan River. It was “a chance to come clean, to stop pretending they were someone else and start over again, by allowing him to wash them off.” And it wasn’t long before Jesus, that Son of God, showed up in the wilderness too looking to be baptized in those same waters of the Jordan.
You can tell a lot about a story by the way it begins. So what is the author of Mark’s gospel trying to say with this beginning of the story? Let’s start here: What does the wilderness mean to you? What do you think of when you hear that word, wilderness? Are you reminded of a time when you were lost in the woods behind your house? Or does your shinbone start to ache as you recall the time you punctured your own skin tripping over a log in the wilderness? Or perhaps it’s the calming place you go to breathe as you sit for hours on end in a tree stand waiting for the 12-point buck to walk on by.
For many, the wilderness – severe, harsh, dark and unknown wilderness – is a place to be avoided. It is a place in literature which can symbolize doubt, chaos, and fear. It is a place at the edge and far outside the safety of town or city. The wilderness is where Hansel and Gretel are left to fend for themselves. In order to get to the Emerald City, Dorothy, along with Tin Man, Lion, and Scarecrow, have to go through the haunted wilderness. Even Harry Potter comes face to face with his nemesis Voldemort in the wilderness. The good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God, begins in the wilderness – that symbol of fear, chaos, and doubt.
Perhaps by starting in a wilderness, the author of Mark’s gospel is saying that those wilderness places, those marginalized, frightening places are a part of God’s life. That those aren’t places which are void of God’s presence but the places where God is actually going to show up.
Perhaps by starting the good news of Jesus Christ not just in the wilderness but with a whole crowd of people who came out into the wilderness, Mark is saying that not only does God’s story start in the wilderness, but ours does too. To encounter God, you have to come out to the edge of town, to those places in life that are scary and untouched. And when you do come out to those places, you don’t bring your best self – the most cleaned-up, put-together version of yourself. No, to prepare for God you just bring your whole self. Scars, baggage and all. And you lay it all bare.
For the Gospel of Mark the story of the Son of God begins in the wilderness. In fact it is the place where God and humanity meet and that tells us something about the rest of the story. That this is just the beginning of wilderness places where God will be found. Every Sunday, we live this out. We come to worship and what do begin our worship with? Confession and forgiveness. Mark begins his gospel in the wilderness and we begin each Sunday in the wilderness. Which means maybe the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ is right now. Maybe the whole of the Gospel of Mark is just the beginning of the Good News. Maybe there is no end to this Good News of Jesus Christ because it is continuing to be written. Maybe the story of Christ and the story of God isn’t over yet because it is still developing and you and I are the characters in it. Just as each of our Sunday school students has a place in the Christmas program next week, so do you have a place in God’s story. And God’s story isn’t finished yet. It is just the beginning. AMEN