The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Who among us hasn’t wished to receive the grace of being able to begin again? Like a singer who veers off key, a runner who stumbles at the sound of the starting gun, an artist who beholds that their color palatte is off, or a writer near the end of a project on deadline, who realizes there are problems with the story line—we all have moments of wanting to start over. But I suspect the times this desire is most poignantly felt by not a few of us is in the realm of relationships. Louisa Fletcher has written a poem reflective of the longing of so many hearts. It is called “The Land of Beginning Again”. She writes:
I wish that there were some wonderful place
Called the land of Beginning Again,
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches
And all of our poor selfish grief
Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door,
And never put on again.
I wish we could come on it all unaware,
Like the hunter who finds a lost trail;
And I wish that the one whom our blindness had done
The greatest injustice of all
Could be at the gates like an old friend that waits
For the comrade he’s gladdest to hail.
We would find all the things we intended to do
But forgot, and remembered too late,
Little praises unspoken, little promises broken
And all of the thousand and one
Little duties neglected that might have perfected
The day for one less fortunate.
It wouldn’t be possible not to be kind
In the land of Beginning Again;
And the ones we misjudged and the ones whom we grudged
The moments of victory here
Would find in the grasp of our loving handclasp
More than penitent lips could explain.
For what had been hardest we’d know had been best
And what had seemed loss would be gain;
For there isn’t a sting that will not take wing
When we’ve faced it and laughed it away;
And I think that the laughter is most what we’re after
In the land of Beginning Again.
The Gospel of Mark begins with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That’s it. In the harsh and unrefined landscape of Mark’s Gospel there is no angelic visitation, pregnant Mary or perplexed Joseph. Missing is the Gloria from on high, shepherds tending sheep in the fields and magi from the East. Mark’s Gospel edits any extraneous material and cuts directly to the chase beginning in the desert with a most un-Christmasy character—John the Baptist. Here in the rough and inhospitable wildernesses is where Mark begins his Good News.
I’m struck by this sentence: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It’s characteristic of Mark to underscore the urgency of his message. Mark is not about the business of waiting around. But notice something interesting. Mark doesn’t begin his account simply by saying that his work is “The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Instead, what he says is this: “The beginning of the Good News…”.
It’s easy to be taken off guard by the brevity—dare I say, terseness—of Mark’s opening line, that we overlook it all together. Yet I believe this briefest of the four Evangelists is about the business of doing something important as he begins his Gospel. Mark, you may recall, is the Gospeller whose favorite word is “immediately” proclaiming events such as “immediately the Tempter drove Jesus into the wilderness”. Mark loves that word—he is all about the business of propelling Jesus and ourselves onward—into the future—at once. Even when Mark arrives at the end of his Gospel (if you, like many scholars, see his original ending at verse 8 of Chapter 16, rather than Verse 20). Here you can’t help but notice that in this ending we receive the proclamation of the resurrection of Christ, but not his appearing. It is as if it is all just the beginning.
And I believe this is intentional—for, you see, Mark’s Gospel doesn’t end at the conclusion of Chapter 16 it continues with ourselves. Mark’s Gospel is not an encapsulated story. It is instead an astonishingly hopeful invitation to continue Mark’s Good News with our own.
But back to Mark’s beginning, located in a most inhospitable place with a most unlikely bearer of glad tidings—John the Baptist and his message of repentance.
To repent is to “turn around” and to be absolved. It is to begin again. Think of repentance as your entry ticket into the Land of Beginning Again. The turning of our hearts and the grace of God is what establishes in each of us the opportunity to start over—no matter where we might be. Ultimately, John the Baptist’s words are those of grace—they are a gift—an Advent gift in a season where we prepare for the most meaningful gift of all—the birth of God’s Son, our Savior.
I daresay John the Baptist would agree with Mark that God is not done. And we—well, you and I, we are not yet what we have been called to be. The promise of Christmas, for which we prepare, is bigger than we imagine. And God’s mercy and courage and blessing extends farther and deeper than we can fathom. We are called to respond to this message of beginning—not just this day—but each day—to turn and turn, and to begin, and begin again and yet again, cleansing our hearts for the coming of the Son of God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.