This Sunday the lectionary invites us to ponder Mark 1:1-8. The English Standard Version titles it “John the Baptist Prepares the Way.” Verse 1 reads: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
What does “gospel” mean? How would you tell the good news? With what would you begin? What would you include? How would you end?
The word “gospel” is a combination of two words in old English. The first is “god,” which can also mean “good.” The second is “spel,” which means “story.” Combined, it’s “gospel.” It means both “the story of God” and “Good News.” So, in his first sentence, Mark tells us that he’s giving us good news about Jesus Christ, whom he also calls “the Son of God.”
Many “become saved” by believing that God raised Jesus from the dead, and confessing that Jesus is their Lord. They use the “formula” in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans (10:9). Many believe they’re Christians because their parents had them baptized as infants. Many believe they’re saved because they’ve made public professions of faith.
But it isn’t that simple. The Apostle Peter urges us to “confirm” our faith by checking to see if we’re growing in knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness and brotherly affection (see 2 Peter 1:3-11). The Apostle James says faith without works is dead (James 2:26).
A Christian is a person who joins regularly and solemnly in the communal meal of the broken body and spilt blood of Jesus; embodies brokenness and lives a life of service to God and neighbour; every Sunday, receives forgiveness, equipping, and a fresh command to better serve God and neighbour; is a witness to Christ, who saves from conformity to the world.
That is the gospel, the good news – the offer of an other-worldly drive to NOT follow the world, but instead to follow God. Together with others whom Jesus has called into his kingdom and added to congregations.
It’s good news because it makes us self-controlled, anchored; steadfast, in the streams and storms of the world. Because it frees us from the pressure to adopt the goals and values of our neighbours. Because saved people, Christians, add goodness to the world.
But all that is only possible because of Jesus. Who Jesus was and is, his words, actions, and current status, is the good news in the gospels.
But there’s more. Mark introduces his gospel by narrating the work of John Baptist. John, who had made critical comments, in public, about the so-called “personal life” of Herod Antipas, the ruler of the day. Herod had responded by jailing John. While in jail, John began to doubt whether his faith in Jesus as the Son of God was misplaced. He sent his disciples to ask Jesus. Matthew and Luke tell us the answer Jesus gave:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Matthew 11:4-6; see also Luke 7:18-23.)
For Jesus, “gospel” or “good news,” signals the things he did: healing the blind, the lame, the deaf, the diseased, raising the dead. This is why there are so many Christian testimonies of the goodness of God. This is why people pray “in the name of Jesus” when they are confronted by doubts, dangers, even death. This is why, many of our accounts of the gospel begin with personal stories.
But personal stories are not the gospel. Sharing the gospel is not like saying “I got dengue fever. I drank papaya leaf extract. I got better. You should too.” Sharing the gospel is telling the story of Jesus. Telling how unique Jesus is. Telling how loving – and demanding – Jesus is.
In his first eight verses, Mark tells us Jesus is “the Son of God” – a claim which is outrageous unless you come from a culture which has myths about gods giving birth. He tells us that centuries before Jesus came, prophets, men inspired by God, predicted that a man like John Baptist would come, and that he would be followed by a man like Jesus. He tells us the gospel he will recount is a historical story which requires admission of sin, repentance for sin, and acceptance of forgiveness for sin.
How would you tell the good news? With what would you begin? What would you include? How would you end?