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Beginnings

Commentary
In 1954, Marcelle Maurtette wrote a play called Anastasia. It was based on the true story of a woman named Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the long-lost daughter of the last emperor of Russia, Tsar Nicholas II, and his wife, Aleksandra.

The Russian tsars believed their kingdom was imperishable. They knew they would rule forever. But at the turn of the last century, the groundswell of social and political revolution tossed them aside. The emperor and his family were held hostage in the palace and then executed as the Bolsheviks bathed the countryside with blood.

Rumors persisted that little Anastasia, the youngest of the Romanovs, somehow survived the slaughter. Over the years a number of women claimed to be her. Some were easily spotted as frauds. Others convinced enough supporters to make a serious claim to fame.

And then there was Anna -- a nameless, homeless, memoryless wanderer, prone to suicidal fits at the “insane asylum” where she was brought. Nobody knew where she came from. They gave her the name Anna because she had none of her own.

But one day, Anna’s doctor came across a picture of the last Russian royal family. Anna bore a striking resemblance to little Anastasia. And she seemed to know more about the Russian noble house than one would expect. Anna was hypnotized. She knew even more in her subconscious. There was a real possibility that she could be the only surviving heir of the Romanov family fortune. But who knew for sure? Was there any way to prove it?

Newspapers picked up the story. Was this really Anastasia? By some miracle was her life spared, only to be thrown into this new and dismal tragedy?

Or was she only a hoax, a scoundrel, a publicity-seeker? The controversy sold papers, and the press hyped it to the limit.

Enter the old empress. She was not in Russia at the time of the murder of her son and his family. And now she lived in exile. If anyone should know if Anna was truly her granddaughter, this woman would be the person. And one day she came to see Anna.

The two women talked together for a long time. When she left, the elderly woman told the world: “Anna is my granddaughter Anastasia!”

Suddenly Anna began to change. She blossomed as a person. She took hold of her life. The suicide threats were gone. She washed herself and combed her hair. She looked after herself and dressed in style. She stood up straight in a crowd, and she carried herself with dignity when she walked.

The rumors followed her for the rest of her life. The courts in West Germany debated the issue of her identity for years. But Anna – Anastasia -- had a new lease on life. She started over. She learned to live again. She left the past behind and found herself with a future.

One line in the play carries the heart of the story. How did Anna climb from the pit of her insane asylum and walk again in the land of the living? What transformed Anna the nobody into Anastasia the princess? This is her secret: “You must understand that it never mattered whether or not I was a princess. It only matters that... someone, if it be only one, has held out their arms to welcome me back from death!”

Someone gave her a new identity. Someone gave her a reason to live. Someone gave her a vision and a purpose and a hope and a goal. In the unsettling and changing and tumultuous wanderings of her existence, someone gave her something to live for.

The Romanov family lost its royal heritage. The Russian revolution, in turn, ran out of steam. The great powers of the world are shaken. But Anna Anderson came back from the dead. She found something of strength and support in changing times and circumstances. She found someone who believed in her.

This is the message of each lectionary reading today. God is the source of all beginnings, as Genesis testifies. God is also the source of new beginnings (Mark 1) and re-beginnings (Acts 19). At the start of this new year, let’s begin again with God.

Genesis 1:1-5
The “mythical” qualities of Genesis 1-11 ought not to be interpreted as synonymous with either “untrue” or “nonhistorical.” Myths are stories that summarize worldviews in elided prose, giving snapshots of the value systems that drive a culture, or providing hooks on which to hang the unspoken but ubiquitous understanding of a social group’s values and self-perception. This is why the stories told by way of myths may sometimes appear to be cartoon-like fairy tales, or at other times they may be a selection of emblematic events from the actual unfolding of a community’s early history. In fact, many times they appear to be a combination of both. Myths, by their very nature, are not scientific descriptions or journalistic documentaries, and should not be read in that manner. Myths serve, instead, to carry the fundamental values and worldview understandings of a culture in a manageable, memorable collection of tales.

It is in this way that Genesis functions as an extended historical prologue to the Sinai covenant. The stories of Genesis answer a number of important questions that arise simply because Israel has been shaken loose from 400 years of enslaved slumber, and is now being reshaped as the marriage partner of God in a divine mission that has not yet been fully clarified. Genesis gives the context to the suzerain-vassal treaty formed in Exodus 20-24. It takes important moments from both Israel’s distant and recent past, and uses these as the shepherding banks by which to direct the flow of the people’s river of identity into their new and uncertain future.

Because there is no authorial self-disclosure within the pages of Genesis we are left to speculate about its specific origins. An interesting and important clue emerges from the text itself when the Hebrew nomenclature for God is analyzed. Most often, especially beginning with the stories of Abram in Genesis 12, “Yahweh” (יהןה ) is used to name the divinity. According to the book of Exodus, this name emerged in Israel through the deity’s self-disclosure to Moses in the encounter between them at Mount Horeb (Exodus 3). This would indicate that whoever wrote Genesis, and whenever the writing happened, this book was created no earlier than the lifetime of Moses, and functions within the scope of the covenant-making events of Exodus. Thus, if one is to listen to the internal testimony of the literature of the Bible, Genesis must be understood to function as a companion volume to the covenant documents of Israel’s national identity formation at Mount Sinai. Therefore Genesis must be read not as a volume preexisting in a disconnected primeval world, but rather as the interpretation of events leading up to the engagement of Yahweh and Israel at Sinai in the suzerain-vassal covenant established there. Genesis is the extended historical prologue of the Sinai covenant.

Viewed this way, the message of Genesis is readily accessible. To begin with, the cosmological origins myths of chapters 1-11 are apologetic devices that announce a very different worldview than that available among and within the cultures which surrounded Israel. The two dominant cosmogonies in the ancient Near East were established by the civilizations of Mesopotamia (filtered largely through Babylonian recitations) and Egypt. Cosmogonic myths describe the origins of the world as we know it, providing a paradigm by which to analyze and interpret contemporary events.

Distilled from the various records that are available to us, the generalized creation story of ancient Egypt goes roughly like this. Nun was the chaos power pervading the primeval waters. Atum was the creative force which lived on Benben, a pyramidical hill rising out of the primeval waters. Atum split to form the elemental gods Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture). Tefnut bore two children: Geb (god of earth) and Nut (goddess of the skies). These in turn gave birth to lesser gods who differentiated among themselves and came to rule various dimensions of the world as we now know it. Humanity was a final and unplanned outcome, with these newly produced weaklings useful only to do the work that the gods no longer wished to do, and to feed the gods by way of burning animal flesh in order to make it accessible.

Similar, and yet uniquely nuanced, are the cosmogonies of ancient Mesopotamia. The name Mesopotamia literally means “between the waters.” It denotes that region of the Near East encompassed by the combined watersheds of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Early civilizations here, enveloped by a somewhat different climatic environment than that found in Egypt, reflected this uniqueness in their origin myths. Apsu was the chaos power resident in the primeval waters. Tiamat was the bitter sea within the primeval waters upon which earth floated. Lhamu and Lahamu were gods of silt (at the edges of earth), created from the interaction of the primeval waters and the bitter seas. The horizons, Anshar and Kishar, were separated from one another by the birth of their child Anu (sky). Anu engendered Ea-Nudimmud, the god of earth and wisdom. All of these gods were filled with pent-up energy and this caused them to fight constantly. Since they existed within the belly of Tiamat, Apsu got indigestion and made plans to destroy all his restless and noisy children (i.e., the rest of the gods). In order to survive, Ea cast a spell which put Apsu to sleep. Then Ea killed Apsu, but his remains formed new gods, all of which were now in bitter struggle with each other and with their older relatives. Among the gods, Marduk rose as champion, quelling the fights and resurrecting order. To celebrate his success, Marduk created Babylon, which thus became the center of the universe and the source of all human civilization. These late-on-the-scene beings were created from the spilled blood of the gods, and they were deliberately fashioned as slaves who would do the work that the gods no longer wished to do.

When placed alongside these other cosmogonic myths, the Genesis creation story is very spare and poetically balanced. In brief testimony, it declares that God existed before the world that is apprehended by our senses was brought into being. It also asserts that creation happened by way of divine speech rather than through the sexual interaction of deities, or as the animation of guts and gore left over and emerging out of their conflicts. Moreover, creation was an intentional act that took place by way of orderly progression:

Day 1: Arenas for Light and Darkness
Day 2: Arenas for Sky and Sea
Day 3: Arenas for Earth’s dominant surfaces
Day 4: Inhabitants of Light and Darkness
Day 5: Inhabitants of Sky and Sea
Day 6: Inhabitants of Earth

In the balanced rhythm of poetic prose, the Genesis creation story shows how divine planning and purpose brought the world into being specifically as a home for humanity. These creatures are not the byproduct of restless fighting among the gods. Nor are they a slave race produced in order to give the gods more leisure. In fact, according to the Genesis account human beings are the only creatures made in the image of God, thus sharing the best of divine qualities.

It is obvious from the careful structuring of the Genesis creation account that it is neither a journalistic description of sequential events nor the scientific report of an unfolding lab experiment. “Light” is the first “creation,” cutting through and overturning the power of darkness and chaos which otherwise precluded meaningful existence. Yet the sources of light that actually make illumination happen in our world do not begin to exist until the fourth “day” of creation. What is going on? Why are things about creation expressed in this manner?

The answer seems to be a combination of contrast and organization. All other ancient stories of cosmological beginnings also start with chaos, but none of them ever fully emerges from it. Elements of random functionality may present themselves at times in or out from chaos, but behind and above and around such moments of meaningful structure the cosmos remains a chaotic entity. In some civilizations competing forces within chaos (such as yin and yang) may actually balance one another enough to provide temporary stability and even creative energy. Yet they remain the restless tentacles of chaos which pervades everything.

The Genesis cosmological myth sees the world very differently. Before existence and chaos, there is/was God. Existence itself is not the roiling of quasi-independent powers, but the expression of thoughtful divine intent. The manner in which things came into being had purpose and organizational structuring from the start.

If, as the literature itself requires, the creation stories of Genesis 1-2 are part of a lengthy historical prologue to the meeting of Yahweh and Israel at Mount Sinai, these cosmogonic myths are not to be read as the end product of scientific or historical analysis. They are designed to place Israel in an entirely different worldview context than that which shaped their neighbors. Humanity’s place in this natural realm is one of intimacy with God, rather than fear and slavery. The human race exists in harmony with nature, not as its bitter opponent or only a helpless minor element. Women and men together share creative responsibility with God over animals and plants.

Moreover, there is no hint of evil or sin in the creation stories themselves. In fact, the recurring refrain is that God saw the coming-into-being of each successive wave of creation and declared it to be good. There is no eternal dualism of opposing forces that in their conflict engendered the world as we know it. Nor is the creative energy of human life itself derived from inherent and co-equal powers of good and evil which, in their chasing of one another, produce the changes necessary to drive the system. Instead, evil appears only after a fully developed created realm is complete, and then enters as a usurping power that seeks to draw away the reflected creativity of the human race into alliance with forces which deny the Creator’s values and goals. Evil and sin are essentially linked to human perspectives that are in competition with the one declared true and genuine by the creation stories themselves.

Acts 19:1-7
Encouraged by a vision that affirmed divine blessing on his ministry in Corinth (Acts 18:9-11), Paul remained in that city at least a year and a half (virtually all of 50 AD and well along into 51 AD). Then he decided to make a report back at his sending church in Syrian Antioch, and took his new friends Priscilla and Aquila along (Acts 18:18). Stopping briefly in Ephesus across the Aegean Sea, Paul felt a strong pull to engage in a similar church-planting effort there. But he was already committed to his travel plans, so he left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus, and vowed to return soon (Acts 18:19-21).

It was probably a couple of months later that Paul traveled overland through Asia Minor and set up shop in Ephesus (Acts 19:1). The incident reported in today’s lectionary reading happened soon after that. Priscilla and Aquila had already established a solid core of converts and new leaders. Among their number was Apollos, a keen and well-schooled Jew from Alexandria, who was able quickly to understand how Jesus could be the Jewish messiah (Acts 18:24-28).

The “disciples” in verse 1 may well have been like Apollos. They were obviously Jewish, clearly well-educated, passionate about their faith, and strongly committed to God and the cause of the Kingdom.

But their zeal had been shaped by John the Baptist, without them ever having met Jesus. And that creates an unusual tension which has never left the Christian church.

There are actually two kinds of baptism identified in the pages of the New Testament. The first, highlighted by John and even practiced by Jesus and his disciples early on, was a “baptism of repentance” (Acts 19:4). It was for Jews who already participated in the covenant ceremonies and religious rituals of Israel’s ancient monotheistic faith. John used the experience of baptism to call those who were circumcised to stand up and take hold of their faith, and act upon it in deeds of righteousness and witness. For John, baptism was a kind of public profession of faith. It was connected to circumcision only insofar as John focused his revivalist message on circumcised Jews. John rallied those of the faith to give expression to the faith.

The baptism of the church, however, was something different. The acting agent in the church’s baptism was God, not humans seeking to be more faithful to God. This is why the church’s baptism is identified several times as parallel to the Hebrew rite of circumcision itself (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38; Colossians 2:11-12), rather than like John’s rite of acting upon circumcision.

This is why the message and the baptism of John are insufficient, as Paul points out. John had built upon God’s previous actions that brought people into the family of faith; Jesus, however, was initiating the formation of the family of faith anew, bringing into it both Jews and Gentiles, and announcing the dawn of the eternal messianic age which not even John could found.

The confusion between John’s baptism (which is a kind of public profession of faith by those already in God’s community) and the church’s baptism (the entry right into God’s community, similar to circumcision) has continued to play out in the church over the centuries. Those who emphasize “believers’ baptism” presume all references to baptism in the New Testament identify a singular expression of believers declaring their commitments to God. Those who emphasize “covenant baptism” tie their understandings of the rite to the initiatives of God bringing people into the family of faith with an entrance rite that is more heaven’s marking than personal experience.

In any case, baptism is about beginnings. And what happens afterward, as our lectionary passage for today notes, is the most important evidence of God’s new life taking hold.

Mark 1:4-11
Papias, a second-century bishop, declared (according to Eusebius in Book 33 of his Church History): “Mark, who was Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, all that he remembered of what Christ had said or done.” Papias knew that the church of his day recognized this shortest of the gospels as consisting essentially of the preaching of Peter about Jesus, even though the words themselves were recorded by Mark. There are several internal hints to support this hypothesis: Peter’s call to be a follower of Jesus is the first to be recorded (Mark 1:16), even though each of the gospels reports the various callings in different sequences; Peter is identified as “Simon” early in the gospel (Mark 1:16, 29, 36), which fits with the probable way Peter was addressed by his family and friends before Jesus renamed him (Mark 3:16) “Rocky” (the essential meaning of the Greek name “Peter”); the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law is told with more personal detail (Mark 1:29-37) than is found in its other gospel recordings (Matthew 8:14-15; Luke 4:38-39). Together these clues cement a close connection between Mark’s gospel and the preaching of Peter. Like as not, the old apostle declared these remembrances to his congregation in Rome, and his younger assistant took down notes that eventually morphed into this earliest gospel.

The first glimpse of Jesus in the gospel according to Mark is found immediately in the introductory heading or title of 1:1 -- “The beginning of the good news (gospel) about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Several things are important in this short statement. First, the author presumes there is much more to declare about Jesus than that which will be contained in these proclamations; this is only “the beginning.” Second, whatever one might think about Jesus, even with the gruesome crucifixion story still ahead, the impact of his life and ministry is “good news.” This colors how one should receive the message that follows. Third, Jesus is already understood at the beginning of this story to be the messiah foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament. The term “Christ,” appended to “Jesus,” is a title, not a name (although it would come to be used as such). Jesus was “the Christ,” meaning the one anointed to be the great deliverer of the Jews. This is why the baptism and divine commissioning of Jesus are told first (Mark 1:9-11), and are clearly expressed as a divine anointing (verse 10). Fourth, an additional designation is given to Jesus; he is called “the Son of God.” While Christianity has made this a common theological phrase, it was originally a very specific political term used to honor the Roman emperor. When Caesar Augustus died, the Roman Senate declared him to be divine. All of the rulers who came after him were in turn identified as the “Son of God” when they mounted the throne. For Mark to call Jesus the “Son of God” was a deliberate move to identify him as a rival to the Roman emperor of the day.

Our initial impressions about Jesus, as the narrative unfolds, are those showing him to be a man of action, healing, and power. In the first two chapters alone, Jesus is breathlessly busy, flitting all over Galilee, healing and teaching with such abandon that he is constantly followed (Mark 1:45) and always under urgent demand (Mark 3:7-8). While the gospel seems, at the start, to be merely a collection of stories about Jesus’ healings and brief teachings, it soon begins to take linear shape. In fact, its literary form will be copied by Matthew and Luke, who depend extensively on Mark’s record. This is why these three are together called the synoptics (those who see similarly). In very broad outline, the gospel of Mark looks like this:

Chapters 1-8: Jesus blasts the powers that harm human life by means of the greater power of the Kingdom of God
Transitional Event: Transfiguration in chapter 9
Chapters 9-10: Jesus teaches his close companions about the cost and character of discipleship
Transitional Event: Entry into Jerusalem in chapter 11
Chapters 11-16: Jesus moves to the cross and beyond in a fulfillment of the cost of discipleship upon himself, and a paradoxical expression of the power of the Kingdom of God

Among the many things that can be said about Mark’s gospel, there are a number of interesting and critical features that are unique to it. First, no infancy story is recorded (in distinction from Matthew and Luke). This gospel about Jesus begins with his full-grown adult powers in place, and these are immediately confirmed and amplified by the commissioning endowment of the divine Spirit. In other words, according to Peter’s preaching and Mark’s penning, Jesus jumps out of the starting gate at full throttle, a man on a mission with energy and purpose.

Second, the prophecy of Isaiah is recalled up front in today’s gospel reading. That Old Testament spokesperson announced the coming of the great Day of the Lord, speaking of a time when Yahweh would break into human history to bring judgment against the nations of the world and the evil in Israel, save a remnant, and begin the new and transforming messianic age. In this way Mark links the coming of Jesus directly to the Old Testament identity of God, and the actions of salvation history contained in it. This connection is further affirmed when Jesus opens his mouth to preach. His very first words are written by Mark as “the good news of God” (1:14), and commence as a staccato summary of the prophetic “Day of the Lord” theology: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (1:15).

Application
One writer describes what all of this means in a very personal way. He attended a business conference some time ago. Awards were being given for the outstanding achievements during the previous year. One woman received her company’s top honor. She came to the podium, clutched the trophy in her hands, and beamed out at the crowd. There were over 3,000 people in the auditorium, but this woman had eyes for only one. She looked down at her supervisor, Joan.

She told of the difficult times that she’d gone through a couple years earlier. She told of the personal problems that she’d experienced. She told of how her work had suffered and how people around her had turned away. They thought she was done for. They thought she couldn’t make it. They thought she was a loser.

And she thought so too! She’d called Joan several times, a letter of resignation in hand. She’d decided to quit. She was a failure.

But Joan said, “Let’s just wait a little bit longer.” And Joan said, “Give it one more try!” And Joan said, “I never would have hired you if I didn’t think you could handle it!”

The woman’s voice broke, and the tears streamed down her cheeks as she said softly: “Joan believed in me more than I believed in myself.”

Isn’t that the message of the gospel? Isn’t that the story of the Bible? In the middle of a tottering world, with shaky foundations, the Father of all creates meaning out of chaos, and then wraps us in his strong arms. And because of that, life both begins and can begin again.

Alternative Application
Acts 19:1-7 Lloyd Douglas wrote a novel called Magnificent Obsession about a fellow named Robert Merrick. He’s young. He’s rich. He’s drunk. Life is a game for him, a game of using people and tossing them aside, a game of playing with his toys in his self- centered world.

And then it happens: he’s out on his yacht; the wind catches the sail and throws the boom at him; he falls into the water, unconscious, and is rescued, barely alive.

At the same moment, a world-famous doctor, dedicated, devoted, a saver of lives, drowns in a freak accident just down the beach. Young Merrick lies in the hospital. His eyes are closed, and everybody thinks he’s unconscious. Two nurses stand over him, and one shakes her head.

“What a tragedy...” she says. “A great man who saves lives [is] lost, and this fellow, who never did any good for anybody, [is] saved!”

Merrick knows it’s true. He’s alive, but he’s never really lived. He was pulled from the water, but for no good reason. And in that moment, in that instant of judgment, Merrick gains his “magnificent obsession.” He’ll go to university. He’ll get a degree in medicine. He’ll take the doctor’s place. He’ll save lives and begin to truly live himself.

A magnificent obsession! A purpose for which to live and a cause for which to die. The day that the disciples of John met Paul in Ephesus was the beginning of a magnificent obsession for them. It continues to be for those who meet Jesus today.
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On New Year’s Day, 1929, Georgia Tech played University of California in the Rose Bowl. In that game a man named Roy Riegels recovered a fumble for California, but became confused, however, and ran 65 yards in the wrong direction. One of his teammates outran him and tackled him at their own one-yard line. Cal attempted to punt on the next play, but Tech blocked the kick and scored a safety.

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“Yes, God Speaks to Us Directly” by John Sumwalt
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Yes, God Speaks to Us Directly
by John Sumwalt
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On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.” (v. 7)

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Leader: Let the redeemed of the Lord gather this day for worship!
People: We were once condemned by our sins and now we know the mercy of God.
Leader: God sent the prophets to call us back into God's will.
People: And God is true and faithful to all who hear and obey the Holy Word.
Leader: Let us proclaim the righteousness of the Lord for all the world to hear!
All: Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Collect

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