Texts: Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:9-11
When I was in seventh grade I was your typical twelve or thirteen-year-old boy. I was self-conscious about the way I looked. I lacked in confidence and felt afraid much of the time. And I was struggling with feelings related to my newfound interest in girls, and the fact that those feelings were not being reciprocated by girls. In short, I didn’t like myself very much, and there were few places in my world where that wasn’t the case. Except one. The golf course. In seventh grade I was the number one golfer on my team. The next four guys behind me were all in eighth grade. This was the one place in my life I believed that I was good. Yet, in order to maintain that feeling, I had to prove it every Friday. Fridays were challenge day. On that day the person who was ranked below you could challenge you to a round of golf, and if he beat you, you switched places in the rankings. The number two golfer on our team was Tim Kilgore, my best friend. Tim was a wonderful athlete and could beat me in just about every sport, but he had not played as much golf as I had at that time, so I was a little ahead of him. Incidentally, he would go on to become a collegiate golfer and I couldn’t beat him now if I tied one hand behind his back. But back to Fridays. Each Friday Tim would challenge me. On a few occasions, he beat me. The effect that had on me was profound. For the next week, after Tim defeated me, I felt lost. The one place in my world where I believed I was good was shattered. I would mope around, and be very unpleasant, until the following Friday when I could re-challenge Tim. And when I won my number one position back, my feeling of value would return, at least on the golf course.
At a very early age we come to understand that goodness is something we demonstrate. To be considered a good little boy or girl, we must behave in a certain way. To be a good student means we prove it through a series of prescribed tests. In virtually every area of life we learn that goodness is something we earn by behavior and achievement. We also may learn very early that we really aren’t that good. Words like “why do you always have to be that way,” or “why can’t you be like so and so,” and a thousand others like them send the unmistakable message that there is something innately wrong with us. Yes, we learn early on that if we want to be considered good, we will have to prove it.
Our scripture readings this morning call this thinking into question. These two texts speak of beginnings. Genesis 1, of course, is the creation story, the very beginning. Mark 1 describes a beginning of a different sort. Jesus is about to begin his ministry. He goes to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist. There’s not much in common here, beyond the fact that both passages talk about the beginning of something. But there is one other key ingredient to both stories. These new beginnings are touched by a blessing.
Genesis 1 begins with these familiar words: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” Thus begin the six days of creation. One of the things you may remember about this first creation story is that at the very end, in verse 31, God sees everything that has been created and declares it good. This seems right to us. You wait until the end of the job to judge its value. You take a look at the finished product before you evaluate its goodness. Yet, that’s not the total story of the creation account. On the first day, the very first day, when the text says God speaks light into existence, a kind of blessing is also spoken. “And God saw that the light was good.” Before the earth, and the sea, and the sky, and the vegetation, and the creatures were ever created, God says this is good. This is a kind of blessing, a declaration of the innate goodness of this new beginning. Certainly God also speaks the benediction at the end of Genesis 1 and blesses the final product. But that’s what we expect. What we might not expect is that from the first day, from the first light, God is saying the same thing. This is good. The light is good. Everything that is to come–is good.
And then we come to Mark 1 and the baptism of Jesus. This event marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark. John the Baptist has prepared the way. Jesus is now ready to begin. But before Jesus has ever said a word, before he has passed the tests of temptation, before he has preached a sermon or taught a parable or healed a sick person or hung on a cross, we hear these words from God as Jesus comes out of the water: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus begins his ministry with a blessing, the declaration from God that he is good. This blessing, a word we might expect to come after Jesus has established a track record, and proven his faithfulness, has nothing to do with success or productivity. Instead, God seems to be saying to Jesus that before he begins this arduous ministry he needs to remember one thing–he is good, and he is loved.
I wonder if the modern world has helped foster this notion that goodness is something we prove or demonstrate, not something innate or inherent. The phrase, “prove it to me,” may be the result of a scientific world view that says anything that is true, anything that has value, must be demonstrated before it can be believed. In the ancient world the goodness of people was often determined by their background. What tribe they came from, what family, what class–these were the factors used in determining the goodness of individuals. We see now some of the horrible effects this produced. If you were the wrong race, or wrong ethnicity, or wrong class, or heaven forbid if you were a woman, there was something wrong with you. That’s why many people take pride in living in a modern world, with a modern view of things. We shudder, as we should, at parts of our history like slavery, and segregation, and denying basic civil rights to women. And though we are not nearly as progressive as we think we are, especially considering the damnable denial of basic civil rights to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, the American myth continues unabated. That myth says whoever you are, wherever you are from, whatever you look like, if you are willing to work hard, and produce, and demonstrate you can do the job, then you are good. And that sense of equal opportunity and egalitarianism has brought needed changes to our world. We need no further illustration of that than next week’s presidential inauguration. But let me ask you something. If our goodness is tied to our ability to prove our worth, what happens when we can’t prove that? What if our abilities are not good enough to get us to the top? What if we are not smart enough to make it to our dream job? What if we are mentally handicapped and can’t produce a thing? What if we are aging and can’t do many of the activities we once did? What if we are a child and have trouble controlling our emotions and acting the right way? In all of these scenarios, and many more that we could name, what happens when we are not able to prove or demonstrate that we are good? Where does that leave us?
One of the most important things we need to know is that from the very beginning God looked at us and said: “You are good.” I know that sounds like cheap grace. It’s dangerous to tell people that they are good regardless of what they do or don’t do. After all, doesn’t the Bible teach us that we demonstrate love and goodness by our actions? Doesn’t James teach us that faith is demonstrated by works? Yet, what we neglect to say as the church, is that we don’t have to earn God’s favor; we actually begin with it. Regardless of whether we believe it, or feel like we’ve earned it, our faith tradition says that the God we trust and serve declares us good. We are blessed from the beginning. And if we will accept that blessing, if we will allow it to sink into the deepest part of our soul, the result will not be a cheap grace that says it’s okay to do whatever we want, but a grace-filled way of living that is not wrapped up in trying to prove our worth.
When I was in college, studying for the ministry, I gave a devotional one day at a campus meeting. In the crowd that day was an elderly woman I had never seen before, who clearly was not connected to the university. After the devotional was over, and I was leaving the chapel, this woman approached me. In a quiet voice she said that God was with me and would use me. And that was it. Now, almost 25 years later, I still try to remember her blessing. Especially in times when I doubt my calling and my effectiveness as a minister, I cling to the words of that woman. And I give thanks for her willingness to be an instrument of God’s blessing in my life.
Each day is a new day for us. And without realizing it, we spend a good part of each day trying to figure out our own worth. Give yourself a break this day, and all the rest of your days. God has already decided the issue. God has already spoken. In the beginning, in your beginning, God declared you good. Go forth to live with that divine blessing, and bless others with it.