On May 17, 1971, the musical Godspell kicked off its now 47 year reign of terror. Composed by Stephen Schwartz, with the spoken parts by John-Michael Tebelak, Godspell couldn’t be any more of its time – if you want to know what 1971 sounded like, find Godspell on YouTube and there it is; or you could just hang out in a Hallmark store, Day by Day will come on eventually. Everyone of a certain age knows that song, so much so that in the movie Meet the Parents, when Ben Stiller is clueless on how to proceed when asked to say grace at his first meal with his girlfriend’s family, he defaults to just reciting Day by Day.
After John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus walked through Galilee telling people that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Godspell.” At least that’s what Jesus would have said if He was using early English. The English word gospel is derived from the Anglo-Saxon godspell (“good story”). Combine that with the widespread use of the Greek word euangelion, for good news, advance the English language several hundred years, and you get the word gospel meaning good news.
And so Jesus was, from the earliest part of His earthly ministry, proclaiming the gospel, the good news of what God was doing for us. But let’s back up two seconds and see what we can learn from this story from Mark.
Mark gives us three key pieces of information in six short sentences, three pieces of action.
First, John the Baptist had been arrested. John had done plenty to get himself into trouble anyway – he had amassed quite a following, which threatened the religious authorities, and he used those same religious authorities as a rhetorical punching bag. There probably weren’t many people in power John didn’t manage to tick off. But then he had the audacity to call out Herod for divorcing his wife and unlawfully taking Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. This was the final straw, and so now John the Baptist, the forerunner, the herald of Christ, is essentially out of the picture.
Second, Jesus proclaims the gospel. How did He do such a thing? By telling everyone who would listen three essential things. One, the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. What does that mean? It means that what every faithful person had been waiting for was happening; God was acting, He had come to us in the very person of Jesus. Everything they had longed for, hoped for, everything they perhaps thought would never come to pass, well, guess what – it’s happening. Because this was happening, Jesus gave them the other two essentials, which are basic action steps. Repent. Turn from any evil ways you had picked up along the way, renounce your wicked desires, and get straight with God and with your neighbor. And finally, believe the gospel. Believe that what is happening is in fact good news; believe that what is happening is a good story, and that you are part of that story, that the news is good for you.
The third thing Mark tells us about is the calling of the first disciples. Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, two sets of brothers, four fishermen, called from their work to witness to and spread the good news. If the story seems a little weird, like Jesus pulled a Jedi mind trick (follow me, and they just mindlessly drop everything and follow Jesus), don’t worry. We know that at least Peter and Andrew, and likely the other two, were first disciples of John the Baptist. They had all probably met Jesus before, heard what the Baptist said about Him, and were primed to become disciples.
So what have we learned today, outside of some useless Godspell facts? Well, we’ve learned the basics of the Christian life. We’ve learned from John the Baptist that while the truth does indeed set us free, it can sometimes get us in trouble with powerful people. We’ve learned that the gospel, the good news, is that God has acted and continues to act in our lives through Jesus; that God wants to be with us, close to us, and by us, He means everyone. And we’ve learned our response to that: repentance, knowing that God forgives; belief, knowing that what God wants for us will always be good news; and discipleship, following Jesus, that we may see Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, follow Him more nearly, day by day.