St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

The Beginning

Advent 2: The begin­ning 

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, 2nd.Sunday of Advent, 10th Decem­ber 2017

Read­ings: Isai­ah 40.1–11, Mark 1. 1–8

“The end of all our explor­ing will be to arrive where we star­ted” T.S. Eliot’s words may be fairly accur­ately applied to the Gos­pel of Mark, the Gos­pel which will be our focus in the com­ing litur­gic­al year.

At first glance St.Mark’s Gos­pel has what seems to be a rather ordin­ary open­ing. Mat­thew begins with a gene­a­logy and moves on to the birth of Jesus; Luke begins by announ­cing that after care­ful invest­ig­a­tion, he is going to give us ‘an orderly’ account of the Christ event and he gives us the most detailed account of the birth of Jesus. John gives us that won­der­fully eleg­ant reflec­tion on the incarn­a­tion. “In the begin­ning was the Word..”. Mark, how­ever, simply says “The begin­ning of the good news (Gos­pel) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Before we accuse Mark of some lack of ima­gin­a­tion we need to remem­ber that Mark is the first per­son ever to write a Gos­pel. Before Mark, the genre wasn’t inven­ted. While it is true that our Gos­pels are not unlike ancient bio­graph­ies it is also true that they are in oth­er ways unique. All four Gos­pel writers were first and fore­most evan­gel­ists. Their very clear inten­tion was to per­suade their hear­ers of the truth revealed in the per­son of Jesus. Many schol­ars think that Mark wrote his gos­pel in the sixth dec­ade of the first cen­tury, shortly before the fall of Jer­u­s­alem in AD 70: a time of Imper­i­al viol­ence against both Jews and Chris­ti­ans. There is also some con­sensus that his gos­pel was addressed to the Chris­ti­an Church in Rome, a pre­dom­in­antly Gen­tile audi­ence. From his first sen­tence Mark reveals his inten­tion. He is telling us the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We are so used to hear Jesus and Christ linked togeth­er that we for­get that the word Christ was a title not just anoth­er name. Christ means Mes­si­ah or lit­er­ally, ‘the anoin­ted one’. It is because Jesus of Naz­areth is the prom­ised Mes­si­ah that what fol­lows in Mark’s Gos­pel is indeed good news.

The word that we trans­late Gos­pel or good news (euan­geli­on) was not inven­ted by Mark, it is a word that occurs in the Greek ver­sion of the Old Test­a­ment, par­tic­u­larly in the Book of Isai­ah. So in Isai­ah 52, we read, “How beau­ti­ful on the moun­tains are the feet of the mes­sen­ger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces sal­va­tion.” Again in Isai­ah 61, a pas­sage that Jesus quotes we find, “The Spir­it of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anoin­ted me to bring good news to the oppressed.”

The good news announced by Isai­ah was in stark con­trast to the way the word ‘euan­geli­on’ was used in clas­sic­al Greek. Here the word euan­geli­on was used most fre­quently in con­nec­tion with news of a mil­it­ary vic­tory and secondly in ref­er­ence to a roy­al birth. It was not a word used of ordin­ary good news like get­ting a pay rise or find­ing a lost purse. Mark fol­lows Isaiah’s lead and also uses the word in ways that con­trast with the clas­sic­al usage. One schol­ar, Ched Myers in his com­ment­ary on Mark’s Gos­pel puts it like this, “The good news of Mark will describe a dif­fer­ent kind of vic­tory. This war­ri­or Jesus is a ser­vant whose weapon is love and whose vic­tory lies on the oth­er side of a cross; his story will be good news very dif­fer­ent from that pro­claimed by imper­i­al her­alds – or by pres­id­ents or hedge fund man­agers or fan magazines telling about the stars- and will thereby raise ques­tions about the ulti­mate import­ance of those oth­er sorts of news.” In a dio­cese like ours the word, ‘Gos­pel’ has been rather over used and some­times giv­en con­nota­tions that we may be uncom­fort­able with but it is a word worth res­cuing. Mark used it to describe the com­ing of the Mes­si­ah who would chal­lenge the false power struc­tures of his day and preach a mes­sage that was truly lib­er­at­ing. “Gos­pel” is one of his favour­ite words and for him it cap­tured what he wanted to say. Mark had won­der­ful news to tell, a story so remark­able that no pre­vi­ous form of writ­ing could adequately con­vey.  This news centred not on some new philo­sophy or teach­ing but on one per­son, Jesus.

Mark fol­lows his open­ing sen­tence with a quo­ta­tion from Isai­ah. “As it is written…I am send­ing my mes­sen­ger ahead of you who will pre­pare the way” Those of us who have trouble remem­ber­ing Bible verses and where they come from can take heart from the fact that this quo­ta­tion is actu­ally a hybrid mix­ture of verses from Isai­ah, Exodus and Mala­chi. But of course one of the pas­sages Mark had in mind when he wrote these words was our Old Test­a­ment read­ing from Isai­ah 40: “A voice cries out: “In the wil­der­ness pre­pare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a high­way for our God. Every val­ley shall be lif­ted up and every moun­tain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain.” Val­leys ‘being exal­ted’, using the words of the KJV, sounds poet­ic and peace­ful but the image is of road build­ing – any­one liv­ing in Sydney at the moment is very aware of the incon­veni­ence caused by road-build­ing. Road build­ing is messy, costly and dis­rupt­ive. The com­ing of the Mes­si­ah was all of those things.

Mark, unlike Mat­thew, does not quote the Hebrew Scrip­tures often. In fact this is the only occa­sion in his Gos­pel when he does so; but he uses the Hebrew texts here because he wants to set his story in the con­text of Israel’s his­tory and to assure his read­ers that his good news is the ful­fil­ment of all the proph­ecies about the com­ing of the Mes­si­ah, the Christ.

In Mark’s Gos­pel and indeed all four gos­pels, John the Baptist is the road build­er, the one who clears the way for the com­ing of the Anoin­ted one. Mark gives us no back­ground details about John, he just appears in the wil­der­ness, clothed with camel’s hair and wear­ing a leath­er belt. He is a fig­ure on the mar­gins of soci­ety not part of the estab­lish­ment. He is in the proph­et­ic tra­di­tion. Jew­ish read­ers of Mark’s Gos­pel would have recalled that Eli­jah also had a hairy appear­ance and wore a leath­er belt. Eli­jah also went east of the Jordan into the wil­der­ness and ate only what the ravens brought him, a diet as unat­tract­ive as locusts. Like Eli­jah of old, John too, will chal­lenge the cor­rup­tion of the roy­al court. Yet, Mark wants us to under­stand that John’s primary pur­pose was to pre­pare people for the com­ing of Jesus, the Mes­si­ah. He preached a bap­tism of repent­ance for the for­give­ness of sins but this was a begin­ning not an end in itself. John could bap­tise with water but only Jesus could bap­tise with the Holy Spir­it. John the Baptist is a prom­in­ent fig­ure in reli­gious art through the cen­tur­ies: he is often por­trayed stand­ing alone or to one side of the paint­ing but he is nearly always point­ing. The artist’s under­stood that John’s role was always to point to Jesus and nev­er to him­self.

Mark packs a lot into his open­ing para­graph but we have so far ignored what is prob­ably his most remark­able state­ment. He tells us that this is the begin­ning of the good news of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God. What does Mark mean by this? He is writ­ing many years before the great debates about the nature of Christ’s divin­ity that would even­tu­ally be expressed in the creeds. If we want to know what Mark means when he calls Jesus the Son of God we have to read his Gos­pel. It is the nar­rat­ive that answers the ques­tion. As the story unfolds we see God act­ing through Jesus so fully and com­pletely that it becomes impossible not to think of Jesus as God. It is Jesus who heals, Jesus who casts out demons, Jesus who lifts the down­cast and gives hope to the hope­less. If this Jesus is not God, then God becomes an abstract idea in the back­ground. Towards the end of his Gos­pel, Mark describes Jesus hanging on the cross and his exe­cu­tion being con­duc­ted under the author­ity of a Roman cen­tur­i­on. This sol­dier has wit­nessed the cru­ci­fix­ion of many people but none like Jesus and in the last stages of this death he is driv­en to exclaim, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

When we get to the end of Mark’s Gos­pel we will find that it has no neat end­ing- unlike the oth­er evan­gel­ists there is no obvi­ous con­clu­sion, just a group of frightened women who have been told the good news that Jesus is no longer in the tomb but raised to life. We are left won­der­ing what hap­pens next.  Mark, I think, wants us to under­stand that this is a nev­er end­ing story. His Gos­pel is just the begin­ning to a story that is still being writ­ten in the lives of Jesus’ fol­low­ers every­where. You and I are part of that story. We have been giv­en the good news to share that the Jesus of Naz­areth we encounter in Mark’s Gos­pel is none oth­er than the Son Of God and worthy of our love and wor­ship.

 

Philip Brad­ford