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.