Good News in Advent?!
Following Sunday evening’s service, I was asked but a couple of individuals to make the message available to those who couldn’t be there so here it is in all its glory! Wishing all a peaceful week. Hwyl, Phil
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin –
“If ‘learning Christ’ is at the heart of the vocation of every fervent Christian, then the history of Christianity may be viewed as two thousand years of debate and disagreement; establishment and assessment; reflection upon and reform of the curricula of the school of Christ.”
Quite a mouthful eh?! This week, I hope, I handed in my final, complete and corrected draft of my PhD, of which you’ve just heard the first line. You’re welcome! But it’s not exactly the most engaging of opening lines, is it? It doesn’t exactly stir the soul or open the mind. It’s not one that will be instantly recognized and quoted in years to come. So let’s try a couple of others. Let’s see if anyone here recognizes the following first lines…shout out if you think you do…
“All children, except one, grow up.” – Peter Pan
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”Pride and Prejudice
“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone
“Call me Ishmael.” Moby-Dick
“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.” The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina
…You see, the best first lines, the ones which stick in the brain and are easier to recall capture something of the essence of the book they open. They might introduce the main characters, take you straight into the drama, or hint at the upcoming plot. They are often short and striking, aiming to grab the reader’s attention. So, imagine how you might have felt, living in war-torn Galilee in the year 70 as Jerusalem is being destroyed, the Jewish people divided and someone hands you a scroll containing Mark’s Gospel. Imagine how you might have felt living in Communist China in the 1960s, imprisoned, tortured, broken and you read Mark’s opening line. Imagine how you might feel living in 21st century South Wales unemployed or unloved, stressed or depressed and you read those words for the first time:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
I think Mark knew how to write a great opener. Although, perhaps, of course, for some, the terminology might be off-putting. Perhaps, for others, the idea of life-changing good news being told through an old book might seem unlikely. Perhaps, even, some have heard the words ‘good news’ bandied about by politicians who promise much but deliver little, or even the words ‘Jesus Christ’ by street preachers and door-knockers who might do the same…so that these words have lost their meaning, their impact, their shock…but this morning, I’d like to suggest that the opening sentence of Mark, just a few words in our translations, contains such controversial, world-changing truth claims that we might spend the next few minutes reflecting on that one solitary line.
So, what does Mark give us? Well, he tells us from the outset that we are dealing with good news. Two words that don’t always sit well together these days. For we are bombarded with stories of war and disease, falling wages and rising debt, celebrity infidelities and terrorist threats.
In his weighty book, ‘Angels of our better nature’, experimental psychologist Stephen Pinker convincingly argues that the world today is actually less violent than it used to be – that domestic violence, casual attacks on the street, conflict between countries – is actually less common, less widespread than it has been in previous decades and centuries but suggests that what we hear from politicians and the media makes us think differently – that we are fed on a diet of fear and violence. Whether you accept Pinker’s thesis or not, it’s hard to disagree with the premise that the news we hear is more bad than good. And I’m not sure whether the church has been part of the problem or the solution. Even putting to one side our sisters and brothers whose only news seems to be one of hell and damnation; perhaps the church at large isn’t always on form when it comes to proclaiming good news. Outside the church, stories of in-fighting, doctrinal disagreement and abuse of various sorts take most of the headlines and even inside, woeful talk of decreasing numbers, frustration with change or community ambivalence can often dominate discussions.
Maybe it’s time for us to go back to basics. Perhaps Mark’s opening line might remind us that we must be the proclaimers of good news for all creation. Perhaps, we might squarely face the reality of falling church numbers and the need for change with the knowledge that such things are incidental to the good news we have been handed to give the world. Perhaps, this advent, we might reaffirm our calling to tell a story counter to the norm; to declare a message of hope, peace and love; to sing out that beyond Black Fridays and White Christmases, there is a message of good news to be heard, embraced and lived out.
And what or who is this good news about? Well first, Mark tells us that it is ‘good news about Jesus Christ’. And so the Mark’s mystery begins…for after this mention of Jesus in the opening line, he disappears for the rest of the passage. And then…apologies for the spoilers…Mark continues by telling us a story of how this Jesus, was mocked by the ones he came to help and thought mad by his family; betrayed and abandoned by his followers and condemned by those in power; was tortured, spat at and put to death as a criminal on a cross. Hardly the obvious plot for a tale of good news. So where is Mark going with this? Well, what about the title he uses? The term ‘Christ’, the Greek form of ‘the messiah’ or ‘the anointed’ suggests that this Jesus is special…that he has been chosen, anointed by God for a special task.
The word ‘Messiah’ was replete with associations of salvation and freedom for Israel, of God breaking in through a chosen one who would turn the world upside down and this Jesus character certainly did that. From the outset, Mark tells his readers that this Jesus, this guy from Nazareth was the human through whom God was acting in powerful ways. The casual Jewish reader might be hooked from the start, thinking all those expectations of a Jewish freedom-fighter, a skilled warrior or diplomat might come to fruition, might rid Israel of the Roman occupation…but what they would find in the later page-turner was that this messiah was so very different than had been expected…that he took the form of a suffering servant, not a powerful politician; that he came to challenge Israel, not lead it into battle; that he was to be the saviour, not just of Israel, but of the entire cosmos…and so the good news was not just for those in first century Palestine but for everyone who would ever live, Jew or gentile, young or old, Palestinian or Welsh. The good news of Jesus Christ was for all.
Of course, Mark doesn’t leave it there…for he tells his readers that the good news is about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Such an affirmation was radical, was dangerous, perhaps seemed foolish for the title was to be used by Emperors, not wandering preachers. In naming the man Jesus as ‘Son of God’, Mark challenged the power of the state, he challenged the worldview of many, he challenged his readers to read on. And when they did, they would find that the title went far beyond political differences. That it signified Jesus’ personal intimacy with God, that it whispered the notion of divine sonship. For Mark tells us that Jesus’ identity as Son of God was revealed at his baptism, was uttered at his crucifixion, is to be witnessed at his return. In his very first line, Mark had laid the foundations of his account of the divine-human; he opened the outrageous tale of the son of Mary, the son of God; he began his version of the greatest story ever told.
So good news, of Jesus Christ, the son of God. There’s just one more thing to add – Mark’s first line reads ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God’. The beginning. Mark is, of course, setting up the story, signposting to his readers that the adventure is about to begin, and that the new has its roots in the old, using references from Isaiah, Malachi and Exodus to frame the story. But could it also be that the story in which we read of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God is just the beginning. That the picture Mark paints of Jesus only shows a glimpse of God’s canvas; that words cannot do justice to the truth that awaits us; that the good news of Jesus, that the love, the glory of God is bigger, better, more wonderful than we can read about, describe or possibly imagine?!
Jesus’ transforming impact on the world cannot be reduced to a few years in first century Palestine, as amazing as they were. No, Jesus has promised to be with us until the end of the age, he’s promised to be in our midst whenever two or three are gathered, his love to be reflected by those who serve, his face to be seen in those we serve, his presence to be felt in community, bread and wine. The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God may have begun in first century Palestine, but in this time of advent, we affirm that it will be heard and lived out today; that it will be declared and enjoyed tomorrow and the day after and the day after that until that great and glorious day when love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will embrace, when Christ will come again. Amen.