Advent 2 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – 6th December 2020

Isaiah 40.1-11; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8

‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’

So began our gospel reading this morning; and so begins the gospel which will accompany us, speak to us, this coming year. For this is the year, in our lectionary, our cycle of Sunday readings, when we shall work our way through Mark’s Gospel.

‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’

It’s a beginning that, very characteristically for Mark, doesn’t mess about. It plunges us straight in to what this book is about, announces that if we take it seriously this book will change your life. This is not a detached rendering of someone’s life-story – this is good news, and it concerns someone who has been anointed (that’s what the title Christ means), someone who, Mark states, is the Son of God.

That little familiar phrase, ‘good news’ is easy to skip over. In the original Greek it was Euangelion: the word used to head up official announcements. Listen up people, the emperor would announce, here is some good news you need to know. So this opening sentence to Mark’s Gospel, in all its stark simplicity, and despite the fact that it seems concerned with a fairly obscure individual – a trouble-maker even who met his end in an ignominious death – this opening sentence is making a bold and attention grabbing claim: this book is not just of interest to those who happen to be on the inside of the early Christian movement, but this Gospel is a public statement, something everyone needs to hear. And they need to do so because it concerns an anointed one, a divine person; someone therefore on a par, at the very least, with the emperor. The opening sentence is publicly announcing, then and now, regime change: something new has happened which changes everything.

And having announced this startling good news, Mark immediately takes us off into the wilderness. Mark, famously, has no nativity story; he begins in the wilderness, on the outside of things, off the edge of the map almost. And he begins by quoting Isaiah – that passage from Isaiah 40 that we also heard this morning. It’s a passage written in exile, when the people of God are far from home. Comfort, O comfort my people, says Isaiah to a people who are anxious, uncomfortable and afraid. A people longing to be back home, back to normality.

We might know something about that: a longing to get back to normality, as well as the feeling of being in exile from our previous life, anxious and afraid. As the first shoots of hope, with news of vaccines emerge, so we too might be wondering about the road back home. Mark’s Gospel is the good news we need to pay attention to this coming year; for it seeks to chart that way, from wilderness and exile, in the company of the Son of God, toward our true home.

And if we pay attention, we will find it a surprising journey. For as Isaiah announces from exile, and as Mark reiterates, this is not a journey back to anywhere: it’s a journey forward, a making of crooked paths straight, so that the King and his people can enter in. And that surely is the challenge of this coming year, this year through and beyond the pandemic: is it a journey back to business as usual, as life was before? Or is it a journey that makes crooked paths straight; the crooked paths that this pandemic has revealed as much as caused, the deep fissures in our common life, of poverty and insecurity, of racism and prejudice. The challenge of this coming year, and that Mark will speak to, is how we view our time of exile, this pandemic. Can we treat the pandemic not simply as an interruption, before we get back to business as normal, but as that through which we straighten the crooked paths, mend our common life, place solidarity and compassion at the heart of who we are. If the pandemic is simply an interruption, then the mourning and the grief and the heartache will be just that – grief and mourning and heartache. But they could be something more.

Mark’s Gospel certainly has plenty of sorrow and heartache – my favourite quote about Mark comes from an unlikely source. Not a New Testament scholar – with apologies to our own Professor Foster – but a singer and musician, Nick Cave. He says: ‘Mark’s Gospel is a clatter of bones, so raw, nervy and lean on information that the narrative aches with the melancholy of absence. Scenes of deep tragedy are treated with such a matter-of-factness and raw economy they become almost palpable in their unprotected sorrowfulness.’

Mark has plenty to say about sorrow on the journey out of exile. It’s one of the many paradoxes of this self-proclaimed ‘good news,’ that it deals in so much sorrow. But it’s because, at heart, the journey Christ makes is one that redeems the suffering and grief, does not leave them behind or escape them. As Rowan Williams writes: ‘where suffering and insecurity and even the risk of death are daily facts… there are the sorts of people for whom Mark was writing: writing to reinforce a faith in the God who does not step down from heaven to solve problems but who is already in the heart of the world, holding the suffering and the pain in himself and transforming it by the sheer indestructible energy of his mercy.’

And so we begin our journey with Mark in today’s gospel in the wilderness; and in recognition of our need to repent, to turn toward the sheer indestructible energy of God’s mercy. We join the crowds as they flock to the strange figure of John the Baptist, the complete outsider, who nevertheless embodies the wisdom that recognizes the one who is coming, and who captures the longing to journey somewhere new.

This straight path, this highway through the wilderness, on which we embark, that Mark sets out, will not be an easy or straightforward journey. This gospel will overturn much that we thought we knew, and help us discover things in places we didn’t expect. Those who follow in Mark’s account will often falter  – the disciples are, after all, all pretty inept. But, Mark has told us, this is good life-changing news, and if we take the risk of faith, who knows where it will take us.

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