Sermon preached by Rev’d Lizzie Kesteven.
Today we begin to look at a new gospel. Every year they rotate, and this year we get Mark. Mark’s gospel is the shortest, possibly the punchiest, some suggest the sternest, and it is almost definitely the first one to be written down.
In a time when there is lots of talk in our own world about risk, and how to manage and mitigate and balance that, then Marks gospel is perhaps a blueprint for risk. Writing it down was a risk and it would have taken courage and conviction.
It was probably written between 60 and 70 AD. It was at a time when Christian communities were starting to pop up in all sorts of places across the Roman Empire. Saint Pauls work as a missionary, from his letters to many different places, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus suggest that Christian communities had started to grow. Mark was writing in the centre of this world. If he is the same Mark that we hear in Acts and also later mentioned in Colossians and the letter to Timothy, then this Mark knew Paul. He also by other accounts knew Peter. Mark was writing in Rome. A place where in very recent years Saint Paul and Saint Peter had just been executed. Christianity was now seen as a threat, perhaps only mild and irritating, but nevertheless a threat to the Roman Emperor. Enough for the first wave of Christians persecutions to begin. Nero had a particularly nasty habit of using Christians as burning torches to light up his parties.
Mark was writing in a risky time.
And in order to just make it really clear to people that he was a man of courage and conviction, he begins by making a very dangerous statement. He begins by saying
“The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.
It could be a fairly neutral start to a gospel yet at the time the only other person who was linked to that phrase was Augustus Caesar – who when he decided to re jig the whole calendar system based on his own birthday , -sent out a decree because it was believed that
“The birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the gospel for the world…”
The similar phrase and wording was chosen deliberately by Mark. It wouldn’t have gone unnoticed, by Christians and Emperors alike. It is as if we are meant to hear and read that first line and take a sharp intake of breath.
Mark has just literally signed his own death warrant in the first 13 words of his gospel.
He was a man of courage and conviction.
He doesn’t stop their either. His first opening phrases for us all are ways in which he affirms his faith and belief. They are like a mini creed. He speaks of Jesus as good news, he speaks of Jesus as the Messiah, he talks about Jesus as the Christ. He then brings in the prophets and their words about preparing the way for the Lord and making the paths straight.”
We are in no doubt that Mark was letting us know, and telling the people of the day that this was not just any other story, or any other person. But that Jesus was the Christ who the Jewish people had been waiting for thousands of years.
It’s pretty pokey.
Strangely the rest of Marks gospel often has Jesus telling the disciples not to tell anyone who he is whenever they get ever so close to suspecting that he might be the Son of God. Mostly in the rest of the gospel Mark talks about Jesus being the Son of David – it’s a very human story. A very human Jesus. It’s a very humbling story. Yet here at the beginning. We get Marks ungarnished truth.
So why? Why write it down in the first place? Why did he need to?
Maybe as time passed it felt more urgent to have a written form of the words and stories people were learning. Perhaps he feared that it would be lost if it wasn’t written down. Perhaps the Christian community was growing enough that it became a time when they needed a clear and clarified version of Jesus Christ’s story, so as not to get muddled.
Whatever his eventual motivation. What we have in Marks gospel is a person who wanted to be clear about who Jesus was. And at that time it involved risk.
We don’t live in a country that makes it dangerous to share those words. Some Christians still do. Yet there is a way in which I feel encouraged by Marks example of courage and conviction. He was prepared to risk everything, so that other people might hear about Jesus, and not just hear but respond, through faith to become part of this small underground and persecuted community.
And although in this time and in this place here in Fishponds it is not a life threatening thing to be a Christian. It is still counter cultural. Christians are a minority and increasingly so. Therefore some of the things that we might rub up against – incredulity or ridicule, dismissiveness or even bafflement are ways which mean we have to dig deep and ask ourselves – what is this all about? What does this mean for me?
As we creep in anticipation towards the cradle, towards that stable, to peer inside and see that manger with that whole picture of shepherds and magi, Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus (a story that Mark doesn’t actually have in his gospel!) but as we do that – where will my courage and conviction be to say like Mark – that this event – this moment – changed the world. Not just to coo at a crib – but to worship and adore as so many carols put it. To look at the child and know that he grows to be the man who then teaches, heals and speaks of a world that is being invited to turn to God and understand and know that love, connection and relationship that is possible with the Creator of the world.
This week I wondered if we might encourage each other to pray for one other person. Just one. Keep them in mind, store them in your heart, think of them when out on a walk or when doing the washing up. Intentionally and unintentionally keep them close this week. They might be someone you know really well, they might be someone who is a Christian, they might not be. They might be someone you have only a passing acquaintance with. And then wait. Wait for the Holy Spirit to tell you what to do next. You will all have very different experiences of that. But something will happen. You will know what to do with that – and I suspect that you will need both courage and conviction.
That is the extraordinary gospel that Mark starts us on today – I pray that we and others around the world delight, give thanks and rejoice in the words that he had the courage and conviction to write down.