For those snowed in, here’s this morning’s effort!
10th December 2017
Nineteen hundred and fifty years ago a writer sat down to write.
What we do know is that Mark was writing a new type of document, a book that had never been written before. And so – quite appropriately – he began, with ‘the beginning’: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
This really was a new beginning. It is hard for us to imagine as twenty-first century Christians that until Mark penned those lines, nobody had written a life of Jesus. Yes, St Paul had knocked out a string of letters to the earliest churches more than a decade before; and in these letters he had said a lot about the meaning of Jesus and a teeny bit about what Jesus had said and done. And, yes, Christians had been nattering the story of Jesus ever since his death and resurrection in the early 30s AD. But nobody had written that story down. The Church had been far too busy assuming that Jesus was coming back the day after tomorrow for anyone to take time and produce a written account of his life.
However, as doubt set in about the imminence of the Parousia – the Second Coming – and as the eyewitnesses to Jesus were meeting more or less sticky ends, that man or woman whom we know as ‘Mark’ emerged from the shadows, feeling that something needed to be done. And so he began.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
For most of its existence, Mark has been treated as the ugly sister of the gospels. Our medieval forebears assumed that Mark was an abbreviated copy of Matthew and so they placed Mark behind Matthew in the New Testament. Only rarely did they use Mark in their lectionaries, the lists of readings heard during worship. However, over the last two hundred years, Mark has undergone a revival. Nowadays, almost all biblical scholars accept that Mark is not an abridgement of Matthew but a precursor – indeed that Mark is the earliest of the gospels, the text on which Matthew and Luke both rely. And so Mark’s fortunes have been transformed. As a result, within the Revised Common Lectionary that we share with many other denominations, there is a whole year in which our Sunday morning texts are largely taken from Mark’s narrative. Last year we listened to Matthew. Next year we’ll listen to Luke. This year, our gospel readings come mainly from Mark. So it is very appropriate that on only the second Sunday of Advent at the start of Year B of the lectionary cycle, we hear those deceptively simple words: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
What did Mark think he was doing when he kicked off in this way? Mark was more than initiating a narrative about Jesus. His choice of opening was a deliberate echo of the opening of Genesis, the very first lines of the Hebrew Scriptures. In Genesis we read ‘In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth’. Mark is telling us something similar – but different. Not ‘in the beginning, God’ but ‘the beginning of the good news of Jesus…’ Mark is saying that, in Jesus, something as great as the origins of the universe was under way, and that someone as amazing as God had been revealed. (Which means of course that Jesus is God because God has no rivals.)
Mark describes ‘the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.’ What is this ‘good news’? The word behind ‘good news’ is euaggelion. It’s the word from which we get ‘evangelist’, ‘gospel writer’. But when Mark sat down to write he had no idea that he was a ‘gospel writer’ because there was no such genre as ‘gospel’! Mark knew a gospel, but that was not a book but a spoken message, good news about Jesus which Christians had been gossiping for a generation. Indeed that good news was not just a message about Jesus, it was the message which Jesus himself spoke because a few verses later, Mark records how Jesus ‘came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God and saying, “the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near”’. So the good news is about Jesus, but it is also a message which Jesus broadcast. In fact, because Jesus effected his good news through what he did, his miracles, Christians have gone so far as to insist that Jesus himself is the good news.
That Greek word, euaggelion, I read was a technical military term used by the Romans for news of victory. So the good news about Jesus, of Jesus, and which is Jesus, is that Jesus is a conqueror, someone like the Roman Emperor – a successful military leader – yet someone whose kingdom holds up a mirror to the values and systems of government in each and every age.
Mark wanted to share ‘the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.’ For Mark the story of Jesus begins not in Bethlehem but in Jesus’ adult ministry in Galilee after his baptism by John. Mark chose not to record anything about angels or wise men or stars or shepherds. Maybe he knew nothing about these! For Mark, what was important was Jesus’ preaching and healing. Once again, we need to suspend our prior knowledge, stop reading Mark through the lens of the nativity play. We are dealing today with the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ as Mark wants to tell it.
And if Mark’s beginning is not what we expect, let’s cut to the other end of his gospel where we encounter an equally enigmatic ending. Unlike Matthew, Luke and John, Mark does not record a single appearance of the risen Jesus. Rather, he signs off with the women fleeing from the empty tomb, ‘for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ Boom. The end. Nothing more.
This is such a bizarre ending that later Christians thought the bottom of Mark’s script had been ripped off and lost by accident. Several even tried to reconstruct how they thought Mark meant to finish his gospel. Of course they did not agree so Mark has several appendices, each an evident later addition.
Most biblical scholars now accept that Mark actually intended to conclude his story of Jesus with the flight of the women. Of course this doesn’t make sense if they genuinely told nothing to anyone. One of Mark’s many wonderful themes is that the good news seeps out. It is irresistible. Even when it is silenced it demands to be heard. That was why Mark wrote. That was why we will be reading Mark throughout the year ahead. That is one of the many reasons why I personally find Mark a most intense and exciting writer, one well deserving of his new-found prominence, emerging from behind the heavy skirts of St Matthew.
Perhaps I have been too abrupt in my abbreviation of the ending of Mark’s gospel. The women flee the empty tomb in Mark 16 having been told by a strange young man that Jesus would appear in Galilee. And of course that is exactly where we first meet Jesus in Mark chapter one: not in Bethlehem but in his adult ministry around Galilee. There is circularity here: Mark intended his readers, having finished his account of ‘Jesus Christ the Son of God’, to do that most profound yet simple of things, to go back to the beginning and start again. Having read in chapter 16 that Jesus might be encountered in Galilee, his readers are meant to return to the start and pick up again from the account of Jesus’ baptism. And this, I think, is why Mark did not include a resurrection narrative – its not that he disbelieved the resurrection but because his readers were already fired up about that part of the story. Indeed they were that part of the story. They carried the risen Jesus in their hearts. They celebrated him in their worship.
Which brings the story right up to date, to us who carry the risen Jesus in their hearts and who celebrate him in their worship. Here we are, once again at the beginning of a new Christian year – back in Advent, the season which echoes the message of Mark that Jesus is the beginning and the end. As we encounter Mark’s text in the weeks ahead (make sure you include it in your Bible reading at home as well as in church) we will find that we are drawn into the story – indeed that we become part of the story – even embody the story. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God might have been two thousand years ago. But the ending – mysteriously, vibrantly, repetitively, open-endedly – is… us.