Sermon - 7th December 2014
Embracing the Wilderness
Scripture - Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Many Christians get quite anxious if they think ministers or churches get “too political.” Archbishop Helder Camara famously said: when I give food to the poor they call me a saint; then I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist. We have a rather anxious relationship with politics in the Church and try hard not to be seen as being partisan or too divisive.
This is a little ironic given the opening of St Mark’s Gospel which we’ve just had read to us. The opening words: “This is the Good News about Jesus Christ the Son of God” are both deeply political and deeply subversive.
The term Good News – euangellion – isn’t a term that Mark found in the Old Testament. Its use in the ancient world was, until the Church, limited to Palace news. If the Emperor had a child that was Good News, if the Emperor signed a treaty, gave bread and circuses to the masses or lowered taxes this was all Good News. Remember too that Roman Emperors often claimed divinity for themselves. Mark is subtly calling his readers to realise that the Good News isn’t about the doings of some Emperor with odd ideas above his station but is all about Jesus, the true Son of God. So Mark is making a profoundly political statement; he’s critiquing the Emperor, and the whole Imperial system whilst making a strong claim about Jesus. And that’s just his opening sentence!
The context matters here too. When Mark was compiling his Gospel, in around the year 70, there was a war on. The Jews had revolted against Rome, Jerusalem was under siege – and would be destroyed. After Nero’s death four men had been proclaimed Emperor only to be killed. Some Jews were on the side of the rebels, others saw Rome as a source of peace and security. One small sect refused to take sides – the Christians. The Rabbis labelled them heretics, the Zealots say they are ineffective against the Romans.
To help his readers understand their troubled situation, Mark proclaims Jesus. But to understand Jesus, he looks back to the Scriptures of Israel. He stresses the continuity between Jesus’ message and all that has gone before him in the Jewish faith and looks forward, in Jesus, to the future of the world – the Coming of the Kingdom.
Isaiah is also proclaiming Good News but in a different context. The passage was written when the Jewish people were in exile and longing for deliverance. Isaiah’s message is that things are as bad as they could be – they are in exile, their national life has been destroyed, the Temple lies in ruins – but God is faithful and compassionate. God is forgiving and is about to act so all the Jews needed to do was to wait expectantly for God’s deliverance to come. Salvation is at hand.
But the salvation that is at hand isn’t what was once expected. The long-promised Messiah was thought to be a political leader, maybe a prophet, maybe a king who would free Israel from its foreign bondage. The Messiah would make Israel strong again as in the days of King David. This was what was wanted and who could blame them? After exile in Babylon, invasion by the Greeks and oppression by the Romans hope was to be found in a resurgent nationalism where the people would be able to decide their own destiny. But this isn’t the salvation which Mark proclaims.
Salvation is proclaimed by Mark but it isn’t what the Jews had longed for in the past – instead it’s God’s very presence on earth. A theme of St Mark’s Gospel is the idea that Jesus has a mission to bind the strong man – Satan who holds humanity in his grasp.
These are the powers of despair, disease, demon possession and death, in the face of which human beings are helpless. Yet these powers have human faces. In particular, they are vested in the powers of Rome and the Temple system of Jesus’ day. These are the powers that kill messiahs – as they will kill Jesus. They have the “last word” – until the coming of Jesus. They are the powers that have reigned throughout human history, thwarting God’s purposes for good.
Mark’s message is that, until Jesus, it is only the agents of the powers that have been confronted and defeated (Pharaoh of old, Babylon, the Greeks). In Jesus, the very source of that power – the “Strong Man” – is going to be confronted and defeated. This is good news and is eventually seen in in the resurrection where the powers of death are defeated. The Good News isn’t what’s been happening in the Imperial family but what God is up to in Jesus in binding the power of the Evil One and inaugurating the coming kingdom.
This is powerful, political stuff as Roman power was dominant in Europe and the Middle East at the time. Mark was writing about a situation of Roman occupation, in which rebellion was a political crime that carried the death sentence. Jesus was finally crucified as a political agitator. This, then, is a bold proclamation that is deeply subversive: the Good News is about a divine figure – but not the emperor! It is about Jesus, who is coming to overthrow the powers. Caesar will be shown for what he is: a pretender to the divine throne. It is the Kingdom proclaimed and brought near by Jesus that will prevail, not his!”
Preparing the Way
St Mark starts his good news off with this strange figure of John the Baptist. It’s important to Mark to show that John is the last of the Old Testament prophets – all that attention to what John was wearing making him sound like Elijah. John was the last of the old, Jesus is the new thing that God is doing.
The interesting thing for me is that what God is doing in John the Baptist – and what He later does with Jesus – happens in the wilderness. God isn’t at work in a royal palace but in a woman’s lap. God isn’t at work with the corrupt leaders of the day but in the Wilderness – the place where Israel found freedom and had its identity formed. God isn’t at work in the centre of on the edge.
The Church in these islands is having to get used to being on the edge, to being marginal, to being ignored. It has come from a place of power and prestige to a place of irrelevance. With lower numbers, less influence, and a sense of being a minority activity we’re finding ourselves in the Wilderness. Some Christians work hard to deny this is the reality, others try hard to regain power and talk up how influential we really are yet I think we could learn from St Mark’s portrayal of the Good News and embrace the wilderness.
- In the wilderness we see the world in a different way. We see the powerful and what motivates them and compare and contrast this to the coming Kingdom.
- In the wilderness we see who is left out, who is excluded from the society in which we live and we can see more clearly how to help them.
- In the wilderness we can hold up a mirror to our society so it can see itself as God sees it.
- In the wilderness we can, like the Jews of old, find our freedom and find ourselves formed anew – after all the witness of Scripture is that God is at work on the outside.
St Mark calls us to prepare the way for the Lord, to meet the Lord in the Wilderness and to recognise the powers and authorities of this world don’t have the power they think they do. Only Jesus, only His Kingdom, matter. Only Jesus has the power to bind the powers of this world and to create a new world where all will be free, all will be valued, all will be loved and where God will live in our midst. This is our Advent hope.