Sermon preached by the Revd Professor David Brown, on Sunday 7 December (Second Sunday of Advent)
Readings: Isaiah 40.1-11; 2 Peter 3.8-15; Mark 1.1-8
My text is the first verse of the gospel reading we had this morning, the very first verse of Mark’s Gospel: ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ As you may know, the contemporary church, Rome as much as Geneva or Lambeth, now uses a three year cycle of readings that progressively works its way through Matthew, Mark and Luke, each given a year of readings, with John or sometimes another gospel (as with last week) used to furnish the material for special feast days. Personally I am somewhat disappointed that we don’t hear more of John which is my own favourite gospel. But beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. So today we embark for this coming liturgical year on readings from Mark, and so it is incumbent on me to introduce you to the gospel that Mark wrote, or John Mark, to give him his full name as it is recorded in the Book of Acts (12.25). Although he and Paul fall out at one point, the view of both Peter (I Peter 5.13) and Paul (2 Tim. 4. 11) is in general positive. The way in which he is mentioned suggests a much younger man, and indeed, one legend has it that he was the young man who fled naked from Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested, and whose embarrassment is duly recorded in this gospel (14.51-2).
We will never know for sure, but what we can know is that Mark never lost his youthful enthusiasm for the gospel. If he was a teenager or in his early twenties when the crucifixion took place, on conventional dating of this gospel to the sixties of the first century, he will himself now be in his late fifties or early sixties as he writes the work .Even so, he is still as full of that same youthful enthusiasm as he had displayed in Acts. If you read through his short gospel (and that is something that you might like to think of doing this Advent), you will find it is written in a decidedly staccato style. The narrative moves at an extraordinary speed, indeed at such speed that Jesus is frequently described as doing one thing after another ‘immediately.’ Readers in effect have no time to breathe before they are on to the next incident.
But what of the gospel’s beginning? You may think that this verse is simply stating the obvious. If so, just pause for a moment. What does that initial verse really mean – the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God? Those of you who are my age or older will remember learning that of any genitive, including the two genitives here, you must first ask whether it is a subjective or objective one. Put more intuitively for those of you who are younger, the question is whether the genitives here are like ‘the house of David Brown,’ that is the house that belongs to David Brown or whether they are more like an expression such as ‘the house of cards,’ where the genitive ‘cards’ has nothing at all to do with possession and everything to do with definition: the cards are what make up or constitute the house. So similarly here, I would suggest we don’t just have an indication of a mere beginning. We have a claim that there is something that makes all things new in the gospel that is Jesus Christ, or even more accurately, the good news that is Jesus Christ, ‘gospel’ after all being an old English word that once conveyed the literal meaning of the Greek as ‘good news’ but now has largely lost that original sense.
So, to repeat our more accurate translation: ‘the new beginning that is the good news that is Jesus Christ.’ But what of ‘Jesus Christ’? In contemporary English ‘Christ’ has become little more than a surname, but that is not of course how the word was first used. Jewish surnames in those days were in fact markedly different from the form they now take or indeed from that employed by the imperial occupying power. Roman names had three elements: the praenomen or personal name, nomen or clan name, and then finally the family name: Marcus Tullius Cicero, for example. By contrast, Jewish names of the time were very simple, primitive even, just like those in medieval Scotland. So, just as Robert MacAlister once meant Robert son of Alister, so Jesus would have been called Jesus ben Joseph (son of Joseph), or, to put it in its more Jewish form (Jesus being Greek), Joshua son of Joseph. And there you have it, for what Mark is doing at this point is definitively locating the good news in history, in a specific individual with the name-type of a particular nation, the Jews. But, more than that that, because his Jewish readers would have heard resonances of their own past history in the name, and indeed in its meaning, as Joseph’s dream in Matthew’s Gospel is indeed meant to remind us (1.21). Like the earlier Joshua of the Old Testament who brought the people of Israel into the promised land once Moses had died, so much the same can be expected of this new Joshua, the new ‘saviour’ (the name’s meaning) who too will lead readers into a promised land.
But what of the term ‘Christ,’ now relegated, as I noted earlier, in contemporary English into a mere surname? Chrestos is in fact the Greek for Messiah, literally an anointed one, a term used in the Hebrew scriptures for anyone specially commissioned by God for a specific purpose, whether they be prophet, priest or king. And so that is why our present monarch, Queen Elizabeth is in fact also a Chestos or Christa, since at her coronation she too was anointed for that role, a moment deemed so sacred that on her insistence it was the only part of the coronation service that was not broadcast to the nation. A Jew of the time reading this description would thus have realised that Joshua ben Joseph was called to a distinctive role but so far he would have had no clear idea of what this was. Rather, though, than providing some immediate indication, Mark diverts readers to another figure, John the Baptist as forerunner, a prophet who quotes a figure from the Old Testament whom we now call Second Isaiah, and what is fascinating about that latter prophet is his decision to use the word Chrestos (Christ or Messiah) of a pagan king, Cyrus from modern Iran (45.1) who had at last made it possible for the Jews to return from exile to the Holy Land. So there we have hidden in the text the first hint that something revolutionary may be afoot in his gospel: an anointed or commissioned one also relevant for the non-Jewish world.
Even so, unless readers were Jews or otherwise well informed about Judaism, they were unlikely to have got the point. So, at some later stage in the manuscript’s transmission, a Gentile copyist decided to add the clarifying phrase: Son of God. Not that Mark would have particularly minded. It was just that for his original Jewish readers he preferred Jesus’ identity in that role to emerge later in his account, at the baptism, in Peter’s denial and at the crucifixion. But for the scribe it all seemed a bit too late, and so Jew and Gentile alike are now prepared to hear the new beginning that is the good news which is Joshua ben Joseph the anointed one who is intimately related to God.
That intimate relation will be indicated in what follows in a way that the modern mind often finds quite difficult because, whereas the other gospels interlace Jesus’ miracles with his teaching, Mark has very little else apart from miracles. Those miracles are called in the original Greek demonstrations of power (dynamis), but it would quite wrong to think that Mark is thinking exclusively of spectacular healings. Instead, the physical healings are juxtaposed with spiritual issues, the healing of the blind and deaf, for example, with comments on the blindness and obtuseness of the disciples. In other words, the physical healings are also intended to suggest a wider healing that this saviour will bring, the total transformation of readers’ lives.
And so to the gospel’s strange ending. If you look at the footnotes to any modern edition, you will see the admission that the gospel once concluded at 16.8 and that the rest, the resurrection appearances, are a later addition, derived in large measure from Matthew. So Mark had intended to leave his readers with the tomb empty but no explanation of what had happened; instead, only the mysterious final verse, ‘they were afraid,’ or more accurately, ‘they were overawed.’ Why end thus? It was in effect an invitation to readers to come and hear what the present Christian community had to say about the effect of the empty tomb, to hear from them how the now risen Christ continues to transform lives.
And so, finally, the challenge to ourselves, as we now enter a period with no resident parish priest. Is Jesus here in our midst transforming your life and mine? Can visitors be guaranteed to find in this church the new beginning that is the good news of Jesus, the anointed one, God son? That is the question posed to us today from Mark’s opening verse.