Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
10th Dec 2017
The Second Sunday of Advent Year B
“The beginning of the Good News…” Mark 1.1
I said last week that this Advent Season opens up for the Church a new liturgical year with Gospel readings from St Mark. His Gospel is defined by its abruptness and brevity. The beginning of the Good News is for him a stark editorial marker. He ‘cuts to the chase’ and immediately introduces us to Christ by way of John the Baptist. There is no greeting, no preamble or eloquent or stylish opening verses. If in St John’s (later) Gospel we have the immortal and poetic line ‘…In the beginning was the Word’, here, Mark is writing in the immediate present rather than for the eternal past or for Christian posterity. “The Good News” for him is no less important than for John, but his writing is one which will be passed around the Christian community, providing the skeleton, the structure and the basic content of the Christian story; the kerygma. Mark’s is a proclamation of Good News before it’s a meditation or reflection. He is concerned to set the record straight concerning the coming of Jesus and of what this means to the average Christian. This requires direct language and an account of things which has the feel of immediate, eye-witness observation.
His first chapter might be entitled ‘preparation’. He introduces us to Jesus Christ through John the Baptist and so helps us to see that Jesus’ coming emerges out of a centuries old tradition of prophetic utterance. The one dominating piece of information for John the Baptist is the one which speaks of Jesus as the one who has been promised. John is also very emphatic in his need to place himself as less than Jesus, as the forerunner, and with a distinct role to play as the one who Baptizes Jesus. His life as the baptizer and Jesus’ life as Son of God mix and merge in the narrative of Christian salvation and yet are not to be confused.
Here lies the unravelling of the hope which had been promised long ago and which echoed down the centuries before Christ by the prophets and particularly by Isaiah. It is the promise of the coming of the Messiah, and this coming will be decisive:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low,
The eve ground shall become level, and the rough places plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…
Isaiah 40. 3-6.
The promise is to be ground-breaking but which can only be awaited in faith as a kind of longing. The subtle tension this represents is expressed by Isaiah the prophet and by George Frederick Handel’s in his famous ’Messiah’. Both produce words and music of unparalleled beauty and splendour. The prophet and the musician each combine to provide a sublime evocation of the idea of the coming of salvation as the fulfilment of a long held but barely understood promise. This sense of the fulfilment of past promise and of the wonder of the coming of Christ and are elements which make up the true meaning of this season of Advent. The message of St Mark’s ‘Good News Gospel’ sets the ‘known’, the whole, world upon a distinctly new course. All time now becomes God’s time, in which we no longer wait for him. Rather, it is He who now waits for us to come to Him, our source of life and hope. God is the One who desires to comfort us in our need, He is gentle and merciful and forgiving. He is to send Jesus to bring us back to Him.
As we recognise the Advent hope, so the beginning of our Old Testament reading from Isaiah provides the appropriate contrast to the abrupt beginning of Mark’s Gospel. In it, God is seen foremost as the Comforter, the One who is gentle and kind. The ‘Good News’ story is the one which envisions a relationship with God not of duress but of a gentleness which comes from love.
If Christianity is to be a religion marked by kindness, forgiveness , understanding and compassion it will be a religion which is most surely reflected in the image of the Messiah. The advent of the extreme Muslim groups like ISIS is but another manifestation of the way in which certain religious or political affiliations become fanatic, intransigent, fundamentalist, homophobic and violent in their outward manifestation. Theirs is an essentially defensive mentality which replaces revelation with the fantasy of their own God-like status. Their own triumph of the will, if you like. Such a fantasy has led to a ruthless and cruel inhumanity. The Advent hope and the signal note it brings of the transformation of human lives comes to us as a new kind of strength. The Gospel writer Mark, whose words we will be following in the coming Church year, reminds us that amid the many human tragedies that beset our world, not least the tragedies of our own misunderstanding, there is brought before us the promise of a new world made possible in the likeness of God who reaches out to find us and to find his home in us, whomsoever and wherever we may be.
Good news indeed…
(On A Theme by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Look how long
the weary world waited,
locked in its lonely cell,
guilty as a prisoner.
As you can imagine,
it sang and whistled in the dark.
It hoped. It paced and puttered about,
tidying its little piles of inconsequence.
It wept from the weight of ennui,
draped like shackles on its wrists.
It raged and wailed against the walls
of its own plight.
But there was nothing
the world could do
to find its own freedom.
The door was shut tight.
It could only be opened
from the outside.
Who could believe the latch
would be turned by a pink flower —
the tiny hand
of a new born baby?