A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields by Revd Catherine Duce on Sunday 6 December, 2020.
Reading address: Mark 1. 1-14
Gracious God, may you transform my ordinary human words that they may reflect something of your divine word, our creator, redeemer and sustainer. Amen.
Winchester Cathedral has a fascinating history. Over a century ago the cathedral was found to be sinking steadily into peaty ground. Cracks were emerging with falling stone and the cathedral foundations were immersed in over six meters of water. Due to the serious risk of collapse, a deep sea diver from Portsmouth Docks was brought in to underpin the cathedral.
Known as ‘Diver Bill’ William Walker was employed for six hours a day to descend into the complete darkness and to work with his bare hands in the murky waters to temporarily shore up the cathedral walls with concrete. After six years, from 1906 to 1911, Diver Bill’s work enabled bricklayers to come in and the cathedral was secured. This careful, dedicated work of underpinning meant that millions of people could enjoy the beauty and worship of the cathedral ever since.
I found this story really compelling because it’s the story of how one man changed the history of a place forever. Mark’s Gospel also tells the story of one man who changed the history of our world forever. In a mere sixteen chapters this is the shortest gospel in the bible and it is widely thought to be the first. It’s also the gospel we shall be reading Sunday by Sunday in church throughout the whole of 2021. There is an intensity to Mark’s gospel that can be captivating. Of course, there are no stories about Jesus’ birth and childhood. There is no sermon on the mount or many of the much loved parables found in Luke’s gospel. That said, Mark’s Gospel has been described as the ‘the bedrock’ of all the gospels. With both intensity and brevity, the gospel uproots all that is wrong in our world and with humanity, and offers paths to reconciliation. The gospel declares who God is and shares something of God’s character. The gospel shows us how to live with our neighbour. The gospel tells us of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and where things will end up. It is the story of how one man changed the history of a place forever. Despite its secrecy, Mark’s gospel challenges us to expose ourselves afresh to the new and transforming relationship offered to us by the figure head at the heart of the story.
In the very first verse of the very first chapter we are given the whole synopsis and outcome of the Book. ‘The beginning of the Good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. This is a politically explosive opening statement. For a Greek-speaking subject of the Roman Empire, the word good news, or evangelion, was commonly used as a piece of political jargon; to make a public announcement about some latest victory or genealogical high birth. So this sentence is carefully crafted to incite regime change. Not in a militaristic sense, but in a way that leads to personal and communal metanoia – change triumphing life over death and hope over moments of great darkness. What we learn in today’s gospel passage is that, right from the first verse, we are being invited to ground our lives in a heavenly relationship – a relationship that is intricately caught up in our very existence, but is also always beyond us. Mark’s gospel is, if you like, an announcement that God is present and we are each caught up in God’s story – though we may not be aware or awake enough to respond.
Let’s imagine you’ve never read Mark’s gospel before. Imagine a person who’s whole life and who’s whole country is in ruins. I want to share with you the effect of Mark’s gospel on someone who found themselves without anchor or orientation in a world of betrayal and terror.
In 1945 the great German Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann was in a desperate place as prisoner of war in Scotland; he and his fellow-prisoners had just been shown photographs of the horrors and atrocities in the concentration camp of Belsen in northern Germany. Tormented by “memories and gnawing thoughts”, they were dealing with the nightmare realisation that they had been fighting for a regime responsible for unimaginable atrocity. Moltmann wrote later that he would rather have died along with his comrades than live to face up to what their nation had done. Moltmann had little Christian background and no theological education, but when a local army chaplain distributed copies of the Bible, Moltmann wrote these words:
I read Mark’s gospel as a whole and came to the story of the passion: when I heard Jesus’ death cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I felt growing within me the conviction: this is someone Who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living now…. I didn’t find Christ, he found me…[Reading Mark’s gospel], I summoned up the courage to live again…
For Moltmann Mark’s gospel was not ‘just a story’. It meant complete transformation. He discovers resurrection hope in his dry bones, and at the profoundest of levels, he found the courage to live and walk and pray again.
‘The Bible,’ wrote Moltmann many years later, ‘is the textbook of hope…every page and every word is concerned with the burning question, What may I hope? …A man cannot live without hope’.
…The ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for. What is it that awaits us? Does anything await us at all, or are we alone? Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God’s first love.”
This story of personal transformation is profoundly moving because it is so real. During Advent we are invited to recover this wondrous truth that we are God’s first love and God is our last hope. We are invited to revisit Mark’s gospel and to open ourselves up to being read by God’s Word – the bedrock of everything. You may be surprised by how it speaks to you, how it prods, refines and inspires you. In this pandemic context Mark’s gospel offers a relationship and a hope that is everlasting.
Just as William Walker underpinned Winchester Cathedral, the good news of Jesus Christ underpins everything now and forever. Mark’s Good News is a message of hope in the darkness. In a single verse, of the earliest gospel, we have the whole truth and the whole hope of our faith. The path is not easy but the path is well travelled. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, aided by those who point the way to Him. And may we know that Emmanuel God with us – is a God who, is indeed, with us forever.