Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Second Sunday of Advent. It is also available as a podcast!
The Second Sunday of Advent
Reading: Mark 1:1-8
This year, Year B in the lectionary, we are going to be reading from St Mark’s Gospel. St Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four Gospels. (Luke is the longest; then Matthew; then John.) In the history of the Church, St Matthew’s Gospel has rather overshadowed St Mark’s Gospel as most of St Mark’s Gospel is also included in Matthew. This has changed in more recent years as scholars have come to believe that Mark is the earliest of the Gospels and formed the basis for both St Matthew and St Luke’s accounts of the life and teaching of our Lord.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are usually known as the ‘synoptic Gospels’. (The word ‘synoptic’ here means having a common point of view.) That there is a close relationship between these three is clear on even a superficial reading of them. Quite how that relationship came about is less clear and not easy to understand, although it doesn’t stop scholars speculating and trying to work it out.
The likelihood is that the Gospel of Mark itself was written in Rome around the time that St Paul ended up in prison there, some time in the AD60s, although some scholars would argue for different dates both earlier and later.
We should imagine, then, a group of believers in Rome who have been invited to a fellow believer’s house to hear a new book read. This group will contain believers who are both Jews and Gentiles who, perhaps, have been previously attracted to Judaism. The new book is about Jesus, who the believers worship as their Lord. The first words those listening hear are the words we have heard just now: ‘Beginning the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as it is written in the prophet Isaiah …’
Scholars today get quite excited about this as they claim that this is the first time that the word ‘Gospel’ has been used to describe a written account of the life of our Lord. Previously, they argue, it was used of the proclamation of the message about Jesus. In fact, unlike the scholars of today, it is unlikely that those hearing it for the first time would find anything unusual in what was read or in the use of the word Gospel to describe it.
In fact, those present might remember the first time they heard St Paul’s letter to their Church read out to them in a similar way to how St Mark’s new book is now being read out. St Paul, in introducing himself in his letter to the Church, writes that he is:
‘… set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.’ (Romans 1:1-4)
There is, then, nothing particularly unusual in the way St Mark uses the word Gospel. Those listening to it being read would have been used to the preaching of the Gospel beginning this way. St Mark is making a similar statement at the beginning of his book to that which St Paul made at the beginning of his letter. He may even have got the idea for it from St Paul.
If the Mark who wrote the book is the same as the John Mark in the book of Acts who accompanied St Barnabas and St Paul on their mission when they were sent out by the Church in Antioch, there is every likelihood that he had heard St Paul preach the same message many times (Acts 12:12; 12:24; 13:5).
St Mark writes that the Gospel message about Jesus Christ - that is, Jesus the Messiah, also known as the Son of David - was in fulfilment of the Scriptures. The message that the apostles preached and which St Mark is writing down is one that had changed the lives of those who were gathered to hear it read, and it was one they believed had the power to change the lives of everyone who heard it. It was not, however, a message which had come from nowhere. Its coming, like the person it was about, had been promised many years before.
But how does this message which was promised in the ‘holy Scriptures’ in fact begin? St Paul doesn’t say so in his letter, but he would agree with St Mark, as do all the other Gospel writers, that it began with John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus by him in the River Jordan. This is something that St John, who approaches the story of Jesus somewhat differently to the other three Gospel writers, also agrees with.
John the Baptist, then, is an important figure in the preaching of the Gospel. It is with him that the Gospel message can be said to begin. John the Baptist’s own appearance in the Judean desert was itself promised in the Scriptures. More than that, everything about how John the Baptist is described would have reminded those listening to St Mark’s book being read of the story of Israel in the Scriptures.
John the Baptist is described by St Mark as looking like the prophet Elijah: both were hairy and wore leather belts, and they both seem to have been at home in the desert (see 2 Kings 1:8). The desert, of course, was where Israel wandered for 40 years after her liberation from slavery in Egypt; it was where she was tested; and it was where she received God’s Law. The River Jordan that John baptized people in was the river that Israel had had to cross at the end of those 40 years to enter the promised land; a land flowing with the honey that John liked to eat.
It is to this new prophet Elijah and to the wilderness that the people of Israel are coming again to renew their commitment to be the people of God and to find forgiveness for their sins, and in order to prepare for the coming of the Messiah promised by the prophets. And they will again cross the Jordan in baptism.
What they don’t know yet is the identity of the Messiah. John the Baptist is insistent that it isn’t him; that’s not his role. He isn’t even worthy to help the Messiah take off his sandals (Mark 1:7). But we do know the Messiah’s identity because it is the first thing St Mark has told us.
The Messiah’s name is Joshua, or Jesus as we know it from the Greek. The name means, ‘God saves’. It is the name of the person who first led the people of Israel from the wilderness, across the Jordan, and into the Promised Land. The Messiah, John the Baptist tells people, will baptize them, not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit. But first, the One who will baptize with the Spirit is himself baptized.
As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart, and the same Holy Spirt who hovered like a dove over the waters at the beginning of creation descends like a dove on him and a voice from heaven reveals his identity: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. (Mark 1:11)’
The message about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, has begun in the way the prophets promised it would. What does this tell us today as we, like the crowds who were baptized by John, prepare for the coming of our Lord in this season of Advent? It is best expressed in the words of our Lord himself. As he said to the woman at the well in Samaria:
‘… salvation is from the Jews.’ (John 4:22)
In just 11 verses, St Mark has managed to locate his story about Jesus firmly within the story of Israel and her relationship with the God of Israel. This is something all the Gospel writers do in the opening of their own accounts of Jesus’ life.
St Matthew begins his Gospel:
‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ (Matthew 1:1)
Jesus’ earthly descent is traced by St Matthew through key figures in Israel’s history. St Matthew goes out of his way to show how Jesus’ birth is in fulfillment of the words of the prophets. St Luke’s account stresses that Jesus is the promised Messiah, ‘the consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2:25). And St John, while differing from the others in the style of his presentation, emphasizes that the Word made flesh ‘came unto his own’ (John 1:11) and is the ‘King of Israel’ (John 1:49), even if his own don’t recognize it.
The writer to the Hebrews writes in words that we shall read at Christmas:
‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…’ (Hebrews 1:1-2)
Jesus brought about something new. His coming was like no other. He was like no other. However, in seeking to show how significant and life-changing his coming was, many talk as if his coming was completely unexpected and came out of nowhere. Yes, Jesus changed everything, and changed it in an unexpected way, but his coming itself was something expected, predicted, and long awaited. It was in fulfilment of what God had promised and what the prophets had described.
Jesus, after his resurrection, tells his disciples that they shouldn’t have been surprised. The Scriptures had all talked about him and his coming (Luke 24:25-27; 24:44-47). The coming and the meaning of his coming are so rooted in the Scriptures that to understand what his coming means, we must understand the Scriptures, and this means understanding what we today call the ‘Old Testament’.
But the Scriptures that the story is so rooted in and which are foundational to it are the Jewish Scriptures. Yes, we understand them differently to our Jewish brothers and sisters, but by labelling them ‘old’, we also imply that they can be quietly forgotten, except for those nice bits that we like to read out of context and give a modern meaning to.
In the second century, there was a teacher in the Church called Marcion, who argued that anything to do with Israel had to be got rid of and that the god of the Old Testament was an inferior god to the god of the Church. This Jewish god, he argued, was not the Christian god who sent Jesus, but a lesser god. The Church rejected Marcion’s teaching, but throughout its history the Church has since been more Marcionite than we care to admit.
Nowadays, it is openly so. Whereas once we generalized the Jewish Scriptures to make them ours, now we just ignore or reject them altogether. Marcion believed that the god of the Old Testament was wrathful and vengeful, whereas the New Testament God that Jesus taught us about was kind and forgiving. Marcion’s day has come in our own. For many in the Church, what we call the ‘Old Testament’ is simply an embarrassment.
As also is the fact that Jesus was a Jew. And not only a Jew, but sent exclusively to the Jews. Jesus was not God incarnated as everyman, nor even as a man of the first century. He was incarnated as this particular man sent by God in every way as a man of his people to his own people. Jesus’ Jewishness was not incidental to his identity and to the incarnation, it was an essential and integral part of his DNA. God didn’t just become man, he became this particular man, and this man came with a specific role to play in the history of his people, Israel. This was what his earthly ministry was about.
Jesus couldn’t be the Saviour of the world until he had fulfilled his role as a prophet to his people, and had been rejected by them.
The Church has made the Jews the question. The question, however, isn’t about the Jews, it is about us. It is about where and how we Gentiles fit in. And that’s not obvious. That we should be included in the plans and purposes of God in the way we are is something that was not only unexpected, but that was hidden. St Paul calls it a mystery that God has had to reveal directly (Ephesians 3:1-6). It simply wasn’t something that the Church could know otherwise.
So how are we who are not Jews to respond to this unexpected offer of grace and welcome? We should respond with gratitude, with thankfulness, and with great humility.
Like the Wise Men this Christmas, we come to the baby at Bethlehem as Gentiles. But we also come as they did seeking him who is born ‘King of the Jews’ (Matthew 2:2). Yes, he is more than that. He is, as we have been seeing in the past couple of weeks, the Lord and Judge of all. He is now more than the King of the Jews, but he is not less than that. He is the root of Jesse, the Son of David, the glory of his people Israel. He is Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. He is the One sent by God, as the Blessed Virgin Mary puts it: ‘according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever’ (Luke 1:55).
The God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ was and is the God and of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. John the Baptist, St Luke tells us, said that those who came to him should not put their trust in having Abraham as their ancestor, God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones of the wilderness (Luke 3:8). John the Baptist meant by this that those who came should show by their actions that they were children of Abraham.
But in a sense, and in a way that John did not envisage, God has raised up unexpected children for Abraham. And we are those children. St Paul insists that all who share the faith of Abraham in the promise of God are children of Abraham and that God’s promise finds its fulfilment in Christ. All who have faith in Christ are now children of Abraham: ‘for he is the father of us all’ who believe (Romans 4:16-17). St Paul teaches that we do not need to convert to Judaism to be adopted as children of the God of Israel. However, it is still the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, revealed now in his Son, who adopts us.
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the same God who called Abraham to leave his country and who led his people out of slavery to freedom in the promised land. The history of the people of Israel is our history. As St Paul puts it: we have been ‘grafted’ in (Romans 11:17). But that does not mean, as St Paul makes clear, that God has now rejected his people (Romans 11:1). They are still ‘beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.’ (Romans 11:28-29)
There are, however, many who go a step further and argue that because God has not rejected his ancient people, it is now wrong to seek to evangelize and convert Jewish people to Christ. Without in anyway wanting to downplay the horrors of the Church’s treatment of the Jewish people in the past, for us not to seek to share the Gospel with the Jewish people today is to completely miss the point. Our Lord came in the first place as their Messiah: ‘Beginning the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah’. The Gospel is to ‘the Jew first’ (Romans 1:16). Why wouldn’t we want to share it with those who Jesus came to and was one of? Clearly, there is a right and wrong way to do it, but not to do so would be a grave dereliction of duty. The right people to do so are believers who are themselves Jews who have come to believe in the Messiah, and they need and deserve our support.
As then we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Messiah, we should align our prayers with those of St Paul who wrote:
‘I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit — I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.’ (Romans 9:1-5)
As we read through St Mark’s Gospel and especially as we celebrate this Christmas the birth of the one who was born King of the Jews, we will understand him better and serve him more if we understand him for who he is. The One promised by the prophets, the Saviour of his people, their Lord and ours.