Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and the reading we’ve had for our gospel is part of the opening, the prologue of the whole of the Gospel of Mark. Now, prologues, are important parts of books and plays. Like the scene with the witches at the beginning of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Several years ago, I had to write an essay about the first paragraph of a 1950’s book, Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith. Alfred Hitchcock made it into a very successful film, but I’d like to read Highsmith’s words:
“The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm. It was having to stop at smaller and more frequent stations, where it would wait impatiently for a moment, then attack the prairie again. But progress was imperceptible. The prairie only undulated, like a vast, pink-tan blanket being casually shaken. The faster the train went, the more buoyant and taunting the undulations.”
For me the tension and suspense which the novel creates begin in these opening lines, there’s anger, and this train tearing along, it was having to stop, waiting impatiently. Before attacking the prairie again. And the prairie itself, this casually shaken blanket, which becomes buoyant, taunting in its undulations.
The next paragraph launches you straight into one of the key conflicts in the book… but I won’t say anymore, just in case you want to read – or reread it.
So, back to our gospel reading. I’ll use the traditional name for this author, Mark. In his prologues he’s setting the scene, laying out the key elements, preparing us, his listeners. And, of course, like the early Christians, we are listeners not readers. And, it’s quite possible that in the early church the whole of the gospel was read in one go. And the gospel of Mark is a breath-taking race through the events and life of Jesus. “Immediately” is almost his favourite word.
Now, for me there’s an importance of seeing a narrative as a whole, of seeing the story a writer is trying to convey. Of course, we may miss some of the detail, but I think it’s important to see the bigger picture too.
In the same way that Strangers on a Train tells us this is going to be a thriller, with conflict and suspense, I think Mark wants to convey a theological story, not just a biography. In his opening he’s telling us something of the cosmic, apocalyptic nature of his story, and he doesn’t mince his words.
Ok, imagine you are first century Christians, there’s threat from the Empire, there’s persecution, even sometimes discord between Christian communities. You may have been familiar with these stories, as they individually they may well have been told and retold, but this is different, this is a written, authored, complete narrative.
Mark writes with a dynamic, powerful vision. He dives straight in: “The beginning of the gospel (or good news), of Jesus Christ, son of God.” It’s a bold statement. Maybe this is connecting to big themes, like Genesis 1 and creation? And, this is not ‘the gospel of Mark’, it’s the gospel of Jesus Messiah. And, in the context of the Roman Empire this is a very significant statement. As hearers you would have been subjects of Rome, and would have been used to the ideology of Empire, with the ‘gospel’ of Caesar, who was seen as the ‘saviour,’ who brought peace to the world.
So, Mark really launches the book in at the deep end, there’s a rich Jewish connection with Messiah, and there’s this contrast with the Empire.
So, in the verses we had read, Jesus, along with everyone else comes to John, and is baptised. Jesus submits himself to John, he doesn’t come saying: ‘get out of the way, I’m here,’ like Hollywood-heroes often do. He takes his turn to be baptised like everyone else.
Then as he comes out of the water everything goes cosmic. We almost jump into a sci-fi or fantasy novel. Jesus, and us as the hearers, see the ‘heavens torn apart’, and the Spirit flies down, presumably through these torn apart heavens, and the spirit descends into him. Then there’s this voice, which presumably only Jesus hears, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ What an opening for Jesus, this is dramatic, apocalyptic, powerful imagery. In a film this is the stuff of special effects.
And those words used to describe him are significant. They touch into themes from the Jewish bible, where the King was often designated ‘son of God’, and ‘beloved’ recalls Isaiah 42 verse 1, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my spirit delights, I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.” It’s the beginning of one of, what are often called, the servant songs. It connects strongly to the scene in the baptism, Jesus as King in some way, and as God’s servant, who is going to bring justice to the nations.
Now, If Caesar is seen as a divine being around whom all sorts of things happen, this signals to us the hearers, that Jesus is powerful and chosen too, but in a very different way.
And then? Well, the Spirit here is no cosy comforter, but instead is described as ‘driving’ Jesus into the wilderness. This is the same word used later in the gospel to describe driving demons out. It’s forceful. There’s no hanging about here, baptism, bang, then off to the wilderness. But its not like Matthew and Luke’s almost psychological version of the temptations.
Its brief in Mark. And, yet, he’s there for forty days, Satan tests him, he’s with wild beasts, and angels wait on him. He goes from the cosmic affirmative quality of the baptism, to this strange apocalyptic place of struggle, danger, a time of trial. There are echoes of prophets such as Elijah, who fled into the wilderness, (I Kings 19) before finding God in the stillness. Jesus has to undergo some sort of struggle, but it’s out of sight for us, he has to do it by himself.
Then John is arrested. Five words in the gospel. It’s all taking an ominous turn. This could get nasty. But, no time to rest.
In filmic terms it’s almost as if we see Jesus coming out of the hiddenness dust and of the wilderness, and then he comes to Galilee, at the other end of the country, where he’s described as ‘proclaiming the good news of God.’
Now, earlier the writer described the whole book as the good news of Jesus Christ, and now he has Jesus proclaiming the good news of God. In political terms this is a cataclysmic challenge to the Empire, but also, in some sense to the whole cosmos, with heavens tearing open and Satan tempting him. It’s sounding themes that will resonate throughout the whole of the rest of the gospel of Mark. We’re going to hear of Jesus taking on demons left, right and centre, doing miraculous healings, and challenging the temple and political authorities.
What is Jesus’ message? This is the opening statement from the central figure of the book, so, the passage is significant.
“The time is fulfilled.” Something about this cosmic opening. This is now.
“The Kingdom of heaven has come near.” Something has changed.
“Repent and believe in the good news.” This is the third mention of good news. It involves some sort of turning away from something, and believing this good news.
After this the gospel moves on into the detail of the story, but this prologue has set us up, in this fast-paced narrative, it’s set up themes and accents which we will hear playing out.
So, for us, at the beginning of Lent. What does it mean?
In some sense we are in the middle of the prologue. The forty days in the wilderness are being remembered.
The emphasis for me is the idea of being driven on from one thing to the next. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with taking a reflective, thoughtful approach to Lent, I think the gospel of Mark is urging us to get going, to be driven by the Spirit in the way Jesus is.
For us, there may be a personal sense of challenge. To tussle with our faith, with what we do, or don’t believe, with our own personal wilderness. Our own inner demons, wild beasts and angels. One of those questions I find comes round regularly is who am I as a Christian?
There may be a sense of responding as a church community. Who are we as a church? The ongoing discussions about the vacancy and our sense of identity are important. What does it mean to be following Jesus in this church now? In what sense do we as liberal, catholic, inclusive Christians have a message for our world? Our parish? For those whom we meet, and those we connect with.
It may mean we are driven to action of some sort, to take on the evils in our area, in our parish, in our world. Maybe, we can see some of it already in the range of activities we support as a church, charities, initiatives, lunch clubs, helping the homeless.
And, also there is a sense of the cosmic, the apocalyptic. World events are unpredictable, over the last decade or so, there’s been the financial collapse, Brexit, political shifts towards right and left, tensions in the Church of England, even possibly threatening splits. Part of Mark’s message is to say that we live in times that are troubling and have a much bigger dimension. With environmental threats, global threats, poverty, political challenges, what can we do? Mark’s hearers probably thought of themselves as small fish in the huge and powerful Roman Empire, unpredictable, turbulent, sometimes violent. Mark seems to be saying something new, something different has begun.
Mark’s prologue has pictured a radically different Empire to Caesar’s. This gospel invites us into an upside-down world compared to that Empire, one of servanthood, of proclaiming a Kingdom which is about God’s agenda, not our empires.
So… it is now.
It is here.
Let’s respond to it this Lent whoever, however, wherever we are…