Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington on Sunday 10th December at St Mary’s, Garsington.
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1: 1-8.
A few years ago Jonathan and I went to see the Welsh National Opera’s production of Tristan and Isolde. As we were queuing outside the New Theatre we happened to bump into a couple of old friends. They asked us, in an animated fashion, whether we had ever seen this Wagnar opera before. From our reply that we had not, they both took in a sharp gasp of breath and looked at each other and then at us. “Well”, they said, “you are in for quite a journey tonight, one that will change your life. After this evening things will not be the same.” We looked at each other in a bemused fashion, how could an opera change your life? Having children or changing jobs, Yes, but an opera, a story? Well, of course, they were right and Jonathan and I have never forgotten that journey we made into the musical landscape of Wagnar that took us from the love between two individuals to a transcendent vision of Love itself. It was indeed one of those evenings which did change our lives.
All of us here know the story of Jesus: his birth in a stable where he was visited by wise men and angels, his sojourn in the desert to be tempted, his choosing of ten disciples, his miracles of healing and casting out demons, his sermon on the mount and many parables, how he was betrayed in the garden with a kiss, his fake trial, torture and crucifixion and finally his rising again and ascension into heaven. We all know the history of this remarkable person, our Lord, our Saviour and the Son of God, but today in our Gospel reading we are invited once more to enter into the journey of that narrative and have our lives changed yet again.
Mark is so different in the way he opens his text from the other gospel writers. Matthew starts his work with a genealogy that encompasses the vast sweep of Jewish history. The person of Jesus is given a family tree and traced all the way back to Abraham, the father of the faith. In this way Matthew firmly locates Jesus within the history of the people of God. Luke, on the other hand, is more concerned with convincingly us that he has done his homework and written a definitive account of ‘the truth concerning that thing about which you have been instructed’. His gospel is written for Theophilus, the lover of God, to set down in writing the verbal tradition that is the basis of faith, whilst John opens his gospel with the cosmic vision of the beginning of all things and the descent of the Word into human flesh. He gives the philosophical perspective of the nature of Jesus and begins to come to grips with the profound significance of who this person Jesus really was and why he matters. By contrast Mark starts his gospel with a simply statement: the ‘beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. With these words we are invited on a journey that will change our lives. This is not just a story or a historical defence, or even a devotional or philosophical text, it is simply good news and it doesn’t matter how many times you hear it, it still has the power to change your life at the deepest level.
Mark does not open his gospel with any grand statements or justifications about why he writes, instead he begins with a person, John the Baptist. The passage from scripture which he uses to explain the ministry of John in the wilderness would not be lost on his early hearers and readers. Most people would have known that the voice crying in the wilderness to which he likens John has its roots in the book of Isaiah. But here, as we heard in our first reading, the paths that Isaiah speaks of are straightened in the most earth shattering and cataclysmic manner by God himself. Get ready the Lord is coming and when he does the valleys will be lifted up and the hills flattened, uneven ground will be made level and rough places plain. The world will be changed and all that made a journey through the Judean landscape difficult and arduous will be transformed into an easy path. On one level he is talking about the physical landscape but of course the meaning of this passage is more far reaching, every obstacle that prevents the passage between God and his people will be obliterated so that there will no longer be anything to separate them. It is this clearing of the way that Mark sees lying behind John’s call to repentance.
So at the beginning of the journey Mark invites us to repentance. But this call to repentance is not so much the clearing of a metaphorical path to make us perfect or worthy enough to receive the Lord who comes, where we sort out our own rough place and deep valleys; as an opportunity to cast away those burdens, and anxieties in our lives that prevent us from seeing and knowing the presence of God as he comes amongst us. Today we are invited once again to hear John’s words and lay down everything that makes our journey through life hard and difficult. These come in many different forms: traditionally we would call them sins but the language of anger, gluttony, lust, laziness, pride, envy, avarice just doesn’t seem to help any more. Maybe it is more useful to consider for a moment what it is in our lives that destroys our inner peace and fills us with a fear and loathing; that drag us down into despair and cynicism. It is these burdens that Mark invites us to lay down, to let go of, to turn away from, in order to hear the good news of Jesus. For the gospel news that Mark gradually unfolds is no less a coming together of God with man, an arrival of the Lord. He begins with a call to repentance but his whole gospel is the gradual transformation, a thawing of our hearts like the arrival of spring with the footsteps of Aslan that will release us to see the God who walks amongst us.
On this second Sunday of Advent when the church is devoid of flowers and decked in Lenten blue we are once again invited to enter upon that journey, to hear the good news of Jesus, to follow John’s call and shed those burdens that weigh us down, to have our lives changed yet again. But let us ensure that this is not the best kept secret of the church and ever seek to enable others to experience that truth which sets us all free. Amen.