A sermon preached online at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 6 December 2020.
Recently we’ve had a string of exciting announcements about vaccines that can successfully combat Covid-19.
I remember earlier on in the pandemic there was a lot of caution about how long vaccines might take to develop, how effective they might be, and even whether a vaccine might be found at all.
We can now put those concerns behind us. The end of this long haul is in sight and what a sense of relief and hope that brings. It’s wonderful news.
Our feelings find strong echoes in today’s readings.
The opening words of our first reading:
‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term…’
These words were spoken by an unknown prophet at the lowest point in the history of the people of God.
Psalm 137 gives voice to their feelings:
‘By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept…’
as well they might.
In Babylon they were in exile having lost everything, land, livelihood, temple, influence, status, everything – and the exile lasted over 40 years. All was soon to change.
‘A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness
prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’
It was going to be a new exodus even more glorious than the one from slavery in Egypt. This time valleys are going to be lifted up, mountains and hills flattened and the ground made so smooth that the exiles can skip home – no wandering around for 40 years like last time, no snakes to contend with or mountains to climb – except for the person making the announcement:
‘Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion,
herald of good tidings;…..
say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’
Which brings us to the opening words of Mark’s gospel:
‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,
the Son of God.’
Mark’s gospel is almost certainly the first of our four gospels. 600 years has passed since those years in exile and Rome, not Babylon, is now the dominant empire.
There was a religious cult that surrounded the figure of the Roman emperor who was referred to as a son of god. One of these so-called ‘sons of god’ started a fire in Rome in 64 AD to clear the land for a building project; and to deflect attention away from himself, the then emperor, Nero, pinned the blame for the fire on the Christians living in Rome.
Mark may have written his gospel in Rome around this time; a gospel about a different Son of God who wasn’t the Roman emperor. So it’s a highly provocative announcement that Mark makes at the start of his gospel.
Even his choice of calling it ‘good news’ was a piece of political theatre. It was the word you would have used to describe an announcement about a significant public event: the emperor’s had a son, a battle’s been won, a vaccine’s been found.
It was the word used to tell the world that life was going to change.
These opening verses of Mark’s gospel are a prologue, subtle and disconcerting.
What’s missing are the angelic pronouncements; there are no shepherds, no wise men, no star to follow. Instead we get a strange figure coming on stage, John the Baptist, whose sole purpose is to point away from himself to one who is more powerful, and worthy, and who is able to baptise not just with water but with the Holy Spirit.
The most natural interpretation of these ideas is that John was expecting not just a human being, but God to appear.
In the Old Testament it is God who is the Mighty One, it is God who comes in judgement, it is God who pours out the Spirit. And of course what Mark will go on to say is that in Christ God does appear, and just how disconcerting that is we’ll discover as we read Mark’s gospel.
Even with vaccines now available, we’ve got a long road ahead. The pandemic has wreaked worldwide havoc on millions. Whichever way you turn, politically, socially, economically, it’s going to be tough for a long time.
Even when they came back from exile, that’s what the people of God found.
Even with their new Saviour, that’s what Mark and the early church found.
As they did, we too are going to have to dig deep.
The scriptures, both old and new, point to one constant place where hope, healing and compassion can be found:
‘See the Lord God comes….
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.’
We’re invited to place our trust there; and so to be people of hope, healing and compassion for others, in the months and years ahead.