Preacher: The Venerable Peter Lock, Archdeacon (2001-2009)
4 December 2005, 10:30 (Advent 2)
Many people have been watching the production of Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’. For some this has been the first time they have encountered the wonderful description of the law court of chancery and all its goings on, or heard of the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. As with much of Dickens work there are the powerfully descriptive passages which expose the hypocrisy of the times he lived in, as well as those evocative pictures of places and people. One of the problems for translating the written word of the novel into the visual medium of TV has been how to capture those descriptive passages in an authentic way that reflects the power of Dickens’ narrative.
As I have been dipping in out of viewing it because of the awkward timings of transmission I’m not sure whether one of my favourite characters has appeared. But it is the person of Mrs Jelliby, the church do-gooder, who raises funds for all sorts of worthy causes, but at a cost. Dickens describes her most expressively through her children who have to save all their pennies for various missionary projects. At the end Dickens says that ‘they are the picture of the most abject misery’. Well, that’s a warning for us all! You feel that they could do with a visit to Harry Potter, followed by a MacDonald’s and then bed no earlier than 2am.
But how do you go about introducing a character in a novel? In deed how do you introduce people for the first time to each other? The gospel writers had the same question when it came to Jesus Christ. Today we heard the opening verses to Mark’s gospel: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ That one phrase, for it’s not even a sentence, is packed with meaning. Is it eg a title for the whole Gospel? Is it the heading for this first section? Or is meant to be a statement about the story of Jesus? All of these could be true.
But notice how swiftly Mark gets his message across. This is GOOD NEWS. It is GOOD because it is about proclaiming the victory of good over evil, love over selfishness, humanity redeemed. It is about God entering into the wilderness of humanity and the fragility of human life and all its conditions. No longer is God above, man below. He has entered the human stage in a decisive way.
It’s news because it is NEW – yes there have been good people before (and since), there have been the prophets. There is the past history of how God has continually come to the rescue of his people, but this time, this TIME, God has come among us like never before, in the way he could show us best of all, by becoming one of us.
And notice how, unlike the other gospels in Mark’s gospel there is no Christmas story. No angels, Mary or Joseph. No kings and shepherds. No philosophical challenge or connections made with a contemporary theology of the word becoming flesh. Where it does connect with all the other gospels is in the very next verse when it talks of John the Baptist. Jesus message is connected to John’s message but it goes further, much further, as John himself admits. It is about repentance and the radical change and movement of the heart to turn to God. It is about the presence of the Kingdom of God and his reign. But this kingdom’s presence and power is now seen in the person of Jesus Christ. God breaks into human history through a person to reveal his sacrificial love and his loving purposes for the world and all creation. And the first person we are to hear about is not actually Jesus but the one through whom Jesus’ story is opened: John the Baptist. For much of the time we shall not only hear about Jesus but we shall hear of his story through the way it affected people’s lives. We shall hear of Simon and Andrew and James and John. But Mark isn’t always good at remembering names. He forgets Peter’s mother-in-law’s name (not fatal, by the way!) whom Jesus cures of a fever. Nor does he recall the name of the man who was lowered through the roof by his four friends (who again are unnamed). But that isn’t what Mark is about. He wants us to encounter Jesus Christ, Son of God, through the stories of the way others encountered him and were changed, so that the good news becomes just that for those who read and hear of the story.
But of course in our world and way of looking at things so often what is good news for some is bad news for others. Read of the cricket scores in Pakistan and you’ll get my drift. So often we can only think of winners and losers. In a way the gospel is about this but in another it’s not. Yes it’s not good news for Herod and the likes of him who wish to exercise power by trampling over the lives of children. It challenges that power to its core through the way Jesus challenges those authorities that want to live by that sort of vicious code. For God’s power is of a different sort. It is about love, about raising up the downfallen, about seeing the Kingdom in and through the eyes of a child. It is not good news for those who wilfully exploit others for their own selfish gain. But it is good news in that no one is beyond the possibility of change and of redemption. I am reminded of the insight of Bishop Michael Marshall when he said ‘God didn’t come to make bad people good but sinners holy’, and that sort of change is called repentance, the movement of the heart and mind to God.
We shall be following the story of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God, for the next Liturgical Year. So watch for the encounters that they may speak to you and your situation. For the good news is for you and our generation.
Jesus is not just for Christmas. He is for all time. And for all people. This is good news indeed.