Sermon - The Gospel of Mark
Sermon preached First Sunday of Advent 2005
By The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley
On this day last year, the first Sunday in Advent I spoke to you about the Gospel of St Matthew. Today being the first Sunday on the new year in the church calendar, we move on to a different Gospel. This year we will be spending a lot of time reading and studying the gospel according to St Mark. He is, of course, the patron saint of our beloved church here, and so it might be of special interest to think a little about what is known of him and learn more about the gospel which carries his name.
Little is known about Mark the man, although he is widely believed to be the
John Mark, cousin of St Barnabas, who set out with Paul on his first
missionary journey. This John Mark later went with Paul to Rome and was with
Barnabas in Cyprus. But there is no firm evidence that the writer of the
Gospel and this man are one and the same. Many legends grew up filling in
the lack of detail about him. According to Eusebius, an early church writer,
Mark went to Alexandria and became the first bishop there. He has strong
associations with the city of Venice.
Until the twentieth century St Mark’s was regarded as the least significant of the four Gospels and it was the least studied. This was because ninety percent of Mark’s gospel appears in St Matthew. And about half is found in St Luke. Mark does not include many of the parts of the Jesus story that we hold so dear – for example he does not include the nativity story. Very little of the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus find their way into Mark’s gospel and it does not contain the marvellous parables such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. The view of the early church scholabs was that Mark was a rather inferior imitator of St Matthew’s writings and of little independent value. Indeed it might have been dropped from the list of Gospels included in the canon, if it were not for one important tradition attaching to it – that Mark had been a disciple of St Peter himself. It was thought that Mark might be the person mentioned in 1 Peter 5: 13, whom Peter refers to as “my son Mark”. It seemed likely that the details and facts in the Gospel had been passed directly from an eyewitness. Could have been Peter, the most important of all the disciples who reported directly to the writer? Interestingly this tradition that the Gospel was written by a friend of St Peter has recently seemed even more likely because it has been discovered through scientific and linguistic analysis that it may well have been written soon after the death of Peter in AD64.
In the last century, scholars came up with a highly convincing theory that
far from being an after-thought Gospel, Mark’s writing’s did indeed show
evidence of having been the earliest record available of Jesus’ teachings,
and that Matthew and Luke had borrowed” bits of text from Mark and another,
now tragically lost, gospel called “Q”.
Interesting though all this Bible scholarship is, having established why
Mark’s Gospel is valuable and important- what qualities characterise Mark’s
gospel? The language in which it was written was the popular Greek spoken
throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The writer shows knowledge of the
Jewish and Aramaic societies in which Jesus lived, suggesting that he like
St Paul, whom he may have travelled, was born a Jew. In his Gospel, Mark
stresses that Jesus discarded the dietary laws which had been sacred to
observant Jews. The emphasis that Mark puts on the Lord making these
profound changes in lifestyle probably means that he made the tough choice
to do so, too.
The Gospel opens with the preaching of John and Jesus being baptised in the
river Jordan, and with no preliminaries, the mission of Jesus begins. St.
Mark's style is clear, direct, terse, and picturesque, if at times a little
abrupt. Mark is a master storyteller, slowly revealing the secret of Jesus’
divinity. At first it is only John who knows, then it is demons that are
made to keep silent. Then it is revealed to the disciples, and then through
miracles, healing and his spiritual authority, to the discerning in the
crowds. The suspense is increased, as after a healing such as that of
Jairus’s daughter, Jesus “strictly charged that no one should know….”
The disciples are depicted as full of weakness , sometimes as downright
stupid. I find this both confusing and encouraging. Confusing because surely
the first followers of Jesus were heroes who gave up their livelihoods and
families in order to become disciples? Scholars have argued that this
continual failure of the disciples is a literary device, a way of showing
more clearly what Jesus wanted to teach. The disciples are the fall guys,
they misunderstand and are corrected. They ask the questions we might want
to and so we learn Jesus’ message.
The idea that even the disciples might be abject failures on occasion is oddly comforting. It shows us that Jesus chose to confide the knowledge of his divinity not to unflawed, shining examples of spiritual perfection, but to stumbling, confused and spiritually blind people who kept missing the point. The beautiful truth of this is that privileged though we are, as modern followers of Christ, he does not expect perfection from us, either!
What matters is our willingness to be followers and obey his commandments.
In today’s reading from Mark we hear part of a long passage of prophecy.
Just a few verses before Jesus has made the astonishing claim that the
mighty Temple of Jerusalem would fall and be destroyed. The disciples must
have been amazed and horrified. Jesus then went on to warn them that they
must be steadfast through wars and rumours of wars, through earthquakes and
famines. Holding firmly to the faith will be a mighty test of endurance. The
picture Jesus paints is bleak as he piles up image upon image of desolation
and strife. The words are magnificent, recalling the warnings of the Old
Testament prophets, but applying them to his own return to earth on the last
day to judge the fallen world. The writer skilfully strikes different notes,
sounding hopeful, fearful and joyful in successive lines. At the end of this
great symphony of warning comes the simple word: watch. Be watchful,
prepared and ready. Do not assume that you will always have time to amend
your ways, time to live as you know you should. Your time could have run out
before you know it. Watch!
We in the church are preparing to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus’ birth into this world. Advent is a time of waiting, hoping and spiritually preparing for the new beginning that is the birth of Christ. So why then are we beginning the Church year with prophecies about the end time? It is because the true meaning of Jesus’ incarnation was not, is not just about birth and life but also about death and salvation at the end of all things. In the end is our beginning. Amen