Sunday 10th December 2017 – Sung Eucharist

Isaiah 41:1-11        Mark 1: 1-1:8

Don’t be alarmed, but I thought I’d carry out a little market research, as I’ve done once or twice before! So it’s Christmas cards and Christmas round-robins. Hands up if you’ve done all your Christmas cards. Hands up if you write a Christmas letter. Last one: hands up if you hate and loathe Christmas letters with a passion!

I have to confess we do write a Christmas letter. In the one year we didn’t, we had complaints from friends about it in the following year’s Christmas cards! On the basis that a picture’s worth a thousand words, I find I can now get away with photos and brief caption to go with each. This year it’ll basically be weddings, weddings and more weddings!

Those who hate the whole notion of writing Christmas letters do so largely because they feel terribly inadequate when they read of the successes and achievements of everyone else. One we’ve received this year tackles that head on:

‘I’m quietly confident,’ a friend writes, ‘that this will be your favourite round-robin Christmas letter this year, purely on the basis that no one wants to read about success. Very fortunately, we haven’t had any. As Gore Vidal put it, “Every time a friend succeeds, a little part of me dies.” Personally, I find this deeply offensive. I’m delighted when a friend succeeds, but only if I’ve succeeded a little bit more.’

And so it goes on, very wittily, to its conclusion.

In others we’ve received, several mention the general state of the world. One for example concludes, ‘We, like so many of our contacts, find the world situation very disturbing. Attitudes seem to be becoming more tribal, and we have a sense of helplessness amidst this.’ Well, this week’s Brexit negotiations and Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel will have done little to alleviate that sense of helplessness, even, in some cases, despair.

Today’s readings from the Prophecy of Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark both address situations of helplessness with good news. The Biblical book which bears Isaiah’s name is really three books, which between them cover a period of nearly 200 years. Chapters 1-39 concern the situation at the end of the eighth century before Christ, under the rule of Kings Ahaz and Hezekiah, when the political situation was particularly volatile and unstable. Isaiah of Jerusalem warned Ahaz and Hezekiah against making political alliances against Assyria. The warning was ignored and Jerusalem was then besieged by the Assyrians, but they eventually withdrew, possibly as a result of the spread of the plague.

Chapters 40-55 come from the time of so-called Second Isaiah. In 587 or 586 the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem, too, destroyed the temple, put King Zedekiah to death and deported thousands of people into exile in Babylon. It was as if God had abandoned them to their fate. From within a situation of exile, though, Isaiah, speaks words of hope and consolation. Whereas Isaiah of Jerusalem had announced that the invasion by Assyria was God’s judgment against sin, Second Isaiah speaks no words of blame, accusation or recrimination to a people who are utterly broken by their experience, but only words of compassion, grace and healing: ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.’ She’s suffered more than enough. And the reason for hope? Because God himself is coming, ‘Lift up your voice, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God”.’ And the remaining chapters of Isaiah address a people who have indeed returned to Jerusalem, who’ve been restored.

It would be possible, of course, to be rather cynical about the Biblical narrative, because when Mark announces, ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,’ the situation is yet again one of enslavement, oppression and subjugation, just it had been in Egypt some 1400 years earlier, and again under the Babylonians in the sixth century. In the fourth century, Israel had subsequently been dominated by the Greeks, and when Jesus comes on the scene it’s the same old story, but this time under the Romans. It’s not surprising that people longed for someone to come and sort things out once and for all.

Mark’s Gospel begins with the claim that the God whom Isaiah had promised would come has indeed come in the person of Christ. The very opening sentence is provocative. To refer to Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ was deliberately and consciously to challenge Roman claims to supreme authority. When Julius Caesar’s adopted nephew, Octavius, succeeded him in 44BC, he assumed the title ‘Divi Filius’, ‘Son of God’, and these words were imprinted on all Roman coins. It wouldn’t have been surprising if Mark’s audience thought that in presenting Jesus as the Son of God, Mark was telling the story of one who would enable an uprising against the Romans to topple the status quo.

Except that they knew how the story ended: not in triumph and vindication but in tragedy and disaster. This Son of God ended up on a cross, the supreme instrument of torture and death under the Romans. The God who comes to save was himself defeated by worldly power.

So where, we might ask, is the good news in all this? It seems pretty bleak. Well the good news isn’t something that’s handed to us on a plate, as if it were a kind of divine memo. That would merely be information about God. The good news has to be discovered through experience. We have to live it and test it out in our own lives. We’re invited to discover the good news not as information – to believe that Jesus is the Son of God – but as transformation – to trust in Jesus and follow his way as the path that promises to lead us into fullness of life, freedom and love. The catch is that it’s only in following the path that we can discover whether it’s truly good news for us or not.

So we have to launch out in faith. And that’s scary because the path that Jesus takes us on is one which necessarily and inescapably involves us in dying to self. You see, the Roman emperor lives in all of us, the one who seeks to dominate, to exercise power and control over others, to oppress and enslave, to act violently and brutally in order to get our own way.

But this isn’t who we really are. In Jesus, Mark presents us with an image of our true selves. That’s why the Gospel ends in such a mysterious, open-ended, cliff-hanging way. It’s as if the evangelist is saying to us, ‘If this story is really to be a good news story, you have to be part of the good news yourselves, you have to become the good news yourselves, whoever you are and whatever the circumstances of your life.’ And that requires us to let go of our false selves, to let them die, to endure the cross in our own lives. In the process of being remade, though, our true selves, none other than Christ himself, begin to live. As St Paul, who knew all about transformation, outs it, ‘I live now, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.’

This is our calling, yours and mine and everyone’s, together: to let Christ be our life, to be good news in the world. Of course, it’s sometimes dispiriting, it often feels impossible, but that’s precisely the sort of discouraging context into which Mark was writing: to Christians suffering persecution under the Romans. Mark wrote to encourage, to say, effectively, this is the path Christ himself trod before us, and this is the way he becomes real in our lives, too. There is no other.

At the end of the second Christmas letter I referred to earlier, our friends have quoted words written in 1967 by the Scottish philosopher and theologian John MacMurray. They also seek to encourage and seem peculiarly appropriate:

‘Whenever we are driven into the depths of our own being, or seek them of our own will, we are faced by a tremendous contrast. On the one side we recognise the pathetic littleness of our ephemeral existence, with no point or meaning in itself. On the other side, in the depth, there is something eternal and infinite in which our existence, and indeed all existence is grounded. This experience in the depths of existence fills us with a sense both of reverence and responsibility, which gives even to our finite lives a meaning and a power which they do not possess in themselves. This I am assured is our human experience of God.’

Had Mark been writing 2000 years later than he did, he could easily have said that in Christ the very ground of being comes to light and is fully embodied, to show who God is and who we are.

And you might like to know: that second letter I referred to earlier concludes with a hand-written note: ‘We look forward to receiving your Christmas letter – always a cracker.’