This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30 Eucharistic on 11th January 2015, celebrating the Baptism of Christ. The readings were Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11.
I’ve discovered since having children the delight that can be had by being a bit counter-cultural. I know as Christians we talk of being in the world but not of the world, a challenging idea in a catchy phrase, but as we escape the Christmas hype & the incessant demands of a commercialised society there is real joy to be had watching the bairns discover for the first time things that you have loved since you were their age, that the marketing men probably see very little value in any more. So we have recently watched old episodes of “Button Moon” on YouTube, sung along to my 3 year-old’s new favourite band – Jethro Tull – and played a board game called “Escape from Atlantis,” a staple of my childhood that nobody else in the whole world, apart from the bloke selling it on eBay, had ever heard of.
But probably my favourite thing recently has been watching my eldest firstly pick up, then devour rapidly C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Since then the eldest three have watched through all the BBC adaptations I just so happened to own on DVD & have thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of the Pevensie children as they negotiate the pleasures and pitfalls of the strange land of Narnia. Of course, the books are steeped in Christian symbolism & allegory, something my eldest was quick to pick up on. She was delighted to link Jesus to the great and powerful Aslan, who throughout the novels tends to appear on the scene suddenly before rapidly moving from place to place in great leaps and bounds. At one point in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe it proclaims “he rushes on, never missing his footing, never hesitating.”
It’s interesting to note, therefore, that St. Mark and his Gospel have long been symbolised by the image of a lion. The four gospels are traditionally represented by four images of heavenly beings found firstly in Ezekiel 1:10, then similarly in Revelation chapter 4: Matthew symbolised by the one with “a face like a human face,” Luke the ox, John the eagle & Mark the lion.
And, just like the great lion Aslan, Mark’s Jesus literally bursts onto the scene.
In his own counter-cultural way, eschewing the usual beginnings of a biography of the time, Mark gives us none of the preamble of the birth narratives, family history or genealogy as in Matthew or Luke, or even the majestic & cosmic opening of John. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” is all we get – then we’re off with this fully grown God-man as He sets about His mission. Immediately we meet John the Baptizer, who lives well outside society’s norms: dressing strangely, talking to the religious people in a way that they thought was completely out of order, and enjoying a diet lifted straight from an “I’m A Celebrity” bush tucker trial.
Mark, in his hurry to move us along, doesn’t show just how threatened the religious authorities were by this wild prophet – but he does show just how much the public connected with him, as “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
But John was quick to point away from himself to Jesus which, as we all know, is the point of baptism – it’s a way of connecting with, of joining with Jesus. And Mark’s Gospel, for all its pace & brevity, is a clever lion. The next time baptism appears in it, Jesus uses it as a metaphor for His death, when He asks James & John if they can “drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” in chapter 10. Alongside this, there is no gentle “opening” of the heavens, as in Matthew & Luke. No, in Mark the heavens are “torn apart” before the voice declares “You are my Son.” The only other time Mark uses the Greek schizo is when the curtain of the Temple is “torn apart” after Jesus death, and the centurion declares “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” So the baptism and crucifixion bookend the whole Gospel – Jesus appears from nowhere to be baptised, and is baptised in order to die.
As we enjoy the first weeks of a New Year we are reminded, in our first reading today, of the beginnings of the world. God spoke His Word and light suddenly appeared.
The sudden, dramatic arrival of light in total darkness is an indescribable, unimaginable thing. So maybe that’s the point Mark is making by his sudden start to the Gospel. John takes the time at the start of His to explain Jesus is the Word, present at the very start of all things, that through Him all things came into being. In Mark the Christ suddenly appears, the light of the world arriving as dramatically as the light at the dawn of time, and remains until “At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon;” at the point of Jesus crucifixion.
At times it feels like our world is still struggling with this darkness. The events in Paris this last week, with people murdered in the name of God leaves some again asking the obvious question – where is God in this? Surely, if He’s a caring & loving as we say He is He would intervene – step down into the darkness & change the way people act, people think, and defeat evil, sin & death once and for all.
Well, here’s the thing. He did. He has. God in Jesus, who lived and died and rose again for us here and the whole of creation has changed the world.
Sadly there are still people that maintain the violence, terror and evil that perpetuates war-torn regions, land-grabbed areas and fierce reprisals against those they disagree with. However, football fans get understandably frustrated when the minority of people, who actually turn up for the trouble & not the match, are held up to represent them and thus all get painted as hooligans. Our Muslim friends suffer in a similar, yet far worse way when people such as the Kouachi brothers & so called Islamic State carry out atrocities and legitimise their lust for violence & glory by using the name of God. And that got some people thinking. One journalist put it like this
“What if the terrorists who attacked Paris were merely pretending to be offended by cartoons, in order to give themselves an excuse to commit murder? Murder so horrifying, on a pretext so unWestern, that non-Muslims – blinded by grief and rage – turn on Muslims. Blame them. Persecute them. Burn their book, attack their mosques, threaten them in the street, demand their expulsion from Western societies. Actions that, in turn, scare Western Muslims, isolate them, alienate them. And thus drive some of them to support – and even become – terrorists. Result: terrorists swell their ranks for a civil war they long to provoke.”
This is a pretty scary thought, and there are times, like the back end of last week, when it appears terrorists seem to be closer than ever to achieving this – especially when certain political figures add fuel to the fire to try to achieve their own agenda.
But now turn our thoughts back to Jesus Himself. He was mocked, beaten, spat on, tortured and eventually murdered, but did not raise a hand in violence and in fact healed and forgave his aggressors. As He told Peter,
“Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
In this, Jesus taught us the way to defeat evil. With love. This sounds trite and maybe overly passive, but love is the greatest weapon we possess in the so-called “war against terror.”
That “love your neighbour” thing. He meant that. Because by loving those around us, we break the cycle of fear. By treating seeing those around us through the eyes of Jesus we learn to recognise our common humanity, recognise we were all created by the same Father and Jesus died and rose again for each one of us. And this great love, arriving like the brightest, warmest light suddenly appearing in the darkness burns through the hate and despair. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.”
To blame the vast majority of Muslims for these acts of terror, to demand they apologise even, is akin to blaming all the Newcastle fans for the actions of the one who punched a horse the other year – or all Norwegian Christians for the attack carried out by Anders Breivik in 2011.
So we are right to condemn, in the strongest terms, the actions of those who commit terrorist attacks. We are right to pray for an end to such terror, for those responsible to be brought to justice.
But to truly have a chance of hastening the end of terrorism, whoever’s name it is carried out in, we need to pray as Jesus prayed & love as Jesus loved – which includes praying for the terrorists. After all, that “love your enemies” thing – He meant that too.
This takes courage – to love like this can be a scary, seemingly counter-cultural thing to do. But just as Aslan is not a tame lion, Mark’s Gospel is not a tame, comforting book. It reminds us that we have a responsibility as adopted sons & daughters of God to live His way, as shown by Jesus, whose power was realised in suffering, and whose kingship was proclaimed in death.
But take heart. The strong, brave lion of Christ is with us, to lead and to guide, to carry us when we falter, to inspire us to love. Because, “if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
He will show us the way the Father delights in, and help us to teach it to those around us – and by the power of the Spirit make the light of the world, present from the very beginning, shine into the darkest of places.