How is 2018 treating you so far? We’re two weeks into the New Year and I wonder how things are going for you? After the excitement of Christmas, January always comes as a bit of an anti-climax, doesn’t it? I gather the first Monday back at work after Christmas is now officially the most depressing day of the year!
But don’t despair - because in Mark’s Gospel today we arrive at a genuinely new beginning. We come face to face with some truly great news, news to put joy in our hearts on even the wettest, coldest, most miserable January mornings! It all starts in verse 1 of our reading – which says: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Those words were written by Mark to catch our attention and encourage us to carry on reading. Mark is saying that if we want something new to do this year, the best thing we can do is pick up this book. Mark is saying that if we want something to cheer us up on a cold winter’s morning, then read his gospel - read his message of good news.
And so that’s exactly what we are going to do! Between now and Easter we are going to be looking at Mark in our Sunday Sermons and at our midweek house groups. We’re going to be spending time together in his Gospel. Its also a great book to read on your own as well. I have left some daily Bible reading notes on Mark at the back of church – yours for just £2! Do buy one on your way out.
As we go through Mark Gospel together this term, I hope you will see that it’s reliable, riveting and relevant.
Mark’s Gospel is reliable, because it is based on eyewitness testimony. By all accounts it is based on the evidence of the apostle Peter, Jesus’ closest disciple. Peter is present in many of the key scenes in this Gospel, and most of the major events are recounted from his perspective. It seems that Mark was Peter’s ‘PA’ - his secretary, scribe and apprentice, and wrote down Peter’s testimony towards the end of his master’s life. Most Bible scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel was the first of the four Gospels to be written - probably in Rome around 60 AD – just a few decades after Christ’s death and resurrection.
Mark’s Gospel is also riveting – its short, pacy and action-packed! Everything seems to happen at breakneck speed - Mark keeps saying “immediately” this happened and then that. Unlike the other three Gospels, Mark includes relatively little of Jesus said, and focuses on what he did. It’s designed to be a page-turner thriller rather than a theological treatise - its designed to appeal to our hearts as well as our head.
And thirdly, Mark’s Gospel is relevant. It presents us all with a choice – do we recognise Jesus as God’s Son and King, or not? In our world of sin, suffering and sadness, do you understand why Jesus is such good news? Having encountered Christ in Mark’s Gospel how are we going to respond? Will we make him our King, our Saviour - our source of Hope – and will we tell others the good news about him?
So Mark is hugely relevant, as well as reliable and riveting. As we begin to look at it today, let me pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for Mark’s Gospel, written down for us. As we look at it together today and all this term, help us to truly understand and appreciate the good news it contains. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1. Get ready for God’s Son! (v.2-9)
This week we had a Cabinet reshuffle in Westminster. Theresa May rearranged her government and a few old faces were replaced by new members of her ministerial team. There has been a ‘changing of the guard’ you might say, with new government spokespersons for Northern Ireland, Justice and Education, for example.
A similar changing of the guard appears in verses 2 to 9 of our passage today. God’s Old Testament spokesmen - the prophets - handover to two new faces - John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. To understand what I mean, listen again to verse 2 and 3: ‘As it is written in Isaiah the prophet ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way - a voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’
When those words were first written by Isaiah they were a bold prediction that God would one day send someone to announce his imminent, personal arrival on earth. A messenger who would declare that the Lord was coming to bring blessing and forgiveness to his people, and judgment on his enemies.
As we read on to verse 4, we see that John the Baptist was this special messenger. Standing beside the river Jordan, wearing nothing but camel skin and a leather belt, he was literally ‘a voice in the wilderness’. His task was to tell people to get ready to meet with God – the Lord’s arrival was imminent, and they had to get ready!
John told his hearers to get ready by repenting and seeking the forgiveness of their sins. In other words, he told them to say sorry for their past misdemeanours and seek God’s mercy. And he told them to be baptised in the river Jordan as a sign of their sorrow - as a sign that they are serious about their sin and want it washed away by God.
What is remarkable is that people flocked to hear John speak. Verse 5 says the people of Judea and Jerusalem crowded around him, desperate to hear his message, be baptised and confess their sins. There was a spiritual hunger in the land, people had a strong desire to get right with God - the nation knew it needed forgiveness from the Lord.
How different from our own society today! It’s a tragedy that in twenty-first century England so many people consider Christianity boring, irrelevant or untrue. As we enter 2018 do pray that our community, our city and our nation will gain a hunger for God, a healthy fear of the Lord. Like the people of Israel in John’s day, we must all be ready to meet our maker. So share your faith with non-Christian colleagues, friends and family. Invite them along to Alpha. Pray that their apathy, agnosticism - or even anger - about God will be replaced by repentance for sin and saving faith in Jesus.
Because faith in Jesus was the core component of John’s preaching. John didn’t want to become a celebrity - he wanted to point people to Christ. Listen again to John’s words in verses 7 and 8: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”
With those words John leaves us in no doubt that Jesus is far greater than himself. Jesus is the coming “Lord” whom Isaiah had written about. Jesus is the Lord God who alone can pour his Holy Spirit on his people - a promise he kept at Pentecost.
Actually, anyone who reads Mark’s Gospel is left in no doubt about Jesus’ divine identity. In just the first 8 verses of our reading today, he is already introduced to us as the Christ, the Son of God, the Lord, and the baptiser of the Holy Spirit. That’s not a bad CV – even Donald Trump can’t claim to have those credentials!
With that in mind, verse 9 comes as quite a surprise doesn’t it? It says “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan.” If Jesus is greater than John, we would have expected Jesus to baptise John, not the other way round! And if Jesus is the Lord, perfect and sinless, why did he undergo a baptism of repentance?
The answer is that Jesus had come to identify with sinners. He was born in Bethlehem to live among us, and he went into the River Jordan to identify with our sinful condition – despite being without guilt himself. Jesus’ identification with sinners reached its climax on Good Friday, of course, when on the cross he took our guilt upon his shoulders. He was the sinless substitute who died so that we might become God’s forgiven friends forever. That’s the very heart of the gospel - the good news - that Mark is so keen to share with us.
2. Join the Divine dance! (v.10-13)
I don’t know if you are a fan of Strictly Come Dancing (its certainly popular in my house) but the latest series finished at Christmas, and the famous glitter ball trophy was been awarded to Joe McFadden from Holby City.
In final verses of our passage today we are given a glimpse of another dance. A dance that has been going on for eternity and will never, ever end. Not a tango, foxtrot, or waltz - but a divine dance between God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Heaven is opened and we are given a short glimpse of this divine dance in verse 10 and 11 of our passage today. All three members of the Trinity appear in those verses. Listen again at what happens:
10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’
As Jesus was baptised, God’s Spirit descended upon him from above, and God the Father spoke to him from Heaven. As Jesus began his public ministry, the Father and Spirit became present to affirm him, empower him and guide him through all that lay ahead. As we see in verse 12, the Spirit’s first task was to send Jesus into the wilderness, for a face to face confrontation with Satan.
More generally, this scene gives us a window into the intimate relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. From before the dawn of time, there has been a relationship of love and co-operation within the very being of God. A relationship that created the universe and engineered our salvation. No wonder authors like CS Lewis and Tim Keller have compared the life of the Trinity to a dance. It’s a dance that we are called to imitate here on earth, and a dance that we are invited to join in with forever.
You see, if our Creator exists in an eternal loving relationship, then we are made for relationships too. The Trinity reminds us relationships matter. They are immensely important. They are what we were made for. One of the reasons why people find things like family life, music groups, sports teams, and clubs so fulfilling is that God the Trinity made us that way – we are made in its image. God is himself a kind of team, a ‘society’ of co-operation, love and service between the three persons of the Trinity. He wants us to seek out and enjoy those things too – especially as part of his Church family.
Best of all, the three persons of the Trinity don’t want to keep their own relationship closed. God invites each of us to enter a relationship with him – to join their dance, if you like. Every time we pray, for example, we are getting to know God the Holy Trinity, we are joining their dance.
As CS Lewis wrote: “when an ordinary simple Christian kneels down to pray to God the Father, he knows that what is prompting him to pray is God the Spirit. And he knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Son of God. The man is being caught up in the life of the Trinity. He is being pulled into God, up to God, by God.”
Be in no doubt that God wants you to know him personally as your Father, your Saviour and your indwelling Comforter. If you put your faith in Jesus you don’t just get our ticket to heaven, you enter a relationship with God as well. You join the joyful, eternal dance of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A dance we will never tire of, a dance that will never end. So come to Christ, and come dancing with God!
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for sending your Son to be our Saviour, Lord and King. May we enjoy the relationship with you, in the fellowship of the Spirit, which Christ alone has made possible. Amen.