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Last Sunday’s Sermon

‘Lights, Camera, Action!’ Imagine St Mark, not hunched over his desk, but sat next to a huge movie camera. Not writing a gospel, but directing a film.

Mark takes us to a rocky desert wilderness, with mountains of sandstone all around. Perhaps a desultory sheep attempts to graze, but there is little pasture to be found. As the camera pans across the scene, there is nothing to draw the eye, except more of the same. We hear a voice-over, ‘It is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way: a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his path.’”’

And now, in the distance. through the shimmering heat haze, we see a patch of greenery; and now some figures come into focus. As the camera zooms towards them, we make out the messenger in question: John the Baptizer, stripped to the waist and perspiring in the hot sun, up to his knees in the clear waters of the River Jordan. We can see that he’s preaching to the knot of people arrayed on the bank in front of him. We look over their shoulders at this strange, excited man, waving his arms and ranting about repentance.

As the camera stills, we see that John has fallen silent, and a figure whose face we cannot see walks towards him into the river. John’s manner changes, and now they both move deeper into the stream. John plunges Jesus beneath the crystal water; and as he re-emerges, the bright mid-day sun seems to shine with greater brilliance. And they hear God’s voice: ‘you are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’. If this really were a film, it is not until this point that Mark would for the first time show us Jesus’ face.

For this is the drama of the opening of Mark’s Gospel: we don’t ‘see’ Jesus, until John has baptised him. We don’t ‘hear’ his voice until God has spoken about him. A biography of Jesus would lead us through his boyhood, and explain the formative influences in his early life. But Mark’s only concern is to show us the drama of salvation. It begins here at the Jordan, as Jesus submits to John’s baptism.

It ends? Well, we know how it ends, and Mark almost harries us towards the story’s climax, at lightning speed. ‘Straightway’, ‘immediately’ are the key words of his story, driving us relentlessly from the Jordan to Jerusalem, and the cross that awaits.

Now imagine another film with me. The setting is twenty, forty, sixty, perhaps even eighty years ago, so try to get the costumes right in your minds. Turn-ups or flares? Mini skirts or bobby socks? The scene is probably a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, in church, and a family have brought their new baby for baptism. We can’t see the baby yet, just as we couldn’t see Jesus a moment ago. But most of the other people in this scene should be familiar to you, although they are a lot younger than you remember them. What if uncle Bert had brought his camcorder along, and they had made a film of your baptism? For you are the baby in this imaginary epic, and this might even be the location in which it took place. A lot less water in the font than in the Jordan of course, though noticeably colder. No heavenly voice, just the rector, probably intoning time-hallowed words from the Prayer Book, ‘I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.’ Did you scream and protest, I wonder? Was the rector late, as he was for my baptism, thus giving my father the perfect excuse never to set foot in the church again?

The story since that far-off day has been in real-time of course, not at the break-neck pace that Mark sets us in his gospel. We all have a biography, the story that is uniquely ours. How you got burned by the iron as a two-year-old, although mummy didn’t understand why you were crying, and in exasperation ‘gave you something to cry about’; how she cried, as you set off on your first day at school; how you left home at the age of whatever it was. Tears again, but of sadness, or of relief? Christmases and birthdays, marriages and funerals. There will be a huge amount of detail, that someone making a film of your life would have to sift through and try to make sense of. There will have been many significant events, there will have been many characters in your story who have influenced you greatly. And there will also be much in our stories that probably isn’t worth the retelling: the same old same old, rather than significant turning point or progress.

But Mark’s Gospel is very short. If you have a spare ten minutes when you get home today, you could read through the whole thing. Mark is concerned, not simply with biography, but with the drama of salvation played out in the three years of Jesus’ public ministry.

Could there be a ‘gospel’ of your life, I wonder? What would be the essential elements of such a work? Mark chooses from the wealth of material available to him a few of the stories from Jesus’ life: stories that tell us what sort of a man he was, what was important to him, what his life was ‘about’. Crucially, he tells us about Jesus’ death: a quarter of the Gospel deals with the last three days of Jesus’ life. None of us has got that far yet, of course, nor will it be of such epoch-changing import when it does.

But Mark’s Gospel starts with Jesus’ baptism, as we’ve seen. This too is crucial, just as ours is. This baptism was the foundation for Jesus’ ministry, the way Mark tells it. This emergence before John in the desert, this commissioning by God, is the preparation for all that lies ahead.

Your ‘gospel’ would start with your baptism. What would follow? Stories that show who you are, and what your life is about. The significant moments when God drew close to you. But also, the times when he seemed particularly distant: the wilderness experiences that Jesus is about to undergo in Mark. The times when you saw clearly the right thing to do, the right path to choose; but also the times when the way ahead was confusing, and you made the wrong choices. The times when you ‘stood up to be counted’ as a Christian, but as well, the times when you strategically maintained a low profile. For God was here also, imperceptibly sometimes, in the background: comforting, sustaining, encouraging even when the day seemed blackest. So you could do it, you know. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in the life of: insert name here. The drama of salvation, as it is being played out in your experience.

And was it your baptism at the start of your gospel that equipped and prepared you for all this? A few drops of water on a baby’s head to prepare you for service, for worship, for life? That may sound preposterous, but the point is this. God says of you, as well as of Jesus at his baptism: ‘this is my beloved son, this is my beloved daughter, with whom I am well pleased’. And though you could not hear the voice, as heaven is torn open, nevertheless God is here at the start of your gospel, and through everything that has followed.

The Sermon is based on the following passage from the Bible: Mark, chapter 1, verses 9 -  15

© Jon Russell 2018