Materials for Worship at Home on 21st January, 2024

Nerys writes: The repentant Jonah fresh from the belly of the whale, the psalmist beset by enemies, Paul, writing at a time of great pressure from imperial Rome, and Jesus, starting his ministry under the shadow of John’s arrest – in each of our readings today – Jonah 3.1-5, 10, Psalm 62.5-12, 1 Corinthians 7.29-31 and Mark 1.14-20 – we hear of a response to a call to God at a time of crisis.

It is often when we are in crisis that we turn to God, seeking God’s wisdom or guidance, comfort or strength. We trust that God will hear our calls of distress even when they come out of the blue, but will we recognise God’s voice when God responds to our plea? As the Vicar of Soham said in the wake of the murder of two schoolgirls in his parish many years ago now, when we’re drowning is not the best time to start learning to swim. Getting to know God’s voice takes practice. It is a lifetime’s work.

Our Gospel today is the  first in a series of passages from the Gospel of Mark which will take us to the middle of Lent. I would like to encourage you to take time over the next few weeks to get to know God’s voice a little better by allowing God to speak to you through this Gospel.

Mark’s Gospel is a Gospel written at a time of crisis. Scholars think that it was produced either just after or just before AD 70, one of the most traumatic dates in the early history of the Jewish people. It was the year when Jerusalem was attacked and captured by the Roman army after a siege. Over a million people were killed and almost 100, 000 enslaved, the Temple was destroyed and the whole country laid waste. In its opening sentence, this work is described as an evangelion, a Greek word used for an important public announcement about a significant event which would change people’s lives for the better. It is a message of good news about someone called ‘Jesus Christ (Jesus the Messiah), the son of God’ . This was someone whose coming was prophesied by Isaiah and proclaimed by John the Baptist. This was someone who  came to Galilee announcing a regime change. God’s kingdom is at hand. It is time to change the way we think and the way we live our lives.

The narrative forges ahead with breathless urgency and excitement. It is written in the style of the popular storyteller as a series of anecdotes vividly told, with short sentences strung together, the word ‘immediately’ appearing time and time again moving the action swiftly and jerkily along. This is not a Gospel to be read slowly, chewing on every morsel. In fact, it was probably intended to be listened to in single session.

When we read it like this, we can imagine the disconcerting and exhilarating impact this Gospel had on those who first heard it, and we can begin to understand what its author is seeking to do. For hundreds of years, Mark was felt by the Church to be inferior to the other three Gospels which are written in a more sophisticated style and present in more detail the teaching of Jesus. It was only in the nineteenth century that it was discovered that Mark wasn’t an abridged version of Matthew but the earliest surviving record of the life and teaching of Jesus. And it is only in the last hundred years that scholars have realised that it is not simple or naïve but ‘shot through with deeply theological perspectives’, to use the words of Rowan Williams.

It is when we read or listen to it from beginning to end that we notice, that although Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels it consistently provides much more detailed descriptions of events than Matthew and Luke. In the account of the feeding of the five thousand, for example, Mark tells us that the grass the people were sitting on was green. This little detail which indicates what time of year the miracle happened, not only makes the story more vivid but also according to some scholars, suggests that it is based on an eyewitness account of the event. The identity of Mark has been lost in the mists of time, but there is an ancient tradition that he was the secretary of St Peter. This was recorded early in the second century by a bishop who had learnt it from his churches in Asia Minor. According to this tradition, Mark not only wrote down but also interpreted what Peter had said to him, so that it would be accessible to new hearers and readers.

It is when we read the Gospel from beginning to end that we begin to see the great skill and artistry behind the presentation of this series of apparently simple stories. Threads of continuity come to light and we notice repeated behaviour in the three groups of characters who appear regularly in the story. The religious authorities – priests, scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees – are suspicious, sceptical and argumentative opposed to Jesus from the start. The crowd which appears more consistently in Mark than in the other Gospels, is impressed by his teaching and his miracles but its members never seem able to take a step beyond expressing wonder and amazement. The disciples follow Jesus but never really grasp who he is and what he had come to do. It is only the ragbag collection of people in crisis – like the man possessed by demons, the woman who is haemorrhaging blood, Jairus whose daughter had died, the Syrophoenician woman or the blind man from Bethsaida – who recognise him as the Christ, the Son of God, and call out to him for help. The way Mark portrays these characters doesn’t just draw us into the story but challenges us to respond ourselves to Jesus from amidst the crises of our lives and our times.

I urge you to sign up to meet with others in the congregation to hear Mark’s message of good news read in a single session, or failing that, to set aside an hour and a half sometime in the next few weeks to read it through yourself. Allow this ancient little book to work on you, to bring you closer to Jesus so that you will better recognise God’s voice.

 

An icon of St Mark written by Diana, late wife of Hugh Grant.