Do you like to hear a good story? Most of us do. I could say we all like a bit a gossip; to get the ‘hanes’ in Welsh. Who’s your favourite storyteller? You might come up with famous writers such as Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare, J K Rowling or Catherine Cookson. Walt Disney and ‘Pixar’ have done much to tell a good story not only in film but in giving people the opportunity to step inside the fantasy at one of their theme parks.
Often, our favourite storytellers are people we know who will spin a good yarn over a coffee or propping up the bar in the local pub. For children, parents, uncles and aunts or even teachers can be great at stories. What about you? Are you a good raconteur? For some of us, telling a story comes easily. For others we find it difficult to get the events in the right order or we some how fluff the punch line.
Today, our reading comes from Mark’s gospel. The writer tells a great story, the life of Jesus. Of course, he is just one of four to do so in our bibles and there were others around in the years after Jesus who tried to do the same. Each of these ‘gospel’ writers tell the story from their own perspective and seek to engage their listeners interests. Things come out differently in each account. There is no right or wrong way of telling Jesus’ story. That’s an important for two reasons. First: no one is making the story up. Like newspaper reports, or witness statements in court, the differences mixed with the corroborations give each gospel the feel of an honest account. Secondly: when we talk of Jesus, we should not feel there is a set way of doing it. Your personal experience of Jesus however it is framed can send a powerful message to someone else that he is worth considering. It should of course be consistent with what we read in the bible, what we have learnt from others as we have grown in faith, but it will be our telling of the Jesus story, which is not solely historical, but part of the lives of all Christians today.
Returning to Mark’s account, it is the shortest of the four gospels in the bible. He has a rapid-fire delivery of the story. Our reading is a good example of that. Mark the storyteller does not hang about. In seven short verses he covers three important parts of Jesus’ earthly life.
Firstly, he tells us about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. It’s like any other baptism until he comes out of the water. Then two remarkable things. The Holy Spirit is actually seen to descend on Jesus resembling a dove and a voice speaks from heaven saying: ‘You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1.9-11) We could spend time pondering the exact nature of these phenomena but to do so is to miss the point. The eyewitness accounts which had reached Mark clearly told him that Jesus’ baptism was remarkably blessed by God’s presence and he has recorded that in his story. Just as God had been pleased with each phase of creation in Genesis, so is he pleased with his son. Mark tells us of the special and unique activity of God in Jesus.
Next, Mark takes us up into the Judean wilderness east of the Jordan. It is a barren forbidding and surprisingly remote are even today a harsh place to survive. Jesus is tempted here by Satan or the devil. Stripped of all human comfort, the temptation is to use his Father’s power for his own comfort and glory. Matthew and Luke fill in the details. Not only is there the moral and spiritual danger of temptation but Jesus is also beset by the mortal danger of unspecified wild beasts which were one of the perils of the wilderness. From the high point of his baptism to the low point of the wilderness, Mark makes us aware that both are the work of the Holy Spirit. God has not retreated. He remains in the wilderness place, a fact underlined by the reference to angels. Mark tells us what is important to know, that the Jesus story is not just about enjoying God’s presence and calling, it is also about holding true when the going gets tough.
Thirdly, Mark takes us to an unspecified time after the arrest of John the Baptist. Jesus has now moved north to his home territory of Galilee to proclaim, to make known the good news of God. Mark sums it up in a few short words: ‘the time has come, the Kingdom of God is near, Repent and believe the good news’ (Mark 1.15) There will be much more to tell, but this short line sums what remains the essence of the good news of Jesus: ‘Its time, God has acted, be sorry and believe Jesus.
In these verses, Mark sets the scene for his telling of the Jesus story, but leaves some invaluable pointers for us in our telling of our story of Jesus.
- It is all about Jesus. In this gospel, the baptism of Jesus, rather than his birth sets out to say who Jesus really is. When we speak of Jesus, we should speak not just of a good man, a prophet, a martyr to the cause, but the only man in world history in which the fullness of God uniquely dwells and thus has the power to make all things new. With him the Father is well pleased.
- It is not just about good times. Just as the Holy Spirit of God pushed Jesus into the wilderness, so he will do the same for us. But like Jesus, he will not leave us comfortless, he will come to us. (John 14.18)
- The good news is not some esoteric complicated myth. It is incredibly simple. The time is now, God has acted, acknowledge the wrong in your life to God, believe in Jesus and through him live a new and redeemed life.
Our Lent course encourages us to reflect on our own story and how it relates to God’s story. This week we will read some of the marvellous stories Jesus told himself such as the prodigal or lost son. But stories are only good if you have ears to hear. Have you the kind of ears that are listening to Jesus’ story today and being transformed by it?
Jonathan Smith Lent 1 21.02.2021