A sermon preached on the Feast of Mark the Evangelist, Tuesday 25 April 2017 by Canon Robert Titley Treasurer
Mark’s gospel (the writer of which we celebrate today) is a white-knuckle ride of a book, with surprises even for people who know the Bible well. Mark’s Jesus is stranger, wilder even, than he is in the other gospels. He heals people then swears them to silence. He tells them parables, he says, to confuse them, and his stories are stark: no Good Samaritan, no Prodigal Son, no Buried Treasure, not many stories about people at all; instead, tales of seeds growing, the inexorable forces of nature. And no Christmas stories: Jesus just appears, fully adult, to be baptised in the river Jordan.
Then, after a reflective pause, things happen at speed. The start of Mark is breathless, with Jesus first here, then there, changing lives. But, as he makes enemies and the forces against him gather strength, the pace slows. Jesus sets off, deliberately, for Jerusalem, and briefs his disciples on what awaits them there.
We meet them tonight immediately after their arrival. In the verses just before ours, the disciples - like country boys in the big city - gawp at the temple and the other sights. All this? says Jesus. All this stuff that’s making your jaws drop? It’s all going to go, even the Temple, the place of meeting with God. What? they say. When will this happen? How will we know when it begins? In our reading Jesus begins to tell them, with a catalogue of beatings and betrayals and families set against each other, the things that happen - still happen - in war and occupation. The key to salvation, says Jesus, will be endurance.
The early audiences of Mark’s gospel would have known all about this. They knew – perhaps some of them had seen – how the Jews rose up against their Roman oppressors and how the Romans had assaulted Jerusalem in AD70. What did God do? Some had probably hung on to the conviction – even as the Romans put their siege ladders against the walls – that God would rescue them, as he had their ancestors. Surely he would protect the holy city, his own house, the place where his glory dwelt. But no. The Romans smashed it all to pieces. That sent a shudder of thought through the Jewish world. For some it meant the end of faith as they knew it. After AD70, whole groups just vanish from the Jewish map. What survives from the rubble is the Judaism of the rabbis - and the Christian church.
Mark’s gospel here shows something of how God works - sometimes the catastrophe happens. Think of our own times. Afghanistan again on the brink, France poised between hope and anger (and who knows what awaits us in our election campaign), the US and North Korea squaring up - possibly. The unbearable plight of Christian communities in the middle east. What will God do? Stop moving in a mysterious way and step in? Mark’s story of Jesus suggests otherwise. Will God change the physics of climate change if enough of us refuse to believe in it? Or give us overnight an aversion to air travel, meat-heavy diets and standby buttons that never switch off? From what we read here, probably not.
God allows a world to exist which works by cause and effect, and God is not in the habit of abolishing this principle to save favoured people. None of us – no place, no people, no particular way of life – is so privileged that we are exempt from the flow of events. None of our arrangements, however agreeable, are so vital to the purposes of God as to ensure their survival.
It’s not that God doesn’t care or can’t do anything. A big part of the message of Mark, especially in those breathless early chapters, is that in Jesus God’s energies are among us. And those on the edge of things - the ritually unclean woman, the man with leprosy, the one who can’t see or can’t walk or can’t communicate, the person who needs forgiveness - these people receive the things that suddenly become possible when God takes a local address among them and touches their lives. Yet God will not step in and turn away the impending catastrophe.
We know this paradox. I’ve had some conversations lately in which it seemed not unduly pious to talk about God being at work. Two were about vocation - signs, nudges that God is at work in someone, inviting them in a particular direction. Another was a real answer to prayer. Exciting, full of promise. God is good. Then I saw on the news how on Easter Day a group of men in Portsmouth had maimed six women in a homophobic attack. God didn’t stop that.
Sometimes catastrophe happens. Then you either lose God, or you discover that knowing God does not in the end depend on the apparatus we create, the structures, the institutions, however important they are. Those who make this discovery find a strength that can withstand the outward disasters of life, even the loss of things the world sees as indispensable.
To be truly secure is to know the presence of the one who was annihilated by death then raised to unbounded life. The signs that he is among us are there, on the altar, in the bread and wine he invites us to share. And the sign of his indestructible love is under the spire - we shall pass it as we leave - the scene that ends Mark’s gospel so enigmatically: an untenanted tomb. The first to find that empty space of hope on the first Easter morning had lost everything, and still came there. And those who find it now will know the truth of the words Jesus speaks this evening, that the one who endures to the end will be saved.