Sunday, 7 December 2014

'Good news' story, or good 'news story'?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
11.00am, 7th December 2014 – Advent #2
Updated 2017 for Amersham 10th December 2017

Mark 1:1-8  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;  3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"  4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Isaiah 40:1-11  Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.  3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."  6 A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.  8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.  9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!"  10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

A Labour Party spin doctor infamously remarked,
            on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001,
            that that day was a ‘very good day’ to bury ‘bad news’.[1]

Whilst she was, with some justification,
            vilified by the press at the time,
I think that in many ways her reaction to news management in the wake of tragedy
            was the product of a far wider and longstanding culture of cynicism and opportunism
            in the world of news, media, spin, and propaganda.

The question of ‘good news days’, and ‘bad news days’,
            and indeed of ‘good news’ and ‘bad news’
is not a straightforward question
            of the moral difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

The thing is, a ‘good-news’ story, is rarely a good ‘news-story’.
            Stories of ‘good news’ are often confined to the final item on the local news,
                        and typically take the ‘lost puppy found’ style.
It is very rare for the headline news to be ‘good news’,
            rather, the stories we want to hear are stories of tragedy and trauma,
                        of wars and rumours of wars,
                        stories of money, power, and politics.
These are the good ‘news-stories’,
            and they are rarely ‘good news’.

On the rare occasion that a headlining story is presented as ‘good news’,
            the cynic in me is always looking beneath the surface of the story
            for the spin, the propaganda, the vested interest.

Take the news of a royal wedding,
            or the announcement of the expectation of yet another royal baby;
            both topics which have dominated our headlines in recent weeks.

Now please don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for Harry and Meghan, I really am.
            I’m happy too for William and Kate;
                        and the news of the arrival next year of their third child
                        is, of course, a cause for great joy for them and their family.

And whilst the news of another human baby might be good news in and of itself,
            as indeed are tidings of the safe arrival of any child,
it is only headline good news because the father will one day be king,
            and because of the power, wealth, and privilege of the family
            that the child will be born into.

And so the birth of a child,
            easily becomes a legitimation narrative to reinforce

            the ideology of inherited monarchy and entrenched privilege.

And in due course the Christening of that child,
            by the head of the established church,
will in similarly reinforce the symbiotic relationship
            between political power and established religion.

And it was ever thus.

In the Roman world, the birth of a royal child
            was trumpeted throughout the empire as ‘good news’.
The Roman propaganda machine would go into overdrive,
            to eulogise the emperor as the ‘divine man’
            and the birth of their child as the birth of a god.
There is an ancient inscription, which reads,
            ‘The birthday of the god was, for the world,
            the beginning of the joyful messages

                        which have gone forth because of him.’

‘Glad tidings of comfort and joy’, indeed.

The birth of the emperor’s god-child was hailed as ‘good news’
            because it ensured the perpetuation of the royal dynasty.

And so we come to the first verse of Mark’s gospel,
            written to a culture familiar with the carefully managed ‘good news’
                        of the emperor cult:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’[2]

Here, right at the beginning of the gospel, in the very first line of text,
            we find Mark setting up a conflict that will dominate everything that follows.
He serves notice to his readers, from the offset,
            that this story of Jesus will be one which challenges
            the apparatus of imperial propagation.

Like John’s gospel, Mark doesn’t offer us a ‘birth narrative’;
            we have to turn to Matthew and Luke
            for our singing shepherds, angelic choirs, and visiting magi.
Rather, he gives us a dramatic introduction
            to the arrival of the son of God in the course of human history.

Mark presents the coming of Jesus as the advent of the ‘anointed’ leader,
            who is confirmed by God himself,
and who bursts onto the scene of history
            proclaiming a ‘kingdom’ to challenge the might
            of the Roman Kingdom.

In other words, Mark’s version of the advent of Jesus
            is cast in such a way as to take dead aim at Caesar,
            and at the legitimating myths that supported his power.
From its very first line, Mark’s gospel is subversive.

‘Good news’ in Roman times, as in our own time,
            was usually news of victory on the battlefield
            as the imperial armies marched their way across the known world,
giving the gift of Roman Peace, the pax Romana,
            to a world that had no choice but to accept the gift,
            or to pay the price for refusing to comply.

In direct contrast to this, the ‘good news’ with which Mark’s Gospel begins,
            is a declaration of war upon the very heart of the violent empire,
                        as Jesus does battle with the political culture
                        of imperial domination.

We live in a world that is addicted to news,
            but as we have seen, ‘good news’ does not usually make good news.
A good, or effective, news story,
            is one that hooks the viewer or the reader into wanting to know more.
News of battles won, terror threats foiled, economic victories, and political standoffs,
            are the staple diet of our news media.

And they do for us what the Roman propaganda machine
            did for the Roman plebeians:
They sell us the narratives by which we then frame our lives,
            and they invite us to rejoice in the ‘good news’ of their protectionism,
                        as it comes to us through the secular deities of militarism and monarchy,
                        and the miracle of free market economics.

And it is to us, as it was to the world of the Romans,
            that the Christ-child comes.
And Mark would have us believe that he comes
            in a way that subverts the good parochial news stories of our time
            with a transcendent message of ‘good news’ for all time, and all people.

And so Mark takes us on a journey from the world of global domination,
            to the world of those who see history from the other side.
He invites us to step with him into the world of the under-dog,
            the world of the dominated,
                        the world of the refugee, the alienated, and the exiled.
And so he invokes the prophet Isaiah,
            and we hear a voice reading quotes from the prophet of the Jewish exile.

Interestingly, if you actually turn to Isaiah in the Old Testament, to find this quote,
            it’s not there quite as Mark has it,
not only because he was quoting from a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures,
            (whereas our modern Old Testament is a translation of a tenth century Hebrew text);
but also because the first half of the quote isn’t from Isaiah at all,
            it’s from Exodus and Malachi (Exod. 23.20; Mal. 3.1).

The second part of Mark’s quote is, however, from Isaiah,
            and is found in our Old Testament reading for today (Isa. 40.3).

As an aside here, for a moment,
            the fact that Mark can take three quotes, from three different places,
            and edit them together to form what he presents
                        as a unified quotation from Isaiah,
            tells us a lot about the way in which the early followers of Jesus
                        thought about their scriptures.
Not for them some restrictive doctrine of scriptural inerrancy,
            or any idea that the text is immutable
            and universally applicable in all times and all places.
Not for them any statement of faith
            that regards scripture as the sole and absolute authority
            in all matters of faith and practice.
Rather, Mark, and the other Gospel writers,
            regarded the Hebrew Scriptures as holy stories,
            that explored how and why God was at work in the world,
                        drawing people to himself
                        and reshaping human history away from oppression and towards liberation.
For them, scripture was more of an inspiration,
            than it was itself inspired.
It was there to engage with, to hear from, and to argue with,
            not to settle arguments and close down conversation!

Anyway, the way in which Mark edits these three quotes together is significant,
            because it tells us a lot about his subversive intent.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but the word ‘redaction’
            is suddenly in fashion at the moment.
Just in case you’ve missed this, it means, ‘to edit for publication’,
            and it’s a word that Biblical Scholars are very familiar with
as we look at the ways the gospel writers edited their source material together,
            in order to bring their different versions of the Jesus story into being.

So the scholarly discipline of ‘redaction criticism’, as it is known, looks at the motives
            for why things have been edited together in certain ways.

However, the word ‘redaction’ has come into more popular use
            through the way in which government departments have responded
                        to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act,
            where documents are released, but in so-called ‘redacted’ form,
                        with section obliterated where that particular content
                        is deemed unsuitable for public consumption.

The association with concealed statistics and government cover up
            has lent the word an air of mystery and intrigue;
                        it speaks of the mystique of subversion.
Which is exactly where Mark is taking us
            in his redaction of Exodus, Malachi, and Isaiah.

The Exodus reference, and its equivalent passage in Malachi,
            are combined and translated by Mark to read:
See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.’

And here, Mark takes us into the world of the Jewish slaves in Egypt,
            making their journey through the wilderness of Sinai
            on their way to the promised land.

The messenger who goes ahead through the wilderness
            is heralding the way for the people of God to make their own journey of liberation;
the Lord himself blazes the trail.

This is a story of emancipation, of freedom from slavery.
            And as such it is an inherently revolutionary story.
For any empire dependent on the enslavement of humans,
            the release of those slaves from bondage
            is an act of treason against the system that requires their servitude.

Whether it’s the Egyptians of the time of the exodus,
            or the Romans of the time of Mark’s gospel,
            or the American plantation owners of a byegone century,
            or those who currently serve in the sweatshops and brothels of our own time,
            held in economic slavery to the empire of global capital
                        that dominates our own world.
The release of slaves is an act of subversion.

What Mark leaves open for interpretation, though,
            is who the messenger of freedom is in the context of his gospel.
Is it John the Baptist, heralding the arrival of Jesus?
            Or is the messenger Jesus himself,
                        preparing the way for those who will follow him?
            Or is the messenger none other than God,
                        sending the gospel writer to proclaim to readers down the centuries
                        the good news of the advent of Jesus.

The answer to this conundrum may well be that all three are intended,
            because the advent of God is not a once-for-all event,
                        fixed in time and space.

            The God who comes to us in the infant Jesus,
                        a sign of hope in a world of oppression and darkness,
            is the same God who comes to us in the adult Jesus,
                        opening before all of humanity a way of being,
                        that is not dominated by death and enthralled by empire.
            And this is yet again the same God
                        who comes to us by the Spirit of Christ,
                                    as the stories of Good News that we encounter
                                    through the pages of the gospel
                        inspire new ways of engaging our humanity before God.

Sometimes, the coming of God into the world
            is full of ambiguity and uncertainty,
because this is the God who comes in the wilderness,
            to those who are lost,
offering a way through the desert to the new world of love and acceptance
            that he is bringing into being.

And so Mark introduces us to John the Baptist,
            the herald in the wilderness,
            living a marginal existence, surviving on locusts and honey.

John is found in the place where the exodus people fled
            as they left their slavery in Egypt.
He is found in the place where Jesus faces his own temptations,
            the place where Elijah sought sanctuary when hunted by the political authorities,
                        the place of solitude, loneliness, and liminality.

And it is from this peripheral place
            that the challenge to the centre emerges.
The voice of the one proclaiming the advent of the good news of the coming of Jesus
            is heard echoing from the hills.
If earthly power takes the centre ground,
            whether that be Rome, Jerusalem, or Westminster;
the prophetic voice of challenge comes from the margins.

Mark’s gospel deliberately sets up a spatial tension
            between two places that are symbolically and archetypically opposite.

The disparity between the margin and the centre,
            between the wilderness and the temple,
is something that Mark’s gospel returns to time and again.

According to the dominant Jewish nationalistic ideology of salvation history,
            Jerusalem was considered the hub
            to which all nations would one day come.
Mark turns this on its head;
            and far from beginning his story of good news with a triumphal march on Zion,
rather, he tells of crowds fleeing to the margins,
            to be baptised with the baptism of repentance.

Mark is setting the scene for the conflict
            that will only resolve itself at the crucifixion,
as the new kingdom of Jesus comes from the margins,
            to challenge the powers that dominate the centre.

The priestly and scribal establishment of the temple,
            whose social power was derived
                        from systems of religiously legitimates social control,
            finds itself in the same category as the emperor of Rome:
such power is deemed illegitimate by the coming Christ.

And the good news of the coming of Jesus
            is that all expressions of illegitimate power,
                        whether secular, sacred, or some fusion of the two,
            are called to account by the voice of repentance from the wilderness.

And so John the Baptist calls people to repentance,
            he invites them to confess the sin of their complicity
                        in the idolatrous powers of Rome and Jerusalem,
            and he baptises them in the Jordan as they, like the exodus people of old,
                        pass through the waters of the river
            as they make their journey from the old world to the new,
                        as they complete their pilgrimage
                                    from enslavement to the powers that be
                                    to freedom in the new kingdom
                                                that they are being called to bring into being.

The water-baptism of John, the baptism of repentance,
            heralds the baptism offered by Jesus,
who will, says John, baptise with the Holy Spirit.

If the baptism of water in the wilderness sets up a challenge
            to the dominant powers in the world,
the baptism of the Holy Spirit
            inaugurates a confrontation on a spiritual level
            with the underlying forces of idolatry
            that give rise to earthly expressions of centralised authority.

There is no darkness so dark
            as that which lurks in the human soul,
and we have such endless capacity to wreak havoc in creation.

The baptism of the Holy Spirit
            shines the light of the Spirit of Christ
                        into the darkest places of our souls and imaginings,
            bringing to the light all that would otherwise eat away at our humanity,
                        destroying us one day at a time until all that is left
                        are the false gods of our own devising.

Baptism is not simply about being sorry to God
            for all the wrong things we have done.
It is about opening ourselves to the transformative power of the Spirit of Christ
            that takes us away from the centre,
                        away from our dreams of power and our fantasies of success,
            into the wilderness where dreams are transformed
                        and fantasies redeemed.

It is only as we are baptised to be a marginal people
            that we find we can effect true change in the world.
The challenge here, at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, is clear:
            It asks us to consider in what way we will regard
                        the coming of Jesus to the world as good news?

If we see the coming of Jesus as the advent of power,
            to transform society from the centre
                        by forceful application of Christian values,
            then we side with Rome and Jerusalem,
                        not with John the Baptist.

If, however, we hear the one who comes to us,
            calling us to the wilderness to repent of our sins,
            calling us to baptism of water and the Holy Spirit,
then we hear the voice of the one crying in the desert.

Next week, in our evening service,
            we will be having a service of baptism,
as we bear witness to the transformative work of Christ,
            in the life of one of his followers.

But the waters of Baptism speak to all of us,
            maybe reminding us of the promises we ourselves have made in years long past,
            maybe challenging us to consider baptism for ourselves,
but above all, calling us to the margins,
            calling us to the wilderness, to the land beyond the Jordan,
            calling us to repentance of our worshipping of other gods,
            and calling us to receive afresh the baptism of the Holy Spirit,
                        who opens within us the stream of living water
                        which leads to eternal life.

[2] The following sermon draws on Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man.

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