Sunday, 29 December 2019

A prayer for the new year

Eternal God of each present moment,
            we come before you at the turning of another year
            with diverse emotions and tentative hope.
The past and the future meet in this day,
            and lay themselves before us for prayerful pondering.

As we look back over the last year,
            we see in our lives, and in the lives of those we love,
that most human combination of joy and sorrow,
            love and loss, laughter and tears.
And so we hold before you now those whom you bring to our minds:
            loved ones we have lost, and loved ones we have discovered;
            friends who have suffered, and friends who have rejoiced;
            those who have borne burdens, and those who have found release.
And we trust that you have been present to all these our varied experiences of life,
            drawing all things together in your great love.

As we look to the coming year,
            we offer you our hopes and our dreams, our resolution and our resolve;
and yet we recognize that despite our best efforts,
            we will not be the people you have called us to be.
But we hold to the hope that by your grace
            we will be the people you have created us to be.
And so we pray for the uncertainty of tomorrow,
            and we trust that you will be present with us whatever the future may hold,
            as you draw all things together in your great love.

But most of all, we turn our prayers to the needs of this day,
            because yesterday is gone and cannot be changed,
            and tomorrow will bring enough worries of its own.
So we pray for the world to which you have come in Christ Jesus,
            bringing forgiveness where there is guilt,
            and new life where there is suffering and death.

We commit to your loving care all those who face tomorrow with no hope,
            because their situation today is hopeless.
And we think particularly of refugees, asylum seekers,
            and all people displaced by war or climate change.
Renew in us a concern for the weak and vulnerable,
            and give us courage:
                        to speak up for the voiceless,
                        to speak out against violence in all its forms,
                        and to speak of the necessity to care for all creation.
We pray for those who have the authority to effect change on a global scale,
            for politicians and business leaders,
            for the rich and the powerful, the articulate and the influential.
May they be given the gift of empathy,
            and the courage to use their power for the good of the many, and not just the few.

Renew in us a passion for change, and an unwillingness to acquiesce.
            Give us the courage to take action
                        against powers that coerce and control,
            and may we learn to be wise
                        in the ways we speak and act as we seek to play our part
                        in the coming of your kingdom of love, justice, and peace.

We pray for our church, for your gathered people in this place;
            we thank you for one another, in all our glorious diversity,
            and we recommit ourselves to each other as sisters and brothers in Christ.

We pray for those who have come through the doors of this building over the last years,
            from actors and celebrities to the homeless and the vulnerable.
We pray for all those who have joined us in worship,
            visitors from around the globe, bringing greetings from your worldwide family.
We pray for those who have left our fellowship,
            and for those who have joined it.

May we know, today, who we are created to be,
            and may we learn what it is to be true to the calling you have placed on us.

Help us to love each other,
            to welcome new people with kindness,
            to serve one another with grace,
            and to forgive one another with sincerity.

May our church, over the coming year,
            be a place of safety for those who are vulnerable,
            and a place of challenge for those who are comfortable.
May we be a community of inclusion for those who are excluded,
            and a community of defiance for those who would exclude.
May we be humble in the face of our own failings,
            but bold in the face of those who fail others.
May we be your people, in this place, at this time,
            created by you and called to live lives of courageous love.

The Missing Nativity

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
29 December 2019

Mark 1.9-13

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Psalm 91.9-12

Listen to the sermon here:

So that was Christmas…
            I hope you had fun,
            to paraphrase John Lennon.

But now, it’s all over for another year.
            Have you taken your tree down yet?
                        Or does it get to stay up until twelfth night?
            Are your thoughts already starting to turn to the coming year,
                        maybe going back to work,
                        or planning holidays,
                        or new year’s resolutions…?

For the next few months here at Bloomsbury in our preaching,
            we’re going to be looking at the story of Jesus
            that we find in Mark’s gospel,
and with the carols of Christmas still ringing in our ears,
            it’s interesting to note that Mark
            is definitely the least-Christmassy of all the gospels.

Neither Mark nor John have shepherds, wise men, a stable, a star,
            a virgin, a doubting husband, or the archangel Gabriel.
If you want those, and indeed most of the things
            we think of as essential to the Christmas story,
you have to go to Matthew and Luke’s versions of the Jesus story.

John’s gospel has the wonderful prologue,
            which I so much enjoy reading each year at the Bloomsbury Carol Celebration;
and Mark’s gospel has… well… not much.

It starts with John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness,
            and then jumps straight to the baptism and temptation of Jesus.

There’s no nativity story at all in Mark,
            which is, of course, the earliest of the four gospels to be written.
And we could engage in all sorts of interesting speculation
            about why it was that when, firstly Matthew, and then Luke,
                        decided to expand Mark’s gospel with extra material,
            they decided to add the stories that we now know as the Christmas.

Did they feel, perhaps, that Mark wasn’t quite clear enough
            on the subject of the incarnation?
Maybe they thought it needed spelling out a bit more clearly
            what it meant to say that Jesus was the Son of God?
Maybe they wanted to give Jesus a birth story
            that would rival the origin stories of the Greek and Roman gods?
Maybe they wanted to show how Jesus
            was the Jewish Messiah in fulfilment of the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible?

But the thing is, Mark addresses these issues too,
            just much more succinctly.

So, in our reading this morning,
            we hear a voice from heaven
                        proclaiming that Jesus is the son of God,
            we have a moment of divine anointing
                        as powerful as any mythological initiation,
            and we have a clear parallel between Israel’s years of wandering in the wilderness,
                        and Jesus being sent to the wilderness to be tempted.

So, whilst I’m not suggesting that we don’t need Matthew and Luke,
            I am suggesting that if you’ve had enough
                        of choirs of angels and singing shepherds,
            you might find all you need to know about Jesus
                        in the rather briefer, and less seasonally festive, gospel of Mark.

These five verses that we’re looking at today
            are immensely rich in symbolism, imagery, and theology.

The first eight verses have covered John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness,
            which, for those of you who were here last Sunday,
            ties in with the story of his birth to Zechariah and Elizabeth.

And then Jesus comes from Nazareth in Galilee
            to be baptised by John in the Jordan.

So far, so good.
            John has clearly been baptising for a while,
                        calling people to repent of their sins,
            and prepare themselves for the arrival of someone
                        who would baptise with the Holy Spirit rather than with water.

And so Jesus is baptised, but as he is coming up out of the water,
            he has what can only be described as an ‘apocalyptic’ moment.

If you remember our sermon series last year
            on the book of Revelation,
you may remember that the world ‘apocalyptic’
            actually comes from the Greek word for ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing’.

And within the first century Jewish tradition,
            stories of heavenly visions, or divine voices,
            were always stories of revelation, of unveiling otherwise hidden realities.

So, here at the baptism of Jesus,
            we suddenly find the baptism is invaded
by this dramatic, apocalyptic, imagery,
            with the heavens being torn apart,
            and things otherwise unseen being made known.

There’s a reference here to the Hebrew Scriptures,
            but you have to be slightly alert to spot it.

We’ve seen in our sermons during Advent,
            that the Old Testament prophets longed for a day
            when God would intervene in human history.
And they often expressed this longing most strongly,
            when things were not going so well for the people of Israel.

So the times of exile or warfare or political uncertainty
            are the points where the prophets speak most longingly
            of their hope that God will be revealed in power.

The book of Isaiah captures this longing beautifully
            in chapter 64 v.1

‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence.’

And of course this is precisely what we are told happened at the baptism of Jesus.
            Mark is trying to signal something important here.

He’s saying that Jesus is the fulfilment of the longing of Isaiah,
            and the tearing open of the heavens,
                        the apocalyptic unveiling of otherwise hidden truths,
            speaks of the removal of the barrier between humans and their God,
                        and of a new relationship between God and humanity.

The revelations continue,
            with the Spirit of God descending on Jesus like a dove.

There’s another allusion here to the Hebrew Bible,
            this time to the story of Noah in the early chapters of Genesis (ch.8).

Dove with an olive branch, Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome

We all know the story of the great flood,
            of how the waters of chaos overwhelmed the earth,
            bringing destruction to all except the faithful few on the ark.

And how after forty days and forty nights of rain,
            the waters started to subside,
and so Noah sent out a dove three times,
            to see if the waters were subsiding.

The first time the dove simply flew around and came back to him,
            the second time it came back with an olive leaf in its beak,
            and the third time it didn’t come back at all,
and so Noah knew that the chaos was ending
            and soon the new world could begin.

But also, perhaps less well known, within the Jewish rabbinic tradition,
            the spirit of God which swept over the waters of creation (Genesis 1.2)
            was said to resemble a Dove hovering over her young.

And then there’s another reference to the prophecy of Isaiah,
            where the suffering servant, who bears the sins of the world,
            is described as:

My servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
Isa. 42.1

And in the descent of the Spirit on Jesus at his baptism,
            these images combine,
to signify that God is coming to the chaos of the world
            to bring new hope, new life, a new start,
and to bring forth justice to all peoples.

But the revelations continue…

Not only are the heavens torn apart in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy,
            not only does the Spirit descend on Jesus as the primal dove of peace and justice,
but a voice is heard coming from heaven,
            declaring Jesus to be the son of God,
            and speaking words of approval over him.

And, yes, of course,
            there is a reference to the Hebrew Bible here too…

This time it’s Psalm 2.7, where the king in Jerusalem
            is declared to be the anointed one of God, and says:

I will tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to me, "You are my son; today I have begotten you.

This was a text which directly fed into the Jewish messianic hope,
            and the reference to it at Jesus’ baptism,
            firmly positions Jesus not just as God’s son,
                        but as the long awaited messiah of Israel.

And so you can see that in just these five short verses,
            Mark piles layer upon layer of symbolism,
            with reference after reference to the Hebrew tradition,
all the while building his case
            that Jesus is the son of God
            in a way that worthy of attention by those reading his gospel.

I want to return for a moment now
            to what I described as the ‘apocalyptic’ nature of Jesus’ baptism,
and I’ve already suggested that we have here an event
            that is apocalyptic or revelatory
                        in the sense that it reveals something profound
                        about how heaven views the life, ministry, and person of Jesus.

But there’s another layer to this:
            In Mark’’s time, apocalyptic was the popular language of political dissent.

Apocalyptic imagery envisioned the “end of the world”,
            that is, the world ruled by the powers of sin and death.

Just as you or I might say that the death of a loved one is ‘the end of the world’,
            so apocalyptic literature proclaimed that the old world was passing
            and a new one was coming into being.

Books from the Hebrew Bible that used apocalyptic imagery,
            such as Daniel or Ezekiel,
were always written in times of political turmoil,
            and they expressed the hope of the oppressed but faithful people of God
            that the world dominated by wicket powers would come to an end.

So whenever you get apocalyptic imagery in the New Testament,
            it’s worth paying attention to what it’s saying politically,
            as well as spiritually.

And there are some clues here…

Following his baptism, with its apocalyptic rending of the heavens,
            Jesus is driven by the Spirit further out into the wilderness,
            where he engages in a struggle with a figure called ‘Satan’ (1:12f).

I don’t have the time this morning to give a detailed exploration of Satan in the Bible,
            but just to note that what we’ve got here is not some kind of bad-version-of-God;
                        this is not a satanic Magneto to a divine Professor Xavier,
                        or a Satanic Joker to a divine Batman,
                        or a Satanic Lex Luther to a divine Superman…
                                    you get the idea…

Rather, the name ‘satan’ in this context simply means ‘accuser’, or ‘adversary’.
            The Satan who confronts Jesus in the wilderness
                        is that seductive voice which whispers doubt or temptation
                        to our deepest needs and desires.

The wilderness is the place where Jesus goes to gain self-knowledge,
            to face his demons and his temptations, and to overcome them.

Which of us can truly say that we know ourselves,
            if we haven’t faced up to our demons.

And before Jesus could begin his public ministry
            of casting evil out of the world,
he needed to be very sure that evil didn’t have a hold on his own heart.

There have been enough cases down the years,
            of religious leaders falling prey to their base desires,
for Jesus to need to make sure
            that he had faced his humanity squarely
            and confronted his demons.

But this isn’t just a forty day wilderness journey of self-knowledge,
            because Mark tells us that there is a deep spiritual battle going on.

Jesus is waited on by angels, and the Satan is in league with the wild beasts.

To understand this properly, we have to again delve into the Old Testament,
            this time into that deeply apocalyptic book of Daniel,
which was written about two hundred years before the time of Jesus,
            to inspire the Jews of that time to resistance against the Greek invasion of Israel,
            by telling them stories about the hero Daniel during their time in exile in Babylon.

In Daniel, the oppressive rulers are described as ‘beasts’ (Dan 7.1-7)
            and the angels of heaven do battle against them. (7.10; 12.1)

So the mention in Mark’s gospel
            of the wild beasts and angels in the wilderness with Jesus and Satan
give us an insight into the nature of Jesus’ ministry as it will unfold over the coming years,
            as an apocalyptic battle between good and evil,
with him coming to the world to cast out evil,
            and to bring release from those powers that oppress and distort humanity.

And in many ways this, surely, is still the mission of the church,
            to bring release to those who are captive,
            to bring healing to those who are sick,
            to bring new light to those living in darkness,
to cast out evil and announce that a new and better way of being human
            has been made real in the coming of Jesus.

But we’re not done with the imagery yet…
            I told you Mark packs a lot into a few verses…

The forty days of Jesus temptation is no accidental number.
            We’ve already seen in it an echo of the rain that fell in the story of Noah,
                        for forty days and forty nights.
            But there is also here an invocation of Israel’s forty years
                        of “testing” in the wilderness.

You remember the story,
            they people of Israel had been suffering in Egypt,
                        and Moses led them through the waters of the Red Sea
                        into forty years of wilderness wandering
                        before they eventually entered the promised land.

It’s as if Jesus in the wilderness is somehow reliving the experience of Israel
            as he prepares to lead humanity itself on a journey from slavery to freedom.

Just as Israel discovered its identity as a nation when it escaped from Pharaoh,
            so Jesus has his identity confirmed at his baptism.

Israel is God’s people, and Jesus is God’s son,
            and both must struggle in the wilderness
            to discover what this vocation means.

It’s as if Jesus has to go back to where it all started,
            to revisit the wilderness of the Exodus,
in order to begin the new exodus
            of leading people from all nations
from their enslavement to the powers of sin and death
            into new life and forgiveness.

But Mark tells us that he is not alone in this struggle,
            as he is ministered to by angels.

And here we find our final reference to the Hebrew Bible,
            and it takes us to our first reading.

In Psalm 91 we read:
            he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
            On their hands they will bear you up,
            so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

Mark doesn’t give us the specific details of Jesus’ temptations,
            we would have to turn to Matthew and Luke for that,
and if we did, we would discover that this verse from Psalm 91 is used
            as part of the temptation for Jesus to put God to the test.

But it’s firmly there in the background to Mark’s much briefer temptation story,
            and the message is clear,
which is that Jesus is not actually alone in the wilderness,
            because God’s angels are there with him.

He doesn’t need to test their presence,
            by throwing himself from a high place;
they just are there, waiting on him,
            surrounding him with love and care.

And so to us,
            and our experiences of wilderness testing and temptation.

Each of us, at different times, and in different ways,
            knows what it is to be driven into the wilderness.

Each of us knows what it is to hear the deceptive, seductive voice in our minds,
            whispering words that will take us away from God’s love.

And in those moments, there is great comfort to be had here,
            because we, too, are children of God.
We, too, are dearly loved,
            and we, too, are held within that love
            even through the darkest times.

This is how Christ comes to us,
            by his Spirit, when we need him most.