Sermon: 24th April 2016, Eve of St. Mark
Isaiah 52 and Mark 1
When I was growing up in rural Middle England, my Christian family’s concept of theology, specifically its Christology (about the nature of Christ) and soteriology (about the nature of salvation), were not only in line with that expounded by Handel’s 1741 oratorio Messiah, but also positively influenced by that great choral masterpiece. Whether attending cathedral concert performances, singing it with my school choral society, or listening to the vinyl record versions, with huge orchestral and choral forces, conducted by the likes of Sir Thomas Beecham with trombones and all, the juxtaposition of the New and Old Testament texts, set to the beautiful choruses, recitatives and arias, made a powerful impact. Little did I know, at that tender age, that I would grow up to become a professional singer and perform over a hundred renditions of the piece often with the smaller musical forces which were a feature of the performance practice of the early music revival from the 1980s onwards. I sang the piece so many times that, at one point in my career, I made a self-imposed embargo and refused all offers to sing it. Performing Messiah with the likes of The Sixteen took me all over the world. On one Christmas tour to Spain, we had caught an internal flight and all our luggage was sent to the wrong destination. With a concert that night, we had to perform in our casual clothes. The audience took it all in good heart, even when the bass soloist changed the final words of his last aria ‘The trumpet shall sound’ from ‘and we shall be changed’ to ‘… and we shall get changed.’ Sacrilege indeed!
The notion that Handel’s Messiah was a salvific gift to the world bearing Christian truth was most urgently expressed in Stefan Zweig’s collection of “historical miniatures” The Tide of Fortune (1940), in which an absurdly melodramatic fictionalized version of events suggests that “Truth had issued from the pen of an indifferently gifted man”, that “Tears flooded Handel’s eyes as the fires of inspiration invaded him”, and that “Humanity did not know the blessedness of the salvation that was beginning to shine down in this very hour [of composition]”. In such a portrayal Messiah is idealized as a perfect, untouchable work of divine truth.
But the oratorio Messiah was not Handel’s idea at all, but that of the librettist Charles Jennens, who compiled extracts from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, and used Old Testament verses as a typology for the New. Typology in Christian theology and Biblical exegesis is a doctrine or theory concerning the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament. For instance, the first man, Adam, is a type of Jesus (the antitype). For instance, in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote that: “Since by man came death [Adam], by man came also the resurrection of the dead [Jesus]” (1 Corinthians 15: 21). By so doing Jennens created a triumphalist exaltation of Christianity.
We see this kind of typology in our readings this evening, where New Testament writers interpret contemporaneous events as the fulfilment of Old Testament sentiments. For instance, in Isaiah 52: 7-10
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
This Isaiah passage is echoed, and indeed quoted, in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: 10: 15, when he asks: ‘But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ But not all have obeyed the good news;* for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.*
With St. Paul using such typology, connecting Old Testament prophecy with New Testament events, you can see why Charles Jennens was so keen to do the same in Handel’s Messiah. All of this fulfilment theology is encapsulated in the aria from Messiah ‘How beautiful are the feet of him who brings the gospel of peace’.
And it is particularly appropriate that we should be thinking, this evening, about those who first brought the ‘gospel of peace’ to the world, for this is the eve of the feast of St. Mark, author of the earliest of the gospels and one of the first in history to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. In fact, we don’t know much about Mark. He is called John in three of the texts of the New Testament (Acts 12:12,25; 13:5,13; 15:37). The early Christians gathered at his family’s house in Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). He accompanied Paul and Barnabas on Paul’s first missionary journey as far as Perga in Pamphylia. The last mention of Mark is in the Acts when it is noted that he journeyed to Cyprus with Barnabas.
Mark’s closest relationship seems to have been with Peter, from whom he may have received much of his source material. Mark is the first author to use the term Gospel, which originally seems to have referred to the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. To this basic core of early Christian teaching Mark added other elements of Jesus’ early life, thereby creating the Gospel format we find in the other Gospels. So Mark himself turns out to be the person who is the bringer of good news, the gospel, as we can see from the very start of his work: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” This quotation from Isaiah 52 is an early example of the typology I have mentioned and is again echoed in Charles Jennens choice of text for the first aria in Handel’s Messiah, ‘Comfort ye, my people, when he employs the words: ‘The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’ (Isaiah 40).
It is out of wilderness and desert that the good news comes, and I love Mark’s gospel because it is mercifully uncluttered, unvarnished in its account of Jesus; it is action-packed and a gripping story that is propelled from one event to the other with dramatic use of language, such as ‘…and immediately’ then this happened, and then this, and so on… The Greek used is rather basic and unsophisticated, adding a greater sense of urgency and authenticity to the account, made so close to Jesus’s own lifetime. In fact, if you have never read a gospel all the way through, I highly recommend that you try Mark. It only takes about 2 hours to read right through, but it is well worth the time.
So what is this good news? If we read Mark we might find that good news does not bring immediate or even lasting happiness. John the Baptist comes from the wilderness and is seen as almost a crazy prophet; after his baptism, which we see depicted in this window here by Henry Holiday, Jesus is driven by the spirit into the wilderness to face hunger, temptation and suffering. The gospel is full of people who are confused, in pain or desperate and end with the horrific crucifixion. The original ending of the gospel at Ch. 16: 8 sees the women at the tomb in anguish at the empty grave not knowing what to do but fleeing in terror and saying nothing to anyone. We know, from later New Testament writings, that the proclamation of this good news by disciples, led to their persecution, torture and death. The history of Christianity over the last two thousand years is littered with pain and death, both towards Christians and from Christians.
So what’s the good news? I think that, to answer this question we need to return to the gospel itself and see what is going on. The good news, the gospel, brings confusion and difficulties, no doubt, but at the heart of this story we see the lives of men and women transformed by the words and deeds of one man. So compelled are they by his message and his calling that they give up everything they have known and follow him, even to his gruesome end. But something happened which was so life-changing and life-giving to those people that they dedicated their lives to proclaiming the words and deeds of Christ, even if that meant persecution and death to them. Such conviction has to be taken seriously if we are to accept that Jesus was a real historical figure. The good news for those early followers was that they were people of the resurrection. They saw a vision of the world and universe that went beyond their locality and traditions. In this Easter season, it is no less true for all of us. We are people of the resurrection, which bring salvation to all and life-giving abundant joy, comfort, beauty, peace, hope, and glory, which transcend the ‘changes and chances of this fleeting world.’
St. Mark gave us a story about the greatest gift to the world there has ever been, long before Charles Jennens and George Frederick Handel. It is Messiah, and to those who first heard it and for thousands of years since, for billions and billions of people, it has, and remains, good news.