Good News

Sunday 18th February 2018
Year B, The First Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Mark 1.9-16

Mark, in his typically breathless way, encompasses the Baptism of Jesus and the first formulation of the concept of the Holy Trinity, Jesus' sojourn in the desert for fasting and praying, the ministering angels, the arrest of John Baptist and the commencement of Jesus' mission as his cousin's successor in the key words: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" all in the space of seven verses.

The sequence of initiation in Baptism, confirmation by the Holy Spirit, the observance of prayer and fasting in Lent (but less so nowadays in Advent) and the proclamation of the Gospel is a familiar sequence to those of us who were born into a Christian inheritance; there is, in this set of familiar rituals, part of our Sacramental life cycle and also part of our annual cycle of observance. Somewhere, tucked away, there might be a white Christening robe handed down from generation to generation, and we might have a worn out Bible or New Testament given to us by the Bishop at our Confirmation; and, without thinking about it much, particularly in a church named after it, we are infused with the idea of the Holy Trinity. And now, with the arrival of Lent, we consider penitence and some form of sacrificial practice and we might even bestir ourselves and attend the Lent Course.

But, I continually ask myself, what is all this for? Is it simply a set of protective rituals which accords well with humanity's need for routine and a degree of predictability? Is it a way of allowing us to think that we are, after all, not at all bad? Or is it, perhaps, a shield against insecurity?

Well it might be all three in varying degrees and that is well and good as long as those three aspects or our spiritual life are not the end point because we cannot ignore the words of Jesus in the last verse of our Gospel Reading: "The time is fulfilled" which has strong speech echoes of the language of the birth of a child; "The kingdom of God has come near" which means that it is no longer either distant, as in the concept of a heavenly place, nor to be realised far into the future, but very soon; "Repent", meaning turn away from a former lifestyle and commit to renewal; and, finally "believe in the good news". Not bad for a single verse!

Many of us will recognise the last phrase in its more familiar King James translation: "Repent and believe in the Gospel" which is used by some Priests in the administration of ashes but it seems to me that we lose much of the meaning of the passage in this translation because we tend to think that it means believe in the truth of the Gospels which most of us more or less unquestioningly do. But the NRSV uses the term "Good News" which hopefully brings us back to the core of the message.

Put simply what is all this prayer and fasting for which we concentrate into the Lenten period? Why are we doing this? Is it some form of spiritual purification which we twin in Lent with a stint of physical purification? Is this, then, activity for its own sake and for our individual sakes?

No. Our prayer and self-sacrifice is part and parcel of our mission to proclaim the Good News and that Good News is set out clearly at the beginning of this encapsulated proclamation of Jesus: "The kingdom of God has come near' or "is at hand" or, is about to happen. Now remember that this proclamation is spoken by Jesus right at the beginning of his Mission and as we journey through Lent we will become involved in the swelling tide of events which culminates in the Cross and the empty tomb, by which time the Kingdom of Heaven will have arrived on earth, not in the perfect form which the lord's Prayer anticipates "on earth as it is in heaven" but at least an approximation. The Good News is that all of us will be part of the conquest of sin and earthly death by Jesus so that we will all live in the kingdom of heaven on earth, as it is in heaven.

This sounds like very good news to me, worth quite a package of prayer and self-sacrifice. Our trouble is that we make our lives difficult for ourselves by embracing the prayer - difficult at the best of times - and the self-sacrifice without fully grasping the purpose, our ability to become better attuned to the Good News.

What we are charged to undertake in carrying out the mission of Jesus - not our mission, note, nor the Church's mission - is to set out simply and clearly that this good news does not belong to me or you or the Church of England or Christianity but belongs to the world. As the chief anxiety of most people, in spite of its biological inevitability, is the idea of death, there is no better news we could bring.

But what news do we good Christians bring? We bring news of our ownership of Jesus. We talk of Jesus as our personal property, not as a collectively 'owned' person; we spell out the barriers people must overcome to be admitted to our number; and we also prescribe certain standards of behaviour which we require. Suddenly, without being conscious of it, we have turned the good news into a rather unpleasant package of impositions, exclusive rather than inclusive, niggardly rather than generous.

Jesus told us that when we fast and pray we should come out smiling, an odd idea for Lent but one worth thinking about; and, in that spirit, when we proclaim the Good News of Jesus we should proclaim it smiling. In the Middle Ages when the food was running out and the bodily coat of goose fat was rancid, you can understand why Lent was a pretty miserable time; but now, our consciousness that we fall short should be tempered with the certain hope promised in the Resurrection which shines like a rising sun behind the blackened wood of the cross.