What does God look like?

This year, Advent 2014 to Christ the King 2015, is the year when we study Mark’s gospel. It is strange to go through Advent in the year of Mark because he has, of course, no birth stories: no Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph and Bethlehem, no shepherds “abiding in the field.” Indeed, we only read Mark on the first two Sundays in the season, last week and this. Next week we go on to John the Evangelist’s picture of John the Baptist and the week after we are with Luke.

But Mark is not diminished because of his lack of birth stories. His adult Jesus bursts onto the stage shortly after we are introduced to John the Baptist, whom Mark very much sees as an Elijah figure. From the very first verse Mark tells us exactly what his story is about:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)

The subject is Jesus Christ who is the Son of God and this is good news. You can’t put it more bluntly or straightforwardly than that!

What I didn’t realise until a week ago is that this seemingly straightforward introductory verse, is really very subversive – or it was when it was written (and perhaps if we really took on board what it says, it would be just as subversive now.)

Augustus Caesar was Roman Emperor from 27BC to 14AD. He had himself made a god and on the Prine monument (so called because it was discovered in Prine, Turkey) the following inscription was found in Greek.

Caesar, [when he was manifest], transcended the expectations of [all who had anticipated the good news], not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him

Now the word “evangelion”, Good News or gospel or good tidings in Greek, was rarely used in pre-Christian times and when it was, it was it was employed in the sacred language use in the Imperial Cult. So when Mark choses to open his gospel as he does, using the words “Good News” alongside “Son of God”, he is really throwing down the gauntlet to Roman power, culture and beliefs. He is taking Roman language and making it speak of Christ instead. It is not Augustus Caesar who brings Good News for the world, it is a Jewish preacher and prophet from Nazareth whom the Romans have executed.

Mark probably wrote his gospel after the terrible time for Christians of Emperor Nero’s persecutions but before the fall of Jerusalem in AD70. He probably wrote for a beleaguered community who perhaps foresaw that the writing was on the wall for the destruction of their beloved city and temple. Despite this, Mark is not afraid. In the tradition of the prophets before him, he gives his one verse of introduction and then points to John the Baptist who himself points to Jesus. If you want to know what God looks like, says Mark, read what follows and prepare.