The good news of Jesus Christ

Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3.8-15a;  Mark 1.1-8
Church of Scotland, Geneva, Auditoire de Calvin, December 10 2023

In the fifth century, Patrick brought the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – to Ireland, before there was Ireland. A century later, Columba and his Irish monks brought the gospel to Scotland, before there was Scotland.

Roman soldiers were the first to bring the gospel to Switzerland, long before there was Switzerland. After the fall of the western Empire, this part of Switzerland remained Christian, but the eastern part, under the Alemanni, did not.

In the seventh century, Columbanus, Gallus and their Irish companions brought the gospel to the Alemanni, and a century later, on the site where Gallus had his hermitage, work began on the Abbey of St Gallen – today, with its precious medieval library, a UNESCO world heritage centre.

Way before any of this happened, Mark begins his Gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – with two men (neither of whom was Irish): Jesus of Nazareth and John the baptizer, John the Baptist.


Mark has no Christmas stories. Not for him the shepherds and angels of Luke. Not for him the wise men of Matthew. Not even the magnificent prose poem with which John begins his Gospel.

Mark enters his story as late as possible: with a man, up to his waist in the waters of the Jordan, issuing a wake-up call to his people, and baptizing those who, in a world that seems godless, want to turn to God and rededicate themselves to God. And with another man who will come to him for baptism (as we shall be reminded next month) but after John’s arrest will then strike out on his own.


In the stories Jews told themselves at the time of Jesus and John, two other men loom large: Abraham and Moses.

In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham and makes him an astonishing promise:

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

The children of Abraham are to be a light to the nations. How so? Genesis 18 tells us how so: by doing what is just and what is right.

Fast forward to Moses, and the children of Abraham are slaves in Egypt, but God leads them through the waters of the Red Sea and through the waters of the Jordan into a promised land.

On the way, God makes a covenant with Moses and the people, just as earlier, God had made a covenant with Abraham and his children as yet unborn.

God will be their God; they will be God’s people.

In the Old Testament, we read how the story was never so simple or straightforward. If God was always their God, sometimes, even many times, it didn’t quite look like that. And they and their leaders especially were always in danger of falling by the wayside, of not doing what was just and right, of not being God’s people.

But they were always a covenant people, because God was always their God.


John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth are not preaching timeless truths.

John believes that the covenant God has made with his people is coming to a climax in his day. It is his job to prepare the way for this climactic moment: the coming of one greater than him, the thong of whose sandals he is not worthy to untie.

The image here is of a master coming home and a slave kneeling before him to take off his sandals. Compared to the one who is to come, says John, I’m not even a slave.

Jesus also believes that the covenant is coming to a climax in his day. But as Mark unfolds his tale, we shall see that Jesus believes that the covenant is coming to a climax in him – a belief that would be outrageous if it were not true.

But Mark believes it to be true, and this is why he speaks of the good news of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, Mark tells us, God is acting definitively to be our God and to make us God’s people. How this is so we shall see only as we move through the Christian year from Advent and Christmas to Easter and Pentecost. This is why we have the Christian year.

The question for us – for each of us individually, but also for us as a congregation – is whether, as we move through Advent, we believe it to be true.


For us as a congregation, this year Advent began early.

It began with our treasurer Ewart issuing his own wake-up call: warning us that we are in danger of failing as a congregation, because there aren’t enough of us and we don’t have enough money.

We heard the call. In the last three months, we have been turning around and rededicating ourselves to God. “Geneva has awakened to a reality,” said John McGhie, the senior elder in our sister congregation in Rome.

We’ve woken up and looked reality in the face in meetings of our kirk session and congregational committee and in the online meeting with the whole congregation. We’re part way through a financial appeal that has already borne much fruit. We are working to improve our outreach and our communication. Our website calendar is full of events. In January and February next year, we shall look together at a vision for our future as a congregation. Already there is a buzz in the congregation that was not there three months ago.


Key to renewing and revitalizing our congregation, I believe, is the renewal and revitalization of our worship.

We need, I believe, to follow the Christian year more closely, so that over the course of each twelve months our worship is given clearer shape and focus.

We need – and it is truly bizarre that I should have to say this in a building where John Calvin lectured on the  Bible – more scripture in our worship.

We need to get away from one lonely scripture lesson to recover the full riches of our lectionary. Every three years, the Revised Common Lectionary takes us in turn through the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with each Sunday Old and New Testament lessons and a Psalm portion to boot. We need preaching that helps us to understand the Bible better and therefore to understand ourselves better and to live our common life better.

We need to sing the whole hymnary, not just the bits that are most familiar and most loved. CH3 was a revolutionary hymnary in its day, but it is half a century old. If we are to sing the Lord’s song in the 21st century, we need to get to grips, more than we have done, with the wealth of new words and new music in CH4.

Last but not least, we need to think again about how often we celebrate the Lord’s supper. Once a month is a huge advance on the bad old days, when communion was celebrated quarterly, or twice a year, or even just once a year. But if we turn to John Calvin for advice, he will tell us that once a month is an incoherent half-way house. We should, he will tell us, go the whole hog.

In Acts 2:42, Luke writes that the early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Commenting on this, Calvin writes that “it became the unvarying rule that no meeting of the church should take place without the Word, prayers, partaking of the Supper, and almsgiving.”[1]

Accordingly, he argues that the Lord’s Supper should be “set before the church very often, and at least once a week.”[2]

His fellow Reformers in Geneva agreed with him, but he couldn’t persuade the town council.

Renewing our worship is not something we can do overnight; and you may not agree with me on all these points or even on any of them. But we may at least agree, perhaps, that, if we are to revitalize our worship, we need to talk about these things.


But here’s the thing. When we have done all this, when we have turned our congregation around and rebuilt it from the ground up, we have only just begun. Beyond all this, we face a larger challenge.

We and our sister congregations – indeed, all the congregations in all the church traditions on this continent – need to do again what Patrick and Columba and Columbanus did in their day: we need to bring the gospel once more to Europe.

The good news of Jesus Christ is not for hoarding or squirrelling away, like the man who built a bigger and better barn for his crops, or the man who took his talent – a large sum of money – and hid it in the ground. The good news of Jesus Christ is good news only if we share it.

[1]  Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.14.44.
[2] Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.17.43.

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