Last Sunday I was speaking at St Ann’s with Emmanuel, an inner-urban church in Nottingham, using the lectionary gospel reading of Mark 1.1–8. I trace here the move from the text itself to the all-age talk and activity, and include details of the PowerPoint presentation I used.
The most striking thing about this text is the phrase ‘good news’ or ‘gospel’ in the first verse, euangelion, which is unique to Mark and quickly came to refer to the message about Jesus, as well as the four accounts of his life which came to be included in the canon of Scripture.
This term would have had two contemporary resonances. The first would be proclamations of the emperor, announcing a victory or celebrating a birthday, and perhaps announcing some new holiday, a ration of bread (particularly for those living in Rome) or a day of circus entertainment.
The second would have been from the passage cited in Isaiah 40, a prophetic tradition also picked up and redeployed in Malachi 3. The surprising thing about this announcement was that it concerned return from exile in a foreign land (Babylonia) to people who had already returned. This ties in with the notion (expounded most notably by Tom Wright) that, though the people had physically returned to the land, they were spiritually still ‘in exile’, since the restoration of worship, and obedience of the people, and the presence of God in their midst was still not evident.
John’s message was a sharp contrast to both of these. Instead of offering holidays, food or entertainment, and instead of promising a return to their homeland, John challenges his listeners to change direction—and Mark presents this as part of the ‘good news’ of Jesus.
The description of John the Baptist places him in the prophetic tradition of Elijah and Elisha, and his place in the wilderness hints at the Exodus wanderings where God was tangibly present with his people. His appearance would have been in marked contrast to any kind of imperial messenger!
Baptism as a ritual sign of a new start is closely related to Jewish ritual washing (in the mikveh), though the word in normal usage has the sense of being overwhelmed or immersed, as a ship is by the sea when is sinks. John’s prediction of Jesus’ ministry is only finally fulfilled at Pentecost when the Spirit comes with signs of tongues of fire.
In an all-age service I always like to include some sort of activity which involves the congregation and sets the scene for the reading and talk. The most consistent idea that came out of reflection on the reading was that the messenger and the message were opposite to what was expected. So the activity involved exploring opposites. I had eight volunteers come up and each hold a piece of paper with one of these words on it:
- White, Brown, Light, Heavy, Dark, Milk, Black, Red
They each had to find the person with the opposite term. The natural assumption to make is that (for example) white is opposite to black—but not if you are choosing sugar for your coffee (when the choice is white or brown) or looking at your bank balance (when black is opposite to red).
There are important principles for involving people here. First, there are never any ‘wrong’ answers, only ‘interesting’ ones that I had not thought of! Second, it needs to be fun, and a positive experience for all those involve. Third, everyone is thanked and gets applause at the end. The activity needs to be understandable, achievable, and it needs to work.
The talk using the attached PowerPoint, which consisted of full-size pictures with no words, and explored conversationally the three issues of the opposite messenger to what you would expect, the opposite message and the opposite invitation.
I asked the congregation what kind of messenger they might expect if the Prime Minister were to send them a message. We then imagined what a messenger from the emperor might look like, and contrasted that with John the Baptist’s appearance. God uses unexpected messages, often the opposite of what we might expect.
Similarly we then discussed what message we would like to hear from our Government, what message the emperor might have proclaimed, and how John’s message contrasted with that. A key issue was the contrast with what God’s people might have wanted to hear. According to John, the real problem for the people was not external (to do with Roman occupation) but internal (to do with the need to ‘repent’, to turn back to God and live a new life).
Thirdly we explored what kind of invitation we might receive from royalty, and the invitation of John to be ‘baptised’, to be immersed in and overwhelmed by the love of God in Jesus. The talk finished with a response of a simple confession and an affirmation of faith (from New Patterns for Worship E12).
Principles for delivery
As with every all-age talk, my key concern was for simplicity and clarity of structure. The congregation was very mixed educationally, so I needed to be very careful to explain things clearly without assuming knowledge. The most challenging point in this was explaining why the promise of ‘return from exile’ might have been a surprising message, and the significance of this.
A second key principle was to always offer concrete illustrations rather than abstract ideas. This meant rooting each point in something we might expect for ourselves, and using pictures on PowerPoint at every stage. For those who were not most conformable learning by listening, there was always something to look at, and some element of experience to reflect on.
A third principle was for me to memorise what I was going to say. This allows full engagement with the congregation, and disciplines the structure and tone of the talk. If I cannot remember it, how will they?
The fourth principle was to enable a high level of engagement with the congregation. There were about 50 adults present, together with 15 children, and the seating was around three sides of a square, so this leant itself to a congregational style. Out of this conversation two particularly interesting things arose. The first answer to the question ‘What would be good news from the Governement?’ was ‘A rise in the living wage!’ This (literally) gave voice to practical concerns of some present. A second gift was having someone who had in fact been invited to Buckingham Palace to a Royal Garden Party—not once but twice!
Preaching is always a doubly hermeneutical task: we need to interpret the text and make sense of that, but we also need to interpret the context including the congregation before us. The preached word sits in the meeting point of these two tasks of interpretation. My preparation and structure of conversation was designed to reflect this interpretive dynamic. How would the text sit in its context, and how does that dynamic shape our reading today? What we would expect? What might they expect? What surprising things do we find out of this interaction?
I hope this might of interest in preaching on this passage and in the preparation of all-age talks. My apologies for not posting before the weekend—but you could put it away for next year!
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