The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)
Perhaps it is just me, but 2014 seems to have contained more than its fair share of bad news.
We've had the loss of Malaysian airline MH370; the abduction of 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria; the eruption of conflict between Ukraine and Russia; and perhaps uppermost in all our minds the evil that has taken root in Iraq and Syria. Even something as straightforwardly political as the Scottish referendum was always going to be bad news for those on the losing side.
It's a complex, messy world. Life for many still matches the famous description of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who spoke of it as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". Others, especially in the developed world, experience life as a frenzy of busyness and never-ending to do lists, with periods of pleasure sandwiched between hard work, money worries and the ever-deferred question of what life is really all about.
And yet it is into this world, says Mark the gospel writer – into this crazy, complex, sometimes wicked world – that good news comes.
In the area where I live, Christians are seeking to be the embodiment of good news. Volunteers from local churches run a winter nightshelter for homeless people. They serve as Street Pastors, providing practical help and support for late-night drinkers, clubbers and others. They run a charity which helps jobless people find employment. They run a kitchen offering meals on Saturday nights for people on the streets. They deliver food to some of the poorest families. Christians are being and bringing good news.
But most importantly, Mark reminds us, the good news comes in the shape of a person – Jesus Christ. As has often been said: "Christianity is Christ." The good news is not a programme or a plan or a philosophy; at its heart it is one, unique individual – Jesus.
Mark refers to Jesus as "the Christ" (in Hebrew "the Messiah") – a word which means "anointed one". Kings were anointed in Israel as a sign they were set apart for the role of monarch. Now, Mark is saying, Jesus comes as the Lord's chosen king, set apart for his role of dying on a cross to bring reconciliation between humanity and God.
And Mark also describes Jesus as "Son of God" – just as he will towards the end of his gospel (15:39). It's a title which will be unpacked as Jesus is shown to have unique authority over evil powers, over sickness, over nature and even over death.
What's not to like? But plenty of people, of course, do not regard Jesus as good news. Jesus comes to challenge complacency, jolt us out of our pride, and overturn long-held assumptions. Many people don't like the challenge he brings – especially those who regard themselves as self-sufficient. As someone once said, "The gospel is good news for bad people – but bad news for 'good' people" – in other words, those who think they are quite alright.
And what about us? Have we recognised Jesus as good news and accepted his authority over us? Have we forgotten the goodness of the good news? And how can we embody something of it for others?
Charles Wesley (1707-1788) weaved this prayer into his hymn 'Come thou long-expected Jesus': Born Your people to deliver, born a child and yet a King, born to reign in us forever, now Your gracious kingdom bring. By Your own eternal Spirit, rule in all our hearts alone; by Your all sufficient merit, raise us to Your glorious throne. Amen.
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex. The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a new fortnightly devotional series.