“Christmas-ing without the Manger”
Mark 1: 1-8 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ December 6, 2020
This will be a very unique Christmas, won’t it? That’s not a newsflash. Rather, it is more of a lament as we move towards the Holy day of Christmas. Just 19 days to go; 18 shopping days, but who’s counting! Our celebrations this year will look different: attendance at church, outreach programs such as ‘White Gift’, who gathers at the table. All of our traditions necessarily need to change. This will be the first year that I have not been ‘in’ church on Christmas eve. There with candles in hand singing “silent night”. What are the traditions that you will miss? This will be a very odd Christmas, indeed. And before those ‘but Rev. Scott, let’s look at how the cup is half-full’ types cause us to jump ahead to how much we will appreciate things in the future, I feel compelled to just ‘stay with this’ feeling of lament. Because the conversations that I am having with people are highlighting how truly difficult it is! This will be a very unique, a very odd, a very different season, indeed!
I suppose that we should have seen it coming. Whenever we let Mark take over at Christmas time. I always find a shift in the feeling of Christmas. We focus, as you know, this lectionary year on the gospel of Mark. And when I think of Christmas, I must admit that Mark is my least favourite. I know that I am a ‘bad pastor’ for saying so. And I know that I shouldn’t have favourites, but when it comes to Christmas, Mark is definitely my least favourite gospel writer. I guess I love the birth story; I love the Christmas pageants; the stories of Jesus’ birth. Perhaps you are a little sentimental too? But as you know, Mark isn’t that way at all. Mark doesn’t see a need to even mention Jesus’ birth. I guess that’s why I am drawn to the other 3. Matthew: Matthew tells a dramatic birth story, right there at the beginning. He even adds stories of wise men bearing gifts. Or Luke…Luke tells the stories of the pregnant sisters ~ Mary and Elizabeth. Not one, but two birth stories. John the Baptist and then Jesus as he is surrounded by shepherds and angels. Or John…John tells the story of the birth as it unfolds in alignment with the beginning of time. But Mark….Mark is quite stingy on the story of Jesus’ birth. No shepherds or angels; no wise men; no…no nothing! He just assumes that we know Jesus was born and jumps right into the story as we heard Ian read as he began in chapter one. Yes…. when we hear Mark’s version of Christmas, it does not lend itself to pageantry; it does not lend itself to any type of ‘warm and fuzzy’ Christmas at all. When we hear Mark’s version of Jesus’ entry into the history of time, we realize that we are in for a very unique Christmas indeed. I sometimes wonder if Mark is the original Christmas Grinch who seeks to steal our Christmas away?
And then I got to thinking, I wonder if Mark’s understanding of Jesus’ role in the unfolding of the Good News is perfectly timed for this year. I don’t know if many of you have noticed the logo for 2020 that is floating around on the internet. It has one ‘20’ right-side up, and the other ‘20’ upside down. This has been an ‘upside down’ year, and Mark’s version of the Christmas narrative is perfectly positioned to help us more deeply unravel the times in which we live. Yes, you heard that right! I believe that Mark tells a Christmas story here. Mark’s version of Christmas will be the most unique of all gospel tellings. With Mark, there will be no baby in a manger, no adoring parents, no shepherds or angels or wise men following a star. What we have is the promised arrival of God’s ‘good news’ that culminates through the life and ministry of Jesus and that will continue beyond. So, let’s do a little Christmas-ing ‘Mark-style’.
If we pay attention to Mark’s gospel, we see how Christmas goes well beyond the wonderfully disruptive joy that a newborn baby can ever bring. Mark gives us a ‘God’s-eye view’ of the many ways God arrives in unique and mysterious ways throughout history. Mark highlights that God’s arrival will not be captured in one magical day or extended throughout a 12 day season. Mark’s unique way of Christmas-ing is about the nature of God’s light and hope arriving. God’s light and hope that was offered in the days of old; God’s light and hope that fully arrived in Jesus; God’s light and hope that continues to extend into our tomorrows!
Readers of the biblical narrative are well versed in the stories of captivity. All the way since Abraham left for the land of promise, there was a constant yearning for life in full freedom with God…a yearning to reclaim that ‘garden paradise’. Yet the story unfolds with the pains of slavery and captivity that, time after time, took them away from that: Egypt…Babylon…these were places of life lived in chains, of living in deep sadness, yet of living with the hope that one day they would be free to walk fully with God. One scholar even analyzes the time of Jesus to be one where they were still in exile. Though not in a geographical exile, they lived under foreign occupation, with Rome ruling over them. Living in the Holy Land, it was “as if Babylon had followed them home.” (see NT Wright The New Testament and the People of God).
Yet Mark offers us a window into a Christmas story that reveals God working in the days before Jesus, in the life of Jesus and in the time thereafter. This is what we heard in the reading Ian offered. Mark reminds his listeners of the time Isaiah spoke hope to the people amidst their Babylonian slavery: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Mark saw Jesus in line with the varied ways God has brought hope and release for God’s people. As God acted in the past, Mark shows us how God’s hope is now being birthed in the life of Jesus.
We also see this linkage back to the prophets in the character of John the Baptist. John represents more than just a stark contrast to the prim and proper clerics whom Jesus will later challenge. John is an odd character: clothed in camel’s hair, wearing a leather belt around his waist, and eating locusts and honey. This odd description would have meant something very particular to Mark’s listeners. It was descriptive of the great prophet Elijah. Elijah, we remember, is characterized as a “hairy man” who wears a “leather belt around his waist” (see 2 Kings 1:8). And this John the Baptist, who mirrors the great Elijah of old, proclaims God’s presence now coming through Jesus. John directs his followers to God’s pure light shining through the life of Jesus saying: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” And lest we think it all ends with Jesus, John speaks of the unique baptism that Jesus will offer. Jesus’ baptism, John describes, will not be one of water: one that will soak in, or perish, or evaporate. Jesus’ baptism will be of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will allow the story to continue…even beyond Christmas day. The story will continue with the Holy Spirit through each and every one of us.
And I think this is what makes Mark’s Christmas so very important. The Christmas story that Mark tells, invites each and every one of us to the manger. We will be invited to come to the manger, to behold the gift that God offers, and to carry its presence into our living. Lest we ever have any romantic notions of the baby Jesus; lest we ever get stuck in the manger and linger too long; Mark will not even waste one verse on Jesus’ birth. Mark’s Christmas gift is that Jesus’ light and hope will continue to be passed on through the generations who follow.
Karl Barth, a great theologian of the last century, observed that “it is only when the Bible grasps us that it becomes the Word of God.” Mark wants this Christmas to grasp you, so you begin Christmas-ing 365 days per year with the hope and light of God. And this baptism with the Holy Spirit that arrives in Christ is a reminder of how God’s hope and light, that worked its way through the prophets of old, that found an exclamation mark in the life of Jesus, is now been birthed unto you. More than ever before, we need to carry that Christ light of hope. We need to receive it. We need to be light and hope to others. On this Sunday that we light the peace candle in the Advent wreath, we need to help nurture the coming of that peace through our Christ-like efforts, through our Christ-like care, through the Christmas-iong that is born in our living
Earlier in this reflection, I mentioned that Mark’s version of Christmas is my least favourite. However, the more I ponder it, I think (at least this year) Mark’s version is the one that is apropos for our time. May we make God’s light and hope that flowed through the past present in the future; may we make the light and hope that we see in living colour through Jesus birth here and now; may the light and hope of God be birthed in your Christmas-ing this Christmas and always.