“Coming Home for Christmas ~ Mark’s House” (1 of 4)
Psalm 80 & Mark 1: 9-13 ~ November 21, 2021 ~ Northwood United ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven, and heaven and nature sing…” Those words by Watts and music by Handel are, for many, a highlight of Christmas. I can’t tell you how many versions of Joy to the World I have on my playlist, and we love to sing along to each and every version. And there we find ourselves, gathered in the joy of the season, celebrating the jubilant depth and profound meaning of all that the joyful season promises. And we gather, and we sing at the top of our voices…“Joy to the world!”
Yet, ever year, I am aware that there are many absent from our gathered community as we rise to sing. I look out and some are not there. For them this year, they just can’t come and sing those words. There are many who forgo this year’s Christmas gathering because it just isn’t where their hearts are. For many this year, the devastation brought on by flooding, supply chain disruption, and the present state of emergency in our province has been truly devastating. For some, ‘Joy to their world’, is not something that can be found on their hearts and expressed through their lips. For them, ‘Pain to their world’… ‘suffering in their world’…is the song they sing. So, they shut the blinds, close the doors, and a very different Christmas unfolds. Joy to the world? Where is my joy, where is my happiness, where is my celebration, they humbly ask? When all we might feel is pain, sadness, and heartbreak, celebrations…songs about ‘Joy’ are the furthest from one’s heart.
Have there been Christmases that you would have preferred to entirely ‘skip over?’ Have there been holidays when it seemed that there was no joy to be found; no hope to be seen? I suspect that this has been the case for each of us. You remember them: a province in a state of emergency; the absence of that special person in your celebrations; the ending of a significant relationship; a troubling financial situation. And, on top of those realities lie the uncertainties brought on by the tragic flooding in our Province and the continued challenge of living through the second year of the pandemic. We ALL have had our own Christmases that we would prefer to skip right over and NOT sing songs of “joy”. Perhaps this Christmas is one of them?
And if you find yourself connecting with this challenge that life brings on when, it seems, like the rest of the world is celebrating, then I think you will find tremendous hope in the ‘Christmas’ passage that Pat just read. (And, yes, I am calling this passage ‘Mark’s Christmas passage’) What happened to you when you realized that Mark does not tell a traditional birth story with Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus visited by angels and shepherds and wise men? What did it mean to you when you realized that Mark, instead, jumps right in with the story of his temptation and baptism? I find that when people first discover that Mark has no Christmas story, there is an initial discomfort with this absence. We frantically flip through Mark’s gospel! We wonder what happened! Surely, it must be there! Surely, Mark must have taken time to tell the story of joy coming to the world through the birth of Jesus! And then we realize the true depth of hope found in Mark, when you come home to Mark’s house for a very different Christmas. And in this odd Christmas, you somehow find hope. Even if it is a Christmas that has been touched by pain, suffering, temptation…you can still come home and find hope!
To be sure, Mark’s Christmas is the most unique among all the 4 gospels because it is essentially absent. And, I truly hope you do not need to come home to Christmas at Mark’s, but if you find yourself not wanting to sing “Joy to the world”, if you find yourself at Mark’s house you will find that, even here, Mark is birthing tender Christmas hope for our broken hearts. So, what does Mark’s Christmas look like? Mark sets the beginning for Jesus in the wilderness, rather than a manger. For Mark, there are no angels or shepherds, or wise men. No Holy Family. For Mark, Jesus’ birth occurs in the wilderness. It is a place where Jesus hungered, where he suffered, where he was tested. Jesus’ wilderness, for Mark, was the place of hope for Jesus’ arrival.
The wilderness, of course, is not a geographical location…like Bethlehem. You can’t take a trip to the Holy Land and plan to visit ‘the wilderness’, like you can in visiting Bethlehem. But you can visit it, and most of us have been there. The wilderness is a place of struggle amidst your life’s journey. For Jesus, it was this time that he went out ~ alone and was tempted and tested for 40 days. 40 days would be the time period all four gospels would record. 40 ~ a significant number, used 146 times in scripture…a short form for ‘a time of testing and trial’. The number used for Noah’s sea voyage, Elijah’s time of fasting, Jonah’s warnings to the Ninevites, the Israelites’ wilderness wandering, and now for Jesus’ testing. Jesus’ 40, his time of testing, would be something which he would later draw upon. But in the moment, it was a profound struggle. Jesus would be hungry; he would be lonely; he would be tested and tempted. It would be a most difficult telling of Jesus’ birth that Mark gives us. But it is a birth story that, I think, we all will be glad is there!
I’m guessing that you might be as glad as I am, that when we need to, we can come home to Mark’s house and find Christmas hope! To be sure, you will never want to go there; however, in those times of struggle, loss and pain, isn’t it good to know that Christmas still happens…that Christ still arrives…even amidst the struggle, the loss and the pain, Christ’s hope can still emerge, even there!
It is helpful to recall that Christmas for Mark is not just wilderness. It contains two components: wilderness…and blessing. Christmas at Mark’s house contains the blessing offered to Jesus at his baptism as well as his wilderness struggles. As John baptizes his cousin Jesus, and Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan River, the text reports that a voice echoes throughout the skies: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ While it might seem that the world is throwing the most challenging struggles upon you, Mark’s Christmas is one which reminds us that God’s presence is with us through those struggles. Through your struggles, through your temptations, as your world is falling apart, you are God’s precious child: “you are my daughter/son in who I am well pleased”. And God will walk through the struggles and pain with you, will walk through the wilderness experiences beside you…for you are God’s child…God’s son/ God’s daughter. And while it might not seem like the world loves you, you will get through the wilderness for God loves you!
The question often asked in the times of injustice and unfair struggles are… ‘how could God allow this to happen?’… ‘how can this all-powerful, all-loving God allow these seeming injustices to occur?’ And we are inevitably drawn back and reminded of this God who loved Creation so much that we have been granted freedom. We wish, but we can’t have it both ways! God cannot be the controller of our destiny and ALSO the granter of free will. God loves so unconditionally, that God gave us the will be be free! And the free will that is exerted~ by some ~ against others ~ and against Creation ~ has been the deep cause for so much pain…suffering…and wilderness, for so many. At Mark’s house, we are touched by the reality that God’s presence is birthed into the wilderness and injustices that continue to occur. God blesses you; God stands by you; God holds you; God wipes away your tears…when we let God.
This Sunday in the church year is called ‘Christ the King’ or ‘The Reign of Christ’ Sunday. It is a promise (and a challenge), that as we come to the end of the Church year…and prepare for a new year next Sunday with Advent, we realize the power of God’s arrival in Christ. Do we let Christ be our King? Do we live as if Christ Reigns over all? This, of course, might be an easier spiritual exercise to pursue on the years that our hearts are poised to sing ‘Joy to the World’. However, on those years when we come home to Mark’s house, when we walk through the times of wilderness, even then we also can celebrate the surprising arrival of Jesus. The One who is birthed amidst our struggles and pains; the one who will walk at our sides and birth new life and hope.
I sincerely hope that you do not find yourself at ‘Mark’s House’ for Christmas; however, if you do, may we know that, even there…we will find the hope of Christ’s arrival.