Christmas at Mark’s House

by | Nov 28, 2021

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Jarrett McLaughlin
Christmas at Mark’s House
November 28, 2021
Advent 1

Pre-Sermon:

In Kansas City, where Meg and I once lived, one could make a number of pilgrimage stops right after Thanksgiving. Kansas City may be known as the city of fountains, but once Christmas hits, they take their exterior illumination very seriously.

One year there was a house that was absolutely covered in lights: trees wrapped from root to crown, Santas and Snowmen and icicles everywhere – all of it blinking in time to Christmas Music playing on some AM station you could tune in to. It was epic.

Right next door there was a house that was completely bare, except for a single, solitary strand of lights that spelled the word “Ditto” in cursive with an arrow pointing to their more seasonally zealous neighbors.

Not only was it hilarious but it was also this stark reminder that no two households celebrate this holiday in quite the same way.

Today we are starting an Advent sermon series in which we will take a tour of the four different Gospel homes at Christmas time. I guarantee you, no two are alike.

The Church has long been famous for combining the Matthew and Luke stories in order to maximize bathrobe usage among children in many a Christmas pageant, but this year let’s allow each story to stand on its own and focus on what each Gospel writer would wish for us to understand about Jesus and his beginnings.

Now I’ll say it right up front – Mark’s house is the oddball. If we imagine walking up the path to Mark’s house, there are no twinkling lights, no wreaths or trees, no candles in the windows, no nativity scenes – there’s nary a single decoration in sight.

In fact, you wouldn’t be wrong to wonder if there’s nobody home. The house feels empty – except for that peculiar uncle standing outside and peeking in the windows. You know the one – the uncle who shows up like clockwork whether you plan to be there this year or not.

All of this is to say – the Gospel of Mark really doesn’t have a Christmas story per se. Instead, Mark begins the story like this:

 

Scripture:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah:
“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,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

 

Sermon:

Did you know that Christmas hymns didn’t appear in many Protestant hymnals until the beginning of the 20th Century. Can you imagine that?
It’s Christmas Eve and there’s…
no “Joy to the World.”
no “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
no “Silent Night.”

Sure, Colonial Williamsburg had strong Christmas game, but not those New England Puritans. Christmas Carols – Bah Humbug!
Scrooges – all of them.

In truth, those early Calvinists believed that the Lord’s day should never be cluttered with all that extra Saint Nicholas business or any other festivities. To them, the core of the Gospel is Jesus’ death and resurrection – anything else is just a distraction.

I feel like Mark would approve.

Some have wondered if Mark simply did not know about these birth stories that were circulating at the time. Maybe that is why he didn’t include one in his Gospel. Surely he would have told one of these amazing stories if he had it in his back pocket.

That’s certainly plausible but I wonder if it’s not an intentional choice.
Perhaps Mark has no need for clever origin stories.
He does just tell us right off the bat: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” It’s not like there’s any guess work there.

However, if you want to know what it means to be the Son of God –
you better lace up your shoes because Mark is off to the races.
This Gospel is known for having a certain urgency about it – Jesus is always rushing from one thing to the next at a breath-taking pace, all with the aid of Mark’s favorite word – “immediately.”

Immediately Jesus did this and then immediately Jesus did that.
It’s a blitz, it’s a race to the finish – on your mark, get set, go!

In 16 short chapters Mark rushes us through the most human version of Jesus you will find among the four Gospels and then he deposits us at the foot of the cross.

It is then and only then, as we catch our ragged breath and as we gaze upon this man who is broken on the cross that we finally hear somebody else recognize Jesus.

It’s not one of his disciples mind you but a Roman Centurion who just participated in his execution. He looks upon Jesus and finally says what we the readers have known since the beginning: “Truly this man was the son of God.”

And if you think the beginning is abrupt and lacks the warmth of a proper Christmas story, you should check out the ending. Easter is treated no better.

Some women go to the tomb; they find it empty; some glowing person tells them he is risen and then they run away afraid and they don’t tell a single soul what they saw. Curtains – that’s the end.

The Church was so unsatisfied with this ending that later editors tried to slap two different conclusions on there – but in doing so they may have robbed the Gospel of its power.

This is not meant to be a story with a tidy ending.

In fact “Mark’s unfinished ending might actually help us understand why there is no Nativity at the beginning. Mark leaves us dangling at the end of the Gospel because he wants us to go back and reread the whole story again in light of Jesus’ [death and] resurrection. We cannot understand any aspect of Jesus’ life apart from reading it through Easter eyes.

This is a classic literary device that is buried in countless stories – where the ending illuminates and completely transforms the rest of the story.

It’s how a truly forgettable scene in the original Star Wars film takes on much deeper meaning later: The Skywalker aunt says “Luke’s just not a farmer…he has too much of his Father in him,” to which the uncle says “That’s what I’m afraid of.” The first time you see that scene you don’t even give it a second thought.

It’s not until the length of nearly two entire films later that we get the whole Darth Vader “I AM YOUR FATHER” reveal – which illuminates that scene in a completely different light.

George Lucas didn’t invent that trick. It’s right here in the Bible.
Mark might tell us right off the bat that Jesus is the son of God, but pretend you’ve never heard this story before. Would you ever in a million years guess that being the son of God meant suffering and dying?

It seems to me that Mark not decorating for Christmas is absolutely intentional. Miraculous birth stories only serve to make Jesus more different from us – somebody more holy, more set apart.

All the while, Mark wants to highlight, underline and put it in bold text: Jesus.Is.Like.Us. He may be the son of God but that does not set him apart from us at all.
Jesus suffers with us
Jesus dies for us.

It’s the truth that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a prison cell as he, too, awaited execution at the hands of the Nazis:
“only the suffering God can help.”

It is the first Sunday of Advent.
Over there glows the candle of Hope.

To be quite honest, we took a tour of Mark’s house today for a very practical reason. It’s the least Christmas-y of them all, so best to let him bat lead-off for Advent.

Mark may have even less Christmas game than those New England Puritans who refused to sing carols, but he does offer us a gift all the same. Mark gives us a Jesus for those who are in the struggle:

Those who are broken by poverty.
Those who resist racism on the regular.
Those who struggle daily with depression.
Those who stare down their addictions every single moment of their lives.

Sometimes we just need a Jesus who will stand with us in what can feel like daily defeat.
Sometimes we need a Jesus who can take the hits and get back up again.

What, may I ask you, could be more hopeful than that?