The Christmas Story We Never Hear
Today’s sermon was inspired by a joke I saw in a pastor’s discussion group. If we can go forward just one slide, you’ll see what I mean. Each of the Bible’s four gospel accounts of Christ’s life tells the story of Christmas a little differently—next slide. Matthew wrote his gospel for Jewish readers, and so Matthew’s story of Christmas has a genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestry back through King David and gives two chapters on how Jesus’ birth perfectly fulfills Biblical prophecies. Matthew’s Christmas highlights Jesus’ Old Testament, Jewish roots. But—next slide—Luke wrote his gospel for Gentile converts, who were often poorer and seen as outsiders. So Luke’s version of Christmas focuses on ancient era outcasts like poor shepherds and women with pregnancy problems, and since Gentiles would not “get” Old Testament references but would still recognize the importance of angels, angels do all the prophetic work in Luke. Meanwhile, John’s gospel focuses on how Jesus is God incarnate—next slide—and so his story of Christmas leaves out Mary, Joseph, and the rest to instead tell us how Jesus “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In contrast, Mark’s Christmas skips over all that holiday nonsense and—next slide—like Mulan just says, “Let’s get down to business!”. Mark dives right in with grown-up Jesus, no baby origin story needed.
My favorite Christmas morning memory comes from when I was in high school. In elementary school, I’d wake up at the crack of dawn to see what Santa Claus brought. But by the time I was in high school, on Christmas morning I just wanted to sleep in. Yet my father remembered the many years of my impatient younger self waking him up. So one high school Christmas morning, as I slept in, my father got revenge. Creeping down the hallway at 8am, my dad oh-so-gently whispered through our bedroom doors, “HO! HO! HO! MERRY CHRISTMAS!” as he banged pots and pans. I remember staggering out of my room, bleary-eyed and irate, perhaps mumbling a few choice words at my dad’s expense, as he shared his unwelcome Christmas spirit with my sleepy sisters and me. Looking back at my youth, while I recall a few extra special toys Santa brought over the years, my favorite Christmas waking up was that later one, when my dad started the holiday off loud, fast, and right-to-it. I think Mark’s story of Christmas—or lack thereof—is similar. “Wake up, readers! This ain’t no time for shepherds or wise men! We got no time for stables and mangers! Jesus has work to do! Up and at ‘em!”
So what is Mark’s gospel so eager to get to right away? What is so urgent that Mark skips over Christmas to tell us? Hear again the very first verse of Mark’s gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark is the simplest, shortest, and most direct gospel. In Mark’s gospel, most characters will repeatedly not understand who Jesus is or what he’s about. The few who do realize the truth? Jesus shall swear to secrecy. But Mark wants us readers to know from the very start who Jesus is: the Son of God, God incarnate in human flesh. As everyone else gets confused and lost about Jesus, Mark wants you and I to have no doubts, to be clear from the start. We see a similar move at the end of today’s scripture, when the voice of God the Father speaks over Jesus as the Holy Spirit comes down, in a kind of Triune dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Mark’s in too much of a rush to explain how Jesus was born… or what his exact nature is. The closest Mark gets to a proper Christmas is this moment signaling Jesus is a human born of heaven. Moreover, baptisms—like the one Jesus receives here, like the baptism we’ll have later in today’s service—baptisms signal transitions. Baptisms mark a shift from death to life, as a kind of symbolic burial underwater only for the person to rise again in victory. So it’s no accident that the first thing Mark’s gospel shows Jesus doing is getting baptized. It’s Mark’s way of saying, “This is Jesus. Like baptism, his whole life is going to be a process of stooping down into the watery dark for the sake of others, only to rise again in glory.”
Now Advent has ended. Christmas morning was two days ago. Now we are in the twelve days of Christmas. As we reflect on the story, the message, the wonder of the Christmas child… and as we slowly pack away our lights, ornaments, and nativity sets in the days ahead… I invite you to ponder the story of Christmas as Mark’s gospel tells it. Mark skips over all the shepherds, doesn’t have any wise men, has no room for a Mary and Joseph. Mark’s in a rush, and he only has time for bare necessities. And the bare minimum Mark wants us to know when it comes to the origins of Jesus is this: Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus will share this life of ours, including the baptism of birth, the baptism of death, and the baptism of second life. And Jesus will give us the gift of the Holy Spirit, that we might share in God’s holy mission and power. The familiar stories of Christmas we know and love? Mark’s gospel would say they’re important only because they reinforce these points Mark is making more directly. The wise men in Matthew’s gospel welcome a Christmas child titled “Emmanuel, God with us,” just as Isaiah foretold. The shepherds and women of Luke’s gospel praise Jesus as the Messiah who rescues the world from sin. The philosophical start to John’s gospel—”in the beginning was the Word”—displays what the gift of the Holy Spirit looks like in our lives: that all who receive Jesus are given “power to become children of God.” But all three of these gospels include such details, tell those familiar stories… so that we can better appreciate what Mark’s gospel tells in far briefer form: that Jesus is God, that Jesus has come for our sakes, that Jesus offers us life and joy everlasting.
The Gospel of Mark skips over the story of Christmas… but not the message of Christmas. It’s a reminder that the child born on Christmas Day did not spend the rest of his life in a manger. The baby Jesus grew up into a man who was baptized by John, foretelling our own baptism into faith… and symbolizing that though each of us is baptized into death when we pass away… through Christ we are also baptized into eternal life on the other side of the grave. So as we pack up our nativity sets and take down our trees in the coming weeks, may we imitate Mark’s gospel. We put away the trappings of Christmas every year—the decorative shepherds, angels, and so on—we pack those away each year. But just as Mark’s gospel did not need such things to tell the message of Christmas, may we in the days after Christmas likewise not need such trappings to remember the Christmas message. May Christmas live in our hearts, not just one day or one season of the year but the entire calendar long. Because the message of Christmas is not a message for just one chilly night: it’s a lesson that can even be told without mentioning birth at all. And the message is: that in Jesus Christ, God has come near us… that in Jesus Christ God shared this life with us, shared our deaths with us, and shares his eternal life and joy with us… that by Jesus Christ we are given the Holy Spirit, that God’s holy mission and power might be worked in and through us forevermore. So hold onto to that Christmas message, even as we step away from Christmas decorations. For Mark’s short and blunt gospel indeed celebrates the heart of Christmas, just the prophet Isaiah foretold: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… For a child has been born for us.” May you find that light shining in your own life today and always. Amen.