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Sermon: The First Christmas Story

The First Christmas Story

Isaiah 40:1-9; Mark 1:1-8

(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church on 12-10-2017)

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, the apocalyptic expectations were hung by the chimney with care, with hope that o` ivscuro,tero,j soon would be there.

It just doesn’t work, does it? None of the familiar words and charming Christmas stories works with Mark as our seasonal guide. With Mark in charge there would never be another Christmas Pageant. No makeshift manger. No young girls dressed as Mary holding a doll disguised as baby Jesus. No reluctant lads standing in as Joseph. No shepherds with crooks twice the size of the children wielding them. No wise men arriving with a pot of gold that looks suspiciously like a honey-glazed ham still in its shiny wrapper.

In fact, I bet you did not even recognize when I read you the first Christmas story this morning: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” That is how the first Christmas story opens. No decrees from Emperor Augustus. No shepherds serenaded by angels. No innkeeper posting a no vacancy sign.

Mark has no time for charming stories, no time for sleepy shepherds, guiding stars, jealous kings, and angel cantatas. He storms into the sanctuary about this time every three years and says, “Listen.” “Pay attention.” “Stay awake.” “Believe and keep believing!”

Mark’s is the first Christmas story and yet by far, the least well known. In fact, some argue that Mark has no Christmas story. They say Mark is the Gospel Grinch, the original klepto-maniacal Claus who steals our traditional Christmas celebrations. Some are kinder to Mark and forgive his Christmas omissions and simply ignore him during this festive season.

To ignore Mark, to skip over this Gospel, though, is to skip the first Christmas story, which is perhaps the most creative and maybe the most important, Christmas story of them all. It is a story that gives instant heartburn to any peddler of Christmas who sells or buys into the idea that this is the season to max out our credit cards, to give presents to people who do not need them or want them, to feel better about ourselves by doing our annual acts of charity for those poor souls “less fortunate than we.”

Mark’s Christmas story is not only the least familiar to us, it is the longest. For sixteen chapters, Mark tells the story of what happens when Jesus is born not in a lowly manger, but in our imaginations, in our hearts, in our lives, in our every breath. It is not so much a Christmas story as it is a Christmas invasion. When Jesus arrives and invades our world, invades our hearts, nothing remains the same.

To celebrate Mark’s Christmas is to celebrate how Jesus leads us out of our seasonal security into a world wrapped in darkness, well acquainted with sorrow, at home with lies that mask as truth, resigned to the realities of racism, sexism, ageism, terrorism, immune to the social fissures that emerge when a few have so much and many have so little. He leads us out because that is where we find Jesus, as he breaks down every broken down idea or system that separates us from God and from each other.

Maybe this is why Mark starts the first Christmas story with Jesus touching lepers, breaking down legalistic religious views, respecting women as disciples, celebrating faith that changes lives.

Mark refuses to let us box up Christmas with a lovely bow, enjoy it for a few weeks, and then store it away in the attic or shove it into the basement until next year. For Mark, that Jesus is born means that our “God is on the loose” (see Brian Blount, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, pp. 28-36).

“When God gets on the loose inside you,” writes my good friend and co-author, Brian Blount, “you start to do things that turn your world upside down and inside out. . . Imagine what would happen if people were so possessed by the power of God’s Holy Spirit that they stopped caring as much for how pure and holy they looked and started getting down into the dirt and mud and muck of the world that messes up so many of God’s people and started cleaning that world up.

“Too many of us treat heaven as if it’s a cotillion and we’ve got to look spiritually gorgeous if we’re going to get in. So we spend all our earthly time in church like it’s a beauty salon, touching up our faith, washing our hands of the wrong kinds of people, perfuming ourselves so we won’t be tainted by the smell of a disintegrating world . . . But when God is on the Loose, God’s Spirit drives you out of the church and into the unknown, into the wilderness, where staying clean is not an option, because, like Jesus, you’ve been driven into a down and dirty fight for God’s people” (Preaching Mark in Two Voices, p. 36).

Just when you and I are ready to decorate the tree, bake some cookies, and snuggle up for a “long winter’s nap,” mad Mark turns up, tells his Christmas story and tosses our Christmas habits on their heads. He shouts, “wake up” and “get out” into a world that is waiting for you.

Many of us in the church have lived through the past few decades singing the same hymns, saying the same prayers, and listening to much the same sermons. Meanwhile, out there, a major transition has happened. Those of us who used to be called the “mainline church” have been pushed to the edge of society. No one is rushing to hear our theological opinion about the new tax plan or the travel ban or the wisdom or lack thereof of naming Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

More and more, the church is dwindling in attendance and public influence. It is fighting to survive in a society that increasingly could not care if it does or does not. Given the reality of a shrinking church, maybe the best we can do this season is to trim our trees, drink our wassail, close our eyes, and live as if nothing has ever changed.

Or, maybe, this is precisely the time for us to grab the heels of Mark as he takes us on a wild Christmas journey that will not end on December 25, will not end until the last wall of separation and isolation, antipathy and ugliness, despair and hatred, conceit and tyranny, has come tumblin’ down.

Maybe this is the opportune time, today is precisely the day, to listen to the first Christmas story, to read it again and again, and as we do to watch a miracle happen, to watch Christmas begin in every willing and open heart.


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