This is the text of the sermon preached at the combined service of the Lucknow Presbyterian and Lucknow Community Christian Reformed Churches on December 7 2014
Here we are at the second Sunday of Advent. Our candle is lit and we find ourselves just eighteen days away from the big Day, Christmas day. Festivities have already begun. Some of you have already enjoyed your family Christmas, company dinners are being held, the stores are busier every day with shoppers looking for that special unique gift. Online Christmas shopping is set to reach new highs. Children are writing their letters to Santa. There is an atmosphere of anticipation, excitement. Christmas is coming.
We sometimes need to remind ourselves about the reason for the season, Campaigns have been launched to urge us to keep Christ in Christmas, to remember it is the celebration of the birth of a baby not a reason for shopping or parties, that the season is about the gift in a manger, not the gifts under the tree.
And then we come to our scripture passage this morning. One has to wonder though how today’s passage fits in with the advent season, this season leading up to Christmas. It does start in a promising way
“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,[a] the Son of God,”
but suddenly we are introduced to a camel hair wearing, locust eating John the Baptist who appears out of the desert preaching repentance, baptizing folks in the Jordan, and predicting the appearance of someone greater than he, someone who would baptize with the holy spirit instead of water.
This doesn’t feel like the beginning of the story, none of this scene will look good on a Christmas card! What happened to the shepherds abiding, and the angels singing, the wise men? Where is the manger with cattle lowing and a baby that doesn’t cry (that’s what the song says). Where is the inn keeper, the warning dreams, the old people at the temple, the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of children?
Why does Mark skip over a whole section of Jesus life, the piece that makes the very best songs, the very best holiday meals, the very best reason for shopping. Why does he skip thirty years of Jesus life and within the first pages of the book already have the political leaders of the time in conflict with him and his teaching? He seems to be skipping the best parts of Jesus’ story. Doesn’t he know about these stories? Doesn’t he realize the significance of each one of those steps in identifying Jesus as the messiah?
Or could it be that he is just interested in telling us the necessary parts, the important parts? Could it be that he is focused on getting us to the cross rather than having us spend time standing in a stable?
To really answer these questions, to understand, we need to know more about the author of this gospel called Mark and his audience.
This gospel is anonymous, nowhere does the writer identify himself, tradition has attributed it to Mark an early Christian convert who travelled with both Paul and Barnabas on their missionary trips. The book of Peter mentions a Mark with apostle in Rome. While it is not clear that this is the same person, since Mark was a very common name, some sources suggest that Mark was Peter’s secretary and possibly his interpreter. It does appear though, that at the time of writing the authour was in Rome and writes the gospel from the first hand stories about Jesus he has heard from Peter.
His Gospel is written for his fellow church members, Christians in Rome. The Bible as we know it was not yet available. Mark is actually the first of the gospels to be written, before Matthew, Luke or John. It was the first written account of Jesus life.
These Roman Christians would have studied the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures which had been translated into Greek nearly two hundred years before. They very likely also had copies of the letter they had received from Paul a few years before as well as copies of those written to the churches in Galatia, Thessalonica, and Corinth. They would have told each other stories of Jesus life as they had heard them from others.
There had been a Christian church in Rome for a number of years already with historical documentation of a Christian community there as early as the year 49 less than twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus.
Mark writes into a world of trouble and suffering.
Nero has been the emperor since the year 55. His first five years have been good ones, he’s been a good leader, a good ruler. But around the year 60 something happens. There is a fire in Rome which burns a large portion of the city. Some historians say that Nero started it himself. There is huge damage and huge loss of life. A scape goat needs to be found, someone to blame and Nero points the finger at the Christian community in the city.
Round ups and arrests take place that make what ISL is doing in the world today look like child’s play. These Christians were dressed in the skins of wild animals and torn apart by wild dogs, they were crucified, they were dipped in tar and set on fire to light Nero’s immense gardens. They hid, but were betrayed by their friends. They met in the catacombs, the tombs under the city in secret. Their suffering was intense.
It’s to these people in their suffering that Mark writes. His Gospel shows them a savoir with whom they can relate. They find that nothing they could suffer from Nero was alien to Jesus. Like them, he had been misrepresented, falsely labelled. He had been betrayed by one from his close circle of friends. They read in Jesus words, recorded by Mark, that persecution could be expected in the life of the Christian.
And so, the Gospel of Mark is direct and to the point. It gets right to the meat of the story, the source of hope, the remedy for suffering. It starts Jesus down the road to the cross very quickly, because these folks need to know that they have been saved and how, they need to know there is hope and where it is coming from.
It’s over ten years ago now that I had an attack of kidney stones. Anyone who has suffered with kidney stones knows that word attack is a good one. I woke up in pain, with no idea what was wrong. Jocelyn wasn’t home. I passed out on the bathroom floor.
My daughter Rebecca took me to the Emergency room at the hospital. My symptoms were very typical and so a diagnosis was not difficult. The doctor gave me a wonderful drug called Toradol, an anti-inflammatory pain killer.
Now, it may have been very interesting to know about the clinical trials that had gone into the approval of toradol. It might have been nice to know about the company that makes the product. It might have been cool to know something about the history of the product, the drugs that came before it. It might have been of value to understand how the product works, its chemical make up, its mode of action.
Thankfully, the doctor didn’t extend my suffering with all of these details, I could find them on the internet later, at my leisure. At that moment he was asking me to trust him, that this drug was good news for me, and to drop my pants.
And that’s really what Mark does here as well. In eight short verses
He tells us clearly what his story is about, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News. The Greek word he uses here, evangelon, the source for our word evangelism and evangelical, would have rung clearly for his Roman readers. This word was used to make announcements about the accomplishments of the emperor, the royal leader, Nero, Caesar Augustus, and all the others. This was royal language, powerful language, language that sets this news of Jesus right up beside that of the most powerful leaders in the world. It would have made folks sit up and pay attention. He takes authority from the word. Gives hope through it. Shows that the savior they have is right up there with supreme leader, the one who hold their lives in his hand.
He then takes authourtiy from the words of the Hebrew Bible. Mark doesn’t spend a lot of time proof texting like Matthew does, he doesn’t use the words “as fortold by the prophets” very often but here knowing his audience is familiar with these writings, he makes something of an ancient mash up of texts from Exodus, Isaiah and Malachi to tie his good news to the word of God that had been passed down through the ages. Words that call for preparation, words that come from the wilderness, words that were originally written to give hope to a suffering people.
From here, with the introduction of John the Baptist, Mark makes a straight line trip to the cross, because, for Mark the gospel message is the cross, not the manger, it’s a story of humiliation not one of adoring angelic choirs, it’s a story of sacrifice not one of gifts from foreigners.
In our Christmas celebrations we often forget the cross.
On Wednesday evening our community came together to sing together, to sing our Christmas music at our annual Carolfest, to kick off the Christmas season together. We sang of shepherds, and stars, of mangers and angels. We urged the ringing of bells. We turned our faces toward Bethlehem. While Pastor David, in his welcoming remarks did make reference to the end of the story, the cross, I believe only one of the carols sung did. It was in the beautiful Christmas Hosanna from St Josephs that we got a glimpse of the cruel cross, the dripping blood, the nail pierced hands.
In it all, we need to see the cross. The shadow of the cross lays over the scene in the stable, it stands behind those singing angels, and the light of the guiding star shines through it.
Without the cross, Christmas is just a good excuse for a holiday, a reason for a party. The manger has no saving power.
The angelic song of peace on earth and good will toward men is just an empty dream without the cross.
The gifts of the maji are no more than expensive baubles given to a destitute Hebrew child by a group of misguided bookworms without the cross.
Mark’s beginning is a good reminder. It reminds us that at the end of the Advent day, all the stuff we want to constitute the real “beginning” of the story is not the core of the story after all. It reminds us that while keeping Christ in Christmas may be a cool slogan, it is more important to keep the cross in Christmas.
Yes, you can tell the story of Jesus without Bethlehem’s stall. You can tell the story of Jesus without shepherds and angels, without wise men and a stable. If Mark were the only gospel we possessed in the church, a great deal of what fills up our imaginations in the month of December would disappear but the one thing that would not disappear would be the Gospel, the core of which is recognizing Jesus as the One sent from God to save us from our sins.
As you celebrate this season, celebrate the birth of our Savior with gusto. Celebrate the coming of the Emanuel, God with us, but at the same time remind yourself that this is only part of the story; that the Christmas Story is not complete without Good Friday and Easter. That God’s grace to us comes through the cross, through a sacrifice given in love, a sacrifice that is symbolized, for us this morning, in the bread and the cup as we celebrate the Lord’s supper together this morning.