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.”
If we relied on Mark, we would have to stretch to get a story worth a Christmas carol. The Gospel of Mark does not begin like Matthew, Luke, or John. Mark has no shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, no Mary, no Joseph, no manger, no wise men, no Herod, no “In the beginning was the Word,” and no baby Jesus. Mark either does not know the stories of Jesus’ birth or does not think they are important enough to keep in the final draft.
Mark starts his Gospel with a wild man in the desert: “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Child of God. Isaiah wrote, ‘See, I’m sending my messenger ahead of you, a socially, religiously, politically incorrect prophet.’”
John is the voice crying in the wilderness, the honking horn, and the buzzing alarm clock. He wears animal skins and smells of honey-dipped locusts. John has never seen the inside of a barbershop. His tumbleweed hairdo makes Willie Nelson look well groomed.
John’s popularity is hard to figure. Would you have gone to hear him? Would you have paid attention to John the Baptist for even five minutes? While he sounds like the street preachers who tell you that you are going to hell on the next bus if you do not repent right now, there is a big difference between John and most street preachers. Self-appointed prophets tend to plant themselves in your way so that you have to cross to the other side of the street to avoid them. John set up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wanted to hear him had to go to a lot of trouble to get there. John is not speaking at the Convention Center. He is six miles east of a one-stop-sign town, four miles south on a dirt road, two miles east on a footpath, and another half-mile north off the path. Why would anyone make a trip like that to hear a sermon? The temple was in Jerusalem. The preachers were there. If someone wanted to hear about God, they could attend a few services and join a Bible study.
John is as far away from the temple as he can get. The people flock to John because he is not part of the religious establishment. Only those willing to go into the wilderness and think outside the usual expectations are able to know the Spirit that is beyond what religion offers.
John was hard for religious people to take because he told the truth. He told them to wake up, follow the Spirit, and start doing what God wanted to do with them. John was executed for his honesty.
John tells people to “repent,” not as a resolution to do better but as a way of seeing everything differently. Those who listened to John understood that repentance means turning away from everything that denies hope and turning toward everything that leads to joy. People went to the wilderness to hear John because he invited them to travel a new road, to stop meeting expectations and try something new.
John did not have any credentials other than his belief that baptism was the hope of beginning again. He baptized women who were not allowed to sit in the best seats in the temple.
He baptized sinners who were never invited to eat with good people. He baptized high school seniors and middle-aged ministers. John baptized everyone who wanted to start again.
John the Baptist does not make it into the Christmas pageant for good reasons. “You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” does not make it onto Christmas cards. John did not get invited to many parties, but his message is at the heart of the season. Christmas is about God offering the gift of something more.
In some ways, the Christian faith is center stage at Christmas celebrations, but this season also points out the differences between Christians and culture. Reading the Christmas story in the Bible and finding connections to the ways we usually celebrate Christmas is hard.
We feel the tension between hyper-consumerism and the baby born in a stable. We do not want to believe that the more we spend, the more fun we will have. We do not want our children to think that they have to have what everyone else is getting, but coming up with an alternative way of celebrating seems like work. Who has time to make gifts, write poems, and adapt Martha Stewart’s plans to construct our own Chrismons? December never turns out like we hope. So it is common for churches to denounce the secularization of Christmas—“Remember the reason for the season.”
Ministers preach scathing critiques of the commercialization of Christmas, calling believers to focus on its spiritual meaning. The next day, those same preachers drive to Target to buy Barbie Designable Hair Extensions and Ultimate Optimus Prime Transformers. The trappings that surround Christmas almost cover the hope for something holy.
Christmas is the chance to live in God’s hope. If we ask, “What will Christmas look like if we really believe that God is with us?” then Christmas will look different. We will not let agenda anxiety keep us from remembering that there are those whom God loves who do not have the resources to celebrate; for some, there are no gifts because they are poor; for some, there is no joy because they are broken in spirit; for some, there is no family because they have no one.
If we believe that God is with us, we will have a more meaningful Christmas. Feel the joy of Christmas as it is and the joy of what could be. Love our children and other people’s children, too. Give to people we love and to people we have never met. Remember happy memories and make new ones. Think about Jesus in the manger and about God who is with us now.
We will not have a Christmas as holy as the one we imagine. We will never get Christmas completely right, and that is okay. The tension we feel in December is the tension we feel all year long. We know that we could be better than we are. Trying something new may lead to frustration, but it also leads to wonder.
Igor Stravinsky had written a new piece with a difficult violin passage. After the orchestra had rehearsed for several weeks, the solo violinist came to Stravinsky and said that he was sorry, he had tried his best, but the passage was too difficult. No violinist could play it. Stravinsky replied, “I understand that. What I’m after is the sound of someone trying to play it.”
God is pleased with the sound of God’s children trying to play in a new way. Christmas is a time to start caring for the hurting, become more of who we should be, and understand that we live in the presence of God.
We come to the table thanking God for the gift of Christ’s coming. We come not as angels but as saints and sinners. Where we sorrow, God brings joy; where we are apathetic, God invites us to love; where we fail, God offers grace.
Originally appeared in Time for Supper: Invitations to Christ’s Table by Brett Younger.