Mark’s Christmas is pretty sparse: no baby, no Mary, no Joseph, no genealogies, no animals, no angels, no annunciations, no shepherds, no kings, no gifts, no census, no Bethlehem, no flight to Egypt. Christmas in Mark is like Christmas in Whoville after the Grinch came and stole everything. Christmas in Mark isn’t even 12 minutes long, let alone 12 days! Christmas in Mark is one verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That’s it—nothing more. Mark is only three chapters old before we are told of the first plot to kill Jesus. Jesus is in jeopardy in Mark before Luke’s gospel is done with the annunciation. Suddenly we realize that if Mark was all we had to go by perhaps we wouldn’t spend so much effort on Advent, or care as we do for the 25th day of December.
Mark’s ‘good news’ is, nevertheless, big stuff. Mark’s word choice is important. ‘Good news’, or ‘gospel’ , is a huge word. It’s more like ‘great’ news, amazing revelation, super, happy, thrilling. It comes from a Hebrew word which literally means to smooth the wrinkles on your face. In our ‘nip and tuck’ culture we immediately warm to the idea. The gospel is like top notch cosmetic surgery, or a double dose of Botox. The gospel is eternal youth. But, of course, in Jesus’ pre nip and tuck culture, such a word had different connotations. To smooth the wrinkles on your face was to relax all the muscles that were tense with anxiety, and to unclench teeth that were taut with worry. To smooth the wrinkles on your face was to let go of all pressure, concern, trouble and toil. It was to be at peace. This is the gospel—the good news—says Mark. This is what’s going to take away the bags under our eyes, and the crows feet, and the tension headaches. Maybe Mark’s gospel is made for the holidays after all.
But a moment later all the good news is forgotten. Straight way we find that the proclamation of the good news is entrusted to a mad man wearing a camel skin garment fastened with a leather belt. He eats bugs. He looks like he just stepped off the set of a national geographic special filming on location in an aboriginal wilderness. What is Mark doing? This isn’t smart. Who invited the strange uncle to our holiday meal? I know we have to invite him, where else would he go, but why are we putting him in charge of the Christmas goose?
This is a remarkable thing about the good news of Jesus Christ. It does not erupt in the streets of Jerusalem. It does not arrive in the holy of holies within the temple precinct. It is not delivered by learned scholars and scribes. The good news of Jesus Christ appears first in the wilderness on the tongue of an apparent lunatic. This is God’s way. God operates along the margins. God tests our tolerance–those who have ears to hear will hear.
Of course if you are going to say something ridiculous, this might be the way to do it. That is what advent and Christmas, and really the gospel, are all about—the saying of something ridiculous. The church is always making ridiculous claims. We never really think about what we are saying, which is what keeps us from being embarrassed. But if we did think about it, we would only whisper them under our breath, hoping nobody heard. This is why we need mad men. They have no credibility left to lose. They’ll say anything.
They’ll tell you that God is going to establish a kingdom. Oh boy—here we go again. Do you know how long it had been? Greece, Egypt, Syria, Rome—Israel was a like a hot potato passed from one super power to another. And every time new management took over the faltering restaurant the menu changed—new gods, new laws, new customs, new tolerances, new methods of oppression. The only thing that stayed the same was that nothing did! The once vaunted Promised Land was nothing more than a dirty truck stop where the empire pulled up its heavy rigs and demanded a fill up. If you were an Israelite in John’s day your chief value lay in your ability to pay taxes. Couple those depersonalizing forces with God’s mysterious silence since the time of the great prophets and you have one gloomy, downtrodden people-group. Is God going to do anything about all of this? Oh, don’t worry, says John, he sent my illegitimate cousin to a little backwater in Galilee. He was born next to the goat pen. His parents don’t amount to much, they’re poor as anything. But he’s going to save us all, so we’re good.
That’s classic John, he’ll say anything.
He’ll tell you that the son of God, with an ineffable relationship to the father, became a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. We call it the incarnation, because big words give things the feel of respectability. But really what we are saying is something ridiculous—that God in some way became a particular human being, born to a particular family, at a particular time, with a particular hometown, being taught a particular vocation. You do know that God in Jesus was a terrible plumber right? That’s because he learned carpentry, not plumbing. You do know that God in Jesus couldn’t find his ways around the suburbs of Rome right? That’s because God in Jesus, so far as we can tell, never went more than 37 miles from his hometown. You do know that God in Jesus called someone mommy, and wanted his binky, and couldn’t fall asleep with his favorite blanket? Do you feel a bit silly now? Yet, this is why we have gathered. No wonder we are inclined to make Christmas more about family and traditions, and secret cookie recipes, and candy canes, and lights, and the North Pole, and Christmas elves, and an old saint named Nick and his flying reindeer and magic sleigh. At least that stuff is believable.
It’s a good thing we have John, the mad man who is willing to say anything. John is not ‘right’. John is not ‘respectable’. John operates on the ‘fringe.’ So if something ridiculous needs to be said, John’s our guy. And just how crazy is John? He’s crazy enough to get arrested—see, how embarrassing! Did you know this morning when you got the kids up and combed their hair, and ordered their teeth brushed, and got them dressed in their Sunday bests, that you did all of that so they could come to church to hear a felon? I bet you feel like parent of the year now.
But you’re not alone. Oddly enough the people of Jerusalem and Judea flocked to see John. They came out in droves. They emptied whole towns and cities to come sit at John’s feet. When they arrived John repaid their attention by hitting them repeatedly over the head with a crow bar. Repent! Get your act together! Get your sins forgiven people! Send the road crews out and make some paths straight for goodness sake! The whole while the thronging crowds loved it and applauded. The attraction was so strong that there is evidence in the Bible that the people’s first choice for messiah did not rest solely on Jesus’ shoulders. There are scholars who believe that John’s influence was so pervasive that had a few historical events gone left instead of right, or up instead of down, then we’d all be sitting in the church of ‘John Christ’. After all, according to Luke’s gospel, John’s birth was also trumpeted by angels. John had priests on both sides of the family tree. John was serious about his faith, his style of life made that certain. Jesus ate and drank with sinners, and went to wedding parties, and hosted a meal with thousands. John on the other hand scavenged for food in the wilderness. Sometimes John went without. John had his disciples, and some of them were quite critical of the prophet from Nazareth who did not live the same kind of austere lifestyle that John lived by.
It’s ironic, even though John was ‘fringe’, John was popular. John was the first hipster—he was cool before he was cool. This is the work of God. The gospel rightly proclaimed and lived is both perilously threatening, and magnetically attractive. Of course it is. The powers of the world hate it, but the wrinkled of the world just want a smooth face. It’s too good to be true, like the miracle diet pill infomercial. Why do we write down that toll free number—it must be a scam. Because it’s the holidays, and everyone’s waste line needs a little good news.
A little good news goes along way. Come to find out it only takes one verse to make a Christmas. Too bad it’s so embarrassing. We better stick with words like ‘incarnation’ and be careful to wave a flag when we speak of the kingdom. So let’s make some sugar cookies and Christmas fudge, just in case the goose doesn’t come out so good. Let’s sing carols, and avoid the crow bar over the head. Let’s baptize with water, instead of the Holy Spirit. Let’s shave and put on dress slacks. And when we sit down for dinner, let’s make sure crazy uncle John isn’t next to any of the guests we invited to our Advent celebration. He might reach right over, put his hand on their face, and try to smooth it all out. The good news, it’s so embarrassing.
But if not John, where will we get our news? Maybe the internet can help. After all in just a few short years the internet has all but replaced black size 10 Helvetica typeface on white news print with java script, flash media, and Perl. Prognosticators say cyber Monday is soon to eclipse black Friday. So before we eat, let’s consider the alternative. If not the embarrassing ‘good news’ then what news? To help, this past week Yahoo released its top 2011 internet searches. Would you care to guess what the top three were? Just think back. What were the big stories of 2011? The death of Osama Bin Laden by seal team 6? The downfall of the Libyan government and the end of Gaddafi’s 41 year reign? The 9.0 earthquake that sent a title wave over the east coast of Japan that reached heights of 133 feet, and caused the meltdown of three reactors at Fukashima? Osama Bin Laden and the Earthquake did make the top ten. They were 10 and 9 respectively. What beat them out for the other eight top spots? Here they are in descending order: number 8, Jennifer Aniston; number 7, American Idol; number 6, Lindsay Lohan; number 5, Jennifer Lopez; number 4, pop star Katy Perry, number 3, reality starlet Kim Kardashian; number 2, child murder trial suspect Casey Anthony; and number 1, the iphone.
And at the end of the list of the news most sought after by us, we lift the lid on the Christmas goose and discover John’s head staring up at us from the platter asking, “And it’s my news you thought was embarrassing?”
I hope Advent reminds us that it’s time to say some ridiculous things. That the church has a proclamation to give that is best declared wearing camel’s hair and with locust breath. It is a call to step outside the power of the city, and make a pilgrimage to the wilderness, and become equipped to work the road crew. It is a call to repent, and to receive forgiveness, and to be baptized by water and the Spirit. It is a call to be a mad person, just like John. For it takes a little hipster madness to herald Christ the king, to fill out Mark’s sparse Christmas, and smooth out all the wrinkles.