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11.27.16 Cleaning House Spiritually Mark 1:1-11 Sermon Summary

by on November 28, 2016

Even though the Gospel of Mark doesn’t have a Christmas birth narrative, it focuses our attention on what really matter most each Christmas.

Summary Points

  • Preparation added to promise
  • Three ways to prepare for Christmas—and the one which is most important
  • A Christmas perspective on repentance
  • How the sacrament of baptism prepares us for Christmas

For many people, the virgin birth of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke prove that Jesus is God. But for the Gospel of Mark, this part of Jesus’ story isn’t necessary. Even without angels, annunciations, and dreams, the opening verse of Mark still asserts that Jesus is the Son of God.

The Gospel of Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah as a form of promise: “The virgin will conceive a child who is to be called Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father, Mighty God. Promises cause us to hope.

Mark’s Gospel quotes Isaiah as a means of preparation. “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way of the Lord: Make the rough places smooth, and the crooked paths straight!” Mark invites us not just to wonder, but to engage. Not just to have faith, but to be faithful. This is a corrective reminder amidst all the other preparations we make during Christmas.

Each year we approach Christmas with a flurry of preparation. Of course we prepare to give gifts. We make gift lists (see my guide), go shopping (remember the batteries!), prepare boxes for mailing, and put up the Christmas tree to display all the gifts we are giving.

We also prepare to receive. We move furniture to receive the Christmas tree. We pull out decorations. We make menus for our dinner guests and then shop for food.

All these preparations easily distract us from receiving the gift of God at Christmas, which is our identity as children of God. It is this identity that is revealed in Christ at Christmas.

There are lots of reasons to have joy at Christmas, and this identity as the children of God is the true joy of Christmas for Christians. I am reading The Book of Joy, written out of the birthday visit of the Christian Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu to the Buddhist 14th Dalai Lama. It has this line which fits well at Christmas: “According to the Arch-bishop and the Dalai Lama, when we see how little we really need—love and connection—then all the getting and grasping that we thought was so essential to our well-being take its rightful place and no longer becomes the focus or the obsession of our lives” (p. 97).

All the preparations to give and to receive can distract us from this true joy. It does so by focusing our attention on what is secondary. What is primary for Christians at Christmas is gratitude for who we are as revealed in the birth Christ. Consider these words from the book Thanks! also apt at Christmas: “In gratitude we recognize that we are not ultimately producers and consumers but, above all, the recipients of gifts” (p. 18). If we Christians fail to remember the gift of Christ, we will consider ourselves “producers and consumers,” and the “getting and grasping” of the season will consume us.

The Gospel of Mark calls us to prepare in a different way, to engage Christmas differently, to have faith and offer faithfulness so that we can receive the gift of our identity in Christ.

In the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist proclaims a baptism of repentance. We might understand “repentance” in a couple of ways. From the perspective of our Presbyterian forebears, the Scots, repentance required the elimination of the Christmas feast, which they did in 1561. In 1574 fourteen women in Aberdeen were arrested for dancing and singing carols on Christmas Eve. From 1643-1660 Christmas was outlawed in all of Britain. In 1659 the Rev. Murdoch Mackenzie searched house to house to ensure that there were no private parties celebrating Christmas.

Does repentance have to look like this? What if we took a different perspective, one that allowed us to benefit from the Scottish concern while enjoying the spirit of the holiday? I suggest that we hear John’s call to repentance in terms of remembering and returning. If so, then repentance looks like “coming to our senses,” as did the Prodigal Son, who remembered his father and returned home. When we come to our senses, we come to our self, to our true identity in Christ. I believe we can repent this way even while celebrating Christmas with festivity.

It is the sacraments that call us to repentance as remembrance and return. In the Scots Confession of 1560 it states that the sacraments were given: “To make a visible distinction between God’s people and those without the Covenant, and to seal in their hearts the assurance of God’s promise.” Like the renewal sticker on our car license plates, this seal indicates that the vehicle is owned and official. The sacraments claim us as God’s own.

Through the sacraments, we participate in a visible distinction. We remember whose we are. The sacraments seal God’s Word in our hearts, and we live differently in the world as a further visible distinction. How important that distinction is during Christmas!

The sacrament of baptism proclaims Christ’s identity. When he was baptized, Jesus heard from the heavenly voice that, “You are my child, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.” So baptism also proclaims our identity in Christ: We also are God’s children, God’s beloved, and with us God is well pleased.

This gift of our Christian identity is helpful to remember as we prepare for Christmas. Mark tells us that the people of Judea and Jerusalem “went out” to John the Baptist. Even Jesus came down all the way from Galilee. So Mark calls us also make our own spiritual pilgrimage in response to John’s proclamation.

Perhaps you feel like there’s no possible way you can reflect upon the gift of your baptismal identity amidst everything else going on. Following are some suggestions for squeezing in mini-reflections if you can’t get away for a longer retreat. These “water moments” are routine occurrences throughout a normal day.

  • Feeling Dry. Use your dry skin or dry mouth to remember your need for God. Psalm 42 begins, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for God.”
  • Use the shower to remember baptism renews, refreshes, and gives us a chance to start again.
  • Hand Washing. For some reason you need to wash your hands. Maybe you’ve been working outside or preparing a meal. Give thanks for whatever task God has given you that made your hands dirty. And if it’s before a meal, give thanks for the food you’re about to receive.
  • Recreational Use. Whether you’re swimming or skiing, you can use your exercise to give thanks for your body, and remember that because Jesus became God’s Word embodied, your body is good also.
  • Baptismal Waters. Touch the waters at the baptismal font, giving thanks for the church family which pledged to care for you, for the traditions which are meaningful to you, for all the things baptism means.

These are some ways we can use the Gospel of Mark to prepare for Christmas. It’s a spiritual housecleaning to parallel our physical one. In these ways, Mark calls us to engage the Christmas story with faith and faithfulness, to remember and to return, to repent from not living like God’s beloved children, and repent towards living like God’s beloved children.

Call us once again, Holy Spirit, to the waters of baptism. May these waters constantly remind us of your love for us and of our identity in Christ. And may they restore to us the joy of Christmas as we receive Christ from you once again. Amen.

 

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