Today marks the first Sunday in Advent, and the beginning of a new worship series: Four Storytellers. Over the course of the four weeks of Advent, in the midst of our Advent waiting, our preparation for the Christ child, I am going to take a different Gospel each week and spend some time with their version of the Christmas story. I begin with Mark this week, then move to John, and then Matthew, and finally Luke. Each Gospel writer’s version is very different, and I hope to discover different aspects of the story, as if we were holding up a fine diamond and looking at it from different angles, watching it sparkle. In the process, I think we will learn more about each of the Gospels, and of course, the hope is that we learn more about Jesus, and about what God is up to in our world today.
But first, I want to think about cars. What makes a car a car? If you paid attention on the road today on your way in, you will have noticed a pretty huge variety of cars. Different colors, styles, sizes. But when you strip down all of those differences, what is common?
At least four wheels? If not, you might have a motorcycle.
An engine? If not, you might have a bike or a skateboard.
Some kind of chassis to transport people. If not, you might have a vacuum cleaner.
I am sure that there are those here today who might be more detailed about the makeup of a car than I am, but we get the point, right? There are things that are basic to the mechanics of a car.
I would suggest that the same is true for a Christmas narrative. Again, each Gospel writer is very different in the way that they begin the story of Jesus, but each does it in their own way. Let me suggest that there are three basic elements to the mechanics of Christmas:
First, proclamation. Angel visitors. Heavenly host. Shepherds sharing the good news. Magi. The good news is proclaimed that Jesus is here! Proclamation.
Second, Incarnation. God with us. Jesus come to earth. The presence of the divine Incarnate in human flesh. The very presence of the Word dwelling with us. A baby in a stable. The Big Revelation. This is all Incarnation.
Third, Trinitarian Action. Christmas is the Trinity’s moment to shine! Creator, Christ, and Spirit…read the Gospel narratives closely and each person of the Trinity is there. The angel in Luke tells Mary that the Spirit will come upon her. John speaks of the Word that existed from the beginning, now dwelling amongst us. All of the Trinity is there at Christmas.
For those of us who have heard the Christmas story since we were children, it seems obvious that these are the mechanics of a Christmas story: proclamation, Incarnation, and Trinitarian action.
And then we have Mark. In case you were wondering, the words I read a few moments ago are the very opening words of the Gospel, and he doesn’t go back to talk about the shepherds or Mary or anyone later: that is all we get. Could you imagine the Markan Christmas pageant? You’d have a prophet Isaiah in a long beard, a Jesus, a John the Baptist (all the middle school boys would fight over who got to be him), a Holy Spirit in a dove costume standing on the chair, and the disembodied voice of God off stage. And that’s it! No shepherds….no Magi…no Mary…no Joseph…NO BABY! How can you have a Christmas story with NO BABY?!?
And yet, this is the narrative that Mark gives us. This is his “Christmas.” But if you go back to the metaphor of the car, you remember that a car might look really weird, but still be a car, if it has the basic mechanics. Today, I want to suggest that Mark’s Christmas story might look weird…but it has the basic mechanics of a Christmas story! Look at it again:
We have proclamation. The prophet Isaiah proclaims…“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness…” John the Baptist proclaims the coming of the Messiah: “I am not even worthy to untie his shoes!” And then, the very voice of God proclaims: “This is My Son.” Maybe there are no angels or shepherds in Mark’s story, but there is definitely proclamation!
We have Incarnation. Mark does not tell the story of the baby Jesus like Matthew or Luke, or wax philosophical like John about the “Word made flesh.” But the Incarnation is there. For Mark, the most important part of Jesus’ Grand Opening was not his birth, but his baptism. Here is where Incarnation takes place. Here is where we see God’s Incarnation most fully, says Mark. It may not make for a good Christmas carol, but it is definitely the story of Christmas: the story of Incarnation. I like how someone in the Two-Way this week talked about this passage as the Grand Opening…the launch of the Gospel to the world. I immediately thought about next month’s opening of the next Star Wars movie. We have been hearing about this opening for months, really for years since the date was announced. Millions of dollars have been spent promoting the movie. Theaters are gearing up and selling advance tickets. People are already planning their costumes that they are going to wear to the opening. And now we are almost there! But what would Mark say, “I’m sure that it’ll be a good movie…but let me tell you about a Grand Opening. Let me tell you about God incarnate on earth.” The Incarnation!
Finally, we have Trinitarian Action. All three persons of the Trinity – at work and in action. A voice from heaven. Jesus is named as Son. The Spirit descends like a dove. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. All three persons of the Trinity…all in one place. Every once and a while, someone will ask me why the Trinity is not in the Bible. They are looking for the theological summary of the Nicene Creed in Paul or in the Gospels, and they don’t see it, causing them to assume that the Trinity is not Biblical. But remember that Mark was the first of the four Gospels written, so here in the first chapter of the first Gospel, look who shows up: Creator. Christ. Spirit. The Trinity in action!
Proclamation. Incarnation. Trinitarian action. “Merry Christmas to all,” sings Mark!
But we didn’t just come here for a Bible study. We are here today asking what does this have to do with us? Specifically, what can we glean from Mark’s Gospel about what God is doing in our world this Christmas? Walter Bruggemann suggests that we must listen to the Bible as a tale about your own life, and about our shared life. The Bible tells the story of God’s work in a particular time and place, but it also tells of a God who is still at work, in our particular time and place! So, today, I ask you how is Gospel still happening in your life? How is Christmas happening here and now? What does proclamation, Incarnation, and Trinitarian action look like in your world?
First, how do you see proclamation? How is God speaking into your life? Maybe it isn’t a voice rending the clouds, but if you are listening, you will hear God speaking. Do you remember the first person to tell you about Jesus? Who was your proclaimer?
Or maybe it isn’t a person. George Washington Carver – the guy who did all of the amazing stuff with the peanuts – once wrote that “nature is an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”
Sherry Bernhardt tells the story of growing up at church. Her family was not particularly church-going, and so she went with her friend Nancy. Every Sunday, Nancy would come by her house to pick her up. Week in and week out, she was there. To her, Nancy was the proclamation. She was the faithful voice. She proclaimed the good news.
Who is the Nancy in your life? The John the Baptizer in your life? The proclaimer?
What about Incarnation? How is Jesus incarnate in your life? For Mark, that moment came at baptism. I had the opportunity to talk to two groups about this passage this week, and when we got to baptism, the stories started to pile up. For some, it was about remembering their own baptism. For others, especially those who were baptized as infants, remember another “Grand Opening” moment in their lives. One person said that her baptism was a major event in her life, whether or not it was for everyone else at the service that day. Another talked about an experience when he was 9 or 10 in which he felt the glowing presence of God. Another said that when she was baptized, she felt clean for three days! How many of us remember our baptism and remember the way that Christ became real in our lives? How many remember and celebrate that Grand Opening moment in which Jesus was incarnate in our lives?!
So for us, Christmas is about proclamation and about Incarnation, but it is also about Trinitarian action.
What does the Trinity look like in our lives, or even what does it matter in our lives? The Trinity is this complex idea, this mysterious concept. Jurgen Moltmann wrote this 200+ page academic work about the Trinity titled The Trinity and the Kingdom, and it is complex and intellectual. But if we were to distill all of those pages down into a sentence, it is that the action of the Trinity is love. That God exists in relationship – in love – with Godself: Creator, Christ, and Spirit. That the nature of God and the nature of the world is that love is the foundation. The basis of all human love. From the beginning of time…love. And so, when we see the action of the Trinity in our lives today, we see it as love.
In 1885, poet Christina Rossetti wrote a poem that speaks to this reality. It was titled Love Came Down at Christmas, and reminds us that at the heart of Christmas, the mechanics of Christmas, is God’s never-ending love:
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, Love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
May we celebrate the love that came down at Christmas. May we hear the proclaimers, celebrate the Incarnation, and experience the Trinitarian love that only God can show us.