Community United Church of Christ (Saint Paul Park, Minnesota)
Text: Mark 1:1-20
These days after Christmas are a little treasure that I often forget about. They exist here in an overlooked space on the calendar, a quiet little valley between the mountain peaks of Christmas and New Years. Everyone is so hurried and busy before Christmas: buying presents and wrapping them, putting up trees, making family arrangements, planning meals, and visiting loved ones. But now, when the presents have been opened, family visits are concluding, and enough sweets have been consumed to send us all into comas, we experience what feels like real Sabbath. When Christmas comes on a Friday like this year, most of us get several days before we have to go back to work, before the stock market opens again, and before we have to file year-end reports. These days of leisure following Christmas are something like the “vacation after vacation” which we long for at other times of the year.
So it’s a little rude to have Mark’s busy little gospel intrude today on our holiday rest. We’re still in a food coma, but Mark crashes into us fast enough to cause whiplash. We’ll be working our way through this gospel between Christmas and Easter this year, and Mark wastes no time getting started. This shortest, earliest gospel begins with a quick trumpet fanfare. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” After that, it’s off to the races. John the Baptist—wilderness, preaching, repentance, “one more powerful than I is coming”. Then Jesus appears—no infant, but a fully grown man. In swift succession over five verses, Jesus is baptized, blessed by the Holy Spirit dove, driven into the wilderness, tempted by Satan, and served by angels. John the Baptist’s subsequent arrest gets less than a sentence of mention, then Jesus’ public ministry has begun. He declares the four-fold good news of God: time is fulfilled, kingdom is near, repent, believe. And by the time you get to the end of verse 20 Jesus has already called not one but two pairs of brothers to be the first disciples. It’s like the pilot episode of a TV show, where setting, plot and characters are swiftly set in motion before the storyline unfolds more gradually from week to week.
Except Mark’s gospel never really slows down—all the action happens “immediately”, to use a favorite Markan word. He calls Simon and Andrew to fish for people instead, “and immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Same thing with James and John a few steps later: “Immediately he called them” and they left father, hired hands and boat behind. Poor Zebedee’s head must spin at how fast this all happens! If the gospel of Mark were a movie, it would look like one of those old, jumpy, black and white films, where each scene is sped up and Charlie Chaplin looks like he’s running everywhere. The good news of God cannot wait for the holiday slumber to wear off—it begins immediately.
Maybe that’s because Mark knows the gospel will not be Good News if it takes too long in coming. Because not all of us are stuffed and satisfied these days. In fact, as I cast my imagination into many of our homes this week, I wonder if there might be more affliction than comfort in Christmas. In one place, the family gathering has revealed discord rather than harmony. Someone was foolish enough to talk about politics or religion. Your uncle or mine had too much to drink, or gave too much advice on how to raise children. At another address, no place is set at the table for the daughter we haven’t spoken to in years. Her absence was felt, though not acknowledged. Over here is someone who was alone on Christmas, who feels alone every day of the year. There goes a woman to visit her father, a man who doesn’t recognize her any more. Some long to be in love, and some wonder about leaving because the love has grown cold. Children have nightmares about the bullying at school, and adults can’t sleep for wondering how bills will get paid. Seniors dread the decay of body and mind, or the long cold of January when nobody will come by. Single parents wonder whether to call in sick or leave the kids by themselves again. The gospel of God comes for every person who is God-beloved yet broken, which is to say: for you, for me, for all.
The Good News that cannot wait is this. God so loved the world—and each of us in it—that God came to earth to live with us. God chose birth to an unwed teenage mother, at the darkest time of the year, during mass migration, in a barn barely fit for animals. God’s crazy love for the world, even at its most broken, led to Jesus born when Herod would slaughter children, when prophets were beheaded, when religious leaders circled the wagons of tradition in fear, and when Rome crucified those who proclaimed the kingdom of God. Our Statement of Faith in the United Church of Christ declares: “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, God has come to us and shared our common lot.” This is how fiercely the Creator of the Universe loves us.
Because of God’s birth into human flesh, we are never completely alone, never beyond hope, never worthless. We come into this world which God has already known and sanctified in Christ. We exist from moment to moment in our lives by the sustaining grace of a loving God, changing what can be changed and enduring what cannot because of God’s strength in us. At the end of our lives, we will return to God’s heart, reunited with loved ones, enemies and friends alike, all remade forever in the fire of God’s love.
This Good News of God announced by Jesus interrupts sugary holiday reverie—so be it. God’s incarnation does not wait for a more comfortable or convenient time. The Good News comes to interrupt our desolation, despair and defeatism as well. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;” Jesus says, “repent [or, ‘be of a new mind’], and believe in the good news.”
African American mystic, prophet and preacher Howard Thurman penned a poem which captures the difference the incarnation makes for the world, and the calling it places on we who follow Christ.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart. (“Now the Work of Christmas Begins”)
When Christ goes by us on the lakeshore this week, as we are back at the fishing of our everyday lives we may only see someone who is lost, broken, hungry, imprisoned, or hopeless. But it is then that we are called to do “the work of Christmas”, sharing in our actions and words of comfort the Good News that cannot wait. Will we have the faith to respond like Peter, Andrew, James and John? Immediately?
Let us pray: Incarnate God, you have blessed human life and all of creation by the birth of Jesus Christ. Empower us to join in the journey of discipleship with him, offering to all who suffer your impatient Good News of peace, rescue and deliverance in Christ’s name. Amen.