St. Matthew has a Christmas story in which Joseph is prominent. St. Luke has a Christmas story. Even John has a Christmas story from a cosmic perspective where the Word became flesh. But is there a Christmas story in Mark? Let us see.
From first appearances, one would have to say that there is no Christmas story. Mark’s account of the Good News begins with the baptism of John. There are no wise men, virgin birth, angels, shepherds, or even a single account from Jesus’ youth, like Luke has. It appears to begin when Jesus was about thirty years of age.
It is the lack of a Christmas narrative that helped fuel a heresy that denied that Jesus was really human called Docetism, in which Jesus only appeared to be human and another similar heresy called Adoptionism where the divine Spirit came into the body of an earthly Jesus at His baptism and left Him at the cross to laugh over the dying body of an entirely human Jesus. The other Gospels clearly refute such an idea, and the early church rightly rejected both of these heresies. The question may be asked then, “If not to present one of these heretical views, why does Mark begin in the middle of the story?
The Gospel of Mark does not actually begin with the Baptizing of John, per se, but rather in the prophecies of the Old Testament of which John the Baptist’s ministry was the fulfillment. The Gospel actually begins with the promise of God given to the world in the Old Testament. Mark quotes two prophets, Malachi and Isaiah, although he mentions Isaiah which is the longer of the two quotations. Malachi was the last of the Old Testament prophets, and the Old Testament ends with a promise of sending a messenger, Elijah, to prepare the way of the Messiah. Mark picks up His gospel where Malachi left off about 400 years earlier, and shows the continuity of the two testaments.
Mark then tells us the message of preparation which the messenger was to bring. He quotes the prophet Isaiah, the 40th chapter. He only quotes the third verse about the messenger crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord”. A sect of Judaism which we know as the Essenes or the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls took the message that the way was to be prepared in the wilderness. The actually left civilization and moved to the wilderness to prepare the way there. It seems that the Christians interpreted this as the location of John in the wilderness and put the emphasis on preparing the way of the Lord without stressing where the way was to be prepared.
By citing this verse from Isaiah, he is in a sense quoting the entire passage. The context of Isaiah could be seen to have been fulfilled by the return of the Jewish captives from Babylon, first after the edict of Cyrus in 539 B.C. God could be seen as preparing the way through the wilderness for this return. Like the preparations for a superhighway, every attempt is made to make this road as straight and smooth as possible. The straightest path often encountered obstacles like mountains and gullies. This is why many roads curve around the obstacles. But God had set the way to be straight. The high places were to cut down to fill the low places so that the road would be level and straight. It would be paved to make it smooth.
But is the return of the exiles in 539 BC and later times under Nehemiah the real fulfillment. The answer has to be “no” from the Christian viewpoint. Its fulfillment is rather begun under the preaching of John the Baptist in the wilderness to spiritually prepare God’s people from their real exile. Their exile was not from the land. Rather their exile was one from God. The prophets had been silent for hundreds of years. Now after an exile of 400 years, the same period of time that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, the voice of God was heard again. The time of Exodus had come. The time of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah was now. John the Baptist was to prepare a straight path to Jesus without any detours.
Verse four tells us that John’s preparation for the Christ was the way of repentance. Repentance has the Hebrew idea of turning from the road one is on to a new road. The Greek idea of repentance is to carefully consider where the road they were currently on was taking them and the new way that was being offered. The idea is that of changing one’s mind. Both of these ideas are at work here.
The people were called to consider that their sins had separated them from God’s promise. The fact that they were baptized in water, a practice normally used for initiation of Gentiles who converted to Judaism along with circumcision of the males. In a sense, this says that the people’s sins had rendered them as heathens in the eyes of God. They were cut off from the covenant. They needed to start over. Submitting to baptism also testified to others of their sins and not to count their Jewish heritage as something which brought them into special favor any more.
After Moses died, a man named Joshua, which is the same as Jesus in Greek, led the children of Israel from the east across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. This appears to be where John was baptizing when Jesus came to him for baptism. The baptism served as a crossing into this land. The men who crossed over with the first Joshua had not been circumcised. Instead of circumcision which could only be done to males and could not be repeated on Jewish males anyway, Christian baptism in both sexes also served as a symbol of purity to the covenant God made with His people.
The garb of John was the same as the prophet Elijah and identifies John the Baptist as the coming Elijah prophesied in Malachi. His life was simple in that he wore the very basic of clothing and food. One would not find locusts (or honeycomb) and wild honey as a diet. But John’s life was centered in God and demonstrates where the priorities of the believer should be. Jesus would later reinforce this in the temptation in the wilderness to which he responds from the Book of Deuteronomy that man does not solely live for this world’s bread, but rather to hunger for and hang upon the Word of God. This is a demonstration of repentance. The convert’s life was to reflect this new priority.
John’s message told the people why they must repent. The promised Messiah was about to come. John was not that one, but was sent to announce that His coming was near. They must repent and demonstrate this repentance in baptism and change of lifestyle. Their lives were to be centered in the expectation of the coming of Jesus. The appearance of Jesus for baptism in the next passage in Mark shows Jesus, the new Joshua, was the fulfilment of this expectation.
By now, you might be saying thanks for the exposition of the passage. How does this answer the proposition made at the beginning of this sermon that there is a Christmas story in the Gospel of Mark? The answer to this is that if you are looking for a Christmas story like that in Luke or Matthew, then I would have failed to prove my thesis. But let us take it this way. Paul mentions that he had labor pains in trying to form Christ in the believers. Following this line of thought, the true Christmas story begins when one is born again, when Christ is born in the heart of the believer. This is in no way to discount the historicity of the Christmas story in the other Gospels. But these facts of history mean nothing until the story becomes alive in the human heart. One can put out a manger scene and go shopping for the perfect gift. The holiday of Christmas is celebrated by many non-Christians. The fact that they don’t really understand it correctly is that at best they hold to some hope for peace on earth and that we should be peacemakers. It is seen as a time for charity as Christian and non-Christian alike. The clinking of coins will ring in the Salvation Army kettles will be heard. Other not so savory things will show the false Christmas spirit. There will be fights by parents in the stores competing to get the toy of the year for their children. Instead of the freedom one finds only when Jesus is born in one’s heart, they will become slaves to debt. There will be traffic jams and the one finger salutes given to those who cut them off. The whole message of Christmas will be mixed in with grinches and Santa Claus. For these people, what difference has the Christmas story really made?
The one in whom Christ has been formed in by the new birth truly understands the Christmas story. Until the Christmas story in the Gospel of Mark happens, then the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke have no real meaning. But when is born again and baptized in the Holy Spirit by Jesus Christ whom John was sent to prepare the way for, then all of the Christmas stories in the four gospels have meaning.
This week is the first week of Advent. Most Christians think of it as the beginning of the Christmas season. However, Advent has been observed longer than Christmas has been. It was observed as a time for the church to consider that the same Jesus who came as an infant in Bethlehem is coming back as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is returning to judge the earth and gather His people unto himself. We like to think of baby Jesus that we can hold in our arms. It makes Jesus seem to be dependent on us and not vice-versa. As long as we keep Jesus as an infant, then we feel we can control Him. He can make claims like a crying baby can, but it is we who are in control how these cries are answered and when. If we have this attitude, we are making a capital mistake. It is not baby Jesus, but Lord Jesus.
We must remember that it is not Santa Claus, the fat jolly man who is coming to our town. We sing silly songs about Santa Claus, whose greatest punishment for being bad is to give you a lump of coal. Rather it is the Lord Jesus who is returning, the one who knows who is naughty or nice. The coals the Lord Jesus brings are lit coals. These coals can be the coals which purged the lips of Isaiah, the coals of repentance and transformation. Or they can be the coals of brimstone that are never quenched for those who have not repented. It is a season for the church to consider its ways and prepare for the return of the Lord. Can you say in your heart: “Come Lord Jesus”?
In the meanwhile, we who believe the message of Jesus Christ who became Incarnate in human flesh, truly human, but also truly divine, have a message to bring to the world. We must bring the straight message about Jesus and to Jesus. We need to remove all obstacles that would hinder our task of evangelizing the world. Are we willing to treat the necessities of life the way the John the Baptist did. Let us spend less time considering what raiment we shall wear or what we should eat. God knows we need to eat food to survive and wear clothes for modesty and protection from the elements. But are we willing to live simply so that we are not encumbered with the cares of life? We cannot make a straight path to Jesus for others to come if our life is crooked.