Saturday, December 4, 2010

Searching for the Real Christmas

"They all were looking 
    for a king 
  to slay their foes
   and lift them high
 there cam'st a tiny baby
that made a woman cry."

I want us to talk today about the real Christmas. Newsweek this week had a two page picture spread on the Christmas season. And you know what it showed a huge store, crowded with people. Just packed in like sardines. And everybody had a cart and every cart was full of stuff. And some had scowls on their faces and some just looked wild and some looked like they wished they had stayed at home. One woman who hadn’t been able to pay her rent in three months said, “Well, it’s Christmas—and I just couldn’t quit buying.”

Several years ago when Jim and Tammy Faye were still popular at PTL and everybody was watching—in Fort Mill, South Carolina they decorated the whole place with lights and wreaths and ribbons and everything. People came from everywhere just to see how everything glittered. And one night they were interviewing some man who had just come back from the Holy Land and Bethlehem. And he told Jim and Tammy Faye, “I just got back from Bethlehem—but I want to tell you something. That place don’t hold a candle to PTL. This is what I call the real Christmas.” Is Christmas glitz and sparkly stuff and lights and music playing so loud it hurts your ears? We all know that’s not Christmas. And we all know that we won’t find it at Target or Wal Mart or even Macy’s. So I want us to think today about the real Christmas.

When they told the story for the first time, Mark would write the first account of what happened in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and all the dusty miles in between. And Luke and Matthew would use Mark as a model as they wrote. And later John would write his own understanding of Jesus' life.

Good News

But when Mark wrote I find it interesting how he starts. First verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And he quotes the old prophets. One day, they would say, one day one shall come and things will be forever different. They dreamed of a time when the world would change and love would rule and hate would recede. A world in which they would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nations would not lift up sword against nation, and they would study war no more. There would come a time, they dreamed when the light would come into the world and the darkness could never put it out. And so, Mark says the real Christmas has nothing to do with stars and angels and mangers and wise men and shepherds. The real Christmas has nothing to do with I Saw Mama Kissin’ Santa Claus or wondering what in the world are we gonna get so and so.

Read Mark. Real Christmas he says in that first verse is good news. That’s what gospel means. Isaiah said that “One day I will send my messenger to prepare the way…” And so in Mark it begins with a messenger—John the Baptist. And this John appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So John would baptize Jesus, Jesus would call fishermen to follow him, he would teach and preach and heal. And then Mark says: “That evening at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons and the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…”So, you see there at the beginning Santa Claus was not coming to town. The real Christmas was when John said the good news was a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.


Good news is repentance? What does that mean? The word, repentance means change. It means newness. It means to turn 180 degrees. It means an about face. I am going this way and I suddenly turn completely around. It is like the Prodigal who left home, landed in a pig sty, no money, no place to go--he was as far down as he could go. And he said: And so, eating with the pigs, he said: I will arise and go to my Father and maybe, just maybe he will take me back as a hired hand. The boy turned completely around. He turned from his old, self-destructive ways. He went back home. He changed.

I agree with Wendy Wright who says that repentance is not necessarily gloomy and self-loathing that it is sometimes made out to be. That's what the Prodigal thought it was. But repentance does not mean to be confirmed in what that little voice within that keeps whispering: you are no good, everything that happens to you is your own fault, and if they only knew what you were really like they would move away from you in a minute. Remember the story. The boy came back with this written-out confession. He even made a proposal. I will scrub the floor and clean out the animal stalls and do all the dirty work. He thought that was repentance. But the Father said: "My son, my son..." And the Father took that list and tore it up and threw it away. So true repentance begins with the felt knowledge that we are loved by God. That we are children of God. And if we don't feel beloved today then maybe our prayer is that we will come to know that we are beloved and that all that self-hatred we've been carrying around will just one day vanish. That's repentance. And unless I misunderstand it--that's good news.


So this brings us to a second understanding of good news--the meaning of this gospel. The good news is that our sins are forgiven. And baptism is a sign that we can be cleansed. We really are forgiven and the slate is washed clean and we really do start all over again.

Some time ago I was invited back to the church I used to serve in Virginia. It was a Virginia homecoming, which meant people came back home who used to live there, filled the church on that one day and after the service we had wall to wall food for about two hours and then we all waddled back home and took our Mylanta and Tums and Alka Seltzer. And during that service one of the members introduced me before I preached. She said: While Mr. Lovette was here my husband didn't ever go to church. I'd load up the kids every Sunday and bring them by myself. He drank a lot. He drank up much of our money. Wasn't really mean to us but he just wasn't much of a Daddy or much of a husband. I asked Mr. Lovette to visit him and he started doing that. And one Sunday my hsband came to church. And about a year later he walked down the aisle and accepted Christ as his savior. Mr. Lovette baptized him right back there in our baptistry. Mr. Lovette left. But my husband changed and found some kind of forgiveness. He quit drinking. He began to pay attention to me and to the kids. He came to church with us and even joined a Sunday School class. He's sitting back there today and he's a Deacon in this church. I didn't remember those visits. I did remember him. I didn't even remember that I baptized him. But all the way back to Birmingham I remember telling Gayle. You know sometimes in this business we don't see much change and much forgiveness. But when the forgiveness of God's love touches us we have to change.


Mark says when you search for Christmas you better be on the lookout for an angel. Angel? There's no angel in these verses. I"m not so sure. The second verse says: I will send my messenger. And the word means angel. And this is followed by the emergence of John the Baptist in the wilderness. He was a wild man. Clothed in camel's hair. Leather girdle--he ate locusts and wild honey. Long tangled-up matted down hair. He was a mess. He was a cross between Tarzan and Sylvester Stallone on a bad day. And Mark says that John said--I'm not the Messiah. Even though there was a whole group that thought he was and became quite a force in the early church. What did John say? I'm only the messenger. And the words means angel.

So, I want you to be on the look out for some angel this Christmas. I'm not talking about some winged creature. No. Real angels are more like John the Baptist. They come to us in disguise. But Mark says we hear this good news through some unlikely angel.

Let me tell you what I think he means. When I was at Clemson there was a Doctor that had his office across the street. And that first Sunday as Pastor he came by the door and introduced me to his daughter, Maria. Maria was downs syndrome. That first Sunday she hugged me and said she wanted to be baptized. Well, we baptized her months later. I think she was the first person I baptized in that church. And every Sunday she’d come out and say: “I want to get baptized.” And I would say: “You don’t get baptized but one time. You’ve already been baptized.” She would laugh.

The Doctor told me that when she was born that his Doctor friends came in and told him and his wife, “She’ll never be normal. Why don’t you put her in a home where she can get the best care.” They wouldn’t do that. And so they brought her home and she was sickly and lot of problems. But they loved her…and she changed their lives. They got interested in other Down Syndrome kids. They started a group of parents. They gave a lot of money and time to helping others. And all the time Maria was growing and finding an enormous place in their hearts.

One Saturday morning I got a call from the Doctor. Maria had died. Her heart just stopped. And I went over and cried with the family. Saying goodbye was hard. But every time I go back they talk about how their lives would never, ever have been what they were without Maria. Can you imagine, they would say, if we had put her away somewhere—what we would have missed? The point? Open your eyes—we never know when God is gonna knock on our door and some angel in disguise is going to come into our house and change us forever. That’s what Mark says Christmas means.


I kept looking at our text. Good news. Be on the lookout for an angel. And I saw here something else I almost missed. Mark's Christmas gospel is a strange story. For, you see it begins in a wilderness. He begins by saying that's what the prophet says: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. And that's what Mark says about John--he begins his ministry in the wilderness.

Mark quoted the prophet Isaiah first. One day, he wrote, he shall come. He will bring comfort. He will exalt the valleys. He will make low the mountains that block our way. He will make the crooked straight. And in exile, far from home, they would hear a promise: One shall come in this wilderness. Wonderful Counselor. Mighty God. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace.

Vincent Taylor said that when Mark wrote of the wilderness he had in mind the wild, uncultivated wasteland to the west of the Dead Sea. Christmas does not begin when they turn on the light at the Galleria or when they light the White House Christmas tree. It begins in the wilderness where there is darkness and scorpions and no roadmaps and fear and loneliness and for Jesus, temptation.

Where are the silver bells and Rudolph and and chestnuts roasting on an open fire? That's not in Mark's Christmas story. His Christmas setting was a hard world where hearts were broken and it was hard to believe.So don't you tell me that Christmas won't come this year because you lost someone. Or that you got a bad lab report and you're scared. Don't tell me Christmas won't come because your job is shaky and the children won't be home for Christmas or you are all by yourself.

Fred Craddock says that advent pilgrims on the way to the manger must pass through the desert. That's what that ugly manger and no room in the inn and a smelly stable and a King that would kill him if he could find him really means. Wilderness. Hard times. This is where he does his best work.

The story is told about a Department store in a large city. It was Christmas Eve and the store was closed. And a night watchman was making his rounds. You can imagine the mess. Merchandise everywhere. All over the tables and the floors. It looked like a tornado had been through. Floor after floor was the same. It would take days to clean up that place and get all the dresses and shirts and blue jeans and cosmetics back on the shelves. On the third floor, under a table the night watchmen though he saw something. Looked like a foot. Covered over with fabric and coats and shirts. He began to pull away all that stuff people did not buy. And there was a man lying there. Dead. The watchmen searched his pockets for identification but could find nothing to indicate who he was. The only identifying signs on the body were nail prints in his hands and a scar in his side.

The real Christmas had been trampled over, covered up and left for dead. Don’t miss it. Don’t miss Christmas. It’s good news of a great joy that will come to all people. Not bad news—good news. Like the prodigal he’ll take you back. He'll forgive all your sins.He’ll send some angel just down your street and stop at your house so you better keep your eyes open. And most of all in the wilderness—your wilderness God will meet you there warts and all. And Christmas will come whether there is a tree or a carol or a light anywhere. No wonder Mark called it Good News.

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