“What do you want to be for Christmas?”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-14
Mark 1:1-8

Plato said that when you begin a speech, you should flatter your hearers. Let your listeners know that you are on their side. John the Baptist did not study preaching under Plato.

The Evangelist Mark wrote his Gospel as if he, his Subject (Jesus) and his readers were all in a hurry. The book is the shortest of all the Gospels. Mark’s favorite word has been variously translated as: “immediately,” “straightaway,” “quickly,” “just then,” or “at once.” It is interesting that he doesn’t call his work, “The Good News (Gospel) about Jesus Christ,” but “The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

I say that’s interesting because Mark does not, then, begin with anything we would normally think of as a beginning, nor does he begin with any kind of “good tidings of great joy.” He credits the next words to Isaiah, but he actually combines some words from Exodus, Malachi and Isaiah. Those words set the stage for “a voice of one calling in the desert” and Mark immediately introduces the locust eating, camel’s hair and leather belt wearing owner of that voice.

Mark boils John the Baptizer’s years of preaching down to their very essence: “After me will come One more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Then Jesus comes and is baptized, and by verse 14 of the first chapter, John has already been arrested by Herod and is out of the picture. The next time he is mentioned, it is posthumously.

Terse and to the point and yet, like all the Evangelists, Mark will not let us hear Jesus until we first hear John. The “Good News” begins with the strange man and his powerful preaching of repentance. We are told that crowds thronged to hear John. Mark wrote, “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.” Contrary to the impressions of a few young children when they first hear about John, people did not go out to be amused by the sideshow antics of some bug-and-honey-eating freak.

People went to him because he promised good news and good things. At the same time, his words didn’t sound much like “good” news. Mark didn’t record them, but I’m sure that few of John’s listeners ever forgot the verbal hurricanes and hand grenades he hurled at them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” and “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Matthew and Luke even include John’s burning promise that the One to come will baptize, not only with the Holy Spirit, but also “with fire!”

The Epistle of James condemns a common practice in many churches, organizations and institutions. James notes that when poor people dressed in shabby clothing come in, they are ignored, but when the rich come in all their finery, they are given special welcome and escorted to seats of honor. We didn’t learn that little trick from John the Baptizer. When the elite came to him in their furs, fine linens and purples, John told them to repent and rip off those coats and give them to the poor. After quoting these and many other politically incorrect bombasts from John, William Willimon once asked a question that many thinking observers want to ask: “Why would people have trotted out into the wilderness to hear that?”

In an article in Pulpit Resource, Willimon answered his own question: “Weird John had a simple message…You can change.”

It is important, no, it is essential that we realize that John did not promise that people could change on their own or that he would change them. He baptized with water. The “Spirit-baptizer” was still coming. Water is a symbol of purifying and new life, but the Spirit of holiness is a symbol of purity and power. The Spirit is the very power of God–enabling us–He can and will change us…if we want Him to. But remember the sage advice to be careful what you pray for. If, as the kids say, you “really, truly” want God to change you, get ready for a shocker!

Most of us don’t “really, truly” want change. Like Herod, we find John’s message disturbing, rather than “good” news. We moan and groan about the status quo, we blame others for what is wrong and we even blame somebody else for our lack of faithfulness and meanness. We backbite and criticize and find fault and then complain because “everybody” is unhappy and nobody likes us, but we don’t really want anything to change because, inevitably, we have to change.

Repentance demands change and change demands repentance. Ultimately, and this may be the toughest part, we must humble ourselves and seek freedom from and forgiveness for the past. And that will not come unless we are ready to free and forgive those who are part of it.

The theologian Hans Kung urged preachers to follow in the footsteps of John and Jesus–their preaching had repentance as a common theme. Kung said: “We must entice people from the world to God…to live in the everyday world inspired by the radical obedience that is demanded by the love of God. The church must be reformed again and again, converted again and again each day, in order that it may fulfill its task.” There is no better time for this than our annual preparation for Christmas. Weird John comes barging into our lessons every year at this time and, if we will let him, he will barge into our lives and promise that when God’s Messiah comes, stands at the door and knocks, calls our names and is born among us, we can change!

With the beauty of the decorations, the nostalgia, sweetness and wonder of the music, the awesome reality of Christmas can escape us. The God who whistles galaxies into being simply because He wants to becomes a finite, dependent and fragile human infant. The audacity of it sometimes fails to smack us between the eyes. The sheer immensity and inestimable magnificence of the love behind such an astonishing act barely touches us. Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once offered a prayer that has a place on all our lips at this gentle and sentimental time: “O Lord Jesus Christ…save us from the error of wishing to admire You instead of being willing to follow You and resemble You.”

The most amazing thing at Christmas is, as always, the most amazing thing we can ever hear about– God’s amazing grace. The Word of God that shatters darkness into light and creates marvels out of nothing became incarnate and, of all things, was fleshed-out as a little baby, born in a barn and nestled into a feeding box for animals. Thousands of people can’t bring themselves to believe that– it’s too outlandish, too fairytale-like, too silly. But believing that little piece of amazement is child’s play in comparison to believing why He did it. He did it for the very people who can’t believe it. He did it for you and me, the mumbling and bumbling creatures who are so afraid of letting Him change us into all that He can see and we can be.

Way back at the beginning of this devotion, I said it was interesting that Mark calls his work the “beginning” of the Gospel of Jesus. I even noted one of the interesting facts. It is most interesting, however, because it reminds us that the Gospel of Jesus has still only begun. We are still involved in being and bringing His Good News. Like John the Baptizer, it also reminds us that this time of year, which always seems to ask us what we want to get, is really a time to work on what we want to be.

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