This Christmas at Westside we have decided to shine the light on the life, rather than the birth of Jesus, the man rather than the baby. Of course we do celebrate Christmas as God’s entrance into the world. But at the same time, it is possible to become over-sentimental about that, to miss the biggest points in the story because we keep Jesus in his cradle. The gospels remind us that the story of Jesus is the story of his life, his full man-hood, his absolute claim on human nature and destiny. And so we have chosen to tell the story of Christmas from Mark, a novel idea since there is no birth story in that gospel. What Mark does is simply present to us the life of Jesus as he bursts onto the human scene, in the prime of his adult life, knowing who he was and what he was about. Last Sunday we reflected on a compact summary of his teaching as Mark records in 1:14-15:
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
There is a lot to unpack here, but for Christmas I want to focus on the little phrase that begins his teaching: “the time has come”. It is, in fact, a very important “Christmas” idea. The older translations rendered it “the time is fulfilled” because the Greek verb suggests completion, realization, intention, direction, end. I want to suggest that this circle of ideas is deeply what Jesus -- and Christmas -- are about. To fulfill something is to bring it to what it was intended for, what it was meant for, what makes it meaningful. We use the word “fulfilled” to describe when we are most happy, to describe our highest personal aspirations. And just as human beings are meant for something, so is history. In the coming of Jesus, everything is fulfilled.
Read the Christmas story from Matthew’s gospel for a way to see how this works. The story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1-2 is organized around the the concept of fulfillment, as five times Matthew uses the phrase to describe what is going on when Jesus was born. Here is a prime example:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). [Matthew 1:22-23]
As you read through Matthew 1-2, and reflect on Jesus’ words from Mark 1:14-15, you begin to see how deeply the idea of fulfillment is to the story of Jesus. You begin to see how Mark shares with Matthew this central Christmas idea, even though he does not tell a Christmas story. Both gospels simply affirm that the coming of Jesus into the world brings all of human life, and history, to its intended meaning -- to fulfillment.
So this is how we are able to talk about Christmas from the Gospel of Mark. When Jesus burst onto the scene as a full grown man he announced the good news that the time had come, that everything hoped for was now in the process of being fulfilled, that the long wait of history was over, that the Kingdom of God had now come and was coming. The only thing left to do, Jesus said, was to respond, to change one’s mind and embrace what was being revealed.
I have lived through 51 Christmases now, coming again and again to the story I know but learn to know better each year. And what really excites me this year is that I have caught a glimpse of something in Christmas that grows brighter with each passing year. In the words of Paul,
… [understand] the present time. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. [Romans 13:11]
Our Christmas series from the gospel of Mark continues this Sunday. See you at 9:29 or 11:11.