Great night with you all last night. So great to sing those songs so loudly together. If you’re interested, here are the notes from the portion of the evening where we looked at Mark 6 in relation to Christmas.
In my bible class this year, we are studying the Gospel of Mark. The other day we read the story of the time when Jesus took his followers and visited the town he grew up in. As it says in Mark 6, verses 1-6:
Then He went out from there and came to His own country [back to Nazareth, his home town], and His disciples followed Him. And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue [there, in Nazareth]. And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, “Where did this Man get these things? And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands! Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?” And they were offended at Him. [The NIrV translates that last phrase: “They were not pleased with him at all.”] But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house.” Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He marveled because of their unbelief. Then He went about the villages in a circuit, teaching.
In his commentary on the book of Mark, James Edwards wrote this, on Jesus being “amazed at their lack of faith” in Mark 6:6…
What amazes God about humanity is not its sinfulness and propensity for evil but its hardness of heart and unwillingness to believe in him. That is the greatest problem in the world, and herein lies the divine judgement on humanity. Humanity wants a spectacular sign of God, or, like the devil, a great display of divine power. But it does not want God to become a human being like one of us.
The people of Nazareth see only a carpenter, only a son of Mary, only another one of the village children who has grown up and returned for a visit. If only God were less ordinary and more unique, then they would be believe. The servant image of the son is too prosaic [commonplace, unromantic] to garner credulity.
God has identified too closely with the world for it to recognize in Jesus the Son of God. Humanity wants something other than what God gives. The greatest obstacle to faith is not the failure of God to act but the unwillingness of the human heart to accept the God who condescends to us in only a carpenter, the Son of Mary.”
Maybe these doesn’t sound like “Christmas” kind of thoughts to you. But it connected dots for me last week when I was teaching it to my class, dots that led right to tonight and Christmas. Here’s the connection, I think: A lot of people have spent the last 2000 years complaining that God is too far away. In response to that, Christians typically point to Jesus. “No—God’s not far away, just look at Jesus.” We try to tell people about Jesus and how he shows us that God is actually really in touch with us, really close to us, really cares about our situation. But if you’re a Christian in here tonight, I think you know the experience of trying to tell someone about Jesus and all they can hear is that you’re telling them about some ancient history, which doesn’t feel very relevant to most people, or, that Christians worship some guy who lived along time ago. And it just sounds so weird to people to say that a truly historical figure was God. It’s like saying, “Julius Ceasar was a real Roman general…and Julius Ceasar was the creator of the world.” It sounds like what your logic professor might call a category mistake. These are just two things that don’t go together—God and human.
And actually, I think that’s exactly the point of the record of Jesus’ trip to Nazareth, and what Edwards is pointing to in his commentary on the passage. Here’s the issue: In Jesus Christ, the world in general sees something so ordinary that they no longer take notice. They see a man. A real person who lived a long time ago. No big deal. It’s a real tragedy, but history is boring to most people. Christians might get all excited that Jesus really existed, but to most people, the fact that Jesus existed in history actually makes him less interesting. Most people are infatuated with people that haven’t ever existed. That’s who excites us. Thanos and the Avengers. Luke and Leia and Darth. (And baby Yoda.) Harry and Dumbledore. Frodo and Bilbo.
But Jesus? So ordinary. So not interesting.
That’s how people feel. But what’s the reality? The truth is that the mystery of who Jesus is, and was, is beyond the greatest fantasy story that could ever be written. The very fact of his “ordinariness” means that he became fully, really human—which, of course, is where our boredom with him, our contempt, arises from. But when you realize who (and what) it was that became really human, that’s when the ordinariness fades in front of the blazing sun. And this totally ordinary human-ness is itself the canvas the great mystery is painted on. In the ordinary carpenter is the ocean of God. In the historical human is the eternal life of all wisdom. In the five-foot-whatever Jewish guy, is…the infinite.
The fact that these two realities could even come together is something that blows the human mind. And both of them are totally mind-blowing, because they’re totally out of scale with each other. God is, in himself, a mind-blowing, mind-altering reality. Try to wrap your mind around the infinite depths of his being. And then, the fact that he could become so ordinarily human that we could mistake him for being only human—that is crazy. He was so real that he didn’t raise the hairs on the backs of peoples’ necks—not usually anyway. He wasn’t easily picked out of a crowd. He walked around city streets without being noticed. People bumped into God in human flesh when the streets were crowded. Some of them probably said, “excuse me,” and some of them didn’t. People bought carpentry work from him.
People saw him as a little kid. Other kids grew up with him. A regular woman changed him and nursed him and rocked him to sleep, after she carried him inside of her for nine months and birthed him in the middle of the night.
And even today—aren’t there times when we wish for someone less ordinary? We just read about it together a couple weeks ago: He will come back on a white horse and shatter the ordinary. He’s going to change everyone’s perception of him. Maybe we should have a day every year on the Christian calendar that looks forward to that day. Second Coming Day. White Horse Day. Victory Day. Something like that.
But next Wednesday, we come to the day every year where we celebrate the beginning of… is it the greater miracle? Since Adam sinned, we should almost expect the white horse. The more humanity grew, the more evil and organized we got, it’s almost inevitable that God would have to come back and conquer us. We deserve the white horse. We deserve God the Conqueror. We deserve war. We deserve defeat.
But what don’t we deserve? Christmas. God the baby. God the man. God the Son, here to hold our kids and heal our sick and raise our dead and teach our minds, and take our punches, and bear our sin, and die our death. What we don’t deserve, is God with us…laying helpless in a manger at the mercy of a couple of human beings and their religious community and a European empire. As Swiss Theologian Karl Barth prayed:
“Lord our God, you wanted to live not only in heaven, but also with us, here on earth;
not only to be high and great, but also to be small and lowly, as we are;
not only to rule, but also to serve us;
not only to be God in eternity, but also to be born as a person, to live, and to die.”
It’s the greatest thing that ever happened. Everyone should believe. Everyone should celebrate. But, like James Edwards says: “The greatest obstacle to faith is not the failure of God to act but the unwillingness of the human heart to accept the God who condescends to us…” as a simple, ordinary baby.
Can you worship the God who comes ordinarily? If you can’t worship God the Son who came as a baby, you won’t receive God the Son as the conqueror. If the birth of Jesus bores you, the return of Jesus will make you mourn. As it is written: “He is coming soon, in the clouds, and every eye will see Him… And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him.”
So, the follower of Jesus knows that Christmas is not the whole story. We don’t worship baby Jesus. But it’s the beginning of the story. It’s the historical marker of the moment God revealed how he was going to fix everything. Traditionally this time of year has been called “Advent,” which means “arrival.” It’s not everything—but it’s when the Everything arrived. And he shocked us all.
He would be a baby. A boy who grew up in Nazareth. He would be easily ignored or dismissed, like a grain of wheat that fell into the ground. Like a seed sunk into the dirt—a small seed, maybe…a mustard seed. Jesus said: “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)
The story of Christmas is the story of the small beginning of the biggest thing that ever happened. For many around us it’s a time for sales, followed by a time of standing in the returns line. Ordinary. But followers of Jesus take time every year to remember, and celebrate, and sing, and worship the God who wanted to be with us, and wanted us to be with him.
And when the baby was born that night, and that young couple wrapped him up and held him, it was the voice of God, beginning to say, “behold, I make all things new.”
And it was like the first time we heard him say, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
As Barth says later in his prayer: “Lord, What remains for us to do but wonder, to rejoice, to be thankful, and to hold fast to what you have done for us?”