When our kids were younger, Christmas meant a road trip. We would rotate among my wife's siblings. First to brother Bob's house. Then brother Dave's house. Then sister Laura. Finally, we would host... and then repeat the rotation. When we moved from the east coast to Kansas City, our trips got longer. It would be one of those trips that was a day and a half in the car, for a day a half with family, then another day and a half in the to get home. I would imagine that our time with family is much like your time with family. We exchanged gifts. We drew names for gifts exchange... seems most years I would draw uncle Dave's name, which is an envied choice. He's impossible to shop for, but he is the most gracious of all of us. No matter what you would give him, he will say it's perfect. You could give him salt and pepper shakers that look like nuns playing bongos and he would say, "That's perfect!" We would have a family meal together, usually turkey... you should have been there the year that everyone got tossed from the kitchen - there were seven or eight in there - and all of them experts in gravy. When you have that many gravy experts, you can stack them all end to end, and they still will not reach a conclusion on just how thick gravy needs to be.
We sit at the feasting table, hold hands, and sing the Doxology for our table prayer. The meal will be wonderful. We will share updates of what's going on with each family and tell stories we have told before, including the story about the gravy experts being evicted from the kitchen. We will take the family pictures. Hugs all around, back in the car and head home. I loved the way they all decorated for Christmas. Brother Bob always had a big tree. Brother Dave had single candlelights burning in every window. Sister Laura loved her Christmas cookies and played carols on the piano. In our home there was a nativity scene in almost every room.
So, I wonder. What do you think it would be like to spend Christmas at Mark's house? This Advent season, along with my friend, the Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston, we are together imagining what it would be like to make a road trip to celebrate Christmas at the home of each of the Gospel writers. It's not a new idea, as other gifted preachers have preached a series like this one. Scott and I wish to take this old idea and imagine with you what we might find on this Gospel writers tour of homes.
And we begin by visiting Mark's house for Christmas.
The first thing you will notice is that Mark may need us to tell him about the Christmas story. If you are the caroling type, you could go caroling at Mark's house, but don't expect them to know any of the carols. Mark's gospel reveals no knowledge of Christmas. He never speaks of Jesus as a baby or mentions a special birth. He has no wreath on the door. There are no Advent candles on the breakfast room table. No Christmas tree in the den. There are no Christmas carols being played on the piano. No garland on the mantel.
When you are at Mark's house, there is absolutely no way to know that it's Christmas, unless you happen to notice who is there. It's a crowd of people.
Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation - the good news that God has chosen to take on flesh and step into human history. Mark may not know how Jesus was born, but Mark knows Jesus is the love of God in flesh. And if you stop by his house, he will tell you just how he knows that.
He will tell you how Jesus, like everyone else in all Judea, Jesus sought out John the Baptist, that repentance preacher. Jesus is baptized and as he comes up out of the water, the Spirit of God falls on him and he hears the voice of God, "You are my son, whom I love and with whom I am well pleased." It is a sweet moment, but it doesn't last long. Immediately the Spirit casts Jesus out into the wilderness.
The wilderness isn't a zip code. Wilderness is a spiritual condition. Wilderness is anywhere that God's people are tested. The wilderness is anywhere we must decide if God's word can be trusted. The wilderness is where God's way will seem foolish and other voices will often seem reasonable. The wilderness is anywhere faith must be chosen. In the wilderness we battle to stand strong and to stand tall because we are surrounded by forces that would make us afraid, feel small, maybe even forget that we, too, are the children of God.
You know the wilderness. You might find it at home, at work, sometimes even in church. The wilderness is never far away.
Mark knows this - the reason Jesus is cast into the wilderness is because that's where we live. And if you ask me, Jesus never gets out of that wilderness. From the beginning to the end of Mark's gospel, Jesus is in the battle. He battles demons and storms. He pushes against social structures that oppress. He never stops until he breathes his last on that Roman cross. From his first moment until his last, he is in the battle - feeding the hungry and healing the sick and attacking the powers that dehumanize us. His ministry starts that way and it ends that way, with his blood spilling on wilderness ground. But then we hear it again - truly he was the son of God. If I understand the text, Mark is telling us, this is how you know the love of God has taken on flesh, for that love will find you in the wilderness.
So, Mark's home is a mobile home. You might find Mark's house in the center of town where the powers of the city meet and there is always tension between ideals and politics. Or his home may be in the suburbs, with manicured lawns and children with activities scheduled morning, noon and night - running after some promised future that consumes the gift of the present. He sometimes lives in a noisy rental, with locks on the door and the neighbor's TV playing too loudly. He sometimes lives in the dorm - the place of all-nighters and those lonely times trying to decide who you are going to be with your life. Or in the retirement home where the pictures of the grandchildren fill the shelf, but the loneliness is in the air. He is in hospital rooms and jail cells - where nightmares are lived in the daytime and morning comes too often with no promise of a new day.
Mark may not know where Jesus was born, but he knows where the son of God lives - in the wilderness, because that's where we are. The son of God shows up in the broken places. When you get there you will see, they don't sing Silent Night or Away in a Manger in Mark's house, but they know There Is a Balm in Gilead by heart.
So, here's what I hope. I hope you can bypass Mark's house this Christmas. I hope your life is full of joy and those you love are well. I hope that this Christmas the worst thing in your life is you get kicked out of the kitchen because you complained about the gravy.
But it's not that way for many and maybe not for you. Christmas can be hard. It's supposed to be so wonderful, so joyful, so stitched together with love. But sometimes that just magnifies our hunger, our grief, our fear. That's when we need to spend Christmas with Mark, because he knows the son of God will meet us in the broken places.
If that's you, you will want to visit Mark's house this Christmas. He will understand.
I am thinking of those of you who are painfully aware of the empty place at the table because death has come in all its harshness this year.
I am thinking of those of you who have lost your job or have lost sleep worried that you might lose your job.
I am thinking of those of you who got a phone call carrying bad news because someone you love is in trouble and you don't know how to help.
I am thinking of those of you who have all the externals lined up in perfect order - family, career, accomplishments - and yet, there is a hole in your soul and you feel absolutely lost.
I'm thinking of those of you who mourn, for you look at the world the way it is and it breaks your heart. You yearn for a truth teller, you hunger for kindness and compassion, you are starved for a love that can be trusted.
If that's you, you will be welcomed at Mark's house. Mark's house is filled with those who are in the storm, those who find themselves in the wilderness. That wilderness can show up anywhere, and the truth is it is never far away.
One last thing. When Jesus was in that wilderness, it says he was with the wild beasts. You know what that is, don't you?
Mark has the promise of the old prophet Isaiah running around in the back of his head. You remember? The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall like down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together.
It's an image, a metaphor of God's kingdom, God's promised day. Jesus goes into the wilderness, as God's holy love in flesh, and signs of God's promised day break out.
That's Christmas at Mark's house. It's a gathering of those who are in the struggle, those who know the brokenness of this world, those who are seeking the courage to be faithful and know it will be costly.
And there among them, Jesus shows up. And we get a glimpse of God's promised day.
At Mark's house there is no sign that it's Christmas, but everywhere you look, you can tell the love of God has taken on flesh and has come to live where you live.
Pray with me.
Gracious God, we believe. Help our unbelief. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.