The Gift is in the Giving
December 7, 2014 / Advent 2
A December Observer issue a number of years ago had in it an article by Ivan Gregan. Ivan is a UCC
minister in Nova Scotia whom I have met at several national events. He will also be mentioned
frequently in the future here at Sydenham Street as he is one of our Gaelic speaking clergy in the UCC
and is the author and translator of some of the material that I use for the Celtic worship service we will
celebrate at the end of January. Ivan is not talking about Celtic Christianity this time though. He is talking
about why we love our Christmas stories so much. One of the most important points he makes is that all
four gospels treat Jesus birth differently. Johns account is cosmic; Luke’s account, because of Luke’s
preoccupation with the poor accentuates Jesus birth among the lowest of society, in a stable with the shepherds; and Matthews account talks about the Magi finding Jesus sometime later in a house. Blending these stories into a Hallmark moment or a story that is easily depicted in a nativity scene is how we often experience “the meaning of Christmas” nevertheless:
Read: Mark 1, 1-8
Mark’s Gospel does not begin with angels whispering in Mary’s ear. There are no shepherds keeping watch over the flocks by night.
No wise men from the east following a star, no big eyed animals standing around a straw stuffed manger. Mark either doesn’t know about those things or he doesn’t care enough about them to include them in his proclamation of the Good News. For him the Good News of Jesus Christ begins in the wilderness of Judea with a prophet in the old time tradition named John, the first real prophet to turn up in Israel in 300 yrs.
He’s dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt, the exact same outfit that Elijah wore 800 years before him. His hair and his beard look like they’ve never been cut and he’s skinny as a cactus. Surely this is a statement of some kind. Those of us encountering him over a gap of 2000 years may not be able to interpret it very well, but those standing around him certainly could. The man was a messenger,
predicted by Isaiah, dressed like Elijah, sent by God, a prophet in the classic style.
Although at their core each of the four Gospels is about God’s self-revelation to humanity through Jesus of Nazareth; they are very different books one from another. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels because they all tell a narrative, a story which centres on Jesus ministry and passion; and they all contain very similar material but in different arrangements and shaded quite differently because each had its own audience.
John is not a narrative in the synoptic sense at all; but, does contain much of the same material. Now there are many instances
where events that we consider important simply don’t show up in some books. Not only the gospel of Mark, but John as well has no birth narrative what so ever. No mention or concern with Jesus birth or rearing, on the other hand there are many events, parables, and miracle stories that occur in all four. And John the Baptiser as Mark calls him, and his baptism of Jesus is one of these events, that is uniformly important in all four gospels. So important in fact to Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, that this is how he begins, “The good news of Jesus Christ the son of God”.
John the Baptist we are told was sent to prepare the way for the one that is to follow, the one that the prophet Isaiah had predicted,
and he prepared the way by calling for people to turn away from sin and repent. John was the compass needle. John knew the direction they needed to go. John knew that without orientation the energy of the peoples lives would dissipate. John was doing what Isaiah and the other prophets had done many times over, he was preparing them to be focused. John was trying to make them receptive,
to make them wake up and pay attention, to wake up and smell the coffee.
The sort of preparation that we are talking about here is not rolling out the red carpet, or shining the silverware, or getting out the good linen; but it is a sort of house cleaning. In order to focus we need fewer distractions. John was preparing the way by calling people to reject alienation and separation from God as a way of life, and to turn toward God. John was calling people to shed their distractions; be they innocent and frivolous, or be they grave and legitimate; people are called to shed their distractions and to allow Expectant Anticipation to well up within.
Simply by preparing we are engaging in an act of faith. Actually it is the development of the orientation toward God, that leads to the preparation, that is the act of faith. The preparation that John calls for is the preparation of our hearts. Christmas is the birth of Emmanuel,
“God be with Us”. How do we possibly get ready for that? Well, just maybe, the gift is in the preparation. In that preparatory act of faith.
The scriptures this morning all talk about preparation, but also about the gifts of the spirit that come to light upon this season, hope, peace, joy, and love.
Over the years I’m sure we’ve all heard countless stories of those who gave from a meagre livelihood so that someone more desperate might survive. Dickens’ timeless A Christmas Carol with its Christmas spirits, past, present, future; and the Cratchet family has become so much a part of our culture that many have met scrooge as a movie character without any idea that he sprang from the fertile genius of Charles Dickens.
But, at the root of all these stories is a fundamental gospel truth that we cannot ignore or live without. And that is that our lives are fulfilled when we act, and somehow share with others, our momentum in life, that momentum which is in fact itself a complex gift from God. When we stop as the stream of life flows around and by us and we stoop to grasp a hand that has lost its grip; When we recognise that everything we have, everything we are, everything we have been, and everything we will be, are God given; And then we share it,
share ourselves with others, rather than hoard it, hoard ourselves behind walls, within communities of our own kind. Then the walls, divisions, and separations of all kinds that exist between people evaporate, and disappear. One of the things that strikes me about this messenger this John the Baptiser, is that he was nowhere near a church or synagogue in his day, and those that insisted on staying inside the church or synagogue never heard his message. Only those who were willing to enter the wilderness got to taste the freedom of forgiveness that he preached.
So John's call to repentance is not that onerous after all. The gift is in the preparation. In the peace of mind we first settle into when we realise that fulfillment will be ours. In the wisdom we acquire as we put in perspective our own modest importance as compared to humanity on the whole. The gift is in the love that germinates as we open ourselves to connect with those in need and the gift is in the joy of knowing that this germinating love can sustain us throughout life. AMEN
Delivered by the Reverend Wayne Beamer
at Sydenham Street United Church in Brantford Ontario.
Copyright © 2014 Wayne Beamer. All rights reserved.