When the Manger Isn’t the Beginning

I Corinthians 1:3-9
David A. Davis
December 6, 2020

My first Christmas Eve as an ordained pastor leading worship with children was sort of a disaster. I brought a rocking chair from our house and placed it there in front of the church. I had visions of all the children sitting around my feet while I read the story from the gospel of Luke. I just knew I would have them in the palm of my hand and the congregation would all be saying, “Oh, how cute! Isn’t our new pastor wonderful?” I didn’t get much past “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host” before total chaos broke out around my feet. Kids crawling everywhere. Shouting things out. Not paying attention to a word I had to say, Probably a wrestling match or two as well. In hindsight, the only positive was that I didn’t rock on a child’s fingers. So in the years that followed I tried to step up my Christmas Eve “time with children” game.

A few years later, it still was not a full-blown Christmas pageant. I just planned to tell the story. This time from memory, with lots of additions, gestures, movements. I would have danced if I had to as I tried to keep their attention. I set up the church’s handmade manger, a manger of branches and twine and one of rather significant girth. I set it up on a table in the elevated chancel on the opposite side of the advent wreath with the pulpit in the middle. Unlike the chancel here at Nassau, that chancel had a paneled knee high railing that ran all across with access to the chancel only on either side. When the children came down front and sat on the floor of the nave, they were well below and looking up could only see the manger not the table. A manger now overstuffed with a bit of hay and blankets.

What they didn’t know was that there was no baby Jesus asleep on the hay. Instead, I buried a spotlight in the manger. As I told the story, I broke into a sweat for all kinds of reasons. When I came to “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger”, the clerk of Session, who was fully stretched out flat on his stomach hiding behind the chancel rail plugged in the extension cord attached to the spotlight. A piercing light from that manger shown all around. It lit up that small sanctuary and the historic, tin, textured ceiling looked like it had stars shining. I paused in response to the oohs and awes that came from the children (and the congregation if I may say). Unfortunately, instead of moving on in my head to the shepherds making known all that had been told them and Mary treasuring and pondering all these words, I was mentally patting myself on the back about how I “nailed it”. Now, with the hindsight of 30 years, I am also guessing a child or two now a grown adult remembers more about that spotlight than they do about Jesus.

What happens when the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God is told and there is no spotlight coming from the manger? No spotlight coming from the manger. No spotlight in the manger. No spotlight on the manger. What if there is no manger at all? When the beginning is not the manger. That is the gospel of Mark. No genealogy. No Angel Gabriel. No manger. Just “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  If you were screen sharing the beginning of Mark and hit spotlight on zoom. That’s the verse to show: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Scholars identify it as something of the title of Mark’s Gospel. No manger. No birth. No child. Just a beginning with the prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist, and people from “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” going out to the river Jordan.

It sounds so biblically exaggerating. “All the people of Jerusalem” and people from “the whole Judean countryside.” Mark clearly wants the reader to know that it was more than a few going out to see John. More than a few on a trek through the desert that would not have been easy. Mark quotes in Isaiah and affirms with John’s appearance, this was the wilderness. It was desert wilderness. The walk from Jerusalem to the Jordan River was through miles of mountainous desert wilderness. I am guessing it is not historically accurate to say that everyone went but it was more than going out to see John. And it wasn’t just geography that made life difficult for those pilgrims. For the crowds coming to be baptized by John and for Mark’s intended audience for that matter decades later, Mark’s first readers, it was a time defined by violence, war, division, suffering, fear, religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, and larger than life paranoid kings. Those crowds of biblical proportion, it had to be more than a yearning to hear an edgy, riverside preacher. More than the conviction to repent and cleanse their own hearts. Yes, it must have been bigger even that that. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

The crowds were not looking for a live nativity. They must have been longing for the transformation of the world as they knew it, as they lived it. According to Mark. the good news of Jesus Christ begins with the prophet’s word of the Lord and the yearning of God’s people for the messianic kingdom to come. And John, John the Baptist stands up not to tell of angels and shepherds and magi, not to tell of the Savior’s birth, but to point to the one who is coming; one who is more powerful and one who comes with the Holy Spirit. John stands up in that crowd from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem and he points not to a manger but to a grown man Jesus heading to the Jordan River. With the people of God, inspired by the prophets and longing for the transformation of the world, John stands up and points to the life and teaching of Jesus, the Son of God. Then John, here in Mark’s gospel, John pretty much fades away…immediately. Because in John’s own proclamation and in the form and content of Mark’s gospel, it all begins with the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus.

In a world full of division, fear, anger, suffering and death, it is the Christmas proclamation of Mark’s Gospel that trumpets the promise of salvation amid the longing of God’s people for the kingdom to come on earth, as it is in heaven. In a season when the manger is not the beginning and celebrating the Nativity is so very, very different, it is the beginning of the Good News in Mark that points us to Jesus, the Son of God. For the now grown children of the church who remember the spotlight from the manger more and the teaching, healings, and miracles of Jesus less, Jesus’ teaching about caring for the poor, Jesus’ healing of sinners, strangers, and outcasts, Jesus’ feeding of thousands who were hungry,  Mark’s John the Baptist offers a piercing, convicting, corrective, compelling light which illumines the one more powerful, the Spirit-filled Messiah and his kingdom that is surely coming. For a Christian Church where some are convinced there is some kind of war on Christmas celebrations, Christmas greetings, Christmas worship gatherings, and Christmas parties,  Mark’s prophetically infused Christmas story without tradition’s trappings puts the emphasis on Jesus’ life rather than his birth. And the bigger threat to “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” comes from those who forget he “came to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17), from those who are more concerned about being religious than see people forgiven, or healed, or served, or lifted up, from those who ignore that Jesus himself stopped on the way to a powerful synagogue leader’s home to heal a nameless, faceless woman who had been suffering for years, from those who would rather be great than be a servant, those who would rather be first than be a servant. Those who would ask to be on the Lord’s right and left rather then be his hands and feet in service to others.

The gospel of Mark does have a Christmas story. The Christmas story is the whole gospel of Mark. The entire gospel of Mark is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Experienced gospel readers with a good memory will know that while Mark doesn’t write of the nativity, neither to biblical scholars think Mark wrote of the resurrection. It is the intriguing textual analysis of what they call “The shorter ending of Mark”. It is the argument that Easter in Mark is a later, redacted, editorial edition. So, if scholars are right, the narrative that starts with “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” ends with “So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)That’s how Mark ends. Which, of course, isn’t an ending at all.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  It’s more than a title. It’s Mark telling his readers, and the followers of Jesus, and the church, and you and me, that the good news begins with the life, teaching, and witness of Jesus Christ the Son of God. It’s the beginning, and the gospel still goes on. There has been no ending yet. The end of the good news of Jesus Christ is…not yet. Mark’s Christmas pageant is still going on. And you have a part to play. We all have a part to play. No costumes required. No lines to memorize. And your role? Your role is to point to the One who is more powerful and comes with the Holy Spirit. And to point with lines off the page, or movement blocked on a stage, but to point with your life. That in a season full of division, fear, anger, suffering, and death this Christmas, your kindness and welcome points to his grace-filled hospitality. Your willingness to serve others, to help others, to put others first would points to his own selflessness and his unmistakable, clarion call to servanthood in discipleship. And your yearning to love, your longing for the kingdom, your resilient hope points to his never failing love, his steadfast promise, and his earth transforming light.

When the manger is not the beginning.

When this year’s Christmas Play is in Mark’s gospel.

Well, then, play on people of God. Play on!