Musings on a “strange” Christmas
By Neil Smith, founder, Olympic Peninsula Ministries, Sequim, Washington; founding pastor of Dungeness Community Church, Sequim and pastor at Peninsula Bible Church, Palo Alto, CA. December, 2009
At the conclusion of my freshman year in college I was a beginning Christ follower and was attending my first Christian student conference. I was excited to learn from the teachers who would be there.
Our car full of students arrived in southern California a day early so I spent much of it beside the swimming pool. The only thing I remember from that week is what happened there. While basking in the sun another student approached me and gave me a religious tract.
I never responded well to such tracts, but dutifully read this one. Its title asked the question: “What does it profit a man?” Inside, the author quoted a passage describing Absalom’s predicament when his father, King David, allowed him to return to Jerusalem from exile, but forbade him to come into the palace to visit him.
The pamphlet’s author asked, “What does it profit a man if he lives in Jerusalem (as Absalom did) but never sees the King’s (David’s) face?” He then probed us with, “What does it profit us if we are Christians, but don’t fellowship with Jesus Christ?”
Obviously, I never forgot that! God has used it often to remind me that at the heart of the Christian faith is an actual, vibrant relationship with Christ. Christian activity without communion with God leads to tiredness, not joy.
What triggered this memory was my musing on the manner in which Mark begins his gospel. In contrast to Matthew and Luke there is no birth narrative. Neither does he begin with a theological discourse like John’s gospel.
Mark’s introduction is brief, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah”. Mark’s was the earliest gospel, and it may have been the first occasion in literature when the term “gospel” (or “good news,” as in the translation above) was linked to Jesus. Mark’s first century readers would have thought immediately of an imperial edict from Rome.
“Good news” was very often used when referring to a military victory by the empire and “joy” was the emotional state always accompanying the term, “good news.”
Imagine Mark as he pens his gospel. I bet he couldn’t sit still in excitement. The “joy-bringing” good news he invites us to contemplate with him isn’t about an event, but a Being. He doesn’t announce a victory, but introduces a person. “Jesus” is His name. A common name of the day, for after all, he is a real human being. Yet in that name His secret identity is also revealed.
“Jesus” means “God liberates and rescues”. That’s who He is and what He’s done. If Mark has it right, there had never been better news in the entire history of this globe we call home. Never!
Many of the ancient Greek manuscripts have Mark concluding this introductory sentence with the additional words “the Son of God,” thus identifying Jesus unambiguously. Whether they belong in the text or not, we are certain of Mark’s intent.
The climax of his portrait of Jesus is in the words of a hardened Roman centurion who had overseen many crucifixions. His astonished reaction to watching Jesus die was: “Surely this man was the Son of God” ( Mark 15:39 ).
This is the same title used at the commencement and conclusion of Mark’s account. There’s no question in Mark’s mind about who Christ is!
Staggering, hey! The hymn writer, Charles Wesley, said it this way: “Our God contracted to a span (18 inches), incomprehensibly made man.” Pastor and popular author Eugene Peterson describes Jesus’ birth as: “God moving into our neighborhood.”
Who could have ever even imagined? God actually became a human being. Walked this planet. Knew — and still knows — our pain. There was nothing token about this at all. In Jesus, God joined Himself to our race forever! No wonder Mark chose the joy-permeated word “gospel” to introduce Jesus to us. The angels concurred at Jesus’ birth, saying to the shepherds it’s the “good news of a great joy.”
This is a strange Christmas day for Melanie and me. Our children, Jared, Jonathan, Lydia and Chiara are not with us. A first. It’s made me very aware that it is people, not presents, that create the joy of Christmas and there’s only One who produces a joy that wells up within us day following day and year after year. So in all our doing this year, let’s seek Jesus as our chief aim. After all, “What does it profit us to be Christians and not know Christ?”