Sunday, December 6, 2020

Sermon: “Expectations Defied: Gifts”, Mark 1:4-8 (December 6, 2020)

(This is the second of five sermons in our Advent series about our expectations around the holiday season. The first can be found here.)

Let’s be honest: few things are as ubiquitous in “the Holiday Season” as gifts. And thanks to the United States Postal Service, it’s the one part of this December that’s unlikely to change too much. Sure, on December 25 we may be opening them in separate houses, but until then, we’ll still be compiling our wish lists, writing letters to Santa, and dropping pointed hints about what we hope to find under the tree on Christmas morning. We’ll still be humming Christmas songs about “All I want for Christmas” (whether the answer is “you” or “my two front teeth”); we’ll still be trying to recall all 78 gifts that we got from our true love; we’ll still be doing our best not to cry or pout because Santa Claus is still coming to town. Getting presents is a huge part of Christmas culture.

And that’s okay. It’s fun to imagine the new toys you’ll have to play with on Christmas morning, whether they’re Legos or power tools. It’s fun to clip ads from magazines and leave them in strategic places around the house. It’s fun to anticipate your wishes being fulfilled in the form of brightly wrapped packages. But even though the receiving and unwrapping might be the most recognizable and arguably most enjoyable part of Christmas presents, it’s not the POINT of them. The English word “gift” comes from an Old Norse word related to the verb “to bestow”, and the word “Present” comes from an Old French verb meaning “to place in front of”.[1] Notice that the etymology of these words doesn’t seem to have anything to do with receiving. Gifts are defined by the act of giving to someone else.

Now, this may all seem obvious to you. You may be thinking I dropped the ball on this sermon, since none of what I’ve said so far subverts any of your expectations. Of course Christmas gifts are about the joy of giving instead of receiving! We exchange presents with each other as a reminder of the greatest gift that God has ever given to us—Jesus! It’s no surprise that presents are one of the primary ways that we celebrate God’s physical incarnation among us.

But…is that REALLY what our gifts are celebrating? An infant deity in human form? Believe it or not, it’s not a particularly unique story; it’s already been done by many major religions and some of the minor ones in one way or another. I mean, okay; it’s not NOT what we’re celebrating…but maybe now is a good time for us to think about WHY this story is a uniquely big deal for Christians, anyway.

Mark didn’t seem to think it was. As you may or may not know, Mark is the only Gospel not to include any sort of “origin story” for Jesus. The only thing preceding today’s reading in Scripture is a prophetic reference that’s implied to be about to John’s ministry. Then afterwards, in verse 9, an adult Jesus shows up to be baptized. There is no baby, no miraculous birth, no animals, no shepherds, and no magi. No Christmas story.

But that doesn’t mean that there are no gifts. In fact, I’d argue that this passage, more than any of the ones we’re used to hearing from the other gospels this time of year, reveals what are ACTUALLY the greatest gifts that have ever been given. John explains these decidedly un-festive but utterly life-changing gifts in these words: “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The first gift is the sacrament of baptism. Contrary to popular belief, baptism isn’t about getting into heaven. It’s “an outward sign of an inward grace”, as St. Augustine put it; namely, the grace of our adoption into God’s family. It’s an entry point to the faith community (which, incidentally, is why the baptismal font resides at the back of the sanctuary). Think of baptism like the prodigal son being welcomed home. The act itself doesn’t wrench the sin from us, but it reassures us, in a physical, tangible way, of God’s inexhaustible forgiveness so that we can claim our place in God’s family without the burden of shame. It (metaphorically) washes away the stain of our sins so that we might be uninhibited in our relationship with the divine. This forgiveness is so potent, so complete, that it only needs to be enacted one time. Through baptism, John offered the people of Judea and Jerusalem the gift that they most desperately craved, and that we still ache for today: a concrete reminder that no matter what we’ve done, God loves us fiercely and claims us unconditionally.

The second gift that John describes in this passage is the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is something that only Jesus can offer us, and it’s a biggie. It means that not only has God accepted us into God’s family, but that that connection is intimate and ongoing—both with the divine and with the divine family as a whole. The baptism of the Holy Spirit acts almost like a glue, gathering in all of humankind and binding us inextricably together in a sacred union. Unlike baptism with water, baptism with the Holy Spirit is happening at all times, again and again, immersing us in God’s connectional presence in every moment. There’s always another opportunity for us to be submerged in the waters of the Spirit and refreshed in its promise: you belong, and will always belong.

Do you see how these gifts go so much farther than the simple knowledge of “God with us”? These gifts recounted at the beginning of Mark are more than just God’s proximity to us; they demonstrate God’s desire for us to be bound to God and to one another in divine love. Neither of these gifts is mentioned explicitly in the Christmas story, but they’re why the story matters at all. Divine incarnation is only compelling because of what it’s motivated by (love) and what it makes possible (reconciliation); otherwise, it’s just a magic trick.

It turns out that God’s greatest gifts to us go way beyond what we expect to be celebrating this time of year. So maybe our response to these gifts ought to exceed expectations, too. It’s lovely that we offer one another tokens of our love in commemoration of God’s gift to us in Christ, but it’s far from sufficient. It’s great that we thank God for these gifts regularly, but it’s not nearly enough. Through Christ, God has given us more than just a divine cameo; God has given us genuine connection, a new family, full reconciliation, unconditional forgiveness, and true belonging. How can we possibly respond to such extravagant gifts?

Well…you know how when you were little, your grandma knitted you a sweater and your mom made you wear it when you visited her? The best thanksgiving for a heartfelt gift isn’t a handwritten note or even a gift given in return. It’s the full use and enjoyment of the gift. The best way to thank God for the gifts we’ve received through baptism is the same. After you acknowledge the gifts, after you give thanks, after you give back to God…make full use of your baptism. Cherish your family of faith. Embrace God’s forgiveness through your genuine repentance. Welcome the outcast with a true understanding of belonging. Foster connection with one another. Hold your community to divine standards. Wear the sweater that God has given you with enthusiasm and joy.

Beloved, receiving is only a small part of a gift, and the Christmas story is only the beginning of God’s generosity. So as you exchange gifts with your family and friends this December, don’t let that be the end of your response to God’s gifts. Go above and beyond. Exceed expectations. Let your “thank you” be more than just words. Don’t let your baptism gather dust in the closet. Take it out; try it on; wear it out. Share it with others. Live as if it’s the best gift you’ve ever received, because it is. Amen.


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