Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
Maybe we should call the Gospel for this Sunday the “Twice Told Tale.”
Last week, you may recall, we first heard the story of the coming of John the Baptist through the Gospel of Mark. That account begins with words from the prophet Isaiah announcing a voice in the wilderness calls the nation of Israel to prepare to receive their Lord.
We learn John the Baptist appears near the river Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The people of Jerusalem go out to him for baptism. John announces one more powerful than he will come to baptize them with the Holy Spirit.
Mark tells his story of John the Baptist without elaboration or theological interpretation. Nothing but the facts. He depicts John within the prophetic tradition, as one who precedes the coming of the Son of Man, the long-expected Messiah.
This third Sunday in Advent the story of John the Baptist will be told again, but this time with elaboration and theological interpretation. The message appears more vivid, but also more poignant.
The Gospel of John describes Jesus as light. Jesus is the light who shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. John may be sent from God, but he is not the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone will follow. This light is the Word made flesh in Jesus. Through Jesus we receive grace and truth. God reveals himself to us in His Son.
Only after an extensive discussion of the nature and mission of Jesus do we return to the story of John the Baptist. The Gospel text tells us the priests and Levites from Jerusalem interrogate John about his identity. They want to know if he is the Messiah or Elijah or a prophet. He says he is not the Messiah, but points to him.
Biblical scholars remind us the Gospel of John was written almost a half century after the Gospel of Mark. The Christian community, by that time, reflected on the Gospel of Mark, had questions and sought insight. Therefore, John intends do more than tell the story; he wants us to understand more clearly the profound truth behind and contained in the story.
The four Gospels vary in many ways, but one fact unites them; they agree upon the role John plays in Jesus’s life and ministry. John precedes the coming of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Something in the human mind or spirit never quite settles for the Gospel of Mark’s simple explanation. We want to hear, learn, know more about God’s intention for us.
Several weeks ago I stopped at the Barnes and Noble bookstore to buy Christmas books for my granddaughters. Not surprisingly, I found stacks of different children’s books for the Christmas season. Some were the books you might expect this time of year, such as the Charlie Brown Christmas, the Grinch who stole Christmas or The Polar Express. But there were many other books as well.
I found interesting how the Christmas spirit enters into obviously secular works. For instance, take the Grinch who stole Christmas. The Grinch is a bitter creature with a heart “two sizes too small” who lives on snowy Mount Crumpit, a steep high mountain just north of Whoville, home of the Who’s. From his perch, the Grinch hears the noisy Christmas festivities that take place in Whoville. Annoyed, he decides to stop Christmas from coming by stealing their presents, trees, and food for their Christmas feast. He disguises himself as Santa Claus, and descends to Whoville, where he slides down the chimney and steals all of the Who’s Christmas presents, the Christmas tree, and the log for their fire. The Grinch then takes his sleigh to the top of Mount Crumpit and prepares to dump all of the presents into the abyss.
As dawn breaks, The Grinch expects to hear the Whos’ bitter and sorrowful cries but is confused to hear them singing a joyous Christmas song instead. He puzzles for a moment until he realizes perhaps Christmas is more than presents and feasting: “Maybe Christmas, he thought, means a little bit more.” The Grinch’s shrunken heart suddenly grows three sizes larger. The reformed Grinch returns all the Whos’ presents and trimmings and is warmly invited to the Whos’ feast, where he receives the honor of carving the Roast Beast.
The great themes from this story are sin, transformation and redemption. The Christmas message emerges in this tale again in its own way to speak to us. There is a lesson here. The opening of the Gospel of John tells us the Word became flesh and was full of grace and truth. Even in a Christmas story, like the Grinch who stole Christmas, the Word becomes flesh in the story of Grinch and the Whos. Certainly, this children’s story is no substitute for the Gospel, but offers us the story in another way that speaks to us.
John the Baptist announces a great miracle to come. God’s word becomes flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Let me illustrate the point. A Korean artist named Elder Rhee, produced a unique piece of art. It took him two years to complete an illustrated scroll. It is not a painting, but a picture created by writing thousands of words with shaded letters using a fine tipped pen. It is actually the entire New Testament written out by hand. There are about 185,000 words on the scroll with an average of a thousand words per line. The letters are drawn, some thick and some thin to bring out a picture of Christ. There are twenty-seven angels in the picture, as well, surrounding Christ and looking to him, representing the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. The original work was six feet long by four feet wide. The figure of Christ is not imposed onto the words, the words reveal the picture of Christ, as they are inked light and dark to bring out the portrait of Christ. The words become flesh, a person, in this painting.
Today we hear the Gospel of John describe the coming of John the Baptist. We learn Christ is a light in the midst of darkness. We hear he is God’s great truth and grace made flesh. These images lodged themselves in the heart of humanity. This season may Christ be a light in your life. May the word become flesh in you and may others see that word. Let the proclamation of John the Baptist testify to you that you may be baptized by the Holy Spirit. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.