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A Surprise We Have Known
December 10, 1978

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

MARK 1:1-8

A bride on her honeymoon was shy and embarrassed as they went into the hotel so she said to her new husband,  “Let's act as if we've been married five years.” He said, “Well, all right, but how can you carry three suitcases?” Time has a way of dulling one's ardor and enthusiasm. Time has a way of undermining the mystery, the surprise of marriage and of Christmas. There's a temptation at Christmas to miss the surprise, to miss the wonder, to miss the mystery because we've known it, and we've heard it. We get so involved with repeating our activities of shopping, Christmas cards, wrapping, cooking and tree decorating. We get so in the routine, we get busy, we get harried, we get tired, we get weary, and we miss the surprise, the wonder. As the poet said, “It's a new day, but I don't feel new.” Can you imagine the initial surprise of this whole Christ event? 

We read in the New Testament of John the Baptizer, the forerunner, the advance man. If you were going to send an advance man, would you choose someone like John—a wild radical man who appeared on the scene coming out of the desert? This desert is a forbidding, desolate place, limestone shimmering with heat, and steep cliffs down to the Jordan River. It's a place no one would visit and certainly no one would inhabit. But John lived there, eating locusts and wild honey. Coming out of that environment, he was dressed like a caveman and spouted forth the words of Isaiah, “Prepare the way the Lord!” Make the road straight so there's no curves, no corners, no bumps. As straight as it can be, make a way for the Lord. That was the advance man and what a surprise he must have created as he came on the scene. 

Or, the surprise of that night of the birth when a bright star caused people to follow it, caused people to study it. And angels! The sky opened with angels singing in a tremendous light and glory. And to find a baby in a manger in a stable! Imagine the surprise of that event and a message that this is the Messiah. This is a king. This is the one we've been waiting for. This is the one who will save the world. This is one who will free us from the Romans. This is the Messiah in a manger! Imagine that initial surprise. 

We have forgotten the surprise over the years, but let's try to recapture a sense of wonder again. Advent is the time when we prepare. Let's try to recapture a sense of wonder, like the little boy who exclaimed, “Gee, this is a great day for Jesus to pick for a birthday!” Wonder, practice the exercise perhaps of playing the game “What if not?” What would it be like? What would Christianity be like without the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke, if we only had what's written in Mark and John? Those two books do not have Christmas stories. We read about the life of Jesus in four books— Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, called the Gospels— but only two of them have Christmas stories. The book of Mark begins as we heard this morning with John the Baptist when Jesus was an adult. The Book of John begins with theology and then John the Baptist when Jesus was an adult. 

It's in Matthew where we read the announcement to Mary. We read about the coming of the wise men. It's in Luke we read of the announcement to the shepherds and the long trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Imagine what Christianity would be like without those beautiful stories. What tenderness would be lost, the humility, the identification with the poor and the outcast. Barry Shepherd has written, “It would be a thinner faith, a paler, more threadbare, and in some indefinable way, a poorer faith without this marvelous mystery of a tale of how God came to be with us through the stable door of ordinary human history, through the pregnancy and birth and nurture of a helpless human infancy.” 

Let's recreate a sense of wonder by imagining what it would be like without the Christmas stories. Imagine what your life would be like if you had never met or married your spouse. What would it be like? Imagine what it would be like if you didn't have one of your children. And don't try to pick out which one! Imagine what you would be like if you had never met certain people. Or, what would your life be like if you never moved to Manteca? Or if you weren't born here? Imagine what it would be like without Jesus, without the church, without the good news. Imagine what the world would be like without Christmas. Let's create a sense of wonder by playing that game—what it would be like—and sense again the mystery, the beauty and the drama of all that happens at Christmas. As you send a card to a person, as you write the address, and as you sign your name and make a little message, think what would your life be like without this person in your life? As you buy a gift, as you wrap it, think what would it be like if this person were not in your life. The wonder, the mystery. 

Look beneath the scenes. Look at a flower or the Christmas tree. As we eat dinner together next week, as we watch two musicals this week, as we reenact the nativity scene, look at all that we do in our church to bring Christmas alive, to open us to the coming of Christ into our lives again. Recreate a sense of wonder, mystery and magnificence and realize how grateful and how thankful we are that we are where we are, and all God has done.

 Margaret Moss has written “Softly Christmas”,  

“Walk softly as you go through Christmas 

That each step may bring you down the starlit path to the manger bed. 

Talk quietly as you speak of Christmas 

That you shall not drown out the glorious song of angels with idle talk and merriment. 

Kneel reverently as you pause for Christmas 

That you may feel again the spirit of the Nativity rekindled in your soul.” 

Walk softly. talk quietly, kneel reverently. 

Let's recapture a sense of wonder. And the surprise includes hope. Let's recapture a sense of hope. When we take Christmas for granted and miss the wonder and the mystery of that first event, when we take Christmas for granted, we forget why Jesus came to this earth. We forget what Jesus came to do. We forget what Jesus is still trying to do through the Holy Spirit in our midst. We forget what is the purpose of the church. We forget what it's all about. Let’s recreate a sense of hope as we realize what Jesus came to do and what there is yet to be done on this earth in the name of Jesus. 

One of the things to be done coincidentally happens today for today is the 30th anniversary of the human rights covenant. On December 10, 1948, the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many nations have adopted it except our own. President Carter has made this a high priority, speaking out very forcefully on the question of human rights, but our Senate has yet to act. We take for granted the basic human rights that we enjoy in this country. We take them so much for granted that we've lost a sense of wonder and a sense of appreciation. We forget how much of the world is denied these rights, and that it is incumbent upon us to help make this a better world in the name of Jesus. 

Many in this world are denied the right of self determination. You've heard the story of how you can quickly identify the nationality of a person, especially a boy, by the way he is introduced to and meets a very pretty girl. When an English boy is introduced to a pretty girl, he shakes her hand. A French boy kisses her hand. An American boy asks her for a date. And the Russian boy wires Moscow for instructions. Now that is humorous, but that is very true of much of the world, whether it is in South Africa and you're black, or the Philippines, or Korea, where much of the world, including the communist nations, are denied these basic human rights—the right to legal defense, the right to move freely, the right of privacy, freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of worship, freedom of religion, protection from slavery, protection from arbitrary arrest, torture, and degrading treatment. 

Those are the issues raised by the United Nations. And one great task that we could take is to recapture a sense of hope for this world and to make Christmas a beautiful, meaningful, significant experience by seeing if we can get our Senate to adopt this priority so the United States can enter this arena, set an example, speak out and participate with other nations to guarantee basic human rights for all people. There is much to be done in this world. 

Jesus came into the world to bring the kingdom of God and Jesus has called you and me to be his people. To recapture a sense of hope, take some concrete steps to reach out in the name of Jesus, extend his mission to the ends of the earth, and make this world more like the world God created it to be. 

Let's recapture a sense of wonder as we walk quietly, talk softly and kneel reverently. Let’s recapture a sense of hope as we work, teach, speak, and seek to bring the gospel to every person.

© 1978 Douglas I. Norris