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The Next Big Thing

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

December 10, 2017
Mark 1:1-8

Audio not available.

A Reading from the Gospel of Mark:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

As best I can tell, the top Christmas trend of 2017 is the upside-down Christmas tree. I say “as best I can tell” because you and I both know that I am not the person you want making judgments about lifestyle trends, but I can use Google, which is how I found out about the upside-down Christmas tree. Which is basically exactly what it sounds like: it’s a Christmas tree, but instead of standing it straight up on the floor, you hang it upside-down from the ceiling. Or, alternatively, you can go on eBay right now and buy an artificial upside-down tree with a floor stand mounted where you and I would normally put the angel, so that I suppose it looks upside-down regardless how high the ceiling is. A few weeks ago, you could have gone to Target and gotten the same thing, but they appear now to be sold out. Presumably you do not do this with a real tree, but I could not find a satisfactory answer on that point. And once you have it place, regardless of how you do it, it’s decorated like a Christmas tree, and it looks in every way like a regular tree, except of course that it’s upside-down. What I know is major retailers are chomping at the bit to sell you all the supplies you need to make your Instagram-fueled upside-down Christmas-tree dreams come true.

And look, precisely because I am not the person you want making judgements about lifestyle trends, it would be easy for me to poke a little fun. I’ve got five minutes of material just riffing on upside-down Christmas trees. But the truth is, they do look beautiful. There’s something magical about them. There’s something surreal. One writer suggested they look like something out of a Dr. Suess book and I think that’s just about right; it feels like if you wanted to make this Christmas really special. Really unforgettable. If you wanted this Christmas to be unique among all Christmases. I mean, is it possible that we have been setting up Christmas trees wrong this entire time? Is there something fundamentally superior to doing them upside-down? Is this the new standard in how we put Christmas together? Which is to say, where do we go from here? Is the upside-down Christmas tree here to stay? Presumably if you have drilled holes in your ceiling to mount it in place you have some vested interest in using those holes again. But regardless, is this the new normal? Or is next year just some new trend? Christmas trees mounted on the walls. Christmas trees lying on the floor. Christmas trees dangling in the air like some artistic installation. I’m just giving these away for free; you can take them and run. Maybe you can be the next great Christmas innovator. The top lifestyle trend of Christmas — 2018.

But of course, none of this is new. Lifestyle trends were around even before Instagram, as hard as that is to believe. And I can prove that because they’re even here in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” as the text opens. As is the case in each of the four Gospels, the story of Jesus Christ begins with the story of John the Baptist, who appears in the wilderness preaching something about the forgiveness of sins, and the people flock to him. In Matthew and Luke, John gets a bit of character work. We hear some of his sermon, he gets some background, we get a sense of his disposition. But in Mark, infamous for speaking with so few words, there’s little time to listen to what John has to say. For Mark, John the Baptist isn’t really a character. He’s just a lifestyle trend. “And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him … now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey,” all of which I’m pretty sure you can get in the lifestyle trend aisle at Whole Foods. The point is, we don’t know much, but we know that John has ignited the imagination of the locals. From all over the countryside. All the people of Jerusalem. Something new is happening, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” the top lifestyle trend of 0 B.C.E.

But like all good lifestyle trends, this is something new that has happened over and over and over again. I mean, sure, maybe John is just a really, really great preacher. I mean, maybe he can bring in the crowds like no one’s ever seen. But we also know that Jerusalem is no stranger to prophets. They’re no stranger to preachers with soapboxes. John the Baptist isn’t the only hipster to ever hang out in the wilderness and harass the Israelites, which Mark knows perfectly well — after all, he’s quoting Isaiah before he’s half a breath into the story. Which means that there’s some irony here. Because on one hand John the Baptist gets treated like this fabulous innovator, totally iconoclastic, I mean, camel-hair way before it was cool, and leather belts way before squares like me came along to ruin them. On the other hand, it feels like this is just what Israel does. Every year, it’s some new prophet. Every year, it’s some new wilderness guru. Every year, it’s some new trend, the latest trick to remove all those pesky sins, the latest pill, the latest herbal supplement, the latest tonic, the latest magic bean. You can feel Mark rolling his eyes just a little bit. Mark’s definitely got five minutes of material on upside-down Christmas trees. These people, always looking for the next big thing.

But Mark’s response is in some ways even more delicious. Instead of doing his five minutes on John the Baptist and all those dirty hipsters, Mark wraps this trendsetting moment in a story that goes back as far as time. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” Mark writes, and then promptly circles centuries into the past for the well-known words from Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” Mark takes this “next big thing” and places it inside the story about exile and wilderness and God’s faithfulness that Israel has been telling for generations, for centuries, the most fundamental story in Jewish theology. So, all Jerusalem goes out to the desert to hear this new preacher give his TED talk, and they may think they’re listening to something totally revolutionary. John may even think he’s preaching something totally revolutionary. Everything in this story screams disruption and innovation and the radical in-breaking of something totally unprecedented. Except of course that Mark grounds it in the oldest story around, which is the story of Israel coming out of the exile, the story of God leading them out of the wilderness, the story of God loving them without disruption, a story as old as time.

Sometimes the next big thing is actually just as old as time.

Over the summer, the ride-sharing company called Lyft announced a new service. If you don’t know Lyft, it’s very much like Uber, and if you don’t know either Lyft or Uber, they’re both very modern takes on transportation and technology. I pull out my phone, and instead of calling for a taxi or going to stand on a street corner waiting for a taxi to come by, I open up the Lyft app and I ask for a ride and someone with their own Lyft app on their own phone driving around town comes by and picks me up and takes me where I need to go and you probably know that together Lyft and Uber have totally transformed the taxicab industry. In my best impression of Silicon Valley lingo, they have entirely disrupted the space. And I freely admit that one of the small joys of our move to Austin is that we are just close enough to downtown or to the airport that every once in a while a Lyft or an Uber is exactly what we need, and it is spectacularly convenient. It has become one of those small conveniences of modern life that I find just a bit irresistible.

But. I haven’t told you about Lyft’s newest innovation. The problem, of course, in a congested area like New York or San Francisco, is that these conveniences can get expensive. Lyft and Uber are infamous for multiplying the fares during periods of peak use, so if you’re trying to get home from work during rush hour it can get exorbitant. But not to worry: Silicon Valley has innovated themselves out of this dilemma. Voila, Lyft Shuttle. A Lyft Shuttle is a car that goes back and forth along a regular route, and holds a whole group of passengers. So, it might not take you right to your door, but maybe it gets close. So, if you’re willing to walk a few blocks to the Shuttle stop, and then wait for the prearranged time when it will come by, and then ride alongside some other strangers until you get to the stop closest to your destination and get out, then Lyft Shuttle is just right for you. Or, as you may have noticed, and as countless observers realized, Silicon Valley has managed to innovate themselves into a bus. It’s just a bus. It acts like a bus. You ride it like a bus. It might look like a Camry. But it’s a bus.

The same thing is true, it should be said, for the upside-down Christmas tree. In the Middle Ages, fir trees were occasionally hung upside-down so that the triangular outline would represent the Trinity. And then somewhere along the line it fell out of favor, and now it’s come round again. The story here isn’t the Christmas Tree. The story here is about us. It’s about our need to invent Christmas over and over. Like something about this Christmas needs to be better. Like something about this Christmas needs to be more spectacular. Like something inside us needs something about this Christmas to outshine something about last Christmas. Like we have to get this right, and we’re always just one herbal supplement or one magic bean away from making it, from doing it, from nailing it, that perfect Christmas that haunts our imagination. Like if someone told you that the perfect Christmas was out there and all you had to do was head out into the desert and find the guy with the locusts and the wild honey and if that’s what it takes this year, I mean if that’s what we’re doing this year, if that’s what it takes to be a part of this good news this year. I don’t want to miss out. I need Christmas too much. I need that good news of Jesus Christ that begins right here.

Except it doesn’t. None of this begins with us. Christmas is a promise, yes, but it’s an old promise. It’s a promise as old as time, it’s a story as old as time, and you don’t have to make it from scratch. You don’t have to make it work. You don’t have to make it right. You don’t have to make it perfect. You can hang your Christmas Tree however you want, because Christmas isn’t about what we do. It’s about who God is. It’s about who God has been. It’s about who God has always been, God who so loved us, and so cherished us, and so wanted to be with us, that he was born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. That part is already done, and you can’t mess it up. No matter what your decorations look like. No matter what your tree looks like. No matter what presents you’ve bought and which ones you haven’t. No matter what presents you’ve wrapped and which ones you haven’t. No matter what your home feels like, no matter what your heart feels like, no matter what your soul feels like. The most revolutionary, jaw-dropping, amazing, disruptive, innovative thing about Christmas 2017 is the same exact thing it was in Christmas 2016, and in Christmas 2015, and in all the ones all the way back, which is that a child has been born for us, a son given to us, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, from this time, from that time, from the beginning of time, and forevermore. Amen.