Mark is the New Testament Gospel usually overlooked at Christmas. The others begin with detailed descriptions of Jesus’s birth (Matthew and Luke) or at least a mention of it (John).
Mark gives us none of that — no manger, no sheep, no shepherds, no angels, no magi, no star, no baby Jesus. At the beginning of Mark, Jesus is already full-grown. We’re plunged straight into his ministry, and the rest of the Gospel is a fast-paced account of that ministry, leading to his death.
In chapter six, however, Mark does provide an indirect reference to Jesus’s birth and growing up — and this reference provides us a different angle on the Christmas story.
Confident and Confused
Mark tells us that Jesus “came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished” (Mark 6:1–2).
The townspeople of Nazareth respond to Jesus’s teaching with astonishment and a flurry of questions. The first three express genuine bewilderment: “‘Where did this man get these things?’ ‘What is the wisdom given to him?’ ‘How are such mighty works done by his hands?’” (Mark 6:2). These are real questions, in search of answers that his fellow Nazarenes do not have.
The people’s bewilderment is explained by the next set of questions, each of which they believe they already know the answer to: “‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?’” (Mark 6:3). The expected answer in each case is “Yes.” Yes, he’s the carpenter, he’s Mary’s son, and we know his brothers and sisters.
The townspeople can’t fit together the fact that the man teaching such amazing things is the same Jesus they know. Confident of what they think they know, they’re confused by what they don’t know. So they respond in a disastrous way: “they took offense at him” (Mark 6:3).
Familiar in All the Wrong Ways
What does this have to do with Christmas? Mark’s unique angle on the events of Christmas is this: in at least one small town, the fact that Jesus came as a baby and grew as a normal child was not an encouragement to faith but rather a hindrance to it. We often (and rightly) think that what people need if they’re to trust in Jesus is familiarity with who he is. But in this passage, Jesus’s friends can’t get past their familiarity. It’s an obstacle. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Perhaps we’re familiar with Jesus too. We never ran with him through the dusty streets of Nazareth, taught him in Sunday school, or paid him to repair a broken chair. But we grew up knowing him. We learned early that if we enthusiastically answered, “Jesus!” to every question in Sunday school, we’d be right almost every time. We cut our teeth on Veggie Tales, or (if we’re a little older) flannelgraph figures. We played with the nativity set every year. We know the words to all the main Christmas songs.
J.C. Ryle once wrote, “Familiarity with sacred things has an awful tendency to make men despise them.” It’s true. It’s possible to become so familiar with Jesus that we know him as a Sunday school answer rather than a mind-blowingly great, heart-meltingly beautiful Lord, who makes his claim upon our lives, to whom we owe everything, who alone gives us lasting joy, and who deserves all our worship. Familiarity with Jesus may lead us to believe we have him figured out. Simply put, perhaps we’re a little bored of him.
Let Familiarity Breed Faith
If this is true of any of us, it’s a sure sign we don’t really know him. At least we don’t know him nearly enough. Knowing Jesus is like knowing Mount Everest. For those who know it, Everest increasingly thrills, confounds, delights, eludes, and exhilarates. If people are bored of Everest, it’s because they’re learning facts about it in their living room, not climbing it.
“Familiarity with sacred things has an awful tendency to make men despise them.”
Familiarity need not breed contempt. Instead, it can breed faith. Mark names four of Jesus’s biological half-brothers. Remarkably, two of the four — Jude and James — later wrote New Testament letters. Both men knew Jesus intimately as a brother for many years. But Jude begins his letter, “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ” (Jude 1), and James begins his letter, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).
Yes, Jesus was their brother. But they came to know him most importantly as Master and Messiah. In their lives, familiarity led to faith. The more they knew, the more they saw. The more they saw, the more they worshiped. The more they worshiped, the more they wanted to know.
The same is true for us when we see Jesus for who he really is. In heaven, we’ll increasingly become familiar with Jesus forever, and we will never grow bored. Remember John Newton’s words in “Amazing Grace”:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
bright shining as the sun,
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
than when we first begun.