Do You Really Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas?
The 1953 song "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" was a hit, and it's still played this time of year. The 10-year-old girl who recorded it was given a hippopotamus on Christmas morning by her hometown of Oklahoma City. Over 10,000 came to see the hippo on Christmas Day. So, my question to you is: do you really want a hippopotamus for Christmas?
Well, it's a great song. Who doesn't love to sing it? The song is an expression of the festival of good will among neighbors that takes place this time of year. As Santa, Christmas cards, and trees as popularly known are all creations of the 19th century to celebrate that same festival, so, the hippo song, and "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth" that came 5 years before, and the Chipmunk Song ("Christmas Don't Be Late") that came 5 years after are the post-war reinforcement of that 19th century holiday of worldly peace and good will among people.
And what's wrong with that? Nothing. It's fun to want something harmless and silly like a hula hoop, hippo, or your 2 front teeth. Then too this secular holiday gives expression to more serious wants. A miracle that keeps parents from divorcing. The loved-one being able to make it home for Christmas. The bullied kid becoming the hero. Also, the festival celebrated by "Sliver Bells", another song I love, expresses what I call Miss America desires. These are the wishes the contestants share during the interview part of the contest: world peace, a cure for cancer, getting rid of nuclear weapons.
You may want all of these things. You may want something totally different. But this I promise, no matter what you want for Christmas, what you will get, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones' song, is what you need. And the Christ of our holy day brings much more than a hippopotamus with Him. So, are you sure that's all you really want?
It's a glorious, satisfying, and rare thing when our wants align with our needs. Sanctification is the process of God molding, shaping your desires to fit what you really need. And what you really need is a savior from sin. Without a savior the sinfulness at work in your body since conception will corrupt your body to eternal death, and your sins against God and man will pile up and weigh you down eventually to hell itself. Giving you a hula hoop, hippo, or dental work won't change that. A better family life, work life, or society won't either. Neither would ending cancer, war, or nuclear proliferation do anything to address your need for a savior from sin.
Look where God first announces one is coming. Look where God announces an alternate reality where neither sin, death, or devil reign. In the wilderness, in the very stronghold of demons, devils, and every filthy thing imaginable. You send a hippo out here and it will be like the goat in "Jurassic Park". In an instant, the hippo will be swallowed. Roll the hula hoop into this fortress of evil and it will be like the ball rolled into the creepy hole in a horror movie. It disappears for good.
No, John came not to church, not to the temple, not to a city but to the desert region heralding the Gospel. The Gospel doesn't just mean good news, but good news of a victory. There has been a war and John's side has won. The word gospel' is rare in classical Greek, but when it was used it carried with it not only the emphasis on the good news, but also the idea of an amnesty happening because a new king has taken the throne (Mann, Mark, 194).
Let's reset the scene. You're in a deserted, harsh, haunted environment. It's the Forbidden Forest of Harry Potter. It's the Haunted Forest of The Wizard of Oz. It's Great Birnam Wood in Macbeth. Your surroundings are terrible enough but your own sins, your own guilt, your own fears make it all the worse. And then John comes saying a Savior is on the way. And he uses the imagery of a king on his way to a city. When a king came to a city, the road was fixed up and decorated to welcome him. And all of this according to the Old Testament will take place in a wilderness. In the place every fantasy tale ever written tells you is dark, foreboding, and impossible to pass through, John says the Savior who is also the new King will come.
John is an impressive figure. He dresses and acts like Elijah in the Old Testament. Nobody messed with Elijah. He killed hundreds of false prophets. Two 50-man companies came to take him to the king and he smoked them with fire from heaven. John lived in the haunt of wild animals and wilder demons, but you just think you've meant the Big Dog on the block when you meet him. It's like in video games. You come up against an opponent who must be the last, greatest one you have to beat to win the game. And what happens? When he is defeated something bigger and badder comes. For you Baby Boomers, it's Slim taking the place of Jim.
John is great; Jesus is greater; John is strong; Jesus is stronger. Like Samson pulls up the gates of the City of Gaza, puts them on his back and carries them away. so Jesus picks up the Laws that say do this, this and that too perfectly or you're going to hell, and puts them on His back making them His responsibility. As the heavy gates of a city couldn't be picked up by any ordinary man without crushing him, so all the do's, the must's, the have to's, and the ought's will crush you, John too. But not Jesus. He picks up the heavy bone crushing, guilt producing, fear causing laws, and says I'll take those. And He carries them all the way to the cross.
Remember the death of Samson? Humiliated, suffering, and made sport of at a party of God's enemies, he pushes the pillars holding the roof up and the pagan temple crushed them all. The Holy Spirit says, "So the dead that he killed at his death were more than he had killed in his life." With King Jesus it's the opposite. With His death He saves more than in His life. He too dies humiliated and made sport of by God's enemies. And He too dies suffering but more than Samson, much more than any of you have to fear you will. He dies under the wrath of God, the judgment of God, the rejection of God, because He dies with the world sins biting deep into His back. Although he carried the heavy weight of God's Laws perfectly, He pleads guilty to having broken them all. He admits to being guilty as sin, guilty of the whole world's sins.
Do you really want a hippopotamus for Christmas? A hula hoop? Even world peace, a cancer cure, or a cure for your family life? Would that God would grant you all of that in Jesus' name, but I want, I need, what King Jesus won by carrying the heavy law of God that crushes me just thinking about it. I need, I want what King Jesus won by dying in my place the death I deserve to die.
Here is where most people go off the rails in this text. Far from seeing the miracle, the wonder of your Baptism as giving you what you really need, you see this text dismissing it. At least since Pentecostalism you do. They take that last verse and say, "You've only been baptized by water; you need to be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and then everything will be better." John is not dissing water Baptism. Even if you thought he was, a quick reading of John 3 sets you right. There Jesus says of John's Baptism that it brings rebirth by Water and the Spirit. And our text says the very same thing about John's Baptism as Peter in Acts 2 says about that of Christ's: It's "for the forgiveness of sins."
What John is doing in his desert preaching, in the haunt of the Devil himself, is highlighting that the Stronger One, the real Hero, the King is coming after him and is far stronger than him. As easily as John pours out water on them, that's how easily Jesus will pour out the Holy Spirit. John has the work, and I do to, of applying the forgiveness of sins to sinners that is found in the waters of Baptism. But neither he nor I can put the forgiveness in the water. No, someone had to win the right to pour out the Holy Spirit on all sinful flesh.
And that Someone is Jesus. As true God, He had no need of the Holy Spirit. As true Man, He was given Him, and more importantly He kept Him. Never once did He give the Holy Spirit reason to depart, and then dying for all the reasons the Spirit has to leave and stay away from us, Jesus won the right to pour out the Spirit on sinners. Follow the Scriptures: On Easter evening, He breathed on the disciples and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit, whosoever sins you forgive they are forgiven." Then 50 days later on Pentecost, King Jesus on His heavenly throne poured out the Holy Spirit on His Church on earth and the first thing they did was preach Baptism. And the Spirit was in those Words and in that Water.
And what did that Spirit bring? Not hippopotamuses, not hula hoops, not cancer cures, not family togetherness, not worldly peace, but something more radical, more wonderful, more miraculous. A new birth. It's commonly translated "born again" but there is no reason you can't translate "born from above."
You know how Dorothy goes from Kansas to Oz; you know how Harry goes to Hogwarts; you know how Alice falls through the Looking Glass. They all fall into another reality, but there's always good and evil there. You have been born from above into a new reality through the Baptism Jesus empowers with His Holy Spirit. You're not in Kansas anymore; you're in Hogwarts; you're through the Looking Glass, but there is no evil in your new reality. There are no monsters, no sin, no death, no devils in your new birth.
And there are probably no hippopotamuses either, but don't you want something more than that this Christmas? More than earthly healing, worldly peace, or even more than those rich, sentimental feelings attached to Christmases past? Do you really want to go back to hippos, hula hoops, and "the holidays?" John calls us forward to a new reality, a new birth, a new you where neither Sin, Death, nor Devil reign in you or over you but King Jesus does both. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday in Advent (20171210); Mark 1: 1-8