Series: The Spirit of Christ
#2: The Spirit of Christmas Past*
Matthew 11:2-6 (NRSV)
It was a cold and dreary Christmas Eve in London. A crotchety old “humbug” of a man came home from his counting house having worked late into the evening. He made his way through the dark and dank rooms of his house to his upstairs bedroom, and settled down to eat his Christmas dinner, a bowl of gruel. There was no Christmas cheer for Ebenezer Scrooge. While the rest of Christendom celebrated, Scrooge sulked. The coming of Christ meant only a business day wasted, and the loss of profits. This Christmas would be no different from all the others, he would suffer through the holiday again, locking himself away in his cell until all the wasteful frivolity had passed. As he sat there in the gloomy prison of his own making, he resigned himself to his fate.
Of course, I’m describing that wonderful Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Our sermons during this Advent and Christmas take their inspiration from the story that Dickens published way back in 1843, a parable of the transformation that the Advent of Christ can make in us when we allow the Spirit of Christmas to work his magic in our hearts. It reminds us that, no matter how spiritually dead we may be, by the power of God’s grace, we can be born again to a new resurrected life, an abundant life that is ours when Christ comes to live within us.
Last Sunday, we reflected on this hope that a new life is possible as we focused on the visit by the fearful ghost of Jacob Marley. We took heart that the hope he offered to Scrooge, is also offered to us. But key to Scrooge’s transformation would be the visits of three Spirits of Christmas: The Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. And, if we are to experience a Christmas transformation in our lives, we too will be confronted by the visits of three Spirits. During these remaining Sundays of Advent, we will reflect on our own Spirits of Christmas: Past, Present, and Future – Christ came in the past, Christ still comes to us in the present, and Christ will come again in the future. Until we are able to affirm those three truths, our lives cannot experience transformation. But when we have accepted the message of these three “spirits,” we can receive the joy and abundant life Jesus offers us. Our “humbugs” will be transformed into “hallelujahs!”
So, this morning let us consider “The Spirit of Christmas Past.”
I’m sure everyone here in worship today can accept the historical fact that Christ has come in the past. We all are familiar with the biblical story of how Jesus was born some 2000 years ago. Even secular people don’t question the reality that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that he preached throughout Israel, and finally died at the hands of the Romans. The fact is that lots of people who are not active Christians would even go so far as accept the claim that the baby born to Mary was actually the Son of God, the Messiah that for centuries the Jews had been waiting for. They might even go so far as to say that Jesus rose from the dead. Yet for some reason, in spite of all those claims, they still fail to live the faith they profess.
But, as professing Christians, we believe. Don’t we? We say we do, we profess it with our creeds, we sing it in our hymns and carols, we call ourselves Christians. Over and over during these weeks of Advent and Christmas, we will declare our faith that Jesus is indeed the Messiah God has sent into the world to save us from our sins and offer us eternal life, that he is our Emmanuel, the very presence of God with us. As good Christians, our faith in Jesus is unshakable. Isn’t it?
Or is it? If there is anything A Christmas Carol teaches us, it is that we ought not to be too smug about our claims to unwavering faith. We can claim to have faith, but when something happens in lives that calls our faith into question, we can become cynical and even reject our faith.
I suspect that was what had happened to Ebenezer Scrooge. No doubt, he had been exposed to Christianity in his early years, and may have even at one time considered himself a “Christian.” But somewhere along the way, things happened that soured his faith, episodes in his life that the Spirit of Christmas Past wanted to reveal to him. Scrooge had become a jaded Christian. And that’s why he chose to spend “the most joyous night of the year” alone at home, brooding, sitting in the dark.
If we are honest, you and I have to admit that there is a dark side to our Christmas faith, as well. We may have faith in public, or when life is going well, in good times it’s easy to accept the claim that Jesus is the Christ and be joyful. But then, something happens that causes us to doubt our own faith. When trials and tribulations come into our lives, we begin to question whether Jesus is who he claims to be, or if he actually is a fraud playing a cruel joke on us, an imposter of a Messiah, not able to deliver on his promises. The Season proclaims hope, peace, love, and joy, but we don’t feel it. Instead, we feel imprisoned by circumstances, anxious and fearful. There is no Christmas cheer for us.
Now, don’t be so smug, you know there are times in our lives when the claims of the Christmas story are a little hard for us to swallow. In the secret places of your heart, maybe you’re feeling that way today. We’re told to be cheerful, we WANT to be cheerful. But we’re not. Perhaps you can identify with Scrooge’s dark and somber disposition. Perhaps, for you, Christmas is just one big “humbug.”
Of course, if we were feeling that way, none of us would have the nerve to admit it, at least not at church. We’d hide it from the preacher; we’d hide it from our friends and family. We’d even try to hide it from God. To admit our doubts would be tantamount to blasphemy.
But there was one person of outstanding faith who had the audacity to question whether Jesus was who he claimed to be, a person whose faith seemed to be unshakable.
As you must have already guessed from this morning’s scripture, I’m speaking of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was the one God sent to announce to the world that God had finally come through, that he had sent the world a Savior, the long-awaited Messiah. And John was faithful in carrying out his mission.
You’ll recall that it was John the Baptist who baptized Jesus and witnessed the heavens opening, and heard the voice of God announce, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It was John who directed his disciples that they ought to begin to follow Jesus instead of him, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Yes, John seemed to have an unshakable faith in Jesus as the Christ.
Until he landed in Herod’s prison, that is. As he sat in Herod’s dungeon, doubts began to creep into to John’s mind. He began to question whether or not he had been right about Jesus. Could it be that he was about to sacrifice his life based on a case of mistaken identity? Not John’s identity, but Jesus’!
You see, since that day he baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, John had devoted his ministry to announcing to the world that God had finally sent the Messiah. Do you remember the boldness of his declaration? He proclaimed: “Even now the axe is being laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire… His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” That’s who John expected the Messiah to be, one who would come on like gang-busters, using his divine authority to mete out judgment against the kingdoms of this world, and usher in the reign of God.
Yes, John was sure of his words. Therefore, he was willing to risk everything, even putting his very life on the line, betting that Jesus was the one who would fulfill that prophecy.
But the problem was that Jesus wasn’t acting much like a Messiah. Like most Jews, John may have longed for a nationalistic Messiah, a savior of the oppressed Jewish people. This Messiah would call the people back to faithfulness to God, and then rally them to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. He would usher in a new era of greatness for God’s people. But Jesus wasn’t fulfilling his expectations.
Rev. Patricia Gillespie was an Episcopal priest in Minnesota, who passed away in 2014. In her wonderful sermon entitled “Are You the One?” (that inspired much of my message today), she describes how John might have been feeling:
“I kind of think John saw himself as a blocker in a football game — a blocker for the running back — the Messiah. John was clearing the way through the defense, the obstacles, opening up a path for the Messiah to score a victory over the enemy. John had made some beautiful blocks… preaching his heart out, baptizing until he was waterlogged, even sacrificing his BODY blocking for the Messiah.”
“But John looks back and the Messiah doesn’t even seem to be running. Indeed, Jesus appears to have stopped and is helping some injured players, who are not even on his team! That’s not what the Messiah should be doing! Should he? Today’s gospel lesson finds John behind bars. He might be thinking, God, where did I go wrong? I did what I thought you wanted. I said what I thought you wanted me to say. You told me that the Messiah was coming. But where is he?”
“’Where’s the fire, the axe, the judgment he’s supposed to bring? And why, if he’s here, would he let me stay in this place? I thought I knew my cousin pretty well. I remember that day in the Jordan when I baptized him, what a glorious day. God, your whole plan was being put into play. But where is he now? Why isn’t he doing what I said he would do? Is he really the one or should I look for another?’”
As he sat in chains John began to ask, “What if I had been wrong?” He was about to lose his head (literally), and he wanted to make certain that his martyrdom would be worth the price. He had to find out.
So, from his prison cell, he sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask a question that must have cut Jesus to the quick; “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Ouch!
I think we can all identify with the question John puts to Jesus. It’s one each of us have asked from time to time. That’s because we all have invested a lot in our faith that Jesus is the Christ. We have made sacrifices to remain true to our convictions. We sometimes have risked a great deal for Jesus. But life has turned hard, and we begin to doubt. And so, like John, as we sit in our own prisons of circumstance, we may feel like asking Jesus, “Are you really the One, or should I look for someone else to save me?”
*This holiday season finds many people feeling like John might have: imprisoned, wondering to themselves, “Are you the One, Jesus? Can you speak to me in my prison? Behind my bars of pain? Are you the One? Or should we look for another?”
Many people find themselves in a prison called loneliness this time of year: Military personnel serving far from home, retirees far from families up north, families broken by divorce or separation, shut-ins, even those with family and friends, but who strangely feel very much alone. Lonely people often think nobody cares about what they need or think. Well-meaning people ask, “How are you doing?” But don’t really want to take the time to listen to the answer. It seems that no one cares. In loneliness it’s easy to wonder if even God cares.
Are you the One, Jesus? Can you help us cut through these prison bars of loneliness? Or should we look for another?
Others find themselves imprisoned in a fortress of fear at Christmas: fear about the future, fear for their families, fear for their own health and well-being. John the Baptist must have felt fear as he waited day after day for word of his own fate. Or imagine the fear for the family whose main wage earner has just lost his or her job! What’s this going to do to the family? What about the future? It could be a lean Christmas for a family in that situation.
Are you the One, Jesus? Can you help us face and overcome our fears? Or should we look for another?
Christmas finds many people locked in prisons of grief; the loss of a parent, a grandparent, a child, sibling, or friend; a husband or wife who’s died during the year and won’t be here for the holiday. Can the light of Christmas penetrate such deep darkness? How can Christmas ever be the same?
Are you the One, Jesus? Can you bring light into this darkest of prison cells? Or should we look for another?
John the Baptist sent some of his followers to Jesus, to ask this same question: Are you the one? And, basically, Jesus said, “Look around you at the evidence, and decide for yourselves. What does the evidence show?”
Have the blind received sight? Remember the blind man Jesus met on the road? Making a paste from the dust in the road, Jesus touched his eyes and his vision returned. Ask that man, “Is he the One?” And ask the millions of others who have been blind to the truth about themselves and about God, but who’ve found that Jesus opened their eyes. Ask them, “Is he the One?”
Have the lame walked? Go and ask the man whose friends lowered him through the roof on a mat before Jesus because the man was paralyzed. Ask him, if you can catch up with him, “Is he the One?” And ask the thousands whose feet never seemed strong enough to stay on the right paths, but in Jesus have found the strength to turn around and walk with God. Ask them, “Is he the One?”
Have the prisoners been released? Ask that dying thief beside Jesus on the cross, who that very day knew paradise. Ask him, “Is he the One?” And ask the countless numbers who have found Jesus to be the liberator from the prison of drugs, greed, loneliness, and fear. Ask them, “Is he the One?”
But what of that greatest fear, that great prison? What of death? Matthew, who wrote the gospel our text comes from, would encourage us to ask the father whose daughter had died, who heard those simple words, “Little one, arise.” Ask that father, “Is he the One?” And ask all those who have received in Jesus a resurrection from the dead, an abundant life, a new beginning. Ask them how much difference it makes facing death when the One who rose from the dead promises eternal life to all who believe in him. Ask them, “Is he the One?”
Are you the One, Jesus? Can you speak to us behind our thick prison walls this Christmas? Can you give strength to our feet? Sight to our eyes? Hope to our hearts? Wholeness to our brokenness? Life to our death? Are you the One, Jesus?
Jesus assured John by telling him to consider the evidence. John was right that Jesus is the Messiah – he was just mistaken about the kind of Messiah Jesus came to be. All that talk of “axes laid to the root of the trees, and burning the chaff in unquenchable fire” is a little premature. That will occur in the future, at Christ’s Second Coming. But for now, the Messiah has come to liberate all those who are in prisons of despair, to shine light on those who sit in dark dungeons of doubt, to give hope to all those who have given up all hope.
So, take heart Ebenezer Scrooge. Because Christ has come, there is hope, even for you.
*Note: Large portions of the material and ideas for this message (especially from the * on) come from an excellent sermon by Rev. Patricia Gillespie who was rector of the East Range Episcopal Churches of the Diocese of Minnesota. Http://www.speravi.com/church/river.htm Rev. Gillespie died in 2014. This (my) sermon was preached first in 2009 while Rev. Gillespie was living and I communicated with her asking for her permission to draw from and quote her sermon. She graciously gave permission. I offer this sermon in gratitude and tribute to her life and ministry.