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Jul 19, 2015

The Real Christmas

The Real Christmas

Passage: Luke 3:15-4:2

Speaker: Rev. Bruce Van Blair

Series: Sermons

Category: Love

Keywords: christmas, spiritual awakening, baptism

The Real Christmas

July 19, 2015                                                    Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; 4:1-2


         It grieves me to have to report to you that our world ended in 2000 a.d., and we have all been dead now for fifteen years. That is because the Bible has to be right about everything. So whatever you may be imagining about what is going on here and now, forget it and just believe in the Bible.

         Most of you don’t need to be reminded that this mind-set has plagued the church all through its history. To be sure, through all our history, many Christians have fought for increasing knowledge, greater understanding, and more cooperation between faith and science. The world is not flat. Copernicus and Galileo were not evil, even the Catholic church has publicly confessed that it was in error to condemn them – of course, many years after they were dead and gone and the persecution was no longer relevant.

         The comment about the world ending in 2000 a.d. comes from a close study of the chronology of the Bible. Many worked out the timeline and were in relatively close agreement with each other. Nearly the entire Christian world believed it for generations, though few will admit that now, lest the whole world realize that much of Christendom is as superstitious and narrow-minded now as it was back then. Most famous among the biblical chronologers was Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656). He was the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. He had an outstanding career, was buried in Westminster Abbey, and made huge contributions to the church of his time. James Ussher was a serious and well-respected scholar, and it is not surprising that his conclusions about the dates of creation were taken seriously far and wide and by essentially the entire Christian church – back in 1650. In any case, carefully studying all the dates mentioned in the Bible, Bishop Ussher concluded that the world was created about 6 p.m. on October 22, 4004 b.c. (according to the Julian calendar). Creation was destined to last six thousand years: four thousand before Jesus came and two thousand afterward. The Bible is inerrant; there are no mistakes, errors, or inconsistencies. Therefore you have all been dead for fifteen years.

         Well perhaps, from a certain perspective, that is truer of some of us than we would like to admit. It certainly would solve a lot of problems. In any case, the struggle goes on in the church between faith and fact, between truth and fiction. From my perspective, the emphasis of the mainline church has mostly abandoned the teaching and preaching of Christianity and instead gone off into social and political issues and environmental concerns, assuming that its credence will be established by its good deeds. That may well be true; how would I know?

         What I do know is that I am “called” to help build a church – a call not unique but rare – where people still take the Christian Faith and Way of Life with utmost seriousness, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit – not obedience to a book. We will study the Bible with diligence because that is the record we have of the faith journey of those who came before us. But they made errors and blunders just like we do. Trying to sort them out is part of our faith journey. Some of you have been in and will go on feeling the skirmishes going on at the fringe of our life together here. And on occasion you will hear comments about it from me, like you did just now. It is not because I am trying to convince those who already have their minds made up. It is because I need the rest of you to know that their perspective is not the only perspective. Mostly in the media and in the vast majority of the conversations of our society, we hear only one side – one representation – of the Christian church and its beliefs and attitudes.

         I have been tracking my own religious questions and trying to learn from the best biblical and theological scholarship on the planet for over fifty years now. I have learned at least as much from the conscientious members of the churches I have served as I have from the scholars. Real experience is one of our best teachers. None of this makes me right or saves you from error if you just “take my word for it.” But I know more than most of my detractors. Conservative scholars, however serious and sincere, have the disadvantage of knowing the conclusions they have to reach before they even begin their studies. If you know you will lose your job, your church, and your friends and get thrown into Hell unless you arrive at preconceived conclusions, you end up playing with a marked deck.

         By the way, Jesus was so “brand new” and innovative that it finally broke His followers out of the traditional understandings and beliefs about what God wanted and how to be part of the New Family (Kingdom) of God. Not everybody called it a “New Testament” until over a hundred years later, but that was where it was heading. “A New Covenant, not like the old Covenant I made with your fathers,” said the prophet Jeremiah. Total heresy. The Apostle Paul, following the Risen Christ, opened the church to Gentiles – and not just Gentiles who were converting to Judaism; that would have been standard operating procedure. The church was open to Gentiles on the basis of God’s full acceptance and love for them. That was heretical. Toward the end of his life, because of this Message of God’s love and forgiveness for everybody – with or without all the Jewish trappings – Paul was the most hated man in all Judaism.

         Some of you do not love or admire Martin Luther. I do. He started his protest confident that the Pope and other bishops and archbishops of the Catholic church would agree with his concerns and stop the abuses being perpetrated on the common people in their name. Only, it turned out that they were behind the abuses. At that point, any normal priest/monk would have stayed home and shut up. But Luther had tasted too much of the Gospel; he had read and studied too much of the New Testament, which almost nobody did in his time. Arguably the best-educated man of his time, Luther spent his whole adult life as an outlaw with a price on his head, wanted by both church and state. And wanted not for an interesting discussion, but so that they could burn him – stop his influence.

         I am simply saying that if you want to complain at me (and there will always be plenty of good reasons for doing that), you are going to have to come with more than a plea or a claim that nobody should be telling us anything different from what we have always heard.

         This is not news to most of you, but I need the rest of you to help us build an authentic church here that is more than and different from the usual extension of Christian fears, ignorance, and superstition. So let’s talk about baptism.

         Baptism, in the minds of most church members, is a nice, friendly sacrament. It fits comfortably with family life and the honoring of parenthood and babies. But is it something to get excited about? Christmas, on the other hand, is bigger than Easter or Pentecost in the traditions and celebrations of our culture. So how do I tell you – in a way that claims and keeps your deep conviction – that Christmas is a dud, and that baptism is our real Christmas?

         Never mind, for the moment, the nearly endless biblical evidence that the birth stories in Matthew and Luke were not part of the original text; they were not written by Matthew or Luke but were tacked-on generations later. They are creative, and the symbolism is inspiring. But they also ruin Jesus’ story. They turn Jesus into a divine figure who does not wrestle with real life like we do. In a false paradigm, where the big issue of life is getting saved so we do not get thrown into Hell, everything circles around this core issue. Can Jesus save us or not? And will Jesus save us or not? In this view of life, the more divine Jesus is, the more confident we are in His power to save us. So the only question is: Will He?

         Yet this is a huge aberration of the entire New Testament drama. Jesus comes as one of us, and He is so transformed by the love and presence of God that He can lead us into the same kind of transformation He Himself has gone through. Jesus does not care about some future Hell; He cares about a very present bondage – a bondage in a physical realm that is not very aware of the spiritual realms and possibilities all around us. Yes, Jesus talks about Gehenna, the garbage dump outside Jerusalem. But that is a far cry from Dante’s Inferno. Mostly Jesus keeps asking us: “Do you want to go on being lonely, isolated – spending your life in ways and pursuits that have never worked? Come unto me. Come to the banquet. Accept the invitation of a Great God who loves you like a daddy (Abba). Start caring about each other as if you know that you are each children of the same Father.” And of course, He preaches and tells parables and has encounters with actual people – all of it revealing the real Message: God loves you, wants you, and has plans for you and your Life from here to eternity.

         We cannot nor do we want to duck the fact that this Message was so new, so startling, and so threatening to all former constructs of religious reality that religious leaders engineered Jesus’ death – His murder, actually. Nor do we minimize or turn away from the incredible realization that God backed, vindicated, and empowered Jesus – in case we thought it was all for nothing – by raising Him from the dead. Not resuscitation – resurrection. And so He still lives! What many Christians miss or reduce to a nearly meaningless addendum is that Jesus is still with us as Holy Spirit – going on with His mission and our transformation. Only, never against our will – never without our clear and conscious agreement and cooperation.

         What is the beginning, the entryway, into this incredible drama – this New Life? Is it a physical birth or a spiritual birth? “You must be born anew: born of the Spirit,” Jesus teaches us. Is it a physical birth or a spiritual birth?

         The real Christmas – the real birth of our Christian pilgrimage and Way of Life – cannot be a physical birth. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. It was intended as a baptism of repentance. But in the mysteries of God, it was suddenly transformed into something far beyond anything John the Baptist intended or understood. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” And Jesus encountered His own spiritual awakening – far beyond anything He had ever known before. His identity and purpose transcended into levels of relationship with God and into a calling to His purpose on earth that are both traceable and far beyond our full understanding. The evidence, of course, is that Jesus then went into the wilderness to fathom, digest, and come to terms in some way with what had been revealed to Him: who He really was, and what He was here on earth to accomplish.

         Now we come to a jump – a leap. It is both incredible and factual. It is incredible because in part it is beyond our understanding. It is factual because whatever we may think or say or agree with or argue with, the fact is that the early Christians knew that they were supposed to follow Jesus into this kind of baptism. It was not just for Him. Somehow, by His lead and by His invitation, they were baptized too. God gave them a new awareness of their true identity. God called them to certain tasks and purposes too. God gave them the Holy Spirit also. And in passage after story after passage, it is clear that the entryway into the ecclesia – the church, the family of Christian believers – was receiving the Holy Spirit: BAPTISM. If you received the Holy Spirit, you got baptized. If you got baptized, it meant you had received the Holy Spirit. The whole understanding of the early Christians was that they died to their former lives and were raised to New Life in Christ Jesus. Baptism was the beginning of the journey, and never its end. Baptism was not about water or some wooden notion of how or where or when it could happen. Baptism was about receiving the Holy Spirit. It was about spiritual birth. It was never about physical birth – not Jesus’ physical birth or anybody else’s physical birth. If you want the real Christmas, the real beginning, the real Christian Life, go to baptism – not to Christmas trees or Christmas presents or Santa Claus; not even to lovely carols or candlelight services. Baptism is the real Christmas: spiritual birth – not physical birth.

         Our acts and rituals and celebrations are seldom the source of what we are celebrating. Often they are the commemoration of the experiences that are transforming us. How many of you fell in love on the day of your wedding? Sometimes a wedding ceremony is deep and powerful, and the truth of the love gets even more real than it was before. But most of us fall in love long before the wedding day. The wedding seals and commemorates what has already happened to us.

         Paul encounters the Holy Spirit of Jesus on the Damascus Road, and several days later he is baptized. Cornelius hears Peter talking about the coming of the Messiah, and it goes in one ear and then pervades his whole being. He receives the Holy Spirit, though he is a Roman Centurion and theoretically outside the sphere of influence or interest of the Holy Spirit. And Peter, amazed, says: “Jesus, if you are going to play that way, what choice do we have?” So they baptize Cornelius and his whole household.

         Lots of people say that if you have ever been baptized once, that’s it – you should never be baptized a second or third time. They say this because they are still stuck in the old paradigm. To them, baptism is not about New Life in Christ Jesus; it is a get-out-of-jail-free card or, in this case, a ticket to keep us out of Hell. So if you get baptized a second time, it is an admission that the first time was not good enough to keep you out of Hell. But this misses the whole point. You are on a PATH in a new WAY OF LIFE, and every time you get a breakthrough, a new awareness, a new clarity or awareness of commitment or purpose, the commemoration is appropriate. Do you take communion only once? Do you find any place in Scripture where a second baptism is forbidden? The reality is that the entire early church knew that there were at least two baptisms: One, a baptism of repentance, like with John the Baptist. And two, a baptism that went much further: a drowning; a turning away from former ways and purposes – a receiving of the Holy Spirit, which was now the Risen Jesus personally directing and guiding and empowering life on a different plane of awareness and purpose.

         In the third chapter of Galatians, Paul is talking to the Galatians – that is, to all the members of the churches he had founded on his first missionary journey. And he says, “Answer me one question: did you receive the Spirit by keeping the law or by believing the gospel message?... You started with the spiritual; do you now look to the material [physical] to make you perfect?” He is talking about going back to the Law – to circumcision and kosher rules and worshipping on the Sabbath – instead of trusting the love of God in Christ Jesus. We started out with a spiritual birth: a baptism wherein we were born anew – born of the Spirit. Why have we gone back to a physical birth as somehow the really significant thing about our relationship with God?

         We have much to ponder and consider – to study and pray about together – if we are going to be a church, an ecclesia: a family of Christians who are carrying the story and the invitation of Jesus into the realities of our own time and to the people we know in our own day and time. If we do so, we will be different from most of the churches around us. We will see it and understand it and tell it differently. And some will be upset because we are not telling it or doing it the way they are familiar with. But there are lots of churches all over the place that can help them to stay with all the blunders and errors of the past. And Jesus, ever merciful, will still break through to help them in many ways to be loyal, sincere, and committed Christians.

         But here in this church, we are not stuck with a dead script or a Holy Spirit that always guides us to go back to where we have already been. Here we will not go back to the fear or ignorance or superstitions of a former age. Here we have plenty of our own fresh fears and ignorance and superstitions to deal with. So come – join the party if you want to. And if you have spiritual awakenings or new commitments to commemorate, come meet here at five o’clock this afternoon and we will go to the real Christmas together.