Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Ghost of 1st Christmas Future: Then to Now

The Ghost of 1st Christmas Future: Then to Now
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 14,  2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Isaiah 2: 1-4
Hebrews 12: 1-12

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children—
“My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
or lose heart when you are punished by him;
6     for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves,
and chastises every child whom he accepts.”
7 Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? 8 If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. 9 Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. 11 Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. [1]

So we've now been visited by the first two spirits. The Ghost of Christmas Past whisked us through the Before Christ world, showing us a world of darkness, controlled by might and power, all fueled by fear. And then we looked at the Time of Christ, the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana, Herod, the differing Jewish Communities that were in existence when Christ was born. And now we look to the future at the first Christmas, the time that was from then until now. Before Christ the world was mired in fear and control. The powerful controlled the truth, proclaimed whatever they wanted as truth, and used that truth to control the people of the world. And even though there were major breakthroughs leading up until the Roman Empire, the Axial Age, to name one of them, Greek Democracy, Roman Republic, but only a few years before the birth of Christ, that flickering light of freedom was replaced as it had always been by Empire. . . law was replaced by the dictates of one man, this Augustus - The August one - The Great, Power, Control, Fear, Force. Augustus did more than just make himself the Emperor, he proclaimed himself a god, and since he said it, it was. That was all it took to become a god, just say that you are, and you can if you have legions and centurions at your command. That is all it takes in our world to proclaim truth. And such is what the ghost of Christmas Past and Present have shown us, always in juxtaposition with the truth of Christmas.
At this point in the Dickens' story, Scrooge is beginning to show some remorse. He is saddened by the past, the choices he has made, the times that he chose money over relationships, the times that he chose money over happiness. He saw the joy of others and he gave it all away. Then in the present he sees the Cratchit family,  poor, destitute, young sickly Tiny Tim, so sweet, yet riddled by the disease that could cost him his life. They have nothing, but the love they have for each other, the fact that they are facing their trials, and are not broken apart and divided by them, but are joyously celebrating through them, this begins to melt Scrooge's cold heart. But now when the third spirit beckons, Scrooge is overcome with, not regret, or pity, but overwhelming fear because not only do his actions have real cost to those around him, and have led him to this miserly miserable point, but they go forward into the future, and if he were to remain unchanged, his life would continue on a very sad, lonely, and tragic trajectory, toward his death, abandoned and alone, perhaps even to wear the heavy chains of Marley's ghost, or worse, the flames at the bottom of the grave.
So we, as the world, like Scrooge, have been shown in the last few weeks the missteps of the world, that have brought us to this point at the time of the Original Christmas. And in the manger we see the baby savior of the world. We see hope coming into the world. We see a child who is the fulfillment of a promise, and we ask, is it enough to change us, enough for us to seek another way? If we were to look at the future from the Birth of Christ, from the perspective of the first Christmas forward, we would see the world that has created our own. We would see the history of the world from Christ to now. What I want us to do today, is again pretend we are like Scrooge. We are not looking back at the past, but are living in the time of Christ's birth, the first Christmas. . . and we are looking forward. We have seen the past, we have seen the baby in the manger and now we look to what the future looks like to us, if we weren't changed by this first Christmas.
One question that should come to our minds before we begin is, would the vision of the world looking forward from Christmas forward look any different from the world that is? In other words, would Christmas change anything? Has Christmas changed anything? Let's think for a moment that Christmas did change something. There certainly would be no thing called the Church, no Saints, no great poetry and music of the Christian Tradition, we could ask ourselves, would there have been a United States of America? Would there have been a Declaration of Independence? A Constitution? Would there be any such notion of things like Equal Rights? or Rights at all? Would there be any notion of freedom? Charity? Christmas traditions, like giving gifts? Would there be a dream of peace on Earth without Christmas? Would there be Joy? Because we do experience Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love. We do. Christmas has made a difference in our lives. It just has, but the question is how much? and how lasting?
Because there are certainly aspects of the world that did not change. So the Ghost of Christmas future comes to the world and shows it a picture of the Baby Jesus, grown now, betrayed, tried, beaten, flogged, and now hanging on a cross to die, while the Roman governor washes his hands of the deed, the people demanded it, it seemed they were afraid of what it all could mean. It seemed they were afraid of upsetting the Romans, upsetting the status quo, giving people false hope. It seemed that Jesus had messed with the wrong power brokers. But then the ghost whisks us forward, and we see a Roman Emperor becoming baptized as a Christian. We see the mixing of the movement with the Empire. We see power and might makes right, wielding the cross. We can't help but wonder if these powerful men are really converting to a Jesus centered faith existence, or are simply converting in name only, that Jesus has supplanted Zeus, supplanted Jove, and is now just the most powerful god, small "g". Zeus had always worried about being overthrown, now it has happened. The ghost whisks us forward and we see a Germanic chieftain, a Frank named Clovis, and he is being baptized and crowned by the Pope. . . is he a new convert? Is he a new Christ follower, or is he just the latest to wield the cross? The latest, but there are many to follow. Popes, priests, kings, they all use the cross to rule, but we don't see them teaching love, we see them teaching fear, we see the threat of persecution, we see forced conversions and torture, we see the threat of Hell, promises of healing, salvation, positions of prestige within the church, riches, health and happiness, all not at the cost of faith, but based on the cost of the coin. Give to us and control your future. We see soldiers, knights, men at arms, armed with swords, but not the sword of truth and the armor of God, but armor of iron, with the symbol of the cross, off to fight the infidels. We see superstition and fear, the remnants of the old BC pagan religions, ritual and magic, wielded by regular people trying to gain some control on their own in a world that is so out of control. We even see reformers, making great strides in the push towards creating a more authentic Jesus following movement, but they include destroying art and musical instruments, and more wielding of power, division, and more warfare. We see the Christian world spread to every corner of the globe through exploration and mission, but always with the Bible comes the sword, the gun, the bomb, always with the teaching comes the impelling, the force, the fear. We see Christianity make slaves of people, excuse slavery, wielding the Bible again to serve whatever purpose was the most powerful. We see nations going to war with each other. We see men rising up as strong leaders threatening to take over the world. We see Wars not fought just between two countries but between all people, the entire world at war, not once but twice, we see a weapon of mass destruction, a holocaust of people, genocide, Communism, fear, control, Debt, Division, Power, Decline, Fear, fear and more fear, and the constant offer of strong and smart men to take it all over for us and give us real answers and real tangible salvation, only one election away. . .
. . . and if we are honest with ourselves we ask if any of it has made a difference. . . for if Christmas is a light shining in the darkness, if it is a hope we have, a hope of peace, a source of joy, then it is merely a flicker. . . and we desperately need more. We need more Christmas, and we need more light. If we think of Scrooge, and his overwhelming transformation on Christmas morning, we know that the glimpse of his future was the big thing that changed him, paired with his regret and his pity, it all changed him. . . but has it changed us. . . we see it, partial change, right. We get a little hope. We get a little peace, and a little joy, but it is always tempered with those old enemies, Fear and Control - - The need for security, safety, our way. . . but Christmas is about faith, and faith lets go, faith believes, faith can look outward. Imagine Dickens story with Scrooge only partially changed. He goes from Bah Humbug to giving Cratchit a small raise and the day off, but come a week later, he is back to his old miserly ways? It certainly would lack the power. . . Scrooge instead flies from his room, rights all the wrongs he can, is filled with the spirit of Christmas, and that spirit is Joy! He is filled with Joy because he has seen the future and he was creating, but had his eyes opened to a Christmas reality and a Christmas future, where storing up treasure just has no place, and the misery of being a miser has no place.
Next week we will look at how our world can change. . . for after looking at the past, present, and future of the first Christmas Time, we get to wake up in our world, in our time, on Christmas Morning, like Scrooge, and be filled with the lasting Christmas Joy, the kind that sends you out running in your pajamas to give to your fellow man, to love, to serve, to sacrifice, looking beyond yourself, beyond what you can control, stepping out in faith not fear. That is what real Christmas conversion looks like. . . do we have it?
I chose an interesting passage for the New Testament Lesson today. It is not a normal Advent Passage. We don't usually talk about the "cloud of witnesses" and "running with perseverance the race," at Christmas time, but in my Bible this section was subtitled, "The Example of Jesus" , Jesus, who is the "pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of "Joy" endured the cross." There it is "Joy." Joy, Joy, Joy, praise be to God in Heaven on High. It was for our Joy that Jesus endured the cross, and so we face trials, we will since forever human beings have faced trials, it is a part of what being human is all about, what being a follower of God is all about.
“My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
or lose heart when you are punished by him;
6     for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves,
and chastises every child whom he accepts.”

One thing that the message of the Ghosts of 1st Christmas Past, Present, and Future all showed us, was/is people trying to avoid trials. . . it is our fear of the trials of life that make us seek to control them. But these words from Hebrews and so many other Biblical stories show us that the trials are where we become strong. . . that the trials are not to be avoided, but endured. . . and that we will not be forsaken through them. It is not that we avoid trials through our faith, but that we make it through, avoidance is where we go astray.
Today we lit the candle of Joy, the special candle, the pink one. Today we have wonderful music from the bell choir. We have great and exciting things going on this month all around us about Christmas. It is a time of great Joy. It is often easy to be joyous on days like today, but real Joy is tested by the fire of trials, tested by faith through fear, and tested by the cross we are called to carry. Can we find Joy in those trials? Can we be made strong in our faith by them? Can we persevere and run the race, all the while, keeping our Christmas Joy, empowering our hearts with Joy. The Hebrews passage ends with this line:
"Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed."

Christmas is supposed to change us, supposed to raise us up, suppose to heal our weakness, our lameness, our crookedness. It is supposed to free us from Fear and Control, filling us instead with Joy, real, lasting, all encompassing, light all up in the midst of real darkness, kind Joy. Christmas Joy, let heaven and nature sing it.  So may it be. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Heb 12:1-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.