December 14, 2014 Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
Rev. Catherine Purves
On Friday of this week I was reading our Advent Devotional. Let me commend those of you who have contributed your thoughts about the daily Scripture passages. You have come up with some really insightful and helpful comments. And thanks again to Ken Ference and Barb Gusew who spearheaded the project and enabled us to have this useful Advent resource. Anyway, on Friday our contributor suggested that nothing could compare with the sheer joy of the true Christmas spirit, and that prompted me to think about the nature of that spirit.
I think the term Christmas spirit usually implies a certain human response to the season. When we say that someone is filled with the Christmas spirit we generally mean that the person is happy, generous, an eager to shopper, a lover of Christmas carols, an avid decorator (both home and lawn), and that this individual just can’t get enough of Christmas parties, Christmas cookies, Christmas cards, and basically anything related to the celebration of Christmas. That’s one way to think about Christmas spirit.
But my thoughts went off in a different direction entirely, and I began to think about the three ghosts or spirits that appeared to Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. These three spirits are the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. They force Scrooge to look at his life, and they show him what made him who he is, what opportunities he has in the present, and what his future will look like if he doesn’t change. This self-examination is quite terrifying for Scrooge, but the spirits leave him in no doubt that his choices now will have profound effects on his own future, and that his choices have the potential to doom or bless others.
Charles Dickens was not a theologian, so we can excuse him if his description of the scare tactics of his three Christmas spirits is not quite in line with what we believe as Christians. We can appreciate the wise and forceful determination of Dickens’ spirits to bring about repentance. But in the end, Scrooge was left in a state of misery, having been basically tortured into a desire for personal transformation. When his resistance was worn down and panic took hold, the spirits departed. Their work was done. Now it was up to Scrooge to change himself and thereby change history.
This is notthe message of our two Scripture readings for the third Sunday in Advent. Though Advent is a season of warnings – Watch! Be ready! Repent! – we are never left entirely on our own when it comes to the transformation that is called for. Last Sunday we recognized that the change that is required is both personal and societal. Like Scrooge, we saw that our responsibility is perhaps broader than we thought. How we live our faith will mean a different future not only for ourselves but for others, potentially for the whole society. Our readings for this Sunday help us to begin to see how that change or transformation is possible. And that will involve what our devotional writer correctly identified as, “the true Christmas spirit – The Holy Spirit.”
Our reading from Isaiah 61 begins with these familiar words, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…” It was the prophet Isaiah who was announcing that he had been anointed by the Spirit, but we recognize these words because they were also spoken by Jesus when he preached at his home synagogue in Nazareth. After he read that passage from Isaiah, Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus himself came into the world by an act of the Holy Spirit. Remember what the angel said to Mary when she asked how she could be with child. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.” Jesus was also anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism and was again declared to be the Son of God. That Spirit was with him throughout his life, from the day of his conception, to the day of his baptism, to the day when he breathed his last and was placed in the grave. And it is the same for us!
So, this Holy Spirit is not like Scrooge’s ghosts who deal only in threats and warnings. This Spirit is actively involved in the transformation business. God brings out of a past that cannot be changed, a present and a future in which we can be changed and in which the world will be changed. We are not left to our own devices. We are not called upon to generate our own Christmas spirit, like Scrooge. We are blessed and anointed with the actual Holy Spirit who has power to transform our lives, our society, and our world. When we receive that Spirit, we are empowered to be part of that change: the proclaiming, the healing, the liberating, the comforting, and the building. This is what Isaiah and then Jesus envisioned.
But if this is true, if God is on the move, and if the Spirit is active, then why are things still such a mess? The world seems to be full of unrepentant Scrooges. And we see limited evidence of the healing, the liberating, the comforting and the building. If we’re honest, we all have to admit that we have Scrooge-like tendencies ourselves. We might be repentant, but we’re all still sinners. If transformation is happening, it’s happening slowly, and it’s a struggle. As individuals, as a nation, and as a world we resist change.
Advent is a season when we should welcome change and when we should celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit. This is a season when we must remind ourselves of the urgency of our calling to be transformed and to be transformers. When Paul was writing to the Christians in Thessalonica, his urgency over the second Advent of Christ is unmistakable. Earlier in the 5th chapter, he writes, “you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!” We need to recover some of that urgency, just as Scrooge needed his three ghosts to force him to contemplate change.
In the final advice that Paul gives to the Thessalonians he encourages them to rejoice, to pray unceasingly, and to give thanks in all circumstance as they wait for the day of the Lord. But then he adds this important warning, “Do not quench the Spirit.” Why on earth would the Thessalonians do that? Why would we do that? Having been given the gift of the Holy Spirit and the promise that the Spirit will be with us from birth to baptism to the end of our lives, why would we put a damper on the enlivening and empowering presence of that Spirit? And what if we’re doing that without even knowing that we are resisting or quenching the Spirit?
It seems like that was what Scrooge was doing. He took for granted the way he was and the way that society was. Scrooge didn’t question the righteousness of his actions or the justice of his society in which the rich made money and the poor suffered. He didn’t think much about the consequences of his behavior or the rights of others. He certainly didn’t have any idea that he should or could change. Scrooge was clearly quenching the Spirit, even if he didn’t know that he was.
Dickens’ three ghosts fulfilled the role of the prophets by calling Scrooge to account and by making him aware of the urgency of the need for change. If we could add another chapter to Dickens’ story, we as Christians would have to say that Scrooge didn’t change, and frankly couldn’t change, simply by deciding to change. The transformation that Scrooge experienced was the work of the Holy Spirit. Once he stopped quenching the Spirit, resisting the Spirit, and ignoring the Spirit (not the ghosts, but the Spirit), then a remarkable transformation could begin. And the fact that it was a Holy Spirit-fueled transformation meant that it would continue into the future with ever expanding effects on both Scrooge himself and on Scrooge’s world.
But God will not manhandle you into this transformation, and that is why change in our lives and in our world is happening so slowly, and why sometimes it seems as if things are even getting worse. We can welcome the Spirit or we can quench the Spirit. We can long for and pray for transformation, both personal and societal, or we can resist it. The Holy Spirit is here. We need only recognize and receive God’s empowering and transforming presence in our lives. Paul ends his letter with this blessing: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And then he adds this promise, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” May you be blessed and transformed by the true spirit of Christmas this year, the Holy Spirit.