Archive for December, 2014

new year new me

Some thoughts from John 1 and Isaiah 59.

Have you made any new year’s resolutions yet? A few years ago, I decided to be a little ambitious and made 21. Including to eat more vegetables and to read lots of books so I could sound clever, and finally, to be less ambitious. A few stuck – one was to take a picture everyday which I kept up until at least June. But mostly they all fell by the wayside, because actually, 1st January is just another date in the diary, there is nothing special and nothing magical about it. And as Christians filled with the Holy Spirit, we already have all we need.

Look – the one who takes away the sin of the world

Firstly, John is baptising great crowds on the banks of the river Jordan. He’s a bit of a maverick figure, and the religious leaders have already sent envoys out to find out what he is doing and why. He spots Jesus he very next day and says – “Look, this is it – this is the man I meant!”. He points to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

This is quite interesting, because at this point Jesus hasn’t done any ministry and no one has really heard any of his teaching. And it’s still early days so there is no hint of the coming crucifixion which will take place at the same time as the Passover slaughtering of lambs. John is being prophetic about Jesus and stating an important truth – Jesus is the Lamb of God.

But what does this even mean? The Passover lambs were the ones who died and their blood was spread on the lintels of the houses, so that the Angel of Death passed over and the Israelite slaves did not have their first born sons killed. The lambs quite literally died so that the people didn’t have to. It is also playing with the imagery of God as shepherd and the people of Israel as sheep – but they were the sheep who wandered away.  And throughout the Old Testament, the sacrificial system worked around people bringing animals to sacrifice as they came to worship – mostly lambs unless you couldn’t afford it. The lambs had to be perfect and spotless, and they symbolised taking away the sins of the people. Jesus has come as the perfect lamb, the one who is at the same time God and human, and he alone can take away the sins of the whole world.

Everyone knew that something else was going to happen – that the Old Testament sacrifice system was only a symbol of cleansing because, quite simply, a lamb was never going to be completely perfect. So John points to Jesus as the real life person, not the symbol. Through Jesus we can all know forgiveness and be made new.

It’s through the power of the Holy Spirit that John can see who Jesus is. In fact, he says that the whole reason that John came to baptise people was so that Jesus can be revealed to the world. He came to help people looking for forgiveness, he came to point to the real deal, to the one who can make all things new. It would have been so easy for John to have pointed to his own powerful ministry that was bringing about huge change – so much so that it even had those religious leaders worried about what was happening!

When we share our faith with others, or even just as we talk to others, how eager are we to point to what God is doing in our lives? How much do we prefer to talk about ourselves and to make things all about us?

When we do that, we are, quite simply, just missing the point. We owe everything to Jesus – and he deserves all our praise and worship. It’s not about us! My first resolution for next year is to not have everything all about me – to make my life point to the one who came before me, and who has so greatly surpassed me!

Water vs Spirit

There’s quite a big difference between John and Jesus – John is all about water, about cleansing, about repentance. In fact, Christians today baptise with water – it’s a powerful symbol of us rising from death to life, dying to our old selves and becoming new creations. But that’s where it ends – it’s a symbol. Jesus here is described as baptised in the Spirit – the Spirit has come down from heaven in the form of a dove and remained on him. It’s interesting that a dove is one of the animals which could be sacrificed if you couldn’t afford a lamb, and so represents purity, lowliness and humility. John’s baptism was something any of us can do – but Jesus’ baptism was different and special.

Being baptised in the Holy spirit is something some Christians debate the exact meaning of today – for some there is a definite tangible moment when the gifts of the spirit are poured out, but this doesn’t seem to be what this passage is talking about at all. In fact, this passage links the Spirit to Jesus in a way that suggests once you know Jesus you also can be baptised in the Holy Spirit. And that the Holy Spirit is God with us.

Ultimately, water baptism, the one I imagine we’ve all had, is a symbol. It might be a special day, it might be a special moment, but it is just a marker that we have decided to turn to Jesus. But an encounter with the Holy Spirit is something which will change our lives forever. It doesn’t have to be weird and wacky, but it will be what softens us and makes all things possible in and through us. Knowing God’s Holy Spirit at work in our lives is the difference between trying to keep our new year’s resolutions by ourselves, and having the creator of the universe working inside of us to make all things new and make us into a better person. It may or may not involve eating more vegetables, but it will help us to be the people we are called to be – the way that God created us to be. The Holy Spirit allows us to fulfil our potential as people.

So my second New year’s resolution is to allow God to work inside of me. Again, to not be hugely ambitious, but to allow the Holy Spirit to work, to make me into the person God has made me to be 

Always and forever

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment of making resolutions and then land back to earth again with a bump. It’s equally easy to forget God’s goodness in our lives that goes on and on and on – and then we end up faltering at the first hurdle. John tells us that the Spirit came down to Jesus and remained upon him. And Isaiah mentioned in the first reading we had that “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever”. The Spirit has come – and he’s not going anywhere. We’re not abandoned or alone. And there is nothing we can do to stop the fact that the Spirit is poured out into the world.

It might be that not everyone is living by the power of the Holy Spirit – especially those who do not recognise Jesus for who he really is as the Lamb of God and why that might be so significant for them. But it is like a floodgate that has been opened that keeps on flowing through. There’s no going back. We’re in this for good, for the long haul. Sometimes it might even feel like the days of the Spirit working in power in our lives and even in our church are long behind us. But this promise holds firm – the glory days are still here and still ahead of us – because God’s spirit is remaining with us – he will not depart from our mouths forever.

My third resolution is going to be to try to remember this. Even when it feels like I’m on my own in the world battling against sin, the world and the devil, I’m going to try to remember that that isn’t true. That I have the God of the universe fighting alongside me. That those who are with us are so much greater that those who are against. And that the Spirit is here for good. Always and forever.

So those are the resolutions I’m planning to live by in the next year. Feel free to ask in July how I’m doing! I may decide eating more vegetables is a good idea, but somehow, I’m not sure that will change anything in my life. Firstly, everything isn’t about me – I want my life to point to Jesus, secondly to allow God to work inside of me with the Holy Spirit, making me the person he designed all along, and thirdly, not to get despondent but to remember that this is a promise forever. That God’s spirit is here, and is here forever. And I want to invite you to join me in this.

Christmas is all about family. About celebrating together, about eating as much as will fit inside, about drinking a lot and about having fun together. Silly games are optional. You hear the stories of the harassed mother who has to cook for thirty on Christmas Day and then another twenty on Boxing Day, but the dishwasher is on the blink. You hear people complaining that they are just so busy as they travel around from pillar to post. But quite frankly, sometimes I just get a little jealous.

I love cooking and entertaining and having fun with friends, but Christmas is a family time. And so often it feels just like I don’t fit. Sometimes, even the events scream out “you need to have children” or those who have come by themselves have to move from the best seats with a view so that others who have come together can sit together. It’s fine. It’s a season for everyone, and yet, there is a lie right at the bottom of it. That lie says we are measured by who we’re with and what we can cook for them. That it isn’t Christmas if it isn’t fun.

Last night I watched a programme about Christmas No. 1 singles, and they started with a comment about Christmastime in post-war Britain. Apparently things were tough, and no one had any money, and it took music from the US to come and cheer things up a bit. That seems so distant now from the excesses we see all around us all the time today – even in times of great poverty and austerity.

Being with friends and family isn’t what makes Christmas. It is still Christmas when we’re lonely and on our own. When the family have fallen out and we’ve been dumped by another half. It’s still Christmas whether we’re rich or poor, young or old, ill or well, whoever and wherever we are.

Because Christmas is about God coming to earth, to live with his people and to be one of us. It’s about God taking a humungous risk in order to save us from the things we’ve done wrong. It’s about celebrating the incarnation of the Messiah, God’s special saving king, not about celebrating who we are and what we have and who we know.

That’s what’s going to keep me going through all the family services and the awkward dinner and the bad tv. That’s what I’m going to be celebrating this year.Ho Ho Ho