(shared with the people of Friendship Church, December 5, 2004)
Robert Russell, a prominent pastor from Louisville, says that in the 1960s, there was a house in his neighborhood where the owners kept their Christmas lights blazing way past Christmas. This went on for weeks and weeks. Russell says that in about mid-February, he became critical. "If I were too lazy to take my Christmas lights down," he said, "I think I'd at least turn them off at night."
One mid-March day, he passed the house with the Christmas lights and saw a freshly-created sign. It said simply, "Welcome home, Jimmy." Later, Russell found out that Jimmy had been serving in Vietnam. His family, refusing to celebrate Christmas without him, had kept their Christmas lights turned on in anticipation of his return.
This is a season of light. We string lights on and in our houses and on our Christmas trees. They shine and blaze from skyscrapers, storefronts, even barns. (The latter being particularly appropriate since the Savior Whose birth we celebrate was born in a barn.) The tradition of Christmas lights began, I'm told, as a way of remembering the star that guided the wise men to the baby Jesus. In olden times, people used the lights of candles as a way of saying that Jesus, the Savior of the world, was welcome to their homes.
But there's more to this use of light at Christmastime than the twinkling of a far-off star. The Bible says that the God we know through Jesus Christ is a "consuming fire," worthy of our "reverence and awe." The Gospel of John says that Jesus, God enfleshed, is the "Light of the world" and that no amount of darkness can possibly snuff out His power.
In our Bible lesson for today, Jesus' relative, John the Baptist, is in the wilderness outside of Jerusalem. John's mission, as we mentioned a few weeks ago, was to prepare the way for the entry of Jesus into our world. John said that the way to do that is to repent, to turn from sin and let God be in charge of our lives. As a symbol of their repentance, he called the crowds to be washed--or baptized--in the Jordan River.
But then, John makes clear that the baptism with which he baptizes is nothing compared to what Jesus will bring. "I baptize you with water for repentance," he says. "But One Who is more powerful that I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry His sandals." (Carrying sandals was the work of a slave. John is saying that he isn't even worthy of being Jesus' slave.) Then John says this of Jesus:
"He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."Several scholars whose work on this passage I've consulted would say that a better translation might be:
"He will baptize you with the fire of the Holy Spirit!"The Bible teaches that when a person turns from sin and receives Jesus Christ as God and Lord of their life, something happens to them. God's very Spirit enters them. A flame is ignited within them. And like fire in the natural world, this spiritual fire has three major effects on us.
The first is that the fire of God's Spirit purifies us. When I was a boy and would lodge splinters into my hands, I'd go to my dad. Dad inspected things and soon, get a needle from my mom's sewing kit, and pull out his lighter. Dad would turn the tip of the needle over and over again in the flame of the lighter for maybe thirty seconds and after that, wave the needle through the air to cool it off. Then, he used the needle to pick the splinter out of my hand. Of course, the reason that Dad ran the needle through the flame was to kill off any bacteria that might cause infection.
In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for fire is pur, from which we get such English words as purge, pure, and purify, among others. When we open ourselves to letting Jesus Christ be in charge of our lives, He begins to purge us of all the old, destructive habits that previously blocked God's presence from our lives and He creates a place of purity where He can live with us and transform our lives. The fire of God's Spirit purifies us like the flame of Dad's lighter purified the needle.
In the natural world, fire not only purifies, it produces heat. Heat is energy and power. The fire of God's Spirit not only purifies us, it also gives us the power to live, even in the face of challenges and difficulties.
Taylor Caldwell was a novelist who lived from 1900 to 1985. She didn't really begin her career as a writer until the 1930s, after having gone through a painful divorce and a later remarriage. But much of Caldwell's late twenties, lived during the 1920s, were a real struggle for her as she tried to provide for her young daughter and herself.
One Spring day, Caldwell once wrote, she was without a job and going downtown to look for work. As she sat down in a streetcar, it was raining and she wished she had an umbrella. An old one had fallen apart and she couldn't afford a new one. But there, on the seat next to her, was a silk umbrella with a silver handle and inlaid with gold and flecks of enamel. When she looked at it more closely, Caldwell saw that a name was engraved into it. Ordinarily, she might have handed the umbrella to the streetcar operator and been on her way. But as she came to her stop, there was a driving rain. So, she took the umbrella to protect herself and immediately went to a phone book to find where its owner lived.
The umbrella's owner, a woman, was obviously grateful when Caldwell later returned it to her. It had been a gift from her parents, now dead, and had been stolen from her more than a year before. "She took the umbrella, and her eyes filled with tears," writes Caldwell. When offered a reward, Caldwell refused, seeing how happy this woman was.
The months that followed for Caldwell were, she says, "wretched." She could only find temp jobs and in that time, was able to save but eight dollars toward buying a Christmas gift for her little girl, Peggy. She writes: "My last job ended the day before Christmas, my thirty dollar rent was soon due, and I had fifteen dollars to my name--which Peggy and I would need for food...I had already bought a small tree, and we were going to decorate it that night."
Caldwell approached her small apartment with feelings of dread and hopelessness. She was certain that God and the entire human race had completely forgotten her. She even doubted that God was there. What, she wondered, would become of her and her little girl?
On arriving at the apartment, Caldwell fetched her mail. Most of the items, she recognized, were bills that she couldn't pay. There were also two plain white envelopes which, she was sure, contained still more bills. She tossed them aside and tried her best to be upbeat for her daughter.
Later that evening, the doorbell rang. A delivery person had come with several boxes. Caldwell was sure the man had made a mistake. He assured her that he hadn't; the packages were for Peggy and her. When Caldwell and her daughter opened them. they found gifts: a doll for Peggy, gloves, candy, a leather purse. She scrounged around to find the name of the sender. It was the owner of the umbrella.
That's wonderful, Caldwell thought, but soon, her rent was due and she had no hope of paying it.
After Peggy fell asleep, she decided to look at the two envelopes she'd earlier tossed aside. One contained a check for thirty dollars from one of the companies for which she'd temped. It was a Christmas bonus. Rent money!
The other envelope contained a permanent job offer.
Soon, Caldwell heard church bells ringing, announcing the coming of Jesus at Christmas. Carolers sang, "Come, all ye faithful." And Caldwell knew that God was a very present Person and power in her life. "I am not alone," she thought. "I never was alone at all."
And neither are we. The fire of God's Spirit gives us the power to live!
Natural fire also gives light. My grandfather was part of the crew to first put electricity in Ohio Caverns up in Logan County. I knew this the first time I visited the place and so, was particularly interested when our tour guide turned off the lights. The complete lack of light created utter blackness.
For most of human history, the only light people had came from fire. And unless we enter a cave and have the electric lights turned off for awhile, it's difficult for us to imagine how dark the world can really be.
Life without Christ is utterly dark. We may that that we know what we're doing and where we're going when we try to live without Christ in our lives, but we're only fooling ourselves. You see, Jesus Christ is the true Christmas light. Those who allow the fire of His Spirit to invade their lives find their ways illuminated. As they pray and worship, serve and love, they see that the light of heaven are always turned on for them, a beacon of hope and certainty in a world sometimes mired in hopelessness and filled with uncertainty.
This past week, I read the touching story of a boy named Wally, a second-grader who should have been in the fourth. He was a big, clumsy boy, a bit slow-witted. For the Christmas pageant, Wally was assigned the role of the innkeeper. Wally didn't do so well as the cast prepared for the big night. But his was a small part, so it was okay.
During the performance, Wally needed prompting when, as the Bethlehem innkeeper who turned Joseph and Mary away on the night of Jesus' birth, he said, "No! Be gone!"
But as the little Joseph and Mary of the pageant walked away, looking forlorn, Wally changed the whole night. He called out, "Don't go, Joseph. Bring Mary back. You can have my room."
Our whole lives can be changed when, like Wally, we make room for Jesus in our lives. As we prepare for Christmas, let's not forget the most important preparation of all. Let's repent, turn away from sin and self-will and welcome Jesus into the center of our lives. When we do, Jesus sends His fiery Spirit, Who sets to work making us pure, giving us the power to live, and lighting our way through this life and on to the one to come.
[The notion of using this message to talk about the qualities of the fire of God's Spirit was inspired by a sermon by Pastor Derl Keefer, in a sermon which appeared in The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2001. The three qualities I identify are adaptations of three he talks about in this message.
[Robert Russell's true story of the Christmas lights appears in Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion.
[Taylor Caldwell's remebrance, "My Christmas Miracle," appears in Christmas Stories for the Heart, compiled by Alice Gray.
[The true story about Wally, "Trouble at the Inn," appears in the same book compiled by Alice Gray.]