The Christmas Spirit
When Thanksgiving is late Christmas seems to pounce on us. We hardly have time to get in the Christmas spirit. And who doesn't want the Christmas spirit? O the Grinch isn't in the spirit of Christmas, but look at how miserable he is; a dark, sour expression constantly on his face. Charlie Brown wants the spirit of Christmas, but he can't find it amid Christmas' commercialization. Of course Scrooge doesn't want the Christmas spirit. To him it's all humbug, but it's plain he's hurting without it. Without exception, all of us have been raised to want the Christmas spirit. Without exception, we've been taught that it is being a Grinch or Scrooge not to have the Christmas spirit. But can any of you tell me what the Christmas spirit is?
The Christmas spirit is family. "I'll be Home for Christmas," one song tells us. The Christmas spirit is home for the holidays. It's Norman Rockwell paintings. It's going back to the Christmas traditions of your family. That's the Christmas spirit to some.
To others the Christmas spirit is being in a good mood. "It's the most wonderful time of the year," sings another song. The spirit of Christmas is lightheartedness, good thoughts towards others, warm feelings about life. That's the Christmas Spirit to some.
To others the Christmas spirit, the true one, that makes all the other spirits of Christmas just "wanna bes," is giving. This spirit is probably the most powerful because it is reinforced by Christianity. St. Nicholas was a real bishop of the Church in the 4th century who went about giving money to poor people. Christianity has several stories about a poor child not having anything to give the Christ-Child. The Mexican boy's tears cause red flowers to sprout and so he gives Christ what we call a Pointsetta. The little drummer boy has nothing to give but a drum solo. Yes, the must have spirit of Christmas is giving. To make sure you don't miss this spirit, there is Blue Santa, Brown Santa, and dozens of just plain ordinary red ones whom you can help to give by giving to them.
Ah, I've touched a nerve, haven't I? I've insulted what you believe to be the very essence of the spirit of Christmas, giving. I could have done the same to those of you who believe the true spirit of Christmas is family by pointing out there are loads of people who have no family to get together with and loads more who can't stand the family they do get together with at Christmas. To those who believe happiness is the true spirit, I could've pointed out that suicides and depression go up this time of year.
Be this as it may, we still we have several candidates for the Christmas spirit: family, happiness, and giving. How do you get these spirits of Christmas? Christmas music is absolutely essential. You can't have any of these spirits of Christmas without the music of Christmas. Carols and hymns that have been sung for centuries are played all day in the mall, all night on your radio, and even your most cutting edge band is going to record some of these much dated songs. (By the way, this fact kind blows the contemporary worship crowd out of the water. If top forty music is so essential to bringing people into church, why not sing "Hark the Harold Angels Sing" or "Silent Night" to something contemporary?) I digress. The point is that none of the spirits of Christmas are thought to show up without Christmas music.
Another essential to having the spirits of Christmas is shopping. You might think this only goes with giving but it goes with family and happiness too. You can't happily go home for the holidays without bringing gifts, can you? So, shopping is essential for the spirits of Christmas to show up. Whether you go to a mall, Wal-Mart or online, no shopping no Christmas spirit. To show you how essential this is, consider how many people willingly put themselves in debt just for the sake of the spirit of Christmas?
The popular Christmas spirits are roused not only by Christmas music, and shopping but by parties. It's sinning against the spirits of Christmas not to go to Christmas parties. You will certainly be called a Grinch or a Scrooge if you don't. The spirits of Christmas are to be pursued among food, drink and friends. They are caught by having these in just the right mixture.
So, now I'm against Christmas music, shopping, and parties! Not at all. I'm merely pointing out that the spirits of Christmas we've been raised to believe in all have to be pursued at parities, paid for in stores, or drummed up by music. It's a heavy burden to obtain these spirits, and it's all but impossible when tragedy strikes your family during the Christmas season; when your happiness is shadowed by a chronic or painful disease; when you don't have much to spend on giving. The spirits of Christmas we've been taught to regard as holy and special are all products of our doing; that is they are based on works. You get these spirits of Christmas by doing and not doing certain things. Woe unto you if you fail in doing one jot or tittle; then the spirits of Christmas won't come. Life under the Law, even the laws of Christmas, is heavy, burdensome, depressing.
I have Good News, that is I have Gospel. There is a Spirit of Christmas and hear that with a capital "S" not a small one. The Spirit of Christmas is none other than the Holy Spirit. He is an integral part of the true Christmas story. The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother Elizabeth's womb. Six months later Gabriel tells Mary that "the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you." so you will bear the Christ-Child. Then Mary greets Elizabeth and she is filled with the Holy Spirit when she hears Mary's voice. Later at the birth of John we are told that his father Zacharias is filled with the Holy Spirit. The true Spirit of Christmas is none other than the Third Person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit.
Okay, so how do you get the Holy Spirit? Not by Christmas music (I refer to the actual music not the words.), not by going shopping or by going to parties, but by Baptism. Peter preaching on Pentecost made this promise, "Be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you shall receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit." Paul calls Baptism in Titus 3:5 a "renewal by the Holy Spirit." Jesus says Baptism brings rebirth by "water and the Spirit." So you get the Christmas Spirit when you are baptized.
This is the point of our text, but it's often missed. First of all note that the text says, "John came baptizing...and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Peter says in Acts 2:38 that the Baptism Christ instituted in Matthew 28 is also "for the forgiveness of sins." John's Baptism gave the forgiveness of sins and so also gave the Holy Spirit to those alive at the time of Jesus' appearance.
Many people try to deny this by pointing to the last verse of the text where John says, "I baptize you with water, but He [Christ] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." Some say that John is contrasting his baptism with Jesus' and that Jesus gives the Holy Spirit but John's was just plain water. Well, if John's was just plain water it couldn't have forgiven sins as the text itself says it does. Secondly, John is not contrasting his Baptism with that of Jesus' but his work with that of Jesus'.
When John says he baptizes with water, he is being redundant. The Greek word Baptize means to "apply water by immersing, pouring, or dipping." John is highlighting that as thoroughly as he applies the waters of Baptism to people Christ will apply the Spirit. John is using the word "baptize" as an illustration of the fullness, the completeness of Christ's ministry. Where John was sent to apply water for forgiveness to prepare the way for Jesus' first coming, Jesus was sent to apply the Holy Spirit, to prepare the way for Jesus' Second Coming. Just as John prepared the way for Jesus, so Jesus prepared the way for the Holy Spirit to be poured out in all His fullness on the Church. Just as the Gospels make the point that Jesus only began His public ministry once John was out of the picture, so they make the point that the Holy Spirit is not sent till Jesus ascends to heaven.
This all goes back to John baptizing Jesus. Then the Holy Spirit descended in the form of the dove and landed on one Person, Jesus. Jesus went right to work suffering under the devil's temptations, battling disease and death, keeping the faith though all fell away around Him, not denying sinners though sinners denied Him, going to a criminal's cross though He never sinned against God or man. On that cross Jesus cried, "It is finished," and finished it was. Christ finished paying for the sins of the whole world, so I am quite sure your sins were paid for too. He drained the cup of God's wrath, so I'm quite sure you're not drinking the dregs of it in the sickness or suffering you're going through now. He finished keeping the Law, so I'm quite sure that God's Law is not hanging over your head needing to be done.
Christ Jesus did as a man what no man, woman, or child could ever do. He kept the Law of God perfectly and paid for the whole world not keeping it. By doing so, He won the right as a Man to send forth the Holy Spirit on the entire world of men which He did through His Church on Pentecost. You through the Church have been Baptized, so you have the Holy Spirit; you have the Christmas Spirit. The true Spirit of Christmas relentlessly points to Christ, to His work on the cross, to His winning your forgiveness, to His giving you an eternal joy that can't be taken away by sickness, sadness, death or even by a bad Christmas.
Go on celebrate with your family; have yourself a merry little Christmas, give, give and give some more. Listen to Christmas music, shop till you drop, and party with the best of them. But know this: The Spirit of Christmas is not something you need to drum up, buy, or even get. The Spirit of Christmas was given to you in your Baptism. He is there to testify of forgiveness even when you fight with your family; He is there to testify of joy even when you feel like it's a blue, blue Christmas; He is there to testify that you have been given the gift of forgiveness, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation even when you don't feel much like gift giving.
The spirits of Christmas known by the world come and go with your feelings, your health, your wealth because they are not gifts. The true Spirit of Christmas is Christ's gift to you in Baptism. The Spirit of Christmas is just as much yours on bad, down, heavy days as He is on good, merry, up days. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent II (12-8-02), Mark 1:1-8