Living Between Christmases
Novelist Walker Percy says of one of his characters, "She doesn't know how to live from one Christmas to the next." This is a challenge for us all. O people talk about the holiday blues, about being glad the holidays are over, about hating Christmas, but speaking as one who has never been fond of the holidays, I have to admit Christmas is different. There's something in the air. There's more good will between people than usual. There's a concern for the less fortunate. There's special joy in family and friends. There's an excitement that's not present at any other time of the year.
Most everyone gets a measure of happiness, of delight, of joy even, at Christmas. But it doesn't last, does it? In a flash of bright Christmas lights, a cheerfully decorated tree, and holiday food, the season is gone, and what stretches out before us is month after month that is not Christmas. There is not that much of a challenge to living at Christmas, but those long stretches between Christmases, well that's another story, isn't it?
At Christmas time even real burdens don't seem as heavy, but in January everything feels heavier, darker. Your sins and sinfulness that might have felt excused or even forgiven during the holidays are back with a vengeance. You may have felt like the "converted" Scrooge during Christmas; you may have even said, "This year I am different." But in the cold, steel grey light of January, nothing has changed. Your sins and particularly your sinfulness came through the holidays just fine. You're not what you hoped you'd be, promised you'd be, felt you were.
At Christmas death seems to take a holiday. Of course, people do die at Christmas, but unless you're directly effected, death seems a bit farther away when singing "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World." It's as if the bright lights of Christmas drive the Grim Reaper to the fringes of life. But there he is perched like a vulture. There he waits for you. The death that didn't seem to be at work in you so much during the festivities of Christmas seems to be busy again. Nagging, poking, reminding you that all life, even your life is as the grass in the field which just yesterday was green with life, yet now is brown with dying. It's easy to live when your life is surrounded with the greenery of Christmas, but that lasts for such a short time. Most of the time, for months on end, it's encircled by dying and death.
At Christmas not only does death seem to take a holiday, but the devil seems to put down his pitchfork. Read the beginning of Luke, all is promise and hope. Where's the devil in Luke 1 or 2? Angels step into life unimpeded by the devil. The lives of the aged, the poor, the outcasts are touched by God and the devil does nothing about it; indeed it doesn't seem he can. You've felt that too at Christmas, haven't you? The roaring of the devil seems not so loud at Christmas. His threats don't seem as real. His power not as strong. But Christmas angels fade; they go the way of Christmas decorations. The old evil foe is back saying, "Did you miss me?" And what are we to do about it? The devil can point to dozens of things in our lives where he apparently has more power and influence than our Lord.
How our you going to live from one Christmas to the next when sin, death and the devil have conspired to ruin your life, torment you, drive you to despair if not stark raving mad? The answer to the sins and sinfulness that plague you, the death that stalks you, and the devil who threatens you is the 3 handfuls of water that were sprinkled on you in your Baptism.
Ah you doubt this, do you? You doubt Baptism can do as much as I say it can. Well, actually I'm understating the case when it comes to death stalking you. Our Large Catechism compares Baptism to a medicine that can prevent a person from dying and even if a person did die would immediately restore them to life so they lived eternally. Our Large Catechism calls Baptism "a medicine which abolishes death and preserves all men to eternal life."
But that's not all Baptism does. In fact, if all Baptism did was give eternal life to fallen people, what good would that be? Who wants to live forever as a fallen person? Baptism washes us clean of the shameful sins that stain our bodies and souls. Baptism, says Hebrews, gives us a clear, clean conscience by forgiving our sins. You're to stop listening to your conscience to determine whether you are forgiven, to determine how you should feel about your life, the future, the months between Christmases. You're to listen to Baptism which says, "You are forgiven; washed of your sins; cleansed from those sinful stains that all your promises to do better, all your efforts to do better, all your doing better could never, ever cleanse you from."
There's still more. Baptism doesn't just forgive sins; it doesn't just rescue from death; it rescues from the devil too. The devil's hold over you is your sins and the power of death. He points to your sins and says, "What's the use? You can't overcome them; you can't go to heaven with them; so you might as well serve them and me." Using the fear of death, says the Book of Hebrews, the devil keeps us slaves. He says, "Serve me or die. Do what I say or die. Listen to me or die." Your Baptism says, "You can't die. Christ has given you life. Death must spit you back out even when you do die." Your Baptism can say that because it removes the necessity of your dying by forgiving your sins. Souls that sins must die, promises Scripture. Well, forgiven souls can't die. The wages of sin is death, but where sins are forgiven there are no wages to be paid.
The secret to living between Christmases is Baptism. Another way of saying it is, the secret to living between Christmases is Christ. Your Baptism joins you to Christ, and in His Baptism you see what your's does. In the Baptism of Jesus the early Church and Luther too found the institution of Baptism more so than in the command to baptize at the end of Matthew. It's as we sing in the hymn from 450 A.D.: "Within the Jordan's crystal flood/ In meekness stands the Lamb of God/ And, sinless, sanctifies the wave." The waters that were poured on our sinful, dying, demonized heads forgive our sins and rescue us from death and the devil because Christ sanctified and empowered those waters by having them poured on His sinless, immortal, divine head.
Look at the Baptism of Jesus and see what wondrous things your Baptism does. In your Baptism the cry, the prayer of Advent of is answered. In Advent we say with Isaiah, "O that You would tear the heavens open and come down!" And what do we see happening in Jesus' Baptism? Heaven is torn open. And get this, it's a passive. God opens heaven from His side. The heaven that had been locked tight, closed to our prayers, pleas, and situations, is torn open by the Baptism of Jesus. What Jesus achieved in His Baptism comes to us in our's. You will not be alone or forgotten by heaven in the coming months. Your Baptism gives you a heaven wide open to your prayers, your needs, your problems.
How can I say that? Well, look what flutters down out of heaven at Jesus' Baptism. The Holy Spirit. As God, Jesus is equal to the Holy Spirit. Jesus receives the Holy Spirit here as a Man, for mankind. Remember back in Noah's Flood? God declared that His Spirit wouldn't always strive with flesh and blood, but for 120 more years. Well, men failed, the flood came, and the Spirit was only found in connection with certain descendants of Noah. In Jesus' Baptism, God shows His Spirit is again taking up the fight on behalf of flesh and blood in the flesh and blood of Jesus. Right after Jesus' Baptism the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness to fight against the devil and win on our behalf.
Jesus won the right to pour out the Spirit on mankind by defeating the devil as a Man in place of all mankind. By living the holy life expected of us and dying like we sinners ought to, forsaken by God, Jesus took away the devil's demand that we need to be holy to go to heaven and need to die to pay for our sins. Jesus then ascended to heaven as a Man and as a Man poured out the Holy Spirit on His Church on Pentecost Sunday. His Church in turn gives the Holy Spirit to all whom She Baptizes.
Friend, your Baptism is the guarantee that you have the Spirit. You will face problems, afflictions, sins and Satan in the coming months. But you have God's good gifts and Spirit on your side. As often as sin, death and the devil tell you, "You can't; you won't; you don't;" the Holy Spirit in your Baptism, says, "You can; you will; you do."
At Christmas everyone seems pleased with you, between Christmases it can seem like everyone is displeased with you. In His Baptism, Jesus shows us the Father is always pleased with us. The Father doesn't just proclaim He is pleased with the Son for taking on our sins and our responsibility to keep the Law; He proclaims that in His Son He is well pleased. When you flee to your Baptism in these coming months, you are running back to Christ. You are going back under His righteousness; His holiness. The Father is always pleased with you there, in the Son. As often as life, others, even yourself assert they are not pleased with you, your Baptism drips with God being pleased with you for Jesus' sake.
I began by referring to a novelist's character who didn't know how to live from one Christmas to the next. She didn't know how to do that, but she could, said Walker Percy, live as if everyday is Christmas morning. That's what your Baptism gives you permission to do, yea demands that you do. Everyday you can begin "in the name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Ghost" reminding yourself that you've been baptized. Everyday you can open the big gifts that are there for you in Baptism: an open heaven, the Holy Spirit, and a Father who is just delighted with you. Then everyday becomes Christmas morning. Merry Christmas. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Baptism of our Lord (1-11-04); Luke 3:21-22