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Holy Spirit Christianity

Luke tells us about two people: John the Baptist and Jesus

I think of that amazing painting by Ivanov in the Tretyakov

There is John. He is the preacher. He baptises with water. He offers us ‘good intention Christianity’.
And there is Jesus. Jesus is, as we heard in our reading, the beloved Son of God. He baptises with fire. And Jesus offers us ‘Holy Spirit Christianity’.

So let’s look at John: the preacher
He gives the people hope and he inspires them to make a new start in life.

He gives people hope.
Do you notice how it says here that the people are filled with expectation?
And in the picture we see the old man trying to get up, and the look of delight on the slave’s face as John points them to Jesus.

In the previous verses, which we haven’t read today (bring a bible, or get out your phone- put it on airplane mode so that you are not distracted by other messages), John appears in the wilderness.
He announces that the Kingdom of God is coming – the rule of God is coming – the Messiah is coming. And he challenges the people. He rebukes them because they have forgotten God. They have forgotten God’s promises. They have lived without God. And he warns them that Messiah is coming, and that when Messiah comes he will bring God’s judgement with him. He will separate people. He will gather those who are for him, and he will cast away those who have rejected him.

So John – ascetic, wilderness John – calls the people to repent. To remember God, and to turn back to God.
And very specifically, he calls them
-          to be generous and share what they have, whether food or clothing (if you have two coats give to the person who has none – challenge to me at parsonage door)
-          to respect other people, and not to use their power to exploit, abuse or force others to do what they don’t want to do. I guess that is what he is saying when he tells the tax collectors and soldiers not to exploit their authority.
-          to be content with what we have. He says to the soldiers, ‘Be satisfied with your wages’.
Three pretty solid values: generousity, respect for the other person, and to be content, at peace, with who you are and what you have.

And so John invites those who wish to make a new start, to mark that new start by baptism: to be symbolically washed in water: as a sign that they are washing away the old life.

And the people are filled with expectation.
Messiah, God’s King and Saviour is coming. God’s Kingdom will be established. What the prophets declared is about to come.
And they are inspired: They say, ‘Yes, we want to be in on this. We are going to turn our lives round. We are going to live right and do right so that we are ready for Messiah and his kingdom. And we want to be baptised – to be washed clean’

Many of us are there.
We’ve heard the message. We’ve been inspired.
There is a God. His word matters. How we live matters. His Kingdom is coming. There is judgement. There is hell and there is heaven.
And we’ve said yes, we want to be in on this. I want to be on God’s side. I will get baptised or confirmed and I will live for God. I will pray, I will read the bible, I’ll come to church, I’ll change the way I am living. I will be a better person: generous, respecting all people, content with what I have.

That is fantastic – but it is not enough.

The problem is that we are trying to live the Christian life in our own strength. And while we may start off OK, things will come in and pull us away.

This is new year resolution religion.
I don’t know whether it is the same custom here, but certainly in the UK, many people make new year resolutions. This year I’m going to do morning exercises, go to the gym, cut down on the alcohol, get to bed earlier and get up earlier so that I have time to pray, become vegetarian, to recycle - whatever. And it works: for the first, second, third day. And then – it’s dark and cold and I want to stay in bed, or, a little bit of bacon won’t matter, or it is just too much bother – and soon nothing has changed.

John knew that what he was offering was good - but he also knew it was not enough.

That was why, when they asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah?’ He laughed. What a joke!

Don’t confuse me with the Messiah, he says.
I’m nothing in comparison to him.
He is the creator. I am part of his creation
He is the King. I’m not worthy to even be his slave
He is the owner of the whole show. I’m just the bloke on the street handing out the leaflets.

And don’t confuse what I am doing with what Messiah will do.
I baptise with water. He baptises with the Holy Spirit.

And he points us to the other person in Ivanov’s painting:
At Jesus, the Messiah

Jesus offers Holy Spirit Christianity.

It is both the same that John offers, but also radically different.

Whereas what John offers is dependent on us making the supreme effort: ‘I will do better’,
what Jesus offers depends on us completely letting go.
It depends on us recognising that I cannot do what God wants me to do, and so I simply have to throw myself on him and on his mercy and on his power.
I realise that I cannot rely on myself, on my inner strength, on my education, my gifts or achievements.
I realise that I need God to come and live in me, to give me the desire and the strength to live for God.
It means that I realise that I need the Spirit of God to come and live in me.

Forgive me if you have heard me use this illustration before, but it is helpful.
Imagine that you would love to play hockey like Alexander Ovechkin
You read all about him, you watch his performances, you follow his training programme, you practice for as long as he practices. You spend time with him, and get to know him. He even allows you to wear his skates. But it does not make you play hockey like him.
But what if he could take his Spirit and put it in you? That would make all the difference.
And in the same way, it is only when we allow Jesus to take his Spirit and put it in us, that we can begin to live like Jesus.

But there is more than that.
The Holy Spirit does not simply come into us and change how we live and what we do.
Holy Spirit works at an even deeper and more significant level than that. He changes who we are.
Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of adoption. Holy Spirit draws us into the family of God. Because of Holy Spirit, we can call God Father.
And if the Spirit of God lives in us – so there is a link. A connection between God and us. What God desires, we begin to desire. What God sees, we begin to see. We begin to hate what God hates, and we begin to delight in those things that God delights in.
And if we are baptised in the Spirit, if the Spirit of Jesus lives in us, then God looks at us as if we are his beloved Son, Jesus, with whom he is well pleased.

So Jesus comes.
He comes to do all these terrifying things that John says that he will do – baptising with Holy Spirit and with fire, separating the wheat from the chaff – but he does not do that with the gun. Instead he comes as one of us.  

He gives himself in utter generosity He does not use his power to force us to follow him, but he respects us And he is at peace with himself and with his God

He empties himself of his divine power and he identifies himself with us.

John White, a Christian author, tells a rather uncomfortable story of his days as a medical student. For one of his classes, he missed a practical session about treating people who had venereal disease and had to make it up at the university clinic. When he arrived at the clinic, he found himself standing in a line with patients who had actually contracted a venereal disease. This was a bit embarrassing. White barged up to the front and told the head nurse, “I need to see the doctor.” “That’s what everybody says,” snorted the nurse, “now get back in line.” “But I’m a medical student,” White said. “Big deal,” said the nurse, “You got it the same way as everybody else; now you can stand in line like everybody else.” White writes: “In the end I managed to explain to her why I was there, but I can still feel the sense of shame that made me balk at standing in line with the . . . men who [actually] had a venereal disease.”
Jesus, even though he is sinless, joins the line here. And it is as he humbles himself, identifies himself with us – and with our intention to live for God - and receives John’s baptism that he is shown by the dove and declared by the voice to be the Son of God.

And it is when we are prepared, in turn, to humble ourselves, and come to him, recognise our brokenness and inability to live ‘good intention Christianity’, that we can ask him to give us his Spirit – so that we might become like him.

And I guess that is how Jesus separates the wheat from the chaff. He comes to us. And there are those who recognise their need for him and ask him to give them Holy Spirit, and there are those who – for whatever reason - choose to reject him. Ivanov has got that: look at the faces of some of those who are there. They have already chosen to reject him.

In our reading from Acts 8, the Samaritans have heard the preaching of Philip and have decided to follow Jesus. They are baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. It is good intention Christianity.
But it only becomes life changing when Peter and John – the representatives of the wider church – pray for them and lay their hands on them. Because that is when they receive the Holy Spirit.

And as for you and me, we need to recognise that even with all our good intentions we will never be able to live a Christian life. We need more than John. We need Jesus. We need Holy Spirit.
And we need to ask him to give us his Spirit to come into us, to change us and to make us new people.


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