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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

On Declaring War

Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 9:9-12, Luke 3:21-22

Have you ever wanted to declare war on someone, or something? Just imagine what it would be like if you had to write a formal declaration of war: most of us haven’t the skill at the language to do this.

It happens, however, that I have in my possession an actual example of a declaration of war. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they also attacked British possessions in the Far East. Normally the task of preparing the declaration of war falls to the Foreign Secretary (roughly our Secretary of State) but in this instance he was traveling to Russia. The task, therefore, fell to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Here’s how that master of the English language did it:

 

Sir,

On the evening of December 7th His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom learned that Japanese forces without previous warning either in the form of a declaration of war or of an ultimatum with a conditional declaration of war had attempted a landing on the coast of Malaya and bombed Singapore and Hong Kong.

In view of these wanton acts of unprovoked aggression committed in flagrant violation of International Law and particularly Article I of the Third Hague Convention relative to the opening of hostilities, to which both Japan and the United Kingdom are parties, His Majesty’s Ambassador in Tokyo has been instructed to inform the Imperial Japanese Government in the name of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom that a state of war exists between our two countries.

I have the honour to be, with high consideration,

Sir,

Your obedient servant,

Winston S. Churchill

 

As a postscript, Mr. Churchill adds, “Some people did not like this ceremonial style. But after all when you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite.”

 

Why do we engage in ceremony? What is it about human beings that prompts us to mark our beginnings with ceremony? Think about it: we begin married life with a marriage ceremony; we crown kings; we inaugurate presidents -- and then we have them throw out the first ball for baseball season. We hold baby dedications and funerals, graduations and retirement parties. We mark our beginnings and our transitions with ceremony. Why?

·         We use ceremonies to say things “too high for words.” When something is genuinely important, we do not trust it to words alone.

·         Ceremonies provide a way for us to say things which need experience for proper communication. The word “marriage” can be defined in a dictionary; the memories as the preacher says, “richer or poorer, in sickness and in health...” are not so easily spoken.

·         Indeed, sometimes the message sent is received as a different message for each person receiving. What I mean by “marriage” in life is different from what you mean. But we speak of it as if it were the same. Ceremony involves the experiences of all of us, not just those communicating. When a bride wears “something old.” she is using someone else’s experience to express her hopes. (No bride plans a wedding alone).

·         We use the ceremony to mark an exact moment when something begins -- and thus there is no doubt that it has begun. This is one advantage of marriage over “living together.” You can answer the question: “when did this relationship become permanent?” -- and if you can’t, you should be asking, “has it become permanent?”

We begin this series with the ceremony which marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: his baptism by John.

(Mat 3:13-17 NIV) Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. {14} But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" {15} Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented. {16} As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. {17} And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."

 

(Mat 4:1 NIV) Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.

(Mark 1:9-12 NIV) At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. {10} As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. {11} And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." {12} At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert,

(Luke 3:21-22 NIV) When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened {22} and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."

Here we see one of the key characteristics of Jesus’ use of ceremony, ritual and symbol: he transforms them. He takes an existing symbol or ceremony -- baptism, the Passover -- and completes it. This is a very important part of his ministry. He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament; he is the Christ, the Messiah. As such, he come to fulfill the prophecy. When he does that, he transforms the symbolism.

Note that he does not destroy the symbolism or ceremony and substitute another. He is not inventing a new religion; he is completing the old one. He works within his father’s will, and therefore his use of symbol and ceremony must be consistent with the purposes his Father had in Old Testament times. We will see this most clearly by asking one of those sticky questions of the New Testament:

“John’s baptism is for repentance. You tell me that Jesus had no sin. Why then does he ask John to baptize him?”

 

First, please note one of the guiding principles of this study. We have it in John’s response to Jesus. John knows who Jesus is; he has been preaching of his coming. He is shocked -- to put it mildly -- that Jesus asks to be baptized. In fact, he says, you should baptize me! John, then, clearly affirms the idea that Jesus was not in need of repentance, that he was sinless.

Jesus’ reply is that it is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.” Righteousness has become a “church word” as of late, and needs some explanation. The closest word I can find to explain it is craftsmanship. Righteousness is the craft of Christian living. Jesus (a carpenter by profession, recall) knows that the job is not done until it is done right. Somehow, this is doing it right.

I think perhaps most of us see it as an example. If he is willing to do it, so should I be willing. There is something to this.

More than that, however, Jesus is the Son of Man. He is saying to us, in effect, I am human just like you -- and divine, just like my Father. We will see this consistently throughout his ministry.

 

Jesus, then, adopts baptism as his own ceremony. It is not different from John’s baptism -- it is the logical extension of John’s baptism.

·         It is still a ceremony. We can still speak of the day we decided to be baptized and give our lives to Christ.

·         It was for repentance, and repentance only, under the law. Now that repentance is still there, but the fruit of repentance is now eternal life.

·         What was washing (physically and spiritually) now plants in us the Holy Spirit -- the source of holiness. John’s baptism could, and was, repeated; our baptism need be done but once because of the Spirit.

 

You see the method, I hope. John’s baptism has not been destroyed; it has blossomed into Israel’s hope.

 

In this ceremony we get our first real glimpse of one of the central problems of the New Testament: the Trinity. Understanding the Trinity is crucial to understanding who Jesus is. No complete doctrine of the Trinity is presented here -- but the problem is clearly stated. Jesus is in the water. Noting Luke’s account, the Spirit is present in bodily form as a dove. And the Father’s voice is heard from heaven. God is three.

And this is the biggest difficulty of the text. For two thousand years Israel had repeated: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord your God is One.” And now He is three -- as announced by a man who will affirm that He is One. As Cyrus Schofield once put it, “the Trinity is confessedly a great mystery.” For this lesson, I will merely state the problem. It will not go away.

 

Finally, there is one last note. Please see what happens after the emotional lift of the ceremony: then comes the temptation. We often think that Satan attacks only when we feel low. He is not so limited as that.

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