There were two psychologists who were friends, they worked in adjoining cities and liked to meet for lunch. One day at lunch one of the friends asked the other what was his most difficult case. The other psychologist thought for a while and then replied, “I had a case once with a man who was convinced that he had a wealthy long-lost uncle in Africa and that one day he would receive a letter from him which would bequeath upon him all kinds of wealth.”
“And so what did you do?” asked his friend.
“Well, it took months of counseling, but finally, finally, I cured him of his delusion.” There was a pause and the friend said, “Well then it was good, right? You cured him.”
“Yeah, but then he received that darn letter.”
When we hear a story that begins with “Once upon a time,” or “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away” we know that what comes after these words is going to be fiction. We are prepared for wicked witches, beautiful princesses and magical fairy god-mothers. We are not surprised to see people wielding light sabers and flying star cruisers. By contrast it is important to note that our passage from St. Luke begins with ‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.’ Do you see the difference? Luke wants his readers to know that the following events took place at a certain time and in a certain place. Now for us today, we do not remember the 15th year of Tiberious Caesar, nor do we remember when Pilate was governor. Those people and events are as real to us as Cinderella, or Darth Vader. But Luke’s readers did remember. They knew about Herod and Philip and Lysanias. They had lived in their kingdoms or knew people who had. They knew about Annas and Caiaphas. These were men who were real in history. They lived and breathed and were movers and shakers in their society as much as President Trump, President Obama, and Prime Minister May are real and have been movers and shakers in our society and world. Why does Luke do this? He does this because he wants the readers to know when these events happened. You see, he is writing a report on something that really occurred. It was not a fictional account. Throughout Luke’s gospel he does this. He begins the book itself with in the days of Herod, king of Judea. He names names; he lists genealogies because these are events the people to whom he writes can check out and validate. In same way if I write a news report on something President Regan did, then people today can either validate what I wrote or say, “Hey, wait a minute; that never happened.” In the same way, Luke is referencing these people so his readers can pinpoint these events in time and validate them.
But Luke was not the only person in the New Testament to do this sort of thing. Peter on the day of Pentecost said the crowd of people who came to see what was happening when the Holy Spirit came down says, “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know.” ‘This Jesus’ Peter says to the people who knew him. They had seen Jesus doing mighty acts of power. Jesus was not a made up character or an imaginary friend. These people had seen him and heard him. They knew what his voice sounded like. Later on Paul is on trial in front of the Roman governor Festus and King Agrippa and he says to Festus, “King Agrippa knows about these things because none of these things have escaped his notice, for these events did not take place in a corner.”
The witness of the early church was not based upon legends and hearsay. The convictions and faith of these men and women were not founded upon fairy tales. Their convictions were founded on historical events. Real people were willing to die because they would not deny what had really happened. This is the message that we have here in the Scriptures.
You see the temptation is to put the story of Jesus into the same category as that of a fairy tale. A make-believe story that is nice and may even have a great message and it helps us sleep at night. God loves us, we love God; it is all going to be good. And then we kind of dismiss everything else. But there is more. This really happened. And in our gospel text today we heard the message of John the Baptizer proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. You see the gospel of Jesus Christ is not simply ‘believe’ and we are all going to heaven. It is first of all, repent for the forgiveness of sins. This is what John the Baptizer proclaimed and for that matter, it is the first message of Jesus himself. Repent is such an old-fashioned sounding word isn’t it? But it simply means to be remorseful, be sorry about doing wrong and then to try to change. It is recognizing our guilt, admitting it to God, and then asking God for help to change our behavior. What Jesus and John were talking about are not things we did once and then feel bad about. You see I can feel bad that I once accidently cut someone off as I was driving. But Jesus and John were talking life changes, not accidental behaviors. What am I doing day to day that I need to change? Am I treating people around me kindly and patiently? Am I being self-disciplined in areas where I need to be self-disciplined? Am I using the resources with which God has blessed me how I ought to use them? Do I complain, grumble, or worry? The fact is there are things in my life from which I need to repent. And there are things in your life from which you need to repent.
When I was working my way through college I had a job as a computer type-setter for a magazine and I worked the grave-yard shift from 11 pm until 7 am. On my way to work I would listen to a PBS call-in talk show. One night they had a psychiatrist as the guest. That night a man called up and said, “I was raised in a Christian family but I stopped believing in Christianity and the Bible when I went to college. But now, even though I am not a Christian whenever I am doing this particular behavior I feel guilty. (He didn’t say what he was doing.) What can I do to stop feeling guilty?” The psychiatrist told him that he needed to keep on doing this behavior even though he felt guilty and eventually he would stop feeling guilty about it. The caller hung up and the host and the psychiatrist were just talking and then the radio host said, “You know, what if Christianity is true?” There was a pause, and then the psychiatrist replied, “Then we would be in a lot of trouble.” And then they laughed.
The fact is that Christianity is true. The events we read in the New Testament are real and historical. The people were real. Christians are not delusional to believe what the Scripture tells us. We are not delusional to expect Jesus to return. And secondly, because these events are true we really do need to act on these words. We really do need to be remorseful for things we do wrong and try to change. We do not want to simply keep doing what is wrong to the point that our consciences no longer feel remorse. The message of Advent is that Christ is returning. The one who loves us so much he came 2000 years ago to die for us is coming back. Let us make sure we are ready for his return. Amen