This sermon, based on the Christmas TV classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, challenges us to reconsider our culture’s often vain pursuit of happiness. Charlie Brown, as he says in several places, isn’t happy—even though he knows supposed to be, especially at Christmas. But who says we’re supposed to be happy all the time? After all, being faithful to Jesus will sometimes mean being unhappy. When this happens, we can take courage from the examples of faithful heroes such as Elijah, Mary, and Joseph.
I also find in Charlie Brown’s love for the little green Christmas tree an analogy to God’s love for us, demonstrated so fittingly at that first Christmas.
Sermon Text: 1 Kings 19:1-4, 9-13; Luke 2:8-20
The following is my original sermon manuscript with video clips inserted in the proper order.
[ACBC01.m4v. Time: 2:01]
“Something must be wrong with me,” Charlie Brown tells Linus. “I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Then he tells Lucy, “I know I should be happy, but I’m not.”
Here’s my question: “Who says?” Who says you’re supposed to be happy—at Christmas or any other time of the year? Even the founding document of our country says that we only have a right to pursue happiness. Whether we achieve it or not is anyone’s guess.
But… You might object. “We’re Christians. Aren’t we supposed to always be happy? Isn’t something wrong with us if we’re not happy.” To which I say, “No.” As your pastor, I’m giving you permission to be unhappy—even at Christmastime. And there is nothing necessarily wrong with your faith if you aren’t happy. In fact, sometimes being unhappy comes with the territory.
Consider no less a man of God than Elijah, who, next to Moses, is the Bible’s greatest prophet. And, like Charlie Brown, Elijah isn’t happy—at least in 1 Kings 19. In fact, a friend of mine who has struggled for years with clinical depression recognizes in Elijah a fellow traveler: Elijah, like Charlie Brown, is downright depressed. He’s depressed for a couple of reasons: His people, the people of Israel, have turned away from God and have followed after Baal. In fact, in 1 Kings 18, in a very public demonstration, Elijah exposes Baal as a phony god, which deeply upsets a powerful woman named Jezebel, wife of Israel’s King Ahab. Jezebel is a priestess of Baal. And you might wonder why a king of Israel would marry someone who worships and serves an idol instead the one true God, but that’s how bad things are in Israel at this point!
Anyway, Jezebel vows to have Elijah killed. So what does Elijah do? In fear for his life, he runs away and tells God that he wants to die. He feels like an utter and complete failure. Despite his best efforts to change people’s hearts, he tells God that Israel has “torn down your altars and murdered your prophets and, now, I’m the only one left! I’m the only faithful person left who hasn’t abandoned you, and they’re out to get me, too.” Like Charlie Brown, he feels let down. This is not the way his life and ministry were supposed to work out. This is not what he expected. And please note that God doesn’t scold him for feeling this way.
Being faithful sometimes means that God’s people will be unhappy. Even in our Christmas story. Heck! Especially in our Christmas story! Remember at the end of the angel’s annunciation to Mary, when Mary learns of her part in God’s redemption story, she says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” We rarely pay attention to what comes next in that verse. Luke tells us, “Then the angel departed from her.” This will be the last time in her life Mary will see any angel. The shepherds see them Christmas night, and they tell Mary and Joseph about it. But Mary will have no more miraculous experiences at least until the resurrection of her son. Instead, Mary is left alone with her thoughts. Left alone to contemplate what will at times be the difficult and dark journey ahead of her—a journey that she will mostly have to take alone.
Right away, for example, she’ll have to break the news to Joseph: “I’m pregnant, and as you know, you’re not the father. But let me explain!” And when Joseph breaks up with her, at least temporarily, there are no angels around to comfort her, to reassure her. Do you think she was happy? No, but faith is like that sometimes.
One of my favorite preachers in the world is a United Methodist pastor named Walter Kimbrough. For decades he pastored the Cascade United Methodist Church, an historic African-American church in Atlanta. When you ask Walter, “How are you doing?” chances are that he won’t answer “Fine.” He’ll instead answer, “Fantastically wonderful!” And he’ll mean it. But guess what? He’ll be the first to tell you that being “fantastically wonderful” isn’t identically equal to being happy. Being fantastically wonderful isn’t happiness. Happiness is a shallow emotion, which comes comes and goes. “Fantastically wonderful,” by contrast, is joy, which the apostle Paul calls a “fruit of the Spirit,” made possible in the heart of the believer as we are transformed and renewed by the Holy Spirit.
By all means, most of the Peanuts gang doesn’t understand this. As you’ll see in this next clip, they’re busy chasing after a shallow and fleeting feeling.
Charlie Brown has been complaining about how unhappy he is during Christmas, but how happy are his friends? Really? Notice how elusive and contingent his friends’ happiness is. What I mean is, their happiness depends on stuff. It depends on circumstances. It depends on things going their way… If they get the right part in the play, then they’ll be happy. If they win the contest and get lots of cash, then they’ll be happy. If they get all the right Christmas presents, then they’ll be happy. If happiness is so fleeting, no wonder Charlie Brown is so unsatisfied. He’s looking for a kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on circumstances.
What he’s really looking for, in fact, is a quality of life that Jesus promises to us disciples in the Sermon on the Mount: “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”
Please notice: whether we’re faithful followers of Jesus or not, Jesus tells us that the storms and the floods and the strong winds are going to come and threaten our lives. Don’t we know it? When, for instance, we’re shocked by a horrifying national crisis, as we were last Friday… Senseless tragedy is a part of the Christmas story, too. In the wake of the good news of Christ’s birth, after all—in the wake of peace on earth, good will toward men—King Herod, hearing reports of the birth of a rival king in Bethlehem, sent soldiers to slaughter every male child aged two and under. My point is the senselessly violent world in which we so often find ourselves is the same senselessly violent world into which God sent his Son. And he sent his Son to defeat the very forces of sin and evil and death that so often hold sway in our world. And there will come a day, when this victory Christ won will be apparent. In the meantime, we can afford to wait, with hope. Among other things, Christmas means that there will come a day when the Herods of the world will face the justice they so richly deserve. And I look forward to that day!
Someone posted on Facebook last Friday, “Suddenly my problems don’t seem so large.” And that may be true, but they’re still problems. When the dust settles on this latest national tragedy, we’ll still experience plenty of problems and challenges and crises that are closer to home—the death of a loved one, an illness, a failed relationship, a failing grade, a professional setback, a financial setback. Events in our world and in our lives will conspire at times to shake us to the core. Will they make us fall? Will they make us lose hope? Will they make us bitter and cynical? They don’t have to. Not through faith in Christ.
If you’ve seen A Charlie Brown Christmas, you know that things don’t go well when Charlie Brown is put in charge of the Christmas play.
Charlie Brown obviously has a hard time commanding the kids’ respect and keeping their attention. They don’t pay attention. They get distracted. They focus on themselves instead. But let’s be a little sympathetic and not judge them too harshly. Imagine how God feels most of the time trying to deal with us, his children! Isn’t it difficult for us to keep our attention on focused on our heavenly Father—even during this Advent and Christmas season, seasons which exist in the first place because of God’s redemption story!
No, let’s face it: It’s hard to follow God’s direction sometimes. Unlike Charlie Brown, it’s not like God shouts at us through a megaphone! We wish he would sometimes. It would make our lives easier. Remember Elijah, whom I discussed earlier? He went inside a cave on Mount Horeb and waited for God to shout at him through the natural megaphones of strong wind and earthquake and fire. But God didn’t; in fact God didn’t shout at all. Instead God spoke to him in what the King James calls a “still, small voice.” In the original Hebrew, that “still, small voice” is even softer and quieter and more elusive than the words suggest. It’s just barely audible—but Elijah, to his credit, hears it. How many “still, small voices” from God do we fail to hear? It goes without saying, I hope, that it will often take quiet and stillness and concentration in our own lives to hear God speak to us. It will take the old-fashioned hard work and commitment of prayer.
No wonder we prefer the wind and the earthquake and the fire!
No, hearing God speak to us is tough. We tend to elevate the heroes of the Bible so much that we imagine it was easier for them somehow. But that can’t be true. Don’t you think it was tough for Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus? Think about it: God spoke to him through an angel. And we might think, “If an angel came to me, then it would be so clear what I’m supposed to do!” But this angel that came to Joseph wasn’t one of those flying-around-type of angels. Angels in the Bible usually appear to us as normal human beings. They’re probably not backlit by one of those Roma Downey, Touched by an Angel-type halos… Regardless, this wasn’t even the type of angel that came to Joseph. Joseph’s angel, instead, came to him in a dream. A dream! Can you imagine? Aren’t you like me? Don’t you have some crazy, crazy dreams? Don’t you think Joseph did, too? How do you know when to take a dream seriously? How do you know that, in the midst of all the craziness, the messenger who speaks to you in the dream is actually an angel sent from God—and not the result of the spicy food you had for dinner.
No… When Joseph woke up, he had to think about it. Is this real? Reflect on it. Struggle over it. Take the risk to believe that God was really speaking to him—even when what God was telling him seemed so unlikely, so crazy! That his fiancée was pregnant, not because she’d been unfaithful, but because God had worked a miracle within her.
Could we ever take that kind of risk?
In this next clip, Charlie Brown takes a risk of his own—at great personal cost.
In a Christmas tree lot of big, shiny, brightly-colored, indestructible aluminum trees—any one of which would have satisfied Charlie Brown’s friends and enemies back home—Charlie Brown instead falls in love with the smallest, the ugliest, the weakest, the most despised little tree. “This little green tree needs a home,” he said. “I think it will be perfect. I think it needs me.”
I’m reminded of a story that Jesus told about a shepherd. The shepherd has a hundred sheep, and he loses one. Just one little sheep. Who could possibly miss such an insignificant thing? Well, this shepherd missed it, and he searches high and low for it. And when he finds it, Jesus says, the shepherd is overjoyed. He carries it on his shoulders and brings it home where it belongs. “Celebrate with me,” he tells his friends and family and neighbors, “because I’ve found my lost sheep.”
Charlie Brown is so happy when he rescues that little tree, and brings it into the auditorium, and places it on Schroeder’s toy piano. His friends, and his enemies… They don’t see it the way Charlie Brown sees it. They don’t love the little tree the way Charlie Brown does. In fact, they transfer their hatred and scorn for the tree to Charlie Brown himself—and Charlie Brown bears the brunt of their hatred. He’s rejected, scorned, ridiculed, abandoned.
Christmas means that God himself, through his Son Jesus, came into this world—because God loved us… because God said, “These lost human beings need a home. They’ve made a mess of their lives and this good world through sin, but I can fix it. I think they’ll be perfect. They need me to save them, to rescue them, to carry them home.” God loves the smallest, the ugliest, the weakest, and the most despised. Which means God loves sinners like you and me! And God rescues us so that we can be at home with God where we belong.
If he hasn’t already, Jesus Christ our Good Shepherd has come to rescue you, too. Will you agree to be rescued? Will you let him carry you home. Will you accept for yourself God’s gift of salvation? I hope so.
I’ll conclude this sermon by showing this final clip. Notice that love not only rescues the little tree, love transforms it—until it becomes something truly beautiful.
God’s grace is just like that!