Miracle on 34th Street is a masterpiece, by far my favorite Christmas-themed movie. Oddly enough, it’s also a strictly secular movie: Everyone talks about the “true meaning of Christmas” in the movie, but no one mentions—you know—the true meaning, as in the Jesus-lying-in-a-manger meaning. That’s O.K., though, because the movie is practically an allegory for Christian faith. This sermon explores many Christian themes just below the film’s surface, including doubt and skepticism, the nature of faith, and Christ-like love.
Sermon Text: Matthew 13:44-46
The following is my original sermon manuscript, with film clips inserted in the proper order.
Our movie begins on Thanksgiving, with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Before the parade starts, a man who calls himself Kris Kringle tries to give the department store Santa tips on how to be a more convincing Santa.
“Don’t you realize there are thousands of children lining the streets, waiting to see you?” Kris asks this intoxicated department-store Santa. “You are a disgrace to the tradition of Christmas. And I refuse to have you malign me in this fashion!” Imagine being hired to play Santa, only to find yourself face-to-face with the real Santa. Would you be proud of your work or embarrassed by your work?
In 1 Corinthians 11:1, the apostle Paul says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” In Philippians 4:9, he writes, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” You want to be like Jesus? Paul says. Imitate me, because I’m imitating him successfully. Do the things that you’ve seen me do, because I’m doing what Jesus would have you do. Wow! Would I have the confidence to say that about myself? Would you? If not, why not? What would we need to change in our lives in order for us to make these bold claims for ourselves?
Imitating Christ may seem like a daunting, perhaps an impossible task. But remember grace. We don’t imitate Christ by our own power or through our own effort. We have the very Spirit of Christ living within us. Through his power alone, we can learn to be more and more like Jesus every day. Just as Kris was proud of his young protege Alfred in that clip, I hope that Jesus will be proud of me and one day will say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Don’t you?
Doris Walker works at Macy’s; she was the woman we saw in the clip earlier who was in charge of the parade. She’s a divorced mother of a precocious child named Suzy, played by Natalie Wood. In this next clip, Suzy is watching the Macy’s parade from a neighbor’s apartment. The neighbor is Fred Gailey, a lawyer.
You can see where this is headed, right?
Doris Walker, as you can sense from this clip, considers herself reasonable and realistic and level-headed. She isn’t naive or gullible or superstitious. She doesn’t believe in Santa or even the things that he stands for. She’s a skeptic, and she’s taught her daughter to be skeptical, too.
We live in a skeptical age—witness last week’s Newsweek cover story, for instance. As they do every Christmas, they have a cover story on Jesus and the first Christmas. In this article, the author suggests that the virgin birth is merely a pious legend. According to this theory, Matthew and Luke added the Christmas story to their gospels, not because it was historically true, but because they wanted to communicate the theological truth that Jesus was God’s Son.
One reason, according to this author, that we should put stock in this “pious legend” theory is that there’s no independent corroborating evidence for the virgin birth—which is true. But how could there be corroborating evidence? Who else was there when the angel appeared to Mary and announced that she was going to give birth to God’s Son? Were those shepherds abiding in the field supposed to call the New York Times when the angels appeared to them? Was Fox News supposed to send a camera crew to the manger? Please! We know for sure that Mary and at least some of her children were members of the early church. It’s reasonable to conclude that the gospel writers, or their sources, didn’t just make up the Christmas story. They got the story directly from Mary or her family.
Besides, to what end would the early church make up the virgin birth? The premise behind the “pious legend” theory is that it helped the early church make the case that Jesus was God’s Son. Why would it help? Because of course people who lived back then were really naive and gullible. To which I say, spare me, please!People in the first century were well aware of the facts of life. They knew that women didn’t get pregnant without a human father. After all, why did Joseph want to divorce Mary when he learned that she was pregnant? She told him that she was pregnant by a miracle of God, and guess what? Like any skeptical 21st century person, Joseph didn’t believe her! Who would? No… the reason why Matthew and Luke included this otherwise hard-to-believe virgin birth story is because they believed that this hard-to-believe story was really true.
Besides, is the virgin birth really so hard to believe? If you’re here, you probably already believe in God. Which means that you already believe that God intervened in the biggest way possible at the beginning of time when God created the universe—is it so much harder to believe that God intervened again by working this miracle in Mary’s life? I don’t think so. And when we put the virgin birth in the context of everything else we know about the gospel of Jesus Christ, it just seems like just the sort of thing that our God would do. It makes sense.
But forget theories and arguments for a moment. You want to convince skeptical people about the truth of the gospel? Kris Kringle shows us how to do that in this next scene. (You should know that this movie was made in 1947, shortly after the end of World War II.)
Sorry. I’m not crying. I was chopping onions earlier! I promise! That scene gets me every time.
You know what else got me last week? With as little publicity as possible for a celebrity athlete, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, who wrote “Jack Pinto ‘My Hero’” on his shoes when he played the Falcons last Sunday, visited Jack Pinto’s family, and played touch football with the family and neighbors. That’s love, and it’s what everyone is looking for. It’s what everyone needs. And we all can give love. We don’t have to speak Dutch to hug a child’s neck. And we don’t have to be famous athletes to comfort a grieving family. All we need is love. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
So Macy’s hires Kris Kringle to be Santa and suddenly lots of good things start happening.
Notice the movie is called “Miracle on 34th Street,” but if you follow it closely, there’s only one ambiguously miraculous thing that happens, and it doesn’t even take place on 34th Street, which is where the Macy’s store is located in New York. No, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything in the movie that most people would call miraculous. Instead, you see, for example, these fierce business rivals, Macy and Gimbel, adopting Kris’s strategy—not out of the kindness of their hearts—but because it creates all this goodwill and free publicity, which leads to more customers and greater profits for their stores. In spite of their motives, good things happen like, well… Kris’s doctor gets the x-ray machine that he needs. People are inspired to be more generous, to reject some of the greed and consumerism. And, by the end of the movie, even hardened skeptics like Suzy’s mother experience a change of heart and learn the importance of faith in things we can’t see with our eyes or touch with our hands or put in our bank accounts.
Whatever the miracle on 34th Street is, it’s not anything supernatural. I like that, because isn’t that the way God works in our lives most of the time? When I visit someone in the hospital who’s having a potentially life-saving medical procedure, I pray that God will physically heal that person. I don’t normally expect God to provide this healing outside of the work of gifted doctors and nurses, sophisticated technology, and medicine. I expect God to heal through these otherwise natural, fully explainable channels. And when that person is healed in this way, I believe that they’re healed by God every bit as much as if Jesus were right there in the flesh, saying, “Take up your mat and walk.” And we can be grateful to God for this healing. Call it a miracle or not, but that’s God intervening in that person’s life. It may not be as dramatic as the parting of the Red Sea, but it’s still God, and God does this sort of thing all the time.
While Kris is working at Macy’s nearby, Fred Gailey, the neighbor, agrees to let Kris move in with him. Kris thinks being close to Suzy and her mother will give Kris the opportunity to soften their hearts regarding the existence of Santa Claus. In this scene, while tucking Suzy into bed, Kris asks her what she wants for Christmas.
I’ve heard preachers admonish their congregations, “God isn’t Santa Claus. We shouldn’t imagine that God is ready to give us whatever we wish for.” Of course that’s true. And I guess the reason they say that is in order to teach their congregations to ask for non-trivial things and to prepare them for the disappointment of unanswered prayer, which of course can be a painful reality in the life of a believer. But I suspect the bigger problem we face is not unanswered prayer, but unasked prayer. We’re afraid to ask God for what we want. Maybe, like Suzy, our reluctance to ask comes from a lack of faith. We don’t believe God will answer, and we don’t want to be disappointed. Like Kris in this scene, Jesus wants us to ask.
But notice Kris gives some good reasons why our prayers are sometimes unanswered. The truth is, like the child asking Santa to bring him a B-29 bomber, we can’t foresee all the consequences of God answering our prayers. What if my answered prayer would be harmful to me or others? What if my answered prayer interfered with something else—something better—that God had in store for me or others? Only God can keep track of all these endless possibilities and weave all of our prayers together in a way that accomplishes good for us and for the kingdom.
Besides, God can see through our prayer requests—often there’s an unspoken need underneath our prayer. What do you think Suzy really wants when she asks for a house and backyard and a swing? Not just these physical objects… She probably wants her mother to be happy and know love. She probably wants a father again. Regardless, we can be sure that God understands what we really need and will give us what we need. Jesus said, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” We can be confident that what God gives us will be good.
As is usually the case when someone is doing good work in the world, they make enemies. Kris’s enemy is the Macy’s psychologist. He believes that Kris is not only delusional for thinking that he’s Santa Claus, but that he also has “latent maniacal tendencies,” that Kris is apt to become violent if someone questions whether he’s Santa or not. And while the psychologist is mostly wrong, Kris does end up giving his adversary a well-deserved whack on the head with an umbrella. The shrink uses that to get Kris locked up in Bellevue Mental Hospital. The judge is about to have him committed when Mr. Gailey comes to his defense. Gailey’s burden is to somehow prove to the State of New York that Kris actually is Santa Claus. Because his law firm believes that the case will tarnish the firm’s reputation, Gailey has resigned.
In this scene, Gailey talks to Doris, whom he is now courting, about his decision to represent Kris in this seemingly impossible case.
Notice what Gailey is willing to give up in order to do the right thing: the love of his life, his job, his reputation, his future employment prospects, his comfortable lifestyle. Yet somehow, he believes that by doing so he’s actually “getting ahead,” although maybe not by the world’s standards. This reminds me of a couple of short parables that Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 13. The kingdom of heaven is like this: A man finds a treasure that someone buried in a field. He can’t believe his good fortune! He goes and sells everything he has and purchases the field. Or the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who trades in fine pearls. He finds one exceptionally valuable pearl. He went and sold everything he owned in order to buy that one pearl.
Why are Fred Gailey and the man who finds the hidden treasure and the pearl merchant so willing to give up everything they have? Because they’ve found something that far exceeds the value of everything else they have in life. What could that be? For us Christians, “those lovely intangibles,” and that treasure buried in the field, and that pearl of great value is a free gift from a loving God, made possible for us when God himself entered into our world as a frail, defenseless baby—born in a barn with a feeding trough for a bed. God in Christ humbled himself and became the servant to us all—even shouldering the burden of our sin on the cross, enabling us to find forgiveness and eternal life.
Salvation is the greatest gift of all, at Christmas or any other time. Have you received that gift yet? If not, I need you to know that God has wrapped this gift up, placed it under the tree of your heart, addressed it with your name on the tag, and is waiting for you to open it and see for yourself. See for yourself, as Gailey says, these “intangible things are the only things that are worthwhile.”
In this final clip, we’ll see how Gailey wins his case…