Sermon 12-15-13: “Reel Christmas, Part 3: A Charlie Brown Christmas”

December 23, 2013


“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.” Being a Christian doesn’t insulate us from being unhappy, even at Christmastime. Sometimes feeling unhappy is the price we pay for being faithful to God. Fortunately, we are never without hope, and we can always trust that God is up to something good in our lives.

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 19:1-13

Click below to watch my sermon, which includes the video clips from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I showed and commented on during the sermon.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

[ACBC01.mp4. Time: 2:07]

“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.”

Is it O.K. for believers not to be happy all the time—even at Christmastime? Yes. It’s O.K. In fact, sometimes, as people who are struggling to be faithful to God, 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 not in 1 Kings 19. In fact, 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 the chapter preceding today’s scripture, 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.

Being faithful sometimes means that God’s people will be unhappy. Even in our Christmas story. Heck! Especially in our Christmas story! Remember after the angel appears to Mary, when Mary learns of her role 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 that Mary will see an 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 her son turns water into wine 30 years later. 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: “Honey, 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, to remind her that everything will be O.K. Do you think she was happy? No, but faith is like that sometimes. We sometimes feel sad, lonely, depressed, and spiritually dry. And that’s O.K.!

In Psalm 42, for instance, the psalmist writes, “My soul is cast down within me,” “My tears have been my food day and night… I say to God, my rock, why have you forgotten me?” The psalms are more honest than we often are—especially in church. Imagine sitting in a Sunday school class or Bible study and saying these same things out loud. Imagine the reaction you’d get!

No, it’s O.K. to be unhappy sometimes. But even this psalm gives us a strategy for dealing with it. The psalmist says, “O my soul.” He is not talking to God; he’s talking to himself. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” See, he’s not only listening to himself—listening to the things that his heart is feeling. He’s also talking back to himself, arguing with himself.

One pastor, reflecting on this psalm, asked, “Have you realized that so much unhappiness in your life is due to the fact you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? So this man”—the psalmist—“stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for a moment…’ Then you must go on to remind yourself of who God is, and what God has done, and what God has pledged himself to do… Then end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with the man, ‘I shall yet praise Him… for he is my God.’”[1]

Talk back to yourself—argue with yourself—when your heart tells you how hopeless everything seems! Because your heart doesn’t always know what it’s talking about!

Anyway, none of the Peanuts gang understands what Charlie Brown is going through. As you’ll see in this next clip, they’re busy pursuing happiness in the most shallow way possible.

[Show ACBC02.mp4. Time: 1:38]

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.”[2]

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. The question is, What are we going to do when those storms and floods and strong winds come?

We’re going to trust that God has it all under control. Even if… even if we don’t understand why it’s happening. Even if we can’t figure out what God is up to. Even if we can’t figure out how God is using it for our good. The truth is, we often shouldn’t be able to figure out what God is up to or why…

In the scientific realm of chaos theory, there’s something called the “butterfly effect,” which says that a butterfly flapping its wings in China “would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific. Yet no one would be able to calculate and predict the actual effects of the butterfly’s flight.”[3] Should it be any easier to figure out God, and why God is doing or allowing something to happen? Pastor Tim Keller reflects on this and writes: “If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about.”[4] Yet often when things don’t go our way, we’re the first ones to think, “That’s not fair! If I were God, I would run the universe differently.” But as you can imagine, we’re not really in a position to judge.

So we let God be God and trust that it will be O.K.

So if you pray for something, and God doesn’t give you what you pray for, tell yourself this: “God will always give you what you would ask for if you knew everything that God knows.”[5] God will always give you what you would ask for if you knew everything that God knows.

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.

[Show ACBC03.mp4. Time: 1:09]

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 focused on our Heavenly Father.

And 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 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 these 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 strong wind and the earthquake and the fire!

We tend to elevate the heroes of the Bible so much that we imagine it was easier for them to follow God’s direction 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 last night for dinner?

No… When Joseph woke up, he had to think about it. 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.

[Show ACBC04.mp4. Time: 1:49]

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 loves it. 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 them. I think they’ll be perfect. They need me to save them, to rescue them, to carry them home.” The good news is that 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!

[Show ACBC05.mp4. Time: 2:11]

[1] Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 290.

[2] Matthew 7:24-27 CEB

[3] Keller, 100.

[4] Ibid., 101.

[5] Ibid., 302.

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