This sermon, illustrated using clips from the 1983 film “A Christmas Story,” is mostly about greed: our sinful tendency to desire far less than what God wants to give us. But it’s also about the gospel of Jesus Christ, which, in a way, also comes through in this movie.
Scripture: Luke 15:11-24
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
The following is my original sermon manuscript. The video clips from A Christmas Story that were shown in the service are included. Please note: The first two minutes of my sermon video are missing, due to operator error. 🙄 For the missing part, refer to the manuscript.
How many of us grown-ups don’t feel a pang of nostalgia when we see that? I do! We remember what it’s like to desire one great toy for Christmas… If only Santa or our parents could give us one great toy for Christmas. It’s a wonderful feeling—desiring something. It’s an emotion, of course, that marketers and advertisers exploit very well. Just a year ago, comedian Jerry Seinfeld received an honorary Clio Award. A “Clio” is the equivalent of the Academy Awards for the advertising industry. And the words of his acceptance speech were brutally honest and deeply cynical, in a way that surely made advertising industry executives in his audience squirm in their seats. He said:
I love advertising because I love lying. In advertising, everything is the way you wish it was. I don’t care that it won’t be like that when I actually get the product being advertised because in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing, I’m happy, and that’s all I want… We know the product is going to stink. We know that. Because we live in the world and we know that everything stinks. We all believe, ‘Hey, maybe this one won’t stink.’ We are a hopeful species. Stupid but hopeful.
I’m sure Seinfeld is exaggerating here. I doubt he believes that “everything stinks” in the world; I certainly don’t. I don’t even believe that the Christmas gifts we desire will inevitably let us down. But I do agree with Seinfeld to this extent: Everything in the world has the potential of stinking. Why? Because of sin. It infects everything, and it’s everywhere. And it certainly has the ability to corrupt our desires, to confuse us about what we really need to be happy, to be satisfied. There’s nothing at all wrong with Ralphie desiring this Red Ryder BB gun, just as there’s nothing wrong with our wanting things. But the question is, why do we think we need them? What do we think possessing them is going to do for us?
Our problem comes when we ask this thing—this toy, this shiny object, this gadget, this house, this car, this number in our bank account—to fill a need that only God can fill.
I was a bachelor this weekend; Lisa and Elisa are celebrating my daughter’s 16th birthday at Disney World. So the boys and I went to see the Peanuts Movie. Throughout the movie, Charlie Brown is trying to win the love of the Little Red-Headed Girl. And every time he fails. Something goes wrong. Except… It turns out that he somehow scores a perfect score on a standardized test. It’s never been done before, and Charlie Brown is hailed as a hero by all of his classmates. In fact, the school is having an assembly to recognize his accomplishment. He receives a medal. And as he approaches the podium to give a speech—and sees that the red-headed girl is in the audience—he’s certain he’s really going to impress her and win her love this time. Only… as he’s walking to the podium he’s handed back his test. And he realizes it isn’t his. There was a mix-up when he handed it in, and he wrote his name on the wrong test.
So he has a decision to make: Does he tell the whole school, including the Little Red-Headed Girl—that he didn’t deserve this recognition, or does he keep that information to himself. After all, he’s the only one who’ll ever know.
My point is, when it comes to our possessions, we do a very similar thing: We take something that doesn’t ultimately belong to us—because, as I preached about during Stewardship season, everything we have comes from God and belongs to God—and we use it to do something that it can’t ultimately do. Even if Charlie Brown takes what doesn’t belong to him—the recognition from getting a perfect score—it’s not going give him what he really needs; it’s not going to buy him love—either the love of the red-headed girl, the love of his classmates, and certainly not the love that he owes himself. Similarly, if we take what belongs to God and misuse it through our greed, it’s not going to buy us what we really need, either.
Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” What does it consist in? Only this: the love, grace, and mercy that comes from God through Jesus Christ. But I’ll say more about that in a moment.
So this year’s Georgia-Georgia Tech game, in which my beloved Yellow Jackets lost a very close game, passed mostly without my giving in to the sin of anger… Mostly. I’ve told you before about the incident many years ago, when my kids were little, and I got so angry about Tech losing in the last minute of the game that I kicked the couch. And years later, my kids still remind me of that, and we all laugh about it. Which is good. But my anger is not a laughing matter, and the Holy Spirit has been working with me to heal me of it for a while.
And at the root of my anger is pride. Even in this trivial example of a football game, it’s like… if my team wins or loses, it’s somehow a reflection on me. When Tech loses, I’ve done something wrong. Isn’t that silly. But that’s how it feels. It’s not that my favorite team lost; it’s that I lost. And that’s sinful pride.
And pride causes us so much unnecessary pain in our lives—it’s just like sticking our tongues to a frozen utility pole!
One of the conflicts that Paul is dealing with in 1 Corinthians relates to pride. People were choosing sides: “I’m rooting for Paul’s team.” “Well, I’m better than you because I’m rooting for Peter’s team.” “Well, I’m better than both of you because I’m on Team Apollos.” And people were saying things about Paul, which, if they said them about me, would mortally wound my ego—just devastate me! Not Paul. He writes these words to some of his opponents in the church: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.”
Oh, Lord, let us be like that! Let us not care what anyone else thinks—except the only one whose opinion matters: our Lord Jesus! Let’s resolve to be faithful to him alone, and let the chips fall where they may!
In last week’s eNews article I expressed my deep admiration for the now former University of Georgia football coach Mark Richt. After a very successful career at Georgia for the past 15 years, it had to be heartbreaking to him to be fired. But at his press conference, he had a great Christian attitude: he said he didn’t doubt for a moment that this new chapter in his life was also a part of God’s plan for him. Therefore, even for this setback he could be grateful.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher, said, “He who has a why to live for can endure almost any how.” Given that Richt works in the upper echelon of a famously cutthroat profession, it may surprise many people that Richt’s why isn’t college football glory but God’s glory.
As I said in my eNews article, even as a pastor—a very different profession from college football coaching—I frequently lose sight of this! I get distracted by lesser things, and fail to keep my eye on what’s most important.
When Richt was saying goodbye to the players on his team, he left them with these last words: “Life is about people, not rings”—or championships. “Rings collect dust.” I’m sure there are fans and administrators in Miami right now who wish he didn’t say that—because they really want rings!
And don’t we all! Don’t we all want rings of some kind, tokens of our personal glory, symbols of worldly success—be they secret decoder pins or “major awards”! But all of these things promise something they can’t deliver. All these things are far less than what we really need!
“I slowly began to realize I was not about to be destroyed. From then on things were different between me and my mother.”
What was different? From then on, Ralphie realized that his mother was not going to destroy him. From then on he would know that compassion, and mercy, and grace were going to win out over judgment, wrath, and death. From then on, he would know that his mother was on his side—she wasn’t against him, she wasn’t out to get him. From then on, Ralphie would know that nothing he would do from this point forward would separate him from his mother’s love. That bond of love was, in fact, unbreakable. Even when he disappointed her, even when he sinned, even when he failed to love her in return, it would not affect her love for him. Think of the great compassion that Ralphie’s mother had for him.
Brothers and sisters, our heavenly Father loves us like that!
Think about our parable! The younger son who’s squandered his father’s property, threatened the livelihood of his father and older brother, told his father in so many words that he wished he were dead—he did all that to his father. And now he’s going home—because he’s starving. He can’t predict how his father will respond. But he knows what he deserves. He knows he’ll be punished. At best, all he can hope is that the father will at least let him live like a slave. So when he sees his father instead respond with such great compassion, mercy, and love, what does he think?
“I slowly began to realize, I was not about to be destroyed. From then on things were different between me and my father.”
And so it is with us. Our God refused to let sin separate us from him for eternity—he refused to let us get what we deserved. He refused to let us suffer hell. He loved us too much. And he knew before the foundation of the world the price he would pay to save us—God himself would come into the world in Christ and die on a cross. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
And now things are different between us and God. There is now no condemnation! If we’ll only receive the free gift that he’s offering us!
In this last scene, Ralphie has gotten his BB gun. The mom is preparing a turkey dinner. When the family receives an unwelcome visit from the next door neighbors’ many dogs after the back door is accidentally left open.
“Life is like that,” says the narrator. “Sometimes at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”
Yes, they do!
This was a minor disaster, to be sure, but I love the way the father responded to it. You could see that this wasn’t easy for him. Turkey was his favorite part of Christmas. Yet when it was taken away from him, he did not “kick the proverbial couch.” Instead, after getting his anger under control, he forced a smile and told his family, “Go upstairs. Get dressed. We’re going out to eat.”
That’s a good dad. He rose to the occasion.
If you’re a dad, if you’re a parent, if you’re a human being, you are constantly being called upon to rise to the occasion. You’re constantly being called upon to deal with adversity. You’re constantly being called upon to handle disasters with calm, with resolve, with equanimity.
So how are you doing at it? Be honest: are you, in your own way, kicking the couch? I have a friend who teaches psychology at a university in town, and he said that most of the suffering in life comes not from the disaster itself, but how we respond to it. And in my experience, I know that’s true!
But my friend is speaking only from a secular perspective. We have God’s Word. And in it, we’re told things like “Rejoice always… give thanks in all things.” We’re told that God has “hemmed us in, behind and before,” and that we are held securely in God’s hand. We’re told that in all things God works for good of those who love him. We’re told that the grace of Jesus Christ is sufficient in every circumstance. We’re told that nothing separates us from God’s love.
This means that God has a plan for our lives, and he’s working that plan when our joy is at its zenith, when all is right with the world, and when disasters, large and small, happen—and they will. But when they happen, we can say, “Well, this isn’t what I planned or wanted—but I’m not in charge here. I wonder what the Lord is up to? He must have something better for me than I planned.” God must have something better for me than I planned!
Do we have the faith to stare a disaster in the face and say that?
Consider this clip we just saw: Ralphie and his family all wanted turkey dinner at home, but look at this great blessing they would have missed out on if the neighbors’ dogs hadn’t come in and ruined dinner! They got something better than what they planned: They got a memory that lasted a lifetime!
Life is like that: In my own experience, and in the experience of any number of people I’ve ministered to over the years who’ve gone through disasters both great and small, God has a way of taking the bad stuff and transforming it into something good.
 Luke 12:15
 1 Corinthians 4:3 ESV
 Romans 5:8 ESV
 1 Thessalonians 5:16, 18
 Psalm 139:5, 10
 Romans 8:28