This sermon uses clips from the movie “Elf” to explore themes related to God’s gift of salvation, faith, and Christian discipleship. It connects Jesus’ words about children in Mark 10:13-16 to the movie. Enjoy! I’ve inserted YouTube clips, where possible, in place of the clips I showed in the worship service.
Sermon Text: Mark 10:13-16
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Clip 1: As a baby, Buddy is in an orphanage. When Santa visits, Buddy crawls into his bag of toys and winds up at the North Pole, where he’s adopted by Papa Elf, played by Bob Newhart.
So this human child, who was named Buddy, was raised as an elf in the North Pole. And as we’ll see in a moment, he had a special mission to fulfill—I want to say “on earth,” but of course the North Pole is also on earth. But it’s just that the rest of the world—the world south of the North Pole—is very different from the world of Santa and the elves—far less friendly, far more dangerous, far more cynical. This is the world into which Buddy is sent.
But I want to take a moment to appreciate an unsung hero of this story: Papa Elf, played by Bob Newhart. The adoptive father to Buddy. Think about it: Buddy becomes the person he is, and is able to do the heroic things that he does, in part because of the role that Papa Elf played in his life.
Now… If that’s true of Buddy the Elf, don’t you think it’s true of Jesus, too? I mean, have you ever wondered why God chose Joseph to be the adoptive father of Jesus?
Before we answer that, let’s think through the mystery of the Incarnation: Jesus didn’t emerge from the womb on that first Christmas endowed with superhuman knowledge, power, and wisdom, fully equipped from birth to be Messiah and Son of God. On the contrary, after the 12-year-old Jesus visits the temple in Jerusalem in Luke chapter 2, Luke writes that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” While he was without sin, Jesus grew physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
That’s why, by the way, I never understood the line in “Away in the Manger” about “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” He was as helpless and vulnerable as any baby, needing the love and care of his parents. Of course Jesus cried! Why wouldn’t he cry?
The point is, Jesus grew into the person that he did in part because of Joseph—his love, his example, his instruction, his discipline. He wasn’t simply a “chip off the old block” because he was like his heavenly Father—although he was that, too—but also because he was like his earthly father, Joseph.
In fact, every time Jesus spoke of God as a loving Father—for example, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son—he did so in part because of his experience of Joseph as a loving father. I can only imagine that God chose Joseph to be Jesus’ father because he must have been the greatest earthly father who ever lived!
To say the least, this challenges me to think more soberly about my role as a human father! What about you? Because just think: If you have a child, that means that God chose you to be that child’s parent. For a reason! That’s an awesome responsibility! But if God chose you, that means he’s also giving you the grace to be successful at it!
Clip 2: Buddy, realizing he’s human and not an elf, decides to leave the North Pole, with Santa’s and Papa Elf’s blessing, to find his biological father. Before leaving Santa tells him that his father is on the “naughty” list.
I have a friend who’s a non-practicing Jew, very secular-oriented, and he asked me a couple of weeks ago. “So are your parishioners upset about Starbucks not putting Christmas decorations on their holiday-themed coffee cups?” Well, are you? Perhaps I should have polled my congregation first, but I took the liberty of answering on your behalf and said, “No! In fact, I don’t know any Christians who are upset about that! The only Christians who were upset were those Christians who were upset about Christians being upset!” Or something like that… The point is, every Christmas season we hear about some new battle in the “War on Christmas.” While there may be battles worth fighting in that particular war, a trivial thing like a coffee cup or a cashier saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” isn’t one of them.
No, if we’re going to get upset about something related to the “War on Christmas,” let’s get upset about that very anti-Christmas, anti-Christian song that’s plays on our radios round the clock during Christmas season. I’m talking about the song “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”: “He’s making a list/ He’s checking it twice/ He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.” Nice children get toys, the song says, naughty ones get lumps of coal.
Think about it: According to this song, Santa isn’t the giver of gifts. He’s in the business of doling out rewards and punishments. You’ll get rewarded if you behave well—if you perform good works.
By contrast, when we talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the gift of forgiveness, grace, and salvation, good behavior and good works have nothing to do with it: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Salvation is a completely free gift.
I admit we Methodists, of all people, often struggle with this idea. We get confused because we talk so much about what happens after salvation—what we do after salvation—that process called sanctification. I talk about it. But please, please, please… make no mistake: The gift of salvation—forgiveness of sin eternal life, adoption as God’s children—is not conditioned by what we do after we’re saved. Consider a Christmas gift: What if you forget to send a thank-you note right away? Or, when you do, the note poorly written or insincere? I’m thinking of a pair of fish-shaped salad tongs that Lisa and I got for a wedding gift one time. We wrote a thank-you note, but I can’t guarantee that what we wrote was sincere.
Or what if you never send a note at all? Will the gift-giver come to your house and take the gift away? Of course not! If the gift-giver tried to take it away, then he or she was just proving it wasn’t a gift after all.
The point is, unlike “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the gift doesn’t depend on what we do or what we deserve. You know what a gift is called when it’s something that we deserve? A wage—a payment for services rendered. If God paid us what we deserved to be paid, based on what we do, well… we wouldn’t be here talking right now. Because God would have wiped us off the face of the earth already.
No. The gift of salvation isn’t given because we deserve it at all. It’s completely free. And as
The gospel of Jesus Christ begins with this premise: Every single one of us is on the “naughty” list. The question is, what are we going to do about it? Or maybe a better question is, “What is God going to do about it?”
It’s in part because Buddy’s dad is on the naughty list that he leaves his home in the North Pole and comes to “save” his biological father. Does that sound like anyone else we know?
Clip 3: Buddy arrives in New York, dressed in his elf outfit. He views the city with childlike wonder. He meets his dad at his office in the Empire State Building. His dad takes him to his doctor who confirms that Buddy is, indeed, his son.
Next Friday, the new Star Wars movie opens. Have any of you got your tickets? If you had gotten your tickets, you would have done what everyone would do: purchase them through your smartphone or computer. And then show up 30 minutes or so before the movie starts, go to the concession stand, and take your seat. Or you could do it the old-fashioned way: wait outside the Chinese Theater in Hollywood—or camp outside—for 12 days. As of last Tuesday, that’s what at least a hundred Star Wars fans had begun doing.
When I read stuff like that, I wonder: “Don’t you have jobs? Don’t you have families? Don’t you have adult responsibilities? How on earth can you afford to do that?” The truth is, it’s a very child-like thing to do. In fact, it’s what many of these fans are re-living their childhood, because it’s what they did when they were younger, when earlier Star Wars movies came out.
When Jesus warns us in today’s scripture that we must “receive the kingdom like a child” or else we won’t enter it, he doesn’t mean that we should be childish or irresponsible adults. I don’t think, for example, it’s a good idea to pick up pieces of previously chewed on the subway railing in Manhattan and pop them in our mouths.
Still, there are some attributes of children that we should emulate—that we must emulate, Jesus says—if we want to be saved. So this couldn’t be more important. Let’s get clear about what he means!
First, recall that I spoke earlier about how salvation is a completely free gift. Now think about how we adults receive Christmas gifts. If a gift is too lavish, too ostentatious, too luxurious, too expensive, we will naturally be reluctant to receive it. First, we might worry that it comes with strings attached: Why are you giving me this? What do you want me to do in return? See, we don’t quite trust the gift-giver that the gift is really free. So we’re suspicious. But more often, even when we know that the gift-giver has no ulterior motive, when someone gives us a gift that we perceive is too lavish, too luxurious, too expensive, we’ll be reluctant to receive it because we’ll say, “This is too much! I don’t deserve this!”
But when it comes to God’s gift of salvation, that’s exactly right! That’s the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ! You don’t deserve it!
Now think about how children receive gifts. They couldn’t care less about how much it costs the gift-giver! Money means nothing to them. They don’t give a thought about somehow being worthy of the gift, or earning the gift, or paying the gift-giver back. They just gladly, joyously receive it. “Mine, mine, mine! This is mine! This belongs to me! This has my name on it!” And that’s wonderful, in a way—to receive a gift so wholeheartedly.
If you can’t receive this gift as a child, you’ll never be saved! Because you don’t understand that you are, apart from God’s grace, hopelessly lost and bound for judgment and hell. If you imagine for a moment that you don’t need the gift or that you can begin to pay it back, then you don’t understand the depth of your problem before God! This is why Jesus says that the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God ahead of the Pharisees because the Pharisees harbored the illusion that they were already O.K. before God; the well-known sinners already knew that they weren’t O.K. So they were ready to receive the good news of the gospel.
In this next scene, Buddy has been mistaken for an employee of a department store’s “North Pole”-style toy department.
Clip 4: Buddy exposes the Gimbels department store Santa as a fraud.
In Mark chapter 3, Jesus calls his twelve disciples: “And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”
A professor from Asbury Seminary, Joseph Dongell, made this observation from these verses: He said that the main task of a disciple is not to go out and do something; it’s to be something. Disciples are those who are desired by Jesus, who come to Jesus, and who are appointed, first, in order to be with Jesus. Jesus called them so that they might first be with Jesus.
Our relationship with Jesus, therefore, not the things we do for Jesus, is our top priority. We disciples are, Dongell said, not God’s “workforce,” but his “being-with-Jesus force.” Being with Jesus should be our top priority in life.
So is it?
We should be able to say, along with Buddy in this clip, “I know him! I know him!” Because we’ve spent so much time with him—listening to him through his Word, talking to him through prayer.
Of course, when Buddy says he knows Santa, people think he’s crazy, because, after all, Santa isn’t someone who’s knowable. Not the real Santa. The only “Santa” anyone can know is that employee at the department store who wears a fake beard and costume.
In the minds of many people, Jesus is no more real than Santa. He shows up around Thanksgiving; he brings a message that has something to do with love and generosity; he makes an appearance in about half the Christmas songs they play on the radio; and then on December 26, he’s gone again until the same time next year.
But that’s not the real Jesus. How desperately the world needs to know the real Jesus! Are we introducing him to others? Can people see through our lives that we really do know him—or could we be accused of being “fake” Christians, just like this department store Santa is accused of being a fake?
I love that Buddy the Elf said, “You don’t smell like Santa.”
This may seem like a strange image, but the Bible actually says that we should know Jesus so well and be so close to Jesus that we smell like Christ. Paul writes, “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” The point is that people should be able to see Jesus, or sense Jesus, within us. If we give off a “pleasing aroma,” as Paul says, then our relationship with Christ is something that people should notice about us.
This movie says that “Christmas spirit” is the “magic” that causes Santa’s reindeer to fly. Without Christmas spirit, the sleigh can’t even get off the ground—and that’s the crisis that Santa faces near the end of the movie. But not to worry: Buddy’s infectious personality has a way of reviving the Christmas spirit within everyone he meets—even his father, who—remember—was on the “naughty” list. What I want you to notice in this last clip is that people who know Buddy become happy… they become joyful.
Clip 5: In this montage, Buddy dances with mailroom employees at his dad’s office, goes on a date with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), and generates the required amount of “Christmas spirit” in order to get Santa’s sleigh off the ground. In other words, he saves Christmas.
I’m a big Frank Sinatra fan, and I noticed that the song “You Make Me Feel So Young” was playing in the background when Buddy took Jovie—the character played by Zooey Deschanel—on a date. The words include the following:
You make me feel so young
You make me feel there are songs to be sung
Bells to be rung
And a wonderful fling to be flung
And as I was watching this, I was thinking, this movie was made in 2003. Zooey Deschanel is only 35 today; which means she was 23 when this film was made. I’m like, how much younger would she need to feel!
But again, getting back to today’s scripture, even 23 is old if you’ve abandoned the kind of child-like trust that Jesus says we’re supposed to have in our heavenly Father. Personally, I was much older at 23 than I am today. Because when I was 23 I thought I’d figured everything out. I thought that my life was in my hands—under my control. I thought that I was the captain of my soul, that I was independent, that it was all up to me to make something of myself.
Remember earlier when Walter’s doctor tells him that Buddy is “probably just reverting a state of childlike dependency.”
Well, that happened to me, too! And I hope it happens to you, too! I hope we all develop this child-like dependency on our heavenly Father.
If we do, who knows? We may even feel like singing and dancing and celebrating this amazing gift of love that God has given us through Christmas!
 Luke 2:52
 Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV
 2 Corinthians 2:15 ESV