This sermon uses themes from the 1984 George C. Scott adaptation of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” to illustrate Jesus’ Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:12-24. It explores the nature of idolatry and how it relates to our lives. And, as always (I hope), it communicates the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I’ve inserted the videos below in the order in which they were shown last Sunday.
Sermon Text: Luke 14:12-24
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Last week, Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, announced his decision not to lift the Pete Rose’s permanent ban from the game—a ban put into effect 25 years ago after it became clear that Rose had bet on baseball, both as a manager and player. Although, to be fair, as best anyone can tell he only bet on his team to win, which, if anything, would have given him more incentive to win. Because of this ban, Charlie Hustle, as he was known, the all-time hit leader who sprinted to first base even on walks, who is easily one of the best to ever play the game, and who—from the perspective of a kid growing up in the ’70s and ’80s was never less than a great role-model on the field—this same Pete Rose has been excluded from the Baseball Hall of Fame.
He wants in the hall so badly. No one will invite him. You know why he can’t get in? Not only because of the sins he committed while he was coaching and playing, but also because he’s lied to the baseball commissioner since then—to hide embarrassing details about his sins. No one else ever does that! And because he continues to gamble on baseball in Vegas, where it’s a perfectly legal activity. Not that anyone else does that, either!
And I’m not minimizing these particular sins, I promise. But something about this story scratches the grace itch with me. Why can’t baseball forgive him?
And I think I feel this way because I know who I am; I know what’s in my heart; I know I’m a sinner; I know what it’s like to try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail again. I know what it’s like to want something so badly, yet at the same time know that I’m not worthy enough to receive a prize—to know that I’m disqualified through my bad behavior. And I’m talking about a prize far greater than admission into any sports hall of fame. I’m talking about admission into God’s kingdom, into God’s family.
God knows I deserved to be admitted there far less than Pete Rose deserves to be admitted into the hall of fame. Except when I knocked at the door, I found a God who was “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” He was eager to forgive me, eager to welcome me in.
This is what the Parable of the Great Banquet in today’s scripture describes: the ones who thought they deserved to be there were excluded, while the sinners like me, who knew they were sinners, they were the ones who were invited in.
And this is the good news that the family of panhandlers on the street were singing about in our clip: “On Christmas night all Christians sing to hear the news the angels bring.” And that news was this: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord… Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
This is good news for the shepherds abiding in the field in Luke chapter 2, for the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind whom Jesus mentions in his parable. It’s for liars and inveterate gamblers like Pete Rose. In fact, it’s even for sinners like you and me!
Scrooge’s nephew, Fred Holywell, says, “Come, dine with us tomorrow.” “Dine?” Scrooge laughs. “I’d see myself in hell first!”
It’s interesting he mentions hell, because, when we look at the parable that Jesus tells us in today’s scripture, that’s exactly right: If we don’t accept the master’s invitation, we will see ourselves in hell. This is even clearer in the version of Jesus’ parable that Matthew records in his gospel.
We must accept our Lord’s invitation to dine at his banquet, which is an important image for heaven, or go to hell. The choice is ours. And this invitation is free! Notice what Fred says: “I want nothing from you. I ask nothing of you. Why can’t we be friends?”
Similarly, Christ wants us to be friends with him—and his heavenly Father. One difference, of course, is that Christ does want something and does ask something of us—everything we have, every part of our lives. But he knows that, without his help, we are incapable of giving our lives to him on our own—so Christ will do all the heavy lifting through the Holy Spirit. All we give him is our consent—we agree to let him do it for us!
And notice, our Lord is persistent with us—the same way that Fred is persistent with Scrooge in this clip. As he says his wife, “I mean to give him the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not.” As long as we live, our Lord doesn’t quit inviting. As long as we have a next year, he’ll invite us then, too.
But some day our life will come to an end. And at that point, the invitation ceases. And in way, God gives us what we’ve told him, by turning him down over and over again, what we want: for him to leave us alone. Hell is, finally, God giving us what we want. As C.S. Lewis says, “There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done.’ And those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’”
What kind are you?
It’s ironic: Belle, Scrooge’s fiancée, says she releases him, that Scrooge is free from their engagement. But of course he’s not free. In fact, as Marley’s ghost points out, he’s begun forging an invisible chain, which, unless he becomes unshackled, will bind him eternally.
But in this scene we can see so clearly the nature of Scrooge’s sin. It is, as Belle tells him, idolatry—a golden idol she calls the the pursuit of profit. And this is the what idolatry is: placing ultimate value—absolute value—to something other than God. Swearing allegiance to it, giving loyalty to it, trusting in something other than God to give our lives meaning.
If you can imagine it, we’re all born with this empty tank within us that’s meant only to be filled with God, but short of God we’ll find any number of cheaper substitutes.
In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, what we old-timers used to just call Star Wars, Obi Wan Kenobi said: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” And, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, you know that the “force” has once again awakened. In Britain, the Church of Jediism, which began as a joke in 2001, but is now on the cusp of becoming an actual religion based on the principles of the Force, claims to have 250,000 adherents. Leading up to the release of the new movie, they’ve been signing up 1,000 new followers a day.
This shouldn’t surprise us: We want to have a meaning and purpose in our lives. We want to be living for something greater than ourselves. We want to be fulfilled. We want to fill up our empty tank with something. Scrooge is filling it up with the pursuit of business success: this thing that, as his late partner Marley points out, should have been “but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean” of all the other things he should have valued as much or more than business success.
What is it in your life—besides your relationship with God—that you can’t live without? What thing or person in your life could you not afford to lose? Or if you lost it, you would just fall apart?
That, my friends, might be your idol.
After the Ghost of Christmas Present enables Scrooge to face the reality of people in his life whom he had mistreated—Bob Cratchit, his employee, and Fred Holywell his nephew—including the lives of the poor and destitute he had callously disregarded before, he feels genuine sorrow for his sins—which is not the same as repentance, as we’ll see in this next clip.
I gave blood last week, as I frequently do. I’m O-negative, so my blood is probably worth more than yours. I’m a “most valuable person” in the eyes of the Red Cross. So I gave blood, and my blood pressure was high. It tends to be elevated when I have it taken by doctors or nurses—“white coat syndrome,” they call it—so I’ve been monitoring on and off for years. And this past week it’s stayed high, even when I’ve taken it at home. And that concerns me—who is borderline hypochondriac as it is. So I’ve been stressed out about possibly having high blood pressure, which doesn’t help my blood pressure, oddly enough.
But I told Lisa, “I don’t want to have high blood pressure! I don’t want to be on blood pressure medication! I don’t want to be someone who has to take blood pressure medication.” And she said, “But this is why you’ve been monitoring it all these years. So that if there is a problem, you can identify it and get it treated. Isn’t that why you’ve been doing it all these years?”
And I blurted out: “No… I haven’t been monitoring my blood pressure all these years so that I can get it treated if I have a problem. I’ve been monitoring my blood pressure all these years to prove to myself and my doctor that I don’t have a problem! To prove that I’m O.K.”
And this applies to so many parts of my life it isn’t funny!
I have this desperate, desperate desire to prove to myself—and prove to the world—that I’m O.K. That, sure, while I have a few problems, of course, I’m mostly a good person—a valuable person, a person worthy of love; a person worthy of respect; a person worthy of recognition and praise. You see, this is what I often use to fill up my empty tank—instead of God. And because this is a desire for something less than God, it will never be enough. I can’t get enough of it, and I can’t be satisfied.
I’m so relieved recently when I read about a pastor who said that when a parishioner in the greeting line tells him, “That was the best sermon I’ve ever heard you preach,” he said he takes it as a criticism: “She’s really saying that all your previous sermons were terrible!” And he feels judged by others. Or… if he gets a lot of praise for a sermon, he’ll think to himself, “I’ll never do as well as that again. People will be expecting me to do that every week, and I can’t live up to that expectation, and I’ll disappoint them, and they’ll stop coming.” And he feels judged.
And I’m like, “Right there with you, buddy. I know how you feel.” Or worse: I think, “At least I’m not as messed up as that person!” And then I judge him. So there’s no winning.
I’m a mess. And you probably are too. Right? We pretend we’re not. We try to hide our “dark side” from others. We make ourselves feel better by judging others, but we’re still a mess, too. And we have these gods whose approval we desperately seek. But they’re fickle. Sometimes they’ll make us feel good about ourselves, but often they just make us feel worse.
And this is where Scrooge is in this clip we just saw. He’s spent his entire adult life trying to prove his worth—to his absent father, if you know the whole story. But he’s trying to prove his worth not by looking to Jesus Christ and what he’s done for him, but by making money. And finally the cracks are starting to show. He’s built his life on the wrong foundation, and soon the whole house will fall down. Scrooge isn’t there all the way, yet: “Perhaps I have made some mistakes here and there.” And he asks, “What have I done to be abandoned like this?”
See, by minimizing his sin, Scrooge still thinks that he’s part of that first group of people whom the master invited to the big banquet—the beautiful people, the smart people, the popular people, the good people, the wealthy people. He doesn’t yet know that he belongs in that second group; he doesn’t yet know that he’s spiritually poor, spiritually crippled, spiritually lame, and spiritually blind. But he’ll get there soon, as we see in this final clip…
After Zacchaeus, the corrupt and greedy tax collector in Luke 19, repents and believes in Jesus, Jesus says of him: “Today salvation has come to this house… For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Similarly salvation has come to Scrooge’s house.
When he sees his own gravestone and worries that he’s run out of chances to repent, he says to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “Tell me that I may sponge away the writing on this stone.” And of course, he—Scrooge—may not sponge it away. First, we will all die—or our lives will be interrupted by the Second Coming of Christ. Either way, we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. The outcome of that judgment will depend entirely on whether we have trusted in Christ now—on this side of eternity.
Will we trust in him?
You see, we have all received our invitations to this great banquet feast. Some of us have accepted. But some of us are still making excuses—sending our regrets. “Here’s why I can’t come right now.” Enough with the excuses! I want you to make this the greatest Christmas ever—by doing what Scrooge did. Repenting of your sins and opening your heart to the good news of Jesus Christ.
In the previous clip, Scrooge asks what he’s done to be abandoned. By the end of the film, he knows… He knows that being abandoned by God is the penalty that his sins deserve. But what does Christ say on the cross? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken”—or abandoned—“me?” And the answer is, God has abandoned his Son in order that we may not be abandoned by God. On the cross, God the Son sponged out our names on our marker of death and attached his own. Remember the sign on the cross? “This is the king of the Jews.” Our name belonged there, but Christ wrote his instead. Now, through the cross, and our faith in Christ’s atoning work, we can be sure that our name is now written in heaven—in the book of life.
Is your name written there?