Sermon 12-20-15: “Reel Christmas Classics, Part 4: A Christmas Carol”

December 23, 2015

scrooge

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?

7 Responses to “Sermon 12-20-15: “Reel Christmas Classics, Part 4: A Christmas Carol””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree that we are “poor, wretched, and blind,” and generally speaking it is only those who recognize they are in such a state and come to God for “salvation” from such a state who actually obtain salvation. So, those who believe themselves to be “good enough” are those who ultimately are “left outside.”

    But, as you of course recognize to be a continuing theme of mine on this subject, by what “step” do we “obtain” such a salvation? Is it merely to “recognize the need” and “ask for the cure”? Certainly some think so. It strikes me from such sermons as these that you hold to that. Correct?

    I take my lead, however, from the account of Zacchaeus that you reference. Notice WHEN Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.” It was AFTER Zacchaeus said, “The half my goods I give to the poor…,” not before. He recognized his gaping need for salvation, and then he “repented” (agreed to “turn over a new leaf”). Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” “Repent and be baptized, for the forgiveness of sin,” Peter preached at Pentecost (as I recall), in RESPONSE to the cry of those cut to the heart who asked, “What shall we do?” Couldn’t Peter have said, “Do? Why you don’t need to do anything! Just pray the sinner’s prayer.” John the Baptist similarly responded with specific things those who came to him could “do.” So, it is necessary, but not sufficient merely, to recognize you are in need of forgiveness, You have to be “willing to change” (regardless of the fact that we never PERFECTLY change–the point isn’t the “success rate,” but the “change of heart” to “move in the right direction”).

    • brentwhite Says:

      Where in my sermon do I say that repentance isn’t necessary? I’m guessing you’re referring to this paragraph?

      “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!”

      This reflects classic Reformation theology. It’s not that repentance isn’t necessary, it’s only that repentance isn’t something, as I say, that we do on our own—it’s done by the Holy Spirit working through us. Otherwise it’s a meritorious work that contradicts, among other passages, Ephesians 2:8-9. We are justified by faith alone, not by faith and a little bit of works.

      I hate to argue with you about this because, regardless who “does the work” in repentance, we both believe that the end result is the same: you, me, and Zacchaeus will have repented as part of our saving faith in Christ. It’s just that when we have done it, I’ll look back and say, “This isn’t so much something I’ve done as Christ has done in and through me.”

      I think you’re afraid I’m preaching cheap grace. And maybe in your Baptist church context you have many people who say, “I walked down the aisle when I was twelve, so I don’t have to do anything else.” That’s simply not what I see in my Methodist church context. We Methodists tend to have a problem believing that sin is the fatal problem for which we need Christ’s healing. And this healing comes through faith. We are, in other words, stronger on works than on faith. I’m only speaking in general, as a tendency.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Okay, I see that I misinterpreted your point of emphasis to mean the exclusion of a term not used (as I recall). So we are in agreement that repentance is necessary for salvation. I still am a little reluctant regarding your “[what] Christ has done in and through me” characterization. I do recognize that God ASSISTS us in our walk with him–including in our repentance. However (and perhaps to a point of conflict with “classic Reformation theology,” if need be), I see the “little something” contributed by the “converting” saint to be in fact of considerable importance–despite its possible comparative “minuteness.” It is that which distinguishes predestination from free choice, as I see it. And, perhaps in the same light, distinguishes the “love” universe from the “robot” one (cf. the paper I forwarded to you on “Pleasure, Pain, and the Christian Faith”).

        In other words, though God “freely” offers salvation to all (at great personal expense), he is intently looking for that “something back” to close the deal. Regardless of a point of Paul’s emphasis, I have to give at least equal weight to Christ’s own emphasis. That is why I focused on your Zacchaeus example. Jesus called, Zacchaeus answered, and THEN salvation was confirmed. (By the way, I don’t know that I would characterize Zacchaeus’ “response” as particularly “minute,” in my estimation–only by “comparison” to God’s contribution to the transaction.) Also, when Jesus sent out his disciples, he told them to offer peace; but, if not accepted, then withdraw it. Certainly a conditional offer depending on the response. Also, in another telling incident, in my opinion, the rich young ruler went away sad because he was not willing to meet Jesus’ “condition” of giving away his riches to follow Jesus. As commentary on that incident, Jesus says, “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven!” Evidently, while “comparatively” small, the required “response” can be quite significant in its own right!

        And that is just the thing. While we are right to focus on what God has done, I rather think that when God is looking at the “transaction,” he may focus somewhat on what WE have done. That is, when God comes to “judge and reward,” won’t he be looking at “our” contribution? As distinguished from his? Is he going to say, “Congratulations to Brent and Tom, for what I worked in them”? Or will he, as Revelation says, “judge each man according to his works”? What God does is, as it were, a “constant,” whereas what we do is the “variable” which determines the ultimate “reaction.” No question but that what God does is the more significant and costly thing, and no question but that the Spirit indwells and assists, but isn’t it a point of some note to the overall result what WE “contribute”?

      • brentwhite Says:

        I’m not denying our responsibility before God to perform good works. But I am relying on my Wesleyan-Arminian tradition (consistent as it is with classic Reformation theology) that our works are “agreeing” to let the Spirit work through us. Wesley, alongside the Reformers, believed that this best represents the witness of all of scripture.

        Not that appealing to any authority settles the question, but what Roger Olson says here does represent classical Protestant thinking (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2015/11/where-calvinists-lutherans-arminians-and-some-catholics-agree/):

        As much as some non-Arminians fuss and fume in protest, classical, true, faithful Arminians (as opposed to Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians) all believe, always have believed, that every aspect of salvation, including good works, comes from God’s grace such that no human being, however, spiritual, can take any credit for it or boast of it.

        When I was growing up Arminian Pentecostal, and since becoming Arminian Baptist, I have always believed, been taught, and then taught myself, that any “rewards” we receive in heaven for good works we will immediately “cast at Jesus’ feet” because we will know that they were all by his grace alone.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Okay, I will look at the Olson article. Meanwhile, maybe I am a “Semi-Pelagian.” I don’t know Church history or the debate over that particular theology well enough to know. (Amazing, though, how many people have come before who had similar great thoughts to what I have! 🙂 Just joking!)

        Seriously, I think the “casting down of crowns” to be misunderstood somewhat. What do you think Christ is going to do with all those “cast down crowns”? I think he will lovingly pick them back up and put them back on the heads of those who cast them down–after all, he is the one who put them there to begin with! The “casting down” is our recognition of the greater “greatness” of Christ and what he has done–our receipt of the crowns in the first place is God’s recognition of our own contributions. (Why else would Paul reference the crowns at all in the first place?)

        Why does it seem a thing so hard to accept that the God who created us, and “gave us dominion,” and a job to do, is interested in our own “contributions,” not only interested in what he himself did insofar as what we do with that? For that matter, if we “give God ALL the glory,” would that not mean that we have to give him all the blame as well? I mean, why did he “curse” me to be a lawyer ( 🙂 ), and “bless” you to be a pastor? (Speaking somewhat tongue in cheek, of course, as to that.) More seriously, why would God “bless” my brothers to me more devout and obedient than me? The point is, it is largely MY fault things fell out to be that way, not God’s. So, when I do actually do “something good” once in awhile, I thank God for his grace, but also recognize I had something of a “shining moment” myself in so doing. You can’t have it one way and not the other.

      • brentwhite Says:

        You’re mistaking me for a Calvinist. 😉 Remember, I do believe we offer God our consent, which is itself a response to a prior grace. For that we’re responsible. That’s not nothing, I suppose, but it’s a very small thing. Oh well… There’s tension and mystery here. But let me ask you a personal question: Are you (unlike me) not susceptible to feeling an unhealthy kind of guilt? I like knowing that no part of my salvation depends on my doing.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        “Guilt,” yes. “Unhealthy,” probably sometimes, but not so sure generally. In other words, it is healthy if it is “godly sorrow,” which leads to repentance. My point being, I don’t think “feeling guilty” is necessarily a bad thing, as some seem to teach. James tells us to “weep and howl” over our sins. I get tired of the phrase, “It’s under the blood.” Well, of course all sin is, or we wouldn’t be going to heaven. But to suggest that somehow “gets us off the hook” is, I think, erroneous. “Man shall give account of every idle word,” Jesus points out. What carries me (as a current “once saved” advocate–though I am not so sure recently as a result of ongoing debates at work with a “faller”) is that no matter what else, the relationship that was once created will not be destroyed. I have received the “Seal of the Spirit,” which is the “guarantee” of the “good things to come.” (If I become a “faller,” though, then the “burden” to obey will simply be greater than it already is.)

        Maybe this is a good analogy, or not. I trust that my dear wife is not going to divorce me, louse that I sometimes am. But, what? Is there no need to “work on the marriage”? Of course there is. And why? For one thing, it brings for the benefits of a happier and stronger relationship. So, when I fail to do that, I think I should certainly feel “guilty” about that, and I think the guilty feeling would be a good thing, as a motivation to “do better.” Similarly with my relationship with Christ. Where it could turn bad is if I felt like there was no way I would ever get any better, so why try? In that respect, “a righteous man falls down seven times, and rises up again.” We should not, as Christians (or as believing husbands), ever feel that “all is lost.” If we do, then that becomes bad. But as a “motivator” to do better, I don’t find anything wrong with “guilt” being a part of that.


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