Eugene Peterson, the author of the bible translation, The Message, wrote, “Every year Christmas comes around again and forces us to deal with God in the context of demanding and inconvenient children; gatherings of family members, many of whom we spend the rest of the year avoiding; all the crasser forms of greed and commercialized materiality; garish lights and decorations. Or maybe it’s the other way around… Christmas forces us to deal with all the mess of our humanity in the context of God who has already entered that mess in the glorious birth of Jesus.”
Yesterday we decorated the church for this coming season of Christmas, in which we welcome Jesus the Christ to be born again into the mess of humanity. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a season the church has observed since the 4th century. Advent is not Christmas… it happens alongside and underneath Christmas. Christmas – the cultural holiday – is about buying and selling happiness. But Advent are these four weeks of preparation and expectation leading up to Christmas, and a season of the soul. Advent is a time to make a place for the Christ-child to be born again, into our hearts, and into the world. Advent is a word that means “coming” and during the four weeks of Advent, we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world – past, present, and future – His first coming, the ways He comes to us now, and His future coming when the Kingdom of God is fully realized on earth.
Advent is a prayerful season, and every week, as a new Advent candle is lit, we are given a different word to pray as a breath-prayer. This week’s prayer-word is “peace.” Breathe in… and breathe out the word: peace. In Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus’ coming was foretold, and He would be called, among many things… the Prince of Peace.
Peace is not just the absence of disagreements, or war, or biting back angry words… it’s also looking for common ground; it’s standing together to combat prejudice and injustice; it’s searching for ways to love others, especially others with whom… we don’t have peace. Jesus brought peace to us, to the world. Angels appeared in the night sky when He was born and sang to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid… glory to God… and peace on earth.” Before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus told His friends, “Don’t be afraid… My peace I leave with you.” And after His death, when He appeared to His friends, the Risen Christ said to them, “Peace be with you.” Peace is not the absence of conflict… but it’s the opposite of fear. Today we’ve lit the Advent candle of peace to remember that Christ, who was called Emmanuel, is with us in the past, in the present, and in the future.
At the beginning of Charles Dickens’ famous book, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge has no peace. This story was published in 1863 and takes place at Christmastime, which was Scrooge’s least favorite time of year. Scrooge’s partner, Jacob Marley, was dead, and Scrooge’s soul was almost dead. On Christmas Eve Scrooge goes on a terrifying and transforming journey, and wakes on Christmas morning, a new man. During these four weeks of Advent we’ll journey with Scrooge as he meets the ghosts of the past, the present, and the future. The cultural context that Dickens placed his powerful Christmas story in was England in the 1800’s, which was a time of great divide between the rich and the poor, and Dickens wanted to shed light on that. A Christmas Carol fits well into the season of Advent because it’s a story of the past, the present, and the future, all coming together on one transformative night. In his book, The Redemption of Scrooge, Matt Rawle writes, “The Advent season plays with our notion of time because the church gathers in the present to ponder the past for a future hope.”
To be called “Scrooge” is to be stingy with both money and human affection, and to be greedy, stockpiling wealth at the expense and indifference to the needs of the poor. Charles Dickens described Scrooge as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue… He carried his own low temperature always about him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas… Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, ‘My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?’ No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place of Scrooge. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways.” Scrooge seems irredeemable, and yet at the end of this story, he will be redeemed.
A Christmas Carol is a story of redemption, just as Christmas itself is a story of redemption. To redeem something is to save it or recover it. Money was the only thing Ebenezer Scrooge valued, but his visit with the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas future, showed him that only love can redeem humanity. Love is why Jesus came into the world… and His story, and the story of A Christmas Carol, remind us that there’s no soul too bitter, or cold, for God’s redeeming love. And that includes us.
In contrast to this story about Scrooge’s penny-pinching insecurity, today we’ve heard Jesus’ mother, Mary’s words about banking on God’s mercy and goodness. “With all my heart,” Mary sang, “I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my Savior. The Lord has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. The Lord has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.”
At the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge hears a caroler sing “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlefolk” which we just sang. Scrooge has rejected, mocked, and insulted everyone who’s wished him a Merry Christmas, and he goes home, alone and resentful. Dickens’ wrote, “No warmth could warm Scrooge… No wind that blew was bitterer than he.” At his front door, Scrooge’s doorknocker appears as the ghostly face of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, who is wrapped in chains. Marley warns Scrooge that if he doesn’t change, he too will drag similar chains of loneliness and regret throughout eternity.
Marley leaves Scrooge, rattling his chains until the sound disappears, and Scrooge is alone in his room. He notices, for the first time, that the tiles around his fireplace are pictures of bible stories. They’ve gone unseen, literally and figuratively, for they haven’t influenced his beliefs or his behavior. In response to his nephew Fred’s invitation for Scrooge to spend Christmas with him and his wife, Scrooge’s nasty reply was, “Bah! Humbug! Merry Christmas! What right do you have to be merry?” We, like Scrooge, have pictures in this room that tell us stories from the bible. Scrooge, noticing the bible story pictures surrounding his fireplace, takes the first step of the journey towards redemption. In his encounter with the ghosts of the past, the present, and the future, Scrooge is forced to notice that how he’s lived, and what he’s valued, have left him spiritually and morally bankrupt. As the ghosts make Scrooge see… pay attention… to notice what’s really of value, gradually he decides that instead of making the change of commerce, he wants to be a changed man.
We learn at the beginning of his story that Scrooge detested Christmas. Christmas can be a difficult and painful time… for people without change in their pockets who wish they could buy gifts for friends and family. Christmas can be a difficult and painful time… for people without love, who wish that change in their pockets could buy friends and people who care about them. Christmas can be a difficult and painful time for those of us who are the “haves” because we can feel guilty and helpless in the face of the overwhelming needs of the “have-nots.” I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas because I recognize how materialism and nostalgia and commercialism cast a web of frenzied soullessness over this sacred time. But Advent is a different season, and is a time to notice and to be mindful (the lessons the ghosts of Christmas past, and present, and future, offered to Scrooge) … a time to see God, here, with us. Advent is a time to slow down, to notice God’s presence, even in this fractured and warring world. Advent is a time to breathe in God’s peace (let’s do it again: breathe in, and then breathe out the word “peace”) and to be amazed, and grateful, and to find ways to live peace and share it.
You might know Scrooge’s story well. A Christmas Carol has been made into many movies, first as a silent movie in 1910, and since then George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Jim Carey, and Mickey Mouse, have all starred in this story. You might want to watch one of them this week, to refresh your memory of this story… or borrow the book from a library. Each week, for the next three weeks of Advent, we’ll hear a dramatic reading from A Christmas Carol, and we’ll look at how that story, and the real Christmas story, and maybe our own stories… intersect, as we recognize again or maybe for the first time, the healing and redemptive power of God’s love for all humanity. Scrooge was, Dickens wrote, incorrigible and irredeemable. And yet, by the end of the story, he is redeemed. Dickens reminds us that there’s hope… for you, and me, and all the world, to be redeemed.
At the end of his story, Scrooge finds peace. Let us pray: Today, Lord God, we pray for peace. Today we pray that we would learn of peace from You, Jesus, because You weren’t born into a world of peace, but still You held peace, and shared it with Your friends. We too are Your friends and followers, Lord, and we pray that You would teach us to hold peace in our hearts, and to breathe it, and to offer it to others – as the first gift of Christmas. We pray this in Your name. Amen.