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|24th December 2000|
Children and parents have been entering theatres excitedly these past three weeks to see the Christmas movie, The Grinch. I have not seen the movie but I well remember the book as one read to our children when they were small. The inimitable Dr Seuss also wrote The Cat in the Hat and other children's classics.
Since 1957, Dr. Seuss' classic tale How The Grinch Stole Christmas has captivated readers young and old alike with its delightful story, endearing characters, witty humour and timeless message. Hollywood filmmakers had tried in vain to secure the motion picture rights for Dr. Seuss' books. Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) repeatedly turned down their requests. But now his widow agreed. And who better to embody the role of the Grinch - that nefarious, flagitious, mischievous, sly, nasty, troublesome, bad-tempered, unkind, intolerant, utterly irredeemable, foul-smelling and just plain not very nice Grinch - than Jim Carrey?
The Grinch lives outside a fantasy world called Whoville, high on Mt. Crumpit, with this lone companion, the endlessly oppressed dog, Max. The Grinch lives in a cave and peers down on the Whos of Whoville as they happily prepare for Christmas. "Every Who Down in Whoville Liked Christmas a lot, But the Grinch, Who lived just north of Whoville did NOT!" Just prior to Christmas, the residents of Who-ville are frantically buying gifts, mailing Christmas cards, and trying to out-decorate one another. On Christmas Eve, the Grinch dresses up as Santa Claus, climbs down Who chimneys, and steals the gifts, the trees, and even the Roast Beast.
The Whos are outraged that their gifts have been stolen-and there's nothing left to celebrate. It takes a little girl named Cindy Lou Who to teach them the meaning of Christmas. Cindy Lou Who, was worried about her family and her neighbours who are busy shopping and missing the real meaning of Christmas. Her father, the befuddled postmaster Lou Who is not much help and Mom Betty Who is totally committed in getting up the Christmas lighting decorations in her quest to beat Martha May Whovier in the Whobilation lighting competition for the best decorated house.
So Cindy decides to take matters into her own hands, trying to find out everything she can about the Grinch: Who he is, why he doesn't like Christmas and why he is held in such utter contempt. Her innocent questions turn Whoville upside down since anything to do with the Grinch is considered blasphemous behavior by Mayor May Who. But ultimately, these two kindred spirits- one searching for the meaning of Christmas, and the other searching for his soul long ago buried and forgotten- come together, and learn the true meaning of Christmas.
On Christmas morning, every Who, tall and small, joins hands and begins to sing joyously. Clearly, the gifts and trimmings are superfluous to their celebration. Hearing them sing, the Grinch wonders: "How could it be so? It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags! Maybe Christmas, doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!" Christmas is indeed about a little bit more: Christmas, it turns out in the film, is all about . . . families!
The Whos embrace the Grinch, who returns their presents, and he joins in their celebrations, and they let him carve the Roast Beast and eat with them. It makes for a pretty tame ending. But it is worth asking, what would happen if a real-life Grinch really did steal the trappings of Christmas? Would we have anything left to celebrate? Our consumer culture says the meaning of Christmas is found in parties, presents, and extravagant self-indulgence. If the cultural Grinches have stolen the meaning of Christmas, then, like the Whos of Whoville, we will just have to get it back. But we must not make the mistake of latching onto the wrong thing, as the Whos did. Shopping is not the answer, nor should we be lured into some kind of sacred frenzy of good works either. Good deeds performed for wrong motives and giving gifts to increase our own self-righteousness are empty and vain conceits. Nor is the meaning of Christmas just about getting together as families, enjoyable as that mostly is.
To discover the real meaning of Christmas, we need to go back to the source documents - the Gospels, and re-read the story of the Birth of Jesus from Dr Luke or from Matthew. One thing is for sure: the coming of Jesus was, according to the angel who spoke to the shepherd, a matter of good news which would bring great joy. LK 2:10-11 "But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."
What exactly is this goods news which will bring great joy and why?
1. What is the Good News?
LK 2:8 "And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night." The Christmas story is set among fields where there were sheep and shepherds, even in winter. Why? Because the pastoral scene is of significance. Among all occupations, shepherding was poorly regarded. We romanticise the task. My Scottish ancestors came to Australia in the early 1830's. They were poorly educated farm workers forced off their crofts by the Enclosures and shipped to Australia. Before barbed wire was invented they herded their flocks on the hot, dry plains north of Melbourne. When fences were erected, they were redundant. It was far from romantic. It was hard, hot, and unrewarded work. Jewish shepherds were considered untrustworthy, much like European gypsies today or the Palestinian shepherds who still guard flocks of sheep and goats in the Judean hills.
Their work made them ceremonially unclean. Yet ironically, they were in the fields of Midgal Edar: the places where the lambs without spot or blemish were kept for sacrifice at the Temple in nearby Jerusalem. The most obvious implication here is that the good news first came to the social outcasts of Jesus' day. And it was good news, because it was saying that in these fields, as long promised, was born the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.
These fields were at Bethlehem, David's town. It was here that the Lord instructed the Prophet Nathan to tell David he was the one chosen to fulfil a covenant with the Lord and he had been called from the shepherd's life to shepherd God's people. 2 Sam 7:8
City folks might have low regard for the shepherds, but God wanted to use their task as the one to symbolised what the kings, leaders and even the Messiah would do for His people. The shepherds symbolize those who care for God's people, including the Lord himself. Ps 23:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 23:14; Heb 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:2 The shepherds of Luke 2 may, therefore, symbolize all the ordinary people who have joyfully received the good news and have become pastors to others.
The shepherds were terrified at the angel who brought this message from God. LK 2:10-11 "But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."
That the shepherds were out in the fields at night indicates the special time of the year. December 25 was widely celebrated as the date of Jesus' birth by the end of the fourth century which was the date used to celebrate the solstice, the ending of winter's night. However, this was also the time of the birthing of lambs in Bethlehem's fields close to Jerusalem's Temple. These were the lambs that would be used for sacrifice at Passover a few months later to take away sin. The angel's announcement v10 includes a bold proclamation of the gospel at the very hour of Jesus' birth: good news.. great joy.. all the people.. a Saviour.. Christ.. the Lord... That is the essence of the Gospel. It was proclaimed at the Saviour's birth, during the Saviour's life, at the Saviour death, in the Saviour's resurrection, and ever since in the Saviour's church.
2. Why is there great joy?
The announcement of the good news was received with great joy. Why? Because the people hearing the good news were seeing LK 1:78-9 the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace."
Their land was occupied by their enemy. Their sins were unforgiven. Death was a daily occurrence. They were estranged from God. Into this bleak darkness, light shone. LK 2:13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
Suddenly often describes the unexpected nature of God's acts. The angels suddenly announce His arrival at Bethlehem. The Spirit's coming at Pentecost was sudden Acts 2:2 as was the appearance of the Lord to Saul on the road to Damascus. Acts 9:3 The great future events of the return of the Lord will be sudden. Mk 13:36 1 Thess 5:3 The angels song: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests combine both praise in heaven, and peace on earth. The good news of the coming of the Messiah would have universal impact producing great joy. The peace here is that which the Messiah brings. 1:79 It is not merely a peace as an absence of war, but a peace which comes from a right relationship with God. Estranged mankind is now reconciled with the Creator. The purpose for which we were created is now complete.
While I was visiting country towns devastated by the New South Wales floods this week I came to Wee Waa. We distributed food parcels, money, Christmas presents and conducted Christmas thank-you parties for all of the 500 families who lost homes and/or crops. Several farmers had lost their entire crop from drought, insects and flood for the last three years. They were desperate. Like the people of Whoville, a Grinch had stolen everything from them on the eve of Christmas. When I gave each a cheque for $10,000 from Wesley Mission members and donors, they could not believe their eyes - which quickly filled with tears.
I visited three Aboriginal families that had each lost everything they possessed. One woman said to me as I gave them gifts - food, toys and money: "you are just like the wise man from the East who came to Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus with the gold, frankincense and myrrh. You came to us when we were homeless. Thank you for coming and thank you for your gifts. I feel just like Mary." The Grinch - in this contemporary case overwhelming floods - had taken everything from them except the true meaning of Christmas. There was real joy in their hearts that will last long after the last parcel of food has been consumed and after the homes have been repaired. Our presence, love and gifts in the name of Jesus Christ, brought good news of great joy that nothing could take from them.
Do your part to keep our culture from stealing Christmas. Remember that unto us a child is born Isa 9:6, and he is Christ the Lord. Lk 2:11 And that's something no Grinch can steal. Good news. Great joy!
Rev Dr Gordon Moyes