Sunday Night Live Sermons
A CHRISTMAS CAROL: CHRISTMAS PAST
Last week in Parliament I raised the issue of shopping hours for this Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The headlong rush to use every available hour for more sales and commercial exploitation works across family life, the rights of people to have time away from work, and that they have time to worship God on Christmas Day and the Sunday following. It was ironic that the only support came from the Labor Party and the Greens while the Liberal Party, the National Party and a couple of Cross Benchers spoke out on behalf of the stores like David Jones, Myer, Woolworths and the like that have a mad drive for more profits. The Labor Party and the Greens were motivated by secular humanism. The Christian Democratic Party was motivated by the freedom people need to worship God on Christmas day, to celebrate as a family and to wonder about God’s grace and glory in the incarnation of Christ.
I have been re-reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. He wrote this 150 years ago. But, Australia still knows child poverty, high borrowings, greedy businessmen, and retail stores threatening employees with dismissal if they do not work on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day. We should hear again its message so over the next three Sundays, I will develop some themes for us. With the growth of commerce in Britain in the eighteenth century and the impact of a booming industry in the nineteen century, economists had rationalised the spirit of ruthless greed into a system claiming authority throughout society. It was an economic boom time like now.
Professor Edgar Johnson writes in his definitive biography of Dickens, “There was no just wage; employers paid their workers what competition decreed under the iron law of wage. Scrooge is the personification of “economic man.” Scrooge’s entire life is limited to cashboxes and bills of sale. He underpays and bullies his clerk. All sentiment, kindness, generosity, tenderness, he dismisses as “humbug”. He feels he has discharged his full duty to society in contributing the taxes that pay for the prison, the workhouse, the operation of the treadmill and the Poor Laws. Against Scrooge and the orthodox economists, Dickens insists that no way of life is sound or rewarding that leaves out men’s need of loving and being loved. A Christmas Carol” is a parable of social redemption and Scrooge’s conversion is the conversion for which Dickens hopes among mankind”. p256–7
We need to remind Australia “that no way of life is sound or rewarding that leaves out men’s need of loving and being loved.” We need to hear again that message of social redemption and of Scrooge’s conversion and the conversion of all mankind. We need to hear again the message of A Christmas Carol. The story begins: “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt about that whatever. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon the Stock Exchange for anything he chose to put his hand to. He was a tight fisted hand at the grindstone.
Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever stuck out generous fire; secret and self contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. He carried his low temperature always about with him; it iced his office in the dog days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.” His nephew, his only close relative, visited his office on Christmas Eve and called out: “A merry Christmas, Uncle! God save you!” To which Scrooge replied: “Bah! Humbug!” Old Scrooge declares: “Out with Merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ‘em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will every idiot who goes about with a ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart! Nephew! You keep Christmas in your own way and let me keep it in mine”.
The spirit of Scrooge is alive today. Clover Moore, Sydney’s Lord Mayor, ordered grim Christmas Cards and restrictions on decorations. Greed dominates the thinking of many. Many shareholders of retailing chains are not Christian. They have no commitment to Christianity and want to secularise a sacred season for profit.
Only a Scrooge threatens staff with no employment next year if they do not work over the Christmas weekend even though it is a Sunday. Shame on their greedy intolerance and hard hearts! “Scrooge went home to his cold quarters and that night, rugged in his dressing gown, he did not sleep. Perhaps this Christmas Eve he was troubled by the events of the day or by some long forgotten memory, but he was awake at midnight. He heard a clanking noise, and into his room swept the eerie ghost of his old partner Jacob Marley. Marley was in misery, and bound by chains made from money boxes, cash tins and journals. He was forced to wander aimlessly for years and had come to warn Scrooge that at one o’clock, the first of three spirits would come and take him somewhere.”
A psychiatrist recognises what was happening in Scrooge’s mind during the visit of the Spirit of Christmas Past. He was thinking of earlier days that had influenced him. His long silenced conscience was asserting itself. He was contrasting his earlier Christmas experiences with what he was giving to others. He was recalling his roots, retracing earlier events, reliving the formative influences on his life. The Spirit of Christmas Past left him in his cold bedroom to wait the second Spirit. The nightmare had been traumatic for Scrooge, a nightmare of memories that would perhaps cleanse his soul. The Spirit of Christmas Past needs to haunt the bedrooms of such hard hearted, greedy unconverted people and bring them to the true meaning of Christmas.
The true meaning of Christmas is found in what the Apostle Paul wrote, quoting an early hymn sung by believers in their worship: “No one can deny how great is the secret of our religion: Jesus appeared in human form, was shown to be right by the Spirit, and was seen by angels. He was preached among the nations, was believed in throughout the world, and was taken up to heaven.” 1 Tim.3:14-16 Here is one of the first statements ever repeated by Christians about the origins of our Christian faith. It sums up three beliefs about the fact of the Incarnation of God, the central element of Christmas past: the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the universal validity of Christ’s Gospel for the whole world, and the eternal supremacy of Christ. If you were to sum up the essential meaning of Christmas Past it would be in those terms. Everything else: the details of the holy night, the worship of the shepherds and wise men, the gifts and the praises, the star and the stable, is detail. TIME Magazine this week features all the externals of the Nativity story, yet the details are not the core meaning of the Incarnation.
Timothy lived in Ephesus, on the coast of modern Turkey. That great city was dominated by the huge Temple of Artemis. Paul’s quoting to Timothy was significant: “No one can deny how great is the secret of our religion”. This Christian faith was different from the commercial trappings of the worship of Artemis. It had deep meaning that only believers understood. The secret of the Christian religion lay in the meaning of the coming of Christ to a world like ours of many religions, cultures and fanatical followers.
1. THE INCARNATION OF GOD.
“He appeared in human form, was shown to be right by the Spirit.” This is a meaning of Christmas Past: God “became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.” God revealed Himself in human form. Christianity is at heart different from other religions in this one central fact. This is where so many modern people are wrong. They believe all religions are the same, that we are all going in one direction, that we will all end up in the heaven so long as we are sincere. They teach all we need to do is to be kind, and tolerant and all will be well. That is smultzy clap-trap! You hear that syncretistic humanism on radio stations, but here you hear the facts of the Christian faith which centre in the unique person of Jesus Christ. The Spirit of Christmas Past teaches us: “He appeared in human form, was shown to be right by the Spirit”.
2. THE PERVASIVENESS OF THE GOSPEL.
“He was preached among the nations, was believed in throughout the world.” Jesus Christ belongs to the whole world. His name has been proclaimed among all nations. From the handful of believers, the Christian faith has covered the globe. Believers in every country proclaim Him as Lord. The pervasiveness of the Gospel means that God Himself has spoken and people in all parts of the world have listened. Christmas belongs to all cultures. God spoke a Word to the world at Christmas, a statement from the stars, a message from the heart of the universe to itself, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.” God “appeared in human form.”
3. THE SUPREMACY OF CHRIST.
“He was taken up to heaven. And was seen by angels”. Christ is supreme. The ascension of Christ, His reign in heaven, His coming to gather the saints into His kingdom and His eternal reign is witnessed by all the host of heaven and will be by all on earth. That promise lies in potential in the cradle of Bethlehem. He was named as the Saviour of the world, the One who would redeem His people from their sins. He was born a baby, lived as a servant, died as a criminal, rose from the tomb, ascended to heaven and will reign supreme throughout eternity! Paul wanted those early Christians to realise the great significance of what had happened in the coming of Jesus Christ to Bethlehem. He quotes their own hymn: “He appeared in human form, was shown to be right by the Spirit, and was seen by angels. He was preached among the nations, was believed in throughout the world, and was taken up to heaven”.
The Spirit of Christmas Past recalls us to our roots, to see the faith we held in childhood, our happiness when first we believed, and to see behind the accounts the true values of life. Many today need to be troubled by the Spirit of Christmas Past so they see the real meaning of the coming of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. May they be troubled like Scrooge, and converted like Scrooge from their narrowness, humanism, and greed to a new life of faith, care and generosity. To accept Christ as Lord and Saviour is to see in the coming of the Baby of Bethlehem the potential for your life and for the world.