Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Cure for Scrooge-itis

This is the fourth entry in a series looking at some of our favorite Christmas TV shows and movies, and talking about God's message especially to those who do not enjoy the Advent and Christmas seasons. Those who know me well may recognize some of this from a sermon series I did during last year's Advent season. For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here. For Part 3, click here.

1st edition of Charles Dickens'
A Christmas Carol (1843)
Today: A Christmas Carol

Since Advent is a season to prepare for the coming of the Lord (both at Christmas and when he promises one day to return), this should be a time of reflection, when we look at our lives and ask how well we're living up to God's standards. The Bible says a lot about how we ought to live, and some passages are especially rich. For instance, Hebrews 13:1-16 gives us several principles:
  • Share love with others at all times
  • Show hospitality to strangers
  • Care about people in prison or being tortured as if it was you
  • Treat marriage as precious, and be faithful to your spouse
  • Don't focus on money - be content and trust God to provide
  • Study and learn from the faith of godly people
  • Find a way to praise God no matter what happens
  • Do good and give to others, even when it's a sacrifice

Of course, these aren't always easy. Often, we struggle with these and other Biblical ideals because they feel backwards to our selfish human nature. But consider: how backwards is it that a king would leave his throne to suffer with his subjects and would offer his own life to save theirs after they ridiculed and beat him? Jesus repeatedly shows us that if we want to be the people of God, we have to let him change our selfish hearts into hearts filled with humility and love. And if we have been inwardly changed, it should show in an outward way. If not, then something's definitely not right!

At the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge seems to be so calloused, he's actually living the opposite of the godly life. He has developed a sickness. Thankfully, as the story unfolds, we see a prescription for the cure.

“Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”

Michael Caine's Scrooge is cold to
Kermit the Frog's Bob Cratchit in
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
These are the famous first lines of Charles Dickens' classic short story, first published in 1843. The book has been reprinted over and over, and has been adapted and parodied repeatedly for the stage, movies and TV. There have been serious adaptations and silly ones, children’s versions – even cartoons! But whether you prefer Reginald Owen, Patrick Stewart, George C. Scott, Jim Carrey, or any of the countless other renditions, the story is basically the same, and it has become a Christmas classic.

It seems strange, almost, that A Christmas Carol should be so popular. Who would have imagined that in a season when love and hope and joy are supposed to be at the forefront, that we'd all be in love with a ghost story about a crusty old man who thought Christmas was nothing more than a humbug?

"Humbug" is an important word because it gives us insight into Scrooge’s mind. According to the dictionary, "humbug" means something intended to deceive, something fake, an imposter. So when Scrooge grunts that Christmas is a humbug, he’s saying the reason he hates it is because it’s a time when people only pretend to love each other, while they hate each other all year long. It’s a day like any other, he thinks, and should be treated as such. In his own words, Christmas is “a poor excuse to pick a man’s pocket every 25th of December” by making him pay wages for work when everyone's on vacation!

Scrooge, to me, is sort of the culmination of all the characters I’ve been talking about these last few weeks. He feels unloved, like Charlie Brown. He's unhappy with the hand life has dealt him, like George Bailey, and he has allowed The Grinch to steal his joy time and again over the years until his heart has hardened and he has no compassion for others - especially not at Christmas, when everyone seems to be so happy, and he doesn’t see what they should possibly be so happy about!

And just as I said our other characters are all real in a sense, Ebenezer Scrooge is also real. Many people see no reason for gladness because they, too, have felt unloved and discontent for too long, and their joy has been robbed too often over the years. They may not show it outwardly, but they can identify with Scrooge when he grumbles, “Bah! Humbug!” They understand the self pity, emptiness and bitterness that plague him daily - not just at Christmas, but throughout the year - because they have felt those same feelings.

So what's the answer for someone like that? How can they be set free?

Well, Charles Dickens was before the time of modern psychoanalysis, but he understood the role our past plays in shaping who we are today and who we will become tomorrow. So in A Christmas Carol, Dickens gives us an excellent prescription for those suffering from Scrooge-itis, and it comes in four doses.

Marley (Alec Guinness) carries
his chains in Scrooge (1971)
The first dose comes in the form of Marley’s ghost. The lesson of Marley’s ghost is the lesson of chains. Figuratively, each of us forges our own chain in life. We forge our chains through sinful acts of selfishness and greed, through closing our eyes to those who are suffering - indeed through any act that is contrary to the law of God, the law of Love. We forge our chains and carry them, and if we do not shed them in this life, then we must carry them throughout eternity. And like the rich man in one of Jesus' parables, Marley speaks of the great torture of seeing those whom he longs to help but, being dead, is now powerless to aid (Luke 16:28). The only hope for Scrooge, Marley says, is that the ghosts who follow can change his heart. The first dose of medicine for our souls is perhaps the most important, because it is the recognition that we have made these chains of sin, and that we cannot be rid of them by our own strength. We need a Savior to come and take our chains away! (Ephesians 2:8-9; Luke 4:18; Romans 6:16-23)

Dose #2 is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Of course, we do well to remember all the way back to the first Christmas – to the birth of Christ our Savior, the eternal sign of God’s love. But the ghost that visits Scrooge is not of Christmas Long Ago, but of Christmases in Scrooge’s Past. That's because we don't need to look back any further than our own lives to see God’s hand upon us!

Scrooge feels unloved. He remembers loneliness at boarding school, where he was an outcast. He remembers disappointment when his father brought him home from school only to ship him off to an apprenticeship. And he remembers heartache when the girl he loved left him for another. These things shaped Scrooge's outlook on life. But the Spirit reminds him of good things – the sister who loved him and visited him at school and pleaded with their father to bring him home; the kind Mr. Fezziwink, who practiced charity and was extra kind to his apprentices; and the girl who indeed loved Scrooge very much, but was heart-broken because Scrooge loved his golden idol more than her. Looking back, we should see not only the bad things that have hurt us, but also the good - the blessings of God - that have been there all along the way (James 1:17; Psalm 77:7-14).

The Cratchit family shares a meager meal
in Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983)
Third came the Ghost of Christmas Present, which opened Scrooge’s eyes to the fact that his own problems were small compared to the needs of others. Observing the Cratchit family on Christmas Day, Scrooge saw the poor conditions in which they lived, and his heart was troubled because he knew it was within his means to care for them. He saw some of the burden his actions had created, but he also saw people who celebrated despite their poor state, and he watched as Bob Cratchit even gave a toast in Scrooge’s honor. Most of all, he was moved to compassion for Bob’s youngest son, Tiny Tim. When he put a face to poverty, it changed his entire outlook.

Dickens also lets Scrooge see his nephew Fred, who vows to continue inviting Scrooge to Christmas dinner every year, hoping he might someday accept, because Fred feels sorry for his uncle. Though we might feel outcast at times, and though we might not always do the right thing, there are still people who love us and want good for us, and there are still opportunities today to improve life for others and show them the love they need as much as we do. Looking at the world around us, we should see the needs of others - especially at Christmas - but we should also see God at work, and we need to take advantage of the ways God has blessed us to be a blessing to others (Matthew 10:8; Ephesians 2:10).

The final dose comes as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Scrooge sees what the future might hold if he refuses to change. He sees the death of Tiny Tim, which reminds us that our lives are interconnected. We have a responsibility to help those we can, or their downfall will be on our heads. Scrooge also sees his own death. But what upsets him most isn't just knowing he will die: it's seeing how he's scorned afterwards. People steal his belongings without remorse. No one attends his funeral. Some even celebrate because his death means a month without paying their debts before someone else takes over Scrooge’s business!

Scrooge (Alastair Sims) fears what the future
may hold in A Christmas Carol (1951)
We all hope to be well remembered after we pass, but we should go one step further. In dying without changing, Scrooge would've been condemned to carry his weighty chains as he was tortured throughout eternity! And like him, we must choose, not just how we want to be remembered, but how we want to spend eternity. Those who reject Christ will find that while God loves them and gave them every chance, their rejection forces him to act in justice and punish their sins. But those who accept Christ will find that although they deserve to be treated with justice, God’s justice was satisfied when Jesus died on the cross as a sign of love, and now they can walk in the love of God all the days of their eternal life! (Revelation 20:10-21:8; Romans 6:23)

Once we have swallowed all that, we should realize that Hebrews 13:8 speaks the truth:

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."

His love for us can be seen whether we look all the way back to the first Christmas, whether we look back at the events of our lives, whether we look at the world around us today, or we look ahead to our future in eternity. And recognizing God’s love for us - His grace and mercy shown in what Christ has done - and recognizing that this world is not our home, but we look forward to that greater City of God (Hebrews 8:14; Revelation 20) - these realities are what empower us to live changed lives! These are the truths that released Ebenezer Scrooge from his chains and transformed him from a stingy old miser into a generous, loving man, who was like a second father to Tiny Tim. And the truth of God’s love can empower you and me to take the same vow that Scrooge made at the end of the story:
“I am not the man I was…I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
In the end, may it be truly said of us that we kept Christmas well and lived godly lives!
And as Tiny Tim so famously observed:
"God bless us, every one!"

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