Sunday’s sermon: “Bah! Humbug!”

Text used – Habakkuk 1:1-5; 2:1-4; 3:17-19

  • “Bah! Humbug!” It’s a refrain we all recognize, right? It’s a phrase we all associate with one person: Scrooge! That truly singular and unmatched character from Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol.
    • Originally published in 1843
    • Story that’s been adapted to film no less than 135 times – everything from …
      • Silent film version entitled Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost in 1901
      • Classic Mickey’s Christmas Carol done by Disney in 1983
      • Classic Scrooge starring Albert Finney in 1970
      • The Muppet’s Christmas Carol in 1992
      • Fully computer animated version in 2009
      • Other off-shoots
        • Scrooged starring Bill Murray from 1988
        • Most recent Spirited starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds
      • Adaptations go far beyond film – you can find A Christmas Carol
        • Theater productions
        • Radio programs
        • Audio recordings
        • Operas
        • Ballets
        • Graphic novels
        • Comic strips
        • Video games
        • Podcasts
    • For many, the Christmas season hasn’t truly begun until they’ve watched their favorite version, either on their own with a plate of gingerbread cookies and a cozy mug of hot chocolate or with family and friends. There’s just something about the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, his moonlit wanderings through past and present and future, the lessons he gleans along the way, and his ultimate redemption that draws us back again and again.
    • Also a story that’s a perfect traveling companion for the season of Advent – read Redemption of Scrooge[1], p. 10
  • So we begin at the beginning of Scrooge’s story this morning.
    • Dickens’ own description of Scrooge: Oh! but 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 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; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. 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.[2]
      • Rawle’s slightly more general description: Scrooge is an iconic figure who represents stinginess, greed, and generally being in a terrible mood. … Even though by the end of the story Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed person, the character remains a strong caricature of everything our Christmas celebrations shouldn’t be.[3]
    • First stave (section) of Dickens’ story gives us a truly unsurpassable impression of a man focused on just one thing: money
      • Making it
      • Keeping it
      • Counting it
    • Also introduces the equally stingy and equally crucial character of Scrooge’s former partner, Jacob Marley – a man who, by his own description (via his chain-adorned ghost), was focused on all the wrong things during his life: making money, keeping money, counting money … a misalignment of priorities that he has realized all too late
  • Just as Marley attempts to warn Scrooge of his own wildly misaligned priorities, so the prophets of the First Testament were trying to warn the people of Israel and Judah of their own wildly misaligned priorities
    • Description of Habakkuk – scholar: Habakkuk’s prophecies date to the dawn of the 6th century BCE, when Babylon was bearing down on Judah after defeating the Assyrian Empire to become the dominant regional power. Like many other biblical prophets, Habakkuk interprets Babylon’s incursions as God’s judgment on Judah’s internal politics.[4] → For generations leading up to Habakkuk’s time, the people of Israel had been turning further and further from God. Sometimes they had been led there by kings who were themselves growing increasingly more corrupt and idolatrous. Sometimes they were led there through their own circumstances – those who had married people from other cultures who worshiped other gods. Many times, through the words of various prophets including Habakkuk, God tried to call the people back to that covenant relationship God had made with them. But each time, they fell away again.
      • Result of that falling away makes up the beginning of our Scripture reading this morning – Habakkuk crying out to God to notice the desperate plight of the people: Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us. Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me? There is strife, and conflict abounds. The Instruction is ineffective. Justice does not endure because the wicked surround the righteous. Justice becomes warped. Look among the nations and watch! Be astonished and stare because something is happening in your days that you wouldn’t believe even if told.[5]
        • Scholar makes an important point about this seemingly-harsh passage: The prophet’s cry of frustration—“O LORD, how long?”—is shared with over a dozen psalms, as well as with other laments across the prophetic corpus. The question testifies to prolonged suffering; the speaker cannot imagine an end to the misery. Habakkuk does not hesitate to call God to account, giving voice to what he perceives is God’s refusal to respond to the prophet’s cries for help. That in and of itself is an important reminder for congregations: that being angry at God, or feeling that God seems absent, is “allowed,” and in fact has biblical precedents—and yet those feelings of despair are never the end of the story.[6]
    • Just as Marley is sent to Scrooge as an initial warning, so Habakkuk is sent by God as a warning to the people of Israel – a declaration that change must come
      • Scripture: Then the Lord answered me and said, Write a vision, and make it plain upon a tablet so that a runner can read it. There is still a vision for the appointed time; it testifies to the end; it does not deceive. If it delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late. Some people’s desires are truly audacious; they don’t do the right thing. But the righteous person will live honestly.[7] → God is not trying to hide salvation from the people. God’s promised salvation is coming. Change is coming. Hope is coming. But those promised comings don’t negate the present circumstances. The people are still living in the midst of the lives and culture that they made for themselves. Here we see a prominent difference between our Scripture reading this morning and Scrooge’s story: timing.
        • Scrooge’s story = accelerated → all the revelations and changes come in the span of one single night – in the roughly 17 hours between sundown on Christmas Eve and daybreak on Christmas morning
        • God’s timeline = much, much longer → And it’s that waiting that can be so incredibly hard, isn’t it? Intellectually, we know that Advent is a season of waiting, and we can spin that in all sorts of holly jolly ways: “It’s a season of anticipation” – a word that sounds so much shinier and more palatable than “waiting” … “It’s a season in which the light draws ever closer” which is meant to distract us that, in the absence of the light, things can be dark and cold and uncertain and scary … “It’s a season of preparation” which makes us feel like there’s at least something we can do in the face of the waiting.
    • Sort of helps us understand the desperation and frustration that we hear in Habakkuk’s complaints at the beginning of our reading this morning, doesn’t it? → When we’re holding out for something new, something different, something more, something sure, the waiting can seem interminable and even unbearable.
      • Rawle makes a particular tie btwn the agony of waiting and the season of Advent: Advent is to be a time of waiting, not only to live into the tension of when the divine and creation collide, but it is the spiritual discipline of slowing down to notice God’s presence in the still small voice within a violent and hurried world.[8]
  • But the thing about waiting is that only in that space between what is unknown and what is known can we find hope. Once a thing has been confirmed, has been made sure, has been defined and named, has been given substance and certainty, we move from hope to something else. Hope is born and lives and even thrives in the waiting places.
    • Hope expressed by Habakkuk at the end of our reading this morning: Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom, and there’s no produce on the vine; though the olive crop withers, and the fields don’t provide food; though the sheep are cut off from the pen, and there are no cattle in the stalls; I will rejoice in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance. The Lord God is my strength. He will set my feet like deer. He will let me walk upon the heights.[9] → Clearly, things are falling apart all around Habakkuk. Things are not going well for the people of Israel. But still, Habakkuk declares his hope remains in “the God of my deliverance.”
    • Rawle: I like to think about hope as “possibility.” Hope is the picture of all that God can accomplish. There will never be a day when dream about God’s goodness will pass, so there will never be a day not in need of hope.[10]
      • If ever there was a story about the power of hope, it is Scrooge’s story
        • Hope that was dashed
        • Hope that was repressed
        • Hope that finally burst forth
        • Hope that overcame
      • If ever there was a story about the power of hope, it is God’s story
        • Hope that was born
        • Hope that lived and breathe and loved and wept
        • Hope that taught
        • Hope that suffered and died and rose again once and for all
  • Good news
    • Just as Scrooge did not travel through this revelatory midnight wanderings alone, we do not travel alone either
      • God travels with us in the midst of it all
      • We travel with one another → Here to help each other see. Here to help each other trust. Here to help each other take the next step forward … and the next … and the next.
    • Hope endures all – all around us and all with us, all that is in our control and all that is out of our control à Rawle: Even though by the end of the story Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed person, the character remains a strong caricature of everything our Christmas celebrations shouldn’t be. It seems that we can’t accept that he has been redeemed. But maybe there’s still hope. Maybe over the course of this study, even Ebenezer Scrooge’s name might come to mean something different to you. After all, if Scrooge can be redeemed, then so can we.[11] → Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Matt Rawle. The Redemption of Scrooge. (Nashville: Abingdon Press), 2016.

[2] Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol, illustrated ed. (White Plains: Peter Pauper Press, Inc., 2022), 5-6.

[3] Rawle, 18.

[4] Cameron B.R. Howard. “Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:[3b-6] 17-19” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/faith-as-a-way-of-life-2/commentary-on-habakkuk-11-4-22-4-33b-6-17-19-2.

[5] Hab 1:2-5.

[6] Howard.

[7] Hab 2:1-4.

[8] Rawle, 36.

[9] Hab 3:17-19.

[10] Rawle, 34.

[11] Rawle, 18.