Sunday’s sermon: The Hope of Christmas Future

Text used – Isaiah 35:1-10

  • We’re going to do a little exercise this morning, all. I’m going to give you a word, and I want you to show me what that word looks like with your hands.
    • Love
    • Peace
    • Joy
    • Pray
    • Work
    • Last one: keep → Now, I know the tendency with this one is to closed-fist it. After all, the first definition for “keep” in the dictionary is “have or retain possession of.” But the definition for the Hebrew word generally translated as “keep” is different.
      • From Schlimm’s 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know: The idea certainly isn’t that you’re holding onto something the way that, say, some of us “keep” old pens in a junk drawer or magazines atop the toilet. The force of the verb in Hebrew is much stronger. It has to do with protection: staying with something, making sure it remains safe, and seeing that it flourishes.[1]
      • With that nuance in mind, let me ask you again: What does “keep” look like?
  • Christmas is just a week away. We are swiftly coming to the end of our Advent journey, and this morning, we have come to the end of Scrooge’s story as well.
    • Final lines of Dickens’ tale: It was always said of him (Scrooge) that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One![2] → We close the pages on Scrooge story with a vastly different character than when we opened them. How did we get from there to here? We could sum it up with one simple word and leave it at that: grace. But let’s dig into it a little more.
      • Particularly in terms of question: What does it mean to “keep” Christmas?
  • Reminder of what we pulled from Rawle’s at the beginning of this series a few weeks ago: 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. It seems that we can’t accept that he has been redeemed. But maybe there’s still hope. … After all, if Scrooge can be redeemed, then so can we.[3] → This final portion of Scrooge’s tale that we find ourselves in today is where we see that redemption truly come into focus.
    • See a glimmer of it during his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past, especially when he’s watching his younger self let his fiancé walk away from him
      • See him regret
      • See him express an emotion other than irritation and surliness
      • See him begin to soften in his demeanor
    • See that glimmer grow even stronger during Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present
      • See how he’s affected by the conversation around his nephew’s Christmas table – Scrooge’s reaction to both the majority of the people who are disparaging him and his nephew who continues to defend him and speak kindly for him
      • See how he’s affected by the plight of Bob Cratchit’s youngest son, Tiny Tim
    • But unlike the relatively soft and familiar transition between the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Present – a transition that saw Scrooge returned to his own home and his own bed – this time, the Ghost of Christmas Present leaves Scrooge standing alone in a deserted street – story: The bell struck Twelve. Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and, lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming like a mist along the ground towards him.[4] → Remember the original title of A Christmas Carol? “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.” Yeah … this visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – this visitation above all the others – is where the “Ghost Story of Christmas” part comes in.
      • By far the starkest, “ghostiest” visitation → Spirit shows Scrooge firsthand a bleak future indeed
        • Future without him → future in which no one mourns him but instead mock him
          • Gravediggers mock the lack of attendance at his burial
          • Those irreverently pawing through his possessions mock the fact that he had no one
        • Future also lacking another: Tiny Tim → contrast: all those who mourn Tiny Tim
        • Last thing the Spirit reveals to Scrooge = his own headstone → cements Scrooge’s change: “Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?” For the first time the hand appeared to shake. “Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life?” The kind hand trembled. “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”[5]
  • And it’s the repentance and hope and pleading that I hear in Scrooge’s voice in this passage that reminds me of our Scripture reading from Isaiah this morning.
    • Reading brimming with hope and redemption after difficulty: The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus. They will burst into bloom, and rejoice with joy and singing. They will receive the glory of Lebanon, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon. They will see the Lord’s glory, the splendor of our God. … Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongues of the speechless will sing. Waters will spring up in the desert, and streams in the wilderness. The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water. … Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away.[6]
      • Reminder: Isaiah is giving voice to these words to those who had been forcibly relocated from their homes in Jerusalem to Babylon (capitol of the Chaldean empire) when the Babylonian army conquered the southern Kingdom of Judah in the late 6th BCE
        • Those who have been conquered
        • Those who have been displaced
        • Those who, though they have been given freedom to move about within the confines of Babylon, were barred from returning home for more than a generation
      • Scholar – powerful interpretation of this passage: In this reading, the opening of the eyes of the blind, the unstopping of the ears of the deaf and the enlivening of the limbs of the disabled are not miraculous healings. Instead, God will confront those who have made themselves blind to injustice with searing visions. Those who made themselves deaf to the cries of God’s poor and marginalized will be unable to shut out their cries. And those who lounged in luxury will run away in fear from their palaces like a frightened deer. All this will cause the mouth that has been shut up for fear of further persecution to sing for joy.[7] → If we think about Isaiah’s words through this lens, we see the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge even more clearly in this passage. Truly, Scrooge was one who stubbornly and categorically refused to see and hear and act on the plight of those in need, and yet even he is redeemed.
    • Rawle ties this ultimate redemption to God’s overwhelming, indelible grace: Salvation is a process, and it begins today! … Grace to you from [God] who is, and who was, and who is to come. A God who is means that we are not abandoned. A God who was means that we are forgiven. A God who is to come means that God can be trusted. … God loves us, has forgiven us, and has given us purpose for the future, beginning today as servants to God and for each other. Through faith in Christ, our present, our past, and our future are held together in grace.[8]
  • And when we think of that idea of “keeping Christmas” throughout the year, that’s ultimately our aim.
    • Not about keeping the Christmas lights on the house all year long
    • Not about keeping our eyes peeled for the perfect gift or the perfect Christmas cookie recipe all year long
    • Not about playing Christmas albums or watching Christmas movies in July
    • That idea of “keeping Christmas” has more to do with that Hebrew definition that I mentioned earlier: “It has to do with protection: staying with something, making sure it remains safe, and seeing that it flourishes.” “Keeping Christmas” is about sheltering and nurturing and holding space for what we believe each and every day: that God came down to take on humanity that night out of God’s own love for us. The Word became flesh and loved among us. God’s own eternal Story took on everything it meant to be human – including pain and fear and anxiety and grief – exactly so that Jesus could meet us wherever we need him most in the midst of our stories to remind us that through God’s grace, we are named and claimed, forgive and freed.
      • Ringing truth of this can be hard enough to keep in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season – all the to-do lists and expectations and commitments (those placed on us by others and, even more persistent, those we place on ourselves) → poem by Ann Weems: “This Year Will Be Different[9]
        • “May that truly be said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!” Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Matthew Richard Schlimm. 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018), 64.

[2] Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol. (White Plains: Peter Pauper Press, Inc., 2022), 126.

[3] Matt Rawle. The Redemption of Scrooge. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 18.

[4] Dickens, 91.

[5] Dickens, 113-114.

[6] Is 35:1-2, 6-7a, 10b.

[7] Cory Driver. “Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent/commentary-on-isaiah-351-10-6#.

[8] Rawle, 126, 128.

[9] Ann Weems. “This Year Will Be Different” from Kneeling in Bethlehem: Poetry for Advent and Christmas. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 71.

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