Awaiting the Blessed Hope -- A Christmas Sermon
The other day I was asked why we’re reading from Titus 2 on Christmas Eve. My conversation partner wanted to know what this passage has to do with Christmas. I have to admit that on the surface it doesn’t seem to fit very well. It doesn’t say anything about the birth of Jesus, and as far as I know it hasn’t inspired any Christmas carols, but sometimes what we see on the surface is deceiving. When we look more closely at this passage, we hear the announcement of “the glorious appearing of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.” And as the letter writer declares, this is the blessed hope for which we have been waiting. With Christ comes the grace of God that inspires and empowers us to live into the message of Christmas.
I imagine that most of us have come here tonight expecting to be drawn into the presence of the God who Scripture says appeared to the world in the babe born in Bethlehem. Most of us come with hearts full of joy, though some come with a mixture of emotions, hoping to celebrate this blessed event that ushered into existence a new age of divine blessing. It’s an expectation that inspires our singing of carols and that calls for us to faithfully observe the wonder of this child’s birth as we listen to the angels declare through song that one has come into our midst, who according to Titus 2, bringing “salvation to all people,” and educating “us so that we live sensible, ethical, and godly lives” (Titus 2:12 CEB)
When we read Titus 2 in light of the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth and the powerful words of Isaiah as he declares that a great light shines in the darkness of our world, bringing joy to the nation, perhaps we may understand how this event changes the way we look at life and live our lives in the presence of the God who brings to the world justice and peace and grace.
As we consider the words of this letter, my thoughts turn to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. While I enjoy Charlie Brown and the Grinch, this story that tells of the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge remains my favorite extra-biblical Christmas story. Nothing seems to catch the spirit of this season better than this tale set in 19th-century industrializing Britain, at a time when income inequality had reached epic heights. Dickens used this story to open the eyes of a nation to the plight of the poor, the oppressed, and
the marginalized, and invite them to respond in a way that truly reflected the Christmas story.
If you’re like me and a fan of this story, you probably have a favorite version of the story. Personally, I like most of them, from Mr. Magoo to Patrick Stewart, but my favorite portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge remains Alister Sim. This 1951 version of the story may be in black and white, and the effects may be a bit primitive, but Sim captures the essence of a man who is cold toward humanity and who is consumed by greed and self-centeredness. He also captures the pure joy that comes from discovering that he has a second chance to make things right. Through his facial expressions and the giddiness he displays as a laughs and dances and even by standing on his head in a chair, which scares the living daylights out of his housekeeper, he shows us how to respond to what I would consider to be divine grace. But it’s not just fleeting joy, for Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed man.
Yes Ebenezer Scrooge goes from being a person for whom Christmas is nothing more than a “humbug,” to someone who seeks to embody the fulness of Christmas – not the Christmas of the mall, but the Christmas that is ultimately rooted in the blessed hope of God. In the beginning, he can’t be bothered by Christmas, especially if he’s being asked to contribute to the welfare of the poor. But, he’s also annoyed by the joy of his nephew who invites him to share in Christmas and by the desire of his lowly clerk, Bob Cratchitt, that he have Christmas Day off so he can celebrate with his family, a family that includes Tiny Tim, a boy whose joy and wisdom know no bounds, and yet whose future is dark.
Grace appears to Scrooge in the form of a warning from the ghost of his long dead business partner, Jacob Marley, who like Scrooge, had hardened himself toward humanity, and who now bore the chains he forged in life. Marley tells Scrooge that he’ll be visited by three Christmas ghosts, and warns him to pay attention to these revelations, so that his fate might be different. The lessons are hard, because Scrooge is forced to relive old and difficult memories, while coming face to face with both the joys and the difficulties of his neighbors in the present, before seeing the future consequences of his actions.
The story of Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t pure gospel, but can we not see in it a call to embrace the transformative nature of God’s grace that comes to us in story of the babe born in Bethlehem. The question that is utmost in Scrooge’s mind, is whether these shadows of the future can be changed? And the answer is, as Dickens tells it, yes, the future remains open. We can turn over a new leaf and live godly lives that express the grace and love of God to the world.
As Dickens puts it in the closing paragraph of the story:
And it was said of him, 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!
Indeed, may God bless us, everyone, as we embrace the full message of Christmas, the message that in Christ, we experience the blessed hope of God’s healing presence in our world, and therefore we can live sensible, ethical, and godly lives that express God’s love to the world. Merry Christmas!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
December 24, 2011