Sermon from December 17, 2017
Ebenezer Scrooge said, “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.”
Actions have consequences. That is a simple truth that we too often ignore. And yes, if we change our actions, the ends will change too. We all hope our story ends with “And they lived happily ever after” but too often we don’t do anything to assure that scenario. You’ve heard the definition of insanity haven’t you? “Doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result.” We can’t live with a “bah humbug” attitude and expect a hallelujah Christmas.
The problem is obvious. We have been hurt so instead of opening up we shut down. Too often the harsh reality of life closes our minds to the hope of joy. We allow sadness and setbacks and wounds to rob us of the real happiness of the season. We become like Scrooge because that is safer than setting ourselves up for disappointment.
We have been using Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, as the hook to base our series of Christmas messages this year. Through this series, we have talked about reawakening our joy and valuing relationships with the ghosts of Christmas past and present. Today, we will consider the future and how we can write a good ending to our story.
The arrival of the ghost of Christmas yet to come is shocking. Whereas the first two spirits gave fleeting glimpses of joy this third spirit had none. Even the appearance of this ghost is different. You cannot even see his face. When my son JD was about 10 or 11 he observed that you can’t see the face of this ghost because we don’t know what the future will look like. I thought that was a pretty good observation. May I suggest also that since we don’t know what it will look like then it is a blank slate and we can rewrite our own ending? Or as Scrooge perceived, “if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”
Did you know it took J.R.R. Tolkien decades to write the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy? The problem was not writer’s block or a lack of ideas or even time. It took Tolkien so long to write the story because after he wrote a section he would go back to read what he wrote, not be satisfied with it, and rewrite the whole thing. I know the feeling because I often do that in my writing of sermons and stories. However, did you know we can rewrite our own life story as well? We can’t change the past and a lot of the things in our present are out of our control but by our attitude we can change what might become an unhappy ending into a happily ever after ending.
And being able to write a good ending to our Christmas story begins with…
I. UNDERSTANDING THE TRUTH
If I had written A Christmas Carol I probably would have brought back Scrooge’s fiancée so they could live happily ever after. I think most movie producers of the story feel the same way because often they don’t even show the scene Dickens wrote showing Scrooge’s fiancée happily married to someone else surrounded by her children. And in one version, I think it was the cartoon version starring Mr. Magoo, they actually had Scrooge getting back together with his fiancée. Sometimes, even though our sins are forgiven, we still have to live with the consequences or result of our bad choice. So having Belle marry someone else is not as comfortable as we would like it to be but it would probably be the truth.
There are things in my past I wish I could change. I’m sure all of you have those regrets as well. Instead of goofing off and just cruising by I wish I had studied harder in high school and college. When I was the Associate Minister of Christian Education at a large church in Illinois I had it made. My family was happy, I was happy, I could preach regularly without having the other pressures that come from being the preacher, we loved the community and church and we were buying our own house. But instead of staying, I decided to move on. I often think back on the years when my kids were growing up and think of so many things I wish I had done differently but now they are all grown up and gone. The truth is I can’t change the past. For good or bad, what I am today is the result of the choices I made in the past.
The bad things that have happened in my life happened but regret and sorrow is not the proper response. Because the truth is we have all made a mess of our lives. Even the most successful among us look back sometimes with regret on something in the past. As noble as the old song, “I Did It My Way” might be, we all have more than a few regrets and they are not too few to mention. The scary part is, like Scrooge, we are all staring the grave in the face. We need to realize our sinful ways and the bah humbug attitude we have are both leading us to a dead end. The truth is, as Romans 3:23 reminds us, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
But just knowing the truth is not enough. John 8:32 says, 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." A lot of colleges and universities like to engrave this scripture on their campus. Unfortunately, the reason universities have engraved those words is fault theology and based on 19th century thinking - that the truth we need to know is knowledge and education. The reasoning goes, if we learn more we will be freer and happier and society will become just and good. But, as the world discovered after World War I & II and after the development of the atomic bomb simply knowing more does not set us free.
To write a good ending to our Christmas story we need more. The truth by itself is harsh and not something we always want to face. As the famous line in the movie, “A Few Good Men” says “The truth? You can’t handle the truth.” But we need to not only know the truth but we must be able to focus our truth as well.
So that means writing a good ending means…
II. UNDERSTANDING THE TRUTH ABOUT GOD
The story of the Wise Men or Magi is found only in the gospel of Matthew. Follow along as I read their story from Matthew 2:1-12
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The Magi came a long way to find the king of the Jews. Some speculate that from the time they saw the star (which shone the night Jesus was born) until they arrived in Jerusalem it could have been as long as two years. That is a long trip to just to see a baby. It was also a pretty risky trip to travel dangerous roads into unknown lands just to meet a king of a small nation that, since they were under Roman rule, had no power anyway. Why would you leave family and friends for two years (and two more to get home) just to spend a couple hours with the future spiritual leader of a religion you knew very little about?
In spite of the barriers, difficulties and time involved, the wise men wrote a good ending to their story because they wanted to understand the truth about God. And they found the truth and the truth set them free.
At the trial of Jesus, Pilate asked the question, “what is truth?’ and mankind has been wondering and pondering the question throughout the centuries. The truth is out there. Are we willing to do whatever it takes to find it?
One Christmas a native gave a missionary a beautiful seashell. In order to get the gift, the native had to walk many miles to a certain bay where the shell could be found. When the missionary commented on how he did not have to go through all that trouble the native replied, “The long walk is part of the gift.”
To understand the truth about God we must take a journey. It will not always be easy and it will not always be fun. But the truth is waiting for us and when we find it we can write a good ending to our Christmas story.
Finally, writing a good ending to our Christmas story means…
III. UNDERSTANDING THE TRUTH ABOUT GOD AND DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT
A few years ago, I heard something that changed my life. When I first heard it I thought it was silly and trivial – not something I would consider important and worth my time. Still, I was told if I would do this one thing my life would become more focused and I would be able to get more done. Amazingly, it works: I feel sharper and ready to go every morning. What is this amazing formula for a better life? Every morning, when I wake up, I make my bed.
It may sound silly but by doing something as simple as making my bed I start my day with accomplishing something. Then I am ready to tackle the next task. And then the next. And so on throughout the day. Just talking about having a merry Christmas or changing our bah humbug attitude is not enough although it is a good start: we need to do something to make it happen. It may be as simple as singing a Christmas carol but it may be the first step in rewriting the ending to our Christmas story – and our life.
Look at Matthew 2:12 again. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Herod asked the wise men to let him know where the baby was because he said he wanted to worship the new king. This was an obvious lie and these strangers from the east, if they really were wise, would have seen through it immediately. However, according to Matthew it wasn’t until after they saw Jesus and after they had been warned in a dream that they decided to take a different route home.
I wonder: did they not understand before the dream that they should not tell Herod? Maybe by seeing the baby Jesus they saw the truth and by seeing the truth they had to do something. Maybe, that night after they had visited the Christ, they were troubled and upset not knowing what to do until they were told in a dream. Now I know verse 12 is just an information verse and it means literally that they took a different route but I like to think the wise men went home different as well.
A good ending doesn’t happen just because we want it to happen but because we do something to make it happen. You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
We have found the truth when we confess Jesus as Lord, repent of our sins and are obedient to him in baptism. That is our hope and truth. And our hope and truth is more than theoretical spiritual mumbo-jumbo. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.”
We cannot always change our circumstances but we can always change our attitude. We cannot change the past and we do not know what tomorrow holds but we can do something about the present we are in. When we choose to look at things differently we will discover God’s re-creating power and our ending can be rewritten. How do we do it? Romans 12:2 is a good starting point: 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.
We have the opportunity to write a good ending to our story. It starts with obedience to Christ. It continues as we do his good work. And it ends when we rejoice with him in heaven. How is your story coming along?