The Spirit of Christmas Foretold

Sermon Series: The Gospel according to Scrooge

#1:  The Spirit of Christmas Foretold

Isaiah 8:20 – 9:3a  (NLT)

This morning is the first Sunday of Advent as we prepare ourselves to receive Christ once again. Year after year, we need to be reminded that, in order for our faith to be genuine, we must constantly be open to welcoming Jesus into our world and into our lives.  It’s also a time when we are reminded of the transformation Christ makes in our lives when we invite him to dwell in our hearts and in our midst.

That’s why, for our Advent and Christmas season this year, our sermons will be inspired by the most beloved Christmas story found outside of the Scriptures.  No Christmas story is more adored, or illustrates the impact Christ’s advent can make on our lives better than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Why has this story about that old curmudgeon named Ebenezer Scrooge become so venerated by generations – so much so that it doesn’t seem like Christmas unless we’ve watched one of the many tellings of the story on film?  I think it is because, we instinctively recognize Christian values and truths that are woven throughout this story.  It is something of a parable that explains the meaning of Christ’s coming in ways all of us can understand.

Many people don’t realize it, but Charles Dickens was a devout Christian.  Even though he was never overt in writing about his faith, all throughout his books and stories Christian principles are held up as the standard we are to live by.  In fact, on the night before his death in 1870, Charles Dickens wrote this in a letter to a friend:  “I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Savior.”

Nowhere is this more clear than in his little book, A Christmas Carol. Hidden in the story are deep insights and truths about the meaning of Christ’s coming, and the impact the advent of Christ has on the hearts of individuals.  There have been countless retellings of this beloved story.  It’s been adapted by the Muppets and cartoon characters.  It’s been turned into stage plays and musicals.  It’s been set in other times and places, in children’s books and television specials.  And of course, there have been multiple movies made of this Dickens tale – it seems that a new one comes out every Christmas season. Even non-Christians and unbelievers have fallen in love with this story of the transformation that is possible when the Spirit of Christ breaks into our lives.

It could be argued that Charles Dickens should be considered one of the most effective evangelists who have ever lived – especially in today’s world where the vast majority of people seldom darken the doors of a church.  Through his story, the seed of the Gospel is planted in unsuspecting hearts, that by God’s grace, may one day grow.  That’s why I have decided that we would spend our Christmas season reflecting on the Spirit of Christmas as seen through the lens of Dickens’ story.  This morning, we will consider “the Spirit of Christmas: Foretold.”

In the Peanuts cartoon strip, Snoopy is sometime depicted as a frustrated author, hoping to write the next great American novel.  There he sits atop his doghouse with an old manual typewriter.  And do you recall the first line of his novel? “It was a dark and stormy night…”

It’s amazing how often authors set their stories in darkness, or in the midst of storms, as if to underscore the seriousness of the drama that is unfolding.  Dickens certainly does this in his novel. For it is in Scrooges’ dark and gloomy bedroom that he is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley to warn Scrooge that unless he changes his ways, he too will end up in eternal chains.  Such a gloomy and even frightening scene – it seems an odd choice for a Christmas story.   But in fact, it was perfect – because the darkness of Scrooges house reflects the darkness of Scrooges soul.

Our scripture text from Isaiah speaks of spiritual darkness, as well.  This passage is one of many examples from Jewish scripture that foretell the coming of the Messiah.  There are dozens of Old Testament passages that point to the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  But our scripture for this morning is probably among the most famous and most important of those prophecies.

Isaiah prophesied to the people of Judah warning them to change their ways.  God’s chosen people had turned their back on God and were living self-centered and sinful lives, following idols of their own making.  For centuries prophets had been calling the Jewish people to repent and return to faithfulness. But they continued in their disobedience.  In our text, Isaiah, like Dickens, speaks of the spiritual darkness in which the people were living. But then, he allows a glimmer of hope to shine through:

Hear again, Isaiah’s words, and see if they don’t describe Ebenezer Scrooge: “People who contradict (God’s) word are completely in the dark… They will look up to heaven and down at the earth, but wherever they look, there will be trouble and anguish and dark despair. They will be thrown out into the darkness.  Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever… The people who walk in darkness will see a great light.  For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.”

The people of Judah walked in spiritual darkness. By their words and actions they denied and mocked God’s Spirit.  They were unaware of how lost and in the dark they really were.  If they continued to live in the darkness of their sin, they would face a grim future.  Isaiah and the other prophets God sent named the darkness and foretold the coming of the Light.

That’s why I selected this passage for us to reflect on this morning.  In many ways, Ebenezer Scrooge was just like the people of Judah.  Like them, he lived a selfish life following idols of his own making.  He had denied and mocked God.  He was a lost soul living in spiritual darkness.  Unless he had a change of heart, he was doomed. And like the Jewish people, he didn’t know how lost and in the dark he truly was.

At least, until that dark December night when he was haunted by the ghostly appearance of his former business partner, Jacob Marley.  Just like the prophets of old, Marley named Scrooges darkness and offered him the opportunity to repent, so he could receive the light of God’s Spirit. In the midst of the darkness and gloom, Marley offers Scrooge an opportunity to change his destiny – he holds out a glimmer of hope.

Marley’s ghost tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three Spirits who will point his way out of the darkness and into the light.  Scrooge’s life and eternal destiny can be transformed, if only he will take to heart the lessons the three Spirits wish to teach him.

I think the reason A Christmas Carolis so enduring is because so many people in our world today are just like the people of Judah and like Ebenezer Scrooge.  In fact, there is a little bit of Ebenezer in each one of us, too.  We live self-centered lives, following idols of our own making.  By the way we live, we deny and mock God. We reject God’s Spirit. Many of us are living in spiritual darkness, and we don’t even realize it.  The ghost of Jacob Marley haunts the dark chambers of our hearts – unless we change, we are doomed.

But there is hope. The words the Prophet Isaiah spoke to Judah are for us, as well.  The “time of darkness and despair will not go on forever (Isaiah says)… (We) will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when… (we) will be filled with glory.”

There will be “no more gloom for those in anguish,”for a glorious light will shine, dispelling the darkness – the dawning of the Christ.

When Marley departed the gloom of that bedroom, Scrooge was left with anticipation, laced with fear and with hope – fear that the ghosts would force him to look on the dark recesses of his heart; and hope that beyond the darkness of the night, there might be the hope of a new dawn in the morning.

In the three remaining Sundays of Advent, we also will be visited by three Spirits – what I am calling the three Spirits of Christmas:  Past, Present, Future.  Over the next three weeks, we will consider Christ’s coming in history asGod’s incarnate Son in Bethlehem;  we will rejoice that Christ comes to us even today, in the form of his Spirit dwelling in our hearts:  and we will look forward to the coming of Christ in glory at the close of the age.  Then finally, on Christmas Eve, you and I will celebrate with joy the coming of the light of Christ – a dawn that has the power to transform all our “humbugs,” into “hallelujahs!”

The promise of the prophet is good news for us this Advent: 

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.”

*Video: David C. Scott version.  From when Marley sits through exit out window.  5 min.