Wednesday, December 9, 2009

So much happiness

I love Charles Dickens' 1843 Christmas tale, "A Christmas Carol." There have been many film adaptations of the story but my favorite remains the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim as Ebeneezer Scrooge (I haven't seen the just-released Disney version starring Jim Carrey). This 58 year-old presentation seems to capture Dickens' tale better than the other versions I have seen. Notably it leaves intact numerous blatantly Christian references found in the original story that many film versions cut.

For some years in our Wednesday worship services during December I have presented popular Christmas stories that I have used to make application to the biblical Christmas story. I have done this with O Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" and Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and Pearl S. Buck's "Christmas Day in the Morning." I have always wanted to present "A Christmas Carol" but it is just too long. A couple of years ago I tried to put together sort of a Reader's Digest condensed version for use in a worship service but very quickly I could see that it just wasn't going to work.

So this week in our mid-week worship service I showed a clip from the final few minutes of the 1951 movie version of "A Christmas Carol." Those of you familiar with the story know that the one overpowering emotion in the final act is joy--great joy. The previously mean and miserly Scrooge was absolutely giddy that he had another chance to use his fortune to help people in need.

In Dickens' telling of the story, Scrooge takes a Christmas day walk in which he sees a man who had come to his office the day before making a collection for the poor. On Christmas Eve Scrooge had angrily sent the man away indicating that he would prefer that needy people just die and decrease the surplus population. But, on Christmas day, after the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future had showed him how his greed had consumed him, Scrooge had a change of heart.

He quickened his pace and caught up with the man and made a commitment to a donation so large that the gentleman collecting for the poor was shocked. Scrooge said the gift included "a great many back-payments." Right after this sacrifice to help the needy, Dickens tells us that Scrooge "never dreamed that any walk could give him so much happiness."

The great joy that Scrooge experienced as he helped those in need reminded me of an important part of the biblical Christmas story. On the first Christmas the angels said to the shepherds, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord" (Luke 2:10-11).

God sent messengers to make the Christmas day proclamation of "good news of great joy" in the context of a sacrificial gift. In the Incarnation God gave on behalf of those in need to the point that, in the language of Paul, "he became poor" (2 Cor. 8:9, TNIV). And God was so excited about giving to the point of becoming poor that the joy would not be contained. Angels were sent to declare it.

God and Scrooge were giddy as they made sacrifices to help those in need. In Scrooge's case he needed to be shown in a vivid way the value of sacrificial giving before he experienced the joy of Christmas. What will it take for us?

On Sunday we will light the candle of joy in the Advent wreath. As we do so we should remember that lasting joy is not about receiving and it is not about giving stuff to people who don't really need it. The example of God shows us that true joy is experienced as we realize the wonder of sacrificial giving for those in need.

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