To Be Good Again

A Christmas Eve Sermon

The Muppets created one of my favorite adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I think perhaps it’s due to Waldorf and Statler—those crotchety critics of The Muppet Show who hung out in the balcony making wisecracks—who both show up as the ghost of Marley, two brothers this time, Jacob and Robert.  Upon their arrival at Scrooge’s house that fateful Christmas Eve they sing in grand Muppet fashion, “We’re Marley and Marley, avarice and greed, took advantage of the poor and just ignored the needy.” They go on to detail their awful past including the year they tossed an entire orphanage out into the cold because they couldn’t pay the rent.  “I remember all the little tykes standing in the snow bank,” crows Statler, “With their little frost-bitten teddy bears,” replies Waldorf, the two of them cackling like they always did and then groaning due to the shackles they now wear because of their lack of care for the poor.

Photo Credit: abdul / yunir Flickr via Compfight cc

They continue by telling Scrooge, “You’re doomed for all time, Your future is a horror story, Written by your crime, Your chains are forged, By what you say and do, So, have your fun, When life is done, A nightmare waits for you.”  Scrooge of course sees this encounter as the nightmare already, and wants to slip back into a sleep pretending it didn’t really happen. We all know he’s in for a long night as he faces his past, his present and his likely future.

“For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all,” St. Paul writes to Titus, his brother in the faith, echoing the message that angel brought to the shepherds on a midwinter night some 50 years prior. 

Paul goes on to explain that God’s grace is “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.”  Or putting it another way, Paul perhaps is joining Waldorf and Statler as a third Marley brother.  Rather than chains in the next life, Paul will wear his in this one due to his love for Christ, knowing already about what what he’s supposed to do for the poor.  He’s writing to Titus whom he left in charge of the church on Crete in order to lead the Cretans to live faith-filled lives, something they’re failing at quite miserably.  Paul lets Titus know this in no uncertain terms.  “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions,” he writes. “They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.”  After giving some specific guidance, he gets to the words we heard this evening: “For the grace of God appeared, bringing salvation to all.”  Salvation to all.  Even those Cretens whose lives have been on the wrong course. They can experience salvation

In Khaled Housseini’s international haunting bestseller The Kite Runner, the protagonist, an Afghani man named Amir living in California, receives a phone call from an old friend in Pakistan. The friend, Rahim Khan, calls in order to ask Amir to come see him.  “Standing in the kitchen with the receiver to my ear,” Amir writes,  “I knew it just wasn’t Rahim Khan on the line.  It was my past of unatoned sins.”  The first chapter concludes with Amir mulling over Rahim’s request.  “There is a way to be good again,” Rahim tells his friend.  “There is a way to be good again.”  These words become the driving force behind the plot. 

Rahim knows about Amir’s past, how he, as one commentator puts it, “betrays his boyhood friend, Hassan, in a way that leads to tragedy and suffering.  The knowledge of his transgression plagues him throughout his life. …  ‘There is a way to be good again.’ This eventually leads him on a journey on behalf of Hassan who, with his wife, were murdered several years before. At great risk to his own life, Amir locates and rescues Hassan’s son.”

Some of you may be wondering on this Christmas Eve when I’m going to get to Luke’s gospel with the journey to Bethlehem and the manger, the singing angels and the shepherds.  It’s here, of course.  It permeates this place.  We’ve decked out this sanctuary, and we’re singing the carols.  We know that story cold—perhaps too well—we can see a dressed up nativity on a Christmas card, and within nano-seconds neurons have fired in the brain and we’ve processed the story, smiled and moved on.

Which can also happen at a Christmas Eve service.  We can come in wearing our finery after a nice meal with family, enjoy the splendor of this candlelit place and then move on.  But then all of us would have missed the point.

On that bleak midwinter night so long ago, Jesus was born.  He squirmed and cried like every newborn you’ve ever seen.  His parents, both elated and exhausted, wondered like all new parents if there had been a mistake, if they could actually take care of this living human being who had now be thrust into their lives.  They wondered if the immense love overwhelming them in seeing this child could be enough to get them through when they felt so inadequate.  And when that baby drifted off to sleep swaddled in some cloths lying nearby and they tried hard to get comfortable on a pile of hay to snatch a couple hours of sleep before he woke again, they realized they’d never felt more joy in their lives. 

That tender one born changed not only their lives, he has the power to change our lives too.  We’re invited on this dark winter night to peak into the manager and behold Love made flesh.  Even more, we’re invited to grasp that this one can help us change the direction of our lives.  “There is a way to be good again.”

Friends, I know how trying the holidays can be.  The stress brought on as we hustle around getting ready, and then compounding that with relatives who grate against our nerves sitting across from us at the Christmas table.  Add to that the choices we’ve made in our lives, the ones that feel like we’ve been heading toward a dead end, and we don’t know how to stop but they seem to be crowding in, choking off our life.

There is a way to be good again.  “For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”  Or, if you prefer, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

There is a way to be good again, and that way lies before us just now.  Jesus came into this world not to load us down under the weight of the guilt from our pasts, but to free us by his love and bring us peace.  It is never too late for us to experience transformation and turn around heading in a new direction.  It is not too late for us to experience true unbridled love.  It is never too late to live the lives we’ve always been called to live.

And Christmas Eve just so happens to be a fine time to do this.  “‘Good Spirit,’ [Mr. Scrooge] pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: ‘Your nature intercedes for me, and pieties me.  Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life. … I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.  I will live in 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.”

So come to this table tonight, feasting on Love and opening your heart to the tenderness of God’s mercy.  Know that you have never traveled too far from God’s presence no matter where life has taken you.  Believe without a shadow out a doubt that there is a way to be good again.  And on this night, when Christ’s light breaks into the darkness of our lives, may God bless us, everyone.  Amen.