Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, "The Redemption of Scrooge: The Hope of Christmas Future," Romans 8:18-31
Romans 8:18-31, Luke 4:18-19, Matthew 11:29-30
The Hope of Christmas Future
This week we wrapped up our Advent study where we’ve been reading The Redemption of Scrooge by Matt Rawle, and digging deeper into the story of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol alongside our focus in worship. At the start of the class, I asked participants to think about the future - to think about a few hopeful things we see in our futures, and then to reflect on any ways in which we’re anxious, afraid, or maybe just feeling “angsty” about our future. I’m happy to report that we have a lot of hope, and one of the first things that came to mind as we thought about hope for the future was the children of our congregation, and the life and light they bring to us now, that we anticipate shining for years and years to come. But it was also pretty easy to think about ways the future looms with some anxiety, some worry or fear too. As we stand in the middle of a presidential impeachment process, we wondered about our future as a nation. We think of the threat of violence, stirrings of violence around the globe. We think of the planet, of waging wildfires and ecological devastation. Those are some big picture items we might worry about in our collective future. But I wonder about bringing it down to us as individuals, too. What does your future look like? Is it hopeful? Are there things in your own future you worry about? We talked about aging, and health, and death. Maybe there are some other things on your mind. Maybe, when you think about the path you’re on now, the future doesn’t always look welcoming. Are we - can we be - hopeful about our future? In this life, and in eternity - do we have hope? Or, when we look at the state of things now, have we gone too far off course, messed up too much, damaged and broken and hurt too much to look for a future with hope?
Scrooge wrestles with some similar questions as he is visited by the third Spirit this week. Almost as soon as the Ghost of Christmas Present leaves Scrooge, another Ghost arrives. Dickens calls this Ghost a Phantom. The Phantom is draped and hooded, moves along the ground like a mist, and entirely silent, face concealed. Dickens writes that “in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.” Nothing of a body is visible except one outstretched hand. The Spirit fills Scrooge with dread and fear. He trembles so much he can hardly move. Scrooge names the Spirit as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Still, Scrooge is determined to learn from the Ghost. He says, “Ghost of the Future! I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.”
The Phantom brings Scrooge first upon a group of men talking about someone who has just died. They talk without affection, love, or grief. They try to figure out what will happen with the man’s money, but no one knows. Yet, even still, they agree to attend this man’s funeral, especially if a luncheon might be provided. Eventually the Phantom leads Scrooge away from the busy town into neighborhoods that are “foul and narrow.” They enter a beetling shop - a place where old rags would be made into fresh cloth, and more broadly, a kind of pawn shop. A housecleaner, a laundress, and the undertaker all arrive at the same time. After listening in on their conversation, we deduce that they are trying to sell items they have taken from the home of the recently deceased man. They talk about the man in scathing tones. He always took care of himself. He’s no worse off for the loss of a few things, since he’s dead. If he cared about keeping his things after death, he should have had better relationships in life. One of the women took the bed curtains and blankets off the bed to sell while the deceased was still lying dead. Scrooge is horrified at the whole scene. “The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way, now.” Still, though, he’s not ready to connect the dots. In the next blink, the Phantom takes Scrooge to the bedroom, where the body of the dead man lies under a sheet, no blankets or curtains left on the bed. The corpse’s face is covered, and Scrooge both longs to and dreads peeking under the veil. Scrooge imagines that if this man was raised from the dead on the spot, the only things on his mind would be “avarice, hard-dealing, and griping cares.”
Scrooge wants to know if anyone feels something because this man has died. “If there is any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this man’s death … show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you!” The Phantom takes Scrooge to a home where a man is arriving home to his wife and children. He shares that the yet-unnamed man has died - and the wife is immediately thankful, and then asks forgiveness for her gut reaction. Apparently, they owed this man a debt, and he had refused to give an extension. Now, even though their debt will go to a new creditor, they doubt anyone can be as merciless as this now-dead man was. Dickens tells us that this house “was a happier house for this man’s death.”
So Scrooge says to the Phantom, “Let me see some tenderness connected with a death or that dark chamber, Spirit, which we left just now, will be for ever present to me.” (emphasis mine) And now Scrooge finds himself again at the home of the Bob Cratchit. It is very, very quiet in the once noisy home. From somewhere, Scrooge hears a voice, words we know from the gospels: “‘And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them.” Scrooge can’t place the words though. Bob arrives home - he’s just come from visiting the burial site for Tiny Tim, who has just died. He and his family are grieving, but strong. Bob relays that he ran into Mr. Scrooge’s nephew Fred, who was full of kind words for Bob and his family in their grieving. The family vows not to forget Tim, and they find joy and peace in supporting each other, even in their pain. Bob says, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”
Seeing this all unfold, Scrooge finally finds the courage to ask the Phantom: “Tell me what man that was whom we saw lying dead?” He’s ready to face what he perhaps suspects. So the Phantom takes Scrooge to the church yard, where at last the truth is revealed. The Phantom points to a grave. Before Scrooge will look at whose it is he asks, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?” The Phantom stays silent, and Scrooge continues, ““Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!” Still, the Spirit is silent. At last, Scrooge sees his own name on a neglected grave: Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge falls to his knees, pleading. ““Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope! Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!” The pointing hand of the Phantom seems to pause and tremble. Scrooge makes a final declaration: “I will honour 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. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!” And with that, the Spirit vanishes. When Scrooge awakens, he’s full of joy to learn he hasn’t missed Christmas - and more importantly, he hasn’t missed a chance to make changes in his life. He can do as he said, and keep the Spirits of the three Ghosts with him, keep their lessons with him. But we’ll talk more about the end of Scrooge’s journey in a couple days!
I’m struck by the question Scrooge asks of the Phantom, and the conclusions he draws. “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?” Scrooge asks. And he concludes: “[Our] courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” In other words, Scrooge realizes that he’s seeing what could happen, what will happen if no changes take place in his life. But it isn’t what must happen. The future could still be different. What do you think the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come would show you if you changed nothing about your life right now?
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is like a biblical prophet. Biblical prophets weren’t fortune tellers, but they told people what the future would be like if they continued on the present path. “If you don’t change your course, this is the outcome.” “If you don’t start studying, you will fail the class.” “If you don’t take your medication, the disease will spiral out of control.” “If you don’t stop worshiping other gods, you will feel cut off from God’s love and care.” “If you don’t put God first in your life, you will feel an emptiness that your other priorities can’t fill.” That’s what the Phantom is doing for Scrooge: “If you don’t repent and treat people with care, Scrooge, you will be alone and unmourned when you die.” What is the message from the Ghost to you and me?
Today we read part of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is his most deeply developed theology. It is his most complicated letter, rich in wisdom, and chapter 8 in itself is full of inspiring words. In the section we’re looking at, Paul is talking about hope. And he says, “The whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” The whole creation is waiting for redemption. Paul says that things are hard now - there is suffering. Sin and death have a hold on us, and the creation suffers and groans right along with humanity. But, Paul says, the groaning we do, the groaning of creation, is like labor pains. It isn’t futile groaning. It is groaning with a purpose, groaning that leads to new life, the groaning of laboring that results in birth. (1) There’s hope in the midst of the groaning, because the promise of new life with God lies before us.
Even as Paul uses language of new birth, he also uses language of adoption. We’re in the process of being adopted by God, he says. We’re awaiting the completion of our adoption - our redemption. And when we’re adopted, that means life for us and freedom for the whole creation. And while we’re waiting, we’re called to live faithfully, patiently, expectantly, and called to be full of hope. (2) We’re at once God’s children already, and being born anew, and being adopted. We’re both saved by God’s grace already, and being saved, as we embrace God’s love. We’re both redeemed already in Christ, and being redeemed as we learn to live in Christ.
Is the future full of hope? Paul answers a resounding “Yes!” He says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” For me, that is the best news of hope. I love God, and God is good - so the future God hopes for me - it’s also good. “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks. And we can answer, “No one that should make us worry, not when God is with us.” (Rawle)
It takes Scrooge a while before he can face himself. Before he can face the words on the tombstone, face the truth of his life so far, face the truth of the path he’s on. Sometimes we have a hard time facing ourselves, too, and when we can’t face ourselves, we start to feel pretty hopeless about our future, worrying it is too late for us, too late to fix what we’ve messed up beyond repair. But Scrooge realizes it isn’t too late. He can’t change his past. But he has every intention of changing the present, hopeful for a changed future too. I hope we come to the same realization. Let us claim our hopeful future with God, by welcoming God into our hearts and lives in the present, committing to God’s path today.
Our futures are full of hope, because if God is for us - and God is SO for us! - who can be against us? Our future is full of hope, because God is working all things together for good, even when we’ve been less than careful with what and who God has entrusted to us. Our future is full of hope because God is with us, the promise we celebrate in Advent. Our future might be unknown to us. But we are known to God, and so our futures are full of hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.
- Johnson, Elizabeth, “Romans 8:22-27 Commentary,” The Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=319.
- West, Audrey, “Romans 8:22-27 Commentary,” The Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1306.