Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, "The Redemption of Scrooge: Remembering Christmas Past," Revelation 21:3-5, Luke 5:1-11
Revelation 21:3-5, Luke 5:1-11
Remembering Christmas Past
This Advent we’re journeying with Ebenezer Scrooge as he is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Last week we learned about how cut off Scrooge had become from everyone around him. He’s mean and crotchety, and doesn’t do much of anything that doesn’t serve his own interests. But his former business partner comes to him as a ghost, telling him he’ll get three ghostly visitors who will give Scrooge a chance for redemption.
The next night, the first ghost arrives: the Ghost of Christmas Past. The Ghost’s appearance is unusual - an inner light gives the ghost an appearance like a candle, lit up from the inside. The Ghost takes Scrooge on several visits to his past. First, Scrooge sees himself as a young, lonely, sickly boy. Something about seeing himself as he used to be starts to stir Scrooge’s heart. He remembers the caroler that had come to his door the day before and Scrooge dismissed in his usual, angry way. We read, “A lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be. Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again. “I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.” “What is the matter?” asked the Spirit. “Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.””
With the Ghost, Scrooge then visits his former workplace, remembering fondly his boss, Mr. Fezziwig, and his fellow apprentice, Dick. There’s a joyous Christmas party, with lots of dancing. Everyone is happy. Dickens tells us, “During the whole of this time, Scrooge had acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation. “A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.” “Small!” echoed Scrooge. “Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” “It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” Again, Scrooge’s visit to his past causes him to think about what he could do differently now. He thinks about how he might be able to say a kind word to his own clerk, Bob Cratchit.
Next, the Ghost takes Scrooge to see the moment when his financée, Belle, breaks of their engagement. She tells Scrooge: “Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.” “What Idol has displaced you?” [Scrooge] rejoined. “A golden one … All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?” She tells Scrooge she knows that if he met her for the first time now, he would never choose her, a poor woman without a dowry. “I release you,” she says, “With a full heart, for the love of him you once were.” And finally, the Ghost takes Scrooge to see Belle years later, happily married with children. Scrooge is unable to take the pain of witnessing what he missed out on. He tries to “extinguish” the Ghost of Christmas past, putting a cap over the glowing light of the Ghost, and the Ghost leaves him at last, his mind swirling with all he has seen of his past.
I wonder, if the Ghost of Christmas Past was to visit us, where would the Ghost take us? What parts of your past have you forgotten? What joys, what simple pleasures have you forgotten, that, if you could remember, would fill your heart with gratitude and thanksgiving? And what in your past still causes you heartbreak? What shapes you now from your past, making it harder for you to love or trust or give or grow, because of the pain or hurt or brokenness you once experienced?
Our gospel lesson for today seems to me to have some of these wonderings underneath the text, as we find Simon Peter responding to Jesus’ call to discipleship. We’ve read this text from Luke any number of times in worship, and it is always powerful. Jesus sees some fishermen on the shore, washing their nets. Without invitation, he gets into one of the boats, one belonging to a man named Simon Peter, and asks to go out into the water a bit. From that place in the boat, Jesus teaches the crowds on the shore. And when Jesus is done teaching, he asks Simon to take them out into the deep water, and let down the nets to catch some fish. Simon explains to this man who is a rabbi, a teacher, not a fishermen, that they’ve been trying all night to catch fish, but caught nothing. But perhaps because he’d just heard this man teach with authority, he agrees to do what Jesus says. And indeed, this time, Simon and company catch so many fish that the nets begin to break, and the boat and the one that came to help - they both start to sink.
I find Simon Peter’s response to all this fascinating. I think I’d have a million questions for Jesus about what I just saw take place. But what’s on Simon Peter’s mind is how unworthy he is to witness such a miracle. He’s not fit to be in the presence of this teacher. It’s like he doesn’t think he can be in the presence of such goodness and power as Jesus has. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” We don’t get to know what sins Simon Peter has on his mind. We don’t ever learn much about his past before he started following Jesus. But clearly, something is weighing on his heart. Whatever his life has been like up until now, he doesn’t think it measures up in a way that would please this rabbi who is clearly from God.
How about you? When God comes to you - asking you to respond to God’s call - whatever form that takes - do you think of all the reasons why God shouldn’t pick you? When God offers you the gift of unconditional love, grace, God’s favor, without cost, do you feel like Peter? Like you can’t even be in the presence of something as good as God? When we wrestle with our pasts, I think we often conclude that we’ve messed up too much to be lovable. Or we can’t let go of hurt and pain enough to love others with our whole hearts.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t say to Peter: “Oh, I didn’t realize you were so sinful! Nevermind, let me find someone else.” It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? It’s so out of character with the Jesus we know to even imagine. And of course, it is out of character with the witness of the whole of the scriptures about how God works in the world. Jesus responds to Peter with comfort and challenge: Don’t be afraid - that’s the comfort. Again and again, God reminds us that when we’re with God, we don’t need to be afraid. And, “from now on you will be catching people.” That’s the challenge. God reassures us as often as we need it: we’re loved. God loves us without condition, without measure. And, God has work for us to do. Just because we think we’re unworthy of God’s love doesn’t let us off the hook from answering God’s call to be Jesus-followers. Rather, it means that God will find a way to use the very things that seem to hold us back and turn them into assets for sharing the good news of God’s grace with a waiting world.
Although we’re zooming in on the calling of the first disciples today, we could be focusing on any number of other passages in the scriptures where a person with a past that is - colorful, painful, sinful, broken, mistake-ridden - is called by God, is called to discipleship, is called by Jesus to serve. In John’s gospel, when Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael, he makes it clear that he knows about Nathanael’s “before” life, even though they’ve just met. Being known by Jesus causes Nathanael’s confession of faith: “You are the son of God, the ruler of Israel!” In his conversation with the woman at the well, he makes it clear he knows her story - and she still becomes the messenger of the good news to her community. She’s not even upset that he knows her painful history. Rather, she wonders at it, saying to others, “He told me everything I have ever done.” She thinks it is good that Jesus knows her, inside and out. The apostle Paul is called to be a disciple both in spite of and because of his history as a persecutor of Jesus-followers. Follows of Jesus were put to death at Paul’s direction. That’s his past, and it makes him all the more fervent in preaching the good news once Jesus calls him on the road to Damascus. The Bible is full of stories like this - cover to cover.
Scrooge is still wrestling, still becoming the person God has created him to be. After all, he has two visits from Ghosts yet to take place. But after his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past, there’s some softening happening in Scrooge’s heart. In his past, he begins to see anew both the joy and pain he’s experienced - and here’s the key - he starts to connect those experiences to his present, seeing himself in the people in his life now, which allows him to grow in his ability to have compassion and love for others. He could bring joy to others now, just as others had given joy to him in simple gestures long ago. The hardest losses of his past, what he lost when he let his sins, his greed rule his life - he can’t change the past. But he can change the now, letting that pain help him carve a new path going forward. Scrooge is a sinful man - just like Simon Peter said of himself - but when he lets his heart be opened, his past can be made into a blessing, helping him to love and serve others.
Simon Peter is a sinful man, even if we don’t know what past was weighing on his heart. But Jesus can and does use every part of who Peter is, so that Peter can love and serve God and others. And friends, hear this: We are sinful too. Sometimes, we don’t want to look very closely at the more painful parts of our past, especially the parts where we could have loved better, behaved better, treated others better. But God knows every part of you, every bit of your story. God knows your past, was with you in your past. And God, who makes all things new, redeems your past. Nothing in your past - nothing - can prevent your present-day discipleship, your present day “yes” to God. Our pasts, even the painful parts: God can take the broken pieces and make of that a gift and a blessing, something that helps us serve God and others today. We are sinners! We’re broken. We carry with us hurts and pain and anger and grief. But God says to us: “Do not be afraid.” And then God takes our pasts, makes all things new, and sets us on a world that needs messengers of good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.