A Christmas Carol. A Christian Carol?
I’ve just finished reading through Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (pretty short, just 66 pages in my Best Ghost Stories). It’s classic Dickens – and even if you don’t go in for his long and flowery sentences, it’s an easy read, funny too. I was reminded that one of the closest TV adaptation to the original is actually (and I say this without a hint of irony), The MuppetsChristmas Carol where much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the text and names are only slightly changed: Mr Fozziwigg (Fozzi Bear) is actually Fezziwigg in the text.
Muppets aside, it’s a great redemption story. Or is it? It certainly seems to be a remarkable change of heart. But this time around I read it more critically. Is it really a Christian story, a true Christmas Carol, as it purports to be? There is certainly a change. Ebenezer Scrooge goes from being a tight-fisted miser (Bah! Humbug!) to a generous philanthropist. But what has changed him? It’s clear from the story that he’s changed by the frightening insight into what has happened to his dead partner, Jacob Marley. His chains and padlocks represent his failings (especially, though not only in generosity) which will be heaped sevenfold on Scrooge because he is nothing like as kind as Marley. A frightening thought indeed.
Frightening enough, indeed to spur Scrooge on to change. As do the future visions of his death and what people will say about him. He lives in dread of not being remembered, or only for the wrong reasons. His change is thus entirely self-motivated. He wants, in essence, to work his way out of hell. The book paints a picture of a man who is completely successful in this endeavour. As such, I think this ripping yarn is actually anti-gospel. Change is good, of course. True change includes conviction and a desire to live differently. But where this change comes from selfish motives rather than an encounter with the God of Christmas come down, it is ultimately doomed. “I desire to change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life” is Scrooge’s new mantra.
There is grace however: first in Scrooge’s assistant Bob Cratchitt who insists on a Christmas Day toast “To Scrooge, the founder of the feast” (in Scrooge’s vision) and in Scrooge’s nephew Fred who insists on offering friendship and warmth to his uncle despite the lack of any return.
However, ultimately, despite Scrooge’s Christ-less promise to “honour Christmas in my heart”, we need to know that there is One, like the Spirit of Christmas present, who invites us to “come in and know me better, man” and himself provides the means to do so. Therein is the change and the Christmas Carol we all need to hear.
The measure of the man
I’ve enjoyed reading recently some of Calvin’s letters (£58 rather than the RRP of £90). It’s always instructive to read someone’s correspondence and, in Calvin, you find much to surprise you, especially if you think of him (as many do) as some cold, hard theologian. He is, it becomes clear, first and foremost a pastor. Here’s a snippet, written to Anne Seymour, daughter of the Lord Protector (her mother was Edward VI’s aunt). She had a clear faith and Calvin wanted to encourage her on:
It remains for me to exhort you to pursue your so happy course, even although, as I hear, you are willing enough of yourself; and I trust that the Lord himself will give you this disposition, and will grant you steadfastness to persevere to the end. Certainly, among so many excellent gifts with which God has endowed and adorned you, this stands unquestionably first – that he stretched out his hand to you in tender childhood, to lead you to his own Son, who is the author of eternal salvation and the fountain of all good. It becomes you to strive, with all the more zeal, to follow eagerly at his call.
I wonder what I’d see in your letters? And you in mine.
Noticing the form as well as the content
Perhaps it’s an old cracked record, but it’s a good tune. So often the key to a good sermon is in understanding the content of the text and the way it’s put together. Take Judges 17-18 that I’m working on at the moment (and, BTW, Barry Webb’s NICOT is crackingly good). It’s a pretty bleak story, car crash TV, really, as one disastrous detail of the story builds on another. Key to the whole story is the mysterious Levite who becomes Micah’s priest but is nabbed by the Danites during the transfer window (Judges 17:7). I guess a key detail is that this Levite is not a priest – that’s a clear inference from the way the passage works. But right at the end you get a detail which proves the case, when you are shocked to discover that he is “Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Moses.” So, not a priest (descendant of Aaron), but a direct descendant of Moses!
Now, in your sermon, you could use that end of story detail to show how wrong it is for him to serve as priest in the previous chapter. After all, naming him perhaps makes the story more engaging. But it ignores the form of the passage as well as the content. His name is deliberately held in reserve to make the point: “Here is the crowning scandal of the Danite’s disastrous shrine: it brought dishonour even on the revered name of Moses” (Webb).
My sermon has got to retain that tension or I’m doing the text an injustice in form, if not in detail. Hard work this narrative preaching!
Keeping it simple in Galatians
I’ve got the privilege of preaching through the first part of Galatians right now. Last Sunday was 2.11-21. It’s glorious, but not straightforward: with vs.11-14 a decision is required on just what the men from James were saying and why, and there are quite a few knotty exegetical questions in vs.15-21 that need to be untangled. If I short-circuit those things, I’m likely to miss the cutting edge of this particular passage. I tried to do that work while also keeping things simple, but am not sure I succeeded.
So it’s a relief this morning to turn to preparing 3.1-6, which seems much easier. One simple point runs right through it: the way Christians should seek to go on securely in the Christian life is exactly the same way they started – by believing what they heard, with no falling back on ‘works of the law’.
There is, however, a however. Paul moves from Christ crucified in v.1 to God giving his Spirit and the Galatians receiving the Spirit in vs.2-5. I think my sermon will likely be too trite if I don’t work on the link between cross and Spirit that Paul makes here. He seems to think that if we’re misunderstanding how to stay secure in our on-going lives in the Spirit, then the root is that we’ve forgotten the effect of the cross. That’s probably why he began the letter in 1.4 by ascribing a strikingly wide effect to the cross (‘to rescue us from the present evil age’). I want my sermon to be as simple and direct as the passage is. But I don’t want a cheap simplicity that misses the crucial theological links that Paul draws.
To work, then.
Autumn Ministers – final media
The final two talks from the recent Autumn Ministers conference were by Garry Williams. Garry is director of the John Owen Centre, part of the London Theological Seminary. His first talk was on the love of God, and particularly preaching the love of God in today’s love-obsessed world. His second highlighted four ways in which the world might enter the church, considering the particular characteristics of our society and how they may negatively influence the church.
Garry’s talks can be found here.
Autumn Ministers’ Thessalonians
At last month’s Autumn Ministers conference, Nigel Styles took us through the book of 1 Thessalonians in three sessions. The audio and video from those are now available here.
In case some might not have realised, the names of conferences, speakers and bible books in the right hand column of our (relatively!) new-look resources page are clickable – that is, the details of the talks under the word FREE.
So if you click 1 Thessalonians in that column, you’ll get a list of all our talks on 1 Thessalonians; if you click the speaker name, you’ll get all the talks from that speaker (these were Nigel’s first talks for us, so in this case you’ll only get those three!). We’re still working at improving our catalogue, but within the list we hope they’re sensibly arranged – there’s a line at the top of the list which will tell you how the talks are sorted for you, typically either by chapter (if you’re looking at talks on a particular book), or by date (if you’re looking at one speaker), or (hopefully!) in something like the order they were given, if you’re looking at an individual conference.
Winter (heart) warmers
Last month saw our annual Autumn Ministers conference, the audio from which is now online. Vaughan Roberts’ opening and closing expositions from Revelation encouraged and
challenged us in our ministry – listen in here.
Familiarity breeds…. well, something
It’s been interesting in our preaching classes this term watching students grapple with Isaiah passages. As you would expect, there have been a variety of standards, but always good discussion about the reality of preaching these texts and (this is the really hard part) preaching them Christologically to largely saved people (try Isaiah 1 on for size).
But what interests me particularly is the way that most of us struggle with familiar texts. It’s not that familiarity breeds contempt. We’re not contemptuous about the text. We hold it in high regard; but nevertheless, we’re unable to get beyond certain things. Take Isaiah 7. I once foolishly took this as a Christmas passage. It is incarnational – but there are some hard things going on. “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” is picked up verbatim by Matthew.
But the context matters. And in the context, Immanuel is not just the Lord coming to bring relief. It is the Lord coming to bring disaster too. The sign is judgement and salvation. The old way is ending and is burned up as the Saviour’s appearing functions as a sign to show Ahaz and all who follow him that the earthly kingdom line is no more – it has been replaced with something far superior.
This is all highly nuanced of course. But to ignore the context and how it shapes the text in Isaiah is to ignore the sharpness and shock of application that both encourages us to yield to Christ and rebukes those who do not. There is, of course, no substitute for getting to grips with the words in the way we would do with any other passage. Familiarity does not let us off that hook: in fact it demands we think and pray even more.
Preparing under pressure
This morning I’m trying to prepare a sermon (to a deadline, as most sermons are). I’m doing so in the context of just hearing about a devastating pastoral situation of some close friends. I’m gutted and find it really hard to apply myself. That’s not uncommon. Thankfully, these kinds of situations are relatively rare. There are joys as well as sorrows. Nevertheless, we often find ourselves having to prepare a message for the godly congregation whilst being burdened by the ungodliness of others.
This is not the same thing as a Messiah complex. Thinking we can fix the world is a bad path for a pastor to take. But there is something about pastoring that keeps us from professionalising. We feel the pains and sins of those we minister to – just as the Apostle Paul did. And so it should be. Pity the congregation whose pastor is so compartmentalized that he is able to switch off from them completely. Some shepherd!
What to do? The sermon has to get done. The people have to be ministered to. I need to be in prayer for the particular situation, and possibly even spend some time trying to help. The answer is always the same – to throw ourselves on the mercy of God. I’ll probably do that over a long walk, praying and reflecting and asking God to remind me that I pastor not just two errant sheep, but a few others too who need to hear the word of God this Sunday.
I spent some of yesterday with a dear pastor who has really been through it the last few years: trouble like you wouldn’t believe. His testimony stirred me up. “The Lord has kept me from bitterness.” Looking in from the outside, this seems humanly impossible, such has been the situation. But we preachers find that the Lord sustains and equips for the ministry the Lord gives. Which means that I prepare my sermon casing myself wholly on him.
Which, by the way, is the means of preparing every sermon.