Ebenezer Scrooge was really rattled by his visit from the Spirit of Christmas past. He knew there would be a next visitor — the Spirit of Christmas Present, and he braced himself. He would not be surprised. Dickens writes that, now, “nothing between a baby and a rhinoceros would have astonished him very much.”1
What he met was a great robed figure with a huge holly wreath on his head and all awash in ivy and mistletoe and turkeys and geese and suckling pigs and sausages and oysters and pies and puddings and fruit and a steaming punch bowl. “Look at me,” the spirit said. “You’ve never seen the like of me before!”
“Never” said Scrooge. “What have you to teach me?”
And in a flash they were off looking at sailors on the seas and miners who dug in the earth, and each one in some way celebrating Christmas — the advent of hope. In sick-beds and foreign lands and jails and hospitals, they saw people who recalled that it was Christmas and marked it in some modest fashion. They looked in on Ebenezer’s nephew, Fred, with his family and friends playing children’s games after dinner — Blind Man’s Bluff and other games — “for it is good to be children sometimes,” writes Dickens, “and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.”2
And, finally, at the end of the journey, from under his great green robe, the Spirit of Christmas Present produced two children — two ragged, malnourished children, pinched and shriveled by monstrous need. “The boy is Ignorance … the girl is Want” says the spirit. “But where do they belong?”
“They belong to humanity” is the answer.
And Scrooge recalled how, that very day when they came to his business to ask for a donation to help the poor, he had run them off with words like, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” Now he understood. These gaunt children will wind up there –ignorance and want will put them there — unless somebody comes to help at the front end of their lifetime. That pattern is with us yet, and not to be forgotten.
But the heart of this part of the story, to me, is the visit to the Cratchitt home. “They were not a handsome family,” says Dickens, “not well-dressed; their shoes were far from being waterproof; their clothes were sooty — but they were happy, grateful, and contented with the time.”3
Hold that picture for a moment and cut away to our text at the end of
Paul has a little trouble here saying thank you. In fact, he never actually uses the word thanks. Sitting in chains day after day can rob you of zest and sensitivity and interest in a lot of things. And Paul always walked that thin line between gratitude and dependence with his churches. He insisted on his freedom to preach an unhindered Gospel.
But what we get here at the end of Philippians is sort of a thank-you note … a little bit of theology … some pastoral care. But mostly it’s a confession of faith. It’s Paul pulling back the curtains of his soul to say, “Here’s how I’ve learned to cope with life.”
When you’re thinking about today … this year … the present moment of your life; what’s your spirit? How do you feel? How do you make sense of life? How do you cope?
There are two answers, I think, in Paul and in Dickens.
I. You Can Look at Reality … and See Blessing.
For the Cratchitt family, reality is pretty harsh: five children in a four-room house, surviving on Bob’s $9 a week. There’s no money for extras like Tiny Tim’s medical treatment. He does have a crutch, and his limbs are supported by an iron brace. But despite his father’s insistence that he’s getting stronger, Tiny Tim is going to die without more help.
And on Christmas Day, Mrs. Cratchitt dresses in her best, twice-turned gown, bedecked with ribbons. Ribbons are cheap and they dress up an old gown.
The goose is pretty scrawny, but everyone agrees, “Oh, such a goose!” Nobody says that the pudding is much too small for a large family. And when they
But the Cratchitts celebrate Christmas!
“God bless us,” says Bob. “Everyone,” adds Tiny Tim. They even toast Ebenezer Scrooge, the founder of their meager feast (although Mrs. Cratchitt has to be coaxed into that!). But the Cratchitts look reality squarely in the eye and see blessing.
So does Paul:
Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.
Paul’s been hungry. He’s been whipped. He’s been run out of town a few times. This is not the word of some pious Pollyanna! Not some saccharine spirituality. So how do you find blessing in the middle of harsh reality?
Well, you might take a closer look at reality. You’re not starving … you’re not destitute. Your heart’s going to beat 104,000 times today … and tomorrow … and the day after that. And you’re breathing … moving … living … sometimes being useful … sometimes making a difference.
You can take a closer look at reality. You might also take stock. Add up the good and bad of life. They may not balance, but my guess is that you will have more good than you’ve thought about for a while. One of the problems at Christmas is that we’re bombarded with demands to be dissatisfied. A six-year-old was watching a television commercial for a popular board game. At the end of it, he turned to his father and said, “Dad, I want that game for Christmas.” That was nothing unusual; the child did it all the time. But this case was different. “We had that game already,” said the father … “and my son was bored to tears with it.”
When we start taking stock and counting blessings, it would be helpful to talk to our children about what we value … and why. Presents play a part at Christmas, but only a part in a larger context of worship and love and friendship and family and the sharing of time.
So if you want to see blessing in the midst of reality, you can take stock of your life and values … you can take a closer look at reality and find the blessings … or you can do the second thing recommended by our text.
II. You Can Look at Faith … and See Strength.
Paul says “My secret for handling the harsh realities of life is this, quite simply:
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
J. B. Phillips translates it: “I am ready for anything through the strength of the one who lives within me.”
That sounds phony and impossible, except that the man who wrote it was in chains! “I have found something that empowers me to live my life in changing and scary circumstances. No, I’ve found someone who strengthens me.”
By opening his life to personal relationship with God, Paul has discovered:
And my God willfully satisfy need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
And Tiny Tim, coming home from church on Christmas Day, told his father that “he hoped the people saw him in that church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember … who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”4
That’s our story for Advent — that whatever your present moment looks like, if you will look to faith in Jesus Christ, you can find some strength.
So, don’t be fooled by Christmas!
When Henry Hill was manager of the Memorial City Mall Sears store they did a roofing job for a customer in the Memorial area about February or March one year. The customer’s roof was taken off completely and replaced with a new one. About the first week of December, Henry received a call from the customer, who said, “We’ve got a problem. I’m very satisfied with the roof; however, I’ve got a $15,000 nativity set stored in my attic. I’m putting out Christmas decorations and realize that I’m missing two wise men and a camel. I haven’t been in my attic since the roof job, nor has anyone else. One of those thirteen or fourteen workers who did the roofing job must’ve taken them.” Henry told him that if his homeowner’s insurance wouldn’t cover the loss, call back and Sears would. The customer’s insurance paid for the missing items.
What interested me about this story was that the thieves stole the objects that were symbols of power — two kings and a camel! They didn’t steal the baby — no one ever does!
From the outside, the Gospel looks weak and under qualified. It’s as vulnerable as a baby in a cave-barn … as unpromising as a scripture scroll in the rough, callused hands of a carpenter.5
The power of Christmas is not brute force meeting the brute force of our world — that sort of strength doesn’t change anything much. The Christ who enters our history as a fragile baby says, “I am exposed and helpless. You can tell me who you are, what you think, how you feel. You are safe with me. I will not overwhelm you or force you to be different than you are … but I offer you another way of living … does it touch your heart? Does it feel like hope? Would you like to embrace it?”6
I only met John Jacob Niles once. It was sometime back there a decade or two ago when there was a children’s music organization in Lexington which invited him to do an after-school concert. We hosted it at our church. I can still see him standing there before the mirror in the hallway bathroom just outside the sanctuary his bow tie and his jacket and combing down his thinning wisps of white hair. He came into the sanctuary, picked up his dulcimer, and started to sing. It was awful! Most everything he sang was in a high falsetto. Perhaps it was the way of mountain singing, I thought at the time.
The program finished. I walked up, introduced myself to him, and asked, “Is the story true about I Wonder as I Wander? “What story?” he asked. “The one about the Salvation Army lassie whom you never found.”
“It’s true,” he said. “I heard her sing the song and later went back to try to find her. She had disappeared, and I was never able to track her down.”
That was in 1933. The young woman’s name was Annie Hayes, and the place was Murphy, North Carolina. Even though he couldn’t find the young woman, Niles wrote his song based on a memory of her. That Appalachian carol has become a personal favorite:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor, or’n’ry people like you and like I,
I wonder as I wander … out under the sky.
That plaintive song asks the most important questions of our very existence.
Is there a God?
Does God care?
How do we know?
Christmas — past and present — answers these questions with a story of blessing and of strength. Will you believe it? Would you like to embrace it?
1. Christmas Books of Charles Dickens (Roslyn, NY: Black’s Readers Service Company, n.d.), p. 48.
2. Ibid., p. 69.
3. Ibid., p. 62-63.
4. Ibid., p. 57.
5. cf.. Garret Keizer, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991), p. 198.
6. Cf.. John Cowan, The Common Table (New York: Harper Business, 1993), p. 113.