Preaching on a Classic: “A Christmas Carol”

The following sermon was preached nearly twenty two years ago on Epiphany in the chapel at Luther Seminary during winter convocation, a time when Luther Seminary alumni return to the campus for learning and fellowship.

From time to time over the years, a pastor will come up to me and explicitly recall this sermon preached so long ago; an experience I have otherwise never had with any sermon I have preached.

What makes the sermon memorable? It is, I think, the fact that I focused on an iconic classic: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This is a story that everybody in our culture knows, whether they be young or old.

In a society as diverse and fragmented as ours, classics are hard to come by. There is no agreed-upon list of great books in our educational system. Reading is in decline. We cannot even take for granted that Bible stories and examples, once so familiar to everyone, are known by today’s generation. But A Christmas Carol lives on. Even if it is not read, its numerous film versions are shown on television again and again.

When I preached this sermon my oldest daughter was three years old. I distinctly remember that she watched A Christmas Carol (The George C. Scott version) sitting on my lap. She was mesmerized and took the story into that deep place where little children take things. My point is that we know this story; and by “we” I mean the general culture. To do a riff on A Christmas Carol is to reflect on something that is in our bones.

My particular interest in the sermon was the dark side of Epiphany. Epiphany may be the liturgical season of lights but we must never forget that ‘the world loves darkness and hates the light’ (John 3.19). In the Epiphany text from Matthew, this hatred manifests itself in the fact that not only Herod, but “all Jerusalem” is troubled by the star shining in the East.

A Christmas Carol is about the dark side of Christmas. Scrooge hates Christmas. To love Christmas, he has to change and, like most of us, Scrooge does not want to change his ways.

A Christmas Carol
January 6, 1987
Luther Seminary Chapel
Walter Sundberg

Matthew 2.2-3: “‘Where is he, who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.’ When Herod the king heard this he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”

Jacob Marley, A Christmas Carol tells us, was as dead as a doornail. Unless you know that, the rest of the story, with all of its wonders, makes no sense.

Jacob Marley was dead alright. The register was signed by “the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.” Scrooge signed it, and his name was good for “anything he chose to put his hand to.” Jacob Marley was so dead, in fact, that he was beyond the state of blessed oblivion. You see, that horror of horrors had taken place−that which Hamlet once feared− that in death there was no escape. Jacob Marley knew that he was dead. The clanking chains told him as did the weight of the money box fixed to his ankle, slowing the pace of his aimless wandering. Marley was so dead that he knew that, when he was alive, he had been−well, how shall I put this−dead. There had been no life in him.

Realizing this he urgently tells Scrooge about his calamity, that his old partner might avoid such a horrible fate. Scrooge doesn’t believe him. Scrooge thinks he is a phantom of digestion: “a bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.” Not the grave but gravy is the problem. It takes three Christmas spirits the whole night to teach Scrooge that he is dead and that, indeed, he had been dead since he was a young man!

Why do we “sing” this peculiar carol every year? Why does everyone know it? Why have actors of the stature of Reginald Owen, Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, George C. Scott given their considerable talented energies to help us sing this carol year after year?

Dear Christian friends: on this twelfth day of Christmas, as another holiday season draws to its appointed end−a season, by the way, in which my precocious three-and-a-half-year-old daughter entered into the magic of this tale for the very first time and was, in turn, scared to death, drawn in, and, finally, completely taken with the drama−allow me to remind you why we sing it, why everyone knows it.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is true.

It is the meaning of Christmas dug deep. Christmas: that magisterial account in the Bible of the confrontation of Death by Life, where Death is exposed, examined, troubled to the core, and dragged kicking and screaming to become born into Life, to change its very essence.

All birth is travail. This birth at Christmas is harrowing.

Consider its scope. What an encounter we have here! The greater than which cannot be conceived: eternity, purity, constancy, goodness, hope, innocence, light, the Child, brimming with sheer Life, breaks into this sphere of decay, passion, passing fancy, evil, darkness, aggrandizement, fear, jealousy, regret (have I left anything out?)−brimming with sheer Death.

This sphere, this red-light district, is where you and I live and work and persevere in our identity. You see, we are members of the firm of Scrooge and Marley. Or to put the matter precisely, inerrantly, drawing upon the revelatory geography of the scriptures, we are citizens of Jerusalem, all Jerusalem, the earthly city, the old city, where the streets curve in upon themselves. We are citizens of Jerusalem and Herod is our king.

And we are troubled by the report that Life is born. We do not want peace on earth. We scoff at good will. And we are serious−deadly serious−in our hatred of these things. We will slaughter innocent children, two years and younger “in Bethlehem and in all that region,” little boys, brimming with sheer Life, in order to protect our way of Death.

And we will finally capture Him, back from Egypt, now all grown up, hand Him over with a lurid kiss, and crucify Him outside the gate of the city where we heap the garbage.

But He will defeat the power even of our Death. It will take Him the days and nights of the Passion to do it! But He will defeat our Death. In Death, with the power (I imagine) of a black hole, He will suck Death into itself, extinguishing it. In resurrection, Life given by the Almighty without intermediary, He will become the new Star, a Nova that does not fade, the Star in the East, where there is dawn, beginning, a new aeon, the universe commanded by the Creator in Love. We will not even know it till the dawn of the third day, and we will run away even then. But He will make us his own, grant Life. We will become citizens of a whole new city−indeed, our Father’s house in which each of us has a mansion.

What a drama God enacts in us! We are scared to death, drawn in, and finally, completely taken with this drama.

We proclaim it, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is true.

“No fog, no mist, clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold, cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sun-light; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious, Glorious!
“‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge, calling down to a boy in Sunday clothes…
“‘To-day!’ replied the boy. ‘Why, Christmas Day“…
“‘Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?’ Scrooge inquired.
“‘I should hope I did,’ replied the lad.
“‘An intelligent boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey…
“‘What, the one as big as me?’…
“‘What a delightful boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!!…
“‘Go and buy it, and tell ’em to bring it here. . .Come back with the man and I’ll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes and I give you half-a-crown!’
“The boy was off like a shot…
“‘I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s!’ whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh.”

Freed from Death, old Scrooge was filled to the brim at last−with Life!

Death to Life−an awesome confrontation!

It’s not so hard to understand after all. Even a child, like my daughter, can understand it. And why not? A child brought it.

Merry Christmas-God Bless Us Everyone!