Have you ever noticed how some stories get translated into virtually all available languages and circulate decade after decade, century after century? For example:
//The “Jesus” film from 1979, translated into some 1,400 languages
//Classic philosophy, theology, fiction, and other genres by “master” thinkers and writers
Just now I’m suggesting that in second place behind the story of Jesus we put A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. [You’re welcome, Chuck. May someone someday rank my novels A Stranger’s Promise and No Doubt It’s Love similarly high!]
From cruel to kind: an enduring theme
What could be more universal, timeless, and attractive than “a really bad guy reforms overnight into a really good guy”?
Dickens’ work is so popular it has been made into films either true to the novella’s 19th-century setting or updated with modern characters and life situations. One 1995 film I like features a female Scrooge character “Ebbie,” portrayed by Susan Lucci.
In the Dickens classic, Ebenezer Scrooge’s inexplicable travel/vision experience brings him to a reversal of heart, attitude, action, and personality that astounds his family and his community. To borrow from a different classic film of the season, “What a Christmas!”
“I am concerned for you”
In the days leading up to Advent 2020, my daily readings in the NIV One-Year Bible were in Ezekiel. I don’t know how familiar you are with the content of that Old Testament book, but, after quite a few previous days’ immersion in chapter after chapter of dire – and uncomfortably explicit – “doom and gloom” prophecies, I was very glad chapter 36 brought some relief from all of that. Finally, something that sounded hopeful!
God told His people – His errant people, and “errant” here is a gross understatement – “I am concerned for you and will look on you with favor.” (Ezekiel 36:9) This proves the compassion that describes God in quite a few places in the Bible. That God could say “I will look on you with favor” after all of the other, scathing things He said to Israel, previously in this very book, Ezekiel, is phenomenal.
And, isn’t it interesting that Jacob Marley’s “I am concerned for you” initiative started the beloved tale Dickens concocted? Often, a fictional or real person is so far down the wrong path that it takes a “whopping” intervention by a courageous family member or friend, or by God Himself, to effect change. That’s what happened with Scrooge, and it is what happened in the town of Bethlehem when a Savior was born to rescue sinners so far down the wrong path they could not prevent their own destruction.
Concerned for His people and for His own reputation as their Holy God – indeed, as the one and only God (see Ezekiel 36:21), the Lord told them a number of specifics they would experience:
//I will multiply your people
//Your towns will be inhabited and rebuilt
//The number of your animals (your food source; your livelihood) will increase
//No longer will be you subject to the taunts of the nations
Very soon after the above promises, in this passage, Ezekiel’s message from God carefully qualified things lest any hearing this good word take it lightly, undervaluing God’s change of face from judgment to blessing. You see, when weeks and months turn into years and decades, it’s very easy to lose track of the overall pattern of a people’s history. Suppose you weren’t alive when your great-great-grandfather had a vision or knew somebody who had one. Suppose your busy life doesn’t really leave you a lot of thought space for what your ancestors knew and felt so deeply. In that case, you might take God’s present favor as something that will always be there for you, perhaps something you earned by your good standing with Him. Not so!
Conveying the very voice of God Almighty, Ezekiel reviewed the sin of Israel, a long list of despicable acts that caused God to be incensed. By their heinous idolatry the people hadn’t merely disobeyed their God (defiance); they had dragged His great and lavish love through the mud. So wrong, unwise, and hurtful to Israel’s God those things were. At this point, though, there was a new angle to the situation. Now, God was concerned for His holy name. (Ezekiel 36:21) If His name meant continually less to the nations around the Israelites and observing their progress, their blessing, their compromised and changing values, and their downfall, there would be absolutely no hope for His plan that they would be a beacon to draw other nations to His light. (See Isaiah 49:6 and 52:10)
“I will show myself holy through you, before their eyes.” That is a great sentence! On this earth our people-peers will never be the holy example that we need and that we seek whether consciously or not. We need to see God shown holy. We need to see and hear His name glorified; not profaned, muddied, misrepresented.
Above, we had the rundown of what God would do externally for Israel: more people, more animals, towns restored, respected again by other nations. Now, we have a second bullet list telling what was going to happen internally:
//You will be clean.
//I will give you a new heart and will put a new spirit in you.
Out with the stone heart, just as with old Eb Scrooge; in with a heart “of flesh” – a heart that is living, feeling, and vulnerable, able to embrace remorse, humility, and grief! A stone heart feels nothing sorrowful…but it also feels no joy.
The ghost of Christmas past
God had to go to great lengths to tell Israel in no uncertain terms, “I will disgrace you and will make you ashamed for your wrong conduct.” (See Ezekiel 36:32) He reminded them again and again of the specific actions of defiance and idolatry of which they were guilty. This step – this phase of true contrition – is necessary for reform, revival, regeneration. Scrooge got that after an unforgettable, frightening, painful night journey. May we get it, too. Deep impressions were required before true, lasting change could happen in Ebenezer Scrooge. It takes hard blows from a heavy instrument to break stone. (36:26)
Don’t all of us crave a world where a new heart and a new spirit drive everything? Should we expect that reform to happen without intervention that may be painful to us before we recognize its benefit? And should we expect that reform to begin anywhere but in ourselves?
The “ghosts” of Christmases past (or of any past time in our lives) are not supposed to haunt and to trouble us forever. God desires that every person be freed of those chains – those feelings of guilt, regret, self-doubt, and fear: “The Lord is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) This Advent and into 2021 and beyond, let us remember Him and follow Him, putting our past mistakes behind us.
Christmas past, present, and future
Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem had all of the angels rejoicing, Messiah having come to earth at last. That’s Christmas past.
Today, the angels – and the saints in heaven, with them – rejoice again, every time a human heart experiences the miraculous changeover only a divine intervention can cause. That changeover is why God sent Jesus. This is a win-win: God’s holy name is properly honored when our hearts are right toward Him, and our souls are saved. (See Psalm 119:132) That’s Christmas present.
Welcome, Jesus! Hail, Messiah! Be adored forever. That’s Christmas future.
Be adored forever, holy and blessed King Jesus!