Incarnation 2: Savior

This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, December 6, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s the Second Lord’s Day of Advent. It is developed in conversation with Pastor Adam Hamilton’s book Incarnation.

Today’s sermon builds upon Matthew 1:20b-21 and Luke 2:8-12.

You can read the full text of A Christmas Carol.

You can worship online with BBUMC through Facebook, the church website, or YouTube.

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 8). This is how Charles Dickens introduces the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, in his 1843 classic A Christmas Carol. But, for many of us, this character needs very little introduction. If someone calls us a scrooge, we know they’re criticizing us for spending as little money as possible, and for being greedy and mean. And likely, they’ll expect the words “Bah!” and “Humbug!” to flow from our lips at any moment, especially at otherwise festive occasions, like the seasons of Advent and Christmas. And yet, familiar as the story might be, in non-pandemic years, playhouses, theater groups, and cable companies continue to present A Christmas Carol year after year. Why? Because A Christmas Carol helps us interpret our need for, and the meaning of Christmas, particularly, our need for Jesus the Savior.

In case you’re not familiar with A Christmas Carol, here’s a quick recap. There once lived a man in London named Ebenezer Scrooge. He counted himself a shrewd businessman who’d amassed great wealth, even if he’d done so with heartlessness and a complete lack of care for others. That all changed one Christmas Eve night when he was visited by the ghost of his partner Jacob Marley. Marley, wrapped in chains symbolizing his business, implores Scrooge to change his ways – to care less for business and more for humanity – or else his afterlife will be as accursed as Marley’s, and no one will mourn his death. After Marley, three more spirits visit Scrooge throughout the night: the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. The visions of what was, what is, and what will be have a dramatic effect on Scrooge and he wakes Christmas morning a new man. He makes a generous donation for the poor, to the men whom he’d rudely snubbed the day before. He sends a large turkey to the family of his employee Bob Cratchit anonymously. He spends much of the day with his nephew’s family in celebration of Christmas – an invitation he’d turned down heartily the day before. And he ends the day visiting the Cratchits with newfound generosity, joy, and care. And it’s said of him, that no one in all the land, knew better how to keep the meaning of Christmas in his heart – a good friend and as good a man as there ever was.

Of course, we like this story for its happy ending, for the transformation of Scrooge, but we cannot get to that happy ending fully without first recognizing that we like Scrooge’s transformation precisely because there’s a little bit of Scrooge in all of us. Dickens names that which is in Scrooge, and in all of us well: it is sin. In the Bible, the words translated as sin mean, literally, to miss the mark or to stray from the path. Scrooge strays from the path or way of God in his singular focus on work and wealth, in his mistreatment of Bob and others, and in his harsh business dealings.

Perhaps Scrooge’s sins are not our own, and yet we still are bound by our own chains of sin. I had to remind myself this week, that when Jesus was criticized and slandered, he chose to be silent, but I wanted to lash out defend myself, my position, and my sense of being correct. And more than once this week, I lost my temper, even though I know that Jesus was calm even in the face of tyrannical leadership, and taught his followers to turn the other cheek and love even our enemies. And with Christmas looming and deals advertised in every physical and virtual direction, I admit that I may have gotten a little caught up in materialism and needless consumption this week, even though I know that Jesus calls me to use that which I possess to bless others.

I suspect I’m not alone in my own sort of scroogey sinfulness this week, but sin is worse than merely messing up occasionally, or even frequently. As it was for Marley and Scrooge, sin is all but inescapable. It’s like chains we build with our actions and thoughts. I can tell myself in the mirror, and I can encourage us all, to “go and sin no more” today, and still sin lurks in the shadows of our hearts. We’re prone to stray, “prone to wander” (Robert Robinson, “Come Thou Fount,” UMH, 400). And often, we do wander and stray from the heart and path of God.

Even worse, sin dehumanizes us; sin makes us less than human as we were created to be. We see clearly that Scrooge’s sin, and our own, dehumanizes us: we’re not whom God created us to be. And, Scrooge’s sin, and our own, dehumanizes others, it impacts others. Our sin exploits, uses, belittles, and hurts those around us. We can see this clearly if we’ve ever lashed out in anger at someone we love, and then see them cower away from us. And we can see sin’s dehumanizing effects especially clearly in Jesus: when God became human and walked among us, revealing the inclusive love of God, we humans put him to death. We took away his humanity.

Clearly, we need help. We need an intervention like Marley and the Ghosts coming to Scrooge. We need a savior, which is precisely the solution God provides in the Incarnation. After learning that Mary is pregnant, and not by him, Joseph determines to dismiss Mary quietly, to end the betrothal. But an angel comes to Joseph in a dream and reassures him, saying, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). This name, JesusYeshua in Hebrew – means God saves, God delivers, or God helps. Jesus, in his very name, declares his purpose: he is God’s way of saving all humanity from sin. The angels echo this refrain when they announce Jesus’s birth to a group of shepherds saying, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Lu 2:11-12).

Sometimes, we might wonder at God’s logic or God’s method. How, after all, does a baby save us from our inclination to sin, our actual straying from the path of God, and the dehumanizing effects of sin? But, I ask, what better way is there for God to proclaim new life than to enter into life anew, as a baby? Oh, babies are easy to love. When we hold them, especially in those first days and weeks, we hold all the promise of life renewed. We hold them in fear and trembling, hoping and promising that we will be better for them. We’ll break the chains of sin and its dehumanizing effects with this new baby. We’ll turn over a new leaf, a new life, and their lives will be free from all that dehumanized us.

Of course, God came as a baby to display God’s mission in the world: God is saving us by making us new, giving us new life. By becoming human in Jesus, God restores our humanity. Jesus saves us from the chains of sin, from the inclinations to sin, and our guilt at past sin. Jesus saves us from the chains of present sin, showing us a new way to be human. Jesus saves us from the chains of sin by empowering us to life anew through the power, presence, and grace of the Holy Spirit. Jesus breaks sin’s chains of dehumanization. By becoming human, Jesus makes being human a holy calling. Thus, Jesus frees us from fear, loneliness, despair, and even death – for whatever we experience, it is now filled with God’s presence. Jesus is born that all of human experience might be filled with God’s presence, so that in living and dying, we are with God. This is what it means for God to be human in Jesus, for Jesus to be our savior, and for us to live as those being saved. Jesus restores our humanity, so we can follow him in the presence of God.

If we need any further example, then may we look to Scrooge. His chains of sin are broken. He’s restored to his full humanity, his full and holy calling of grace-filled life. He’s empowered, daily to live as fully human like Jesus, thereby breaking the dehumanizing effects of sin on others, like the Cratchits. Scrooge faced the reality of sin’s chains and its dehumanizing effects, and he was restored to his full humanity, a new person, and a blessing to all. May it be so for us, in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Reflection Questions:

  1. How do you relate to Scrooge? In what ways do you feel the chains of sin?
  2. How have you experienced Jesus freeing you from the chains of sin or from its dehumanizing effects?
  3. In an effort to make sure this sermon fits within the entirety of our worship service, I didn’t develop some ideas that I think are pertinent to this topic, and could be included. What questions do you have that you wish this sermon had addressed?
  4. Some theologians, like one I talked to this week, suggest that we in the church are unaware of our sin and need for salvation. Do you think they’re right? Are you aware of the sin that is a chain around you, or the sin of ourselves and others that dehumanizes us?
  5. An ancient theological controversy developed in the Fifth Century and continues around the topics of this sermon: Pelagianism. In a way, it denied the Doctrine of Original Sin – the ideas that we are utterly sinful and incapable of doing anything except sinning but by the grace of God (this grace of God we call “sanctifying grace”). It also emphasized the importance of free will and human intention to live free from sin. Perhaps this argument seems a little like splitting hairs. It might be that. And yet, it gets at something I hear and catch in myself: the idea that trying to be “good people” is the goal of Christianity, and that we can each do this in our own way. Do you fall into this way of thinking sometimes? For the most part, Christian tradition would say “being good people” isn’t exactly the point of Christianity. If it were, if “being good people” were the goal of Christianity, then wouldn’t this make every good non-theist we know also a “Christian”? (This could be debatable for some). The challenge is that “being good people” might look very similar to the true goal of the Christian life: to become ever more truly human in connection with God as revealed in Jesus, by the empowerment and sanctification of the Holy Spirit, through intentional practices within the community of the church. Is this splitting hairs? What do you think the point or goal of Christianity is?
  6. What Christmas carols and songs reinforce the ideas of this sermon and the idea of Jesus being our savior? (Take a look at “Away in a Manger” for one, especially the last line: “Fit us for heaven”).

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