“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
And thus Dickens’ classic Christmas story, A Christmas Carol, begins. A story of hope; a story of preparation. Marley, as dreadful an apparition as he is, is the prophetic bearer of hope – your reclamation and salvation will be offered this night through three messengers. Will you listen? Will you heed their message?
A hope filled warning, if you will.
A hopeful warning is something we all need from time to time to show us that we have veered off the path. It is easy to see others who veer off the path God has for us in their lives – those who so blatantly live against God’s will and word.
Ebenezer Scrooge is easy enough. Charles Dickens sets him up as a foil, a character who represents us all. Yet in his eccentricities and oddities, we laugh at him and then rejoice to see such a scoundrel who is redeemed. What we fail to really see is how much of us is really in Scrooge.
We look at others and say – “They need preparation and salvation,” We can identify them easily! But not so much ourselves.
A CNN story recently showed us what this kind of unrighteousness looks like – we easily identify it in others.
• In West Palm Beach, Fl. Three women had over $1,000 stolen from their cars in a Best Buy parking lot. They had camped out since Wednesday night to be first in line on Black Friday. One woman was quoted, “Just cruel, what they did. Just wicked.”
• In Wisconsin, a woman was arrested for cutting in line. Now you might say, that’s not so bad, right? This lady cut in front of several hundred shoppers – threatening to shoot each one if they didn’t let her in front of them. When interviewed by the police, the woman said, “I just wanted to get my daughter the toy she wanted for Christmas, which probably won’t be there after all these people go through the line.”
Ahhh, the spirit of Christmas.
That kind of unrighteousness is easy to spot and easy to agree upon. But, and I could be wrong, I don’t think these are our problems. No our problems for far more sinister because they are far more veiled and disguised. As a matter of fact, many of our sins are hidden to us because we are so desensitized and even complacent.
Do we even know what our problems are? Do we even know our own frailty and sin? Or are we too close to our own situation, unable to hear the prophetic words that call us to repent and prepare our hearts for Christ’s reclamation.
Charles Dickens uses Marley as the prophet who offers salvation to Scrooge. He literally is one who comes back from the grave to warn Scrooge as a symbol of God’s warning that already exists for us all in Scripture. Marley cries out to Scrooge:
“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed, not to know, that ages of incessant labor by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”
“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued Marley. “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”
Advent is a season of hope and preparation. Hope in that we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world – God with us, Emmanuel. Preparation, because whether or not we are willing to admit it we all have areas in our lives where we are living against God’s will – maybe we are unloving, maybe we are selfish, maybe we refuse to forgive someone, maybe we have hatred or revenge in our hearts, maybe we are afraid. So many ways that we close the door to the Holy Spirit, not just at Christmas – but every day. Advent is the season of hope and preparation – Christ has come into the world to set us free from all the powers and principalities that seek to restrain and bind us, the chains we forge in life. Advent calls us to a life of preparation – be ready, open your heart, see yourself clearly and be ready for God’s redemption.
This is why Advent is such a special and interesting season. The Scripture readings for Advent say nothing about a baby in a manger. Rather, the scriptures of Advent lead us to focus on the coming of Christ and the fullness of God’s kingdom. Advent is a season of hopeful preparation.
The coming of Christ was the fulfillment of the hope of humanity. Each year at Advent, we focus once again on preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ – for the reality of hope. And while we understand that Christ and the message of Christmas are not for one season of the year, this is the time we anticipate a hopeful yearning that Christ will come again to us and reclaim our lives and our souls.
That is why in this passage in Luke, we find not the poor man who needs salvation, but the rich man who needs a message of hope and reclamation. While the poor and needy are all around us at Christmas (and every time of the year), I think we would be remiss if we declared that only the poor need Christ at Christmas. The danger for those of us who are rich in this world (both in spirit and resources) is that we often miss the message of salvation altogether – relying on our own means and sufficiency rather than on the hope and grace of God.
Advent lifts up the prophets of Isaiah and John the Baptist to call us with their prophetic voice to hear the message of salvation and reclamation. Be careful, lest you think you don’t need to heed the prophet’s call.
Isaiah 40:3-9 says “A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
Dickens writes, “The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago, and paved all round with quaint Dutch tiles, designed to illustrate the Scriptures. There were Cains and Abels, Pharaoh’s daughters; Queens of Sheba, Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds, Abrahams, Belshazzars, Apostles putting off to sea in butter-boats, hundreds of figures to attract his thoughts; and yet that face of Marley, seven years dead, came like the ancient Prophet’s rod, and swallowed up the whole. If each smooth tile had been a blank at first, with power to shape some picture on its surface from the disjointed fragments of his thoughts, there would have been a copy of old Marley’s head on every one.”
In Advent, we will hear again the call of the prophets. They will visit us each week and cry out to us to open our eyes to the world around us!
It is the prophetic voice that has been given to us to call us to heed God’s word for our lives and our salvation. Do we hear? Do we heed? Think on these questions as we move forward the next three weeks: Are there chains of the past, decisions or actions, that bind and enslave you? Do we know where true joy and happiness if found in the present? When confronted with who we really are, will we withdraw, engage, or embrace?