Tuesday, December 11, 2012

December 9, 2012 - Think Again: Great Expectations At Christmas

Isaiah 55:1-3a

In recent weeks our messages have been centered on the idea of Think Again, as we have considered people and events that have shaped our world and the way we think.

This morning, I want to tell you about a boy named Charles. 

In 1824, when he was 11, Charles’ father was sent to the Marshalsea, a debtor’s prison in London.  At the time, a person could be held in debtor’s prison for decades.  Those who were placed in the debtor’s prisons found their debts actually increased while they were incarcerated.  The debtor’s prisons, such as Marshalsea, were privately run, so they actually charged the prisoners rent.  The prisoners also had to pay for their clothing, laundry, and other services provided to them.  They also had to pay for legal fees and interest on their debts, all of which meant that many of them found their indebtedness increased while they served their sentence.

To be near their loved ones, the families of prisoners moved to the vicinity of the prisons, which led to communities springing up around the debtor prisons.  The life of these communities was based around life in the debtor’s prisons, and life there was very difficult. Charles and his family moved to the community surrounding Marshalsea to be near his father.  After arriving, young Charles was forced to leave school, sell his books, and begin working in a blacking factory (Blacking was sort of a precursor to shoe polish, and was used to waterproof footwear) to help pay for his family’s indebtedness.  It was very difficult work and Charles was greatly shamed and very troubled by the necessity of working to pay off the indebtedness of his family.

Charles’ father was released from the debtor’s prison after three months, but young Charles was forced to continue his work.  He was humiliated and deeply hurt because he had to continue working to pay for his family’s debts, and he came to believe he was condemned to an unhappy life.  The rest of his life was shaped by this very difficult experience, and as a result he suffered a very deep psychological wound.  His relationship with his father was also greatly affected, as Charles loved, but also resented his father.

While his experience was very difficult for him, it also brought to him a great sensitivity about the struggles of other people.  Throughout his life, Charles was very deeply troubled by the plight of the poor, especially poor children, and how society trapped the poor in difficult and desperate lives.  He observed firsthand the harsh conditions that many children suffered as they worked long hours to help their impoverished families, and as an adult he worked as an advocate to improve the conditions faced by these children and their families.

In May of 1843 Charles decided to publish a political pamphlet condemning the social environment that led to such conditions.  The title of the pamphlet was to be An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child.  In October of that year he spent three days in the city of Manchester, where he spoke before a charitable organization.  It was during those three days that Charles decided a political tract would not be the best way to further his goal of helping the poor, so he decided instead to write a story.  The purpose of the story would be to expose the sufferings of the poor and the extent to which many in society had closed their hearts to the plight of the poor. 

It took Charles six weeks to finish his story, with the final pages completed in December of that year, shortly before Christmas, which was good timing, as Christmas was the theme of his story.  There are some memorable lines from his story, one being it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.  Another line speaks of the hardheartedness of the main character towards the poor, when he says, if they would rather die . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.  If you haven’t yet guessed the identity of Charles you most likely will from the final words of the story, which speak of the great change of heart that takes place in the main character – and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!  The great Charles Dickens, from his classic story, A Christmas Carol.

Of the many interesting things about A Christmas Carol, one is how we often miss the context in which the story was written.  Today, we think of A Christmas Carol as a story of individual change and redemption – important concepts – but Dickens intended that it be a story to bring about social change. A Christmas Carol was written as a response to the poverty of Dickens’ day and was directed at the conditions that trapped people in poverty and the hardheartedness that many in that time exhibited to the poor. Despite the economic advancements of recent generations the poor remain, as Jesus said, always with us.  Trying to eradicate poverty has become one of the most vexing problems of humanity.

  Our modern expectations of Christmas greatly weigh upon the simplicity and message of the first Christmas.  Our modern celebration of Christmas has become so awash in materialism that we have placed an economic burden upon ourselves in paying for gifts and all of the other things that have been added to Christmas. We have unreasonably high expectations of happiness, family togetherness, and everything being perfect that we are sorely disappointed if those expectations are not met.

The simplicity of the first Christmas reminds us that Jesus was born into many uncertainties.  There was political uncertainty, social uncertainty, and in the most personal of ways, there was economic uncertainty.  Jesus was born into a family that struggled economically; of this I am convinced.  In the time of Jesus there was little or no middle class; there were two classes – the rich and the poor.  You can guess which class was larger. The first Christmas held no grand expectations for Joseph and Mary.

In the time of Jesus most people found daily survival an epic struggle.  Daily life was such a struggle that few people would live to what we would consider old age.  Even just 100 years ago, the average life span of only 47 and only 4% of people reached age 65.

The first Christmas and its simplicity and struggle remind us that we are called not just to individual transformation, but to social transformation as well.  We are called to transform society and its structures to bring justice to all people. 

Every year we hear so much about the war on Christmas.  I disagree about there being a war on Christmas, but I do believe that in a spiritual sense there is a struggle for the heart of Christmas.  It’s a struggle that is not being waged on Christmas from the outside of faith by those who oppose faith, but among those who have faith.  The struggle for the heart of Christmas reminds us that the simplicity and poverty of the first Christmas tells us the purpose is not to load ourselves up with more stuff, but that we are called to remember the poor, to remember those whose lives are full of struggle, to remember the brokenhearted, to remember the lonely, to remember the sick, to remember those who are imprisoned, to remember those who are without hope, to remember those who have given up on God, to remember those who need the promise of the message of the first Christmas.

We have a bare Christmas tree in the foyer of our church, and I’m glad that it is bare.  It is bare because every angel of the Angel Tree was taken, and I’m grateful that we will remember that many children who need extra help. 

May we also remember that our community is filled with many needs, and not all of them are material.  May we provide for those who are lacking of the necessities in life and for those who are in need of the hope of Christmas.

Isaiah reminds us why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?  Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you soul will delight in the richest of fare.  Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live (Isaiah 55:2-3a).

May our expectation of Christmas be of the peace, happiness, and love that comes not from a mall or store, but from the manger in Bethlehem.

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