Twas the Night Before Christmas (Acts 17:22-31)
Topic: Acts Passage: Acts 17:22–17:31
The Gospel According to Scrooge
Twas the Night Before Christmas
(One Lord: So Great a Salvation)
December 13th, 2015
I. The Miser in the Mirror
Do you remember the description we heard last week. It went like this:
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone...a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!
That was referring to whom? Well, when Charles Dickens wrote those words 172 years ago, he was describing Ebenezer Scrooge, the main character of his classic novella A Christmas Carol. But last time, we talked about the fact that such a description could also be applied to each and every one of us. How can we say that? Because God's word confirms that all of us are “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, covetous” sinners. Each of us is born with a bent to live very me-centered lives in a very God-centered universe.
This parallel between Dickens and the Bible is one of the reasons we can, this Advent season, talk about “The Gospel According to Scrooge”. In very powerful ways, this beloved Christmas story can point us back to THE Christmas story, and the true redemption that comes through One who was born so long ago in Bethlehem and laid in a manger.
II. The Passage: “That They Should Seek God” (17:22-31)
This morning, let's begin by acknowledging what God showed us last time. Let's begin by acknowledging the miser in the mirror; that you are Scrooge; that I am Scrooge. But if you remember the story of Scrooge, then you know that a messenger came to him on Christmas Eve with a warning and plea. Let's turn to Acts 17 this morning, and read about another messenger.
Unlike Jacob Marley, Scrooge's former business partner, the Apostle Paul, a former Pharisee and persecutor of the church, was very much alive when he spoke to the spiritual 'Scrooges' in Athens. Listen to his warning and appeal, beginning in verse 22...
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus [that was like the town council...Paul], said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,  nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, >>>
having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,  that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,  for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’  Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.  The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
So if we return to the words of Charles Dickens, we might ask, “How could a crusty and covetous old miser, how could such a hard-hearted man be changed?” Well, here's what we know from A Christmas Carol: Twas the night before Christmas when Scrooge was changed by a spiritual intervention that gave him new eyes to see the past, present, and future.
Whether you picked up on it or not, those are the same elements we find in this account of Paul in Athens. Let's look at each part of that statement as we find it paralleled here in Acts 17. First of all, in Acts 17, we are reading about...
1. A Spiritual Intervention (17:22-25)
Notice that Paul has not come to these Athenians with a new psychological insight or medical outreach or higher education grant. He's not come as part of a cultural exchange program or a diplomatic mission or a free trade initiative. He has not traveled there to sell them something or sign them up for something. He has not come to Athens to talk about the things we so often hear about in the media and in conversations around the water cooler.
As we saw right away in this passage, Paul is there to talk to them about...God. This is not a medical or cultural or commercial intervention. It is a spiritual intervention. Their biggest problems and deepest needs will not be solved, will not be met, by that which is seen, but by that which is unseen.
How revolutionary would it be if all of us here would simply stop scouring this world, and stop blaming other people, and stop listening to modern gurus and simply admit that our deepest needs are ultimately spiritual needs. We shy away from that idea because spiritual needs cannot be met by a program, procedure, or pill. No, we need God to spiritually intervene.
This is precisely what Scrooge needed, wasn't it? He was so fixated on what he could see and touch and invest, on the material, that he ignored the immaterial reality of life. He needed a spiritual intervention to rouse him from his greedy and guarded stupor.
When Paul spoke to the Athenians, he understood that a real spiritual intervention didn't come through the words of a tormented ghost. It came through the truth about God. That's why he clarifies things so carefully in verses 24 and 25. This God was not like the gods (v. 29) formed by the art and imagination of man. No, this God made the world and everything in it; this God is the Lord of heaven and earth, AND does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything. How could he, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
This is what every spiritual Scrooge needs: to know the truth about what is unseen; to know the truth about God, and to see how God can meet our spiritual needs. All of us need a spiritual intervention. But what are we to see in terms of what is unseen? Well, just as with the original Scrooge, all of us need...
2. New Eyes on the Past (17:26, 27a)
Scrooge was taken back in time by a spirit in order to see key moments in His life, milestone moments that marked his descent into miserly, materialistic bondage. But as we see in verses 26 and 27, Paul reminds his hearers, and all of us, about our shared past.
Long ago, God not only made the world, but He also made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth. But as the Athenians heard Paul explain the truth about God, they must have also understood how far they had gone from that truth. God wants us to see our past with new eyes. He wants us to see that our past is tragically marked by spiritual loss, ignorance, and separation. He wants us to see that even though He created us, we chose darkness over light.
When you think about your past, what stands out? If you were to write your own obituary, what would key things would you include about your personal history? If you were to survey your past as Scrooge did his, would you see your own spiritual spiral downwards?
But wonderfully, even though we abandoned Him, he did not become distant and disinterested. No, because of His love for this world, He determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place. Why? In order that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.
What's wonderful about this passage is that it reminds us God has always been a part of our shared and personal histories. In fact, He has arranged the world and blessed the world in such a way that there are signposts leading us to Him. Have you seen them? Do you need to find them now? Because we are spiritual rebels and orphans, we are groping in the darkness. But even there, He IS there. That takes us to our third point. Just as with the original Scrooge, all of us need...
3. New Eyes on the Present (17:27b-30)
In light of what God has told us about our spiritual descent from (Genesis 1:31, from) the “very good” world He made in the beginning, in light of the darkness in which we are trying to feel our way toward answers, He wants us to know (v. 27), that he is actually not far from each one of us...
That is the single most important thing about your present, about your 'right now'. The God of all creation is actually not far from each one of us. Yes, like the Athenians, we can and do have very twisted, very man-centered ideas about who God is. But if we allow God's word to teach us and guide us, what should we do about this ever-present God, this God in whom we live and move and have our being, this God who gives us life and breath and everything?
New eyes on the present should lead us to accept that (v. 30) the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. Repentance is the first word of the gospel. It is God's command to every spiritual Scrooge. It is regret and remorse over, it is the inward rejection of every me-centered answer and impulse. It is acknowledging our desperate condition before God.
By means of the very unique spiritual intervention Ebenezer Scrooge experienced, he was able to see things about his everyday life to which he had previously been blinded. What is God showing you this morning about your life; about your needs? Remember the verse from Hebrews 3 we looked at last time: But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:13)
Brothers and sisters, friends, the time to act is now; “today”. Why are you waiting? Why are you hesitating? God wants you to seek and find Him.
But there's one more idea he wants to use to change us. Just as with the original Scrooge, all of us need...
4. New Eyes on the Future (17:31)
Through the guidance of the “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come”, Scrooge was shown the tragedy and death that lay ahead, including his own death. Paul guides his listeners into what might be a very similar future. Why has God called spiritual Scrooges like us to turn away from our me-centered paths? Verse 31...
...because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
When we have new eyes on the future, we are sobered; we are disabused of our notions that everything will turn out just fine when we go our own way; that somehow, things will be different for me. But no matter what kind of trail you try to blaze, death and judgment are at the end of every path.
As Scrooge came to realize, no amount of money in the world could pay off death or bribe the Judge of all the earth. Nothing you invest your life in now, apart from God, will bring you any profit in the life to come. What was Scrooge's response to his own grievous fate? Dickens described how Scrooge, on his knees, cried out in anguish over his desperate condition/fate:
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
III. Tiny Tim's Hope
Like Scrooge, we need a spiritual intervention. But the intervention God's word describes does not come by means of four spirits, but only one.
Jesus told His disciples about this Spirit when he said in John 16...
And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment... When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:8, 13)
The Holy Spirit of God is the only one who can give us a heart of conviction in light of sin, and a heart of faith in light of the Savior. Scrooge spoke of honoring Christmas. But God's word speaks of honoring Christ. I believe that is, at least partly, what Dickens had in mind.
At least it's what Tiny Tim had in mind. One of my favorite lines from the whole book is found in a scene that takes place on Christmas Day, just after Bob Cratchit and some of his children return home from church. We read...
“And how did little Tim behave?” asked Mrs. Cratchit, when she had rallied Bob on his credulity, and Bob had hugged his daughter to his heart’s content. “As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”
Friends, Scrooge wanted to “sponge away the writing on [his] stone”, that is, he wanted to change his path, and thus, change his fate. But there is only One who can “sponge away” our spiritual stain; only one who can atone; only one who can pay our debt of sin: Jesus Christ, the One “who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”
Let's be clear: reading Dickens won't save anyone. But the Good News about Jesus will. A Christmas Carol can remind us in very limited ways about the pattern of the gospel that is fully, that is explicitly, spelled out in the Bible. This Christmas, will you, like Scrooge, experience or be reminded of, God's second chance? Like Scrooge, God wants to give you, through His Spirit, new eyes to see the past, present, and future. Why? So that you will turn from that path of “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping” because of sin.
As the ghost of Marley told Scrooge, “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.” Marley might have spoken from beyond the grave, and Scrooge may have beheld his own grave, but only Jesus beat the grave; only Jesus conquered death. Apart from Him, there is only judgment and punishment; apart from Jesus, we only get what we deserve.
But with Jesus, there is “yet a chance and hope”. With Jesus, there is grace; that is, getting exactly the opposite of what we deserve: forgiveness, acceptance, belonging, love, eternal life. How can Scrooges like us be changed? By a spiritual intervention that gives us new eyes to see the past, present, and future. I think one of our passages from last week said it best. We were lost and condemned in our own hard-heartedness...
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,  he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,  whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior... (Titus 3:4-6)