Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Dawn of Redeeming Grace” (Titus 2:11)
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
One of my favorite Christmas movies is the classic 1983 film, A Christmas Story, about the Christmastime of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker in 1940’s Indiana. There are so many great scenes—Farkus getting his tongue stuck on the frozen flagpole, Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and of course, Mr. Parker receiving in the mail the infamous leg-lamp. For twenty years TNT and/or TBS has aired this film repeatedly during the entire twenty four hours of Christmas Day.
Early in the film Ralphie tells his parents what he wants more than anything else for Christmas, a Red Ryder BB gun, only to have his father reply, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” But Ralphie has not given up hope. He is sure that if he can tell Santa himself, his Christmas wish will come true—and my favorite scene in the whole film is when Ralphie and his kid brother Randy finally get to visit Santa at the mall. As they reach the front of the line a grumpy elf grabs Randy by the hand and drags him toward Santa, “Get moving, kid…quick dragging your feet!” She scoops Randy up and places him in Santa’s lap as Santa yells in his face, “Ho, ho, ho!” Randy is so scared he just starts screaming in fear, and so another grumpy elf whisks him off Santa’s lap and launches him down the long slide. As Randy lands in the fake cotton snow at the bottom he starts crying. Poor Randy.
Then it’s Ralphie’s turn, and he is likewise dragged toward Santa, “Come on, kid, come on!” Ralphie’s eyes are bulging and his mouth agape in fear. He is spun around and placed in Santa’s lap who yells in his face, “Ho, ho, ho! What’s your name, little boy?” Ralphie gulps in fear and freezes up, unable to answer the question. In a voiceover the narrator recalls, “My mind had gone blank. Frantically I tried to remember what it was I wanted.” Santa’s patience has run out, “How about a nice, uh, football?” Ralphie, still frozen in fear, simply nods. Santa looks at the second elf, “Okay, get him out of here.” And just like Randy, Ralphie too is launched down the slide. Ralphie panics because he has missed out on telling Santa what he really wanted for Christmas.
But he manages to stop and squeakily pulls himself back up the slide and with a hopeful grin bursts out, “No! I want a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle!” But Santa replies, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Ralphie’s hopeful grin vanishes. “Merry Christmas,” Santa continues, “Ho, ho, ho!” and then places the bottom of his boot on Ralphie’s head and sends him down the slide, with Ralphie crying out all the way down, “No….”
It is a hysterical scene, but it can resonate in a way that is not so funny. Many of us in one way or another, like Ralphie, have a desire of our heart we have taken to someone, only to be grumpily denied and launched down the slide. This can happen in life in general, or in relationships, or unfortunately even at church—and we are reminded that grumpy Santa and his equally grumpy elf cronies are not confined to the mall. Along these lines scripture records an interesting episode in Jesus’ earthly ministry:
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16).
In this passage the disciples were acting like the grumpy Santa and grumpy elves, but Jesus would have none of it.
And in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Christmastime we still have that one desire of our heart about which we hope someone will listen. Sometimes, like Ralphie, this desire of our heart may be a single present that we hope we will be given, while other times this desire of our heart has nothing to do with presents. Along these lines, on November 5, 1959 the great writer John Steinbeck wrote a letter to his friend, Adlai Stevenson, in which he compares two kinds of Christmases: “There is one kind in a house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence.” Steinbeck continues:
Then there is the other kind of Christmas with presents piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give. The wrappings are ripped off and the presents thrown down and at the end the child says—“Is that all?” Well, it seems to me that America now is like that second kind of Christmas. Having too many things they spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul.
The gospel is good news for those “on the couch searching for a soul,” good news for those who need someone to heed the desire of their heart—for as the Apostle Paul wrote in today’s epistle reading, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11). This grace of God appeared personally in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, as we sing in the third verse of Silent Night:
Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
(The Hymnal 1982, 111)
Jesus’ birth marked “the dawn of redeeming grace” that brings “salvation to all.”
Like millions of others I recently saw Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi. Without giving anything away, one of the characters, Rose, is a member of the Resistance at war with the evil First Order. In one scene Rose tells Finn, also of the Resistance, something very insightful, “We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate but by saving what we love.” That is the gospel. Ultimately God, who scripture assures us is love (1 John 4:8), has and will win the war not by fighting what God hates, sin and death, but by saving who God loves, you.
In the summary of Christian belief we call the Nicene Creed we move immediately from Jesus’ birth—“he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man”—to his death—“For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate” (The Book of Common Prayer 358). In other words, the “dawn of redeeming grace” is in Jesus Christ, who was born to die in order to save you.
The one present God gave you is Jesus Christ, a present that as Steinbeck put it, “represents not only love but sacrifice.” On Good Friday Jesus was rudely dragged to Calvary where he was rejected and killed, pushed down the slide all the way to his death. But that did not quench the dawn of redeeming grace, for in the same way Jesus was Lord at his birth, he was Lord at his death, and the Risen Jesus is and will forever be, the Lord of Lords.
This Christmas, what is the desire of your heart? If you could ask God for one thing this Christmas, what would it be? A second chance in some area of your life? Renewed hope in a year ravaged by a resurgence of racism and sexism and mass shootings and political polarization? To embrace a loved one, alive or dead, whom you especially miss this time of year? Forgiveness for what you have not even forgiven yourself? Or maybe “a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle”?
Back to A Christmas Story for a moment…It is Christmas morning at the Parker home. Randy is sleeping on the floor in the middle of presents and wrapping paper, while Ralphie is snuggled between his parents on the couch. His mom nudges him, “Did you have a nice Christmas?” “Yeah, pretty nice,” Ralphie says. His dad asks, “Did you get everything you wanted?” Ralphie sighs, “Well, almost.” “Almost huh?” his dad continues, “Well, that’s life, there’s always next Christmas.” But then something happens that Ralphie does not expect.
Ralphie’s dad leans forward, “Hey, that’s funny, what’s over there behind the desk?” Ralphie leans forward too, “Where?” “Behind the desk against the wall over there,” his dad continues, “Why don’t you go check it out?” Ralphie’s hope returns as he discovers one last present just for him. And what Steinbeck described as the kind of Christmas where “one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence” occurs—and of course, it is a Red Ryder BB gun. “Whoa!” Ralphie exclaims as he opens it, as his dad laughs and all is made right in Ralphie’s little world. The grumpy shopping mall Santa and elves did not have the last word when it came to the desire of Ralphie’s heart, his father did.
And God knows the desire of your heart, and God has the last word—a word of redeeming grace given you in Jesus Christ. “Take delight in the Lord,” scripture assures, “and he shall give you your heart’s desire” (Psalm 37:4, BCP 633).
You see, the good news of the gospel is that the dawn of redeeming grace we celebrate every Christmas…is still dawning, even now—that indeed “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all”—that indeed, God still loves you unconditionally and forgives you completely, all the time, no matter what—that indeed, in the end God’s love will win and save you—that indeed when your earthly life is over, you will be scooped up by the scarred hands of your Risen Savior and see firsthand radiant beams from Jesus’ holy face with the eternal dawn of redeeming grace.
So perhaps this Christmas you can receive anew God’s redeeming grace by receiving anew your Redeemer, Jesus Christ.