The Greatest of All Rescue Missions

Last night, our entire family watched the 2009, computer-animated version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol starring the voices of Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Robin Wright Penn and Cary Elwes. None of us had seen this particular Disney version prior to last night…that fact, in and of itself, is something of a rarity in a household of seven. And, truth be told, some of us still haven’t seen all of it…a delicious ham-and-potatoes dinner ahead of showtime provided the perfect impetus for a few of us to take a mid-movie snooze.

The film itself was fairly solid entertainment – though perhaps just a bit too much on the dark side – but as I sat watching it with our kids I found myself comparing and contrasting this latest version of the Dickens classic with the countless other versions I have seen in movie theaters, on stage or on television. I mean, seriously…how many times has this particular story been retold in one format or another? I would be hard pressed just to give a reasonable estimate of how many times I personally have watched the familiar storyline unfold, always knowing full well where the plot was headed. What, I wonder, do we find so appealing about this particular storyline that we are perfectly content to see it staged and restaged over and over again?

The answer seems obvious to me. I think the enduring appeal of A Christmas Carol lies in its unwavering commitment to the theme of redemption. A cold-hearted miser is completely transformed through a “rescue mission” heralded by the ghost of his late business partner and carried out by three different spirits in the course of one night. This is no half-way effort, either; the character of Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning a completely transformed man, generous where he had previously been stingy, loving where he had previously been cold and cruel. The popularity of this particular storyline reveals, I suspect, an underlying desire in all of us to bear witness to a miraculous transformation such as this, both in others and, perhaps most often, within ourselves.

Few of us are indeed fortunate enough to be able to recount stories of people we know personally who have, in fact, been radically transformed…inexplicably snatched off the highway to perdition and somehow enabled to live out a life of repentance and grace toward themselves and relayed outward toward others. While these stories can be few and far between, I still find it incredibly merciful of God to provide us with even one flesh-and-blood example of His mighty power to change the human heart. There are biblical precedents as well for the idea that dramatic change is, indeed, possible, and that a radical inbreaking of the kingdom of God shines forth every so often. Charles Dickens seemed to understand that even one miraculous turnabout provides hope for us all, that we too might be freed from our own Scrooge-like sins, addictions, hang-ups and spiritual enslavement.

Quite recently, I spent a good amount of time poring over 1 Peter as I was writing a term paper on his theology of the cross. What struck me again and again as I read and reread this epistle is the obvious, dramatic change that took place within Peter himself such that he was able to confidently call other Christians to suffer and die (if need be) for the sake of Christ. I mean, after all…this was the guy who denied Christ three times, all three of them a pathetic, self-interested attempt to escape physical harm! And yet, the epistle of 1 Peter is replete with exhortations to early Christians to expect to live out a lifestyle that includes suffering (1 Peter 1:6-7; 2:12; 2:19; 3:9; 3:14; 3:17; 4:1-2; 4:12-19; 5:10) and to follow the example of Jesus in His crucifixion (1 Peter 2:21). That this book was written by the very same Apostle who so famously tried to give Jesus a crown without a cross (Matthew 16:21-23; Mark 8:31-33) is itself a vivid example of a complete change of heart.

One of the worst mistakes I ever made was inviting Jesus to enter my life and rescue me on my terms, not His. “I need You to fix this, this, and this…but I would prefer that You not mess with that, that, and especially not that!” By His grace and mercy, I was taught over and over again that Jesus never embarks on a partial rescue mission. He is fully committed to each and every one of us who call upon His name for salvation (Romans 10:13), and He loves us too much to limit His mission to those few, paltry things that we are willing to hand over to Him. God always goes for complete transformation. It probably won’t happen in one night – as with Ebenezer Scrooge – but once the work has begun, we know for a fact that He Who is faithful will see it through to completion (Philippians 1:6).

Just in the last few years, I have come to increasingly realize that what I need to be rescued from, more than anything else, is myself. My false ideas, my relentless selfishness, my insane preference for sin over and above the truth and beauty of God expressed in the face of Christ. I now live with deep regret that I did not fully give myself over to the rescue mission of Jesus right from the start. So many painful episodes could have been avoided; so many people could have been helped when instead they were hurt.

It’s tempting to look at the miraculous transformations of Peter and Paul (Acts 9) – or perhaps even people we know nowadays – and think that something that wonderful could never happen to us, could never remove the sinful tendencies and failures lodged so deep within our own hearts. Perhaps we think we’ve been the way we are for so long that “it’s just too late” for us. Perhaps that’s yet another reason why we all find so much comfort in the storyline of A Christmas Carol. Redemption comes to Scrooge very late in life, when all odds are against it and when just about any other character in the story would bet serious money on Scrooge dying alone and unrepentant.

It’s worthwhile particularly at this time of year, I think, to really meditate on the truth that we are loved by a God Who broke into human history and willingly took on flesh and bone that we might find it possible to have a reconciled relationship with Him. Just like A Christmas Carol, perhaps, we have all heard the story so many times that the improbability of it all no longer causes us to be astonished. By all rights, though, we should be astonished that Jesus took upon Himself the greatest rescue mission of all time, and that His amazing story is not a piece of fiction concerning one miserly accountant in 19th-century London, but a real-life rescue mission set solidly within the confines of human history, available to all who would call on Him. As you begin this Christmas week, I invite you to join me in spending time not only wrapping presents, baking cookies and visiting family, but also meditating on the stories of the Christ child’s birth (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2).

Then, consider whether or not you want to continue believing that it is “impossible” for you or I to change, really change, at a heart level. Will we really accept the idea that God Himself took on human flesh…and yet live out a practical rejection of the truth that this was done in order that we might break free and really, truly live? As Paul likes to argue from the greater to the lesser, “How will He not along with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

Luke 2:22-35 (ESV)
“Jesus Presented at the Temple”

And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

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