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  • Adam Schell

Like Jacob Marley

Over the last few weeks here, at Melbourne Heights, we’ve been working our way through a series of sermons called “Ghost Stories.” So it only seems appropriate that at some point during this series, I talk about what is probably the most well-known ghost story ever told. And that’s the story that Charles Dickens tells about a man named Ebenezer Scrooge in his classic A Christmas Carol.

And by now just about all of us know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and you probably even have a version of A Christmas Carol that you look forward to watching every year when December rolls around. But it doesn’t matter if your favorite version of Scrooge is played by Jim Carey, Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart, or Scrooge McDuck; there’s just something about this story that sticks with us.

But the reason that A Christmas Carol sticks with us our whole lives isn’t because it’s a ghost story. The real reason this story sticks with us is because it’s a a story that gives us hope. It’s a story that tells that if someone as cruel and heartless as Ebenezer Scrooge can change into a generous, loving person then we can all change too.  

But, of course, when we first meet Scrooge it seems more likely that a cheetah will change its spots before Scrooge changes his ways. Because as Charles Dickens puts it, Scrooge is “a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching.”

And Ebenezer Scrooge absolutely hates Christmas and everything associated with it. He yells at carolers when they come to his door. When two men stop by looking for donations to support the poor, Scrooge asks if the prisons and workhouses are still in operation, essentially saying, “I’d rather see poor people in jail than give them a cent of my money” And when Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, asks for Christmas Day off, Scrooge tells him that an employee shouldn’t get to pick his boss's pocket just because it’s December 25th

So it doesn’t take long to realize that Scrooge is one miserable, mean-spirited man. But that will start to change when Scrooge heads home on Christmas Eve. That night, the ghost of Scrooge’s old business partner, Jacob Marley comes to visit bound in heavy chains, forged from a lifetime of being greedy and cruel. And Marley warns Scrooge that the same fate awaits him if Scrooge doesn’t change his ways.

So Marley tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits, and if Scrooge listens and learns something from their visits then he might just be able to avoid spending eternity bound in chains.

Well, not long after Marley leaves, the first spirit – the Ghost of Christmas Past – arrives. And the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back through his childhood memories. Scrooge sees how he was a lonely schoolboy, abandoned at school over Christmas by his uncaring father. He remembers happier times apprenticing for a kindly merchant named Mr. Fezziwig who cherished the Christmas spirit. And he reflects on losing his fiancée Belle, whose hopes for love could not survive Scrooge’s budding obsession with gaining wealth.

The Ghost of Christmas Present comes next, revealing how people celebrate Christmas in the present day. And for the first time, Scrooge sees the joy and merriment that Christmas brings to ordinary people. But the Ghost also shows Scrooge that Christmas isn’t always a merry celebration when the ghost takes Scrooge to see his clerk, Bob Cratchit’s meager Christmas celebration. As he sees a family that barely has enough food on the table for everyone to eat, and a child, named Tiny Tim, who may not live to see another Christmas, Scrooge begins to realize that his personal greed affects other people.

The third and final spirit is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who is eerily shrouded from head to toe. Silently, this phantom leads Scrooge into the bleak future that awaits if he fails to change his ways. Scrooge sees businessmen casually discussing his death, but instead of mourning his loss they’re relieved that there is no one left to collect their debts. He goes on to watch as petty thieves pawn his meager personal effects for petty cash, and grave robbers discuss digging his body up to steal the clothes off Scrooge’s back.

And as hard as it was for Scrooge to see what the future held for him, it only got worse when Scrooge sees what will happen to Tiny Tim. Tiny Tim will die, and Scrooge realizes that if he had been more generous he may have been able to prevent it.

Shaken by these grim visions, Scrooge begs the spirit for mercy, promising to honor Christmas and live by the lessons the ghosts have taught him. And when he awakens Christmas morning, Scrooge is a changed man. He is filled with joy and generosity. He sends the Cratchit family a lavish turkey and promises to raise Bob’s salary. He makes amends with family and old friends. As Dickens concludes, “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.”

Now, like I said at the beginning of this sermon, Ebenezer’s Scrooge’s story is probably the most well-known ghost story ever told. But you might still be wondering why we spent the first few minutes of this sermon revisiting Scrooge’s story. I mean, sure, we’re in the middle of a series of sermons called “Ghost Stories” right now, but I’ve told you from the beginning that this series isn’t about the stories of spooky specters that we usually tell around campfires.

No, instead in this series, we’re taking a closer look at stories about what the King James Version of the Bible calls the Holy Ghost…or what we more commonly call the Holy Spirit today. So what does the Scrooge’s story have to do with the Holy Spirit?

Well, believe it or not, the Holy Spirit does the same thing for us that all the ghosts that visited Scrooge on Christmas Eve did for him. In A Christmas Carol, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come all come to show Scrooge that he hasn’t been living his life the way that he should have. Scrooge was obsessed with money but he saw no value in people.

So the ghosts went about showing Scrooge just how wrong he had been. They reminded him of how awful it felt when Scrooge’s father didn’t think that his son was worth picking up from boarding school at Christmas. But they also showed him how great it felt when his former boss, Mr. Fezziwig, thought it was more important for his employees to celebrate Christmas together than it was to get in a few more hours of work.

The ghosts showed him how much Scrooge hurt others, like his former fiancee and his own clerk, when Scrooge was more concerned with making and keeping money than he was with being kind to them. And ultimately the ghosts show Scrooge that he values money more than life itself. And he’d rather keep a few more pennies in his pocket than give the Cratchit family enough money to take care of their sick son.

And all of these lessons eventually sink in for Ebenezzer Scrooge. He realizes how awful a person he has been. He realizes that he hasn’t been living his life the way that he should. And he changes his life from that moment forward.

And that’s part of what the Holy Spirit does for us. When we’re not living and acting the way that God wants us to, the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts and shows us that we’re wrong. We even have a word that we use in church for what the Holy Spirit does when we’re not living and acting the way that we should. We say that the Holy Spirit convicts us.

Now, that word convicted doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit finds us guilty of a crime and that we’re going to get locked up in chains like Jacob Marley. It means that when we’re convinced that we’re doing everything right, the Holy Spirit shows us the error of our ways.

When we’re convinced that we’re doing everything right, the Holy Spirit shows us the error of our ways.

And, if you’ve got a Bible close by or a Bible app on your phone, I can show you an example of how this happens. So if you’ve got a Bible close by go ahead and open it to Acts 9. Acts 9, and as you’re finding it, I want to tell you a little more about the book of Acts.

So the book of Acts is found in the New Testament, and the books of the New Testament essentially tell us one of two things. They either give us a biography of Jesus, or they tell us about how our faith in Jesus grew and spread after his crucifixion and resurrection. And the book of Acts does the latter. The book of Acts tells us how our faith in Jesus grew and spread.

And there is one person that we read about in the book of Acts who did a lot to help spread the good news of Jesus. But finding out that this person would go on to become one of the most important missionaries in history is a little like finding out that Ebenezer Scrooge would become one of the most generous men in England…it’s a little hard to believe.

And that’s because when we first meet this person, whose name is Saul, in Acts 7, he is overseeing the execution of one of the earliest leaders in the church. And in Acts 8, we’re told that:

3 Saul began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison.

Acts 8:3 (Common English Bible)

And Saul is up to the exact same thing in Acts 9. So let’s take a look at Acts 9, and see exactly what Saul is doing. We’ll start reading in verse 1, where we’re told:

1 Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest, 2 seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

Acts 9:1-2 (Common English Bible)

So from what we read about Saul in Acts 7, 8, and 9, we know that Saul is persecuting and arresting Christians. Now, we don’t have any records that tell us exactly how many people were a victim of Saul’s persecution. But since we’re told on at least two separate occasions that Saul was going from house to house and having any Christians he could find thrown into jail, it’s safe to assume that Saul persecuted a lot of people.

So, yes, when we first meet Saul it seems more likely that a cheetah will change its spots before Saul changes his ways. But something is going to happen to Saul when he is traveling to a town called Damascus so he can arrest any Christians he finds there. So let’s turn back to Acts 9 and see what happens next. This time we’ll pick up in verse 3, which says:

3 During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”

5 Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. 6 “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.”

7 Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything.

Acts 9:3-9 (Common English Bible)

Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and he was changed forever. By the end of Acts chapter 9, after Ananias finally went and helped him, Saul was preaching in the synagogues and telling everyone about Jesus. That’s right, the same guy that was headed to Damascus to arrest anyone who believed in Jesus, now believed in Jesus, and he was doing everything he could to help others believe in Jesus, too.

But how was that possible? How could someone who hated Christians so much in the past become one of them, and help others become one of them too? How could God use someone like Saul to spread the good news of Jesus Christ?

Because God isn’t concerned with who you’ve been, God is concerned with who you are becoming.

God isn’t concerned with who you’ve been, God is concerned with who you are becoming.

And God wants us all to become more like him. God wants us all to become more like Jesus.

And on that day, while walking on the road to Damascus, that’s what happened to Saul. Saul became more like Jesus and he was changed forever. On that road to Damascus, God changed everything about Saul…including his name. On that road to Damascus, Saul became Paul.

But how exactly did Paul become more like Jesus? What did God do that transformed Saul forever? Let’s jump down to Acts 9:17, and I’ll show you. Here’s what it says:

17 Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized.

Acts 9:17-18 (Common English Bible)

So in these verses, God sends a man named Ananias to Paul with a message. And Ananias is a Christian, he’s a part of the group that Paul had been persecuting. But he comes to Paul and he says, “God sent me so that you can see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And as soon as Ananias gets those words out of his mouth, the Holy Spirit fills Paul. And we’re told that instantly flakes fell from his eyes and he could see.

Now, this is a physical description of what actually happens to Paul. He was blinded when he was traveling to Damascus and he wasn’t able to see again until the Holy Spirit came into him. But this isn’t just a physical description of what happened to Paul. This is also a spiritual description of what the Holy Spirit did to Paul and what the Holy Spirit does to us whenever we’re not living and acting the way God wants us to.

The Holy Spirit opens our eyes so we can see how God wants us to live.

The Holy Spirit opens our eyes so we can see how God wants us to live. Now, this doesn’t mean that you’re ever going to have a moment where literal flakes fall from your eyes. But it does mean the Spirit will show you things in your life that you usually overlook.

That happened to me a couple of months ago when I was leaving Sam’s Club one evening. There was a family having car trouble and, at first, I walked right by them without paying them any attention. But as I was unloading my cart, I kept glancing back over at this family. And finally I made eye contact with the person sitting behind the steering wheel and I knew I needed to do something. So I walked over and found out their battery was dead, and since I have a little jumper box in the back of my car I was able to jump their battery and get them back on the road.

And that’s what the Holy Spirit does for us. The Spirit opens our eyes so we can see how God wants us to live. And if you’re willing to see what the Spirit has to show you, the Spirit can change you just like he transformed Paul and just like those three ghosts changed Ebenezer Scrooge.

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