As a child he was a voracious reader and his favourite book was The Arabian Nights, which he read over and over again. For a while his family was able to afford to send him to a private school where he flourished, but that was short lived.
He was twelve years old when his father was forced by his creditors into the Marshalsea debtors’ prison in London. His mother and younger siblings were sent to the prison as well, but because he was twelve, he was deemed to be old enough to be left to his own devices.
It wasn’t very long before he had to quit school and get a job working ten-hour days in Warren’s Blacking Warehouse pasting labels on bottles of boot blacking. The long harsh hours would have a lasting impact on him. He once wrote “I wondered how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age”
His father was released from debtors’ prison after the boy’s grandmother passed away leaving her son enough to pay off his debts. But the boy’s mother decided to let him keep working in the blacking factory even after the family was released. And that left another mark on the boy, he stated “”I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back”.
The boy of course was Charles Dickens and the righteous indignation that resulted from his childhood experiences as well as the conditions that he viewed working-class people living in became major themes of his works. He would later write, “I had no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no assistance, no support, of any kind, from anyone, that I can call to mind, . . .”
This is week two of our A Christmas Carol Series and we will be using Dickens’ most successful book as a frame work as we look at how Christmas affects our Past, our present and our future.
As I mentioned last week, A Christmas Carol is divided into five chapters or five staves as Dickens calls them. Last week we looked at how Stave one introduced us to the location and time of the Novel, which was London England in the mid-eighteen hundreds and to the main characters of the story, in particular the protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge.
From there we jumped into Matthew 1 and the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel and looked at how the Christmas story was introduced.
It was there that we were introduced to a young unmarried girl named Mary and her fiancé Joseph, the main Characters in the story. And we discovered that the story happened in Bethlehem as it been predicated in the Old Testament and that it happened at not just any time but at just the right time.
The second stave of a Christmas Carol involves Scrooge being visited by the first spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Past. Not the Ghost of the Long Past, but the Ghost of Scrooge’s personal past.
The spirit takes Scrooge on a journey back to his more innocent days, before he had become the man he became.
Then the spirit showed him how he had become obsessed with money to the point of alienating and driving away the ones he loved the most.
Scrooge was shaped by his past, just as Dickens himself was shaped by the events of his childhood.
And it is here that we discover that every person has a past and often our past defines our present and inevitably our future.
But what does that have to do with Christmas?
Last week we looked at some of the prophecies concerning Jesus’ birth and how the past pointed toward the events of that day. And maybe you are thinking: the question is still so what? How does that make a difference in my life today?
Well, if you are content to leave Jesus in the manger then Christmas will make no difference in your life.
And so, to illustrate this we are going to go to the most unlikely place for a Christmas message to take us, the crucifixion.
It’s 33 years and 9 kms from the manger and the baby is now a man. After teaching across Galilee and the surrounding area for 3 years Jesus has been accused of blasphemy and treason by the religious leaders who feel threatened by his teachings of a new kingdom.
As a result, these leaders have Jesus arrested and after a mockery of a trial he is sentenced to be executed in the most horrific way. He was beaten and then nailed to a cross and left to die.
It is toward the end of his life, late in the afternoon when we pick up the story in Luke 23:39-43 One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!” But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
This is of course is the story of the penitent thief.
We don’t know much about the thief who hung on the cross next to Christ on that day. His plea to Jesus is only recorded in Luke chapter 23 and his name, Dismas comes to us only through legend.
What we do know is this: it was that criminal who was the first person in the history of the world to taste the Grace and redemption that Jesus Had to offer.
Listen to the words of the thief, Luke 23:40-42 But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
And with those words two thousand years ago, on a Friday afternoon, when mankind had fallen to the lowest point in its history, a miracle happened. A man was born again!
The thief on the cross became a new creation. He may have been crucified as a criminal, he may have lived as a thief, but he died spotless, a child of God.
The thief on the cross was given the gift of salvation that had begun 33 years before in a stable in Bethlehem.
The first thing that we have to acknowledge about this man was that He Had a Past
The men crucified with Jesus weren’t nice people. Matthew and Mark both call them thieves and Luke simply refers to them as criminals.
And Dismas himself confirms that when he defended Christ in the scripture that I just read, Luke 23:39-41 One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!” But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.”
There was no doubt that these men were sinners. Nobody here would deny it. They weren’t misunderstood, they weren’t victims of their childhoods, they were sinners. We know that. And it’s easy to categorize people when we have descriptions like criminal and thief and the like. Well, they are bad people, they are sinners.
And you may be thinking, I’m glad I’m not a criminal.
But understand we are all sinners, the bible tells us in Isaiah 53:6 All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
On the other hand we sometimes think that we are the only one with a past, and that God couldn’t possibly forgive us.
But everybody has a past. Sometimes we think that the bible is full of people who had it all together, but the reality is that the bible is full of stories of people who had stuff in their past that I’m sure they wished we didn’t know about.
Noah got drunk, Abraham lied, Jacob cheated, Moses was a murderer, David was an adulterer Peter denied that he even knew Jesus.
Irish playwright Oscar Wilde wrote over a hundred years ago “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”
We all have a past. I became a Christ follower at 19 and there are things that I said and things that I did before I made that decision that I’m not proud of. If you think I can be a jerk now, you should have me me then.
We all have a past and our past shapes who we are today. Sarah Dessen wrote, “Your past is always your past. Even if you forget it, it remembers you.” That statement has become a reality in the lives of countless celebrities and politicians this past year as they have watched their pasts catch up with them.
We don’t know what factors may have caused the thief to become a criminal, perhaps he was raised by a family of Criminals or maybe he got in with a bad bunch as a teenager. We don’t know. As I often say, “never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, then you are a mile away and you have his shoes.”
And I have discovered that sometimes after I’ve heard about someone’s past, I understand why they are a jerk. But they are still a jerk, and nobody has to stay a jerk.
Let’s keep reading in the story, Luke 23:42 Then he (the thief) said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
So not only did the man have a past, He Had a Choice
Rick Warren author of the Purpose Driven Life writes, “We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.”
If you are familiar with the Easter story, then you know that there was not just one thief crucified with Jesus that day but two. And with the two men came two choices, one thief chose to reject Christ and one thief chose to accept Christ. It was just that simple. One chose an eternity without God and one chose an eternity with God, but in the end, it was their choice.
And God didn’t send one thief to hell, he simply honoured the thief’s choice to not have a relationship with God.
There is a great legend told about an event that happened at the end of the Christmas story. If you are familiar with the Christmas story then you know that King Herod became consumed with Jealousy when he heard about the birth of the Messiah, and he plotted to kill the baby.
Jesus’ parents were warned in a dream and escaped to Egypt. The legend goes something like this. When the holy family were on their way to Egypt they were accosted by a band of robbers. The chief bandit wanted to kill the family and steal what little they had. But something about the baby touched the heart of one of the robbers and he wouldn’t let the family be harmed. The legend goes that the thief looked at the baby and said, “O most blessed of children, if ever there comes a time for having mercy on me, then remember me, and forget not this hour”.
And the legend says that Jesus and the thief met again on Calvary, and Dismas on the cross found forgiveness and mercy for his soul.
Throughout the New Testament we find people who chose to leave their past and embrace the grace that Jesus offered.
The sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears, Zacchaeus the tax collector, Mary Magdalene, Peter after he had denied Jesus three times, Saul the persecutors of Christians who became a champion of the faith and a score of others.
And they all have one thing in common, they all chose to accept the forgiveness and the grace that Jesus offered. They weren’t forced to, they just did.
And listen to Christ’s reply to the thief, Luke 23:43 And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” He Had a Future
When the story opened, we discover the thief’s past had dictated his present situation. It was because of what he had done that had brought him to the place he was.
The other day I was driving home from Saint John and thank you for all who prayed for Mom and her surgery last week. And when I drive, I listen to music, mostly old music from my misspent youth, played very loudly.
On my phone I have my 1352 favourite songs and one of the albums is from one of my all-time favourite singer song writers, Jim Croce. You might remember Jim Croce from “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim”, but he was so much more than those songs.
And on my way home the other day Croce’s song “One Less Set of Footsteps” came on, it went to number 37 in 1973 and in it is a line that says, “It’s what we’ve done that makes us what we are” And I pulled over to the side of the highway and wrote those words down. Listen again, “”it’s what we’ve done that makes us what we are”
It was what the thief had done that made him what he was, but the choice that he made to reach out to Christ changed everything. But the truth of those words remained. If what the man had done in the past made him a thief and a criminal, then what the man did when he reached out to Christ made him a child of God.
It’s been said that there the fact that there is a story of a death bed conversion in the bible shows that it is possible, but the fact that there is only one such story shows that it isn’t probable.
But regardless of the life the thief had lived, regardless of how he was sentenced to die, with his dying breath he was able to change his future.
The Poet William Camden was writing of a man who was killed when he was thrown from his galloping horse, when he penned these words: “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground,
Mercy I asked, mercy I found.”
The mercy that Dismas found on the cross that day was grace, the undeserved favour and love of God. There is no greater example of grace than this story.
This man had done nothing in his life that made him worthy of God’s love. He had done nothing to earn it or deserve it, but it was offered.
And that is grace, we keep going back to Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-9 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.
There was nothing in the man’s past that made him a candidate for forgiveness and salvation, and even if he had done good things, and he hadn’t, he couldn’t have done enough good things to earn his way into heaven.
And there was nothing ahead of him that would allow him to redeem himself, he couldn’t promise Jesus, “If you save me I will. . . “ What? Become a missionary? What remained of his life could be measured in hours.
But that day, on a cross on Calvary a miracle happened that had begun 33 years before when the Angel Gabriel told Joseph, Matthew 1:20-21 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save Dismas from his sins.
Paul writes these words in 2 Corinthians 5:17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
And that was what Jesus meant when he told the thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus was telling the thief, “today you have become a new person, your old life is gone and a new life has begun!”
I don’t know your past, but I know that each of you has a past, and I don’t know where each of you stands with God and what type of relationship you have with Jesus.
But I do know that the gift of Christmas is forgiveness for our past. That each one of us is offered the choice to embrace the grace and forgiveness of Jesus or to reject it.
What do you want your personal future to look like? What choices will you have to make today to make that happen? What choices will you have to make today to make that reality?
One of my favorite verses is Philippians 3:13 No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead . . .
Today Jesus is offering you a brand-new future, but that can only happen when you let go of your past. And it’s up to you, will you accept the gift and the challenge of a new life?
Today you have the opportunity to start over. To say, “I can’t change my past, but I can let God change my future.” Are you willing to let go of your past? Are you willing to define your future by your actions today?