I’m so excited for the Christmas season. Every Christmas Eve for several years now, my family has watched Elf. It’s become a tradition, and I tradition that I really hope we hold on to for years and years to come. I’ve probably seen it close to 30 times and can proudly quote a majority of the movie. One of my favorite scenes from Elf is when Buddy is prepared to go to New York City and begin his quest to find his dad. Santa gives Buddy his tips and insight before he commences his journey to the Big Apple and ends it with this brilliant and memorable moment in the movie.
Will Ferrell does an impressive job imitating the behavior of a young child throughout this movie. His reaction to finding out his father is on the naughty list is so spot on for the reaction of a typical child. I can recall a specific instance on Christmas Eve asking my mother if she thought I had been good enough that year to be on the Nice List. While I don’t remember exactly what I had done that year, I do remember the unrest I had inside. Had I done enough good? Had I done too much bad? What bad things did my parents know about that I didn’t want them to know about? It weighed heavily on my young mind.
Getting an ambiguous reply from my mother, which I now know was an opportunity to get some sick enjoyment out of my suffering that night (just kidding Madre), lead me to think even more about this whole naughty-nice thing. What was the criteria? How “nice” was nice? How “naughty” was naughty? Did I just have to be above the 50th percentile? Was it a scale where as long as the good outweighed the bad, I made the nice list? What was the standard?
There was something raw about this night, something that made it so memorable. I was not at rest whatsoever. In fact, I don’t recall sleeping much of that night at all because I realized I really hadn’t been as nice of a kid that year as I should have been. As much as I wanted that new Gameboy, Nerf gun, K’NEX set, or whatever the hot toy was that year, a part of me didn’t feel deserving of it.
As I laid in bed, staring for hours at the ceiling and listening to the soft ticking of my wall clock, it was easy to make up excuses, distort the narrative, or look at good and bad actions in terms of a scale as ways to justify or avoid confronting mistakes, but it didn’t really give me relief. I’ve hurt people. I’ve done things that, simply put, were not right.
Despite trying to be as good as possible, I’ve become exhausted with the pursuit of perfection, because it’s not attainable. Deep down, there are things I know I should and should not do and my life has not always aligned with these. I know that the “good person” label should be reserved for those doing good and whole acts and thoughts 100% of the time. With perfection as the standard, I see myself as deserving of the naughty list. Despite my best efforts at being good, I know I have and will continue to come up short.
So I guess I may as well give up hope then right? I may as well invest in a furnace for all the coal I will be accumulating. If I can’t do it on my own what hope is left?
Eugene Cho, pastor of Quest Church, spoke at Collyde Summit this past September and one part of his speech regarding this topic really resonated with me. He had recently been pulled over for going well above the speed limit. With this context he gave us three different scenarios.
In the first, the officer gave him the ticket for the full offense despite his pleading for a lesser or nonexistent punishment. In the second, the officer forgot the offense and let him go without penalty. In the third, the officer gave him the ticket for the full offense. But then, the officer pulled out his own checkbook and wrote a check for an amount greater than that on the ticket and gave it to the driver.
The first scenario depicts justice. The driver was in the wrong for speeding, and the authority gave him the appropriate penalty. The second depicts mercy. While he was wrong for speeding, the authority did not punish him for it. He had forgotten or excused his mistake. The third however, depicts grace. It makes no sense. The man who is at fault, is blessed by the authority despite his wrong doing. He did nothing to deserve the check and yet the authority gave it to him. The authority takes the penalty upon himself and substitutes himself for the driver.
If you were to personally experience all 3 of these, which would leave the biggest impact on you? Which one would most likely cause you to stop speeding in the future? I’m assuming most would say scenario #3.
The thing is that our mistakes are worse than a speeding offense. That “raw” feeling I experienced as a young child, was a real confrontation with the fact that there is something wrong with me. That I’m not as good as I should be.
Michael Yankoski illustrates it well in his book “The Sacred Year.”
“So sin is like cancer, eating us alive, diminishing what we’re made to be. It’s a cancer of the mind, a cancer of the heart, a cancer of the soul. And it has spread out like a tumor throughout our whole selves. And like the Bible says, ‘the wages of sin,’ like the effects of untreated cancer, ‘is death.”
This life can weigh heavily on us, wear us down, and change us. We lose our childhood innocence and start to justify actions and behaviors just because that’s how the world works. Just like doctor’s exams aren’t often pleasant, looking in the mirror and seeing ourselves for who we are is not easy or pleasant, but it’s necessary. And there’s hope!
As we enter the Christmas season, lets celebrate that we’ve been offered the gift of grace through the life of Jesus Christ. A man who did no wrong during his life, gave up his own perfect life for us. Like the officer, giving out of his own checkbook the payment for the ticket, Jesus paid the price of our mistakes with his own perfect life. Not out of indifference for us, but because he truly loves us. If his action was as simple as writing a check I could label it as indifference. But the fact that he was beaten, whipped, mocked, pierced with nails and thorns, and crucified on a cross to make that exchange for our wrongs, tells me it was out of love.
He came to give this gift to everyone, especially those who saw themselves as people who regret past actions. If you don’t believe me read Luke 15:11-32 or Luke 18:9-14. And that love, is enough to turn people from the bad things we’ve done to the more fulfilling life of good. It’s a gift that we don’t deserve, but that is offered to us. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, because he paid for it all on the cross and continues to change lives everyday. People have been and continue to be freed from addictions, greed, lust, envy, hate, self-loathing, pride, gluttony, anger, and the list goes on. He wants to remove that cancer from our lives. He wants so much more for us. If you haven’t accepted this gift, please know that He waits anxiously for you to open it.
Wouldn’t you accept the check from the officer? Will you accept the gift of forgiveness, acceptance, and love from God? Trust me, it’s the best gift one can receive.
To those of us feeling deserving of the naughty list, I hope we can all enjoy the freedom, peace, and hope that comes with the Christmas season! As Line #2 in the Code of the Elves says, “There’s room for everyone on the nice list.”