In this season of Advent, in preparation for the 12 Days of Christmas to come, we are taking a look at some of our favorite Christmas movies. Generally speaking, when watching Christmas movies, we are looking for a feel-good flick that warms our hearts with a story of hope and good cheer. In this Advent series, which we are calling Christmas at the Movies, we are looking for more than a simple feel good ending, we are searching for a message that calls us to faithfulness in preparation for Christmas. We are digging deeper into the movies to find a word of promise – even hidden as it may be – that does not skip out on the hope of the scriptural texts that guide our paths to the manger on Christmas Eve.
This week, our movie is the Polar Express. The movie was first released in 2004, an adaptation of the Caldecott Medal Winning book first published in 1985. Just to be clear, since it tends to be in question on the regular, yes, I am older than the book. Though, admittedly, not by much.
How many of you have seen the movie, or have read the book?
In the movie, a 3D animated film, Tom Hanks offers the voices for pretty much every major character. There’s the Hero Boy, who is in a state of confusion around what he should believe regarding Christmas. There’s the Train Conductor, who offers sound bites of wisdom along the train ride to and from the North Pole. We have the Hobo, who has snuck on to the train, whose reality is somewhat questionable, but whose impact in undeniable. Then we have a few other children, including the know-it-all, the hero girl, Billy (the lonely kid), and playing a less significant role, the sister of the boy, Sarah.
The children find their way on a midnight train to the North Pole. The main character, our unnamed Hero Boy, is yearning for a glimpse of Santa to confirm or deny his lack of belief. Sitting in the main square of the North Pole, Santa has come out of the building, but our young boy can’t see him. His view is blocked by elves that are standing two and three high on each other’s shoulders. With all of the commotion, no one seems to notice that one of the bells from the reindeer’s harnesses has popped off. It takes a few bounces and rolls, stopping right to the feet of our confused young boy.
The boy picks up the bell – seemingly now completely unaware of what’s happening around him – he shakes the bell by his ear. He hears nothing. It’s as if the bell is broken. Perhaps fighting back some internal arguments for and against belief in all that is taking place around him, the boy says softly first, “I believe.” He says it a second time, almost as if it’s a question, “I believe?” Then finally, still quietly, but with much more resolve, he says a third time, “I believe.” He shakes the bell again, and what can you imagine, but the bell makes the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard.
As he is finishing with his own personal moment of coming to belief, Santa has made his way to the boy, and asks, “What was that you said?” The boy responds, “I believe … I believe this is yours.”
So the story goes, Santa gifts the boy the bell, which the boy receives on Christmas morning. He and his sister, Sarah, hear the bell ringing the most beautiful noise. His parents come along and are surprised to see the bell. They listen for its ring, but they are unable to hear any noise. The father says, “I’m sorry it’s broken.” Shaking it again, the boy and his sister still hear the bell loud and clear.
Finally, as the movie ends, we hear the boy’s voice as an adult, speaking this concluding monologue as he reflects on the sounds of the bell: “At one time,” he says, “most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”
Our scriptural text offers us some guidance that picks up on this boys statement regarding belief. Jesus is gathered in a room with his disciples. The disciples came to him and asked this question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of God?”
To understand the question, we should acknowledge that the world of the 1st Century Roman Empire wasn’t as dissimilar to our own as one might first imagine. For the inhabitants of that region at that time, greatness was defined as a function of things like wealth, education, social status, lineage, and power exercised over others.[i] Again, not something that is shocking to us, for even in our society today, we tend to equate greatness with similar cultural constructs. Wealth and power, education and academic prestige, social status and our family and friends all play a role in defining for the world our ‘greatness.’
I imagine that the disciples had started picking up on Jesus’ teaching, and they had started to realize that Jesus’ belief around greatness did not match the definition by the world. The disciples came to Jesus asking not ‘What makes someone great in this world?’ – but instead, ‘What makes someone great in your kingdom (the kingdom of heaven)?’ They not only understood that according to Jesus greatness would look differently, but they wanted to know what criteria was needed – they were seeking to be great themselves, and knew they needed to have more knowledge to achieve such greatness.
Jesus responds first by calling for a child, who it says he had ‘put there.’ As if Jesus knew the question was going to come up, he has staged this child to be there among them. (Now, I have all kinds of personal questions about this scenario. Had the child been there for a long time? Did Jesus always have a child standing nearby just in case this question came up? I mean, imagine this child … sitting around playing with his yo-yo just waiting for his moment in shining fame to help Jesus make his point to the disciples … but I digress.)
Jesus calls this child to come forward, and says, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Before he responds to the question of what it takes to be greatest, he first says, you don’t have a chance of even getting to the kingdom of heaven unless you first become like a child. Cultural context is important to understand what Jesus is saying. Children were without greatness in society – they had no status, no power, no property, no wealth, almost no worth.[ii] For Jesus to even be using the child as an example was breaking from the norm of the culture, for children were an example of nothing – they were only worth what they could become, not who they were. So, first, Jesus says, if you want to get into the kingdom of heaven, you have to forget about the whole greatness thing, because like a child, greatness isn’t what will get you there.
Second, Jesus says, “Whoever humbles themselves like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Look on the bright side, at least there’s a way to be the greatest in heaven. I can imagine the disciples thinking, ‘What you’re saying is, it’s possible?’ To be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says one must humble themselves among those who are considered worthless to the first-century society. It’s the most humble of the most unsupported that is the greatest – that is what Jesus says.
So, what makes children so great that they are the ones who are used as the example of what it takes to enter the kingdom of heaven?
A couple of possibilities: first, it could be there innocence. We praise children for their innocence and charming nature. I mean, Anne Geddes paints such a surreal picture of the innocence of children in her photography. However, such a thought, while nice in theory, is but a fairy’s dream. Just think about it; children start out somewhat innocent straight from the womb – but have you ever lived with infants and toddlers? They are only innocent when they are sleeping, and even then, I’m not convinced they aren’t having dreams of how to wreck the rest of your day, or plotting to keep you up all night. The faux-innocence of children is perhaps not the best example of that to which Jesus was referring.
Perhaps Jesus was referring to their ability to learn. It may have been the teach-ability of children that Jesus names as most important. If all disciples learned as well as young children do, then we’d be much better prepared to enter the kingdom of heaven. There’s scientific and sociological proof that children learn faster than adults. But again, one need only begin potty training to realize that while children’s intellectual growth may be exponentially faster than most adults, behavior modification is just not up to par. A nice thought in theory, but in reality, children’s ability to learn, while better than adults, still isn’t necessarily the best model for what qualifies one to inherit the kingdom of heaven.
I wonder if Jesus is talking about the model of belief that is inherent in children that is perhaps not as readily found in adults. As our Hero Boy seems to indicate at the end of the movie, almost all children have this innate ability to believe, but that ability seems to fade as we grow older. Remember what he says about the ability to hear the bell, “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah, my sister, found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”
So, what’s the difference between adults and children in regards to our capacity to believe. I think the biggest difference between adults and children is our willingness to believe that which we cannot explain. As children, we tend to believe more fully in that which we are taught without questioning its validity. As adults, we tend to rely more fully on that which we can explain – that which we can prove and claim through intellect as truth. The reality for most of us as we get older, is that if we could explain everything, we would have less trouble believing – but instead, we begin to want an explanation for everything.
But what about those situations where our ability to explain is overcome by our undeniable belief in reality?
Back in 1990, a scientist named Robert Adair wrote a book on the Physics of Baseball. He quite literally wrote the book on the scientific study of baseball. In the book he talks about the impossibility of a batter hitting a fastball. Hear his research:
He says that in total, a 90-mile per hour fastball will travel from the hand of the pitcher and be in the catcher’s mitt, a distance just over 60 feet, within 400 milliseconds – .400 seconds.
It takes about 100 milliseconds for the eye of the batter to see the ball out of the pitcher’s hand and send the image to the brain. It takes another 75 milliseconds for the brain to process the information: to gauge the location of the ball, and to determine its speed. Already, the ball has travelled over 14 feet – almost a quarter of the way there.
The batter has about 25 milliseconds, having determined the location and speed, to decide if they will swing or not. If they decide to swing, it takes another 100 milliseconds to determine the swing pattern. Will they swing high, low, inside, or outside. By the time act of swinging has begun, the ball is within 25 feet of the plate.
To start the swing, the brain sends instructions to the leg muscles to take the stride – it takes 15 milliseconds just to get the information there, and then the leg has to step. The swing itself takes about 150 milliseconds to get the bat from the shoulder to the ball after the hands start to move.
Now, I don’t know if any of you enjoy math as much as I do, but given the mathematical calculations, the science says that hitting a fastball is physically impossible. It can’t be done; the ball moves too fast. But my guess is, if you’re anything of a baseball fan, you would have a hard time agreeing with Adair’s research. You would disagree because you’ve seen it done. You don’t need to be a scientist or physicist to refute Adair, your argument that he is wrong isn’t based on challenging his academic knowledge of science. Your argument is based on the undeniable proof that you have seen it happen.
“We are willing to do this in almost every other area of our life. We allow the undeniable to win over the unexplainable all the time.”[iii] Faith in God is the one area people tend to exempt. A number of you board an airplane with regularity. You don’t need explained the physics of traveling 40,000 feet in the air in a plane that weighs a couple hundred thousand pounds. You just get on board and trust that it’s going to work because, having seen the plane fly before, it’s undeniable to you that it will work. You’re not willing to let that which you can’t explain trump that which is undeniable.
There are certain things that are undeniable. Yet, as we get older, we tend to lean toward having trust only in that which is unexplainable.
We do this most of all with our faith – we turn from the undeniable to the unexplainable. But the reality is, you can’t always explain God. You can’t always explain how God works, what God’s thinking, or what God will do next. But I can testify, as many other among us can, that God’s presence and love is undeniable.
Take for example our presence here today. There is no reason the message of Christianity got out of the first-century Israel. We can’t explain why it is that this carpenter’s son, born in a stable, would grow up and strike such a chord of hopefulness in the lives of so many. We can’t explain why the early disciples decided to give up their livelihood to follow this man. We can’t explain why people literally gave their lives to share the news of this man who had died and risen from the dead. But they all did – against the explainable, they told the story of the undeniable. And that story which has not good explanation, the undeniable story, is the reason we are here today – remembering the story of Christ’s birth in this season of Advent.
This is the promise of Christ – this is the hope of Advent – this is the call of the Gospel message that promises us, against all that we can explain, that God is providing a light in the darkness.
The call of Advent for each of us is to decide – do you believe or not? Christ says, abide in my truth like a child – as impractical as it seems, as uncomfortable as it may be, as challenging as it is, as counter-intuitive and counter-cultural as it is … if you’ll just be as a child and offer yourself to believe in the undeniable … then you’ll know my love fully.
The boy in the movie says, as he grew older, so many people quit believing, but he could still hear it, as can all who believe. There’s a lot I can’t explain, but it’s ok, because even amidst my questions, I’m leaning in to the undeniable. I invite you today, as we continue in this season of preparation to welcome the birth of Christ, to offer your hope and trust, like that of a child, and believe in the undeniable love of God. For the love of God, undeniably, is offered to all. Believe, and may the good news of great joy ring in your life forever. Amen.