You’ve probably heard of Charles Shultz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip and cartoon series. Many people know and love his Christmas special, but another classic is the Halloween one called “It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown”. The Charlie Brown Christmas was extremely popular and the CBS Company was more than happy to air another show that would be just as popular – and that’s where the Halloween special came from. Not just a one-off show, but something that could be shown every year to a new group. And it worked. A lot of people, since its first release on Oct 26, 1959 have seen it.
I really enjoy the TV specials and comics, not only because they are cute and funny, but because Charles Shultz was amazing at sneaking in contemporary issues and, specifically, views about faith and religion, into the story. Shultz himself spent his life on a religious journey and we see it played out in the lives of his famous characters.
For most of our post-Christian culture today, these references go by as quick jokes, but if like me, you’ve been a Christian and lived among “church people” for a long time, then the depth of these moments comes out in fairly stark detail.
The Linus character is always the religious one of the bunch. In the comic, Linus talks about philosophy and theology, and actually quotes scripture quite often. One of my favourite lines, which I’ve used many times, comes from Linus. Lucy is looking out the window at the rain and is worried that the whole world will flood and Linus tells her of God’s promise to never do that again and the sign of the rainbow, and she says, “You’ve taken a great load off my mind.” Linus responds with, “Sound theology has a way of doing that.” I love that line and use it all the time.
That reference is pretty on the nose and everyone can see it, but when it comes to the Halloween Special and the Great Pumpkin, the spiritual allusions are a lot sneaker. The whole show is about practicing false religion and worshipping a false god!
I want to use this favourite cartoon classic as a jumping off point to talk about the difference between false religion and true Christianity. Here’s a clip so you can get the flavour of the program.
Linus believes in The Great Pumpkin; something that no one understands, nor has ever seen, nor has ever heard of. It is an invention of Linus’ mind, but He believes in it with all his heart. At the beginning of the show, all of the other characters take turns mocking him for his beliefs. His sister, Lucy, begs him to give up his strange faith because it makes him weird and people mock her for it – she even threatens violence if he doesn’t give up his faith. One character says, “You’re wasting your time on a fake!” and Linus writes in his letter to The Great Pumpkin, “If you are a fake, I don’t want to know.” He’s so attached to his religious beliefs that he’d prefer ignorance to truth!
Even mailing the letter – perhaps referencing prayer or religious devotion – is a chore since Linus is too short and no one will help him. He overcomes the difficulty through an act of his own intelligence – and by casting his prayer upon the wind in faith it will enter the mailbox and his prayer will be heard. Of course, his prayer letter, even though it goes into the box, will ultimately end up nowhere because the object of his faith simply doesn’t exist!
Many of us likely know someone like that – “My mind is made up! Don’t confuse me with facts!” Linus’ faith is a blind faith – which is something that Christians are often accused of having. People assume that in order to be a believer, one must “take a leap of faith” – meaning that there is a point at which one must give up their brain so they can believe in God. This is a huge struggle for some people, but I want to tell you today, that this is not what Christians believe.
Yes, our God is mysterious and bigger than we can fully process – because He’s God – but He’s not unreachable; nor does He demand we check our brains at the door when we come to church. Unlike Linus, we believe in a historical God, whose actions are testified to in a historically accurate book, substantiated by other historical books. We are one of many generations of people who have told the same stories of true, accounts of historical events.
The Bible is a book written by real men who, in partnership with a real God, told the story of God and humanity. It is a collection of 66 books, written by 40 different authors of a variety of backgrounds (like shepherds, doctors, prophets, and kings) in three different languages, on three different continents (Africa Asia and Europe) over a period of 1500 years, that have no historical errors or contradictions and contain one common theme: God’s love for humanity and his plan of salvation for our sinful souls. That’s beyond amazing.
So, we are not like Linus, having blind faith in a god of our own design, but believe in a God who revealed Himself and who desires to be in relationship with us. We don’t believe in an idea, but in a historical person – Jesus Christ, the main character of the Bible – who is spoken about from the first book of Genesis to the last book of Revelation.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 we read a whole list of historical facts and foundations for Christian belief. It says:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
He doesn’t tell the people he’s writing to to simply have faith, but instead challenges them to look into it! Talk to Cephas (or Peter), to James, to the 500 witnesses that saw Jesus alive after being crucified and buried for three days… go check out the historical fact of Jesus resurrection! Ours is not a blind faith.
Let’s keep going in our Peanut’s story. When Linus finally does get a conversion to his new religion it’s Charlie Brown’s sister Sally who is only there because she has a crush on him.
For the rest of Halloween, Linus goes to “the most sincere pumpkin patch, one without hypocrisy, nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see”. He teaches his new convert that the most important part of his religion is that they are absolutely rock solid in their sincerity, their earnestness, their faith, their total commitment and lack of doubt – because the Great Pumpkin “respects sincerity.”
Now, though scripture does say that we should “fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness” (Jos 24:14), but that’s not what Linus is talking about. Christian sincerity is that quality of life that shows a person has pure motives and is not full of deceit. It’s associated with words like “truth”, “genuineness”, and “godliness”. A sincere preacher is one that preaches without any reason to feel guilty or disingenuous.
That’s not what we see in Linus. Here we get a glimpse of truly religious person who, even though they know the object of their faith is questionable, and that they have invented much of it, they believe they can overcome their doubt through sheer willpower.
These are the people like Oprah Winfrey who believe in belief, who have faith but no object to their faith, who have invented their own version of god and then assume that their “sincerity” will somehow make the object of their faith come to life.
This was crystalized to me during an interview that Stephen Colbert had short time ago with Oprah Winfrey where he asked her if there is a difference between “belief” and “faith”. Her answer was a mumble-jumble of post-modern religiosity that detached faith from an object of faith. Here’s what she said:
“Yeah there is, because there are a lot of people who don’t think they’re faithful people, but have beliefs. You cannot be in the world without believing in something, even if you don’t call it a deity. So there are people who believe in working hard and striving for their best, but don’t necessarily have a religious belief. Faith is very different, I think. Faith is knowing that no matter what, you’re going to be okay. And I’ve always been a part of that faithful.”
Then she went on to share her favourite bible verse. It’s Psalm 37:4 which says, “Delight thyself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” which for a Christian is pretty simple to understand. It means make your whole life about pursuing the joy of knowing God, and He will shape your heart so that you desire the right things. Not things that will harm you and drive you away from him and others – but things that will help you, bring you closer to Him, and help you love others. Easy exposition there and the rest of the Bible agrees with it.
Here’s what Oprah said:
“Now what that says to me, ‘Lord’ has a wide range. What is Lord? Compassion, love, forgiveness, kindness. So you delight yourself in those virtues where the character of the Lord is revealed. Delight thyself in goodness, delight thyself in love, kindness, and compassion, and you will receive the desires of your heart. It says to me, if you focus on being a force for good, good things will come – which is also the third law of motion –which is also karma – which is also the golden rule.”
Faith in faithfulness, belief in belief, “Lord” can mean whatever you want (actually, it’s literally the word YHWH, the proper name of the God of the Israel). It makes my brain melt and my heart hurt. Her beliefs are an absolute mess of made up, reassembled, religion. But would anyone dare to question Oprah’s sincerity?
We’ve all heard this one too: “How dare you question my strongly held beliefs! I can believe whatever I want! Even if it contradicts reality and seems utterly confused, is unsupported by any authority, and is a jumbled mess – I believe it! Even though I made it up from my favourite scraps of other people’s religions, it’s what I believe and my ‘sincerity’ will make it count for something!” That’s Linus.
A Christian, as we said before, believes in historical facts and stands on what God has revealed about Himself. We don’t make it up, instead we go to the inerrant word of God and discover what God has said about Himself, and then believe that. We work hard, not to invent a god from the scriptures, but to learn about the God that is revealed in the scriptures. Do you understand that?
Think of it this way. Two men spend their life looking for treasure. One man comes across a treasure map with a big red line that leads to an X on the ground. As he studies it he sees that the map leads through burning deserts, across vast oceans, and finally to an X in a cave on the top of a huge mountain. He invites the second treasure hunter along, but the second treasure-hunter says that sounds like too much work and he has a better idea. So instead, he makes his own treasure map. One that has a much shorter red line that goes through nice hotels, shopping malls, and ending up at a lovely park. It’s a better trip.
Which one will get to the treasure? The one that follows the treasure map, right? But what if the second man truly believes, with all his heart, that his treasure map will lead him to the treasure? No? Why? Because no matter how sincerely you hold a false belief – it’s still a false belief.
Let’s go back to Linus. There he is spending the night in his “sincerest pumpkin patch”. He’s exercising his religion like a monk in a monastery, giving up the worldly pleasures of candy, parties and friends, so he can impress the Great Pumpkin with his religious zeal and be rewarded with a glimpse of the object of his faith.
His friends make a special trip to the pumpkin patch, more than once, to try to convince him to join them, but he staunchly refuses, keeping his vigil in the patch – only accompanied by his singular convert, Sally – who is gets more and more impatient. Linus starts to get more and more nervous that his sincerity, his faith, his religion, just isn’t enough to make The Great Pumpkin real.
Then, in a moment of religious fervour, Linus mistakes Snoopy for the Great Pumpkin and gets so overwhelmed that he faints. But his convert, Sally, stays awake and realizes, with great anger and disappointment, that she’s wasted her whole night. This was to be her first Halloween! She could have had treats, toys and fun with friends – but instead she wasted her time practicing a useless religion that ended with utter frustration and disillusionment.
Have you been there? A lot of people have. They got wrangled into some kind of belief system that doesn’t work out. They put their faith in some kind of faith in a false messiah and they are left utterly disappointed. This doesn’t even have to be a form of god or religion. People put their hope for happiness and fulfillment in things like money, politics, friends, their spouse, their career, an experience – and when it lets them down it colours the rest of their world. It makes it harder to trust anyone. The money goes away, their government is found to be corrupt, their friends let them down, their spouse breaks their heart, they lose their career, and the experiences no longer fulfil.
Sally leaves the patch feeling as though she’s been tricked and she “demands restitution”! She missed out on everything. I know people who have felt that way– even after coming to church. They attended a church, but never really met God or Jesus. Instead, they came for a bunch of other reasons – to make friends, a religious experience, business contacts, to explore morality, because of the music or the inspirational talks – but they never really connected to the true God of the universe and it ended up feeling shallow.
That’s a mistake that a lot of people make. They mistake religion for relationship. They mistake the traditions, decorations, experiences and ceremonies for having a relationship with God. Not that those are bad things – but they are only a means to an end.
We don’t read the bible because it’s a good book – but because it teaches us about our relationship with God. We don’t sing songs merely because it’s enjoyable– but because we are worshipping God. We don’t have potlucks because we merely enjoy eating together – but because it is a way to obey God’s command to grow in love together. We don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper because it’s tradition – but because it reminds us of the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord and Friend of Sinners, Jesus Christ. We don’t listen to a sermon because they are interesting – but because we believe God works through the reading and teaching of His Word. We don’t pray to impress others or manipulate God – but to get to know Him better and give Him the opportunity to speak to us and change our hearts.
In Isaiah 1, God has some very serious things to say to His people about their confusion of religion and relationship. Let me read what He says. Keep in mind God is talking to His people and starts by saying they are as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah, which He destroyed because of their wickedness! Look at what He says about their religious festivals. (I’m going to read out of The Message because I think it will help us understand it better.)
“Listen to my Message, you Sodom-schooled leaders. Receive God’s revelation, you Gomorrah-schooled people. Why this frenzy of sacrifices?’ God’s asking. ‘Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of burnt sacrifices, rams and plump grain-fed calves? Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of blood from bulls, lambs, and goats? When you come before me, whoever gave you the idea of acting like this, running here and there, doing this and that—all this sheer commotion in the place provided for worship?
Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless.’”
God is pretty clear about his hatred of empty, hypocritical religion, and yet, somehow, people still keep getting caught up in it. “Commotion”, “worship charades”, “prayer-performance”, “meetings, meetings, meetings!” Like poor Sally, following Linus into the Pumpkin patch, they show up to do their religious duty, go through the motions, and walk away empty – because that’s all it was. It wasn’t pointed at God, they didn’t meet God – it was just worthless, religious activity.
This truth is all over scripture. God doesn’t want anything to do with “religion for religion’s sake”. If it is merely empty gestures, God wants you to keep it. He says that for worship, prayer, charity, and everything else. God despises empty religion – and really, so should we.
A Fickle God
Let’s close with two more and then we’ll be done.
In the next scene we find out that Linus sitting in his pumpkin patch, alone, and is visited one more time by his friends. He rejects them again and yells out, “If the Great Pumpkin comes, I’ll still put in a good word for you!” and catches himself. Oh no – a moment of weakness of faith! He said “If” and not “when”! He mutters to himself, “I’m doomed! One little slip like that can cause the Great Pumpkin to pass you by!”
A lot of people see God like this – which is why they get caught up in religion. Linus’ god is not one of love, compassion, kindness, mercy and grace, but one of rules and commandments, fickle and unpredictable, spiteful and petty – in other words, the Great Pumpkin is God is not the God of the Bible. He’s more like the Greek god Zeus than the Christian God. So Linus spends the rest of the night trying to make up for his momentary lack of faith. He stays out all night, until 4am, freezing, passing between sleep and wakefulness until he finally passes out from exhaustion. Lucy eventually comes and brings him home having never seen The Great Pumpkin.
This is the god that a lot of people think of when they describe the Christian God. They only know the parts about the 10 Commandments, the Jewish Laws, the Temple Ceremonies that had to be done exactly right. The only church they know is the one that is against everything. No stealing. No lust. No anger. No playing cards. No movies. No beer. No mowing the lawn on Sundays. Etc.
The ones who see God like this don’t understand how Christians can call their God “loving”, because they only hear about the one who kills disobedient people with plagues and disasters. This is a God who wants everyone to feel guilty all the time, gets angry when we step out of line, and then punishes them for it. This is Linus’ god, and the god that many people think we Christians believe in.
This is not a good description of the God of the Bible. The God we preach of created us good and put us in a good environment, and then gave us the choice to love and obey Him or not. That’s why the tree and the deceiver were there – to give us the choice. He didn’t want robots programmed to love him, or people locked in a gilded cage with only one option.
He gave us free will and then we chose to sin. And we’ve all been choosing to sin ever since. We go against our conscience – we do things we know are wrong, without ever even having to read the Bible to know it’s wrong – and that sin makes it so that we can’t be in the presence of a holy, perfect, good God.
Sin lead to spiritual and physical death, and that broke God’s heart, and He didn’t want to leave us that way. So, before He ever created the world, He worked out a plan for our salvation. The penalty for sinning needed to be paid for by every human being – but He would accept a trade. For the Israelites, He would allow the death and shedding of the blood of animals to pay for sin for a short period of time. Sin means death, and God allowed that animal’s blood to be traded for ours, for a time – but that wasn’t the end of His plan.
No, He wanted a permanent solution. So what He did was send His Son to earth to be born as a human being. He would live a human life, but would never sin. The world would hate Him and reject Him, just as Adam and Eve rejected God in in the beginning, and would take His Son and kill Him. But God would use that terrible crime for good. He would let the death of Jesus Christ be the permanent trade.
The wrath of humanity wouldn’t just be on Jesus, but the wrath of God almighty. All of God’s hatred of sin, all of the punishment that was due for humanity’s sin, would be poured out on Jesus Christ. God would punish Him instead of us – and would then offer the trade to humanity. Again, because of His love for free will, God won’t force us to accept the gift, but He will offer it. He will even go so far as to show us the darkness of our sin and contrast it with the light found in Him – and then make it possible for us to accept it. God does all the work of salvation, and allows us to make the choice to accept that free gift.
That’s the love of God. He’s not Linus’ poor, fickle copy. He’s a God of mercy and grace.
Don’t Be Linus
Allow me to close on this. In the final moments of the program, Linus and Charlie Brown sit at their famous brick wall and bemoan their failed Halloweens. Charlie Brown got a bag full of rocks and Linus missed the Great Pumpkin once again.
Charlie Brown comforts his friend, “Well, don’t take it too hard Linus. I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life too.” We would think that Linus would say, “Yeah. I’ll never do that again.” But no. Linus epitomizes mindless religion, blind faith, and the prideful, stubborn refusal to humble himself and change his mind.
As the credits roll, he yells at Charlie Brown, “Stupid? What do you mean, stupid! Just wait until next year Charlie Brown, you’ll see! Next year at this same time, I’ll find a pumpkin patch that is real sincere and I’ll sit in that pumpkin patch until the great pumpkin appears.” As the camera slowly pulls back and the credits continue to roll, Linus waves his hands, grits his teeth, and keeps blasting Charlie Brown with the passion only found in a religious fanatic, until it fades to black.
My application for you today is simple: Don’t be Linus. Don’t live a blind faith that has no connection to reality. Remember that you can be sincere, but you can also be sincerely wrong. Dig into studying the One, True God and don’t get fooled into weird, religious nonsense that someone has made up or that you are making up for yourself.
And remember that God loves you so very much – and that love is not based on how obedient or religious you are. He loves you exactly as you are today, and couldn’t love you any more than He already does. He’s a good father that loves you so much that He doesn’t want to leave you in your sin, but will do whatever it takes to save you from death, hell and the effects of wickedness in your life. All you have to do is ask for forgiveness, give up the throne you sit on, and turn control of your life over to Him.
And finally. Don’t be stubborn – be humble. If you’re wrong, admit it. If you don’t something, admit it. Allow God to speak into your heart. Listen to what He’s saying. Read His word and let it do the work in your heart. Put down your religious fervour or willful pride, and listen to someone else for a change.
The world is going to fade to black. Don’t let your stubbornness keep you from knowing and finding God.