Cheer up Charlie

Last Friday morning was one of those mornings. I woke up earlier than normal to have some time to myself, and a fire and cup of coffee. But honestly, it was as if I was called to pray and read Scripture. I know this elicits skepticism to some, but how else to explain these moments?  I write what I experience, and here is the log of my morning, Friday March 17, 2017. The players:  Moses, Peter, Jesus, God, and, of course, Grandpa Joe, Charlie Bucket, and Willy Wonka.

In case you don’t know much about Moses, he was one of the most important people of the Old Testament, if not the. The first five books of the Bible, known as The Pentateuch, are attributed to his authorship. He was a man of God, called to lead God’s people, the Israelites, out of slavery in Egypt into the “promised land.” I’m almost through the end of his last book, Deuteronomy, and thus at the end of Moses’s life.  In the Deuteronomy passage below (32:48-51) we find Moses being called to the top of a mountain overlooking Canaan, the land to which Moses had devoted his life leading God’s people but, sadly, was not to be his final resting place. It seems God had held Moses to the highest of standards, and Moses had failed in a single act of unholiness. While in the desert, starving and thirsty, the Israelites were screaming at Moses for bringing them into the desert to die, suggesting that it would have been better to remain slaves in Egypt. Never failing to provide for His people, God instructed Moses to speak to a rock so it would bring forth water. But, frustrated with the griping people he was faithfully trying to lead, Moses struck it with his staff. Water poured out, but God was not pleased. So God said to Moses, “Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel, you will not lead them into the land I am giving them!” (Numbers 20:12).  So on the threshold of paradise, Moses died. Let’s just say it. Harsh.

That same morning, I read John 13. The passage describes the final scene of the Last Supper, when Judas had left the banquet room in order to betray Jesus to the Jewish leaders who sought to capture and kill him. Known for parables and puzzling statements, here Jesus speaks of entering “his glory” and leaving for some place where no one will find him. He then essentially replaces the Jewish law of the OT with a new one, that of love. Understand, I’ve read this passage hundreds of times and it is still mysterious. Where is Jesus going? Why is Jesus issuing a new commandment?  And love of all things. Is this captured in the Ten Commandments? Certainly love is something the world can agree on (I imagine if someone had a sign in the yard that read “Love one another” there’d be much less skepticism and derision than a depiction of two stone tablets). Then the passage ends with an exchange between Peter and Jesus, where Peter insists that he would follow Jesus wherever he is going, that he’s willing to die for him, but Jesus patiently explains that Peter can’t come, not yet. And die for him? Jesus predicts that Peter would deny even knowing him. Mysterious, yes. But tender.

Upon reading these verses and pondering them, my mind wandered to the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the original 1971 film based on the book by Roald Dahl. It is one of my fondest, and certainly most memorable, of my childhood. Is it the story? Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka? I pictured the strange contract the children had to sign, with its confusing and ever-shrinking text. I thought of the mistakes, most catastrophic, that each of the children made. Hopefully you’ve seen the movie and remember. Many scenes are indelible, and I now cannot drink bubble tea without picturing Augustus Gloop stuck in the glass chocolate pipe when I suck a tapioca pearl up the over-sized straw. Well, the “naughty” kids forfeit their chance at the ultimate prize of the movie, a lifetime supply of chocolate. We’re not sympathetic, though. They clearly broke the rules, but, more than that, their hearts are spoiled.

As for Charlie, well, there is the episode with the fizzy lifting drink that he and Grandpa Joe consume. They find themselves swimming and rising in the air to their near deaths in a large ceiling fan. But we don’t get the feeling they’re doing anything very wrong;  they aren’t trying to take anything, they are merely having fun. And while the other kids are taken away to undo the ill-affects of their mistakes, Charlie and Joe catch up to the group, and we’re led to believe they have learned their lesson. After all the other children have been carted off by Oompa Loompas, Charlie remains, and he believes he has won the contest.

But, alas, at the end, it seems no one is victorious. Wonka dismisses Charlie and laments the wasted day. Grandpa Joe is indignant, and he pleads with Wonka that Charlie had done nothing wrong. But Willy, losing his temper, points out the laws that they had broken. Picture the scene. Gene Wilder, hair frenzied, turning on them, shouting, “Wrong, sir! Wrong!….You stole fizzy lifting drinks. You bumped into the ceiling which now has to be washed and sterilized, so you get nothing! You lose! Good day sir!”

One unholy act, seemingly innocent, had disqualified them from their chocolate dream. And there was Moses, overlooking the land he had for so many years imagined making his home, being reminded of his unholy act, one among so many others of good intent, and being told he would die where he stood, banished.

Is Wonka, as Grandpa Joe believes, “an inhuman monster?”  Forgive me, but is God?

Over a thousand years after Moses died on that cliff, and now, two thousand years after Christ died on that cross, righteousness continues to determine whether we live and die in exile or as citizens of a promised kingdom. And if Moses, a best of men, couldn’t earn it, what hope have I who for my whole life have been encouraged to be good?

Which brings me to Peter, the one who first believed Jesus was the Messiah and the rock on which Jesus built his church. But he was also the one whom Christ admonished several times for his humanly blunders. He was the disciple who seemed to know Jesus best, though, which is to say Peter probably needed Him most. Peter so wanted to follow Christ wherever he went, but Jesus knew that Peter wasn’t even strong enough to make it through the night without denying he knew him. This never fails to convict.

To the end, Peter never fully understood what Christ had to do. And Grandpa Joe, leading Charlie throughout the movie, stood motionless at the door as Charlie turned from the exit. In his pocket is an Everlasting Gobstopper, a gift from Wonka to each child at the tour’s beginning.  Though not unlimited chocolate, to an impoverished boy like Charlie, an everlasting treat would have been a treasure, whether he chose to keep it himself or sell to Wonka’s rival, Slugworth. This object, his most valued possession, he gives up. He walks toward Wonka, where he sits at his desk. The half-clock on the wall tick-tocks tension in the silence. Charlie reaches into his pocket, takes the candy, and places the small geometric wonder on the desk. “Mr. Wonka?”  There’s a pause. Wonka’s hand covers the gobstopper, and he mutters, “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”** It seems there is a law behind the law that only the heart can obey.

Just like that, Charlie had won. A ride in a magical glass elevator, crashing through the ceiling to hover above the city, the real prize is revealed. Not just chocolate, more than he could have imagined. The whole factory. A home for him and his entire family.

And Jesus? What was the prize he sought? According to the law, he had earned for himself eternal life by living a life without sin, but he voluntarily gave up immortality so that Peter, Moses, and all of God’s people might one day be declared righteous and resurrected, regardless of where the bones lie. But to accomplish this, He had to die on a cross. Descend to some hellish state of death and abandonment by God. Rise from the grave in a scarred but perfected form, recognizable only to those to whom he revealed himself. Ascend through the sky into a dimension unknown to man, to rule alongside his Father until their people are gathered. No, Peter couldn’t go there, no more than Moses could reach paradise even if he had crossed the Jordan. Because the promised land is more than just property, it is a Kingdom–a Person, a Place, and a People, all bearing God’s name.  As we find with and in Christ, redemption is one long story.

If Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had a sequel, I picture Augustus, Violet, Veruca, Mike, all of their families, the Oompa Loompas, and of course the Buckets, all enjoying a feast together. Because Christ issued a new commandment: love one another. And Charlie embodied it.

In a scene reminiscent of Moses’s end, Satan once tempted Christ by bringing him to the top of a mountain to show him all that could be his if he fell down on his knees to worship him. But Christ knew that the world was already his. But what good would it be without his people? We are of much greater value. So He died to bring us home.



** From Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

Deuteronomy 32:48-51 (NLT):
48 That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, 49 “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. 50 And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people, 51 because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. 52 For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.”

John 13:32-38:
32 “… Dear children, I will be with you only a little longer. And as I told the Jewish leaders, you will search for me, but you can’t come where I am going. 33 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. 35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
36 Simon Peter asked, “Lord, where are you going?” And Jesus replied, “You can’t go with me now, but you will follow me later.”
37 “But why can’t I come now, Lord?” he asked. “I’m ready to die for you.”
38 Jesus answered, “Die for me? I tell you the truth, Peter—before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know me.

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