The power of a promise is a profound thing. To be able to count on something that is important to you without the anxiety of wondering if it'll be there or not is a wonderful gift. Sadly, promises cannot always be kept. A close friend of mine had her marriage fall apart after several years of unhappiness and unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation. Her daughter was pretty shattered by the split and said to her parents at one point, “But you made a promise to one another. How can you just break your promise?” It was pretty heartbreaking for all involved and reveals the deep pain and disappointment that an unfulfilled promise creates. But the sad human reality is that parents promise to be there for their kids and then they end up working late. Kids promise to come home on time but then the party is too good to leave. Bosses promise that we'll get a raise if we just keep working hard but then the economy takes a downturn and not only is there no raise, but in some cases, there is no job. Broken promises are hard. Promises, by their very nature, are intended to be fulfilled and counted on.
In contrast to broken promises, however, is the joy of promises that are lived into. This past Wednesday my parents celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary. Last spring, Doug's parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Wow! That is more than 3 times the years that Doug and I have been together! We feel very lucky to have parents who have been faithful examples of people who made promises to one another a very long time ago and are still keeping them today.
Promises made a long time ago which are still being kept today. For me, this lies at the core of what we celebrate on this Christmas morning: The Joy of God keeping his promises to us. And so on this beautiful Christmas morning, we are invited to draw near to the Christ-child, the one who God promised to send to us, to receive the gifts that God gives us through the birth of Christ.
In Isaiah 9, God promises that those of us who have been shrouded in darkness will now be flooded with light and this will happen through the giving of a child who will be called wonderful, counselor, everlasting father, the prince of peace. We are told that we WILL rejoice and that our burdens Will be lifted. Perhaps these words ring a bit hollow for you this year. Maybe you've had the kind of year that has been shrouded in darkness and you feel that the floodlights of hope have not reached the circle of your life yet. You feel weighted down by the burden of grief, joblessness, uncertainty in the future, illness, relationships that are broken or troubled. You long for the heavy burdens to be lifted and the yoke of whatever enslaves you to be broken. I suppose my thoughts turn to the the shepherds when I consider this. I realize that because we meet the shepherds in the midst of the glorious events that unfolded on the night of Christ's birth, we can easily forget that they have lives that they must tend to apart from the heavenly host that they meet on the night of Christ's birth. Surely life was not easy for them. Shepherds were poor, dirty, marginal characters who lived on the edge of society. It is likely that their lives were laced with darkness, and heavy burdens. And they went back to those lives after encountering Christ. But I believe that they had been forever changed after being greeted by the angel and summoned to Bethlehem. It is unlikely that every problem in their lives disappeared after their journey to the stable but it is quite likely that their encounter with the Christ-child surely gave rise to a different perspective on life for them. After seeing the babe lying in a manger, they had the knowledge that a light had come into the world that would erase all heartbreak and injustice. They now knew that a child, the chosen one, was the one who could heal their wounds and make light their burden. For they had seen the Emmanuel, the God with Us and they now understood that they whatever journey they were on, they would never walk alone again. Do you know that this Christmas day? That God is with us and that means that we need never walk alone again?
Of course, it's always hard to tell hurting people that there is a hope that is theirs beyond their pain because it requires faith in something that they cannot see or feel in the moment. But I do believe with all my heart that an encounter with the Christ-child does create change for us. That's why God promised us a child for in that child we are showered with love, forgiven of our sin, redeemed to live as a new person. We are invited to draw near to a God who opens the door for us to draw near to him. The God who takes on a human form through the birth of his son Jesus is a God who wants to turn our darkness into light, our conflict into peace, our loss into abundance, our despair into joy. The fact that our God wants to do that for us is truly good news of great joy. The deep reality of Christmas is this: The son of God came into the world to meet us on our terms. He experienced the broken condition of humanity and took on sin even though he himself was sinless. Instead of remaining transcendent he became the created, the infinite became finite, the immortal became mortal so that we could know a not a celestial being who keeps a respectable distance but rather a God who longs for his creation to know him and therefore reaches out to by becoming one of us! The deeper promise that lurks in the child is that his wooden stable in Bethlehem gives way to a wooden cross in Jerusalem. And the baby who brings hope and light to the world, later takes on the sin and oppression of the world in order to give back to us righteousness and freedom, hope and fulfillment. And this is why we can endure our heartache, burdens, and grief...because the child we celebrate is with us and his promise to us is to restore us. The Psalms tell us that weeping may last for the night, but shouts of joy come in the morning. Trust the reality of this excellent promise, that a child has been given, and he peels back the shadow of darkness that at times threatens to hover and most of all, he is worthy to be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
A second promise revealed in Isaiah 61 reveals a slightly different perspective. The first thing we note is that we are gifted with the spirit of the Lord. Verse 1 says, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me.” Because of this, we are enabled to live righteous lives which in turn means that we are now called upon to announce the promises that God is making available for all people. We read, “The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.” It is interesting for me to note that while the promise of comfort and healing is embedded within both texts from Isaiah, in this text, after having encountered the Christ-child and receiving the Spirit of the Lord, we are now called to deliver that message to others as part of the fulfillment of the promise.
This past week, one of my friends was going through a rough time. She's has a rough year and knew that Christmas was going to invoke feelings of sadness and despair. She asked in her status update on Facebook...what can I do to beat the blues? A variety of answers came through from the ridiculous to the serious, but one stood out for me. It said this: “Give something to those less fortunate than you. Giving always makes you feel better.” My friend responded by saying, “Yes, when in doubt, it is always better to do something for someone else. No matter what, it shifts your view.”
There is so much truth embedded in that reality and I fully believe this is why Isaiah is now encouraging us to share with others this great thing we have experienced. If we have been fortunate enough to meet the Christ child then what better gift could we pass along to another than the reality that they too can meet him? Part of the promise in Isaiah is that if we do share this amazing message with others, wonderful and astonishing gifts await us: crowns of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of despair. And we will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. This is a beautiful list of things that God can make happen in our lives. He can do that which we cannot! God's promise to us is that he is active and alive in our lives, making something lovely and new even out of our sadness and despair. What an encouragement that word is. God sees light when we see only dark. God sees hope when we see only despair. God sees beauty when all we can discern is ugliness. This notion is so beautiful it almost overwhelms me. What a promise this is for those of us who meet Christ, receive the spirit and are then blessed to share the good news: That God will do in our lives what we cannot do for ourselves and that God will turn our sorrow upside down and create goodness where only sadness has lurked. Now that's a promise and God has kept it! What a gift!
Reading from Isaiah at Christmas reminds us that deeply embedded within the coming of the Christ are the gifts of comfort and release. This is what Jesus' entire mission was about...healing our broken hearts through the brokenness of his body, releasing us from our sins through the shedding of his blood. At Christmas, when we celebrate the tenderness of a new born babe, it's hard to get our hands around Christ's ultimate life purpose. And yet, the promises of God are centered on our salvation and our salvation is only made possible through the babe, who eventually gives up his life on a cross for the love of us.
Friends...promises kept is a wonderful way of looking at what unfolds at Christmas. God has kept his promise of giving a child who is the wonderful counselor, everlasting father, the prince of peace. Receive this gift. Revel in his joy. Embrace the spirit of the Lord that dwells deeply within you and pass this great news along to another who is need of hearing a word of hope, of counting on a promise that will not be broken.
A devotional I followed throughout this Advent season made this observation: The promises of God are outrageous in what they offer to us. Salvation for all? The end of pain and sorrow? God living right here with us? Who could believe it? People of faith believe. People of faith believe that Christmas is a season of outrageous hope and unfathomable joy. We believe this because our God is a God of outrageous faithfulness and unfathomable love.
I close today with a word from another prophet, the prophet Jeremiah who gives us this word of encouragement: The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness."
Friends, God keeps his promises, so let us now keep ours as well. Let us be a people of hope who will be the ones who keep announcing the arrival of the Christ child, spreading the news of great joy, giving others the gifts that we receive, not only today, but every day, from our loving, faithful and promise keeping God.
Merry Christmas to you all. May you celebrate well the promise that is our through Emmanuel, the Christ-child, the God among us. Amen.