I like the little quip about the fellow who offered His prayer with all sincerity and with tremendous urgency. “Lord," he said, "Lord, give me the gift of patience, and give it to me right now!” Well, at least he knew his need even if he did not exactly demonstrate an understanding of what was involved in becoming patient.
I like the little story because it seems so close to the human condition. It seems so accurate a picture of where I am and where most of us are. As the old song puts it, "I want what I want when I want it", and that's it. We do not want to wait for those things we think we ought to have. And we are terribly impatient with waiting and biding our time and hoping that something will mature. It's hard to do.
Christmas, of course, points up that side of our human nature as much as anything else does. At Christmas, mysterious packages begin to appear under the Christmas tree, and when they have your name on them, you cannot resist – well, let's tell the truth – I can't resist punching them and feeling them, lifting them up to see how heavy they are or whether they rattle. And there may even be a shred of truth to the rumor that I have been known to hold them up to the light to see if I can see anything that way. Does anybody know if there is a portable X-ray machine available?
Christmas is the holiday of impatience, the season that drives a little crazy those of us who want what we want when we want it. But Christmas points this up not only as we think about bright color packages tied up in string; Christmas brings this home to us also in spiritual terms, in deeply human terms.
You see, Christmas is all about promise and fulfillment. It is all about an ancient promise from a God who cares so deeply about His world that He would send forth a redeemer, a ruler, and prince of peace. Christmas is full of that promise, so dimly perceived and so poorly understood for centuries, but nonetheless so faithfully held among God’s people. Christmas is about that promise and about its fulfillment; our faith says it was and is fulfilled in a tiny babe in a rude stable on a starry night in a little town twenty centuries ago. Our faith is about that profound promise and its fantastic fulfillment.
But, you see, what we must not lose in the lights of Christmas is that all those surrounding this event had had to wait and wait and wait, and more than that, they had had to wait through a period of shame and humiliation, a period of doubt and anxiety, before fulfillment in any measure was granted. Let’s not lose sight of that – because I believe we will discover in it something of what our God is doing and is going to do with you and me in our own lives.
Here’s my premise, here’s my sermon theme: that on the way to the blessings which our God has prepared for us, we can expect times of humiliation, of doubt, of shame and disgrace; we can expect that there will be moments of uncertainty and of shakiness on the way after we have heard God’s promise to us. But, praise God, but – fulfillment will come. And the name of that fulfillment is Immanuel, God with us.
Let me say it again, in another way: you and I are here at the worship this morning only because we have heard God’s promise. We have heard our God promise us that He will save us, that He will make something worthwhile of our lives, that He will offer us a deep happiness and a peace that passes all ordinary understanding. We are here at worship because we have heard these promises and we want to claim them.
But we also know that they are not yet, not in the fullest sense. We know that we are not yet as complete as we want to be. We recognize that we are not yet as together and as solid as we ought to be. We know and have to admit that we are unfinished, we are still crude and rough and unfinished approximations of the kind of persons we want to be. And we are not very patient about that, are we? We are not altogether sure we want to wait; let’s have what we want when we want it. Let us be who we want to be, right now.
But, I am saying, that Christmas teaches us that on the way from God’s promise to the fulfillment we want, there is going to be some struggle, some humiliation and disappointment, even some shame. And yet Christmas, of course, teaches us that the day comes when there is fulfillment, and that fulfillment is God with us, God with us.
For example, consider brother Joseph. I like Joseph. I like his name, for one thing. I wonder why? Well, the other day I got a Christmas card from a church family, and inside was a little scroll with the name "Joseph" on it, and underneath was the translation, the meaning of the name: "productive." Sounds good to me. Joseph means productive, a good, solid, get things done sort of person. Fine. I’ll take that.
But now consider good, solid, get-things-done Joseph, betrothed to Mary. Betrothal in Biblical days was almost marriage, almost but not quite. It was like marriage in that it was legally binding, and the only way out of betrothal was a form of divorce. And yet it was not quite marriage because it was not expected to include intimacy. So here is Joseph, solid, workman, Matthew says a just man, and he finds that his almost bride is going to have a baby. Not his baby, that he knows. That's not possible, but a baby nonetheless.
Now I need not get into the clinical details to pose for you the question, "How would you feel"? Joseph, a just man, a good man, presumably caring very much about Mary, but now a laughing stock in town. Folks, no doubt Mary believed the angel's story about this baby; that would be a little hard to ignore. And eventually Joseph believed it – according to Matthew, after a little help from another angel – but that is not going to go down well in the town square. "Sure, Joseph is that what she's telling you? Come on, Joseph, grow up don't let her make a fool out of you!" The promise of a glorious, happy marriage, but now, instead, shame, humiliation, disappointment. The promise of tranquil, prosperous, family life – but now this. And angel or no angel, Joseph will have to wait, and will have to do something. He will have to make some decisions, and mostly he will have to wait in faith for whatever fulfillment there may be.
Promise, shame, and only then fulfillment.
Joseph, you see, is like those of us who sometimes feel that life is out of control, like those of us who find deep frustration because we cannot control our relationships. Imagine the shining hopes Joseph had for that marriage and for Mary; but now he finds that Mary has other priorities, that Mary has another agenda, that something else besides his wishes is dominating Mary's life. And so many of us are like that; we are parents who want the best for our children, but we find they are bent in a direction different from what we would choose. We are young people who so desperately want to be loved and appreciated by somebody else, particularly a special somebody, but we keep getting upended by disappointment and by the competition, and it's humiliating. It's hard when you cannot control and manage your relationships.
But Joseph, you see, chose at last to live in faith. Oh, his initial impulse was to give in to the shame mongers and to divorce this strangely quiet girl, of whom it was said that she pondered all that was happening to her in her heart. He could have done that, he should have done that, if simply rude justice were to be served, but in his heart Joseph found the faith to endure his disappointment and his shame, and to wait.
And when Joseph waited, endured, God gave him fulfillment – not perhaps what Joseph might have chosen for himself, but something infinitely better. The name of Joseph's blessing, the name of Joseph's fulfillment was Immanuel, God with us, the presence of the living God.
You see, promise; then shame and humiliation and disappointment, but then at last fulfillment. Promise, shame, and fulfillment.
But if this is true for Joseph, it is true in its own way for all those who surround the manger, all those captured by this first Christmas. Promise, shame, and fulfillment for Mary, a simple peasant girl, very likely in her early teens. Oh, great to have the angel promise that you are the favored one of God, immeasurably glorious to know that you are the chosen one of the Lord. A grand promise. But on the way to its fulfillment, what shame and what suspicions she had to bear. Mary is like those of us, you see, who find life happening to us. We did not choose it, it is just happening to us and we are caught up in circumstances not of our own making. Mary is like those of us who begin life with promise and hope and expectations -- maybe we even launch a career or take a job or enter a marriage with all of our idealism intact. But once we're in that job or that career or that marriage or whatever, we find we've lost control of ourselves. It runs us instead of us running it.
Joseph lost control of his relationships and had to choose to live in faith. But Mary lost control of her own choices, her own plans for herself, and went through shame in order to wait for God's fulfillment. But for her as well as for Joseph the name of that fulfillment, the name of that promise kept was at last Immanuel, God with us.
Or then you might look at Zechariah, the husband of Mary’s cousin, losing his ability to speak while he waited to see God’s fulfillment in the birth of his own son, John. Maybe in Zechariah you can see those of us who seem to have waited and waited and waited some more, and if you wait so long for a dream to be fulfilled, you think it can never happen because your own powers are so much diminished. When you are twenty and think you are immortal and indestructible, you won’t worry about whether you can accomplish what you want to; there’s always plenty of time and plenty of strength. But when you are seventy and it still hasn’t happened and you are weak in the knees and dim of sight – well consider Zechariah, no longer able to speak, not until God’s fulfillment came to him and freed him again. Promise, shame, and disappointment, but again fulfillment as the God who is with us, who does not abandon us, but who is with us.
Or even Herod. Herod teaches us on the negative side of the ledger about promise, shame, and fulfillment. Herod is threatened by what God is doing and decided to put a stop to it. Foolish man; who can imagine that by force of his will he can alter the course of the Almighty? But Herod, threatened by the promise of God, takes destructive action, he lashes out in all directions, to kill, kill, kill. And, my friends, I see us in Herod too. I see us in Herod, for some of us are so very sure that God is not coming, not here, not now, not to me. Some of us are so very certain that God is nothing more than a relic to be set up on the shelf and dusted off for occasional ceremonial purposes. And we have taken into our selves the threat and the hurt and the anger and we have sought to hurt others too.
Do you see, the Scripture says in one place, even the wrath of men shall praise God. When you and I, like King Herod, choose to fight God's dynamic of promise and humiliation and fulfillment – when we, like Herod, choose to say, "I will not be brought low, I will not be humbled, I will not lose control," then we are fighting against all that God is doing for us. And in the end, the result is still the same: promise, shame and disappointment. And God with us, whether we want him or not, God with us. God with us in judgment as well as in joy, but God with us all the same.
Promise, shame, fulfillment. That is God's spiritual dynamic for Christmas and for all of life. Live in faith and in trust, live waiting to see what God with us will mean for you.
But there is one other. There is one other person present at the manger for whom the dynamic of promise, shame, and fulfillment holds good. There is one other in whom the spirit of God will work this strange but fruitful work, and that is Jesus himself. Jesus the Christ himself.
You see, we all recognize the promise that is wrapped up in an infant. We all see babies as promise unlimited. But who would have planned for this babe the shame of a cross? Who would have predicted for the Babe of Bethlehem the agony of Gethsemane? Who would have imagined that on his way to fulfillment, even for the Son of God, there would be the shame of trials before the governor, the humiliation of carrying a cross up a lonely hill, the pain of death, the degradation of burial in a borrowed tomb? Who but God would have known that the dynamic before all of us is first promise, then shame, and at last fulfillment?
"Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, And being found in human form he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."
Promise, shame, fulfillment. Live in faith, wait to see the word made flesh, Immanuel, God with us.