Summary: To what do we cling, now that the manger is empty?
Christmas Day has past, and it is now four days later. Had Mary been able to give birth to her son in a hospital, she would’ve already been discharged, probably sometime on Friday. She and Joseph would’ve checked out of the hospital and gone home. As such, the manger is now empty, much like the underneath of our Christmas trees and the inside of our stockings. You may have already returned some decorations to the attic. Christmas is over, or is it?
For the past month, our Advent worship has been steadily progressing toward the Christmas event. We have been focusing on the manger, but the manger is now empty. To what do we cling, now that the manger is empty?
In leading you through this season of Advent, I have spent all of our time in the book of Isaiah. In fact, two weeks ago when we lit the candle of joy, we were in the first half of this chapter, and now four days after Christmas, we finish up with the final two verses of the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah. These verses lay out for us what we cling to now that the manger is empty. We cling to a promise. The promise is that of protection and deliverance, and the picture that is painted is of a bride and groom preparing for marriage.
Weddings are joyous and happy events. I remember in seminary a professor once telling us of the importance of our roles during a wedding ceremony. He said, “People might forgive you if you lose your place and slip up in a sermon, and people may be gracious if you mess up during a funeral, but don’t ever mess up anyone’s wedding. They’ll never forget!”
Weddings are really fun. For the most part, the bride and groom are happy. If not, you kind of wonder why they’re there at all. Weddings are worshipful. Most weddings take place in churches, though I have participated in beautiful weddings that took place outdoors. The music at weddings is uplifting. Weddings are celebrations; two people uniting together as one. Special dresses are bought, tuxedoes are rented, and parties take place before and after the blessed day. Weddings are fun.
But when you strip away all of the “stuff” that gets brought to the wedding and becomes part of the service, from the flowers, to the caterers, to the photographers, to the dresses, to the ring bearers and flower girls, to ice sculptures, to rice and bubbles, what lies at the heart of what the bride and groom are doing are promises – promises made to each other before family, friends, and God. The usual promises are “to love, honor, and cherish, in both sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for better, for worse, for as long as they both shall live.” How interesting that the image Isaiah paints as the promise of Christmas is that of a bride and groom decked out and adorned, making life-long promises to each other.
Think for a moment of how the relationship between a man and a woman starts and evolves to the point of marriage. A young man meets a young woman. They are immediately attracted to one another. They both say to themselves, “Now there is someone I’d like to marry.”
At that point, if emotions had their way, there would be a wedding. But hopefully, the intellect intervenes, questioning the impulsive emotional response, by asking some important questions: Would we be compatible? What is she really like? Will he take care of and love me?
They both conclude that it would be best to take some more time and answer a few questions before they proceed. The two begin spending more time with each other. He eventually concludes that she is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside, so now his intellect has sided with his emotions on the idea of marriage, and they decide to proceed.
But the final and heaviest vote remains to be cast, and that is of the will. The will stops the march toward the altar with the questions, “Am I willing to give up my lifestyle for someone else? What about my freedom - is it worth the trade? Am I willing to assume the added responsibility of a spouse?” The marriage will occur only when one’s will finally agrees with the emotions and the intellect.
This is the picture Isaiah has painted for us. That of a bride and groom decked out and adorned standing at the marriage preparing to make promises to each other. They’re making promises to each other because their emotions have been joined by their intellect and by their will.
A similar process must take place in our lives before we can receive the promises of our Lord. What is the promise that comes with Christmas? What is the promise that comes with the birth of Jesus Christ?