Isaiah 9:1-7, Matthew 1:18-23
December 2, 2012
As we begin the Advent season, we start with the thought that this is “A Season of Promise.” And we use that word promise in a couple of ways. We use it in the sense of promises made and promises fulfilled. God made those promises in the Old Testament. “One would come.” he said. “A savior. Immanuel.” We read the some of those words of promise today, and we will continue to read them, literally, for the rest of the year.
A Season of Promise also has another meaning. Because the word promise also means “a feeling of hopeful expectation.” If we said, “The Phillies show promise this year.” we would know what that means, wouldn’t we? They look good, and there is the hope that what’s coming will be good.
This year there are many people who are hoping this is a season of promise in their lives. We end this year in the aftermath of a powerful storm that devastated one of the most heavily populated regions of our country. Our minds are still filled with images of flooding, pounding waves, and destruction. We know that many lost homes, businesses, livelihoods, even loved ones. The dollar figures on the cost of the destruction are beyond our ability to comprehend. Officials give us the numbers, but they just float through our heads. There’s no way for us to think concretely about them! (We’re almost more interested who won the nearly five hundred million lottery this past week!)
Of course, the destruction of Hurricane Sandy came on top of a continually struggling economy, a lingering housing crisis, and still far too many people out of work. And some would say, “What do we have to celebrate at Christmas time? How can we be joyful when there are so many around us who have little to be joyful about?! Is there any promise?”
I’m thinking we need to recognize that this year. And I know we always try to. We always try to remember that the Advent season is hard for some people. It’s a season where some people know they are supposed to be joyful, but instead they are not. For some, this is a season in which the contrast between the joy they’re supposed to have, and the sorrows they do have, is too much. And maybe that means some of us, too!
As I think about that, Charles Schultz really nailed it in 1965 in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Do you remember the beginning of that show? Charlie Brown is talking to Linus. They’re both leaning on that wall. And Charlie says, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way Im supposed to feel. I like getting Christmas presents and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”
Schultz knew that we all feel like that sometimes. That struck a chord with us. And that was way back in the 60s! I’m not sure but it may be worse today. We don’t feel the way were supposed to feel at Christmas time. That’s part of why we were all so touched when Linus spoke those words of promise from so long ago, “Behold I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” I can still hear those words spoken in Linus’s voice. Can’t you?
There is great joy in those words, isn’t there?! Long ago there was great promise in them because the people were going through some bad times! They were under the oppression of Rome. There was great despair. And whether those shepherds were able to believe them or not, still there was great promise, great joy, in the angels words.
The same could be said of our passage from Matthew. This is his beginning of the Christmas story. And in this case the angel came to Joseph. His message was more personal, and it came to him in a dream, which I can imagine was less threatening than a multitude of angels in the night. This is one of the only angel visitations I know of where the angel didn’t start out by saying “Be not afraid!”
But the promise is there. The fear, I’m sure was there also. “You shall call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Yeshua” or “Joshua.” It means “God saves.” Maybe that message had a slightly different feeling of promise, but still the words were of great joy in that time of oppression.
Joseph obeyed, though we don’t have his words here. But I remember last year watching a program about Joseph where people were extolling his virtues. They said “he was a quiet man who humbly obeyed.” I remember thinking they were building an entire personality profile of Joseph based on the fact that he said nothing at all! But I suspect there were words and feelings unrecorded here. For even with the promise, these were difficult words in difficult times, and I wonder, even in his obedience, if he saw that promise.
I wonder if we can see the promise for us when we are under our own oppression – whatever that looks like. I wonder if we see that promise when we suffer from the numbing effect of our own relative wealth and comfort. And I’m thinking that, just maybe, it is when we have hardships that we are shaken out of the complacence of our lives and we are able to see that promise even more. Maybe Tiny Tim had something when he said that “he hoped the people saw him in church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”
I’ve been thinking about that this year. We often do acts of kindness and charity at Christmas time. And we often think of those acts as what we do when we are moved by what God has done for us. We feel good as we help people who aren’t as fortunate as us to see a little bit of kindness and joy at this time of year. But maybe those acts of kindness and charity are not additions to the celebration. Maybe they are what Christmas is all about! Maybe Christmas is about the promise brought into a world of need! Maybe it’s about the promise of joy where there is sorrow and oppression and devastation. That’s what it was like two thousand years ago. It was not a world of ease and prosperity into which the message first came. So it was truly “Good News!” Maybe it is that joy coming into difficult situations that truly defines Christmas!
Now I realize that might just be a difficult indictment on our world, a world in which Christmas has become such a consumer affair, where it is tied to sales figures and year-end economic forecasts. But it makes me wonder, and I hope it does you. Maybe Dickens gave us the clearest image of Christmas when the Ghost of Christmas Present showed Ebenezer Scrooge and us the scene of the miners, in the midst of their lives of degradation and poverty, singing joyously in celebration of the promise. That’s a scene that’s often left out of productions of “A Christmas Carol,” but maybe that truly is Christmas!
I know I’ve given you a lot of “maybe’s” today. But I’m thinking that those maybe’s are ways we can break out of the normal celebration of this event, a celebration that too often ends up making us more stressed than joyful, and more depressed than happy. Maybe if we think of the promise of this season being that which breaks into those tough times of life, and doesn’t dismiss them, maybe then we can know what God had in mind for us.
So think about the world into which our Advent season comes this year. Think about your own life, and how the coming of the Christ Child just might interrupt a lot of things. (To say it interrupted things in Josephs life would be an understatement!) And even though times might be tough, think still about the joy, and the wonder, and the promise. No matter what is going on, there is still Good News
Eternal God, whose great love for us caused you to send Yeshua into our world, help us to know the promise he brings, and to share that promise with others this wondrous season. Save us from the complacency of our lives. Help us to remember each day of this Advent season, the joy and the wonder it brings to the world, and to our lives. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.