Paula Northwood December 24, 2019
Scriptures Isaiah 9:2, 6–7, 40:1–5; Luke 2:1–20; Matthew 2:1–12; John 1:1–8, 14
Have you ever made a promise you couldn’t keep? It reminds me of the parent who asks a young misbehaving child, “Didn’t you promise to behave?” “Yes,” the child responds. The parent continues, “And didn’t I promise to punish you if you didn’t?” “Yes,” says the child, “but since I broke my promise, it’s okay. I don’t expect you to keep yours.”
All of us make promises, often promises that are full of good intentions. A parent tells a child awakened from a nightmare that she won’t ever let anything harm the child, not imagining all the traumas or tragedies that child may have to face across the years. A couple stands before a congregation of family and friends and say to one another that together they will persevere through sickness and health, in plenty and in want, but not able to perceive the stresses that a serious illness or a lost job, much less the day-to-day demands of togetherness, will impose on their promises. Friends who have gone through a lot together promise that they will always “be there” for each other, without calculating the toll the years and divergent paths and political realities will take on their friendship. Changing circumstances and demands, like our own frailties and faults, sometimes place even the best promises we make beyond our grasp.
According to the Bible, God makes a lot of promises. In an old Time magazine article, a schoolteacher came up with 7,487 promises made by God to humans. The most notable is when God made a promise to never flood the earth again and signified it by a rainbow. In the Hebrew scriptures, most of the promises of God come in the form of covenants with people, which are then followed with how the people break the promise.
In our Christian scriptures, there is the promise made to Zechariah and Elizabeth, who thought they could not have children, that they would have a son. They would name him John and he would prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. There is Gabriel’s disturbing, yet remarkable, promise to Mary that she, too, would bear a son, Jesus, who would also be called the Son of the God, the Prince of Peace. There is the promise of the angels to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the pastures above Bethlehem that they would find a child born who was to be the Messiah, the anointed one. All these promises lead to a big promise from God. We call this the promise of the incarnation. God is being known to us in a different way. Not a God up in the heavens or out there somewhere in the cosmos that needs to be appeased. No, this God is here, present and only desires our love. To symbolize this, our ancestors used this story of God coming to us in the form of a baby. It reminds me of those sex-education classes that hand out dolls that cry and need to be fed and changed so that the students will understand the responsibility of caring for a child. The students are entrusted with the safety and care of this doll. We’ve been entrusted with the Christ child, that spark of God within, to care for, nourish and nurture this spirit.
What if, when you left this evening, we gave you a Christ child to care for this year? How would it make your festivities tonight and tomorrow different? How would it change your life to care for this child? You can’t drop this child off at daycare. This child is with you always. Would it change your actions, your language, the way you spend your time? What kind of promises would you make? Would you promise to spend more time with the child? Would you promise to listen and pay attention so that you could know the child more deeply?
Jewish scholar Martin Buber noted, “The human being is the promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing creature.” This is the burden of a promise. Making a promise is easy. Keeping a promise is harder. As someone has said, “Promises are like babies: easy to make, harder to deliver.” We don’t always make good on our promises, but God does.
Celebrating this season is a reminder that God’s promises are made anew. When we break promises, God offers grace and forgiveness. We can forgive ourselves and each other. We are offered a second chance. And this is never easy. It is never easy to admit mistakes, shortcomings and failures. It is never easy to admit that our failed promises have consequences to other people. It is never easy to expose our own pain and vulnerability when we are the one bearing the consequences of another’s failed promise.
Our church community is bound by a promise, a covenant. Our covenant promise is a promise we make to ourselves, to each other and to God. It’s not unlike the promise we would make to this Christ child that we are carrying in our arms. These promises simply stated are: that each life matters, that we are to be kind, that we are to keep learning and search for what is true, that we are to build a fair and peaceful world and that we are to care for our planet earth. If we are carrying the Christ child in our arms or in our heart, we act differently. What will you do differently tonight, tomorrow or in 2020 because you were here tonight to welcome and receive the Christ child into your arms? After all, you could’ve stayed home. How does the miracle birth enter and live forward in you, because you were here . . . because you sang the songs, lit the candle, dared to cradle an illegitimate, impoverished divine child in your heart as your very own? It’s personal and intimate, you see, once God is incarnate and immediate, sensory, alive.
As this Christ child grows, how would we model what a healthy relationship means? Can we demonstrate how to engage with each other, how to connect, how to work together in harmony? How would you show how to disagree without violence or withdrawal? How would we live into the promise that brings us together and binds us in a common cause, not in bondage or as prisoners, but as co-conspirators for the realization of a just earth where all her people are treated as children of God?
Sometimes, the result of caring for this child, living this promise, will require a reordering of our lives. It will take us out of our comfort zones, it will stretch our thinking, confront our certainty, but this is the burden of being a people of the promise. The blessing is that we are better together. We are stronger together. We are more courageous together. It is our sacred promise. It is our sacred commitment.
This evening we celebrate the fulfillment of a promise. To call Jesus the Messiah, the son of God, as the Christmas stories do, is a confession of commitment, allegiance and loyalty. It means I see in this person the anointed one of God, the disclosure of God—of what can be seen of God in a human life. He is the one who reveals God’s dream for this world. He is the fulfillment of God’s promise; this is what it means to be called Emmanuel.
But it does not stop there. All the pageantry around Christmas is a reminder for us about who we are and whose we are. Amid the perennial and pervasive temptations of imperial power and hubris that come from the ways of government and society, we are to be reminded that we have a loyalty to something greater. We, who have seen the star and heard the angels sing, are called to participate in the new birth and new world proclaimed by these stories. We are asked to hold the baby . . . tenderly, gingerly because it’s our baby.
The birth stories are not a pie-in-the-sky dream, but a proclamation that what we see revealed in Jesus is the model for us. The way to a different kind of life and different kind of future. Via both political and personal transformation, God will not change us as individuals without our participation. God will not change the world without our participation. Will you lift this child into your arms? How will the bond with the Christ child change your life this coming year? Can you let yourself trust in God’s transforming new life when it is only yet an infant, an unknown newborn?
“The promise might not be fully in hand,” Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us. “It may still be on the way, but to live reverently, deliberately and fully awake—that is what it means to live in the promise, where the wait itself is as rich as its end. All it takes are some regular reminders, because as long as the promise is renewed, the promise is alive, as vivid as a rainbow, as real as the million stars overhead.” And, I would add, as real as any baby.
Our most prominent stained-glass window (above my head) is the moment of this promise: Mary and the infant Jesus. We are to be Christmas Christians in a world that descends into darkness, and we proclaim that darkness does not have the last word . . . because we carry in our hearts the incarnate miracle and the living power of God’s promise. May it be so. Amen.
Time Magazine, December 24, 1956.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995).