PROMISE: BEYOND NAUGHTY OR NICE
Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Luke 21: 25-36
Things this Christmas won’t be like earlier Christmases. I heard myself say that this summer. Chris and Amanda had been with us last Christmas and will be with her family in Philadelphia this Christmas. Matt and Vicki will spend Christmas morning with her family, and Brian will spend Christmas morning with his family. So, for the first time, it will just be Jenny, and Mary Ann and me. Some cherished family traditions will not happen; some will change; and is it even possible that something new will come in the void of missing people? Do any of you wonder that? Do you wonder what Christmas will be like without your husband, or your wife? Do you wonder what it will be like without a child who is away at school, away in the service, away with friends, or away in Heaven? Or will Christmas be different because there is a new mix of presents around the tree; a new group of people at the table, or a new place that you call home? God’s promise through Jeremiah is not just that hearts will change, and that God will be with them: it is also that as our world is shaken to its foundation, God’s grace and righteousness will redeem it. And God will not forsake you. Is it possible that there is learning to be done in this season when all we really want is for Christmas to be like it used to be, or at least the way our minds remember it?
A week ago I was up in the Atlanta area for my doctoral work. Jenny is also training for the ministry there and was a good tour guide. Two Saturdays ago we drove around the city and stopped for me to experience a store called Trader Joes. Next door to Trader Joes was a store that Emily, Jenny’s friend, said we really needed to see. In we went. I was immediately immersed in this nostalgia variety store. It was like my days growing up with a 5 & 10 cent store, except the prices are higher now! There were authentic Radio Flyer tricycles and sleds! There were the doll sets my sisters used to play with and the Tinker Toys and Tonka trucks our children used to have. I went to the bookshelf and was whisked back in time: There were the books I used to read with my mother: “A Hole is to Dig,” “Make Way for Ducklings” and, one of my favorites, “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.” He was so cool that he named his steam shovel- her name was –yep: Mary Anne! Cowboys named their horses! Mike Mulligan named his earth moving equipment! I had stepped into a rosy snapshot of Christmases long ago, perhaps even memories that conveniently left out tears, tension, or the discomfort of having so many family members sleeping all over one house. My mind didn’t want to remember that part: just the good parts. And then, in the middle of my nostalgic wonderland, I was struck with reality. Jenny’s cell phone rang, and the color drained from her face; She sat on a little wooden chair three sizes too small as news was related to her: a Presbyterian Missionary staying at the Mission Haven Home named David Knauert, at age thirty-eight, a runner and the picture of health, with a wife and four small children who was to take the Gospel message to Brazil starting in December, fell over dead on his morning run. Later tests indicated were inconclusive about the cause: possibly an aneurysm. The Columbia students and faculty knew and loved this family. Professors rushed to be with his wife; students prayed and cried; later a casserole brigade was started but before that, students rotated their time babysitting the children and comforting them. It was amazing to see a Christian community—other than our own—go to work. Bell-like passages from the New Testament tolled in my head: “You know not the day or the hour when I am coming;” and “They will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud of power.” David and his family were one hundred percent devoted to Jesus. His children, without protest, were going on this new adventure, leaving behind their school and their friends. David, it seemed to me, would not have feared the warnings Jesus gave in Luke 21. His life was turned over to his Lord. I wondered if David saw Jesus on the clouds of Heaven as he journeyed from this world to the next. I wondered if he saw stars, or if the sky passed under his feet. Things this Christmas won’t be like earlier Christmases. What parts of God’s promise will be real for the Knauert family this year? And who among us won’t look at those we love and say the words we’ve been meaning to say, or show the love we’ve been meaning to show? “O God help us in this and every time of need! Remember your promise to us!”
Yet some things about Christmas will continue: they have to do with faith, hope, love, and promise. They have to do with story, and community, and the Christ child. This Christmas will still have our modern prophets sharing their stories on film and in print, like Charles Dickens and Charles Schulz, but Christmas won’t be the same. It will be beyond naughty or nice. Ebenezer Scrooge will tell us once again (this year even in Disney 3-D) that our lives are to be about “keeping Christmas all year long.” Linus will once again clutch his blanket on earth’s stage and remove his thumb long enough to be a prophet of Good News, reciting the Christmas story. People from pulpits will again go against the commercial grain of Rudolph and point to sheep; will point to the Bethlehem baby instead of the ones in toy stores; to a young mother instead of Barbie; and to an enemy of goodness named Herod instead of Darth. Yet the litany will continue: children will still want toys, mothers will still want their children home, and service men and women will still be home for Christmas, if only in their dreams.
There is a reminder this time of year; a reminder and a rebirth: We are definitely people of God’s promise: in all of the darkness, and the shaking of our familiar or nostalgic foundations, we will groan with the earth over lost natural resources; we may groan with the poor and sick over health care needs; we may groan with those who are comfortable over stock market losses; but at Christmas we groan also with the Virgin Mother, who after saying “yes” to God, became great with child. It is Luke who will bring us the never-changing scene: the one that is at the heart of our Christmas carols and cantatas; our Christmas plays and tableaus; the one that is at the heart of that Holy Night. Before we get to the birth, we have to prepare our often rough, sometimes dirty, and sometimes hard hearts as if they were to be the manger bed of our Lord again. Will you treat Christmas this year as if it will be like Christmases past? Or has life … or death … changed the season for you this year? Like David Knauert, we know the date of Christmas, but we do not know the day of his coming … or of our going. I wonder: what will you say to others? I wonder: what will you pray to God?
Jeffrey A. Sumner