Text: Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20
No jelly! That’s what he said to me. I was in third grade and my brother was a junior in high school. It was Christmas time and my mom had been baking cookies all day. My brother called me over and said, “hey Steve, if you go upstairs, make by bed, and clean up my room, then I’ll give you a big surprise.”
“Really?” I said. “You promise?”
I ran up those stairs so fast. I made his bed just perfect. The room had never looked so good. I got it all done and then ran down the stairs. I couldn’t wait to see the surprise.
“Alright, Jim, I finished. Where’s my surprise?”
His hands were behind his back, so I knew it had to be something great. I could hardly wait.
“uh huh.” I was busting out of my skin.
He pulled his hands out from behind his back.
Now I have to stop for a moment. I mentioned that my mom had been baking cookies all day, right? Do you all know what a thumb print cookie is? It’s one of those cookies that starts out as a ball and then you press a little dip into it with your thumb. When you bake it the cookie hardens and you have a little dish. You’re supposed to put jelly or something like that in it.
I love thumb print cookies.
Back to my brother. He pulls his hands out from behind his back and in each one he holds a thumb print cookie. Empty.
And then, with all the enthusiasm of a game show host, he shouts, “Surprise, NO JELLY!”
What? That was my surprise? I went ballistic on him.
“But, you promised!”
To this day, in my family, if you want to allude to disappointment, deception, or broken promises, just say, “NO JELLY!” and everyone knows what you mean.
It’s Christmas and we’re talking about the Christmas Promise. On a day like today, in a crowd like this, I’d be willing to bet that there are some of us who might think of Christmas like “no jelly.”
Christmas promises us all kinds of things. Joy, hope, peace on earth, good will toward men.
It is a time when everyone is supposed be nice and families are supposed to get together and the light of the family hearth is supposed to push back the darkness.
I wonder. Do you ever feel like Christmas is a whole lot of promise without much jelly? Here it is. Christmas Eve. You’ve been running at full throttle all month; ever since Black Friday Eve (you know, that holiday we used to call Thanksgiving). You’ve been shopping, sending Christmas cards, attending holiday parties, wrapping gifts, baking cookies, shopping some more, and now you have 14 people coming to the house and you’re just hoping that the in-laws don’t get into a fight again this year.
You’ve had too much sugar, the dog got into the fudge and made a mess on the carpet that you just had cleaned, and the kids are already whining about wanting to open all their presents tonight, and you’re already dreading going to the return isle on Monday.
Is this really the Christmas Promise?
I think part of the reason we feel a little let down about the Christmas Promise is because, well, maybe we’ve lost sight of what the promise really is. Sometimes we feel like these guys. We three kings disoriented are. We’re wandering around, wondering what all the fuss is.
What was the promise, anyway? We need to roll back the video tape a few hundred years to understand this. We read the words of Isaiah earlier. Isaiah was a preacher who lived about 700 years before the time of Jesus in the city of Jerusalem. The people of Jerusalem were suffering. Their cousins to the north, in the Kingdom of Israel, were being massacred by the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians were threatening to invade Jerusalem, too. The people were terrified, hungry, and oppressed.
God promised the people of Jerusalem, through Isaiah, that God would not abandon them. They would suffer for a while, but, eventually, God would bring them a Messiah. A Messiah was an anointed one; a man who would be the ruler of Israel and lead the people into a time of peace. He would be a great king and they would call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah went on to say in 7:14 (NRSV)
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
700 years later a nobody little carpenter named Joseph from Nazareth had a dream. In that dream an angel said about his fiancé, Mary,
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” Matthew 1:23 (NRSV)
God with us.
That is the promise.
Sometimes I think we might fall into the trap of “No Jelly” because we get this turned around in our minds. I call it Holiday Dyslexia. We think it says Us with God.
After all, what would you expect if you were the people in Jerusalem, suffering at the hands of your enemies. Their idea of rescue was to have a superhero king come in and blast out all the bad guys and make everything perfect. They thought it was about using violence to end violence.
Sometimes we think that salvation is about God swooping in and snatching us up out of this cesspool of humanity, punishing all the evil doers, and taking us to the perfect mansion in the sky.
Or we think that being a Christian is all about being happy all the time. Maybe that’s why we work so hard at Christmas time to make everything perfect. We think that is what it is supposed to be. Perfect.
Look at the distorted promise for a second. That is a promise of Escape. That is us with God.
When we look around and realize that the world seems just as messed up and painful as it ever was, then, obviously, God has not kept his promise. We either think that God didn’t, or can’t keep his promise, or we reduce God’s promise to some kind of fire insurance plan where the Good News is just about escaping pain or Hell when you die. As if it is all about escaping life.
But, that’s not the promise God made. God said the son shall be called Immanuel. God with Us.
The Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace wasn’t going to swoop in and use violence to end violence. He wasn’t going to snap his fingers and magically make everything perfect.
He was going to give up all the riches and power and glory of being God and become like one of us. He was going to show us that the only way to end violence and hatred and war and famine was through humility, compassion, and sacrificial love, and he was going to show us how to live like that.
This is a promise of Embrace. This is God with Us.
The apostle Paul said it this way in his letter to the church in Phillipi.
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5–8 (NRSV)
The promise is that God is with us, in real life. Joseph bore the shame of his fiancé getting pregnant.
Mary screamed in labor. Jesus was poor and the manger was surrounded by sheep and cow manure.
It was raw. It was real. It was a lot like our lives.
The Christmas Promise is that God is with us, right where we are.
I want to leave you with a story that I heard many years ago. It talks about why this is so important.
One Christmas, several years ago, a family was preparing for the Christmas Eve service, save the man of the house. He never really understood the reason for the season and refused to attend worship services at the local church. Each year his wife would round up her children and take them to the service on December 24, but her husband was a no-show.
This particular year, after the family had driven off to the church service, the man prepared a cup of hot tea, turned on the light by his favorite chair, and settled himself by the picture window to read the newspaper. A winter storm began to blow and he comforted himself in the thought that his family had taken the better car to the church building.
His reading was interrupted by a banging at the picture window. Though he saw no one outside the window, he continued to hear an occasional thud. Then he realized that some small birds were caught in the storm, and were flying into the window in a vain attempt to enter the warm room where he sat.
The man looked out the window at the blowing snow and the birds fluttering in a dazed condition on the ground. The man wondered why these little creatures did not fly to a warm nest or some place out of the wind. Then he remembered the old barn.
This barn was in poor condition, but the lights still worked and the old wooden walls would provide some protection from the fierce winds. If the man could get the birds into the barn, they could survive the storm.
The man bundled up against the strong gusts and headed out the back door of the house. He struggled through growing drifts and biting cold to reach the barn door. With difficulty he opened the door and turned on the light. But the birds did not notice the new refuge. They continued to fly against the picture window.
Trying to get the birds into the barn became a fixation for the man. He tried to shoo the birds into the barn, but they merely scattered to various trees. Next he tried a trail of bread crumbs from the window into the barn, but the crumbs promptly blew away in the wind. He sprinkled some grain near the door of the barn, but the snow quickly covered the seed.
Finally the man lamented, “If only I could become a bird. If I were one of these little ones, I could lead them to a safe place. I could save them if I was one of them.” The bells of the old church began to chime, marking the end of the evening service. As the peal of the bells reached his ears, the man understood what Christmas was. God tried to save man by His laws, by His priests, and by His prophets. The people He had created merely scattered before Him. Finally He became one of them, in the person of Jesus, to lead His creation to safety.
The little baby Jesus grew up to be a man. He showed us the ways of God. He died for our sin. He conquered death. Just before he left he made us another promise. He said, “I will be with you always.”
When God makes a promise, he doesn’t pull a fast one on us.
He doesn’t say, “No Jelly.”
He always comes through. Immanuel is not just the baby in the manger. Through the Holy Spirit of God we have Immanuel always.
Merry Christmas and God be with you.