From Humbug to Hallelujah! "A Christmas Surprise at the End of Your Rope"

The end of our rope. The end of the world as we know it. That's what the weather forecast sounded like Thursday night. All of us were in dread. Except for my son the Assistant Principal. He called to say he was going to bed in his flannels, with the shirt on backwards, the agreed formula among his Middle Schoolers to induce maximal snowstorms from heaven! Friday, I shoveled off 1.5" of slush and went about my day. Surprise, surprise. 'End of your rope. Doesn't that sound like where you live, where we all live a lot of the time. And we're not just talkin' weather.

Eleven AM Friday, Greg called. I confirmed him at 12. He's now 38. He barely said hello and then began to reach up from the end of his rope. He went on to say he and his wife and his 3 kids, 15 down to 6, got tough news 4 weeks ago. His wife was diagnosed with MS. But after 2 weeks they were coping. That was when she suffered a stroke. 'Home from the hospital a week. Their daughter came in from the store to see her mom in seizure with her second stroke in 2 weeks. Greg's just holdin' on. He called to ask why!

In this room are broken hearts and dreams. Yes, breaking homes too. Yet we're asked to sing, "Deck the halls… 'tis the season to be jolly." Some of us can be excused not really joining in this season. We need a knot in the end of our rope. And it's hard to imagine Louis Armstrong singin' "Christmas time in Old New Orleans" this year! It's just hard to imagine singing across much of Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. At least from Israel to Pakistan the suicide bombers are at it. There are teachers, women and men, on spectacular trial for intimacy with their students. At least one prominent TV preacher was on this week explaining (as they have all my life) how selected verses of The Revelation of John are here and Armageddon is around the corner. I may not know much, waiting for December 25th. But I know this. We need a Christmas surprise at the end of our rope. And we shall have it!

Love is the big surprise from heaven to earth. The power of it, especially when we're at the end of our rope. I'm not sure whether to begin with a word from the prophet Isaiah or the words God gave Gabriel to give to Mary. Maybe it doesn't matter. The message is the same. God comes to us here on this earth when, together or personally, we're at the end of our rope. And he comes with extraordinary power. And the will to work all things together for good with those who love him and are called according to his purpose. (The Bible tells me so.) Such love is a shocker, a scandal even, but to those who believe it's the power of God and the wisdom of God. (I Cor. 1) Why, just listen in, and see if this doesn't fit your life, and our world.

Isaiah's was a turbulent time. All things in an uproar. Israel and the city of Jerusalem: laid waste. People had been physically carried off to a foreign land. Nothing was like what they grew up with, expected, wanted. They were losing their grip on so very much. And they felt genuinely powerless to do anything about it. (Sound familiar?) That's really what end of your rope means, by the way. Powerless. Mary, sweet Mary, Gabriel's comin'. 'Comin'just for you. Your town's occupied. 'Governed by people and forces you can't understand and would rather do without. Home heat costs aren't your problem. You'd just like to have heat, come a cold winter night. You're very young. But with feelings for the carpenter in town. Life's confusing, sometimes overwhelming. You face an uncertain future. At any minute you can be swept away, with all your dreams, on somebody else's say so. Teens to aged, lots of us, especially women, can relate. These Bible stories are our story.

And then, along comes heaven to earth. With power! Enough to turn everything upside down. Or maybe, right side up! Surprise! Because Isaiah believes, he can see what others can't. (Get the order right. It's not that seeing is believing; it's that believing is seeing. Open souls open our eyes, not the other way around! Prophets know this.) So he sees God's love has great power. God's love can, and will, bind up the brokenhearted, liberate the captives, open the prisons where even you and I are jailed by whatever locks us up tight. Why, it's time for the Lord's favor! We saw it at Betty's bedside Friday, God's love, powerful enough to comfort all who mourn. A garland (a crown of glory) instead of ashes of agony, the oil of gladness. And, don't you love it, the heart to praise instead of a fainting, sinking spirit. Gabriel goes even farther with Mary. He says to her, by today's standards more down and out than we could possibly imagine, "Hey, you have found favor. Favor mind you, with God! He hasn't just-noticed-you, as you always trusted, but God has a special spot in his loving heart for you! Personally. For Mary, the Christmas surprise at the end of her rope is Christmas itself. And when she shudders at the awe and uncertainty, Gabriel gives the most constant word in all Scripture, "Don't be afraid." God's in control when you're not. You needn't be powerful because God has all the power God needs. And he calls that power love, born-in-a-baby-love! Here's the other surprise. Gabriel meant his message for us, too.

Love's the Christmas surprise. Our part in it. Especially when we're at the end of our rope. Nothing could be clearer in the angel's word to Mary. "God's getting Christmas ready. But you have to bear it into this world." Late breaking news: Mary's not alone in this. It's ours to bear Christmas into today's world too. She had to bear the awkwardness of an unmarried pregnancy in a time when that was literally a capital offense. Her witness of faith was as inescapable as an expanding waistline. (Matthew says Joseph actively considered divorcing her.) She had to endure all the rigors of carrying that baby in a very young body of her own with all that that means. And the labor, the labor was all hers to bear, despite all the shepherds, and angels and wonders we all know and love in the story. A surprise at the end of our rope? You betcha! God's coming with loving power. But we are the ones who bring it to birth. In angel gifts and stockings, maybe, Make-a-Wish, too. But at our tables with our kids and grands. At work, school, when we tell somebody Christmas for us is all about Jesus, not so much about Santa. When we call a Christmas Tree a Christmas Tree, sure, but more, when we call a sin a sin, and a sinner a child of God, and Christ, and Christ alone, the Child who was born to save. Fold your hands, pray your praises. But then roll up your sleeves. Surprise, you and I have a mighty part in parsing out Christmas all year long. Old Isaiah saw the same great truth and called for believers to be oaks of righteousness, that was his version of the Christmas Tree. And with a part in the power of love. That God may be glorified, build up the ancient ruins of bodies and souls. Raise up the devastated. (There's a New Year's resolution for Christmas Christians.) Repair the ruined cities, the devastated across the generations. … Surprise, Surprise, our Christmas work's nowhere near done, just because the cards and the shopping are done! Love made visible, that's the thing.

Love is the Christmas surprise. The promise of it. See, when we're at the end of our rope, Christ comes to show us God is not at end of his. I'm less sure these days which Christmas does most. Excite us, or tire us. I'm aware of those for whom the Christmas color is not green and red, but blue. Miss you blue. Disappointed blue. Too much for me blue. In a fix blue. Grieving blue. Doubting blue. Melancholy blue. I'm out of options, helpless blue. Most of us have tinges of this now and then. Some are crayoned over with it. Well, here's the good news. God's rope is longer than ours. And he is not at the end of his, even if we're at the end of ours. His answer to all our angst, upset and upheaval is not very big. But it is very bold. The very essence of love. And just so we can really get it, you and I, he brings it to us, baby size! What the Christmas song asks Mary, Christmas itself asks us,

Do you know
that this baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Do you know,
that this baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you.
Do you know…
that this baby boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss this little baby, you've kissed the face of God.

The blind will see. The deaf will hear. The dead will live again.
The lame will leap. The dumb will speak the praises of The Lamb.
This sleeping child you're holding, is the great I AM.

In Christ, God is coming, with love and power. And a part for us. And a promise: he is not at the end of his rope. So you can't be at the end of yours either! Surprise! Christmas! Hallelujah!

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