’Twas the Night Before
Isaiah 62; Luke 1:46-55
On Dunder and Blixem! To the top the porch to the top of the wall! Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!
Donder and Blixem? Really? Can’t the preacher even get their names right?
Our Anglicized version is Donner and Blitzen. The German, or Dutch, version was used by the poet who retained the last two reindeer names meaning, Thunder and Lightning.
Whether it was Moore or Livingston, the poem loved by many since 1823 translates parts of a story from the fourth century. A young man’s parents died. He was left with quite a bit of money. Burdened by the sights of those in need, young Nicolas could be found helping with his wealth.
It may be that the Story of the Three Dowrys is the one that eventually captured the imagination of a young poet some 1500 years later. After all, down a chimney? Really? The story goes there was a man with three daughters. Their poverty was so great they would never marry. Learning their situation, young Nicolas gave them three bags of gold coins. The father protested the gesture after the first two and that led to young Nicolas tossing a bag on the roof plunging it through the chimney into the stockings that were drying by the fire.
The period in which young Nicolas lived it was against the law to be Christian. Not long after the law changed, Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra and the stories of St. Nicolas took on a life of their own.
Thunder and lightning.
I could not help but think of the Sons of Thunder whose mother requested that her sons get to sit on Jesus’ right hand and left hand. Thunder. The noise making sound that follows lightning.
When Dan Reynolds, lead singer of Imagine Dragons, decided to tell his own story of pain and depression, he included a song about his long desire to make some noise. The title of the song? Thunder.
In a driving beat, Reynolds put his memories to lyrics. I admittedly took some liberties with the way the lyrics show up in the song.
I was lightning before thunder.
Not content to ride in the back seat, Reynolds was dreaming of bigger things. Not a yes sir, not a follower, he wanted more than to take a number and a seat in the foyer.
Who did he think he was?
He was lightning before thunder. And now, those who were laughing in his classes found he had been scheming for the masses. Dreaming big. No riding in the backseat, he’s smiling from the stage while others are clapping in the nosebleed seats.
He was lightning before thunder.
Somewhere between the night before you could say that God planned lightning. It wasn’t so much a dream as it was his own gift. We have told the story of Jesus associated with Christmas to the point that we have decided Jesus was God’s gift to us! But, that is our projecting onto the story; a way to make the story about us.
The Story of Christmas is a story about God. To make the story about us is to miss the thunder. Maybe the reason some early Christians did not like Christmas and chose to celebrate the day before was that the day had become a day about us, about human beings.
However, the story of Christmas is about God. It is the story that points out just how bad human beings missed what God is like. How we got God wrong. It is part of the story we do not want to admit. We like the tinsel and the bows. Tarnish Christmas with the truth about us and we just might have to renounce what it has become until we get God right.
But, we won’t get God right projecting on to God what we think we need. We will only get God right when we take God revealed in Jesus for what is right about God.
And what is right about God?
Take the lightning.
The prophet Isaiah declared a word from God for God that the devastation created by a combination of unfaithfulness and judgment for ignoring the people among them considered marginal – widows, orphans, and immigrants, even refugees, would be turned around. In words clearly pointing out how occupation works, that is when a foreign power is in control, someone is always benefiting from your hard labor.
The LORD has sworn with his right hand and his strong arm:
I will no longer give your grain to your enemies for food, and foreigners will not drink the new wine for which you have labored.
For those who gather grain will eat it and praise the LORD, and those who harvest grapes will drink the wine in my holy courts.
It wasn’t just about ridding the land of the oppressor,
Look, the LORD has proclaimed to the ends of the earth, “Say to Daughter Zion: Look, your salvation is coming, his wages are with him, and his reward accompanies him.”
And they will be called the Holy People, the Lord’s Redeemed: and you will be called Cared For, A City Not Deserted.
Do you catch it? The lightning is the description of what God will do. The thunder is the noise that erupts at what God has done. The story is about God and it takes in people.
But, often before the thunder, there is the before. It is found in the then. Lightning then thunder. You have listened before. Once you made the connection between lightning and thunder you noticed that the further away from the lightning the longer the delay in the thunder.
The then, the before the celebration, the praise, may be described as the night before.
Somewhere it is always the night before.
Power may not return to Puerto Rico until next May.
You recall the images from the destruction after hurricane Maria. The news just in time for Christmas? 70% of Puerto Rico is still in the dark. Christmas is one of the longest-running festivities on the Island.
Scenes of apocalyptic horror roll up on shore. Diesel generators create air quality concerns. Clean water remains a constant need.
Separated by more than two thousand years and a different cause, Israel after the exile in Babylon could well be imagined by considering the conditions in Puerto Rico.
No matter the preparations the night before, escaping Maria was not an option for the island.
No matter the warnings the night before, escaping the fist of Babylon was not an option for the nation not much larger than an island.
Those words of Isaiah, words that were more than Isaiah’s. They were God’s words to a people who returned home to unexpected devastation. They had been warned. Judgment fell.
No amount of preparation could ease the blow of what they would see, think, and hear from their enemies.
Somewhere it is always the night before.
No matter the cause, the correlation is the same. It is always the night before for nations, people, families, and individuals. We feel the devastation and the pain just the same. Always.
And when the weight of the world gone wrong comes to bear on us we feel empty, darkness and out of shape.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters.
The conditions out of which the voice of God spoke have been described as chaotic – Formless. Empty. Darkness. God’s calling creation into being could well be considered a birth story.
Fast forward to young Mary.
Israel is now occupied territory, again. For those who view their land as an identity marker, occupation may well be worse than exile. Sure they looked at the Temple as a reminder of God’s presence. They could worship with a degree of non-interference. But, they were ruled by others, by Rome.
Poverty reached nearly everyone one.
And here we are. Israel under Rome is formless, empty and dark. Occupied countries fit formless as they are subject to the ruling power. They are empty, often finding little hope. Darkness overwhelms.
Out of those conditions as a people and as individuals, Mary is visited with news she would experience the power of the Spirit of God. She would be overshadowed by the Most High. This is lightning before thunder.
And the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.
We cannot but help making the connection that God intends to do what he spoke of through the prophet Isaiah,
You will be called Cared For, A City Not Deserted.
Before we make haste to Luke 2 and the thunder, we need to hear the lightning.
His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear him.
He has done a mighty deed with his arm; he has scattered the proud because the thoughts of their hearts;
he has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.
He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he spoke to our ancestors.
The Good News is that those who have not been cared for will be. And, it will come at a cost. And this is how we know we may have gotten God wrong. While we are busy giving and receiving gifts, those for whom Mary’s words apply take in those who have no gifts to give and none to receive.
Those in Mary’s song are those who are rescued from those . . . well . . . like us. Those of us who think Christmas is about one more gift for us.
The Good News of Christmas may be Bad News. That is if we persist in thinking that Christmas is about our own lightning before thunder. If what we hope for is what we put on our list, confident someone will give it to us.
We fit Paul’s description, “professing themselves wise, they became fools.”
And, the Good News, the really Good News, is that despite our getting God wrong, God got us right. On our every night before, God comes to us, not we to him. Jesus came to us having renounced that for which we aspire. God came in weakness while we put on our facades of strength.
God came to us and was not on our list. That is lightning.
God loves us. That is thunder.
The angels announced the thunder . . .
I proclaim Good News of great joy that will be for all people; Today in the City of David a Savior was born for you, who is Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger.
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to people.
*I often have a manuscript available but do not always read it. It is part of my preparation. There may have been slight additions to the preached version.