A LICK AND A PROMISE
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist,
and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall feed;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
At the time I went in the hospital a month ago, I had promised a family that I would drop by for a visit. Now, that call got delayed for quite a while, but about three days after getting out of the hospital, I drove out in the country to redeem my promise. I was kinda weak and wobbly at this point, but I figured if I were careful and went slow, I'd be able to do it.
Well, I hadn't been to this place before, so I stopped to check the address in the middle of a country road; discovered that I was where I needed to be, and gently put the car in motion - and promptly hit a mailbox right on the side of the road with my passenger side mirror. And there it lay, in the middle of the road. Ahh, Mannnnn! I cdn't'a been going five miles an hour!
Well, I got out and picked it up and chucked it in the back seat and went on with what I had in hand, but now I had busted mirror to replace.
I checked on-line for what a new mirror would cost - and that was at least 79 bucks – so I decided the thing to do was go to a salvage yard. I called around, and one said, "Yeah, we got those – come on out, take it off the car yourself for $25.00." So there I was, barely a week out of a hospital bed, stumbling around this forty acre lot of wrecked cars -- stacked three high -- looking for a mirror to match mine.
No. Such. Luck.
And I was on the point of making myself order a new mirror – retail – when I had a brain wave. I went down to the hardware store, and bought me some JB Weld & Gorilla Tape – and y'know what? That mirror looks just fine, back on my car door – and it only cost me fourteen bucks. (Now, on a NEW car, I might'nt'a done that – but on a car with over 260,000 miles, it's good enough.)
And the point of this story is, We live in a Make-Do world: a world of compromise and adjustment; a world where sometimes all we can manage – even on things we really care about – is a lick and a promise.
People get sick. Cars get wrecked. Fires and floods and stuff happen. And plans get delayed, money's got to be found, things you really wanted have to be set aside for a while. And it's not just bad things that do this to us – it's good things, too. You were gonna remodel the kitchen - and then a baby decided to come along (oops). Or you were planning for a trip to Europe – but you fell in love & got married instead [pointing to self].
Choices are forced upon us at the most inconvenient times. Not just having to choose between a good alternative and a bad one – those are EASY choices; for that matter, choosing between two bad choices isn't too hard - you just hold your nose and just take the least bad alternative. But what's really, really hard is choosing between two or more GOOD alternatives, where you can only do ONE but not both.
Life is not a smooth lake to be crossed by gentle paddling. Life is a heaving sea with currents and rocks and a gale blowing half the time. It's hard to make out of Life what you want. And if you're too tender-hearted, it'll break your heart with disappointments.
On the other hand, you might be the hard-boiled type – the perfectionist – who has a specific picture in mind that you are determined to make your life match: the perfect wedding; the perfect home; that portrait of the perfect family; the perfect career.
Lots of people carry these pictures around in their heads, y'know. Years ago, I was talking with an 11-yr-old Boy Scout: we were working on Family Living Skill Award, and I asked him, "What is a family?" And he said, "I dunno -- I guess a mom, a dad, two kids, and a dog in a house with a picket fence." Well, knowing that this boy was an only child of a divorced mother who lived in a trailer, I said, "Does that describe YOUR family?" "Well, no," he said, "although we do have a dog."
People get very attached to those pictures, and they try to make their lives match their dreams. And if they can't, they feel like a failure for not measuring up to those pictures they carry around in their heads. And if that's you – and you're not able to deal with the ambiguity and lack of closure and sudden shifts of fortune that life entails - you're going to have a hard fight, and it's all too likely that you're going to make yourself miserable doing it – as well as everybody else, too (I speak as a recovering perfectionist, here).
As the old motto has it, Everything takes longer than expected; everything costs more than advertised; nothing looks like the catalog photo when you actually accept delivery. That's just life as we live it. Some people struggle against it, and some give up and just drift. But in a world where all you may be able to deliver is a lick and a promise, you'd better make your first effort a pretty good one, ‘cause it may be a while before you get back to it. And this is the world into which the Son of God was born.
Now God, we are told, is perfect – and unchanging. He lives in eternity, and his will is his deed, instant in the achievement and JUST AS HE IMAGINED IT. He cannot be frustrated in any of his endeavors. So here God is born into his own world of sudden changes and compromise, and is made subject to the same conditions that you and I must abide.
Mary and Joseph's plans are turned upside down by the angel's sudden announcement, and they are just getting life sorted out again in Nazareth when the Emperor demands that they travel to Bethlehem for a tax census, just at the most inconvenient time of Mary's pregnancy. On that trip, they don't even get to Joseph's relatives before they are forced to stop, and the child is born in a shelter for animals at – not an inn, as we think of one (a hotel), but probably just a caravanserai – the First Century equivalent of a truck stop – where merchants and pilgrims gather to water their animals, get directions, and take care of details. And finally, when they get that all sorted out, before they can get back to Nazareth, here come the Wise Men, and right behind them the hatred of King Herod, whose violent response to the child's birth forces them to become refugees in Egypt.
Now think of that. What does Perfect Being look like in a life of hustle and hardscrabble? How does the Almighty and the Unchanging express himself when he must live as one who is powerless and subject to whim and happenstance? When the Lord of Righteousness must live in a world of compromise (including moral compromise), what is the result? That is what intrigues me: not how can God love his wayward creation, but how can the Creator live as one of his own creatures, and what does that mean for us?
Well, if a lick and a promise is all that you get done sometimes, then it must be said that the licks that Jesus made and the promise that he gave are what give hope to this world. We look at his life, and we see there someone who was subject to all the stresses and problems that we are, who nevertheless made his way directly to his goal, without compromise and without making himself crazy; who managed to live with the almosts and might-have-beens and yet not be limited by them; someone who lived amid evil and did business with ordinary folk – and yet without sin. Even his death – terrible as it was to his friends – he accepted as being a thing that must be done, and "he set his face to go to Jerusalem."
In his short life, he showed that IT COULD BE DONE: the life we desire can be lived. And despite all fear, all disappointment, all sorrow, his resurrection showed that IT WILL BE DONE: in this life, or in life beyond this life. God's will cannot be frustrated, and his love will overcome all the obstacles that perplex us.
And the fulfillment he brings is not some static picture, some final achievement, to be hung on a wall and admired. The fact that the Son of God is also the Son of Man means that eternity and time are reconciled, that ambiguity and certainty are resolved, that (as Dame Julian of Norwich said so long ago), "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." Jesus is not only our hope for eternal life, but for this life, too – this life that he showed us how to live.
The star that guided the wise men to Jesus shone for a time, and then was gone. But Jesus Christ remains the star of our lives, the one fixed point of reference in a world where everything changes all the time: he is the one who is "the same yesterday, and today, and forever." And if you set your sights upon him, and make your best possible speed toward his light, then no matter how much you may be carried or pushed or blown off-course by events or this or that pressing need, then he promises that you will find your safe harbor at last – and your whole journey will be worth all the effort to make it.
Set your sights upon any other goal, and maybe you'll get there or maybe not, but when you get there – at the "perfect" house or the "perfect" family or the "perfect" career or the "perfect" record of achievements – it will not satisfy you. For there is nothing beyond such a dream but to hold onto the past that has been finally achieved, and now begins ineluctably to recede from you.
Not that those earthly goals are bad things, or that we should neglect houses or families or jobs – but it is as he said so long ago, "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." And even as we look forward to a union with Christ in a life beyond this life, we nevertheless proclaim that we are joined with him now: in our hearts; and in our relationships with others; and in our worship and our gathering around this table – and the satisfaction and fulfillment that he promises is not only a matter of Some Day, but of this day, and tomorrow, and all the days of our lives. For every day shared with him partakes of his goodness, and we already walk in the borderlands of heaven. And every day is Christmas.