A Love Worth Waiting For
December 6, 2015
Back at Christmas in 1974, a sociologist at Brigham Young University in Utah decided to conduct an interesting experiment. His name was Phillip Kunz. That year, Kunz decided to see what would happen if he and his wife sent Christmas Cards to complete strangers. In turn, the Kunz family sent out 600 Christmas Cards to people that they did not know at all. Each card contained a handwritten note and a photo of their family. Then, they sat back and waited.
During that bizarre Christmas of 1974, the Kunz family received more cards than they had ever received up until that point. In the weeks leading to the Christmas of 1974, cards came to the Kunz home by the dozens literally every day. They arrived in all shapes and sizes and they came from complete strangers.
What was humorous about it all was the fact that many of the senders wanted the Kunz clan to know how much they thought of them, how much they appreciated their family and they sometimes even sent along little updates about what was happening in their own lives. Some of the cards included pictures of family members, photos of new homes and recent graduates. A few even included a personal note such as one that said, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Years, love Lou, Bev and the children.
Why did Phillip Kunz conduct his crazy Christmas card experiment? Remember, Kunz was a sociologist at Brigham Young. What he wanted to investigate was whether or not total strangers, having received an unexpected Christmas card from his family, would feel a sense of obligation to send a card in return. What he discovered was that most of them most certainly did feel such a need.
The big fancy word here is the term reciprocity. Reciprocity describes our deep sense that we have an obligation to return to others the same favors that they offer to us. And, we see a lot of this at Christmas time. If someone gives us a gift, we feel obligated to get one for them. If someone sends us a Christmas card, we feel that we should return the favor. If someone spends $75 on us then our nagging sense becomes that $35 spent on them may simply not be enough. If someone invites us over for cake and coffee during the holidays then by golly by the end of January, we need to find a time to invite them into our own homes for a visit.
All of these ideas are built off our very human notion of how we display our love and affection for one another. Our sense is that we communicate how we feel for others by making sure that we match their care for us in a tit for tat manner. As a result, when others don’t match our affection at all or in a timely manner, our sense is that they no longer care about us. Further still, this sense of reciprocity even exists in how we feel day-by-day and moment-by-moment about God.
If we have shown our affection to God – through being in attendance at church, through faithful giving to the church, through volunteering for committees, by teaching Sunday School, through being faithful in our reading of the bible, or by helping the less fortunate, then we expect something in return. We expect that God will take care us, we expect that our lives will be full of joy that our health will be good, that our children will be safe and that life will fall into place.
As a result, when we don’t sense that God is living up to God’s end of the bargain, and then we began to question what is going on. We do this in a thousand different ways and with numerous questions – I wonder what I did for God to allow this to happen to me? Why does God allow bad things to happen to such good people? Or, why is God absent from my life or not listening to my prayers?
Simply said, when we have been faithful, we expect God to be faithful in return and when we have done what we feel is the loving and Christian thing, we expect God to love us back in equal measure. We expect a God of reciprocity.
Our modern expectations of God are interesting in light of Luke chapter 1. As Tommy mentioned last week, for hundreds of years, there was a sense among the Hebrews that God had been largely absent. The people had lived through the hard years of rebuilding Israel after the exile, the prophetic voice wasn’t as pronounced as it had once been and God had yet to deliver on the promise of a Messiah who would save God’s chosen people. God’s presence had simply not been as pronounced in their lives in a number of generations. This was not how everyone felt, but, this was certainly an overarching feeling that permeates the latter Old Testament and that hovers at the edges as the New Testament begins.
And, yet, what we see at least in the figures of Zechariah as the father of John the Baptist is a breath of fresh air. Zechariah and Elizabeth and others like them seemed to have maintained a strong, strong commitment to God despite this prevailing sense in the culture of God’s absence and quiet.
But how? How did they do it and how can we do the same? Very quickly, let me simply suggest that in Zechariah’s prophetic words of gratitude for what God was going to do through his son John, he exhibits three truths that apparently he and certainly others like him had continued to affirm even in the midst of these years where God seemed more absent than present.
First, Zechariah affirmed that God kept God’s promises. What is profound is that God’s promise of a Messiah had come hundreds of years in the past and yet Zechariah exhibits an attitude here of an unwavering belief that God would be true to this promise.
Here is the point. Whatever God promises is what God will do – period. If God promises to love us, God will love us. Is God promises to take care of us; God will take care of us. If God promises to be with us then God will. Sure, in our limited minds and in our narrow perspective, we may doubt. And, sure, there are people in all of our lives who will say that all of this is ridiculous. But, what we perceive and what other people say in the moment, never changes what God is and God is a God who keeps promises. That is clearly what Zechariah believed.
Second, Zechariah affirmed that God was always gracious. Several times in these verses Zechariah is clear that God had been gracious which is to say that God through giving Zechariah a son and through the coming of a Messiah had given what they did not deserve. Zechariah never suggests that the people deserved better or that the Israelites deserved a God who would have acted sooner. No, Zechariah works out of the framework that whatever God provided was above and beyond what was deserved.
Let me just cut to the chase this morning. To say that God is unfair is one of the most ridiculous things that a human being can say. I am going to say that again. No matter what is happening in our lives, to say that God is unfair is one of the most ridiculous statements that we can make. The last thing we want is for God to be fair. None of us get what we deserve in this life and that is a good thing. If we all received what our behavior, our thoughts and our actions merit, we would all be in bad shape. Whether God acts on our time table or twenty years after we think God should have acted or whether God answers our prayers today or never, that doesn’t change the fact that whatever we receive is God’s grace. For all of us, the good far outweighs the bad. For all of us, the very fact that we live and breath today says more about God than us. All of us are here as a result of God’s graciousness not because we deserve it – period.
Third, Zechariah affirmed God acted out of love at all times. What Zechariah was certain of was that God all along had been working behind the scenes out of a love for humanity. They had not seen it, they had not sensed it, they may have doubted it but it didn’t make it any less true. What Zechariah apparently recognized is that we are all like children who are not smart enough to really see the bigger picture. This is true of how we treat each other and how we treat God. And, yet, this doesn’t change how God really is and what God really is doing. God is motived by love for us – always.
Zechariah accepted these things as facts – God keeps promises, is always gracious and always acts out of love. No matter how he sensed God was responding on a given day, it never changed what he believed in his heart. He wasn’t waiting for God to reciprocate daily behavior. That was silly. For in the end he knew that he could never reciprocate who God was in God’s essence every day.
For years, there was an annual gift that I could count on. It came from a man in our community at the time that I barely knew. It wasn’t uncommon for me not to see him at all over the course of a year. But, at Christmas, I would walk into my office and find cookies and a handwritten note. I could count on it like the sun coming up. Despite what I may have perceived from day to day, it didn’t change his feelings, prayers, love or his gift. Those were a certainty despite what I had determined from reading the daily tealeaves.
There are also certainties of God to exist beyond our perception – God does keep promises, God is always gracious, God always loved us. Zechariah took these as the bedrocks of his life and it made all the difference. So should we – not just at Christmas but everyday. Amen.