A Stew Pot
One of the more frequently visited proverbs of my childhood came to me from my mother. “A stew pot never boils,” she would say. I felt what it meant long before I actually understood it. Explanation of the phrase came in its fuller version: “A stew pot never boils when watched.”
It is true. Guilty as charged. All I could do was watch the proverbial pot. Thoughts of company’s soon arrival simmered in my adrenaline-pumping heart. Up and down the stairs I would march. To each room at the front of the house I would shuffle, pulling back curtains hoping to catch the first glimpse of our guests. Maybe one windowpane works better than another? Maybe if I look out of each window in the house they will come faster? In nice weather, I cut a groove in the sidewalk with my bicycle. Sidewalk strategy catalogued recipes for these childish, half-baked superstitions. Surely touching one more square of sidewalk with the front tire will bring our visitors to my house now. Anxious. Waiting. Watching. Stewing.
On the threshold of the holidays, many await the arrival of family. As the day nears, tension builds. You work, you watch, and you wait. Decorations get draped; festive food gets prepared. But all is not right until your company comes. Family stuffs the turkey with real meaning.
The beep of a car horn in the driveway interrupts the silence. Your doorbell rings, and gift-toting visitors tumble out of their cars into your world. Life couldn’t be better. Finally, the universe’s synapses connect. The long-anticipated ones have arrived. Simmering yearnings now boil with the din of delight, as family members crowd your living room with their presence and their presents.
But the crumble of the all-is-now-right-with-my-universe fortress does not delay. The sight of Aunt Mollie and Uncle Hank jolts you back to reality with Richter-scale force. Oh, yes. It is good to see them, but not so good to hear them. Aunt Mollie chomps like a stump grinder when she eats, and Uncle Hank tells his same mindless and often crude jokes. Blessed Mollie hasn’t finished crushing more than two carrots when Hank jumps in, “Did you hear the one about ….?”
“Yes, Uncle Hank, we heard that one last year and the year before.” You plead as vainly as you do longingly. You can neither stop Mollie’s munch nor Hank’s juvenile jests.
Cousin Liza’s certain droning soon surfaces by the Christmas tree. Yes, yes. Liza has a boyfriend—a new one… again. This time, she insists, it’s different. He’s really a good guy—“totally unlike” Frank, Johnny, Blitz, and… oh, what was that other buffoon’s name…? Liza can’t help herself. This new guy will succeed either on the golf circuit or on Wall Street. You glibly utter assurances that you hope he will.
“So, who did you vote for this year, Hank?” blurts your other not-to-be ignored uncle. Well, he’s not really your uncle, but that’s what everyone calls Aunt Cindy’s third husband Jerry’s tag-along cousin Tripp. It usually takes Tripp no more than one sip of eggnog to turn Christmas into a global warming symposium. Not to disappoint, Tripp doesn’t give Hank even a moment to answer the electoral question. “Did you know that for the last 100 years the temperature in Spokane has changed by…” Whatever the digit is this year, it’s different than last. Not sure what to believe about a warming earth, you now get a burning reminder to spend Christmas worrying about it.
You look at your watch. It seems frozen. The family has been here only an hour. Suffocating your prior eagerness, a damp cloud of impatience has descended. The warmth of family seems far less cozy than it did for the first ten minutes.
Tripp’s tirade, Liza’s lilting, Hank’s brain-draining jokes, and Mollie’s stump grinding make your crumbled Christmas already seem interminable. You find yourself wanting peace and quiet. Even loneliness would descend as a preferable companion. Would someone please dismiss us in prayer?
If you are like many, so go Christmas celebrations. The anticipation handily beats the actual arrival. Prior eagerness awkwardly descends into a not so gentle realization: your guests’ departure will be sweeter than their arrival. It was good to see them come. It will be great to see them go.
Christmas Does Not Disappoint
But there is good news at Christmas, great news—news that changes everything, even your assessment of family and family time. Not all Christmas anticipation ends in disappointment. In fact, Christmas triumphs over each and every discontent. Why? Because in Christmas God has visited his people. His arrival changes Christmas, because his appearance actually was Christmas.
And at this first Christmas, John the Baptist’s dad offers a gripping account of godly Christmas anticipation and divine delivery. Christmas—the very first one—brings the Redeemer, the Cure of fallenness and brokenness—our very own sinfulness and that of our families. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68). The first Christmas propels Zechariah God-ward. It must do the same for us.
Zechariah’s announcement comes after millennia of waiting. In fact, he views the arrival of Christ as the Answer to the 2000-year-old covenant made with Abraham (vv. 72–73). Generations of God’s people had awaited the visitation of God for their redemption. Zechariah bursts forth in doxology, because now God has made his most astounding visit.
Visitation itself was nothing new. God had visited his people in the past. He had come to Adam and Eve. He had come to Abraham. He had come to Moses at Mount Sinai. He even dwelt among his wilderness people in fire and in cloud. At Solomon’s temple, he descended and entered the Holy of holies. God came to his people in the Word he gave the prophets. He came to his people with promise and provision. He came to his people with real deliverance.
The Final Visit
But each of these prior visitations lacked finality; each of these visitations offered real blessing, but at the same time delivered restlessness for the coming time of God’s fullest presence. None of these earlier visits were the visit. In the days of old, visits of God pointed to the final visit, his final Word, who would take up permanent residence. And in his final visit, God came to stay. As Jesus’ name “Immanuel” attests, “God with us” was with them. “God with us” is with us now.
In his charge as resurrected Son of God in power (Matt. 28:20; cf. Rom. 1:4), Jesus made plain his residential commitments: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus visited and he had come to stay. And so the life of his brothers and sisters never functions without the sweet presence of their Elder Brother. Jesus has sent his Spirit of adoption, by which we cry “Abba, Father!” (Rom. 8:15). Jesus has given us bold access to his Father, telling us that through him we can pray, “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing, because we are with Christ, and he is in us. He is our life (Col. 3:1–4), our hope, and our glory. His life-giving, redeeming visit never ends. No wonder Zechariah celebrated. What a visit!
Even when Jesus was about to ascend to heaven to “go and prepare a place for you” (John 14:2), he explained that his departure ensured his presence. This ostensibly strange promise was no crafty equivocation or some enigmatic wordplay. For Jesus to be with all of his people, he must send his Spirit. And so he did. “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7 ESV).
As the one who has taken up residence with his people by his Spirit, Jesus provides the sweetest ongoing care. He prays for us. He protects us. He goes with us—in front of us, behind us, beside us, and beneath us. David asks, “Where can I go from your Spirit?” (Psalm 139) Answer? Nowhere. Jesus is with his people.
He departed bodily in order to dwell with all of his people by his very own Spirit. So, Acts 2 records the outpouring of Christ’s Spirit on the various peoples, ensuring the universality of Jesus’ presence. Abraham’s global blessing (Gen. 12:1–3) arrives in the outpouring of the Spirit of Christ. Jesus’ residence was not local. It was global. His residence was not ethnic; it was international. His residence was not temporary; it was permanent. Thanks be to God.
Jesus’ visit delivers immeasurable worth for us. In his permanent visit, he rescues us. Each of us receives the welcome Visitor, who by his Spirit, gives us the privilege of intimate access to the Father. He has made us his brothers and sisters, and he is not ashamed to call us such (Heb. 2:10–18) before us and before his Father. Jesus unashamedly produces a glorious family. No embarrassment, no guilt, no familial dysfunction is beyond the scope of his mighty power to save.
The historic stewpot finally boiled. His visit changes everything. Its power and permanence change everything for us forever. Anticipation turned to arrival, and the Arriver did not disappoint because he cannot disappoint. Immanuel has come. He visits us with redemption, and because he has given himself—sacrificed, risen, and glorified—for sinners, there is no disappointment for the redeemed. Ever. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68).