An Unexpected Fulfillment
Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6, Isaiah 55:8-11
All ministers have great wedding stories, but the best wedding story I have ever heard was told by a minister from Edmonds, WA, named Robert Fulghum. He is the Unitarian minister who wrote the book Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. This story, which I will paraphrase, is from his book It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It.
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The mother of the bride was determined to make this wedding the most memorable wedding anyone ever attended. To accomplish this she hired an eighteen piece brass and wind ensemble to play for the ceremony and reception. There were nine bridesmaids, all outfitted with custom-tailored dresses, and an equal number of groomsmen, all wearing purchased—not rented but purchased—tuxedos. There were also four flower girls, two ring bearers, three simultaneously running video cameras, and enough candles to light a shopping mall.
To be memorable, of course, the wedding had to have a lavish reception, so the mother lined the edges of the beautifully decorated fellowship hall with tables of food. There was only one problem. As the bride waited what seemed like hours for the wedding to begin, she started sampling some of the hors d’oeuvres. First she tried some of the pink, yellow, and green mints. Then she picked through the nuts and ate all the pecans. This was followed by a cheese ball or two, some black olives, a handful of glazed almonds, little sausages on a toothpick, some shrimp wrapped in bacon, and some crackers piled with liver pate. Then to calm her nerves, she chased it all down with a glass of champagne provided by her father.
As the bride came down the aisle what people noticed was not her dress but her face. It was whiter than the dress. She came down the aisle like a living grenade with the pin pulled. When she arrived at the front, she finally threw up. Not a dainty little urp in her handkerchief but a complete hosing of the chancel steps, including the bridal party. All of which was captured from different angles by the three simultaneously running video cameras.
Fortunately, Fulghum said, the story had a happy ending. The wedding guests were dismissed to the fellowship hall. The bride was revived and the wedding party got a chance to clean up. After the chancel steps were scrubbed, everyone came back in, the wedding resumed, and the couple were successfully joined in holy matrimony (pp. 9-15).
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What I found ironic in this story is that the hopes of the bride’s mother were fulfilled. All of the guests agreed it was the most memorable wedding they had ever attended. It just didn’t happen in quite the way the mother had envisioned.
Which brings me to our scripture reading. Isaiah 60 envisions a new day in Israel’s history. Up to this point Israel had been decimated by one foreign army after another. First they were attacked by the Syrians. Then the Assyrians, an even larger empire to the north, conquered over half the territory of Israel, destroying its outlying farms and towns. Then the Babylonians came along, laying siege to the capital city of Jerusalem, finally conquering it in 587 B. C., and taking many of its inhabitants into exile.
But Isaiah 60 dreams of a new day when Israel and the city of Jerusalem would be restored to its former glory. Verse 4: “Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses arms.” This is a picture of the Israelite exiles coming home exile. But notice, it is not Israel’s newly acquired power that brings this about. “Your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.” This is not a picture of Israel’s strength, but of God’s strength, bringing the Israelites home from their captivity.
But it is not just Israel that is affected by this work of God. Verse 3: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” People from all over the world would come to Israel bringing lavish gifts to show their respect to Israel’s God. Verse 6: “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah.” Apparently the camels of Midian were like the BMWs of the ancient world. People from all over the world would bring expensive gifts to Jerusalem in honor of Israel’s God. Verse 6 continues, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
Imagine, all the peoples of Arabia—that is where Midian and Ephah were probably located—imagine all the Arabs bringing lavish presents to Israel in honor of Israel’s God. This is an amazing vision. But it never came even close to happening at any time in Israel’s history.
Except once. One night about 500 years later some Gentile astrologers from the east, possibly from Arabia, came to Jerusalem, most likely on camels. They came because they saw a star. Remember what Isaiah said: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” A light in Israel draws kings from Arabia to come on their camels bearing gifts, including gold and frankincense.
The whole vision is fulfilled. But here is the twist. They present their gifts not to the reigning king of Jerusalem, who would have been King Herod at the time, but to a baby born in a stable whose parents who were refugees. The remarkable vision of Isaiah 60 is fulfilled, right down to the details—a light arising in the sky, kings drawn to its brightness, bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. It is all there. But none of it happens in the way that anyone expected. I doubt even Isaiah imagined his vision would be fulfilled by Arab astrologers bearing gifts to a poor refugee family in transitional housing.
That, friends, is how God works. God fulfills promises, but rarely in the way that anyone expects. Kurt read about that in our first scripture reading from Isaiah 55:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways, my ways, says the Lord, … For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, … so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I propose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
In 1946 my brother was baptized at a small Presbyterian church in San Francisco. I wasn’t around yet, but I am sure it took place like most Presbyterian baptisms. The minister put water on his head and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Then the minister would have said something like this: “Richard Onstot, child of the covenant, you are have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” What a remarkable promise: marked as Christ’s own forever.
Later on my brother did not seem to embrace that identity. When he got to college he became a classic skeptic. In his own words, he tuned out faith. He had little to do with church or God. In fact, during this time he met and married a woman from Taiwan who was nominally Buddhist. Religious affiliation meant little to him, much to my parents’ consternation.
Then he and his wife had a child born on Christmas Eve. They named her Christine. When she was old enough, they enrolled her in a preschool at a nearby Presbyterian church. They enrolled her not because it was at a church but because they heard it was a good preschool. But then my brother started taking her to Sunday School. He did not go himself, at least not at first. He later told me there were competing voices in his head. One voice said, “Don’t go into that church. Your wife is Chinese. She won’t be accepted, and neither will you.” The other voice said, “Come and see.” So finally he went, and he discovered that he and his family were welcomed with open arms.
Then one day he called me at my church office in Potlatch. He called me to tell me he was committing his life to Christ and joining the church. I almost fell off my chair. And then I thought about that little Presbyterian Church in San Francisco where he was baptized. It took almost forty years for the promises given to him in baptism to be fulfilled. Forty years through all kinds of ups and downs in his life: a broken engagement, four years in the army including a year in Vietnam, a marriage in Taiwan, the birth of a child on Christmas Eve, not to mention countless prayers for him by my parents and grandparents and sometimes even by me. But it finally worked. The promise given to him in baptism was fulfilled, marking him as Christ’s own forever.
That is the story of Isaiah 60. It is the story of how God works in our lives. God intends to fulfill the promises given to our children in baptism and the promises given to our world in Isaiah. But it may not happen in the way or in the time frame that you expect. The thing to watch is how God might use you in unexpected ways to bring it about.