A friend of mine isn’t big on Christmas. He’s not as bad as I am, but he’s close.
He has the biggest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen. It isn’t a real tree, but looks it. He has this gigantic tree in the “great room” of his big house and it is quite impressive at Christmas. However, the last time he put it up (a major task), my friend almost killed himself so he decided to just leave it up all year. When you drive by his house, you either think it’s a Christmas shop or the southern headquarters of Santa Claus.
Whenever I start complaining about Christmas, I think of my friend and remember that it could be a lot worse. At least, when Christmas is over, I can take down the tree.
I’m writing this in October and it’s not even Thanksgiving. That means I’ll be writing and thinking about Christmas twice. Not only that, my pastor asked me to preach on Christmas Sunday in our church. I don’t know if I’ve offended him or he’s trying to fix me. But when a Scrooge has to deal with Christmas multiple times, he probably offended a magician when he was little and is cursed.
Okay, okay. I’ll stop complaining.
I've been thinking about Simeon
Do you know who I’ve been thinking about besides Jesus? Simeon. You’ll find his story in Luke 2:25-35. Simeon was as old as dirt and I am too. I think I understand him better now than I did when I was younger.
If you were a Jew in Jerusalem in the early part of the first century, you would most likely visit the temple on several occasions and notice an old man hanging out near the main entrance.
“Who’s that old man?” you might have asked a friend. “I’ve been to the temple every day and he’s always here.”
“Oh, him. His name is Simeon. Don’t worry about him. He’s just a senile old man. He doesn’t harm anyone.”
“But why is he always here at the temple?”
“He says he’s seen a vision…God told him that before he dies he will see Messiah. And Messiah better hurry. Most of us like him okay and we indulge his illusions. His family is gone, most of his friends are dead, and he just waits. He lives on the hope and the promise. It’s all he’s got left.”
Of course, we know the rest of the story.
Luke wrote: “And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel’” (Luke 2:27-32).
In other words, Simeon smiled and said, “I can go now.”
That’s all we know about Simeon. He isn’t mentioned in Scripture before this incident and he’s never mentioned again. There’s no monument to him, no great tradition surrounding him, and he didn’t write a book about his experience seeing the Messiah. All we have is this passage. All we know about Simeon is that he saw Jesus.
It was enough.
We’re kind of like Simeon at Christmas. We wait too.
Ruth Bell Graham, in her very beautiful book, Sitting by My Laughing Fire, imagines the words of an old Jewish man: “When Messiah comes I will ask him, ‘Is this the first time or the second?’”
Christmas is the promise. Christ’s return is the hope. Before, during and after his first coming, there is darkness and God’s people wait.
Cyprian, an early (third century) bishop in North Africa, wrote to his young friend Donatus: “This seems a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden under the shadow of these vines. But if I climbed some great mountain and looked out over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see. Brigands on the high road, pirates on the seas, in the amphitheatres men murdered to please the applauding crowds, under all roofs misery and selfishness. It really is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world.”
Things haven’t changed much. It’s still dark, isn’t it? What Churchill said about another time is still true, “Our problems are beyond us.” The politicians keep making their empty promises; the sellers of trinkets keep hawking their wares and lying to us about how those wares will make the darkness go away; religious leaders keep preaching their sermons about how to live the victorious Christian life…
…but it’s still dark and, like Simeon, we wait.
Christmas is hard for most pastors because they know at Christmas that the wounds of the wounded, the guilt of the guilty, the mourning of the mourners, and the loneliness of the lonely are all magnified. I remember the joy, celebration, music and lights of Christmas, but I also remember the tears.
That sounds so bleak. It isn’t. Isaiah the prophet wrote (also quoted in Matthew’s Gospel), “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isaiah 9:2).
That’s what Christmas is all about. It’s the light that shines in the darkness…a promise of redemption, resolution and restoration to come when all will be light, when there won’t be any tears, and when we’ll all sing a Christmas carol with far more gusto and joy than we sang it in the dark.
There is more to the quote from Cyprian I gave you above. After referring to the “incredibly bad world,” he wrote to Donatus: “Yet, in the midst of it, I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of this sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians…and I am one of them.”
I don’t know what happened. As I wrote this to you, I started feeling something. Maybe the Christmas spirit. Nah, but I was surprised to find myself humming—what’s that song?—oh…
Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.
So, like Simeon, we wait in the darkness and sometimes we sing.
He told me to remind you.
In His Grip,