For those who celebrate the gift of Jesus, the birth of the Christ Child issues a challenge to become wholly new people who lead very different kinds of lives.
If you kneel with the shepherds and gift like the Magi come December, but then skedaddle out of Bethlehem, flip over the calendar to January, and return to conducting life’s business as usual, well then, sorry, but you’ve not properly or fully encountered the Holy Spirit of Christ.
And you’ve not faithfully or honestly let the Spirit of Christ take firm hold of your heart and mind, which, of course, is God’s dream. God in Christ pitches his tent among us to fulfill that dream – to inspire a new kind of living that really does reveal that we truly do know “the reason for the season.”
Keep those truths in mind as we round off Luke’s telling of the Christmas story on this first Sunday after Christmas. Here’s where we resume the story, eight days after Jesus’s birth:
Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple to dedicate him to God, and they encounter a Spirit-filled man named Simeon who immediately recognizes and celebrates Jesus for who he is and who God intends for him to be. Simeon also makes some staggering predictions about the destiny of this bouncing baby boy.
A woman named Anna joins in the praise and thanksgiving, and she, too, has high expectation for the Christ Child.
Listen for God’s word to you this day from Luke 2:
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child, and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of 84. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.
At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, Mary, Joseph and Jesus returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:21-40)
We’d all be astonished – possibly even puzzled and aggravated – if, while celebrating a baby’s baptism one morning, the ceremony was abruptly interrupted by a couple senior citizens who amble up to the font, grab hold of the baby, and start making wild-eyed predictions about who and what this child will grow up to be.
Surely our eyes would widen and our jaws would drop if a patriarch or matriarch of the congregation – I don’t know, say Ken Krambeer or Jean Hagen – came forward, picked up little Jimmy Smith, and announced, “Pardon the interruption, folks, but I just gotta tell you that this little guy here will grow up to be president.
“Some will love him; others will hate him, and you’ll spend most of your years as parents worrying yourselves sick about his safety. But he really, truly is going to make America great again!
“OK, I’ve said my piece. Pastor, you can go back to baptizing the little fellow now.”
We’d all be blown away – mom, dad, me and everyone else on hand for the occasion. That’s not how it’s supposed to be done; things are not going as planned. Awkward silence fills the moment, and stunned amazement washes over the room.
People bearing witness to something no one else could ever possibly see or plausibly imagine quickens the heart, lumps the throat, and knocks the wind right of you.
Such are the effects of Simeon’s predictions when inserts himself uninvited into the dedication ceremony for the baby Jesus.
Simeon declares that this child still in diapers, this child still nursing at his mother’s breast, will be responsible for the falling and rising of many, and a lot of people – maybe even some of us – won’t want any part of that.
And why would we?
Nobody likes the idea of falling – of being knocked off our high horse, of being toppled from our tall pedestal, of being forced to forego the kind of out-of-God’s-control lifestyle to which we’ve all become accustomed to one degree or another.
And Simeon’s disturbing postscript – “a sword will pierce your soul” – certainly dashes our hopes for the “peace on earth” we love to sing about this holiday time of year.
Even so, the “reason for the season” has everything to do with falling and rising.
The “reason” is the Christ Child arriving on a mission of rescue, re-creation and resurrection, and the “season” is God’s grace period of pardoning our past and preparing our future.
In fulfillment of God’s dreams, you and I are rescued, re-created and resurrected when the power of the Holy Spirit gives us the courage to let go of our sinful past and let ourselves dive headlong into free fall – fully confident that we will land in the soft caress of the Lord’s tender pardon.
Then we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again – boldly following a different way, a more Christ-like way of hope, peace, joy and love that encourages us to do what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord.
Our Christ-inspired, Spirit-led living is what brings order to the chaos of our lives and our world.
Those are some broad expectations to place on the narrow shoulders of a little baby, but Simeon knows what he’s talking about. And so does Anna.
And we know now that it’ll take time for their expectations to become reality.
God waited thousands of years before coming to us in Christ, and we’re still waiting for Jesus to come to us again.
But our waiting is not still and stagnant. Our waiting is fluid and dynamic.
The changes that God dreams of making in our lives during this “grace period” that Jesus has opened oftentimes sneak up on you. And before you know it, what start to present themselves are the signs and symptoms of being infected with the hope, peace, joy and love of Jesus.
It’s cold-and-flu season, and we’re all on the alert for signs and symptoms that we’ve been exposed to something really nasty. COVID-19 only adds to worry and anxiety over our health and safety.
And if we truly hear and take to heart everything that Simeon and Anna are saying, then we also need to be on the alert for symptoms that we’ve been exposed to something – someone – gloriously infectious: the Christ Child on whom God’s favor rests.
You and I need to be on alert for signs and symptoms of hope, peace, joy and love invading our bodies, and here are a few things to watch for:
A loss of interest in drama, conflict and judgment. An inclination to see the glass half full more often than you see it half empty.
A tendency to think and act based less on terror and worry and more on courage and strength. A preference for letting things happen in God’s good time rather than making things happen on your anxious time.
A desire to seek out the friendship and fellowship of others similarly infected. A feeling of contentment that comes from being connected to something larger than yourself.
Frequent attacks of smiling, and overwhelming moments of appreciation. Spiking a high fever for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Welcoming the stranger and being blessed by the gifts that she or he brings. Feeding the hungry and finding yourself equally fed by your guests.
Building bridges of trust rather than walls of fear. Greater openness to the love that others extend along with the uncontrollable urge to extend it yourself.
Can one who comes in so lowly a form – and who ultimately shatters human dreams of the day by dying on a cross – really manage to infect us like this?
The answer speaks volumes about the surprising nature of God, the dreams of the divine heart, and the real work of Christmas that God calls us to do.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message for the first Sunday after Christmas 2020. Adapted from a message written by Scott Hoezee, it is part of Pastor Grant’s Advent-Christmas series, “Those Who Dream.”
Related video worship: “Christmas 2020: When Faith Feels Small“
Related Advent sermons:
“Like Those Who Dream,” from Mark 13:24-37, about Jesus’s caution to “keep awake” for his return. (Available in audio and text formats.)
“Something New Begins,” from Mark 1:1-8, about “preparing the way” for Jesus to enter our lives. (Available in audio and text formats.)
“Connecting the Dots,” from Luke 1:39-56, about Mary’s song of praise for God choosing her to be the bearer of God’s dreams. (Available in audio and text formats.)
“God Removes the ‘If,“ from 2 Samuel 7:1-16, which offers assurance that God is always leading our way. (Available in audio and text formats.)