Stores seem to be advertising for Christmas earlier and earlier. The decorations, the sales, and the Christmas preparations begin long before Thanksgiving. How many pre-Thanksgiving Christmas flyers did you receive? These flyers tell us to be expectant and prepared because our shopping hopes will soon be fulfilled. You may lament this pre-Thanksgiving Christmas advertising and want to return to “the good old days,” but realize that the first Christmas was actually advertised, and prepared for, centuries before the actual day.
When Jesus was born that first Christmas, he came to a people who were expecting God to send a savior, a.k.a. Messiah, because prophets had advertised the Messiah for centuries (the term “Christ” is just the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”). Certainly some had given up waiting, and others did not really believe God would act, but there was a general expectation in Israel that God would one day fulfill his prophecies and send a deliverer.
The Jewish people expected the Messiah to establish God’s kingdom and restore Israel just as the prophets advertised. This Messiah would be very unique and set apart for this purpose. These numerous prophecies gave a certain amount of specificity to the Messiah. For instance, the Messiah would be a descendant of King David because God promised David that he would always have a descendant to rule Israel. The Messiah, therefore, was often referred to as the “Son of David.” The people expected the Messiah to not just restore Israel as a nation-state but to reestablish the close relationship between God and his people in an everlasting way. Some of the prophecies that advertised the coming CHRISTmas centuries prior:
Isaiah 9:6-7 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
Micah 5:2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
These Messianic expectations form important background to the Christmas story because the Messiah (Christ) is constantly mentioned by the angels, shepherds, Magi – everyone. The Christ-child arrived after centuries of advertising and many devout believers anxiously awaited that day to arrive.
We are told of two such devout believers in Luke’s version of the Christmas story: Simeon and Anna. These old saints are often overlooked in the Christmas story because we do not meet them until over a month after Jesus’ birth. Nevertheless, they exemplify the anxious expectation that preceded the birth of the Christ.
Luke 2:22-38 22 When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 29“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all people, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (NIV)
Let us first consider Simeon. Simeon had both heard and believed the prophecies about the Messiah. Simeon was an older man who had worked hard his whole life. His faith gave him strength, zeal, and hope – hope because he believed the word of God enough to be looking for the Messiah to come just as advertised. In one of Simeon’s many times of prayer, the Holy Spirit moved inside Simeon and revealed that Simeon would not die before he saw the savior of Israel. Simeon’s faith-filled expectation became even more intense as he grew older; he knew his days on earth were numbered, which meant the Messiah was closer to coming. As each day passed, Simeon thought, “This could be the day that the Christ breaks into my world in an unprecedented, but promised way.” Simeon was a man of faith; faith confidently trusts and expects that God will do what God has said He will do.
One day, a day much like any other day, Simeon went about his daily tasks and then took his usual prayer time. When he opened his heart to God, he felt the Holy Spirit overwhelm him and impress upon him to go to the temple, and go quickly. The old man felt the power of the Spirit quickening his steps and bringing him to that state where he was unaware of himself, his age, his fatigue. When Simeon arrived in the temple courts, a place he knew well, he saw a young couple with a baby. They were a devout couple who had brought the infant to perform the right of purification and redemption according to the Law of Moses. That right called for the sacrifice of a lamb, but this couple must be poor because they only had two doves. The doves were an acceptable substitute if someone was too poor to afford a lamb. While Simeon had seen similar couples before in his many years, the Holy Spirit who had moved in him to come to the temple was now impressing upon him that this was the child he had been waiting for his whole life. This was the child who fulfilled God’s promises to Israel and God’s personal promise to Simeon; the promise that Simeon would not die before he saw the Lord’s Christ.
The day-by-day acts of faith that Simeon exercised these last decades all found their fulfillment in this moment. Simeon’s patient, steady faith was rewarded with the gift of seeing the object of his faith. Simeon took this Christ-child in his arms, and he praised God deeply and thankfully. He cried out in prayer and thanks to God, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32) After Simeon had fully taken in the moment and praised God, he was able to talk with Mary and Joseph. As Simeon looked upon this young mother, he marveled at how God visits ordinary folks like Mary in extraordinary ways. Simeon then said a blessing over Mary and Joseph that not only expressed the great joy over what God was doing, but soberly recognized that the Lord’s Messiah had a very serious, world changing task. The world isn’t changed without a fight, and Simeon remarked that Mary, this sweet young girl of great faith, would experience great heartache as her son and God’s promise brought about the inevitable conflict with those who oppose God.
Although we are not told in the scriptures explicitly, we can assume that Simeon died not much later. Yet, he died having seen God fulfill his promise. This old lion lived life one faith step at a time trusting that God would do what he said he would do. Simeon died a happy man.
If only we were as faithful and expectant as Simeon. Here we are on the other side of the cross. Jesus has died and risen; the Holy Spirit lives in every true believer; we have been given even more promises by God’s word, and yet we are not very expectant this Christmas. We expect to see decorations, and we prepare by buying the necessary gifts, but do we expect to see God fulfill his promises?
What kind of promises? There are many, but let’s look at just a couple: Jesus said, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20) How many today, or this Christmas season, expect Christ to move in them and among them? How many expect the Holy Spirit to move in them as he moved in Simeon? The promise is that God is in our midst when we gather in Jesus’ name.
What about the promise in 1 John 5:14-15: This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us– whatever we ask– we know that we have what we asked of him. If you ask for something you know God wants, are you expecting an answer? Are we expecting anything as we gather this Christmas, other than singing a few carols and hearing the Christmas stories?
Faith and expectation go hand in hand. You expected your car to start today – even though you know of occasions when it hasn’t – you have faith in your car, and you live life based on that faith. God has made many promises to us and yet we are NOT living as if we can rely on them.
We find another example of faithful expectation in Anna the prophetess. This 84-year old widow was in the temple every day praying and fasting as she looked for God to fulfill his promises and work among his people. When she encountered Mary and Joseph with the Christ child she, like Simeon, rejoiced and gave thanks to God that he was doing what he said he was going to do. Her faith led her to expect God to move and after eight decades of expectation, her faith was rewarded by seeing God’s promises fulfilled.
Anna’s faith was not passive, she knew God’s promises and will (she had received the flyer), so she prayed day after day for God to fulfill those promises in her lifetime. She wanted to be a part of what God was doing.
Anna exemplifies how faith in God’s promises leads to prayer. We know that God has a plan and His will be done, but our prayers are a reflection of our faith and our desire to be in on the action! So like Anna, we earnestly pray for God to work among us.
If Anna hadn’t prayed and fasted those several decades would Jesus still have come? Yes, Jesus would have come because it was God’s will and plan. But how that plan played out, and the particulars of the plan like Anna being able to take part, was a result of God responding to the prayers and faith of his people.
Like Anna and Simeon we have been given promises, but do we have faith in God’s promises so that we are as expectant as they were? Are we so expectant that we continue to pray so that we might be a part of the fulfillment of those promises?
On Thanksgiving people lined up for hours, some starting at midnight, because they had faith that the stores would honor their flyers and give shoppers a bargain. These shoppers wanted in on the action. In anxious expectation, they put themselves in a place to reap the promises of the flyers. They were literally beating down the doors of places like Wal-Mart because they trusted the flyers and responded to the offer.
As Christians, we have more than a flyer, we have the word of God stretching back centuries proclaiming God’s promises and his offer to the world. The offer is more than saving a few bucks, it is an offer to experience God and be a part of the eternity shaping work God has planned. Shouldn’t we be expectant like Anna and Simeon? If those biblical examples are too lofty, let’s lower the bar and ask: shouldn’t we be at least as expectant as those who stand in line to save $100 on a TV? Are we expectant enough to seek out what God is doing this Christmas? We need to get in line; we need to knock on the doors of heaven and say, “God we are here; we are responding to your advertisement; fulfill your promises in us.”
Here is one of God’s promises: The LORD is near to all who call upon Him, To all who call upon Him in truth (Psalm 145:18). Do you want to experience God’s presence in your life? Do you want your church to be a place where God is near? The promise is when we call upon Him, God shows up. What about the promise mentioned above: This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us– whatever we ask– we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5:14-15) If we ask according to God’s will, we know we will have it. This offer is incredible! Do we trust that God will honor his word? Do we have that faith to keep seeking his will until we have what we asked?
Anna knew it was God’s will to send a savior, so she asked for 70 years. She not only received her request, she received it in a way where she was in on that action. Do we have that same faith in God’s promises to be expecting any day for God to move, so we keep going to God saying, “Let me in on what you are doing Lord. I saw your flyer, I am here taking you up on the offer that if I ask for anything according to your will – I can have it.”
Do we want in on that? Do we want in on the promise that when we call on the Lord he shows up in our life and in our church? As a church do we pray for people to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus, for lives changed, for marriages transformed, for families strengthened, for a movement of God in us, among us and through us? According to God’s word, God wants those things too. Yet, we are not very expectant for God to fulfill his will.
Like Simeon and Anna do we long to see God fulfill these promises in our life time? Like Simeon and Anna do we have that faith to expectantly go to the Lord and say, “Is today the day? Lord let it be today that you save a soul, that you transform a family, that you move in a powerful way – but Lord let us in on it.”
As a church and as individuals, we have received the flyer with God’s offer and promises. Will we get in line expectantly waiting for God to open the door? Will we knock on the doors of heaven and say, “God we are here, we are responding to your advertisement – we will take you up on your offer.” The first Christmas came with expectation for God to do the things he had promised. May our Christmas have that same expectation this year.