Today is the first Sunday of Advent; the season leading up to Christmas. During Advent, the Church remembers the anxious waiting that preceded the coming of the Christ. Although I posted the following sermon text last year, I am re-posting it (with modifications) as a reminder of the hope and expectation that the first Sunday of Advent usually focuses upon.
Simeon and Anna: An Expectant Faith.
In the last couple years, consumers have started to voice their displeasure with stores advertising for Christmas earlier and earlier. Stores couldn’t wait till Thanksgiving day – the decorating, the sales, and the preparations began shortly after Halloween. The situation seems to have improved, but stores still send out flyers throughout November to entice us to spend as much money as possible on black Friday. Have you received any flyers? Over the last month many Christmas sale flyers have made their way into both my postal and electronic mail boxes. These flyers tell us to be expectant and prepared because our shopping hopes will soon be fulfilled. While many are looking forward to saving 25% on electronics, just as many people wish that stores would at least wait until Thanksgiving before bombarding us with Christmas advertising. Before we become too upset with all this pre-thanksgiving Christmas advertising, we should 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. the Messiah, because prophets had advertised the Messiah for centuries. Certainly some people had given up waiting, and others did not really believe God would act. Nevertheless, there was a general expectation in Israel that God would one day fulfill his prophecies and send a deliverer. The Jewish people expected a Messiah to establish God’s kingdom and restore Israel just as the prophets advertised. 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. For this reason, the Messiah was often referred to as “the Son of David.” (By the way, the term “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name; it is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew title “Messiah.”) This Messiah was expected not only to restore Israel as a nation but also to reestablish the close relationship between God and his people in real, everlasting ways. These expectations were based on prophecies that had advertised the coming CHRISTmas centuries prior; prophecies such as:
Isaiah 9:6-7: For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on his shoulders; and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of his government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.
Micah 5:2: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.”
These messianic expectations informed the many references to the Messiah (or Christ) in the Christmas story. The angels, the shepherds, the Magi, everyone spoke about the Christ-child because after centuries of advertising, devout believers were awaiting the arrival of the Messiah.
The Gospel of Luke describes two such devout believers: Simeon and Anna. These old saints are often overlooked in the Christmas story because we don’t meet them until over a month after Jesus’ birth. Nevertheless, Simeon and Anna represent all devout believers of the former covenant who, for centuries, anxiously awaited the birth of the Messiah.
Luke 2:22-40 22 When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him 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. 27 Moved 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. 39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him. (NIV)
Let us first consider Simeon. Simeon had both heard and believed the prophecies about the Messiah. Simeon was an older man. He had worked hard his whole life, and his faith gave him strength, zeal, and hope – hope because he believed the word of God enough to actually be ready for the Messiah to come just as advertized. In one of Simeon’s many times of prayer and devotion to the Lord, the Holy Spirit of God moved inside Simeon and revealed that Simeon would not die before he saw the promised consolation of Israel. Simeon’s faith-filled expectation was made even more intense as he grew older; he knew his days on earth were numbered, so the Messiah was closer and closer to coming to earth. It is the definition of faith to confidently trust what God says as a done deal. As each day dawned, Simeon expected the Christ to break into the world in an unprecedented, but promised way.
One day, a day much like any other day, Simeon went about his everyday labors and took his usual prayer time. When Simeon opened his heart to God, as he had done on so many occasions, he felt the presence of God. He felt the Holy Spirit overwhelm him and impress upon him to go to the temple – and go quickly. When Simeon arrived in the temple courts he saw a young couple with a child. This devout couple had brought their 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, which was an acceptable substitute for those too poor to afford a lamb. Although Simeon had seen similar couples in his many years, the same Holy Spirit who had moved in him to come was now impressing upon him that this was the child he had been expecting his whole life. This was the child who fulfilled God’s promises to Israel and God’s personal promise to Simeon that he would not die before he saw the Christ.
The day-to-day acts of faith that Simeon lived for these last decades all found their fulfillment in this moment. Simeon’s patient, steady faith and expectation were being rewarded through being able to see the object of his faith. As Anthony Thiselton remarks in Life after Death, expectation in the Bible is more than a feeling; it is readiness. Thiselton writes, “In the New Testament it [expectation] denotes not a subjective, heightened, psychological state or mental belief about chronology, but an objective state of readiness for the Lord’s coming.” (pg 61). Simeon took this Christ-child in his arms and he praised God deeply and thankfully. He cried out in prayer and thanks to God, “Now Lord, you are releasing your bond-servant to depart 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 of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
After Simeon had fully taken in the moment and praised God, he was able to talk with Mary and Joseph. As he looked upon this young mother, he couldn’t help but marvel at how God visits ordinary folks like Simeon and this lower class girl Mary in extraordinary ways. Simeon 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 and world changing task. The world isn’t changed without a fight, and Simeon remarked that this sweet young girl of faith would experience great heart-ache 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, but 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, and we have been given even more promises though God’s word. Despite all this, 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? When we read a biblical promise we should ask ourselves, “Am I ready for God to fulfill that promise today?” Christmas is proof that God fulfills his promises, but on Christmas we are not very expectant that God will move in us, among us, and through us—even though that is what he promised. Jesus promised that when two or three are gathered in his name, he is in their midst. Did we gather today with the expectation that the God of the universe would be among us? God has made many promises to you and me, and yet we are NOT getting our lives ready in light of these promises. We lack the Simeon type of faith that leads to actively living out these expectations.
What about the faithful prophetess Anna? This 84-year old widow was in the temple day in and day out 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 for doing what he said he was going to do. Her faith led her to expect God to move, and after seven decades of expectation her faith was rewarded by seeing God’s promises fulfilled.
Anna’s faith was not passive. She knew God’s promises (she had received the prophets’ flyers) and knew what he desired, so she prayed day after day for God to fulfill those promises in her lifetime. Anna wanted to be a part of what God would do, so she was ready to experience God fulfilling his promises as she stood there in the temple with the Son of God.
If Anna hadn’t prayed and fasted for over 70 years would the Christ still have come? Yes, he still would have come because God’s plans are bigger than any one person. The particulars of God’s plan, however, like Anna being able to take part; those particulars came about because God was responding to the prayers and faith of his people. Anna was ready to move when God moved.
Like Anna and Simeon we have been given promises. However, we don’t seem to have the faith in God’s promises that generates expectations that affect how we pray and live. Why are we not like these elderly saints who continued to ask God to be a part of the fulfillment of those promises? Even during Christmas, a day that celebrates God fulfilling his promises, we are not very faithful or expectant, so we do not actively pray and ready our lives so that we are in the place to participate in God honoring his promises.
Contrast this attitude to the people who, late Thanksgiving night, lined up and waited for hours because they had faith that the stores would honor their flyers and give them a bargain. They were ready. These people wanted to be part of what the store was doing. In anxious expectation, shoppers took all necessary measures to be in a place to reap the promises of the flyers. Promises such as: Save $100 on laptops while supplies last. Buy one plastic super-hero action figure, get the second one free. Scores of people responded to these advertisements by showing up in expectation.
Fellow Christians, we have more than a store flyer. We have the word of God that stretches back centuries and offers God’s promises to the world. The offer is more than saving a few bucks. The offer is to experience God and be a part of his eternal plan. As people of faith, shouldn’t we be like Anna and Simeon? Shouldn’t we be at least as expectant as those who were looking to save $100 on a TV? Shouldn’t we be ready to get in on what God is doing? Yes, we should be expectant enough to gather at the doors of heaven and say, “God we are here! We are responding to your flyer, and we will take you up on your offer and promises.” In prayer we, like Simeon and Anna, ready ourselves for God’s work every day.
What has God offered and promised? Too many things to include in one sermon, but here is one promise that Simeon and Anna’s faith exemplifies: “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 have what we ask for. Anna knew it was God’s will (because he promised) to send a savior, so she asked for 70 years. Anna asked until God granted her request in a way that she was able to participate. She readied herself because she trusted that God would keep his promises.
Do we have that same faith in God’s promises to be expecting any day for God to move? In expectation, we must continue to go 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 will have it.” Again, that promise is only one among many. We can take God up on any number of other biblical promises and confidently ask in expectation.
Anna and Simeon daily expected and asked for God to send his Messiah because they knew that was God’s will and plan. They expectantly asked God to carry out his will in their lifetime, and they were ready to participate in his plan. Are we expecting, or asking for, anything this Christmas—other than singing a few carols, exchanging a few trinkets, and having a safe few days off? Are we ready if God fulfills his promises today?
Christmas is a proclamation that God honors his promises. Let us start this Christmas season by repenting of our lack of expectation and faith. Let us expectantly ask in faith for God to move as he said he would move—the act of asking in itself readies our hearts. Let us ask in faith to experience his will and plan in our lives today. Like Simeon and Anna do we have the expectant faith to daily ask the Lord, “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 – and Lord let us participate in carrying out your will and work today.”