After the gifts are opened, what’s left to celebrate?
By Mike Keppler
What comes after the waiting is over? Let’s ask Simeon.
Christmas gift-opening for our family is a seasonal experience of merry mayhem! The usual gathering of 16 adults and children is a large-sized event for our family room. We fill up the couches and chairs and use all the floor space as well, but still have to spill over into the dining area to accommodate everyone. I just have to keep remembering that it was my wife, Monique, who wanted this large family. But everyone knows that I, too, consider this one of our greatest blessings.
Monique has tried numerous approaches over the years for this time of giving and receiving. We started out opening only one gift at a time (and still prefer this!), but in these last years we have allowed the grandchildren to open their large Christmas bags of gifts at their own frenzied pace in order to deal with their exuberant impatience. It still seems that after the paper has found its way into the recycling bag, there are some eager ones waiting on the adults who are passing and sharing their gifts with each other. With a pile of unwrapped gifts strewn before them, our “near perfect” grandchildren can be heard pleading and even demanding, “Is that all there is?!”
There is a letdown after the last gifts are opened and all the boxes, wrappings, and bows have been processed. The tree looks lonely without packages teeming under its ornamented boughs. Adults feel relief that it is over but secretly long for the feelings of anticipation they had at the start of the season. The declaration that “Christmas is over” brings a certain disappointment with the acknowledgment.
Luke’s Gospel is rich with details surrounding the first Christmas: angelic announcements to Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds. It is the latter who are blessed to follow the angel’s directives to Bethlehem. After finding Mary and Joseph, these lowly shepherds are the first to see the baby lying in his manger bed. With great joy that night, they return to their fields and flocks glorifying and praising God on their way.
Most families conclude the reading of the Christmas story with the shepherds’ return, but Luke, the historian, is not ready to wrap up his thrilling account. He wants all his readers to wait because the story of Christmas is far from over. The scene shifts to the temple 41 days later and focuses on two saintly seniors who, with hope-filled lives, are waiting for the coming Christ.
One of these is Simeon, who, with prophetic insights that could have only be revealed to him by God himself, sings out this part of the Christmas story to all who are waiting for more. Within this prophecy, there is a musical message of singing praise, stumbling rejection, the all-important message of salvation for everyone, and even a surprising finale of sadness and sorrow.
The Singing: A sight to celebrate
“I have seen the One who was promised!” must have startled many who witnessed the crescendo of praise from the old prophet. How many who heard the old man sing this out could have thought he was a little tipsy in his prophetic merriment? How could anyone see in this vulnerable baby boy, the son of peasant parents, the Promised Deliverer? These young parents could only afford a humble and modest sacrifice at his dedication. Israel was expecting a prominent and proud warrior who would restore glory to the nation once again. Surely, many observers concluded this baby could not be the son of David, the hoped-for Messiah of God.
Simeon was so convinced by what he saw in the child that he was now ready for the next chapter of a peaceful end to his life. The promise of God was fulfilled. He had seen the Messiah.
What would Christmas be like without music? Musical programs abound during the holidays, rekindling Christmas memories. Luke’s Gospel account has even been put to poetic harmonies. Throughout church history, liturgies have been written and chancel choirs have been singing the canticles of Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s Benedictus, the angels’ Gloria and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Latin for “now let your servant depart”). Community and church choral performances at this season become excellent occasions for inviting seekers to experience these Scriptural songs. More importantly, they allow these friends to hear the good news of the Christmas story.
As the mood swings with this old man’s continued prophecy, Simeon now predicts there will be a stumbling resistance in this child’s future.
The Stumbling: Rise and fall
Jesus was a polarizing figure in his time. Some would gladly welcome the Son of Man, and others would vigorously oppose him. Those rejecting him would say he was not their kind of Messiah. He challenged the assumptions of his enemies. They wanted a revolution of power to overthrow their oppressors and establish an earthly kingdom of dominance and glory for Israel. Jesus would come to rule over human hearts, live his life in selfless service, and die on a cross as a sacrificial lamb for the sins of the world. The opposition would declare, “Not my kind of Messiah!”
We live in a culture that speaks about and even practices spiritual things. However, these beliefs are more aligned with eastern religions such as Buddhism that emphasize self-help. Engaging people readily talk about their own ideas of the spiritual realm, but it is increasingly clear that many of them do not really know what Christianity is all about. It seems that too many individuals today want to design a god in their own image. They vigorously defend the need to love, respect, and accept others, but they are repelled by the God who holds them accountable and confronts their sin. More and more will even dare to claim they do not sin and don’t need a savior! Their stumbling over Christ is our cultural challenge in witnessing.
For centuries, Israel hoped for a Messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression and restore the glory of their nation. Even Jesus’s disciples zealously shared this idea of Messiah. Many who saw in him hope for the future, however, turned against him when he spoke of suffering and death on a cross. They stumbled over what he was accomplishing in their presence. They refused to believe in him.
Simeon’s prophetic song predicted this child would be a light and salvation to the nations. He would expose the darkness of man’s unbelief and futile attempts to live without God. He would challenge assumptions and there would be resistance. But like Simeon, there would be many in the world who would accept Jesus and follow him into eternal life.
On this occasion of happiness and joy at the prophet’s celebrative praising, there follows a surprising prediction of great grief and sorrow for this young mother.
The Sorrowing: A sword
It is almost ironic that a season like Christmas, so full of joy, could also have a mix of grief and sorrow; however, everyone who has lost a loved one to death can say this is true. There is a letdown and sadness for many at this season when loved ones are no longer with us at family gatherings.
Mary must have been taken aback by Simeon’s painful pronouncement. The coming opposition to Jesus would result in a stabbing grief like a sword piercing her own heart. Mary, who had treasured and pondered many things at Jesus’ birth, no doubt would leave the temple that day thinking deeply about the perplexing prophecy of this devoutly righteous man.
It is sad to think, and reflects a very shallow understanding of Christmas, that for many this season is only a time of gift-giving and receiving. The nation’s retailers project the average American will spend around $900 this Christmas on holiday presents and candies. The Christmas season alone has become a $500-billion-dollar juggernaut of sales for the economy. These businesses with accounts in the red count on Christmas profits to put them back into the black.
It is surely time for Christians to say, “Wait a minute! There is more to this season!” The truth must be told that if this season is only about sharing material gifts, we will feel a great letdown after the credit card bills start coming in January. But there’s good news! The baby Jesus came for a greater reason. He came to forgive our sins through his suffering death on the cross and provide salvation for everyone who will put their faith and trust in him. Unless we are convinced of this, we will miss the whole point of Christmas.
The Saving: A revelation
Many of the Jewish faithful saw in the Messiah a hope only for Israel. They had no problem receiving the blessing of God to make of them a great nation. But Simeon’s prophetic song of salvation was more inclusive and offered a broader invitation to all the nations. This salvation would start in Jerusalem, but that would only be the epicenter. From this locale, the gospel would spread to the ends of the earth. The baby whom Simeon held with humble gratitude this day in the temple would grow up to be the Savior of the whole world!
During this season of giving to international missions, those of us who have received Christ know that we have a global missions mandate to share the good news of Christ our Lord with everyone on earth. The annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is a partnership among Southern Baptists to give to make this mandate a reality around our world by funding church planting and the making of disciples. It is projected that there are 2.8 billion in our world who have little or no access to the gospel. For an individual, this task would be impossible, but working and giving together, we can make an everlasting difference in people’s lives.
Some may not see the point of sharing the Christmas story with unchurched family and friends. Yet it remains that when we do get the message and the “reason for the season” to the forefront of our witness sharing, we see that the gospel does impact the lives of those who hear it. Simeon understood what God was doing the moment he saw the infant Jesus. Let’s give the Holy Spirit something to work with in our witness by sharing the good news with someone this season.
Who knows how God will work through an intentional spiritual conversation that simply retells how Simeon had a surprising encounter one day at the temple with a baby boy who would change the world. Through those conversations, we just might convince some friends of the need to accept Christ as Savior. Imagine what they will discover as the Lord blesses and takes charge of their lives each day!
You might find yourself thinking, as you follow Luke’s telling of the Christmas narrative through the part about the shepherds, “It would be hard to top that story!” However, Luke interrupts that thought like a stage manager in a theatre drama and directs the next actor forward to stage right, “Simeon! Tell your story!” And Simeon joyfully sings out, “I can top that! I’ve seen the Sovereign Lord’s Salvation with my own eyes! I’ve experienced him face to face!”
There will not be a Christmas letdown if we who have accepted Christ and do see him at the center of this Christmas season, say to our world, “Wait a minute! There is more to this story! Come. Experience Christ! Worship him! Share him with everyone!”
Mike Keppler served as pastor of Springfield Southern Baptist Church for 26 years. Recently retired, he is enjoying writing and grandfathering.