Have a wonderful Christmas!
If anyone in the nativity stories could qualify as a potential patron saint of Advent, it would be Simeon. His life was about waiting. It was an ongoing season of Advent.
I suspect that he was old and that he had been waiting for some time. He had been waiting for the consolation of Israel: one thinks of the beautiful words of Isaiah 40 and the Lord’s comfort of his people.
The Holy Spirit was active in his life and had revealed to him that his waiting would not be in vain because he would see the Lord’s Christ.
So it was that the Spirit led him to the temple at just the right time – the time when Joseph and Mary had brought their son to present him to the Lord.
Simeon spoke twice: first to God, in a prayer of surrender and recognition of what God was going to do through this child; and second, to Mary, talking about what lay ahead for her son and for herself.
While the little family were at the temple, another faithful worshiper joined them. Anna’s life had not been easy, with its long years of widowhood. Like Simeon, she realised that this was a significant moment: an occasion to thank God and share the news with others who were waiting for redemption.
I suppose there is a degree of artificiality about the four weeks that run up to Christmas. We now how long we have to wait. Christmas will arrive on December 25. It did last year and that’s what the calendar says for this year. It’s like reading a story when you already know the ending. But for Simeon and Anna and the faithful among their contemporaries, the wait was uncertain. It had been long. Centuries had passed since the Messianic promises of the Old Testament. Would the answer ever come? You think of the words of the haunting Advent hymn:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And rescue captive Israel…
But of course there is a second sense to the Church’s observation of Advent: the reminder that we wait for him to return. We don’t know when he will come. But we know that God’s plans are still centred on Jesus.
Like Simeon, the church waits.
It’s the cry of the church at the end of Revelation:
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus
Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent. If your church is in the habit of lighting Advent candles, today you get a visual reminder that the waiting is almost over. But – at this stage in the story – although they have been busy, the angels have not yet sung to proclaim Messiah’s birth!
Today’s reflection moves us ahead to that point in Luke 2.
It certainly wasn’t one of those ‘angels unawares’ moments: the kind of thing where you are kicking yourself afterwards because you hadn’t realised at the time. This time the sky lit up – with the glory of the Lord – and not only was there an angel of the Lord announcing the birth, but he was joined by a multitude of the heavenly host. A display of glory among the ordinariness of a manger and simple shepherds.
For it was to these simple shepherds, doing what they doubtless did every night at that time of year – watching their sheep – that the amazing announcement of the birth of a Saviour was first made.
Like Mary (1:30), the shepherds will have been mightily relieved to hear the words ‘Fear not’! They were not expecting anything like this this. Besides, if an angel suddenly appears with the glory of the Lord shining around, what’s going to happen next? There is no certain guarantee of good news – but that is what they got. No need to be afraid, because the message was of good news of great joy for all the people.
Since the angel mentioned ‘the people’, presumably the original point of focus was Israel. It was to Israel that Christ would come. It was Israel who was waiting for a Saviour. But the story of the gospel is that the good news of a Saviour did not end up being limited to one people: Simeon (find out more tomorrow) saw the wider connection with the Gentiles and by the end of the Luke’s gospel, forgiveness is going to be announced in the name of Jesus to all nations.
Then suddenly it’s time for the choir, adding their proclamation of
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those
with whom he is pleased!
You don’t get to choose when you are born, or where, or to whom. So if you jumped straight into Luke 2, without any awareness of the remarkable events of chapter 1, the birth of Jesus might look pretty much like any other birth. A baby boy born to parents he didn’t choose at a time in history over which he had no control and in a place he didn’t choose. It just happened to be Bethlehem when it might have been Nazareth because that’s where his father’s people were from and Joseph had had to go there at this particular time because of an emperor’s decree.
As if discovering that his fiancee was pregnant had not been sufficiently unsettling to Joseph’s plans, the pregnancy would not be allowed to run its normal course without a journey to the ancestral home.
- But God had chosen these people.
- The place was hugely significant.
- And, in God’s timetable, the time was just right.
Amazing, isn’t it. I doubt that Caesar Augustus and his minions had ever heard of a simple carpenter, engaged to a young woman in Nazareth. Yet in the sovereign providence of God, this powerful man becomes an instrument that God used to have his son born in the city of David.
Having been unable to speak for the nine months or so between his encounter with Gabriel and the promised birth of John, Zechariah is inspired to speak prophetically about his son’s future ministry.
John’s birth is an occasion for great rejoicing as neighbours and relatives join in. There is an air of intrigue about the whole business, with people wondering what the future holds for this newborn boy.
Zechariah had had plenty of time to reflect on the words of Gabriel. His son would be great before the Lord, he would be filled with the Holy Spirit, he would have a ministry of restoration and would go before the Lord in the spirit of Elijah. He would be the Lord’s forerunner. Now Zechariah had something to add.
His prophecy starts by recognising what God has done. In the birth of John, God has remembered his promises.
Then he talks about the ministry that awaits John in the future (was he holding his son in his arms as he spoke?), echoing Gabriel’s (and Malachi’s) words about preparing a way for the Lord. John’s ministry will herald the dawning of a bright future, as as the sun will rise (more echoes of Malachi) to give light to those in darkness.
John’s future would be amazing not least because it would connect with the hopes and promises of the past. The long-awaited redemption was dawning.
But John was not the final word.
Think of it like this. You have been on a long journey that has taken you halfway around the world. You have several flights to get home, and the best part of twenty hours to travel. When your plane lands, you know you are home – at least more or less. You are not actually home when you get to the airport, but you are almost there.
With the birth of John the Baptist, the long wait is almost over, but not quite. The journey from Old Testament promise was almost done, but not quite. While John would grow up to be the prophet of the Most High (72), his task was to prepare the way for the Son of the Most High.
The birth of Messiah was now just 6 months away.
It’s known as The Magnificat: ‘magnificat’ is simply Latin for ‘magnifies’.
Mary’s world has been turned upside down by Gabriel’s announcement. There is no resistance, no complaint. This ordinary young girl from Nazareth became extraordinary as she humbly submitted herself to be the servant of the Lord.
From Nazareth she travels to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth where she will stay for three months. Filled by the Spirit, and with remarkable insight, Elizabeth recognises her as the mother of her Lord; even the unborn John – evidently also filled by the Spirit – leaps for joy.
For Mary, there are words of affirmation:
Blessed is she who believed…
The contrast with her own husband (a priest who couldn’t believe the gospel) must have been obvious to Elizabeth! This young woman had done what the old priest had failed to do.
Mary’s song allows us to gain a greater insight into her spirituality.
She magnifies The Lord who has paid attention to her in her humility and has done great things for her. To become the mother of God’s Son is a remarkable blessing, mercy extended to the humble.
And it’s not just Mary. This is how God loves to work: bringing down the high and mighty and lifting up the humble. His mercy extends to his people, in keeping with his promises to Abraham.
Throughout the whole extraordinary story of the birth of Jesus, humility and ordinariness mix with surprise and the miraculous. From this humble girl and her fiancé, to an old priest – one of thousands – who had apparently given up expecting God to do miracles, and his wife, whose pain and humiliation are unexpectedly removed, to a manger, to shepherds arriving from their fields.
This is how the Son of God would come into the world.