As a youngster, and to be honest even as I had gotten a little older, I would begin thinking about Christmas Day just as soon as summer ended. I knew that sometime in August of each year, the Sears Christmas Catalog [the “toy catalog”] would be arriving in the mail, and I could pore over its pages. My brother and sister used to fight with me for the privilege of taking the Sears Christmas catalog to bed. We knew that in early September, Mom would ask us to pick three toys that we might like to receive as a Christmas gift. She couldn’t guarantee which one of the three toys we would get, but we could be fairly confident that we would find one of them under the tree on Christmas morning. Only now do I appreciate the long extra hours Mom had to work during the fall to pay for those special gifts. “No, Susan, there ain’t no Santa Claus!”
In retrospect, the old Sears Christmas Catalog was almost more exciting than any of the gifts, because it promised something very special, something good that we associated with Christmas. It represented the expectations, the longings and desires, all the things the Eastman children most looked forward to… There is a word that describes this kind of anticipation. It is the word “hope.”
I think the meaning of the word hope has all but been forgotten today. The world is no longer safe and secure [not anywhere], and the financial markets may be good right now, but the meltdown of ten years ago is not forgotten. Who knows what will happen in Congress over the next few weeks, or what impact will this have next year’s election? The moral values which have guided our nation and western nations for centuries are being trampled underfoot. Godlessness is considered a greater virtue than godliness, today. We are heartsick hearing about the young teenager, who takes his or her own life, because there is nothing to live for. Worse yet, the church is saying very little about hope, and of all places that is the one place where one should find hope!
If I were to ask you, what is it you hope for, and why do you hope for it, what would you say? Or perhaps you would honestly say, I don’t know what I should be hoping for, and if I did would I be able to hope for it. I would like to talk to you this morning from the nativity narrative in Luke’s Gospel about the nature of hope. It is one of the key lessons of Advent. Next week, we’ll talk about Advent and the lesson of faith. Paul the apostle said,
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV.
So, from the Advent narratives let’s learn something about the nature of hope this morning.
The biblical idea of hope is powerfully illustrated for us in Luke’s portrait of an old man named Simeon. The account begins some 40 days after Mary gave birth to Jesus. Jewish law regarded mothers of newborn boys as unclean for seven days because of the bleeding associated with giving birth. The law also required a waiting period of 33 days after that to be sure there was no further bleeding. If there is no bleeding during that period of time, the mother was required to bring her son to the Tabernacle or Temple and offer a pair of doves or pigeons as a sacrifice to the Lord. There she would dedicate her child to God. This where our story begins. Joseph and Mary are bringing Jesus to the Temple to present Him to the Lord. There they encounter an old man whose name is Simeon. And this is what Luke tells us:
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,… Luke 2:25-28 NIV.
There is little said of Simeon in the Bible. All of what we know, and all we really must know is summed up by Luke in verses 25-35 of chapter 2. Though we typically picture him as old, Luke never says that. There is some reason to believe however, that he might have been the same Simeon mentioned by ancient rabbis, the son of a famous rabbi named Hillel and the father of the apostle Paul’s mentor, the rabbi called Gamaliel. If so, that is significant because tradition tells us that Simeon was considered something of a misfit by his more Zionistic peers, who dismissed him for his quiet piety and lack of political zeal. He did not believe that a military solution was the key to Israel’s future, but rather a spiritual one, and he wasn’t hoping for a Messiah with a sword, but for a Messiah who would bring peace to His people and salvation to the nations. But all we really need to know about Simeon is summed up by Luke, and Luke reveals in this man the nature of true hope! One phrase seems to capture the hope of Simeon. It is found in verse 25 where we read,
“He was waiting for the consolation [comfort] of Israel.” Luke 2:25b
The comfort of Israel refers to the coming of the Messiah as prophesied in Isaiah 40:1-5.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling ‘In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’” Isaiah 40:1-5.
Simeon embraced the message of Isaiah and looked for the Messiah who would fulfill all the great prophecies of the Old Testament. Like a child with a Sears Christmas Catalog, he pored over the Scripture, savoring every good thing God had promised His people in the Christ to come. The word translated “waiting” [prosdechomenos from prosdechomai] meant that Simeon was living with expectancy, he was actively looking forward to the comfort of God’s people, he waited but it was watchful waiting…like Christmas is coming, only it was the real Christmas with the real Christ!
What the OT saints did not see, was that the coming of Messiah would be two events [just as we sometimes see two mountain peaks one behind the other, but they appear from a distance to be one, only they are two], The first advent would bring Christ into the world as the suffering servant to die for the sins of His people, and the second advent yet to come would bring Christ into the world to judge the nations, and establish His rule over the world from the throne of David in Jerusalem. This is something understood in the NT, clearly taught in the Gospels and the epistles. But somehow it seems Simeon did understand enough to know that it was the same Messiah who would both atone for the sins of the people, and rule the nations in peace. And, Simeon was actively looking, waiting on the edge of his seat, yes, hoping to see the one who would fulfill the prophecies in his own lifetime with his very own eyes. Whether Simeon was the son of Hillel, a middle-aged man, or whether he lived to be 200 years of age, as the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches, Simeon thrived on this hope and the expectation of seeing the Christ in his lifetime.
You and I know that Christ came two millennia ago, died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven. Two thousand years have passed, and we know for a fact that we live two thousand years closer to His Second Coming than did the apostles. We are living in the latter days though we do not know for sure exactly when Christ will come again. But our hope is that He will come soon. It is near. It is at the door. In the next 50 years? Perhaps. In the next 25 years? Perhaps. In the next ten years? Perhaps. In the next five years? Perhaps. In the next year? Perhaps. Next month? Perhaps. This week? Perhaps. Today? Perhaps. But He will certainly come just as certainly as He ascended into heaven before several eyewitnesses 40 days after His resurrection! And when He comes…the crooked will be made straight! Yes, that is our Christmas Hope!