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Rediscovering Christmas: Hope in our Uncertainties

Hope in our Uncertainties

Luke 2:22-38, Romans 8:24-26


President Abraham Lincoln is often portrayed as a strong and resolute man who fought to keep America together when she was coming apart at the seams. A man who faced the task in front of him, and the secession of many southern states, without blinking. But a look through many of his statements reveals a man who went through some very dark days. At the beginning of the Civil War, he was resolute and visionary. “The mystic chords of memory,” he announced in his inaugural address on March 4, 1861, “stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union.” A little over a year into the war, on June 28, 1862, his language was tempered but still firm and uncompromising: “I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered.”


And then the true darkness began to fall. After a devastating defeat at Manassas in Virginia, he began first to worry, and then to doubt his cause: “Well, we are whipped again, I am afraid,” he moaned. “What shall we do? The bottom is out of the tub, the bottom is out of the tub!” (August 1862). The next months and years for Lincoln were lived in near-constant, faith-shaking darkness and despair: “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it” (December 1862, after defeat at Fredericksburg). “My God! My God! What will the country say?” (May 1863, after defeat at Chancellorsville). “This war is eating my life out. I have a strong impression that I shall not live to see the end” (1864).


And then, in the darkness a flicker of hope burst into flame. Union victories began turning the tide of the Civil War, and Lincoln’s spirits began to lift. The words he spoke became more positive and resolute again as he reached toward his vision of one United States of America. In March 1865, about a month before Lee’s surrender, Lincoln is able to regather his faith and speak, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right [as God gives], let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds … “ (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865). And finally, less than two weeks before his death, President Lincoln proclaimed the end of his trials: “Thank God I have lived to see this. It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone” (April 3, 1865).[i]


It is easy to maintain hope at the beginning of the journey, but as time goes on, as days turn into weeks turn into months turn into years, as battles are lost, hope begins to fade. And that’s true not just of presidents fighting to keep America together and safe and prosperous. It is also true of each and every one of us, through the battles we face and fight and we move through this life. Battles with sickness and disease, battles with loneliness and depression and anxiety, battles for relationships. Fear of failure. Fear of losing everything. Fear of being alone, of not finding someone to share your life with.


Worry about all of the anger and hatred we see today. And yet, behind anger, we find fear. Fear of losing control. Fear of ideas that are fundamentally at odds with our own. Fear of loosing … what? We don’t know. But we’re afraid. I’ve talked to men and women reduced to tears, men and women you wouldn’t peg as the crying type. Reduced to tears because they’re looking for someone or something to believe in, and not finding it, or him, or her. Reduced to tears because they’re losing hope. Or they’ve lost hope.


There’s something I want you to leave here understanding this morning: There. Is. Hope. Turn with me to Luke 2:22-38.


After the dramatic events surrounding the birth of Jesus … visits to both Mary and Joseph by the angel Gabriel, the miraculous conception of a baby without sexual intercourse, Caesar’s tax and census and the ensuing journey to Bethlehem, angels in the sky noticed by no one but a group of shepherds, the events of THIS passage seem so … mundane. They’re the things that EVERY couple when through in the days following the birth of a baby boy. The circumcision and naming of the baby on the 8th day. The sacrifice of purification for the mother 33 days later at the temple, and the presentation of the baby boy at the temple. You see, every first born boy belonged to God. Was set aside for service to God. But they weren’t intended to become priests. There was a priestly class, a priestly people, for that. But God wrote this into his law as a means of supporting the priests. Every first born son was set aside for service to God, and was then redeemed by his family through an offering at the temple. The baby then returned home with them, and the offering was used to support the priesthood.


There’s nothing extraordinary about any of this. It’s the kind of stuff that winds up in baby books and home videos that no one but the parents really cares about. Why? Because it’s normal. Everyone does it. “Awww, here’s little Johnny taking his first steps.” And friends smile a nod, and don’t really care. “Congratulations, your child can walk. They haven’t exactly made it into Harvard or become a doctor. They can walk.” And then, when you’re chasing a two year old holding a sippy cup full of chocolate milk upside down around the house, you begin to realize, “this whole walking thing is more curse than blessing.”


But, as is so often the case, we tend to look for God and in the dramatic, and find him in the mundane. These were the things that every parent in Israel did. It happened daily. And then something special happens. An old man named Simeon, who Luke tells us was full of the Holy Spirit (and to be sure, before Pentecost, that was a rare thing) and was righteous and devout, approaches Mary and Joseph and their baby as they go about their mundane duties in the temple, and he takes the baby in his arms, which is kinda strange too, when you think about it. Most parents in any age aren’t in the practice of letting strange people hold their month old babies. And as he holds that baby, Simeon realizes he is holding hope in his arms. Look at Vv. 30-32.


Luke tells us that in addition to being righteous and devout and full of the Holy Spirit, Simeon was also “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (V. 25). The consolation of Israel. That’s a common phrase in the Old Testament prophetic book of Isaiah. It’s a phrase Isaiah used a lot. Isaiah was a prophet in the Old Testament who was alive in the years leading up to the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. It was then that Isaiah began to refer to “the consolation of Israel.” He was referring to the coming Messiah, the one who would rescue and restore Israel.


Six hundred years later, Simeon is looking for “the consolation of Israel.” He is looking for the Messiah. He is looking for the hope promised by Isaiah centuries before. And he realizes, as he takes Mary and Joseph’s baby in his arms, that he has found it. After 600 years of waiting, and for 200 of those years God had been silent, with no prophet speaking words of promise to the people, the promised hope had come.


Now, given the events surrounding Isaiah’s words about God’s messiah, “the consolation of Israel,” namely the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon and the exile of the people of God, it made sense for the people to associate God’s messiah with the undoing of all that Babylon had done. The messiah would be the one who restored Israel to her rightful place in the world as a sovereign nation who owed allegiance and payment to no one. Under the leadership of the messiah, the people would rise up and, once and for all, throw off the chains of their oppressors.


Sure, the Jewish people had returned to the Promised Land. They inhabited Jerusalem once again. They had their rebuilt temple, and it was magnificent, and a palace for their king. But their king was a vassal king. And his authority was largely ceremonial. Sure, he could do some things, but the Roman provincial governors, people like Pontius Pilate, really ran the show. And Israel had no army, no means of protection. It was the army of Rome who patrolled her streets and the roads between villages. Yes, Israel had returned physically, but the restoration was far from complete. Israel was a vassal state heavily taxed and occupied by the Roman Empire.


Some Jews had lost all hope of any kind of real restoration. They simply tried to make the best of it  and sought to prosper under Roman rule. They became tax collectors for the Romans, and Roman colluders. Forget all of that consolation and messiah stuff. Just get on with life as it is. Others sought to develop underground resistance cells. Zealots were a group that looked for ways to undermine Rome, even training assassins who could carry out clandestine hits on key leaders and those suspected of supporting Rome. They saw themselves as preparing to fight the messiah’s war when he came. And then there were those who sought to bring about the restoration of Israel through absolute purity under the law of God. The pharisees believed they would usher in the coming of God’s messiah by keeping perfectly the law of God. And then another group, the Essenes, took the Pharisee’s approach a step farther and started living apart from everyone else out in the wilderness, so they wouldn’t be tainted by society.


All kinds of disagreement about what God’s messiah would be like, and what he would do, and how they could usher in his coming and be ready for whatever he had in store. And these groups often argued with each other because their perspectives and methods and visions for Israel were so different. That’s the world Jesus was born into … Israel was a people living under the thumb of an occupying empire, with an oppressive tax burden paid to Rome, and they were a people divided by their visions and perspectives as to what the future held and how to secure their best future. Minus the occupying force, that sounds like America today, doesn’t it?


And Simeon is holding this baby in his arms, and knows that this baby IS the consolation of Israel, God’s messiah, in the flesh. He is holding hope in his arms. And then, after thanking God for the incredible privilege of seeing Jesus, the messiah, with his own eyes before his death, he turns to Mary and Joseph and makes an interesting statement. Look at Vv. 34-35.


Jesus would be a divisive character within Israel. Many would either rise or fall based simply on who Jesus was and what Jesus was doing. Many would understand. Sort of. Eventually. Many others would not, and would resist him. And those who would rise and those who would fall would come from all of these sects and splinter groups and the multiplicity of perspectives and proposed solutions within Israel. You see, our hope, as followers of Jesus, was in the arms of Simeon at that moment, not in the mind of man. And the realization of God’s purpose is the bedrock of hope. Turn over to Romans 8:23-25.


St. Paul describes the groaning of all of creation as we await the full realization of God’s purpose, and it is in that realization of his purpose that our hope is founded. Our hope is not in any political leader, conservative or liberal. Our hope is not in any military might. Our hope is not in the health of our economy. Our hope is not in freedom itself. Our hope is in Jesus Christ.


Chuck Colson, who at one time held a powerful position in President Nixon’s administration, who gave his life to Christ in prison as he served his sentence for crimes he committed in the Watergate scandal, said this: “Where is the hope? I meet millions of people who feel demoralized by the decay around us. The hope that each of us has is not in who governs us, or what laws we pass, or what great things we do as a nation. Our hope is in the power of God working through the hearts of people. And that’s where our hope is in this country. And that’s where our hope is in life.”[ii]


We don’t know which perspective on God’s messiah and on the messiah’s coming that Simeon held. We do know that on that day, as Mary and Joseph went about the mundane business of being good parents, Simeon knew that he held hope, real hope, in his arms. He knew, in that moment, that the Essenes and the Pharisees and their varying degrees of righteousness under the law weren’t a source of hope. That Herod and the tax collectors and others who sought to appease Rome weren’t a source of hope. That the Zealots and their attempts to undermine Rome weren’t a source of hope. That no human ideal or idea was a source of hope. He knew, in that moment that he held hope in his arms. That no matter how the winds of society and culture and history blew, no matter what direction things took, no matter whether Jerusalem’s palace and temple stood or fell, that whether Israel herself stood or fell, he held hope in his arms. Because he knew that the hope in his arms, in the form of one month old Jesus, was bigger, and more real, and more firm, than all other sources of hope combined. And at this point, one month old Jesus had done nothing but nurse, poop, cry, and sleep.


In the Old Testament, Isaiah referred to the messiah as both a stone to be stumbled over and the cornerstone of a solid foundation. And he would prove to be both at the same time. Some came to him and, because he didn’t fit their agenda, they went away. Other came to him, and set their agenda aside, and took up his. Funny, isn’t it, that the group of disciples Jesus chose included a few flag waving Galilean fishermen, and a zealot, and a colluding tax collector. That pharisees and appeasers both found their way to Jesus. That those who had been wealthy and powerful dined with prostitutes and healed lepers in the presence of Jesus. A cornerstone for some, a stumbling block for others, regardless of where they came from.


Which is he, for you? When life overwhelms you, and fills you with fear, or anger, which remember is a cover for fear, where do you turn to find hope? Whether we like the direction our country is currently headed or not, we place our hope in Christ. Whether we liked the direction our country was headed under the previous administration, we place our hope in Christ. Political winds will change directions as often as the wind on the bay, first blowing one way, and then another. If you’re boat is influenced by those winds, you’re going to get seasick. If you’re a follower of Jesus, you don’t place your hope there. You place it in Jesus.


The Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity – hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory – because at the Father’s will Jesus Christ became poor and was born in a stable so that thirty years later he might hang on a cross.[iii] Let us pray.


[i] Adapted from Mike Nappa, God in Slow Motion (Thomas Nelson, 2013), pages 103-104

[ii] Chuck Colson

[iii] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 63