Now Comes The Joy
It is December 26. The shopping mall jingles are silent, the office and company parties are over, the gifts have been purchased and exchanged. Today when the world is done with Christmas, the church gathers and celebrates joy--real joy. Now comes the joy. Some experience a let-down after a big event like Christmas Eve/Day. The hustle and bustle are over; now comes the clean up. But, Christmas joy, real joy, is not about an annual fantasy trip into never-never land. Real Christmas joy is not seasonal. Real Christmas joy is an ongoing, unquenchable, boundless experience.
It is very difficult for the world to understand Christmas. They think the trimmings is what Christmas is about. They think Christmas is about merriment, gift-exchanging, eating and watching football. We know better. We know Christmas is deeper than merriment. Christmas is about joy, not ha-ha superficiality, but deep abiding joy that encompasses pain as well as pleasure, sorrow as well as laughter, death as well as birth. Christmas does not deny pain; Christmas redeems it. Christmas is about a God who loves us so much that he becomes one of us, born among us, looks like us, feels like us, lives and dies like us. A God who comes to us must be a God willing to get his hands dirty in the human condition. A God who comes to tell the truth to us will be resisted, a God whose words will be as much a sword in our hearts as a comfort.
The Scripture lesson this morning which tells us of events following Jesus' birth help us understand what God's coming to this earth, what the incarnation of God, means. Luke tells us that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day in accordance with Jewish tradition. Mary and Joseph were very correct in observing all the traditional rituals surrounding the birth of their first child. The lesson read this morning, beginning with verse 22 of the second chapter of Luke, describes two ceremonies which Luke mixes up and presents as one. Luke was a Greek physician who traveled with Paul, and was not that familiar with Jewish customs. He has confused the Purification ritual with the Presentation of the first-born male child. Luke 2:22 reads, "The time came for Joseph and Mary to do what the Law of Moses commanded and perform the ceremony of purification. So they took the child to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord." Luke doesn't seem to understand these are two separate rituals.
The ritual of purification is for Mary. According to Leviticus, a mother was considered unclean for 40 days after the baby's birth. To end this period of defilement, she would bring a sacrifice to the temple. Because Mary took two doves or two pigeons rather than a lamb, we learn that Joseph and Mary were poor. Those who could afford it were commanded by Leviticus to sacrifice a lamb.
The second ritual was the Presentation. Joseph and Mary brought the infant Jesus to the temple to present him to the Lord. All first-born males were dedicated to the Lord, recalling the miraculous night in which all the first-borns sons of Egypt died while the Hebrew sons were passed over. Since then the first-born were dedicated to the Lord. After the baby was dedicated, parents made an offering to buy him back, rather than leaving him there for temple service, as Hannah did with Samuel when he was born.
At the temple, Joseph and Mary encountered an old man, righteous and devout, looking for the Messiah. In fact, he had been assured by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's promised Messiah. In spite of the throngs of people, Simeon felt something special when he saw the Holy Family. Surprising Mary, he took Jesus in his arms and began to praise God:
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.
This child is chosen by God for the destruction and the salvation of many in Israel. He will be a sign from God which many people will speak against, and so reveal their secret thoughts. And sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart.
This story gives us a rich insight into the meaning of Christ's birth, into the meaning of the incarnation when God entered our human existence. This story also illustrates why it is so difficult for the world to understand Christmas. Understanding Christmas by understanding this incident in the temple, will help us appreciate and experience the ongoing joy to the world which the Lord brings.
First, look who greeted them. Look who recognized the significance of the baby. Look at the characters in the Christmas story. When Joseph, Mary, and Jesus entered the temple, they were not greeted by the Chief Priest. They were not noticed by any priests, or Sadducees or Pharisees or Scribes. They were not recognized by the religious leaders nor by the learned scholars. They were greeted and recognized by two elderly people, an old man and an old woman. The old woman was probably called eccentric. She lived at the church. We had a woman like Anna in Palo Alto. She was lonely, never married. Her brother lived far away. She was quite hard of hearing so people really couldn't visit with her. She had no friends. Dorothy came to the church on the bus every morning, and spent the day. She roamed the halls. She drank coffee. We gave her little jobs to do as she was not capable of doing anything too difficult. She lived at the church and often got on the nerves of the secretaries, but the custodian was always patient with her.
Anna also lived out her life in the temple, and spent her time praying and fasting. But, when Jesus came she recognized him. Imagine! The uniqueness of the baby, the divinity of the baby was revealed to an old man and an old woman. You who think you are old and have a tendency to discount yourself, to think your best days are behind you; to think you don't count for much any more, take heart! The glory of God appeared to two elderly people.
Christmas did not come to powerful people; it came to the elderly. Christmas did not come to the rich; it came to the poor. Jesus' parents were poor. God chose the poor to bring the Messiah to this earth. To whom did the angels announce the Messiah's birth? Not to the priests, not to the rich, not to the leaders, but to the shepherds. In our day, shepherds have respectability, but not in the Bible days. They were located at the bottom of the status pole. Christmas joy is for outcasts like the shepherds, the unpretentious like Joseph and Mary, the humble and eccentric like Simeon and Anna. Christmas joy is for you and me when we humbly bow our head and knees, admit to God we cannot make it on our own, confess our sins and shortcomings, ask for forgiveness and reconciliation, and offer ourselves to God for use in his service,
The second abiding lesson we can learn from the blessing of Simeon is that real joy encompasses, not ignores pain. Old Simeon had lived long enough to know that if God really wants to bless us, to save us, somehow this God must confront the worst about us, the things we do to one another, the terrible things we do to ourselves. That confrontation would not be cheap. This cuddly baby Jesus in Simeon's arms would grow up, would speak the truth to us, would die for us. So a cross stands behind the manger this morning. A cross stands behind the poinsettias, poinsettias with blooms of red, blood red. Note the symbolism of our beautiful poinsettia display. Can you see the blood of the cross flowing down and staining all the blossoms red?
This is our joy, but it is no simple joy. It is joy considerably more complex and interesting than most of what passes for Christmas joy these days. If we are to be saved, if God is going to do something about us, then God will have to do something about our sin, our confusion, our cruelty and fear. So, if Christmas is really about joy, it must be joy which somehow does business with our pain. It must be joy which comes in the midst of realism about what ails us, joy which does not avoid confrontation with the tough facts of life.
We rejoice today, because true joy bursts in upon us. Christ takes our pain. Christ takes our sin. Christ takes us as we are, forgives us, releases us, and reconciles us with God. Our salvation cost Jesus his life. The baby who was born to poor people, worshiped by outcast shepherds, revealed to an old man and an eccentric old woman, threatened by wicked King Herod, grew up, and took the pain of humankind upon himself. Christ takes your pain upon himself. That is joy. Truly, joy to the world, the Lord is come.
© 1993 Douglas I. Norris