In this series I've explored the unmet expectations of our Christmas celebrations as well as unmet expectations in the first Christmas. We considered Simeon:
Simeon is an old man, and he’s been watching and waiting for God’s deliverance his entire life. He sees baby Jesus and knows instantly that the moment has finally come. God has answered his prayers!
But Simeon doesn’t stop with these celebratory words. He ends with a sober warning:
“This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, but he will be a joy to many others. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” (Luke 2:34-35)
Jesus is not all puppy dogs and rainbows. His birth would make a horrible Hallmark movie. Instead, his coming exposes the hearts of every woman and man. People will either love or hate this man. Because of Jesus, lives will be ruined. Secrets revealed. Hearts pierced as with a sword.
|Detail of "The Killing of the Innocents" by Leon Cogniet |
(1824) - Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France /
Giraudon / The Brideman Art Library
And it doesn’t take long. Before the baby can walk or talk, King Herod catches wind that a special child has been born, destined to be “king of the Jews.” Herod calls himself King of the Jews, so this baby is a real threat to his own power. In his paranoia, he orders his men to kill all the babies in and around Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt as political refugees just in the nick of time, thanks to a foreboding nightmare. But that’s just the beginning. The birth of the Messiah is not what anyone expected.
Jesus grows up and is ready to begin his work as God’s Messiah – his anointed king. And it works out just as Simeon foretold when Jesus was just a wee little thing. Rather than a sword to pierce the Romans, Jesus’ words are like a sword that pierces the hearts of all who hear him, even the Jews, exposing their hypocrisy. His first recorded sermon in the book of Luke chapter 4 ends with the Jewish congregation trying to throw him off a cliff – literally.
We can’t embrace Jesus as our hero or teacher or prophet or king without his sword piercing our hearts, too. His words are life-giving, but they require surrender on our part – he’s in the business of releasing us from our sins and our fears. Transformation begins by exposing what’s deep down inside. Every one of us must decide: what will we do with Jesus? There is no neutral. We cannot hold him at arm’s length. We either let him do his work in us, or we reject him. That’s the surprise of Christmas.
It’s not just the first Christmas or our first encounter with Jesus where this happens. Whether we’ve been a Christian for 6 months or 60 years, Jesus’ coming has this effect on us every year. In the frenzy of the holiday, what we care about most becomes obvious. Our stress levels rise and fall with our expectations of ourselves and of others. How will this look to the neighbors? What kind of friend am I? What should I bring? Why wasn’t I invited? … If we surrender our expectations to him, we’re free to receive whatever he has for us. If we try to control things by clinging to our own expectations, we’re in for a tough ride.
Dear desire of every nation
Joy of every longing heart
What is the desire of your longing heart this Christmas – more than anything? And what do you fear most of all? As we approach Christmas – the day that celebrates Jesus’ coming into our world – our desires get exposed along with our fears. I leave you with this heartfelt advice for how to navigate Christmas this year:
1. Release your expectations for yourself and for others. Part of finding contentment is having a sober assessment of who we are and what we can reasonably accomplish in light of what God has designed us to do and what else is on our plates. We can’t do it all! Stress enters the picture when we expect more of ourselves than God does. Does he expect us to do all these things? If not, then why do we try to do them?
2. Refuse to numb your disappointment. When we feel things start to crumble and our expectations are unmet, the temptation is to numb the pain – binge watching, binge eating, frenzied activity, shutting down emotionally, oversleeping, spending sprees, drinking, perhaps – anything so that we don’t have to feel the disappointment. In fact, some of you have become so skilled at numbing that you would say you don’t have any expectations at all this Christmas. You’ve stopped caring. Numbing our disappointment actually prevents us from experiencing the gift of Christmas. Instead of numbing, here’s what I recommend:
3. Invite Jesus into the mess that is your real life. Come to him honestly, achingly, desperately. Jesus doesn’t wait to enter our world until it is neat and tidy and ready to post on Pinterest. He walks on stage in the middle of Act 2, when everyone has forgotten their lines and the whole show is on the verge of disaster. That’s his cue. It’s the part he plays masterfully. Jesus isn’t overwhelmed by your schedule or shocked by your family dynamics. He didn’t come to affirm us but to redeem us. Transformation is what he’s all about. Bringing joy and hope and rest in the midst of life’s mess is what he does best.
What will you do with Jesus this Christmas? Will you release your expectations to him? refusing to numb your disappointment and inviting him into the mess? His coming brings rest, hope, joy, and so much more, but not when we’re holding him at arm’s length and trying to do things on our own.
Come, thou long-expected JesusBorn to set thy people freeFrom our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in theeIsrael’s strength and consolationHope of all the earth thou artDear desire of every nationJoy of every longing heart*
Or in the words of another of my favorite Christmas carols,
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.**
*"Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus," Charles Wesley, 1744
**"O Little Town of Bethlehem," Phillips Brooks, 1868