Sunday, December 9, 2018

What Do You Expect This Christmas? (Part 3)

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

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

What Do You Expect This Christmas? (Part 2)

In the first post of this Advent series, I raised the issue of unmet expectations in our Christmas celebrations. In this post, we consider the first Christmas, which did not go as expected.


The Holy Family (Photo: C Imes)
Sweep away that image of a peaceful nativity. We know better. Is life with a newborn ever a “silent night”? And giving birth in a crowded house with distant relatives and their livestock is hardly a picture of “peace on earth.”

The first Christmas had more than its fair share of disappointments and unmet expectations. The Jewish people had been hoping and praying and waiting for centuries for a Savior.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus
Born to set thy people free

God had promised to send the people of Israel a king in the line of David, a Messiah –someone who could crush those who oppressed them and finally set them free. But that was a long time ago. In the meantime, other nations had dominated and abused them – first the Assyrian empire, then the Babylonians, then the Greeks, now the Romans. The Jews were weary of being mistreated. The Romans taxed them heavily and policed them ruthlessly. Jewish residents had no citizenship and no say in government. They were harassed about their worship and way of life. But for centuries they had held on to the promise that God would send the Messiah to crush their enemies and make them submit to God’s rule, ushering the Jewish nation into a glorious new age.

Finally Christmas came. A helpless baby was born to a young virgin whose fiancĂ© nearly called off the wedding. They had to travel across the country during her pregnancy for a census – the Roman oppressors’ way of counting them so they could extort more tax money to pay for an ever-expanding empire. Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem only to find that their relatives’ guest rooms are full. The implication is that they must sleep on the floor near the animals. The best cradle they can manage is a feeding trough.

This is Christmas? This is the coming of the king in the line of David? This is the one who will crush the enemies of God? It’s hardly worthy of an Instagram post, much less an angelic announcement.

An angel had appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him about the child: “Joseph son of David … do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

This must have come as a bit of a slap in the face to Joseph. For a people longing for deliverance from the Romans, imagine the effect when the hero shows up to save them from themselves. You are your own worst enemy. Ouch.

From our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in thee

When he’s about 40 days old, Mary and Joseph head to Jerusalem to dedicate baby Jesus at the temple. This is part of the Christmas story less well known. To figure out what’s going on, we need to understand a bit of history. When God rescued the Jews from slavery in Egypt back in the Old Testament era, the firstborn sons of Egyptian families died in the 10th plague. From then on, God asked Jewish families to dedicate their firstborn sons to him. That’s one reason Joseph and Mary visit the temple.

But Mary has a second reason for going. Every Jewish mother also offers two sacrifices for purification after childbirth. Childbirth is to be treated with great reverence because it is a matter of life and death. So when a new mother has finished bleeding, she is to bring a lamb and a pigeon as an offering to God, symbolizing her cleansing. Poor families may bring two pigeons or doves if they cannot afford a lamb. This is what Joseph and Mary do. Being poor, they bring two birds. Not what we might expect for the birth of a king!

"Simeon's Moment" by Ron DiCianni
(Photo: C Imes)
While they are at the temple, Mary and Joseph meet an unlikely character: Simeon. We pick up the story in Luke 2:25:
“At that time there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was righteous and devout and was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him and had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Messiah. That day the Spirit led him to the Temple. So when Mary and Joseph came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord as the law required, Simeon was there. He took the child in his arms and praised God, saying, 'Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace, as you have promised. I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!' Jesus' parents were amazed at what was being said about him." (Luke 2:25-33 NLT)
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!

Israel’s strength and consolation
Hope of all the earth thou art

But Simeon doesn’t stop with these celebratory words. He ends with a sober warning. We'll consider what it could possibly mean in Part 3 of this Advent Series.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

What Do You Expect This Christmas? (Part 1)

Expectations. The holiday season can be a minefield of emotions, can it not? So many hopes. So many fears. So many disappointments. So much to get done. So little time.

Sometimes I catch myself wondering, “Why can’t things be like they used to?”
It’s true that life was simpler way back when -- smaller social circles, fewer distractions, more stability. But do you remember how things really were? 

Photo: C Imes
You’ve watched children open presents. They’re too young to have a well-developed filter. Their faces show everything. “Thanks, Grandma,” through clenched teeth with sidelong glances at Mom and raised eyebrows. “Wow! How did you know?!” with squeals of delight. “Oh. I have this one already” (trying not to cry).

We have all been the child who didn’t get what she really wanted for Christmas. And many of us have been the parent who tried our darndest to select the right gift, only to have our child give us “that look” or melt into tears.

I was “that child” when I was about 10 years old. Mom was in the dining room wrapping presents. When I walked into the room she scrambled to hide something under some loose wrapping paper. But it was too late. I had seen it. A big bag of … bird seed. I remember being puzzled. Bird seed? Why is mom hiding bird seed? It didn’t take long to conclude that I must be getting a bird feeder. And in the time between Mom’s wrapping day and my opening presents, I became obsessed with birds. I read about them. I watched for them outside. I thought about where to put the bird feeder in the back yard so I could see it out my window. Birds had never been on my radar before, but now they dominated my thinking. And then the big day came – time to open presents. I eyed the pile of gifts until I found the one that was sure to be my bird feeder. They had saved it until last. I ripped open the paper with a twinkle in my eye. They couldn’t fool me. I had figured it out. I opened the box . . . and sat there, stunned. It was a sleeping bag. I think I cried. I was so confused. “Mom, what about the bird seed?” Now it was her turn to be surprised. “Bird seed? That was for Grandpa and Grandma’s bird feeder.” She never imagined that her little trick to throw me off course would be so effective. The sleeping bag was beautiful, covered with rainbows and sailboats and puffy clouds. But I was devastated.

I’m grown up now. I don’t cry about presents any more. But that doesn’t make Christmas any easier. Not only do I have my own expectations to manage, but I’m also affected by the expectations of everyone in the family. The grown-up side of Christmas can be intense – the cooking and planning and shopping and decorating and fitting extra parties and Secret Santa and evening programs into a schedule that was full to begin with – the extra family time with its range of dynamics and loss of routine. I don’t get to do as I see fit because half a dozen other adults are in on the decisions and multiple calendars have to be considered.

Our Christmas holiday doesn’t take place on an empty stage. It shows up in the middle of Act 2 in this drama that is life with a whole cast of human characters with all their foibles – the addict, the perfectionist, the narcissist, the chronically anxious, the workaholic, the loner, the argumentative, the jokester. Most of us can identify ourselves (and our relatives!) somewhere on that list. And the way we imagine the ideal Christmas is often far from what actually plays out.

Those two family members refuse to celebrate together, forcing us to choose sides. This one is likely to be in a foul mood. I’ll be high strung. She’ll be withdrawn. He won’t offer to help. They’ll be picky eaters. She’ll drink too much. He’ll complain loudly. My feet will hurt. We’ll spend too much. They’ll raise their eyebrows.

Is it any wonder why some of us dread the holidays?

Photo: Virginia Howard
Christmas doesn’t take place on an empty stage. It shows up in the middle of life at full throttle.

This shouldn't surprise us. Even the first Christmas was no different. Sweep away that image of a peaceful nativity. We know better. Is life with a newborn ever a “silent night”? And giving birth in a crowded house with distant relatives and their livestock is hardly a picture of “peace on earth.”

The first Christmas had more than its fair share of disappointments and unmet expectations. I'll talk about those in Part 2 of this Advent series. In the meantime, ask yourself this question: What am I expecting this Christmas?