Hopeless in Jerusalem
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas – Part 2
Luke 2:25-40

We are continuing in our series called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and what we try to do every year during the month of December is just prepare our hearts for celebrating the birth of Jesus.  Many of us go to great lengths to prepare our homes to celebrate His birth.  We put up the Christmas trees and hang the lights and all the decorations.  We start playing different kinds of music, and we change the environment around us.  But we want to be even more intentional to prepare our hearts, just as we have prepared our homes to celebrate the birth of Christ.

This season in the calendar…a church calendar…is typically called “the season of Advent.”  Many of you grew up recognizing the Advent season.  Some of you, maybe not.  But starting four Sundays before Christmas the Advent season begins – which is why we lit the first Advent candle last Sunday morning – and it ends on the night before Christmas.  It ends on December 24th.  It’s been recognized for centuries.  It’s celebrated even now by millions and millions of Christians all around the world.  And this month…these four weeks…are meant to be a season of preparation—preparing our hearts, preparing our homes.  It’s meant to be a time of expectation building up to a celebration, as we remember that Jesus was born to save us from our sins.

And so some of you didn’t know why you started that.  Like, right after Thanksgiving you’d get out the Christmas tree.  But it’s actually deeply rooted in church history.  That this time of the year—not just on Christmas day but throughout these four weeks—is meant to be a time of recognizing, a time of preparing and celebrating.  So all those external adornments are meant to trigger this internal anticipation so that we are fully prepared to celebrate the significance of what happened.

The word Advent is simply defined as “Coming.”  And so, Advent is a time where we celebrate the fact that Jesus came.  But there’s a second piece that sometimes gets missed, and that is it’s also a time where we intentionally celebrate and anticipate that Jesus will come again.  So during the season of Advent, there are two purposes: to celebrate the birth of Jesus and to anticipate the return of Jesus.

I think for many of us during the Christmas season, we don’t think a lot about the second coming of Jesus.  But those two things should be going together: That Jesus came, and that Jesus will come again.  One person described it this way – that we need to learn to live in what he calls “the already but the not yet”— “the already but the not yet.”  That Jesus has already come; we celebrate that.  That He has not yet returned, so we anticipate that.  That’s the Advent season.

So what does that look like?  Well, if you have a young child at home, you’re probably getting a pretty clear picture of what Advent looks like.  Because a young child sees the tree that’s been up and sees the presents that have been wrapped and placed underneath the tree, and a young child will get pretty excited about that.  They begin to anticipate the day they’ll get to open up those presents.  And so they’ll go in and you’ll see them just staring at the present.  They know they can’t touch it, but if they stare at it hard enough, long enough, maybe somehow they’ll figure out what’s in there.  Or they’ll count the presents, and they’ll figure out how many presents they have compared to how many their siblings have; and then they’ll divide it by the size of the present, and they’ve got these equations, you know.  They’re looking forward to opening up those presents.  And a child will ask you, “How much longer until Christmas?”  A young child will say, “Is today Christmas?”  And as parents you’ll say, “Not yet.”  The next day… “Is today Christmas?”  “Not yet.  It’s not Christmas yet.”  “But the presents are right there underneath the tree.  They’re right there.  Could I open up a present today even though today is not Christmas?  Because the present’s already been given.  Can I open it up today?”  “Not yet. Not yet.”  “But it’s already there!”  “I know, but not yet.”

And we live in between “the already and the not yet.”  That Jesus was born.  The present has been given.  It’s wrapped and it’s got your name on it.  It’s there!  And we celebrate that, and yet it won’t be fully received until Jesus comes again.  And so we’re living between “the already and the not yet.”  We are celebrating that Jesus came, but we are waiting for Him to come again.

And so the challenge with waiting…the challenge with living in this season is that the longer you wait, the easier it is to lose hope.  Don’t you think that’s true?  I mean, can you think of some times in your life where that’s happened?  You didn’t mind waiting for a while, but after waiting a certain amount of time, you just start to lose hope.  That’s what the children of God were dealing with when Jesus came the first time.  They had been waiting a long time for a Messiah, and there was a lot of hopelessness in Jerusalem.  I mean, you think about how long they had been waiting.  The Old Testament is full of promises and prophecies that a Messiah would come and rescue the people.  More than three hundred prophesies, starting as early as Genesis chapter 3, point people to the birth of Jesus.  But centuries had come and gone.  Generations had come and gone, and there was no Messiah.  And after enough time passes, it’s just easy to become a little bit hopeless, to feel a little bit defeated.  And they had been waiting a long time when Jesus was born.

Many of you know this, but there is a period of time between the Old and New Testament called “the Intertestamental Period.”  What you may not know is that that time was around four hundred years of history.  So between the time we had the Old Testament and the time of the New Testament there’s around four hundred years that passes.  Sometimes that’s called “the four hundred years of silence.”  It used to be that publishers would print a blank page and they would put that blank page between the Old Testament and the New Testament as a way to symbolize those four hundred years of silence.  It was a metaphor in a way that during those four hundred years there was no word from the Lord.  During those four hundred years there was no prophet that was making promises.  So the people were waiting, but they didn’t know how much longer they would be waiting.  And it seemed that God had gone dark, that He had gone AWOL, and they were getting tired of waiting.  It’s a long time.  And I’m sure there were many in Jerusalem who had just kind of given up.

After the destruction of Jerusalem that we read about in the Old Testament the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt by Nehemiah.  Chronologically, Nehemiah is the last book in the Old Testament.  And so, the walls get rebuilt by Nehemiah, and then the four hundred years passes and Rome is now in charge.  They have taken over the city of Jerusalem.  And so the people of God are being held captive in the city of Jerusalem.  They’re waiting…still waiting…for God to rescue them.  And after waiting long enough you just start to lose hope.

And some of you recognize that because that’s the season you’re living in right now.  You’ve been waiting for a long time for God to rescue you in some way or another, and it just hasn’t happened; and the longer you wait, the more frustrated you become.  We’re not good at waiting.  I don’t like waiting for anything.

Now some of you will judge me for this.  That’s okay.  But I don’t really like Disney World or other similar theme parks.  I don’t really like it.  I know that makes me sound like a horrible person.  I don’t care.  I’m just keepin’ it real.  I don’t really like Disney World.  I don’t like paying exorbitant amounts of money to be in crowded places and wait in long lines.  That’s just the way I’m wired.  And so, I’ve gone before, but it’s been a long time.  I don’t really plan on going again.  Well, I might have to go at some point because it won’t be my choice.  But I don’t really care for it.  And I’ll say this for Disney.  They’ve tried to make waiting, you know, as tolerable as possible.  Like, they have what they call the FastPass.  Are you familiar with the FastPass?  You go to the ride.  You walk, you know, and fight the massive crowds.  You finally get to the ride that you want to go on, and you get a FastPass; and the FastPass tells you when you need to come back to the place you already are.  That’s what it is.  Like, yeah, you’re here right now, but go do something else for a while and come back to the same place.  But I’m already here.  Yeah, but this is faster.  And so, you get the FastPass, and then you come back to wait in line.  It’s shorter, but you still wait in line.  So the FastPass just says, “Here’s how long you need to wait before you come back and wait a little longer.”  And so I just don’t do well with that kind of thing.  I don’t do well with that.  It does not bring out the best in me.  But Disney has made efforts, right?  So that you’re standing in line, and they’ll have signs up that tell you how much longer you have to wait until it’s your turn to ride on the ride.  So there’ll be like a sign that says, “You know, your wait from this point is two days.”  I mean, it tells you…it tells you.  That way you know that the line is moving because it doesn’t feel like it’s moving.  It doesn’t seem like it’s moving.  And if it doesn’t feel like it’s moving, you know, we get frustrated and we get upset.  So they give you these checkpoints: “Your time from this point is this much longer.”  And it does help a little bit because at least you know you’re making some progress.

And it would be great if they had, you know, signs like that for other areas of life, right?  Where you’ve been trying to get a job.  You’ve been waiting a long time on a job, and if there was just a sign…a sign that said, “You know, from this point you’ve got four months.”  All right.  I mean, that’s a long time, but four months…as long as I know…as long as I know that it’s going to happen in four months…as long as that line is moving it makes it a lot easier.

Or you know, maybe you’ve been wanting to get married, and it feels like you’ve been waiting a long time.  If there was just a sign that says, “You know, your wait from this point would be, you know, a year and a half.”  Okay…a year and a half.  As long as I know the line’s moving.

Or you’ve been, you know, waiting for your husband to just remember…just one time…just remember to put the toilet seat down on his own, without having to be reminded.  I mean, how long…?  How many years do you have to wait in your marriage before that finally just happens?  And if there were some signs…like, “Your wait from this point will be the rest of your natural existence.”  That’s how long you’re going to wait, and then it’s going to happen.  And if there was just a way—right? —if there was just a sign that says, “This is how much longer you’ve got,” it would make it easier.

And yet that’s not…that’s not the line that we find ourselves in.  We don’t get those signs.  And the people in Jerusalem that night before Christmas…they didn’t know.  They had been waiting a long time, and after enough days of asking, “Is it today?” and being told, “Not yet,” at some point you just start to lose…you lose some hope.

And I’m just guessing that some of you understand that, because you’ve been waiting for God to rescue you…to rescue you, you know…and waiting on Him to cure the cancer, waiting on Him to fix finances or to heal your marriage or to help you overcome some addiction, find some victory there.  You’ve been waiting on God to bring about some justice to the person who hurt you.  And so, for a long time you felt hopeful.  You know, you told yourself, “You know, God’s going to make this right.”  For a long time, you had this hope that He was going to come to the rescue and that He was going to heal, but at some point along the line you just start to lose hope.  And every day that passes a little bit more hope goes down the drain.

So when we start to feel hopeless here’s what we tend to do—and this was true for God’s people as well.  

The first thing that we tend to do is we become more independent.

We start to think, “Well, here’s the line I’m waiting in.  Here’s the struggle that I’m dealing with, the challenge that I have, and God doesn’t seem to be coming through for me—at least on my timetable—so it looks like I’m on my own.  It doesn’t look like rescue is coming.   It doesn’t look like there’s a plan and help is not on the way.  So I guess I’m going to have to put my hope in myself.”  And there’s something about that that seems pretty appealing.  That, “You know what?  I can’t count on anybody, so I’m going to put my hope in me.”  And this is the way that some of you have lived life for a long time.  You learned early on that you can’t count on people, and so you have put the walls up and you have kept people at a distance.  And not just people…you’ve kept God at a distance.  And you’ve just decided that the only person you can really count on is yourself.  You’ve put your hope in you.  And that might work for a little while, but eventually you find out that there are some things that yourself can’t take care of.  It doesn’t work to put your hope in yourself.  I mean, yourself can’t control your spouse’s feelings or your children’s decisions or the doctor’s diagnosis.  And so you try…you try to take care of it on your own.

When that doesn’t work then there tends to be a season where we become more indignant.  

We become angry, resentful towards God and towards life because things haven’t worked out the way we think they should.  God hasn’t come through the way we thought He would.  As one Holocaust survivor put it: “Look, if this is the best God can do then maybe He should resign and let someone more competent take His place.”  And while we may not have the courage to speak those words, there are some of you who can relate to them.  You are angry, and you’re tired of waiting.  You’ve been waiting a long time.  It’s the young couple who remembers this time last year where they were filled with hope as they prayed to conceive a child, but here they are a year later and they’re still waiting.  And they just start to become more and more discouraged and defeated, but then at some point it just turns…it turns angry.   As hope begins to go down the drain, the sink starts to fill up with bitterness.

And then eventually it will lead to indifference.

We just become indifferent.  That’s a survival technique.  We just can’t let ourselves care anymore.  We just end up living life with this “whatever” approach.  We don’t want to hope anymore because we’re so tired of being disappointed, and so we just grow cold, and our hearts get hard.

Lewis Smedes puts it this way.  He says, “Waiting is our destiny.  As creatures who cannot by themselves bring about what they hope for, we wait in the darkness for a flame we cannot light.  We wait in fear for a happy ending we cannot write.  We wait for a ‘not yet’ that feels like a ‘not ever.’  Waiting is the hardest work of hope.”

And that was true in Jerusalem.  There was a lot of hopelessness.  They had been waiting a long time.

But there are two examples for us in the city of Jerusalem on the night before Christmas of people who had continued to put their hope in God and wait expectantly, joyfully.  The first person we’re introduced to is Simeon.  He’s in the temple of Jerusalem.  Mary and Joseph come to the temple to dedicate Jesus as a child, as required by law.  They meet Simeon there.

Verse 25 says, “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 (and rescue) Israel” (NLT).

The phrase I want to draw your attention to is the phrase that he was “eagerly waiting.”  It says how he was waiting.  We don’t eagerly wait for almost anything.  I’m trying to think of some kind of example where we eagerly wait.  We might anxiously wait, excitedly wait, but eagerly wait is different.  Like, if there’s a line…if you go to the checkout line and there are two lines, no one…no one says, “You know this line is longer.  I’m going to wait in that line because I like waiting.  I don’t mind it.”  No one does that.  We want the shortest line.  We want to get through as quickly as possible.  That’s how we wait.

I was thinking of all the other adverbs that you could use to describe our approach to waiting. Here are a few: We resentfully wait, anxiously, fearfully, angrily, exasperatingly, sullenly, nauseatingly, frustratingly, peevishly, vexingly, demandingly, and of course we cantankerously wait.  That tends to be our approach to waiting.  When we are put in a position where we’re not getting what we want when we want it, we don’t eagerly wait.  We get cantankerous.  We don’t do well with it.  But here’s Simeon, who’s been waiting and waiting and waiting, and yet he still eagerly waits.

We don’t know how old he was, but Luke goes onto tell us, “The Holy Spirit was upon him (verse 25).”  Verse 26 says, “…and had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (2:25-26, NLT).

So it would seem that Simeon was old enough to be past the average age of life expectancy for that time.  In verse 29 when Simeon finally does get to hold Jesus and he prays, the first thing Simeon prays is: “Lord, let me die in peace.”  So he’s ready to go, right?  He had been waiting a long time, and he was ready…he was ready to go to heaven.

In verse 36, Luke introduces us to a woman at the temple in Jerusalem.  It says, “Anna, a prophet, was also there in the Temple.  She was the daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher, and she was very old.  Her husband died when they had been married only seven years.  Then she lived as a widow to the age of eighty-four (years old)…” (vv. 36-37, NLT).

So Luke tells us that there was this woman in the Temple, whose husband died after seven years of marriage, and now she’s eighty-four and she’s been waiting and waiting.

And I love how Luke includes some specifics here, because if you’re reading this, you know, at the current time and you’re a little unsure about his details…  You’re just not quite sure if you believe his account.  “Well, look, let me tell you about this woman.  Her name’s Anna.  Here’s her father’s name.  Here’s the tribe she’s from.  Here’s how long she was married.  Here’s how old she is now,” right?  And so, you have a way to kind of check it out.

And here’s what we read about Anna in verse 37: “She never left the Temple but stayed there day and night, worshiping God with fasting and prayer.  She came along just as Simeon was talking with Mary and Joseph, and she began praising God.  She talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem” (vv. 37-38, NLT).

So we read about two people who have been waiting a long time—a long line of generations who’ve been waiting.  And Simeon, we’re told, in verse 25 was waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel; and in verse 38, Anna was waiting for Jesus to come and rescue Jerusalem.  They were waiting on rescue.  They were waiting for a rescuer to come.  But they had not lost hope.  And what I want you to catch is that they were not waiting passively.  Their idea of waiting was not standing in line and staring at the back of the head of the person in front of them.  It’s not sitting in a waiting room and reading a Sports Illustrated that’s five years old.  That’s not what they’re doing.  They’re actively waiting.

And this teaches us so much about how we are to wait.  So as we…as we remember and we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we’re also anticipating the return of Jesus, and as they waited so should we wait.  That we wait with eager anticipation.  The Bible tells us that Simeon was devout, that he was committed.  He was a righteous man.  We read about Anna being a woman who praises God day and night in the Temple, and she fasts and she prays and she tells everyone who will listen about the hope that is coming.  And so, they are waiting, yes, for Jesus to come and rescue; but they’re not just standing around.  They are eagerly waiting, waiting to be rescued.

And so, I just want to…I just want to encourage us as we wait this Advent season.  And if it feels like this Christmas that God has been absent, if it feels like this season of life would be best described as a blank page where God has not shown up the way you thought He would, and if you feel like the people of Jerusalem where you’re waiting for a rescuer—I understand.  I mean, like you, I pray that God would rescue us.  Jesus, rescue us!  Rescue us from a relentless virus.  Rescue us from racism, and rescue us from terrorism, and rescue us from abuse and injustice, and rescue the refugees, and rescue the persecuted brothers and sisters, and rescue the orphans, and rescue us from cancer and from divorce and from mental illness and from loneliness.  God, rescue us!  We’re ready to be rescued.  We’re ready for that.  But while we wait, we do not wait as those who have no hope.  We live between “the already and the not yet.”  We have a promise, so don’t…don’t give up.  Don’t give up.

What Anna declared in the Temple on that night before Christmas we declare here: A rescuer is coming!  A deliverer is coming.  And He has not forgotten you.  And you may have lost faith, and you may have been faithless; He has been faithful to you.  God has not abandoned you.  I don’t know how much longer it’s going to be.  I don’t know what the sign would say: “Your wait from this point is this long.”  I don’t know.  But I know the date is circled on God’s calendar.  Our rescuer is coming.  Jesus came, but Jesus will come again.

 

David Hall
First Church of Christ
December 5, 2021