Do you remember how it was when you were young, still the wide-eyed idealist? Maybe you didn’t go to college right away, or maybe even not at all, because, you argued, there was so much world to see and so much life to experience, so much money to be made … you couldn’t possibly be asked to put it all off for four years while you wasted away in a classroom.
Or maybe you went to college and studied some obscure subject like middle-eastern poetry or Latin or theatre arts, or got some other education your parents were loathe to pay for but without which, you argued passionately, your life would be incomplete.
At school, you put up with your professors, and sometimes you were secretly amazed at the caliber of your opinions which were legion. And you wondered if anyone had thought before about the things you were thinking, and if not, then why?
And then, having received your degree, you set out to conquer the world, to right all the wrongs, to expose the injustices. You would do it, you though, so much better than your parents. You made your resume and it made you sound so substantial. At the top you listed your career objective:: “I would like to secure a position in which I can use my education and skills to change the world.” And beneath that, you listed your work experience: sandwich shop employee, aerobics instructor, ladies’ handbag salesclerk. And when you printed it out on fine linen paper, it looked so good and life, it seemed, was spread out before you like a red carpet.
Then it happened. Either they downsized and you lost your dream job, or you took a position that was not quite what you’d hoped for, and before you knew it, you life had shifted … not noticeably at first, just a few degrees to the left or to the right of the direction you had expected to go in. And your new spouse was also headed off in an unexpected direction, and suddenly things were more complicated than you’d planned. And somewhere way down the road …maybe now … after a few successes and way too many failures, you realize the difference between resumes and reality.
Sound familiar? You are not alone, of course. Did you know that Ted Turner once thought he would become a missionary? Martin Luther King, Jr. just wanted to be a preacher, like his dad. Mother Teresa was just a nun … and those who knew her say that early on she was not a very good one at that. Grandma Moses didn’t pick up a paintbrush until she was in her nineties.
It is a classic scenario. It is even the theme of the holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” George Bailey had such dreams. He was going to travel the world and then become a great architect. But one degree at a time, life shifted for him from dreams to reality, and in the end it became George Bailey’s destiny to find the value of what is, rather than what ought to be.
I’m thinking of these things today because of the people we meet in the Christmas story. Not one of them, I’m sure, ever dreamed of being immortalized in the story of the Messiah. Shepherds don’t think that big. But everyone who is in the story of Jesus has their own story changed, and that’s a truth that has held true for 2000 years.
One of my favorite stories of Jesus as a baby and the people he touched is the story of Simeon and Anna. Anna was the prophet who just happened to be walking through the room the day Mary and Joseph brought their baby in to the temple for the ritual blessing. You find the story in Luke, chapter 2, verses 21-39.
When we meet Anna in the scriptures, she is 84 years old. She has been a widow for 63 years. Lost her husband after just seven years of marriage, when they were still young and wide-eyed, with dreams of a houseful of children and a respectable income, a good home near her parents and a reliable neighbor to visit with while her husband went off to the temple to pray.
She could not have guessed, on her wedding day, that way too soon she would be the one going off to the temple, as was often the custom for the widows of her day. She would live off its charity and make the best of a bad situation. And she did, it sounds like. She became known as a prophet, and she spent all her time praying and fasting and worshiping God. But it was mostly because she never left the temple that she was there to see the Messiah when he came. Funny, but sometimes just being there is enough.
One of my favorite stories is the story of Cal Ripkin. You remember him. He’s the guy who holds the record in major league baseball for playing the most consecutive games. He passed Lou Gehrig’s record on September 6, 1995, the night he played his 2131st straight game. Ripkin was a good baseball player. Decent batting average, solid short stop. But what made him a famous baseball player was simply the fact that he showed up for work every day.
Sometimes, just being there is enough.
Being open to God’s ability to work, being ready to receive him when he shows up, is not as easy as it sounds. In order to “be there” for God, Anna had to keep a steady diet of prayer and worship. That is what made her heart available when opportunity knocked. But because of that, when the Messiah presented himself at the temple she was ready. On that day, in that moment when the Christ was before her, she understood that it was not so much where she’d been or what she’d been through, but whether or not .. in that moment … her heart was available to God. That’s the lesson Anna teaches us. It is not so much where you’ve been or what you’ve been through, but whether or not, right here, right now. your heart is available to God.
Then there was Simeon, the priest who was in the temple the day Mary, Joseph and Jesus came in . For him, it wasn’t so much a matter of life being a box of shattered dreams, as it might have been for Anna, as it was of life exceeding his dreams (wasn’t it Forrest Gump’s mother who said, “life is like a box of chocolates. You never know which one you are going to get!”).
Scripture says that Simeon was a righteous man, devout and filled with the Holy Spirit. And his great desire in life was to see the Messiah come and rescue Israel. So imagine his surprise when he heard a word from God that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah for himself. I have a feeling that from that day on, Simeon’s life was dramatically changed. Don’t you just bet he probably looked for the Messiah in every face he came across, wondering if he might see a glimpse of God there? And you know, that in itself probably made him a better priest. We’d all be better people if we looked for the face of Jesus in every person we meet. Not a bad way to live.
A dear friend serves as a missionary in India. Tammy was once an atheist, but came to Christianity while in college. We had some classes together at seminary, and I got to know Tammy as a person of strong faith. After she graduated, Tammy went to work as a missionary at an orphanage in India. She now runs two orphanages she started herself. She works with children who, more than we could imagine, have known the deep meaning of hopelessness. But most of the children who find their way to Tammy’s orphanage come to believe in the power and presence of God, and many of them become so open to Christ’s work in their lives that they are able to do miraculous things.
Tammy tells one story of a night when an eleven-year-old boy was brought into the orphanage by the authorities. It looked for all the world like he was possessed. He was wild – frothing at the mouth, covered in dirt, arms and legs flailing, horrible language. Tammy didn’t know what to do with him. It seems he had quite a reputation. She tried calling a local hospital, but they knew about him already and refused to take him. The authorities wouldn’t take him back. Neither would his family. He’d been through every resource and no one could handle him. Once, Tammy had to tie him up just to keep him from hurting himself. She left him in a room for a moment and came back to find that he was still tied up but managing to beat up two boys.
Next morning, she was frantic. She called all of the children of the orphanage together. The little boy sat under a table in the room with them, still delirious. She told the children there was no one to take care of this boy, that he would have to go back onto the streets. Now those children knew the streets of India, they’d been there, and they knew that to send him out was to give him a death sentence. They also knew what he was like. They’d been living with him for the last two days. But even so, the children of that orphanage told Tammy not to send him away. They said they’d take care of him. And then they all went as close as they could to where he was and prayed for him. The next day, he was a little calmer, and the day after that, he woke up a normal little boy who knew his name for the first time in nine months. And he also knew that for the first time someone loved him enough to hang on.
Thomas Merton once said, “the gate of heaven is everywhere.” I hear stories like that one of those children in India refusing to give up on the life of a homeless, hopeless little boy, and I have to believe that. I look at the story of Mary and Joseph and how those ordinary people allowed God to use them in such a miraculous way, and I have to believe that. I think about the young woman in our little group at Mosaic who was willing to take on a delinquent child at Christmastime, and through that found another kid who needs a friend in a bad way, and I have to believe that God is at work so powerfully all around us, and he wants to work so powerfully through us, if only we will learn to see the world and its people through kingdom-colored glasses. If only we will search for the face of Jesus in every person we meet, and look for ways to unlock the gate of heaven.
Now the most important work we have to do with this passage of scripture is still to come, because sandwiched between the story of Anna and the story of Simeon is the story of the holy family, and by extension the story of us all. There they stand, Mary and Joseph and Jesus, waiting for the blessing of Simeon, knowing already that theirs was a special child, but perhaps not yet fully aware of what that would mean for them.
Of course, we all think our own children are the most special children in the world. I distinctly remember walking into the Limited store at Augusta Mall, pushing a five-month-old Claire Marie in her stroller, and the young salesperson who greeted me looked at my daughter and said, “I think that is the most beautiful baby I have ever seen.” And not out loud so everyone could hear, but quietly, deep inside, I answered, “I know.”
It is one thing to have someone tell you your baby is beautiful. It is another thing entirely, and much more uncomfortable, to have someone tell you your baby is the Savior of the world. When Simeon took little Jesus into his arms and blessed him, he placed a destiny on him that was almost too big to bear. He said, “Lord, now I can die in peace, for I have seen the Savior you have given to all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.”
And as if that wasn’t enough, he then turned to Mary and said, “your child will be rejected by many in Israel, and it will be their undoing, but he will be the greatest joy to many others. And the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.”
And in that moment, with the words of the priest hanging in the air, we see not only the weight that Mary and Joseph would have to bear as the earthly custodians of the Messiah, but the weight we all must bear if we are to call ourselves believers. Because Simeon’s words were not just for Mary and Joseph. They were for all who believe. And they are not particularly comfortable words. They tell us who Jesus will be for the world and they challenge us to believe in him not casually but deeply.
This is the message of Christmas, the pure gospel, sent to us by a kind priest who saw the Messiah in the face of a baby. He tells us that Jesus is our Savior, our greatest joy, and the one who knows us deeply, not by our resumes or our successes and failures, but by faith alone.
Nothing else you’ve done or plan to do with your life comes close to being as important as what you do with Jesus. As humans, faith in Christ is our deepest thought and our greatest accomplishment.
And we will know we have it when, like Anna, all we really want in life is to be available to God; and when like Simeon, we are able to see the face of Jesus in every person we meet.