Monday, December 22, 2008

O Little Town of London

(This message was a part of our Advent series titled, 'Christmas Gifts You Can Use.')

Luke 2:25-32

When I was young I played a lot of baseball. Now those of us who are from a certain era will remember that the best gloves and mitts felt like they were made out of wood when you first bought them. Cheap ones flopped around and felt good right away, but they never lasted. With the good ones you had to spend a lot of time breaking them in. Anyone remember that process? You’d put some oil in the palm of the glove and rub it in, then put some more on and rub it into the fingers and the back. You’d put a baseball in the pocket and tie it up and leave it over night, then do the same thing for a few days in a row. It took a lot of work, but in the end what you had was a glove that fit your hand perfectly. Along the way you’d keep the leather healthy by applying more oil every so often. If you didn’t, the leather would crack and the glove would be useless.

That connects with an old Scottish proverb I learned a long time ago: ‘Were it not for hope, the heart would break.’

We’ve been talking about God’s gifts to us at Christmas. So far we’ve looked at Faith, Joy and Love. Today we’re going to spend some time on the gift of Hope. Our text this morning is from Luke’s gospel, 2:25-32.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

Luke’s gospel has the most detailed account of the birth of Jesus. It’s in Luke’s gospel that we find the extended story of John the Baptist, of the angels and the shepherds, and of there being no room in the inn. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth ends with two stories of people who had been waiting for the Messiah to come. Simeon is the first of those two.

Being born into a good Jewish family meant that Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day after he was born. His parents took him to the Temple in Jerusalem to dedicate him to the Lord, which was the practice for all firstborns back then. While they were there, Simeon came up to them and told a very strange story.

He said that God had told him that he wouldn’t die before the ‘Lord’s Christ’—the Messiah was born. Then Simeon held the baby and sang a song of praise to God. For those of you who are from liturgical traditions, this is the origin of the Nunc Dimittis, which is still used in vespers and other traditional prayers.

Luke tells us that Simeon was waiting for ‘The consolation of Israel’. In the Bible that phrase can mean a range of things: comfort, encouragement, refreshment. What it shows us in this passage is that God’s promise of a Messiah was central to Simeon’s faith and practice. Simeon was waiting, hoping that God would deliver, where we pick up the story he’s praising God for making good on his promise.

Simeon shows us a lot of what a life of hope looks like. He’s righteous and devout, the text tells us, which means that the practice of his faith is important to him. His life, whatever else he did for a living, was built around study and prayer and service. Whatever his 9 to 5 job demanded of him, his reason for living was to wait and hope for the ‘consolation of Israel’.

Consolation is an interesting word. It doesn’t mean taking away all the problems or pain that a person might be going through—it’s more like coming alongside—being present with someone in their sufferings, and easing their pain. When it describes the coming of the Messiah, this consolation describes God reaching out to us—coming alongside us to be present with us in our lives.

What could happen that would bring some form of consolation to London?

To the world?

What is it that could possibly provide consolation for you this Christmas?

I’ve been hearing the great Christmas songs everywhere—it’s a part of the season. We heard all three of our choirs last week sing a whole range of Christmas songs. I told you that I’d heard ‘Joy to the World’ on a ringtone. In the shops and on television you can hear songs that describe the events and the theology of the birth of the Messiah.

In Angels We Have Heard on High we hear: ‘Come to Bethlehem and see, Him whose birth the angels sing.’

In We Three Kings we hear: ‘Glorious now behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice.’

And in Hark the Herald Angels Sing, the Christmas hymn with the deepest theological understanding, we hear: ‘Veil’d in flesh the Godhead see. Hail the incarnate deity.’

We could—and maybe we should do this—we could spend a year or so exploring what the Christmas hymns say about Christ—about the Messiah—about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is a lifetime’s worth of understanding wrapped into these melodies we sing every year.

In O Little Town of Bethlehem we learn something about what the coming of Jesus meant and means for us.

The line that always gets me in this song is this one: ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’

Really? What does it mean to have our hopes and fears ‘met’ in the events of Christmas?

More importantly, how do we maintain an attitude of hope, even when things around us appear to be, well, hopeless? In practical terms, we live hopeful lives when we follow the example of Simeon—when whatever else we have to do, we build our lives on prayer and study and service.

But still, how do we sustain hope in our lives?

First, hope calls us to trust that God is who he says he is, and that he’ll do what he promised to do.

Second, hope gives us eyes to look for the fulfillment of God’s promises in our lives—in the life of this church—and in the world. I know that can be hard sometimes, but it’s a part of being hopeful people…of keeping a posture of hope.

Finally, hope reminds us that the life God calls us to—the life we hope for—is a life of service and the sharing of God’s blessings. God’s salvation comes not just for our benefit, but so that we can be a light to the world and bring glory to God’s people. Enjoying God’s blessings in our lives always brings with it the call to share those blessings with others.

Brennan Manning, who I mentioned last week, talks about what life looks like when we allow our Christmas faith to color all of it. He says:

“If Christ really ruled in every part of me, that is, if my faith were deep, burning, powerful and passionate, my life would be very different. My self-esteem would cease to be based upon the worldly values of possessions, prestige, status, and privilege…With burning faith I would speak of Jesus not as some distant being, but as a close friend with whom I have a personal relationship. The invisible world would become more real than the visible, the world of what I believe more real than the world of what I see. Christmas would be more than a breathless finale to a frantic shopping season, more than sentimental music, a liturgical pageant, or boozy good will toward the world.”

The only thing I would add to that is this: If we lived as if we believed, even when we struggle, we could be shining examples of hope in a world that needs it badly, but has forgotten where to find it.

‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’

‘Were it not for hope, the heart would break.’

My hope for all of us this Christmas season is that we’ll get a little taste of the promise we hear in that song. That in the celebration of the Christ Child we’ll experience just a touch of the consolation God promises through his son.

That’s what it means to live with Christian hope—the hope that keeps us from breaking under the weight of our lives. Like the oil that keeps a baseball glove alive over a long period of time, hope keeps us from cracking no matter what.

A few weeks ago Kate talked about ‘re-gifting’, when you take a gift you’ve received, wrap it again and give it to someone else. This Christmas, one of the best gifts you can give—or re-give—is your sense of hope in Christ—to show your friends and family what it means to live faithful, hope-filled lives, trusting that God, the one who came to us and for us, will complete his story in our stories—his life in our lives, in this church, and in this world.


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