Life is filled with perplexing questions such as: Where is the line between the truth and a lie? Where is the line between right and wrong? Where is that moment in life that determines the direction of the rest of your life?
Even an issue that seems somewhat clear is not: Where is the line between life and death? Does life end when we stop breathing? When our heart stops pumping? When the brain waves have ceased? Or is it when a person has lost their personality due to some form of dementia? Does life end when one’s quality of life is gone and you are left to lay lifeless in a bed? These are tough questions that have slippery answers.
On the cusp of another Christmas I want to make a bold statement: Jesus Christ and our response to Him is the critical issue of life. I don’t think it is a slippery issue at all. It is the dividing line between forgiveness and condemnation; life and death; Heaven and Hell. It is the line that separates those who will know God’s favor and those who will not.
To underscore this point I take you tonight to the Gospel of Luke chapter 2:21-35. Here we read the story of a man who stepped into the life of Jesus in those first few days of his life. He is a bit player in the story but what he says is something we need to hear.
The Bible tells us that on the eighth day Jesus was circumcised. This was normal Jewish practice. Today circumcision is debated as an issue of hygiene. To the Jews, circumcision was about devotion. Circumcision was a sign that the child was set apart from the pagans in the world. Every Jewish male had a reminder in his body that he belonged to the Lord. It was a testimony that his progeny was a gift from God. The circumcision would have taken place in Bethlehem.
During the rite of circumcision the child was named. In following the instructions given to Mary and Joseph, they named their baby Jesus, or “God saves”.
The purification rite we read of in the verses that follow took place in Jerusalem. Jewish law stated that after giving birth, a mother was ceremonially unclean until her cycle had returned to normal. The law stated that a woman was considered unclean for 40 days after the birth of a boy and 80 days after the birth of a girl (I don’t know why there is this distinction). Mary and Joseph made the purification sacrifice.
Jewish law also stated that the firstborn child had to be ‘redeemed’. Every firstborn child was considered to belong to the Lord (this reflects back to the time when the firstborn children of Israel were spared in the Exodus during the Passover). An offering (or “tax” if you will) was paid to the temple that “redeemed” your child. This money supported the Levites who in essence served at the temple in place of all the firstborn children.
During their time at the temple, Mary, Joseph and Jesus met a man by the name of Simeon. The Bible tells us,
25 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. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. [Luke 2:25-27]
The text does not say Simeon was old, but the context implies that he had been waiting for a long time. Simeon, we are told, was waiting for the consolation of Israel. In other words he was waiting for the time when the Messiah would come and save Israel from its oppression. The word translated “wait” is a Greek word which means to “wait forwardly”. In other words, Simeon was waiting like the family dog who sits at the front window eagerly and expectantly waiting for its owner.
Simeon lived his life as if “this could be the day”. He provides a great picture of how we should now be living as we await the return of Jesus. Simeon had been told that he would not die until he had seen the one who was to come.
On this day we are told the Holy Spirit led him to the temple at the same time Mary and Joseph were there. Simeon was responsive. When Simeon saw the family of Joseph he somehow knew that Jesus was the one he had been waiting for. He stopped, took the child in his arms and uttered words that I think are very significant:
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.”
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. (2:29-33)
Simeon declared that since God had fulfilled His promise (and shown His great faithfulness once again) he could now die in peace. More important for us however is what he says about Jesus.
He is to Be Savior for All
Simeon declared that this child would be “glory for Israel but also a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” Everyone expected a Messiah who would rescue Israel from its oppressors. The idea that He would be a light to the Gentiles was startling. In other words, Jesus came to bring understanding and light to EVERY man and woman. This includes Palestinians, those in the Arab world, in India, China, Europe and even those in North America. He is the universal (and sole) Savior.
Hear the practical implication of this. If Jesus was sent to rescue all, then Jesus was also sent by God to rescue you! You may think that God would never reach out to you for some reason. Perhaps you feel you’ve messed up too many times; maybe you aren’t religious enough; maybe you feel you have crossed some behavioral line and are now disqualified from knowing Him. If that’s what you think, you are wrong. Sadly, you may have felt ignored or pushed aside by people who call themselves Christians. You may feel that society in general looks down on you. You may feel worthless; like you don’t measure up. However, the message of Christmas is that God has sent His Son into the world because He loves you and wants you to be a part of His family.
The Bible teaches that everyone who embraces Jesus Christ as their Savior; all those who turn to Him and put their trust in Him as Savior and King in their life; will be made into new people by God’s Spirit. God will actually come and live in us and help us live life the way it was meant to be lived. This is a transformation that starts in this life but continues even after we die. Anyone who truly entrusts themselves to Christ will live even though they die.
Many Will Refuse Him
Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.
Simeon recognized that even though God in His mercy has sent a Savior, not everyone would respond positively. Not even all the Jews would embrace Him. Though Jesus came to save all, many turn away from Him. The message is simple: either we will be changed and transformed by the Lord, or we will stumble and trip over Him.
Unfortunately, our response to these words sometimes leads us to try to make Jesus “more acceptable” to people. We soften His words, lessen His demands, and in many ways turn Him into a Santa Claus like figure who do anything to get us to believe in Him.
There is a story in the Old Testament when Moses went up the mountain of Sinai to receive the Law from the Lord. Moses’ brother, Aaron was left to oversee the people. By the time Moses came down (some days or weeks later) from the mountain the people were engaged in the worship of a golden calf. They deserted the true and living God to worship a cow which they had fashioned with their own hands!
Moses confronted Aaron. Aaron excused his actions by saying, “I was merely giving the people what they wanted!” As a result thousands died in an act of judgment. The same is true today. When we “give people what they want” instead of what is true, we too are leading people to their spiritual death!
Jesus calls us to stop making excuses and to take responsibility for our behavior. He challenges us to turn from our sinful and rebellious ways and run to Him for forgiveness and new life. He calls us to do more than have some emotional experience. He calls us to be His followers and to anchor our lives to His ways. Not everyone is going to like this message. There will be some who refuse Him and become angry at the message and at Jesus. People are OK with the popular Jesus because He makes no demands. The true Jesus, the Christ of Christmas, calls us to a moment of decision.
People will turn away from Jesus because people don’t want to be told the truth about their sinful behavior and they do not – they will not – submit to any authority other than their own desires. They want a God more like Santa Claus than the Lord of Life.
If your body has an infection you may find yourself in great pain. If the infection is bad enough you could even die. While you are battling the infection you will often be miserable and sometimes in pain. You may need medicine to help you fight that infection. This medicine is called an antibiotic . . . it is designed to fight the infection that you cannot beat on your own.
As human beings we have an infection called sin. Because of this our life doesn’t work the way it was designed to work. We try to address the infection by running faster and adding more activity to our lives. We resolve to become more disciplined. We become more religious. We tell everyone that things are great . . . but the infection will continue to eat away at us until it is addressed. All the positive attitude in the world will not change the fact that the infection needs to be removed before our lives can know joy or freedom. This infection has only one antibiotic: Jesus. He is what we need to live healthy and enjoyable lives.
Many believe that becoming a follower of Jesus will make them miserable. They say they want to put off coming to Jesus until they have some fun. That is like saying: I don’t want to take any antibiotics until I am in a coma.
What we call “having fun” is really just a way of avoiding the truth about our lives. It is a delusion that is far more deadly than spurning antibiotics. The truth is that true life, perspective, joy and peace come only after we have started to follow the King.
Following Him will Not be Easy
Simeon was not finished, he told Mary that “a sword would pierce her soul also.” Simeon spoke only of Mary because it is likely that Joseph died before the ministry of Jesus ever began. Mary would be the only person to witness both the birth and the death of Jesus.
It is an awful thing for a parent to have to bury a child. How much more difficult and perplexing if you knew that your son was the child of God and had come to save the very people who killed him as a common criminal. God’s love would at times excite Mary but at other times it would break her heart. God is faithful but that doesn’t mean there is not pain along the way.
The Bible does not misrepresent the nature of discipleship (even though some people do). Following Jesus Christ is the key to finding true life but it won’t be easy. There will still be things we don’t understand. There will still be pain. People will tend to treat us the same way they treated Him. However, in the midst of the struggles of life we will have His supernatural strength that will help us to focus on His character rather than our circumstances.
As you look around in our world you can see the battle lines drawn. While we are here to worship and adore the Savior who has come, there are just as many . . . or more who have pushed Him aside. Some do so aggressively. They campaign against any mention of Christ at Christmas. They create stories that are designed to undermine confidence in the account of Scripture. Many of the “historical accounts” of the life of Jesus you see at this time of the year are not historical. They are not reporting facts; they are interpreting facts in a way that diminishes who Jesus is. They have an agenda: to provide an excuse for not submitting to His Lordship. These people will call believers empty-headed radicals and hate mongers. These are those who have stumbled over Christ. As they stumble they may also inflict wounds on us.
Let me draw some applications. First, if Jesus is so special you should learn about Him. The whole world seems to stop to celebrate Christmas. The entire celebration has come to be because of the birth of one man: Jesus of Nazareth. If He is so special to deserve this celebration; if He is as significant as Simeon proclaimed, you should get to know Him. I encourage you to make a study of the life of Jesus. Listen to His words and examine His deeds. Get to know the One who wants to get to know you.
Second, no matter what you may think, God loves you. The story of Christmas is not about the brightly colored packages that sit under our tree. It is about God’s gift – Jesus. This is a joyous time of the year because we are reminded that: God loves us; there is indeed hope through Jesus Christ (the world is not aimlessly destined for destruction); we are not abandoned, we are not alone, we are not forgotten. God has come into the world through Christ and those who put their trust in Him have received the best gift there could ever be: the gift of a new beginning, the gift of purpose, the gift of eternal life.
Third, there are only two possibilities: you will either be one who embraces Christ or you will stumble over Him. You should consider the options carefully. It is impossible to be neutral toward Jesus. You either acknowledge Him as Lord or King over life or you refuse to do so. There is no middle ground. Continued indifference is the choice to turn away from Him.
Take a little imaginary trip with me. Imagine that you are a child who has been abused and battered by life. As a result you have learned to be suspicious of everyone. You may feel rejected, cast aside, and even worthless. Let’s say you find yourself living on the street. Most people have cast you aside as a lost cause. Frankly, you don’t mind because you are “getting by”.
Now suppose one bitterly cold day you strike up a conversation with a couple. They buy you a meal and invite you to be a part of their family. Reluctantly you go home with them. They give you a bed in which to sleep, food to eat, and shower you with other loving acts. You aren’t big on the household rules but you do appreciate having a place to call home. However, your defenses remain up.
You face a choice: will you believe these people and let them love you or will you push them away? Will you retreat to the comfort of what you know (even though it is painful and scary) or will you dare to believe there is more to life than what you have experienced? Will you dare to risk loving?
In many ways when it comes to our relationship with Jesus this is our story. We have been battered by life. We have made horrible choices. We have developed a defense system which denies the pain and resists letting anyone (including the Lord) get too close to us. Our stories are all different yet surprisingly similar. We face the same choice as this imaginary child: we can run to His love or we can push Him away.
I do not make the mistake of thinking that just because you are here tonight that you have responded positively to Christ. I hope you don’t make that mistake either. I know some are here out of obligation, some out of tradition or habit. You may be playing the part but you have still not allowed the Lord of Life, the Christ of Christmas to embrace you, cleanse you, and make you new. You are still holding Him at arms length.
Tonight I encourage you to embrace the One who came to embrace you and me. Tonight I encourage you to dare to believe that God when He says, “He who comes to me, I will not cast away.”
This is the decision of a lifetime. What you do with Jesus will not only impact the way you celebrate Christmas, it will also determine the course of the rest of your life and your eternity. This isn’t a game. It’s not a club to join. It’s not an extracurricular involvement to add to your calendar. This is a commitment that will impact everything else in your life.
So as we stand before the manger in Bethlehem one more time take a real good look at the baby. Ask yourself why He came into the world. Consider why this life continues to be celebrated so passionately. Consider those who, like me, have testified that this man, Jesus, has changed their lives. And then decide whether you will address the infection of sin or continue to ignore it. Decide whether you will become His follower or continue to keep Him at arms length. But by all means make your decision carefully because it is undoubtedly the most important decision of your life.