Imagine you are an old man. (Easier for some of you than others.) You have lived a long life. You have witnessed a lot of pain and loss. In fact, most of your life has been lived as part of an oppressed people group. For all of your life you have yearned for freedom. For all of your life you have waited for deliverance. And not just deliverance, but the right leader to come along to take your people out of oppression; out of despair; out of the negative reality you have known your entire life. You know the Scriptures. You worship God. In spite of the difficulties of life you persist in your pattern of living according to the tradition of your elders.
Imagine you are an old woman. (Can I make the same joke?) You married early in life and were widowed while still young. Although you lived in a society that tended to discount the role of women, you were viewed as wise. People listened to you. They came to you and trusted you. You also were devoted to God’s people and to the deliverance that only God could bring. You waited and waited.
Whether you are imagining yourself as that old man or that old woman, ask yourself this: how long could you wait and still remain hopeful that one day justice and deliverance would come for your people? How long would you continue hoping in God to act?
Now, think back to your childhood. Bring to mind the earliest Christmas memories you have. Try and recapture the joy and awe and mystery and excitement that Christmas used to bring to your house when you were young. Let me share some of mine and see if you relate.
I grew up in Massachusetts. We had a lot of snow. As I recall, I used to think that every Christmas was going to be a white Christmas. We would always have snow covering the ground. There would always be a ton of presents under the tree. Everything would be shut down so there was never any traffic outside. There would always be lots of food. In my mind, every year was always going to bring a new Norman Rockwell-esque picture.
Fast forward to my experience as a young parent. I thought it was always going to be the same for my kids: white Christmas, tons of presents, lots of food.
But those things did not always happen. Some years, the ground was clear. The temperatures were warm. Rain fell and washed away all the snow. Some years, different parts of the family got together in different places at different times. Some years, there were fewer presents under the tree. The feast of a meal consisted of whatever restaurant might have possibly been open. Or leftovers.
Some years, all the hope and anticipation of Christmas fizzled.
In 1974, Peter Sinfield wrote the lyrics to the song linked at the end of this post. Sinfield begins the song with his memories from childhood and then talks about the cynicism that living in this world can bring. He closes with a verse that cries out for hope—hope for deliverance from the pain that plagues us. Listen to these words:
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the virgin’s birth
I remember one Christmas morning
A winters light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas tree smell
And their eyes full of tinsel and fire
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
’till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in father Christmas
And I looked at the sky with excited eyes
’till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise
I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
Hallelujah noel be it heaven or hell
The Christmas you get you deserve
Life isn’t the Rockwellian dream we have always hoped for, is it? But does that mean we have to give up on hope completely?
That last line of the song is haunting to me: “The Christmas you get you deserve.” But maybe it shouldn’t be. At first, it may sound pessimistic, but what if it is an exhortation instead? Maybe we get the Christmas that we focus on and work for. A Christmas that depends entirely on the silver and gold and candy canes and tinsel may leave us feeling a little more empty than a Christmas that provides no material blessings but is full of an expectation of a Savior.
Think back to the old man and old woman.
Right after Jesus is born, in Luke 2:25-38, Joseph and Mary take Him to the temple where he is blessed by two older people: Simeon and Anna. Simeon sees Jesus, thanks God, and then blesses the family. Anna also blesses the family and then goes on to spread the word about Jesus.
Two people: Simeon and Anna. Waiting for God’s deliverance. Waiting for freedom to come for their people. How often in their lifetimes did somebody pop up as “The Messiah” only to be revealed as a fraud? How many times did they eagerly anticipate an event only to find it coming up empty?
But still they waited. Still they hoped. And did it ever pay off! They looked into the eyes of the Messiah!
And what does Simeon say? Does he say, “Now I will see I have been hoping for!” “Now my people and me will be freed from the Roman oppression!” “Now all those who have fought against us will get theirs!”
No. He says, “You can now let me die in peace.” Just knowing that what he had been hoping for would be fulfilled was enough for him. And although we have no recorded words of Anna, we are told she kept talking about Jesus; she kept spreading the good news; she kept saying her people would one day be free. She knew her hope was going to be realized, even though she wasn’t going to live to see it.
The fulfillment of hope does not mean you get everything you want. The fulfillment of hope means knowing the Presence of God will be realized, even if you don’t get to see it yourself.
I read this earlier this week and it is powerful (I am sorry, but I do not remember the source): “We misunderstand Advent by knowing what comes at the end of it. Those before Christ had no idea he was coming. They waited.”
Simeon waited. Anna waited. And when they saw Jesus, they worshipped.
This brings me to the world we live in today. Regardless our opinions of Ferguson or Cleveland or Staten Island this simple yet uncomfortable fact remains: many people of color in our country are terrified. They are oppressed. Their lives are discounted.
When we hear those things we may squirm in our seats, we may get defensive, or we may shout out in affirmation. Whatever our response may be, we have to deal with the reality that people are living out every day.
If you do not have the right color skin, or the right address, or the right socio-economic makeup, then you are considered a second class citizen. Fodder. Easily cast aside.
And that is what Simeon and Anna were, as well. That is what the nation of Israel had become. Second class citizens. A post on the fringe of the Empire. People who could easily be cast aside.
And it was to that group of people that Jesus appeared. The story of Advent is not a story for people who are warm and filled and well-stocked. The story of Advent is a story for people who are lost and hurting and shut out and hungry and overlooked.
This first week of Advent means that we hope for what we do not have. And for people who do not have justice the story of Advent means waiting for a day that justice will come.
If we live in a society that says justice is shooting or choking to death those who commit crimes, or frighten us, or look different than us, then we live in a society that desperately needs to cling to hope:
Hope for justice.
Hope for redemption.
Hope for light.
Hope for a Savior.
For far too many people in our own country, Christmas has been selling a lie. For too many people, the American Dream has turned into a nightmare. For too many people, Christmas is a reminder of everything they don’t have.
But Advent says, “I wish you a hopeful Christmas.” Advent says, “Look into the eyes of the Savior.” Advent leads us to saying, “Now you can dismiss your servant in peace.”
The Christmas you get, you deserve.