By Austin Jacobs
During our Advent celebration at Solid Rock, we’ve anticipated Christ’s coming through the lens of some well-known Christmas carols. Christ has arrived! The Lord has come!
Our waiting has come to completion, and we have been invited to experience newness of life. I love the way that Brian Zahnd says it: Christ doesn’t bring the new day; Christ is the new day!
When we talk about Christ’s coming to earth, we are talking about entering a new reality—one in which suffering still exists, but the good news is that we know one who, through his own suffering, is capable of understanding and redeeming ours.
Edward Shillito writes,
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by thy scars we know thy grace.
The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.
The point of Advent is that this news is good not only for us, but also for others.
A couple of elderly temple-dwellers in Luke’s gospel understood this truth well, even though they were perhaps unable to imagine the breadth of insight their prophetic words conveyed. We meet these two characters in Luke 2:
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light of revelation for the Gentiles, and for the glory of your people Israel.” And his father and mother marveled at what was said about him.
36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Their prophetic announcement cannot simply be paraphrased as “This child has come to redeem Jerusalem!”, as if their home turf had a monopoly on redemption. Although Jerusalem plays a central role in God’s redemptive plan, Simeon and Anna also realize, echoing the prophet Isaiah, that “Salvation has been prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation for the Gentiles” (cf. Isaiah 42:6-7).
In making their announcements, Simeon and Anna are holding tightly to the promise of coming redemption while also loosening their grip on their exclusive rights to it. Redemption has been made available to everyone, even—and perhaps especially, given the tone of Jesus’ ministry—one’s enemy.
Henri Nouwen describes community as “the place where the person I least want to be there is always there.” Simeon’s re-application of Isaiah’s prophecy serves as the proper response to the coming of Jesus. Yes, he says. The light shines even upon them!
There are, of course, some less appropriate ways to respond. For example, when Paul preaches in Antioch in Acts 13, he also uses Isaiah’s words, but the response is much different. Like Simeon and Anna, Paul claims that Christ is a light of the Gentiles. However, when the Jews saw their enemies, the Gentile outsiders, responding to the word of the Lord, “they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him” (Acts 13:45). Unlike Simeon and Anna, who are enabled to depart in peace, and now Paul, who speaks of redemption, the Jews in Antioch “stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district” (Acts 13:50).
The same prophecy that gives rise to rejoicing and renewed peace in Luke 2 causes an angry group of insiders to stir up violence in Acts 13. Why the difference?
On the one hand, Simeon and Anna’s patient longing for a savior seems to have produced in them a joy that extended beyond themselves. The accomplishment of long-awaited redemption was too precious to reserve, too beautiful to conceal. On the other hand, the insiders in Acts 13 already had the market cornered on revelation from God. Who were these outsiders—the ones in darkness—to presume that they had seen new light?
N.T. Wright sums up what he calls “Jesus’ kingdom agenda for Israel,” which “demanded that Israel leave off its frantic and paranoid self-defense, reinforced as it now was by the ancestral codes, and embrace instead the vocation to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth.” Simeon and Anna, taking a baby up into their arms, giving thanks to God, and departing in peace, embody this kingdom agenda with grace and joy.
These two opposing responses in Luke 2 and Acts 13 also suggest that while enemy love and openness to the outsider is easy to talk about, things can derail when we try to put it into practice. Nevertheless, Simeon and Anna’s response should serve as our model. The introduction of love into the world is disarming. It motivates us to lay aside our preconceived notions of who’s in and who’s out, and it invites us to lift up our eyes to see just how far Christ’s light extends (all with the help of the Spirit, as Luke is careful to note).
Christian Wiman says, “One of the ways we know that our spiritual inclinations are valid is that they lead us out of ourselves.” Likewise, Wright observes that Christian spirituality “looks out in love at the world.” He continues, claiming, “Precisely because it was rooted in Judaism (where Israel was called for the sake of the world), is focused on Jesus (who gave himself for the world), is shaped by the true God (who made the world), Christian spirituality must always be turned outward toward God’s world.” Simeon and Anna recognized (however incomplete their recognition may have been) that Israel’s vocation was to become the place from which the light shone, not just for which the light shone.
May those of us who have recognized Christ as the light also live as though it’s not only for us. May our hopeful waiting help us to recognize Christ when we see him and take part in his mission.