December 27, 2009

A Hope Fulfilled

Have you ever really had your heart set on something? Have you ever been in a place where you were really hoping things would turn out a certain way? How.d that go for you? What was the object of your hope? Perhaps it was a Christmas gift you were really counting on Santa leaving under the tree for you. After all, Christmas is supposed to be a season of hope. Maybe you wanted a Red Ryder BB Gun like Ralphie in the movie the Christmas Story. There was a kid with a big time hope. He just had to convince the rest of the world that he wouldn.t shoot his eye out. Most of you know that I.m a pretty avid KU basketball fan. When I was playing basketball in grade school, back when I had my heart set on playing for Kansas (before I learned that you have to be able to make a basket in order to get a spot on the team), I remember wanting to write a letter to Roy Williams when he was still coaching for a good basketball program. My dad encouraged me to write it and gave me some hope that I might hear back. I.ll be honest: I was pretty excited and hopeful at the prospect. So I waited. And waited. And waited. Maybe your hope was for something less tangible than mine. Perhaps you hoped for a family member to come home, or a loved one to get well, or to be reconciled to a lost friend, or you name it. Did you get it? Was your hope realized?

Hope is a powerful thing. Even a glimmer of hope can inject a shot of life that lasts for an awfully long time. With only a little bit of hope we can endure a heavy load of trials and tribulations. On the flip side, without hope, not even something like winning the lottery matters to a person. Hope is like oxygen for our souls. We can get by for quite a while with a tiny bit, but when our supply is cut off, we die. Whether we can really put words to it or not, hope is what gets us up in the mornings. We hope that today is going to be better than yesterday. We recognize that there is an awful lot wrong with the world, but there.s a chance we won.t experience as much of that brokenness today as we did yesterday. But if they are honest, most people have even deeper and more distant hopes than that. They hope that they.ll get a promotion at work or a better job or a job at all. They hope that all the things wrong in the world will be made right someday. They hope that all the things wrong with themselves will be fixed. And for most people, that.s enough to keep them getting up out of bed every morning and going through another day in a broken, fallen, sinful world. If this glimmer of hope keeps people going, imagine what its fulfillment or even a simple guarantee of its future fulfillment would do. Yet many of these same individuals have never experienced or learned anything that would give them such a guarantee on these hopes. It.s almost like there.s a collective memory imprinted on the minds and hearts of people that things are not as they always were and further that things will be like they were again someday.

In fact, there is such a collective memory. We can see this in the number of cultures that have some sort of a creation story that includes sin (or whatever else it is called) entering the world for the first time. Well, as we discussed this past summer, there is good reason to accept the Genesis account as the most authoritative of these creation stories. And in the Genesis account we are given a glimmer of hope in 3:15 in the promise that the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent one day. Thankfully, though, the Bible doesn.t end at Genesis 50:26. The books that follow Genesis in the Old Testament offer many more promises and assurances on the hope given in Genesis 3:15. We are even more thankful, however, that the Bible doesn.t end at Malachi 4:6. You see, when we turn the page to the New Testament, the nature of our hope changes. The hope of Genesis 3:15 is fulfilled in the person and life of Jesus Christ. The child whose birth we celebrated on Friday opened the way to the kingdom of God in which all our hopes of a better world are realized. The nature of our hope has changed thanks to Christ. We no longer blindly hope that things will one day be made right. Instead, in Christ, we can enjoy such righteousness now with the faithful assurance that the final installment of our hope will be delivered in the future. The hope of the world has been given eyes to see its fulfillment. There is an innumerable abundance of joys available to us in Christ, but one of the sweetest of these is the joy of realized hopes. In Christ we have the joy of realized hopes. And this morning I want to tell you the story of two people—Simeon and Anna—who were among the first to have their eyes opened to this great joyfulness. Turn with me in your Bibles to Luke 2:25 as we look at Simeon and Anna this morning. In their story we can see a great example for us as we struggle in a still-broken world to keep our eyes fixed on the content of our hope. We can see that when all else screams of hopelessness, in Christ, we have the joy of realized hopes.

Before we can encounter Simeon and Anna in the Temple, though, we need to understand why Jesus. family was there. I mean, didn.t the Wise Men show up after Jesus was born resulting in the family going to Egypt? Well, the Wise Men started for Bethlehem when they saw the star. The star appeared when Jesus was born. Herod had all the baby boys less than two years old killed. Jesus was probably in the 18-24 month range when the Wise Men arrived. The events Luke describes in 2:21-40 probably happened before the Wise Men and the trip to Egypt and back to Nazareth (which, by the way, probably puts Jesus. birth at about 6 BC…which means He was born before Himself…). One of the things Luke goes out of his way to make clear is that Jesus. parents were faithful, law-abiding Jews. 2:21 states that on the eighth day after His birth Jesus was officially named and circumcised, which was and is according to Orthodox Jewish custom. Also according to the Law and custom, Luke states that “when the days stipulated by Moses for purification were complete, they took him up to Jerusalem to offer him to God as commanded in God.s Law: „Every male who opens the womb shall be a holy offering to God,. and also to sacrifice the „pair of dove or two young pigeons. prescribed in God.s Law.” In other words, after a few weeks when the mother had a chance to recover from the birth and it was a bit more certain that the baby was going to live, the parents were to dedicate their son to God. The reason for this is laid out in Exodus 13. It was intended to be a reminder to them of the grace of God in delivering the people of Israel from the Egyptians which culminated in the Passover where the firstborn males of Egypt were put to death. This dedication was one of the many rituals of the Law the people were expected to follow both to remind them of the grace of God in preserving them in the past and as a pointer to that time when the demands of the Law would be satisfied, allowing them to enjoy unhindered fellowship with their God. In other words, every time Jews went through these rituals they were to remember the hope for the future they had in their God; the hope for a Messiah who would make things right. Indeed, in Christ we have the joy of realized hopes.

But, not everyone understood the nature of the Messiah who would come. Most people in fact took the words of the prophets, filtered them through their cultural lenses and came up with a picture of the kind of deliverer that seemed right to them. They understood that the Messiah was going to restore the glory of Israel and the only way they could conceive of that happening was if He was a royal and military leader who would muster the armies of Israel and lead them in glorious victory over their enemies. They couldn.t imagine a better time for the people of Israel than the Golden Era of the reigns of King David and King Solomon and so they were looking forward to that. These hopes, though grand, were limited by the scope of their imaginations which, though colorful, didn.t begin to compare with their God.s. Surely we never do anything like that today. We would never try, albeit innocently, to limit the scope of the kingdom of God based on what our imaginations can conceive. Well, thankfully not everyone did or does. There are many today who actually take the Bible for what it says and have fuller hopes and more abundant joys because of this. In Christ, we have the joy of these realized hopes. In the same way, though their hope didn.t have eyes as ours does, there were Jews in the first century BC who had a good grasp on the true nature of the Messiah. They understood that He would be a humble servant of the people. Luke tells us of two such individuals. The first was a man named Simeon. Listen to Luke.s description of him starting in 2:25: “In Jerusalem at the time, there was a man, Simeon by name, a good man, a man who lived in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel. And the Holy Spirit was on him. The Holy Spirit had shown him that he would see the Messiah of God before he died.”

This is on par with Luke.s description of Zechariah and Elizabeth back in chapter one. It.s a bit hard to imagine another person deserving of such a grand description in the pages of Scripture. Our minds take this an immediately picture an old man with a great white beard dressed in humble robes and who walks everywhere very deliberately. We picture a person with an aura of holiness about him that shines through no matter what he does. Yet the description Luke gives mentions none of this. In fact, Luke makes no mention of anything about Simeon except for the state of his spirit and relationship with God. Actually, when you think about it, nothing else really matters about a person in the long run. In any event, Simeon was a holy man who lived each day according to the hope of God.s deliverance of His people from the hands of their oppressors. And for some reason, in His grace and wisdom, the Holy Spirit had given him the assurance that he would have the great joyful pleasure of laying his eyes on the Messiah before he died. Ralphie Parker.s hopes for a Red Ryder BB Gun aside, this was a man who would have been seriously hopeful.

The other character that Mary and Joseph encounter was an old woman named Anna. Luke actually gives a much more complete description of her than he gave of Simeon: “Anna the prophetess was also there, a daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher. She was by now a very old woman. She had been married seven years and a widow for eighty-four. She never left the Temple area, worshiping night and day with her fastings and prayers.” Now there are debates about how to interpret the Greek that gives her age (i.e. was she really over 100 years old?), but the point is that she was awfully old. But the larger point here comes at the end of the description. She never left the Temple area because she was constantly worshiping and praying and fasting. And what do you think was the content of all this worship and prayer and fasting? We learn that from what she does when she comes up on the couple and Simeon. She starts singing a song of praise to God and talks about the child to all who were waiting expectantly for the freeing of Jerusalem. I know that sounds different in scope from Simeon.s hope, but what did people believe the Messiah of God was going to do if not free Jerusalem? Yes, critics might declare that the Messiah did not actually free Jerusalem, but that criticism falls apart when we recognize that Luke does not say “the political freeing of Jerusalem.” Jerusalem and the rest of the world have been granted a spiritual freedom to approach God with boldness thanks to the work of Christ. Talk about your realized hopes. In Christ we have the joy of realized hopes.

So why spend so much time on the description of these two when their words and deeds are what are really important to the story? Think about it for a minute. Luke is explicit regarding Anna.s age (probably over 100 years old) and even though he doesn.t mention Simeon.s age the picture we form from reading the passage is that he.s pretty old too. Unless they had a spiritual awakening late in life, they had probably been in a place of hoping and fasting and praying for the deliverance of Israel for quite some time. Assuming they are both upwards of eighty, they were born and raised in a day when Israel was independent. Prior to 63 BC the Israelites were ruled by the Maccabeans who were Israelites. In the years just prior to 63 BC Rome had been gradually moving into the area, but Israel remained independent until then. In other words, these two had lived through Israel falling prey to yet another foreign power that neither knew nor cared for their God or their customs or their law. I suspect at that point most folks either gave up hope for ever seeing Israel free again or else went off the deep end with apocalyptic fervor. Coming back to us, have you ever hoped for something for a long time? And I.m not talking about a few months. I.m talking about multiple decades of hoping for something to happen. I had a professor in seminary whose dad finally became a believer in his 80s. He had spent several decades praying for, talking with, and hoping his dad would yield his life to Christ before it happened. Think about what your period of hoping was like. Have you gotten whatever it was yet? Maybe still hoping. Did you lose faith along the way at all? When I was waiting and hoping to hear back from Coach Williams at the several weeks mark—and eternity to an eleven-year-old—I was losing confidence. We said that even a little bit of hope can keep us going for a long time, but human patience only lasts so long. Just like the faith in the desert we talked about a few weeks ago, hope absent fulfillment for too long begins to weaken considerably. This is the importance of Christ and a relationship with the Father that invites the Holy Spirit into our lives—much like Simeon had. In Christ we have the joy of realized hopes, but while we await the final payment on our salvation we have to keep our eyes on the prize lest we become disoriented and lose our way. The reason that Simeon and Anna were able to maintain such a true hope for so long was precisely because they maintained such an active, growing, vibrant relationship with God. Take courage if you have been hoping for long. Keep your eyes on the prize and you will find what you need in order to go on. He will help you not only maintain your hope for the kingdom, but will also help you refine your hopes so that they fit with His plans and don.t stray into places they should not go.

A few minutes ago I said that our hope has eyes now thanks to Christ. Through the story of Simeon and Anna we see not only two individuals who had incredible hope, but we get to watch as two people who got it have the eyes of their hope opened. Imagine seeing the fulfillment of the thing you hope for in life more than any other. Imagine the joy of that moment. Now listen from Luke: “As the parents of the child Jesus brought him in to carry out the rituals of the Law, Simeon took him into his arms and blessed God: „God, you can now release your servant; release me in peace as you promised. With my own eyes seen your salvation; it.s now out in the open for everyone to see: A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations, and of glory for your people Israel..” Something like this could have only come from the Holy Spirit. Mary and Joseph had not taken Jesus to Jerusalem before. They didn.t know who Simeon was. Simeon didn.t know who they were apart from being the parents of the Messiah. It was thanks to his relationship with God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life that he had eyes to see glory in this little child. Can you hear the joyfulness in his blessing of God? What would it take for you to exclaim to God: “You can take me home because it.s not going to get any better than this for me”? In a similar vein, though we don.t know her exact words, Luke says that Anna “showed up, broke into an anthem of praise to God, and talked about the child to all who were waiting expectantly for the freeing of Jerusalem.” This was too exciting a thing to keep to herself. Indeed, in Christ we have the joy of realized hopes.

This episode in the Temple yard did not, however, end with praise. As Jesus. parents marveled at Simeon.s words of praise to God he directed his attention to them. Looking Mary right in the eyes he said this: “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, but he will be a joy to many others. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul. (NLT)” Hopes realized are a source of incredible joy. We have this in Christ. There is a feeling of fulfillment and contentment in them with which nothing else compares. But what do we do when the realization comes only to find out that we had been hoping for the wrong things? This is what Simeon is talking about here. The reality of human hoping is that while there is a common recollection that things are not as they should be and will be there again someday, the content of the individual hopes for this idealized future vary widely from person to person. There are some like Simeon and Anna who maintain an active relationship with God that keeps their hopes in line with reality, but most folks aren.t there and furthermore aren.t thrilled to find out they missed the target. I can prove this fact to you in one word: Pharisees. People react in many different ways to finding out they were off track. Some rise to the challenge and receive what they should have been hoping for all along. Others fall along the wayside of disillusionment. Jesus is without question the realization of the deepest human hopes throughout the centuries. There is simply no argument with the fact that in Christ we have the joy of realized hopes. The problem is that many peoples. hopes have gotten so far off track along the way that they either don.t recognize what.s in front of them or worse, do recognize it and reject it anyway in favor of their view of how things “should” be. Hopelessness leads to apathy. Finding out that the content of our deepest hope deviates from reality, on the other hand, can lead to apathy, but for some it leads to passion; passion both to learn about the reality of our hopefulness and to destroy and disrupt reality in hopes of forcing reality to conform to our will. This is what Simeon meant when he said: “As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” Ultimately, Jesus forces us to come to grips with who we are and our standing before God. There are no neutral responses to Jesus. The question is whether we will embrace the Truth when He stands before us or reject Him in favor of the false reality we have constructed. Make no mistake: this is a tough choice. In our own reality we know what to expect. With Christ we know the end of the story and get to experience some of that joy along the way, but we are also guaranteed that the way is going to be steep and rough. The end is life and becoming fully who we were created to be—in other words the full content of our deepest hopes—but will we give up what we have in order to get it.

Some of you might be wondering whatever happened with my letter to Coach Williams. Well, after waiting for what seemed like ages, a simple FedEx envelop arrived at our house. I opened it and much to my surprise there was no letter. But what was there was way better. It was a team picture that every player and coach had signed. As it turned out, I didn.t get that I was hoping for. I could have gotten really mad and given up on KU basketball. I could have torn the picture up and written letters until I got the letter I was really hoping for—trying to force reality to fit with my plans. But that wouldn.t have gotten me very far and in the end, reality was far beyond my wildest dreams. In Christ we have the joy of realized hopes. Not simply the hopes our imaginations manage to concoct, but the fullest possible fulfillment of the deepest longings of our hearts. The longings that we can.t even fully grasp without God.s help. In the end we find that not only do we find our hopes fulfilled in Christ, but we find that we learn to hope for better things. This is the real miracle of Christmas: the joy of hopes for love and peace being fully and finally made plain.