It happens every year: I have good intentions for the best possible new year. My intentions bring forth resolutions for a better life. After all, it’s natural to reflect upon the closing of one year and the possibilities of another. Everyone has hopes for a better year. We all instinctively realize that we have a role to play in shaping the year to come. So we resolve to try harder, act kindly, and become better people. Of course, New Year’s resolutions rarely last a week--or sometimes even the night!
The new year presents an opportunity to reflect on how real change comes. I’d like to suggest three pillars of change for Students of Jesus:
Redeeming Time: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) This is worth reflection: we live in time. God has ordained that we experience the passage of time one day after another. The days march by in succession, turning into weeks and months. Yet we are surprised by it’s passage: “What? Where did the year go?” Each day tries to command our attention and draw us into the urgent, the pressing, and the demands of everyday life. Each day cries out with a voice of authority, but it is the voice of an impostor. “Each day is a god,” Annie Dillard observed. Each day attempts to eclipse our relationship with the Lord: work, food, play, entertainment, even sleep. Could any human relationship flourish if it receives only the left-overs of the day? The Apostle Paul cautioned his friends in Ephesus: “Be very careful, then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16) In fact, the King James version employs the useful phrase, “redeem the time.” True change comes to those who understand God’s gracious gift of time, and rule over that gift as God intends.
The Presence of the Holy Spirit: “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.” (Isaiah 40: 6) Real change requires Incarnation. The importance of incarnation does not end with the Christmas story. We need the in-breaking of the Spirit in order to effect real change. The legacy of flesh is corruption. It’s not that flesh is evil, but rather that all flesh is subject to corruption. For example, imagine a perfect tomato: vine-ripened and red, resting on the kitchen windowsill. It’s flawless. You return to the kitchen the next day, and it remains firm and inviting. Now imagine that you leave that tomato on the windowsill for six months: it's no longer perfect, and definitely not inviting! It’s not that the tomato was defective: it simply decayed. This is the legacy of all created things apart from Spirit-infused life. Our plans are no different. “Perfect” well-intentioned human plans are always subject to corruption. We need the life-giving Spirit of God to give birth to our plans. The Apostle Peter reflected on the words of Isaiah and concluded that we need a reminder in order to be open to the Spirit: “you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (I Peter 1: 23) The new birth implants the imperishable seed, but we can easily be distracted by the flesh: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3:3) True change comes to those who insist upon the presence of the Holy Spirit in all their plans.
Responding to Grace: There is, indeed, a place for human effort. We are called to cooperate with the grace of God. The Apostle Paul recognized that receiving the grace of God was the initial step--God’s step, but there were steps for Paul to take as well: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (I Corinthians 5:10) How many of us associate the phrase “worked harder” with God’s grace? Make no mistake--Paul does not confuse his effort with God’s grace. He understands that his efforts come as a response to that grace. If we expect to experience godly change in the coming year, we must recognize where God’s grace is leading us, and then cooperate with his initiative. No amount of effort will replace God’s grace; we must have eyes to see what the Master is doing. We must also possess the courage to commit ourselves to his leading. True change comes to those who add their best to God’s kindness.
We turn the calendar page, but he gives new life. In the end, we will recognize the work of Jesus in our successes. “Behold,” says the Lord, “I make all things new.”
All language falls short of reality, but when we attempt to describe the mystery of the Incarnation, words fails utterly. Throughout history, words have poured forth profusely in an effort to explain a mystery so great that angels have longed to look into.
The Incarnation. It’s such a strange word, tinged with stained glass and solemn intonation. The word is not native to English. We inherited the word from Latin as that beautiful language tried to express, “to be made flesh.” So strange. To be made flesh. Not to be made of flesh, but rather rendered into flesh. Someone--God--was changed into flesh. No wonder the angels were curious.
Theologians raise objections: God cannot “become” anything because God cannot change. I’m not smart enough to be a theologian. I can only point to the witness of the Holy Spirit: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Although the words of men have failed for millennia, the Word became flesh. God describes himself as “the Word.” What is that Word? It is, simply, Jesus. The Word spoken was an entire life, and that life was the light of men. In that one Word/Life, we discover the glory of God, the grace of God and the truth of God.
In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God pitched his tent among us and showed us how to live. God wasn’t “slumming,” like some Hollywood star sleeping on the streets for one night. He left the most exclusive gated community in all creation and became a little lower than the angels. He lived among us--as one of us--without the benefits of his heavenly nature. The Christmas story comes to us filled with drama and pathos, but in our celebration of the Christ Child, the faith of his parents, the wonder of the Magi and worship from the shepherds it’s easy to miss the point: it’s the beginning of the gospel story, not the story in itself.
What does it look like for God to live like a man? It starts with humility, danger, and promise--not so different from each human life that comes from God. It starts with desperation and need but it continues day after day, month after month, year after year until God’s purposes are fulfilled. Jesus the baby became Jesus the child. And in the same succession of days we all experience, Jesus the child became Jesus the man. He showed us how it’s done. He took no shortcuts, he did not cheat on the exam of life. He was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrew 4:15).
For the past hundred years the divinity of Jesus has been under attack, and the church has rushed to defend from those attacks. Rightly so: he is the Son of God. However, decades of emphasis on his divine nature have come at the expense of an understanding of his humanity. Jesus lived his daily life in communion with the Father using the same means open to each one of us: prayer, openness to the Spirit, the witness of scripture, a listening ear, and the life of a disciple. The child Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). It was no charade: Jesus was a man. If we grasp his humanity we can encounter the hope of Christlikeness for ourselves as well. The Incarnation is not only a theological teaching, it is a picture of what is possible for followers of Jesus.
An overemphasis on his divinity creates a picture of a saving God who is beyond our reach. An overemphasis on his humanity reduces Jesus to a beloved character who is easily marginalized by the changes of culture and time. It took the early church two centuries to come to an acceptable statement of the mystery—Jesus is at once 100% God and 100% man. The mystery is also the stuff of Christmas meditation.
Hope, promise, and expectation live in the most unlikely places. The birth narrative in Luke’s gospel is peopled with unknowns—unknowns who possessed a rich history with God and whose stories are preserved for our instruction. Simeon is just such an example. He was an individual on the margins, unnoticed in his day but preserved for us in the scripture as an example of how to walk with God.
Just after the birth of their child, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was a massive complex of buildings, a religious marketplace at the center of Jewish life. The young couple expected anonymity in the crush of humanity flowing in and out of the Temple, but instead they encountered a man who had patiently waited to see the promise of God fulfilled before he died:
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 2: 25 – 32)
Simeon’s actions and words are recorded for us not as a matter of historical curiosity, but rather to demonstrate how we can enter into God’s purpose in our day as well. Simeon had a dynamic relationship with the Holy Spirit. In just three verses the work of the Spirit is highlighted three times, and each mention points to a distinct aspect of the Spirit’s work in Simeon’s life:
• First the scripture says simply, “the Holy Spirit was upon him.” (v25) Simeon’s life was characterized by the presence of the Spirit in an abiding way: to know Simeon, to talk with him, was to taste something of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you have met people like him. Their lives are permeated with the presence of the Holy Spirit. They radiate the attributes of Godly character, like the list of His fruit in Galatians 5: 22-23. In Simeon’s case other people may not have been able to define the source of his distinctive character, but they undoubtedly sensed the difference.
• Second, the Holy Spirit had spoken to Simeon personally that “he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” (v26) This is significant because no amount of study in the Old Testament could lead anyone to such a promise. It was personal. That means Simeon had trained not only his intellect but also his spirit to receive from God. Simeon combined both the ability to hear and the faith to hold on to what he heard. Can you imagine the raised eyebrows he would have encountered if he chose to share such a personal promise from God? Yet the promise was true because the scriptures assure us so.
• Third, Simeon followed the leading of the Holy Spirit in practical ways. He was “moved by the Holy Spirit” on a particular day to be at a particular place at a particular time (v27). Perhaps Simeon was consciously aware of the Spirit’s direction, or perhaps it was something less defined. But whatever level of awareness Simeon possessed it was sufficient to put him in the right place at the right time. Dallas Willard has observed that God’s leading isn’t always some explicit command. In fact, we may not be able to separate our thoughts from his—until after the fact, when we realize God was leading and guiding toward a particular moment. Although we do not know Simeon’s age at the time of the encounter with Jesus, the text leads us to believe he was a man advanced in years. His interaction with the Holy Spirit that day was not some robotic control. It was the result of years of heartfelt seeking and cooperation with the still small voice so characteristic of God’s ways.
Simeon’s relationship with the Holy Spirit placed him before the baby Jesus. Simeon’s response to the moment is instructive as well:
He knew his moment had come. When Simeon declares, “dismiss your servant in peace,” (v29) he is not waxing poetic. He welcomes death because he has experienced the faithfulness of God. He has witnessed the promise of God to Abraham, to Israel, and to himself. He has seen the hope of Israel.
Simeon saw what others did not. He declared, “My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people” (vs 30-31) It was business as usual at the Temple that day. Priests, rabbis, and religious sorts of all kinds walked right past the King of Glory. Simeon saw a baby and witnessed the consolation of Israel. Here’s a difficult question: will I be held accountable for what the Father tried to show me, but I was unable to see?
Finally, Simeon understood that God’s purposes stretch beyond Israel to the entire world. There, in the shadow of the Temple, Simeon bore witness to the hope of the Gentiles. Most of the Temple was off-limits to women and pagans. But standing before Mary, and attracting the attention of a widow named Anna, Simeon declared that the court of the Gentiles now housed the presence of God. The God of Abraham had fulfilled a promise to bless the entire world. In our day, even among believers, we are tempted to think that God is at work on behalf of the few, when in fact his purposes include the many.
There is so much to celebrate in the Christmas story, but for followers of Jesus there is even more to learn.