by Brian Keepers
When our oldest daughter Emma was a toddler, we bought a Fisher-Price Nativity Set. Every year we’d pull it out and set it up with the rest of our Christmas decorations. A few years ago, after we got it all set up, suddenly the baby Jesus went missing. We turned the house upside down looking for him. But Jesus was nowhere to be found. So there sat our nativity set, with all the other characters—Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi, even some of the animals, but no baby Jesus.
I suppose there was something fitting about this—that in the season of Advent our Fisher-Price manger sat empty, and we were constantly on the lookout for the baby Jesus to turn up. But it was quite distressing to both of our girls. Then, two days before Christmas, our youngest daughter Abby (two years old at the time) came bouncing into the living room, bursting with joy. “Look!” she announced, “Abby found Jesus!”
We all stopped what we were doing and did a happy dance in the middle of our living room. Jesus had been found, and just in time for Christmas! This was reason to celebrate!
All throughout Advent, we have been waiting and watching for the light to come. And now, in Christmastide, we celebrate the birth of a child whose very face shines the bright radiance of God’s face. The one we’ve been looking for has been found. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come,” we sing. “Let earth receive her king!”
I’m not sure if old Simeon and Anna, two characters we meet in Luke 2:22-40, did a happy dance when they finally found the one they’d spent their whole lives looking for, but Luke does tell us that when they saw the Christ child with their own eyes in the temple that day, they knew it was time to rejoice. They, too, had reason to celebrate!
The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah. And here he is at the end of his life, staring into the wrinkled and ruddy face of this newborn Savior. His tired, old heart quickens with joy. A song of praise leaps off his lips:
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may 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.
An old woman also sings. Her name is Anna and she has spent her years in the temple worshiping day and night, fasting and praying. Why was she fasting and praying? Because she was in grief over the pain of her people. Like Simeon, she longed for their deliverance. Yet at the moment she saw the Christ child, she, too, was filled with joy and praised God.
Joy has come because salvation has come. Salvation in the biblical sense carries with it both the idea of being rescued from destruction and being restored to health. Salvation means to be whole again, to be delivered in the midst of peril. Far back toward the Hebrew root of the word, it may even suggest that no matter how closely the evil hedges around you, God will clear for you all the space you need to move around it.
I like that picture. Salvation is not God automatically getting rid of all the hedges, but God clearing just enough space for us to move, to breathe, to keep on going, to rejoice. There will always be things that threaten to steal our joy. Trying situations, difficult people, uncertainty, loss, disappointment. And if joy is contingent upon all the hedges being removed and things always going our way, then moments of joy will be few and far between.
In his beautifully written novel Mr. Ives’ Christmas, Oscar Hijuelos tells the story of a man named Edward Ives who lives in New York City. Tragedy strikes when Ives’ son Robert, who is about to enter seminary, is randomly murdered by a troubled teenager.
Ives is plunged into an abyss of darkness and sorrow. He doubts God’s goodness, even God’s existence. Yet Ives continues to be faithful to his wife and to the Church, even though he has lost all feelings of devotion. Somehow, he remains open to God’s healing grace. And then one Christmas, when Ives is old and nearing the end of his life, a breakthrough comes.
It’s Christmas Eve. Ives is sitting in church. He is kneeling, meditating on the birth of the Christ child while the choir sings “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Ives is suddenly overcome with a sense of God’s presence. He sits in the pew and tips his head back with his eyes pinched shut, tears streaming down his cheeks.
Even in his loss, Ives discovers joy. Though the sorrow of his son’s death will never fully leave him on this side of the grave, his heart is filled with gratitude and praise. He has a vision of the resurrected Christ, coming down off the cross to be with him. Ives imagines Christ “placing his wounded hands” upon his brow, and a deep sense of joy and peace comes over him.
Simeon and Anna knew something of this joy and peace that Ives’ experienced. Israel was still in the darkness of Roman rule. Yet when Simeon held the Savior in his arms he rejoiced. He rejoiced because in the midst of hard times, he saw the salvation of his people in Jesus.
This tells us that perhaps joy is less about feeling happy or getting life to go our way and more about seeing the world through an eschatological lens, through the eyes of faith. We make the decision to rejoice, no matter what we face, because in this baby born in Bethlehem we have seen salvation. We choose to trust that God is with us and that God has secured the future; and that even now Jesus places his wounded-healing hands on us—on every inch of this creation–and gives us his joy, which always comes as gift.
The time is right. The time is full. God has been born among us. There is reason to celebrate. Of course the real reason to celebrate is not because we’ve found Jesus, but because Jesus has found us. And that means the future looks good. In the famous words of St. Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Brian Keepers is the Minister of Preaching and Congregational Leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.