Featured, Hope

When Life Brings You Back Down to Earth After Christmas: Holding on to the Light

The lights are down, the tree is gone.  Does it seem a little darker in your home?  A little more gloomy, a little less cheerful around the house?

Maybe it’s not just your house that seems darker.  Maybe you have places of darkness in your life, things you are struggling with, painful places of despair or grief.  That all doesn’t just go away because of the cheerfulness of the holidays does it?  Maybe the holidays with their cheer and festivities helped brighten life for a bit, but Christmas is over, we are back to the daily grind, and maybe you feel life has brought you back down earth, back to the gritty real and hard of your life.

I was sitting with this text the days following Christmas from Luke, the text of this old man Simeon who has been hanging around waiting… who literally was waiting to die until his eyes touched upon the promised Messiah.  And then one day, this young couple comes in with a six week old baby boy they are presenting to the Lord, as was the custom.  And this old man Simeon, he knew, he just knew – the Spirit told his spirit – that this is the one he has been waiting for.

So he goes up to this young couple, Mary and Joseph, and he takes the six week old baby Jesus in his arms and blesses God for the promised salvation he holds in his hands.  And then he says to Mary…

“This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. 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.” Luke 2:34-35

If you’ve had in your mind the image of a silent night, the soft glow of light as the baby Jesus sleeps peacefully in a manger while Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the animals gather around and look adoringly at this miraculous child, this passage rips us rather suddenly from this scene.  It doesn’t start off bad… old Simeon takes the six week old baby Jesus in his arms and praises God for the promised salvation he holds in his hands. He blesses the child, but then things start to go downhill rather quickly…

This child will be the downfall of many? Many will oppose him? A sword will pierce your very soul?

Can you imagine someone saying this to you about your six week old child?

What’s going on here? What happened to that peaceful manger scene and angels singing and the light and joy all contained within the hopes and inspired songs and prophecy Luke has been writing about? Quickly in the gospel narrative of Luke, a dark note is introduced as we are reminded that in Jesus’ coming not all is silent, peaceful nights and adoration and joy.

Jesus is indeed a light… as Simeon says, gathering words of prophecy from Isaiah… a light to reveal God to the nations. John’s Gospel proclaims this same truth in its opening, Jesus is the “lights that shines in the darkness”, a light to the world.  But John’s Gospel goes on to say that the world does not recognize it, they don’t understand the light. The light shines in the darkness but the darkness will try to oppose this light… and the battle will be fierce.

What we are reminded of here in the middle of Luke 2 is that the birth of this little boy is the beginning of the final confrontation between the light and the darkness, between good and evil in the world, between those who are with God and those who are against God. We move rather quickly from the shepherds glorying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, and Mary treasuring all these things in her heart in Luke 2:20… to opposition and a sword piercing Mary’s heart just 15 verses later.

I worked my way through an Advent devotional this year that continued past Christmas into Epiphany, the celebration of the coming of the Magi, which marks the inclusion of the Gentile world into the good news of the salvation of Jesus.   Did you know that the lectionary text the day after Christmas is the Stoning of Saint Stephen.  On Christmas day, you read the birth of Jesus and the joy of that coming, and then the very next day the church has for centuries followed the Christmas text with the text of the Stoning of Saint Stephen, the first martyr for the faith. I mean, really?!? Do we have to go there so quickly?

The devotional had this to say, “If the days before Christmas and the feast day (Christmas Day) itself have lifted up our minds and hearts to the transcendent beauty of God’s love for us, the account of the brutal stoning and martyrdom of the young disciple Stephen brings us startlingly back down to earth. The song of the angels, “Peace on earth,” almost seems like a painful irony as we read of his martyrdom. Why does the Church break the beauty of this sacred season with the commemoration of the first martyr? Our good sense tells us that this is more than a jarring coincidence. What we encounter already is the clash between good and evil, between infinite goodness and the darkest deepest evil. Stephen’s death (and I would add that this scene with Simeon) reminds us that Jesus has come to take on all the evil…”(Groeschel, Behold, He Comes, 69).

Both in the lectionary reading the day after Christmas and the texts following the birth narrative in Luke, we are reminded, all is not right in the world. We are brought back down to earth, to the gritty, hard reality of life in a broken, sinful world.

And we are reminded of the longing, the longing for God to come and right the wrongs.

Even in this scene with Simeon, we find someone who is longing, who is waiting… Luke says, “he was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel.” Other translations say he was “waiting for God to comfort Israel.” Simeon was waiting with longing for the fulfillment of God’s promise that God would bring hope and comfort.

Friends, do you sometimes feel like Simeon? Are there places in your life where you are waiting for comfort or for rescue? Are there places where it’s not the joy and peace of the manger scene you exist in, but rather places of grief and mourning, of suffering and longing?

The Christmas season can be for many one of the hardest times of the year… a time where the hard reality of life clashes with the picturesque scene of happiness, tranquility and joy everyone else seems to be experiencing. At my home church in the midst of this holiday season they offer a service called Worship on the Longest Night, a worship service that is held on the longest night of the year… a recognition that in the midst of the celebration of Jesus coming, in the midst of the season of joy and festivities, the nights can be long and dark.   People may be struggling under the weight of darkness, grief, pain and loss.

Friends, Jesus has indeed come into the world, and yet we still exist in the “not yet,” there are still places in the world, in our lives, where all has not been made right yet. Some of us feel like we are in the longest night… darkness is still in our midst.

Is there a darkness are you struggling to see through? Are you having trouble seeing the light? The personal darkness we struggle with comes in many forms. Broken relationships, overwhelming loss, addictions, depression, illness.

Do you feel the conflict this nativity story brings? We feel the hope and joy that Christ’s coming brings, but then rather suddenly we are brought back down to earth, to the reality of our lives, to the not right places.

Maybe your darkness isn’t quite so overwhelming. Maybe it is just the reality that as you spent time with family this Christmas you felt the relationships that were out of whack. Or maybe it is the financial drain that has you stressed and uncertain. Or maybe it is just the reality that your life hasn’t quite turned out like you thought and you are confronting the unmet expectations for your life.

Whether your not right places are small or big, whether there are just some small shadows in the picture or a darkness that is enveloping most of the light for you right now, friends Simeon’s speak to us hope and promise. Yes, Simeon speaks dark words about opposition and suffering… he names the reality of life. But as he does, he is holding Jesus in his arms.

Think about that, he holds in his old, frail arms Jesus the Messiah and he speaks the truth: I have seen your salvation… a light to the nations. In the midst of the darkness, he holds the light.

John speaks of this conflict between the darkness and the light in the opening words of his Gospel…

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5

Whatever darkness we experience inside or out, to it the opening words of John’s Gospel says, the darkness never wins… it never has the final word. It never has and never will overcome God’s light. The light that has come in Jesus Christ it always penetrates through, it always overcomes, it always has the final say. John clarifies the truth that Simeon speaks as he holds the Christ Child in his arms, this child is our promised salvation.

Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks these words in John 8:12

“I am the world’s Light. No one who follows me stumbles around in the darkness. I provide plenty of light to live in.” The Message

That is a promise… if we follow Jesus he says he will provide us Light. He promises that we won’t stumble around. The Light is there… he has promised it!

As much as John 1:5 is a theological statement of truth about who Jesus is, it is also a promise… “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Friends, that peacefully sleeping baby we have as an image in our head, becomes the man who stands in a synagogue just two chapters later in Luke and reads these words from Isaiah 61

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
   and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

No matter what hard reality you feel you are facing in your life, the time of the Lord’s favor has come… the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. Whatever sorrows and trials you are facing right now friends, hear the words of Jesus and take heart, because Jesus has overcome the world. He has come and he will come again to bring to completion the work he started of making all things right.

I love the image of Simeon holding Jesus in his arms even as he speaks these dark words of opposition, even as he names the reality of darkness and suffering in the world. Perhaps that can become for us an invitation to do the same, to hold Jesus the light in our arms and to hold on to the truth of the promise that he is the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness has not, HAS NOT, overcome it.

I have a dear friend going through a very difficult, painful situation right now. She emailed recently and shared with me these words someone spoke to her that gave her such hope. Her friend said, “To every step of darkness there is a counter move of God, watch for it, it’s thrilling.” Then my friend wrote: I am taking this as my new year’s resolution — to see the steps of God-Light in the darkness.

Perhaps these are words we can take to heart for ourselves… in this New Year what steps of God-light can we see in the darkness?

Let’s together hold to the truth that a Light has come, has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, and this light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it… no matter what we are facing. And Jesus, his making all things right, will be beyond all we could ask or imagine.

Take in again these words from Isaiah.  Friends, take in the light.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
for the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
and to proclaim that captives will be released
and prisoners will be freed.
He has sent me to tell those who mourn
that the time of the Lord’s favor has come,
and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.
To all who mourn in Israel,
he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
festive praise instead of despair.

Friends, whatever your life is holding, hold on to Jesus. Hold on to the truth that the Light will one day dispel every shadow of darkness.

And then friends, Arise, Shine, for your Light has come and the Glory of the Lord rises upon you. (Isaiah 60:1)

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