Surprised by Grace: Simeon

The prophets of Israel longed to know about which they spoke. Peter wrote of them,

Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into” (1 Peter 1:10-12).

Suffering played a key role in the early church, and Peter wrote to these suffering Christians to encourage them so they would not lose heart. He used the role of suffering to illustrate that just as Christ suffered, so also must they in a world which sin turned upside down. We gather from what Peter wrote a deep sense of longing arising from both the prophets and angels of God for the coming of Messiah and the redemption He brings. However, God gave the prophets a limited message beyond which they could not speak or even know. God also informed the angels that even they could comprehend only so much.

God alone laid out His plan in perfect order down the corridor of time, and He alone would fulfill the promise of grace made in ages past concerning the ultimate grace He would bestow on humanity through Messiah. God used suffering to prepare the world for this Messiah event. He did so that people would not look to themselves or their resources for deliverance but to Him, the Mighty God, Deliverer, and Holy One of Israel.

The time finally arrived. Anticipation rose to its highest peak. God now commanded His angels to shout gladness and joy from the heavens, their desire fulfilled. A star announced the Consolation of Israel and the Gentiles. Magi arrived at the house in which the baby slept and bestowed gifts at the feet of this newborn (Matthew 2:11). They looked upon the grace of God with awe.

There is more. Grace awaited an old man who longed for Messiah. He knew he would not die or face Nunc demittis[1] or “Now you dismiss,”

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32, New Revised Standard Version).

Like the prophets of old and the angels, Simeon simply longed for Messiah. He knew God would fulfill His promise. But when? Signs pointed to a future time, but no one knew exactly not even the prophets. He lived to serve God. The Scriptures describe him as “just and devout,” or righteous and God-fearing. Luke emphasizes that he communed with the Holy Spirit and that the Spirit was his constant guide and companion. While Simeon walked with and in the Spirit, the coming of Messiah remained undisclosed.

One day, the Holy Spirit sent him to the Temple. To Simeon, this prompting must have been simply a normal one. His communion with the Spirit was a common occurrence from what the Scriptures suggest. Off he went down the dusty street, perhaps praying as he walked with the tentative gait his age conveyed on him. He goes about his worship, a custom he relished. He hears footsteps echoing down the Temple corridor. These were not the normal footsteps of routine visitors making their way in to offer worship.

His half-closed eyes widened. Is it…? Can it be? He straightens himself up as much as an old man could and makes his way to his feet from his knees. His anticipation heightens as he begins to tremble. He squints and sees two shadows coming closer and closer. A couple enters the light of the Menorah candles on the altar. The woman carries a baby in her arms. Yes! Yes! Surprised by grace. Messiah! He stretches out his arms with a soft smile and tears streaming from his eyes. The woman comes closer and hands him the baby as Simeon sighs with joy. He speaks,

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32, New Revised Standard Version).

He pauses, turns to the woman, and continues,

Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35, NKJV).

He performs his final service for his God. He declares Messiah and His mission. He prophesies the agony and pain His mother will experience. He tells of the promise fulfilled for redeeming the lost. He calls for God to give his Nunc demittis (“Now you are dismissing”) so he can rejoice with the angels in heaven. He passes the mantle to John to declare,

Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight” (Mark 1:3).

[1] Latin for Simeon’s words after he saw Jesus and translates into English as Now you are dismissing or Allow me to depart. It is often sung as an evening canticle at Christmas.

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Surprised by Grace: Mary

All of us know the story of Mary the mother of Jesus. The Scriptures speak highly of her and give us many details about her. She fearlessly stood with her Son before the cross as He died for our sins. She prayed in the upper room with the disciples and witnessed their choice of Matthias to replace Judas. She received the Holy Spirit when He came upon the disciples on Pentecost. The writers of the gospels relied on her as a resource to record the life of Jesus. Yes, she played a pivotal role in rearing Jesus in bringing Him up in the fear of God. Although He existed as God come in the flesh, “He learned obedience…” (Hebrews 5:8), we cannot deny Mary’s participation in teaching Him. Yet, while she gave birth and mothered Jesus, she acquiesced to His rule over her as her Savior and Lord.

Mary-JesusAs we enter into her story, we discover the surprises she received from God. The first of these surprises came about when an angel of the Lord appeared to her. This was no ordinary angel. Rather, God sent Gabriel the archangel, among the highest of God’s angels. Gabriel dwelled in the presence of God (Luke 1:19), in His royal court as His personal servant (Maxwell Davidson, “Angels” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels). It took a special messenger with a special message for Mary because she would bear the Son of God. Gabriel declared to her,

“Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:28)
This declaration troubled Mary. That is, her emotions appeared to overwhelm her thoughts with intense perplexity and confusion rather than expressing joy as Gabriel encouraged her to experience. Favored? Blessed among women? What kind of message is this? God surprised her with grace. Gabriel continued in his greeting,
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30)
Gabriel wanted Mary to know that what he said was not simply idiomatic or an ordinary greeting as we often express ourselves to others such as,
Bless you!
or,
Have a good day!
or again,
I wish you well!
Rather, Gabriel declares God’s grace twice to Mary, not with a frivolous phrase, but with meaning and the full weight of God’s promise. God embedded His guaranteed redemption in this grace. God gave Mary genuine and earth-shattering grace. In the same way that Noah found favor or grace in God’s eyes (Genesis 6:8), so also did Mary. The favor or grace toward both Noah and Mary was momentous and historic. It was redeeming grace. Just as God redeemed Noah and his family, He also set apart Mary to bear the Redeemer of humanity. This grace amounted to far more than wishing one well or a reaction of “Bless you.” This grace possessed eternal weight and results, because God’s word has repercussions for eternity. What could prepare Mary or us for such grace?
Grace does come in surprising ways, especially when unexpected. Mary had a difficult time handling this grace from God. It initially confused her to realize that the King of all existence and the redemption of sinful humanity would grow in her womb and receive birth from her. Rejoice? Finally, after Gabriel finished speaking, she said,
“Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
What an example for us toward whom God declares grace! God surprised Mary with grace. He also does that with everyone who belongs to Him. God’s grace is not a frivolous declaration from Him such as “Bless you, my Son.” When God blesses us with grace, He does so with purpose, power, and resoluteness.
When God appeared to Isaiah as he worshiped in the temple, Isaiah fell prostrate on the ground and shook as he cried,
“Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5)
The same trembling and fear came upon him as descended on Mary. He recognized the grace of God with great humility and received it in similar fashion. God’s grace causes such a response. It bends us to the earth and causes us to recognize our state – those in need of the Savior, for it comes with overwhelming mercy and love stunning in our encounter with it. How does grace bend us to recognize our state and simultaneously lift us up with mercy and love?  Forgiveness and complete acceptance.  Everyone who believes through the touch of the Holy Spirit, receives forgiveness and total acceptance before God the Father.  Grace surprises us and catches us off guard in a similar way that it did with Mary.
The group Hillsong presents this same surprise of grace in their lyrics:
And I stand, I stand in awe of you
I stand, I stand in awe of you
Holy God to whom all praise is due
I stand in awe of you
From Hillsong, “I Stand in Awe of You”
Awe expresses surprise and wonder.  Christmas is a time that represents God’s surprising grace that lifts our face to His. Does God’s stunning grace captivate you?
HAVE A GRACE-FILLED CHRISTMAS

Surprised by Grace at Christmas

And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” — Matthew 1:21

Have circumstances entered into your life that totally disrupted it?

Then consider the story of Jesus’ parents. Joseph discovers a disturbing fact that his fiancée is pregnant, and he is not the father. What was he to do? Normally betrothals brought in gifts and dowries. This one bestowed confusion and bewilderment. What was he to do? We receive a hint of his reaction. He wanted to put her away quietly so she and her family would not be embarrassed. Then he encounters an astonishing announcement. God surprises Joseph with grace.

This newborn will

“…save His people from their sins.”

Nothing in the biblical story prepares us for these words. They are sudden and abrupt. Isn’t it just like God to meet difficulty and tension with unexpected and abrupt words of grace?

Craziness often drowns out “comfort and joy” for us during Christmas. Sometimes we would rather say, “Bah, humbug!” Alienation, loneliness, loss of hope, and depression have their sway with many. Compulsion marks gift giving. The message the angel of the Lord announced spoke of a sinful world. Luke described the world as steeped in moral darkness (Luke 1:79). The fact is that all of us live in moral darkness in our separation from God. The Bible says death results from our sinful state. All of us stand on the same level of having sinned against God. What are we to do?

The good news is that in our moral confusion, anxieties, alienation, and fears God surprises us with grace. Faith in Jesus delivers us from hopelessness and fear. What are we to do? Trust our lives to Him! This is the Christmas message that caused the shepherds and wise men to rejoice. God surprises us with grace through Jesus and forgives us of all wrongdoing. Christmas and grace intersect in the manger. Surprise someone with grace this Christmas.

The Shepherd Comes at Christmas

Shepherds ponder their legacy –

to some a pitiful stain on history.

Shepherd staff

Unlike seeing the evening with anticipation of a promising morn

no contemplation of hope lies before them –

they grow accustom to the stench of sheep

as the flock lingers on them like uncleanness hanging from mortality

but they and the sheep are one as the Father and Word are one

forever an undivided community.

The shepherds care for them as their own,

and the sheep know the shepherd’s voice.

The sun slowly disappears below the hills

Casting a long shadow on the forsaken-like bitter wildernessnight moon

as the shepherds’ contemplate the barren ground –

their eyes surveying the land for enemies of the flock.

They know no sleep

Just snatching slumber

Curled in the threads of their subsistence

gnarly fingers wrapped tightly around their staff

eyes squinting watching for treachery traversing the shadows

silhouettes of maliciousness stalking prey – their innocent charges.

They lean on staffs with rods

ready to fend off these night visitors

wolves and roaring lions ready to devour the sheep.

Among the forgotten and oppressed

these pastoral overseers of the helpless

protectors from the ruthless

earn a pittance for their toil.

They live apart from other classes – nomadic – migrants of their era.

Darkness closes unsettlingly around them – anticipating the light in due time –

as it slithers silently into the deep darkness afraid of the Light.

Sporadic bleating from the flock breaks the calm

while in the distance a census of lights commands

flickers in Bethlehem like lamps from virgins anticipating the Bridegroom.

As the evening draws deeper, the night fires become fewer with three remaining lit overseeing Advent.

The shepherds gaze heavenward as one star seems unusually bright

leaving a mystified look on rough, drawn, and dried faces

like weary mystics troubled by three trees they pass on the horizon outside the city

as they follow the star on camels.Wise man

One shepherd stares up at a star growing in size

As its point kisses Bethlehem.

Suddenly angel voices fill the expanse above;

heaven’s symphony burst through the clouds

announcing that God touches humanity with grace and truth.

The Shepherd rejoices with His sheep

as He comes to meet them in their humanity.

Harold Sings a Christmas Solo

Harold waited with intense anticipation just inside the gate. His time finally arrived. The others in the orchestra were flying high with passionate excitement. All of them had finely tuned instruments and practiced intently every moment they could for this very special day. Harold was part of the choir, and he had the enviable position of singing the solo. He practiced and practiced. Every morning his voice rang out in perfect pitch in such a melodious manner that those in the orchestra would gasp with pleasurable surprise and awe. All of them loved Harold because of his voice, and they could not wait to hear him at this special event.Angel

Mike had delivered several messages beforehand about this momentous occasion. He was one of the best sales persons the organization had. The big boss personally trained Mike in delivering the perfect pitch. Mike had a persuasive personality that simply left some wanting more and others finding what he had to say detestable. He was tall with an impeccable posture and confident smile. He stirred up a love hate relationship with many in the community, but because of the confidence the boss had in him, he remained unfazed.

On a couple occasions, he received such opposition that it just drained him. However, he held his ground that no one should miss the biggest symphony ever. On one occasion, he stayed in a town for an exhausting three weeks, going from one house to another informing the citizens that they had to be prepared to come.

His partner, Gabe, had similar responsibilities. The boss sent him to make arrangements with various family members. His job was not without troubles. He almost broke up a wedding placing the bridegroom in doubt about wanting to get married. He gave an extreme case of laryngitis to another family member so that all he could do was write on a tablet for several months. Gabe didn’t seem to be as persuasive as Mike. That’s the reason the boss sent him to family members rather than to strangers.

Both Mike and Gabe accomplished their jobs. Now it was Harold’s turn. All the orchestra finally arrived, and they were all ready to exit the gate together. All of them were so giddy that they wanted to shout. The boss had to calm them down, because he wanted Harold to do all the shouting while they accompanied him with their instruments.

Then the boss gave the nod, and all of them rushed out of the gate. The horns rang out first, giving out a haunting melodious sound that caught the entire audience off guard. Next came the trumpets accompanied by the bass and snare drums as though an army was about ready to attack. The harp and violins then presented a calming affect that led into Harold’s solo. All of a sudden, the entire orchestra ceased playing all instruments and with the choir shouted, “Hark Harold the angel sings!”

Harold thenmanger carries the orchestra in the grand finale, “Glory to the newborn King. Peace on earth and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled.”

Contemplating Christmas

Forest Snow

Campers with packs and tents

fade into the white-laden wilderness for several days stay

with unnoticed disturbances of crackling branches

falling from the snow’s weight

and distant rustling of night visitors wandering

among the firs and pines as

darkness makes the snow appear as soft coal

spread across the meandering landscape.

Silence soothes those settled warmly in their tents

listening to nature’s harmony – this peaceful wilderness:

a distant howl a calling owl branches movingWolf in snow

with the slight wind in tandem with the season

lulling these campers into a slumber.

The evening ambles like timeless moments

traversing tranquil minuscule motions of a world

seemingly stirring dismally in insignificant stages of time

(through which millions of living souls rush hurriedly to catch up with the earth’s rotation

lost in the meaninglessness of things

specks strewn on the earth like seeds spread on hard soil

falling and eventually dying and lost in memory

overcome by weeds and brevity)

traveling ever so slowly toward another day, one like no other.

They desire this rich wilderness – a divine garden –

this Christmas Eve night of nights silent in its advent

perhaps to glimpse a dazzling star

angel songs

another life.

This night hovers in expectation –

a spiritual moment –

brooding amid profound shadows

frozen in stillness and space

standing guard watching

until light shines through darkness

incomprehensible

inchoate

incarnate.

The fresh scents of sugar and ponderosa pines

rise heavenward like gifts of sweet smelling aromas

traveling on crisp and pure air

that leaves a slight refreshing chill –

like the first breath rising from the abyss

giving form to the formless

as the earth inhaled and the word gave birth.

It passes ethereally before these campers

serving comfort in solitude and solemnity

softly whispering to them

beyond the sense of sound

what the morning brings to pass.

Its cleanness transcends distress seeking

to distance them from heaven’s sacred moment

its purity brushing regenerate against their faces.

The quietness of evening lends escape

from the harshness of mundane existence of lost communities in the flurry of self-importance and urbanity

where the roar of hectic endurance and intolerance

tramples nativity for a toy or Petty Pursuit

and stains the vision of Christmas.

A deep sleep overtakes these campers

as dreams begin to dance within their hearts and heads –

anticipations and premonitions of Christmas morning’s freshness and renewal bringing possibilities of hope.

Lying beside a frozen lake beneath the firs and pines that stretch toward the house of God

their dreams still attend to movements of nature’s symphony soft and almost unnoticeable melodic notes like

a long drawn lull before a crescendo lets loose in celebration.

Sugar pines replace sugarplums –

almost supernatural in their bouquet.Icecicles

They have hours to go before they wake

hours to go before they wake.

Can such a wintry silent night guide the hope of a new day?

The baby in the manger insures it.

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