One aspect that I love about the story of Jesus’ birth, an aspect that sometimes gets lost in the amazing wonder of the details we are more familiar with, is the celebration at the end of the long wait for the Messiah.
As 21st century readers, we need to try to appreciate the context of that moment in history. The Jews had been waiting for centuries for the promised Messiah. Numerous prophecies foretold of him and each generation waited with bated breath, hoping he would come. By the time the first century rolled around, God’s chosen people had not had a word from the Lord in 400 years! They had been ruled over by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Seleucids, and finally the Romans.
I can imagine faithful Jews at that time longing for the Messiah, yearning and hoping for him and yet barely daring to hope that the old prophecies might come true in their lifetime.
Into this historical context God begins to move. Zechariah, a priest; a young virgin named Mary; and her betrothed, Joseph, are all visited by angelic messengers. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth refers to Mary as the mother of her Lord and Zechariah prophesies saying,
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 2:68-79
Mary’s miraculous pregnancy comes to pass and she gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, according to the prophecies. Angels herald his birth to shepherds saying, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). The shepherds visit the baby and immediately go to tell others what has happened, glorifying God.
Finally, forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem to present him at the temple, in what is one of my favorite parts of the story. As the young family arrive at the temple that day they are greeted by two of the Lord’s faithful ones who have waited and longed and now finally see their Messiah with their own eyes. Let’s pick up the story in Luke 2:25-38,
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Picture it, old Simeon, waiting all his life for the “consolation of Israel”, takes the baby Jesus in his arms and looks into the face of his savior. Anna, an 84-year-old widow and prophetess who worships night and day at the temple, who probably lived near the temple precincts, praises God and begins to tell of Jesus to “all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem”.
When I think on the historical and theological context as I read these verses, all I can picture is the unbridled, uncontainable joy of those who had waited for the Savior. The wait was over at last!
Of course, we know how Jesus’ life continues to unfold. How those who waited expected a different sort of Messiah, a political leader to free them and lead them. Until Jesus’ death and resurrection, they could not comprehend how their own ideas of who the Savior should be paled in comparison to God’s incredible plan to restore people to himself.
Yes, we know that part of the story and yet, like Zechariah, Mary, Simeon and many others, we too are waiting. We are waiting for Jesus to come again, as he promised he would. Join me as we reflect on our own wait in part two: Waiting for the Returning King.