If you weren't expecting to see me up here this week, I share in your disappointment. Ed's been sick, and although we had hoped he'd be better in time to preach, it just didn't happen.
I was complaining about missing my vacation today on my website, and someone left a comment which I found funny:
Wow Darryl I sympathize with you...Charles Spurgeon used to preach with inflamed gout and Charles Finney with cancer of the throat and George Whitefield was wheelbarrowed from meeting to meeting and propped up to preach before collapsing in exhaustion in the last days before he died. Whatever happened to "instant in and out of season?" Whatever happened to preaching as though it's your last sermon?
Now, I hope he was kidding, but for a minute I thought about heading over to Ed's house with a wheelbarrow and bringing him up here. But seriously, I'm glad that Ed is starting to feel a bit better.
Do you ever feel like all your plans are up for grabs? Somebody's said that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. It seems as if our plans change as fast as we can make them. This happens in small ways, like my plans for today. It also happens with big things - with our jobs, our families, our life goals, our dreams.
I've been doing some thinking about this lately. I just realized that almost every person who is part of the Christmas story had their plans interrupted in a big way. Take Mary, a young unmarried woman (maybe 14 years old) with not a lot of money. It wasn't part of her plan to have Jesus. It definitely wasn't part of her plan for Jesus to be born out of town during the trip to Bethlehem. That was about the worst timing possible.
Joseph was interrupted, and so were the shepherds. About the only people who weren't interrupted were the Magi, who were foreign occultists who didn't even believe in the same God and who engaged in forbidden practices. I think God may be telling us something here. Life doesn't always go as we had planned, and it's often in what we don't plan that God breaks in.
Two of the characters mentioned in the Christmas story really bring this home to me. Eight days after Jesus was born, he was circumcised. Thirty-three days later, if the child was male, the parents would come to the Temple and present an offering, as prescribed by the Law. Mary and Joseph came to present their offering - the offering of those who were poor, by the way - and it's here that we meet two people who don't fit into our models of success. It's here that we get a different view of what God may be up to. It's not always about our plans.
In verses 25 to 27, we encounter Simeon:
Now there was a man named Simeon who lived in Jerusalem. He was a righteous man and very devout. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he eagerly expected the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Messiah. That day the Spirit led him to the Temple.
The list of what we don't know about Simeon is longer than the list of what we know. We don't know what he did for a living, or how old he was. We assume he was old - probably a pretty good assumption, but we don't know for sure. What we do know about is his character. He was righteous, devout, filled with the Spirit, and so tuned in to God that he knew to go to the Temple when God told him to. We don't know anything about Simeon except for the important part. We know the type of person he had become.
Think about what God had promised him: he wouldn't die until he had seen the Lord's Messiah. God had given him a life purpose that a) was probably on a timeline of decades, not days or even years and b) Simeon could do nothing about. All he could do was wait, not just hours or days but years. God's agenda for Simeon's life? Wait. Tomorrow? Wait some more. No doubt he did other stuff too, but Simeon understood that his life wouldn't be complete until God, on his timetable, fulfilled his promise to show him the Messiah.
Simeon was so tuned into God that God was even able to steer him to the right place at the right time:
So when Mary and Joseph came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord as the law required, Simeon was there. He took the child in his arms and praised God, saying,
"Lord, now I can die in peace!
As you promised me,
I have seen the Savior
you have given to all people.
He is a light to reveal God to the nations,
and he is the glory of your people Israel!"
Joseph and Mary were amazed at what was being said about Jesus. Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, "This child will be rejected by many in Israel, and it will be their undoing. But he will be the greatest joy to many others. Thus, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul."
Amazing. Simeon's spent his whole life waiting for something that he had no control over, that he could not accomplish, something that he could only witness. When the promise is fulfilled, he says, "I'm done. I've now accomplished what I'm here for. If I died tomorrow, my life will have been complete. That's it." He definitely had a different view of planning and of life than we do.
You know, we can have all the plans in the world, but God may have something entirely different in his mind. We can feel frustrated by delays, but God's not in a rush. His timetable isn't hours or days, not even years or decades. God's timetable is bigger than centuries or millennia. God has no problem with making us wait forty years, as he did Moses, if that's his plan for us. The time we wait isn't wasted, and just because we can't control what's happening doesn't mean that God can't. He is. He's got different plans, and he's got a different timeline.
Do you know the only thing that Simeon could control? He couldn't control when the Messiah would appear. He could control the type of person he was becoming while he waited. He did have control over his character, the shape that his soul was taking. Instead of planning, he prepared by becoming, not doing. This is probably a hint to us that we should stop putting so much attention on planning what we're going to do. We should probably put a bit more time preparing to be the type of people that are ready for whatever God has planned, even if it's on a completely different timeline than we might choose.
One more encounter at the Temple:
Anna, a prophet, was also there in the Temple. She was the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher, and was very old. She was a widow, for her husband had died when they had been married only seven years. She was now eighty-four years old. She never left the Temple but stayed there day and night, worshiping God with fasting and prayer. She came along just as Simeon was talking with Mary and Joseph, and she began praising God. She talked about Jesus to everyone who had been waiting for the promised King to come and deliver Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)
We know a little more about Anna than we do about Simeon. We know her ancestry, and we know that she had been widowed for a very long time. Widows were pretty low in social status. Anna centered her life on the Temple, and might have lived in one of the rooms around the Temple precinct. She was old and on the fringes of society or usefulness. Near the end of her life, she met the infant Jesus.
Simeon and Anna give me hope because they remind me that my life can't simply be measured by what I can plan and accomplish. They're a reminder that God is very much present in the delays and the interruptions of life.
I'm here today because plans were changed. I didn't plan to be here. This past year has been full of stuff we couldn't have planned. Some have been small, but some, like Charlene's dad's accident that put him in a wheelchair, have been big. I know that some of you have had things take place you wouldn't have planned. Jobs have come to an end. Dreams have died. Life has taken turns that you wouldn't have chosen. Some of you are in wait mode, facing a long delay.
We live in a period of seismic change. One of my challenges is that former assumptions and easy answers aren't holding up. Who knows where this will lead? Not me, but today's text reminds me that I don't need to. I can't control my plans, but I can control the type of person that I can become. I may not be able to plan, but I can prepare to be used by God whenever he decides to use me.
It just may be that, like Simeon or Anna, one encounter, far in the distance, after years of waiting, may be the very reason why you have lived your life. And that one encounter, as they encountered Jesus, may be enough to say that your life was worthwhile.
Here's my benediction for you, the last one I'll be able to give you this year. In a world of plans, goals, and deadlines, I pray that the God whose plans are beyond our knowing, and whose timeline is eternity, will enable you to focus on being the type of person who pleases him, rather than doing. And I pray that in God's time, he will accomplish his purpose in your life, even in the interruptions and delays. This is my prayer for you, in Jesus' name. Amen.