December 17, 2006

WHAT THE GRINCH MISSED

“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.” Luke 2:29-30

Every Who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot

But the Grinch, who lived just north of Who-ville, did NOT!

The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!

Now, please don’t ask why. No one knows quite the reason.

It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.

It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.

But I think that the most likely reason of all

May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

Millions of children and parents and grandparents recognize those words from the Dr. Seuss classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The grouchy Grinch hates the toys and the noise and the joys of Christmas, so he decides to stop Christmas from coming. He dresses up as Santa Claus and goes down the chimney of every house in Who-ville and steals everything he can get his hands on. In the words of Dr. Seuss,

Then he slithered and slunk, with a smile most unpleasant,

Around the whole room, and he took every present!

…And he stuffed them in bags. Then the Grinch, very nimbly,

Stuffed all the bags, one by one, up the chimbley!

…And the one speck of food/ That he left in the house

Was a crumb that was even too small for a mouse.

Then he did the same thing to the other Whos’ houses

Leaving crumbs much too small for the other Whos’ mouses!

The Grinch makes off with all the stolen goods just as the Whos are about to wake up. He can’t wait to see how depressed they’ll be when they find out their Christmas has been stolen.

“Pooh-Pooh to the Whos!” he was grinchishly humming.

“They’re finding out now that no Christmas is coming!

“They’re just waking up! I know just what they’ll do!

“Their mouths will hang open a minute or two

“Then the Whos down in Who-ville will all cry BOO-HOO!

But as the Grinch listens for the sound of weeping, he is stunned to hear instead the merry sounds of singing.

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,

Was singing! Without any presents at all!

He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!

IT CAME!

Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,

Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?

“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!

“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”

And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

“Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!”

At that point, the Grinch changes his mind. He decides to stop hating and to start celebrating Christmas instead.

And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast!

And he… HE HIMSELF…! The Grinch carved the roast beast!

Now, how can anybody resist a book that uses words like “roast beast” and “mouses” and “chimbley”? I liked the story of the Grinch when I was little, and I still like it. I’ll never be too old to enjoy Dr. Seuss and his crazy rhymes. But it’s not just the rhymes that I like. I also like the fact that thanks to the Grinch, preachers don’t have to preach that there’s more to Christmas than the stuff we buy. Dr. Seuss and his Grinch do an unbeatable job of reminding us that Christmas doesn’t come from a store but means something more.

Still, if we want to know where Christmas does come from, if we want to know what the Grinch missed, we have to turn from Dr. Seuss to the Bible. The Bible tells us exactly where Christmas comes from: it comes from heaven. The Bible tells us something more that makes Christmas what it is: God’s gift of his Son, Jesus. “For God so loved the world,” says John 3:16, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Christmas is Christ, and that means joy and eternal life for “whoever believes in him.” I love that word whoever. Rich or poor, educated or uneducated, male or female, this nation or that nation, it doesn’t matter. Every Who down in every Who-ville on earth who believes in Jesus will not perish but have eternal life. That is something to sing about!

Never Too Old

Christmas is for “whoever,” and that means that it’s for old as well as young. We often think of Christmas as a time for children (and many kids do love Christmas, no doubt about it) but some of the people who enjoy Christmas most are old. On today’s program, we’re going to see how two very old people discovered what the Grinch missed. We’re going to look at the story of an old man named Simeon and an extremely old widow named Anna who saw the baby Jesus and realized that they were looking at the Savior they had longed for.

These two old people knew ancient prophecies which promised the birth of a child called “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us,” a child who would grow up to save his people from their sins and give them a bright future. Simeon and Anna lived many, many years, but even as they got older and older, they never stopped hoping and praying that “God with Us,” Immanuel, would come.

The story of Simeon and Anna shows a lot about Jesus, plus it shows a lot about the part that old people can play in God’s plan. You’re never too old to rejoice in the Christ child, and you’re never too old and to help others get to know him. The Bible takes old people seriously. Sometimes the elderly are seen as old codgers who have had their day and don’t count for much anymore—and some seniors even start to think of themselves that way. But that’s not the Bible’s view. Scripture doesn’t treat seniors as though their best days are past, or as though they matter less than younger folks. In the Old Testament, God commands, “Show respect for the elderly and revere your God.” (Leviticus 19:32) and he says, “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained by a righteous life” (Proverbs 16:31).

God’s regard for elderly people certainly shines through in the story of Simeon and Anna and the baby Jesus. When the Bible describes Simeon and Anna, it shows that these are people to be taken seriously. Simeon isn’t just an old guy with wrinkles on his face or a twinkle in his eye. No, the Bible portrays Simeon as an upright, focused man. He knows God’s promises, and God’s Holy Spirit is upon him in a special way. Simeon is old, but he’s not living in the past; he’s looking to the future. The Holy Spirit has revealed to him that he will not die before he has seen the Lord’s Christ, the Messiah. And so Simeon takes it as a sacred trust to live a godly life and watch for the Christ.

Likewise, Anna isn’t just some harmless old lady who offers a few smiles and pats babies on the head. Anna is a woman to reckon with. The Bible calls her a prophetess, a woman with God-given insight and ability to communicate that insight. Anna doesn’t hold any official position, but she is a spiritual heavyweight: always at the temple, fasting and praying and seeking after God and speaking to others about her Lord.

Anna is righteous, and she’s also rugged. She’s had some tough times, but she’s a tough woman. She lost a husband after just seven years of marriage and has lived the hard life of a widow ever since. We’re not quite sure whether the Bible’s wording means Anna was a widow until she was 84 years old, or whether she was a widow for 84 years, which would make her over 100! Either way, she’s not exactly young, and her life hasn’t exactly been easy. But has she settled down in her rocking chair, feeling sorry for herself? No, Anna stays active in her praying and prophesying, and God chooses her to be one of his special heralds for the holy infant.

About now, if Simeon and Anna were here in the studio with me, I suspect they’d interrupt and say, “Young man, don’t talk about us. Talk about the Christ child. He’s what it’s all about.” And I certainly agree that our main focus must be on Jesus. The Bible doesn’t mention Simeon and Anna just to say how great they are but to use them as testimony to Jesus.

Still, though Jesus is the main focus, the Bible does go into some detail about Simeon and Anna and about what kind of people they were, and we shouldn’t skip over these details too quickly in our haste to hear what is said about the Christ child. The Bible’s portrait of Simeon and Anna shows God’s regard for older believers; it shows the sterling character and spiritual strength of senior saints who have been shaped by many decades of living by faith in God and his promises; and it shows that you’re never too old to celebrate Jesus’ birth or tell others about him.

Seeing God’s Salvation

In Luke 2 the Bible tells how Simeon and Anna met up with Jesus. Luke 2 begins with the well-known story of how Jesus was born in Bethlehem, how his mother laid him in a manger because there was no room in the local inn, and how the angels announced his birth to the shepherds. However, that’s not the last of what Luke 2 says about the baby Jesus. The chapter goes on to tell how Mary and Joseph, as good Jewish parents, had Jesus circumcised when he was eight days old. Then, when the baby was forty days old, they brought him to the temple in Jerusalem to dedicate their firstborn son to the Lord. Again, this was part of Jewish custom, as God’s Law through Moses commanded.

It’s at this point that senior citizen Simeon enters the picture. The Bible says, “Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you 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.'”

What a marvelous moment! Simeon is seeing with his own eyes what God’s people have waited centuries to see and what Simeon has waited a lifetime to see. He is holding in his arms God’s salvation, the light of the world, the glory of Israel. Simeon looks at that tiny baby and realizes afresh that God is a wonderful God, a Sovereign Lord, who always keeps his promises, and he praises God for that. As Simeon holds on to Jesus, he feels that he can die happy. He can die in peace. He has seen God’s salvation, and he has carried out the task God gave him: to keep watch for the Savior and to declare the truth about him.

In some ways, that moment when Simeon held the baby Jesus is unique and unrepeatable. Jesus will never be a baby again, and none of us will ever hold that holy infant in our arms the way Simeon did. And yet there’s another sense in which that wasn’t a unique moment at all. I know people who can identify with Simeon and echo his words. They have seen God’s salvation in Jesus and have embraced Christ for themselves. After many years of living by faith, they can praise God for promises kept, and they are ready to die in peace because they have seen God’s salvation in Jesus. Simeon was unique in one sense, but in another sense, he speaks for all the people of God.

Can you echo Simeon? Can you say, “Lord, I’m ready at any time”? Can you say, “I can die happy, I can depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation?” You don’t have to be holding the baby Jesus in your arms to say that. You just have to be holding on to Jesus by faith. You’re never too old to trust Jesus, never too old to see God’s salvation, never too old to have a sense of God’s peace as you face death. And if you’re not yet old, you’re never too young to put your faith in Jesus, never too young to look to him for salvation, never to young to dedicate your whole life to the Lord from the moment you first get to know Jesus until the moment you die.

Let me emphasize again: seeing salvation in Jesus isn’t limited to Simeon or to a small circle of people. Simeon didn’t just say, “My eyes have seen your salvation”—as though that salvation were for him alone. No, Simeon said, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations.” Salvation in Jesus is for all nations, Jews and Gentiles alike.

In some ways this story is so very Jewish. The occasion is a Jewish observance of a Jewish law in the Jewish temple in the Jewish city of Jerusalem. All the main characters are Jewish: Simeon is a Jew, Anna is a Jew, Mary is a Jew, Joseph is a Jew, and Jesus is a Jew. That’s why it’s insane for people claiming to be Christians to mistreat Jewish people. That’s also why it’s tragic for Jewish people to think that Christmas is only for goyim, for Gentiles. Christmas is Christ, and Christ just means “anointed one,” the same as the Hebrew word “Messiah.” Jesus was born into a Jewish family to be the promised Messiah of the Jews and to bring salvation to Jewish people.

Jesus came to save Jews, but not of Jews only. Simeon makes it plain that Jesus is the Savior of non-Jews too. People of all countries and cultures and customs may come to know God in the light of Christ. So no matter who you are, no matter what people group you grew up in, no matter what region of the world you live in, embrace Jesus by faith. Find salvation and peace in him. In Simeon’s words, Jesus is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God’s] people Israel.”

When Simeon said this, says the Bible, “The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them.” What a great moment! But Simeon isn’t quite finished. Seeing salvation isn’t all sweetness and light. The Holy Spirit gives Simeon a glimpse into what salvation will involve, a glimpse that is grim as well as glorious. Jesus will do more good than any baby who’s ever been born, but he will also stir more trouble than any baby who’s ever been born. And the baby’s parents, especially his mother, will feel deep pain.

Simeon says to Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” We can’t understand the baby Jesus if we only see a shining halo over his head. Simeon sees on that baby face the shadow of a cross. He sees a sword stabbing Jesus’ side and piercing his mother’s soul. Salvation will happen through suffering.

So, then, Simeon isn’t just a kind old man cuddling a sweet baby and saying nice things. Simeon is a strong spokesman for God who tells it like it is. He says baby Jesus will go on to arouse fierce loyalty in some and ferocious opposition in others. Jesus will lift up some people and bring out the best in them, but he’s going to trip others and bring out the worst in them. Their reaction to Jesus will show what is inside them. In Simeon’s words, “the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”

Looking Forward to Redemption

Just as Simeon is saying all of this, the old prophetess Anna walks up. She’s from the Israelite tribe of Asher, one of the ten tribes that disappeared from the map centuries earlier. But even though the tribe is a has-been, a nothing, a non-factor for hundreds of years, God still preserves a remnant from the tribe of Asher. Anna has been a widow almost forever, it seems, but she never gets tired of praying and worshiping God. Her eating habits include fasting, not because she’s an old woman who wants to watch her diet, but because she’s a child of God who fasts as part of spiritual, disciplined life. This old widow comes up as Simeon is speaking of the glory and the pain, the peace, and the trouble, that this child will bring.

Anna the prophetess adds her seasoned voice to Simeon’s. The Bible says that “she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” Anna tells these people looking for redemption that this child is the Redeemer, the one whose suffering will pay for the sins of his people and whose power will set them free from evil powers.

Jesus is the Redeemer of those who seek redemption. But, again, to people who are self-centered and self-satisfied, he is an obstacle, an offense, a threat. And this reaction isn’t limited to rebellious young people. There are also rebellious old people. I know older people of splendid character and sturdy faith, but I’ve also dealt with senior citizens who snarl at the Christian gospel and spit venom at Christ and his salvation. Age is no excuse for evil.

The Bible takes very seriously the old people who were allies of Christ, but it also takes very seriously the old people were vicious enemies of Jesus. When Jesus was a baby, it was a nasty old man, King Herod, who tried to kill him. When Jesus was an adult, it was another old man, Annas the retired high priest, who worked behind the scenes to have Jesus crucified. The name Annas sounds a lot like Anna, but the evil old man Annas was the opposite of godly old Anna. Anna had a strong relationship with God but no official position, while Annas had a strong official position but no relationship with God. When Jesus spoke with divine authority and attracted many followers, old Annas saw him as a threat to his own power and helped arrange his execution. However, just as old Herod couldn’t kill Jesus, so old Annas couldn’t keep him dead.

Jesus rose again and lives today. And because Jesus is alive right now, you can’t avoid him. You have to respond. Will you stumble over him or be raised up by him? Will you praise him or speak against him? Don’t think that old age means you can avoid these questions. Scripture doesn’t sentimentalize old age. Old people like Simeon and Anna are portrayed as great and godly believers, while people like paranoid old Herod and scheming old Annas are vicious villains. You are responsible for how you react to Jesus Christ, no matter what age you might be.

If you’ve been ignoring or rejecting Jesus for many years, that’s too bad. But as long as you’re still alive, you’re never too old to change. One old man I knew did not put his faith in Jesus until he was in his 60s. He sometimes lamented that he had wasted most of his life before starting to live for Jesus. I served as a pallbearer at his funeral—but by the time he died, he was over 100 years old. So even though he didn’t become a Christian until retirement age, he still had nearly 40 years to live for Jesus—and now all of eternity to enjoy Jesus.

I remember another man who was far beyond retirement age and still had not put his faith in Jesus. In fact, this man was 94 years old, and at age 94 he came to faith in Jesus through listening to the gospel on the Back to God Hour. I have to admit that when I heard his story, I started laughing. Aren’t people set in their ways by age 94? Isn’t it too late for them to begin a new life? As the saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But people aren’t dogs, and Jesus isn’t just a new trick. Jesus is God’s light of salvation for all nations and all people, no matter how young or old.

As Dr. Seuss would put it, Christmas is for every Who down in Who-ville. Or as John 3:16 says, “Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” In Dr. Seuss’s story, the Grinch thought he could steal Christmas by stealing all the gifts that comes from a store. But what the Grinch missed was the gift that doesn’t come from a store: God’s gift of love born in a stable, the child angels praised, the child shepherds came to see, the child wise men came from distant lands to worship, the child Simeon cuddled and blessed, the child Anna prophesied about, the child born to bring light and salvation. This child grew up to live a perfect life, to speak as no man ever spoke before, to do miracles never before seen, to die for our sins, and to rise victorious over death.

Don’t be a Grinch. Don’t miss what Christmas is really about: God’s gift of salvation in his Son. If you haven’t trusted Jesus as your Savior and King, now is the time to do it. Don’t waste another Christmas without Christ. Instead, accept God’s gift. Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.

If you already trust and love Jesus, keep holding to God’s promises. Keep living for him. If you’re getting older, you may be tempted to think your best years are behind you. But remember Simeon and Anna. Their greatest moments for God came not when they were young or middle-aged but when they were in their final years. You may think that your life has been winding down, but what if God has been saving the best for last? It’s possible that the most important thing you’ll ever do is still in front of you. Like Simeon and Anna, trust God’s promises and be a powerful person of prayer. Like Simeon and Anna, make the most of any opportunity to share the fruit of a whole lifetime of faith and tell others about Jesus. When it comes to prayer, you’re never too old. When it comes to praising God for salvation in Christ, you’re never too old. And when it comes to passing the truth on to others, you’re never too old. So let this Christmas be a time of celebrating and sharing the old, old story of a Savior who makes all things new.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.