Christmas is nearly here. And with it, for many people, the “Post-Christmas Letdown.”
Some of the strongest memories I have are of the two sides of Christmas- the first side being the anticipation- looking at all the gifts under the tree, wondering what could be in them, sneaking out early on Christmas morning to raid my stocking and shake presents trying to make a mental tally of the heavy ones which probably had something cool in them and the light ones that were more likely to be underwear or socks or something else that was so NOT a Christmas-y gift, but would get wrapped up anyway just to “up” the present count.
I loved it, and even though it was hard when I was younger, as I got older I eventually even learned to love stringing out the anticipation by stringing out the opening of presents. Some years it seemed to last most of the day- none of the everyone-tear-in-and-get-’em-opened-in-15-minutes-or-less stuff. Of course, I could never last quite as long as everyone else. So often, my grandparents would still be opening their last presents after dessert, at 7, 8 o’clock at night, while I just watched.
And that’s the second feeling I remember- not quite as nice as the first. The feeling, when it was all over of.. That’s all? That was pretty cool, but…
Anticipation. Disappointment. And if the disappointment didn’t come right away, it came eventually. As an only child, I almost ALWAYS got what I wanted, and more. But all of those things I was sure would complete me, make me into the kid I dreamed of being… all those things seemed a little less vital, a little more chintzy a day, a week, a month later.
What does that disappointment year after year, when we got what we wanted but then realized it was not quite as meaningful as maybe we thought- what does that tell us?
There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke where Mary and Joseph take the newborn Jesus to the Temple for dedication. It says
At that time there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was righteous and devout and was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him and 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. 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 let your servant die in peace,
as you have promised. -Luke 2:27-29
What would it take to get you to say, “Now, I can die in peace”?
Simeon had been waiting his whole life just to catch a glimpse of the salvation that God was sending- talk about anticipation. And when it came, he knew. He knew- this was it- the real thing.
I have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared for all people.
He is a light to reveal God to the nations,
and he is the glory of your people Israel!” -Luke 2:30-32
I love that for Simeon, all the waiting, all the anticipation actually paid off. Why? Because he was waiting for the right thing.
All his waiting had led him to Jesus.
For us, at this time of year- disappointment is found mainly in two places- when we don’t get what we want- when things don’t turn out the way we had hoped- and when they do, and we’re still not quite satisfied, not quite happy, not quite filled.
Let me tell you two stories.
My dad died about a few years ago. We had a real rocky history- more of a non-history, really- He just wasn’t around. And he died and I never got what I wanted from him. That had always been a huge disappointment, a source of anger and discontent for me. I needed my dad and my dad was never there.
So, what do you do with something like that? It seems you can either let it make you more and more angry or sad, which will destroy you, especially after any hope that the situation might change is gone. You can just “get over it” which in some ways is to say “pretend it doesn’t bother you.”
Or… you can allow that kind of disappointment to point you towards something better.
Awhile after he died, I was meeting over breakfast with some guys I had breakfast with every couple of weeks, and I found myself feeling the craziest thing: gratitude for my dad.
We were talking about various things God was doing, pushing or pulling us toward, and one guy was mentioning how grateful he was for having a wonderful dad. He loved his dad and tried to look past the one or two little things that really bothered him about their relationship because he knew his dad cared. But still, there were these one or two things that felt something like a wound…
As we talked about those one or two little things, my only thought, and what came out of my mouth was this: Well, thank God your dad isn’t perfect. Because if he was, you wouldn’t have needed Jesus.
It was a revelation to me when in High School someone told me my view of God was likely very much shaped by my view of my father. While the correlation wasn’t perfect, I could certainly see some of the ways it was true.
We get angry when our parents fail us, or when our dad isn’t the loving, gracious, patient (fill in the adjective) father we want. We get even more angry when we realize they were meant to be a certain way, draw a certain picture… Our parents, and for the sake of this discussion, our fathers, are meant to point us to another Father.
But here’s the thing: more than meant to- they DO. Even the crappy ones.
They point us to God in both what they do well and in what they do poorly. They point us to him when they succeed in loving us and when they fail to.
How? How could they point us to Him even when they fail, when they disappoint us?
Because if they were perfect, did it ALL right, offered us unconditional love that was always patient, always wise, always nurturing and building into us… well, I guess we wouldn’t need God, right?
We’d be satisfied with that guy over there in the Lay-Z-Boy and completely miss the God of the Universe, the God who made us, pursues us, died for us. I had a choice of what to do with the disappointment left by my dad- and here’s what I chose: to be thankful for a dad who didn’t get much right (and that’s probably about the most generous assessment I’ve ever done of his fathering). I’m thankful because though he never pointed me to God intentionally, by his absence and indifference he drove me to lean all the more heavily on the God who is always present and never indifferent- the God who loves me, like the Psalmist says, with an everlasting love.
I realize that may be an odd way to appreciate my dad, but it’s the truth. The disappointment he left me pointed me to something even better. And if that’s ALL my dad ever did for me, I think it’s enough.
But sometimes- the problem isn’t that we don’t get what we want. It’s that we do- and it’s still not enough.
A few years ago I was living in the Netherlands, working as an associate pastor- doing mainly youth and worship and I had youth group at my house on Wednesday nights. I’d have 25, 30 kids in my house each Wednesday night, pack the place out, do a lot of crazy stuff, eat, sing, pray- it was a good time. And each week, after everyone would leave, I would spiral into a deep depression- some weeks actually crying. I had a house full of people- a ministry where kids were showing up, connecting to Jesus… and yet after each and every week I would nearly break down.
It took me awhile to figure out why that was. I was really lonely while I was there. I was about 27, 28 and the whole church consisted of people aged 0-18 and late thirties on up. I was in this gap with ten years on either side of me, not married, in a foreign country… and I started to look forward to filling my house with people. Not because I wanted to help these kids know more about Jesus, though I DID want that- but more and more I realized, I wasn’t trying to fill my house, but my soul- something was missing and I was asking these kids to fill in me a social and spiritual need that they just couldn’t. And the real tragedy is, I feel like because of that, I actually missed out on simply enjoying what was. They were great kids, it was a great time of ministry… but I was asking it to do something for me it couldn’t. And it wasn’t until I began to look somewhere besides people for that sense of love and affirmation, that I was even able even to begin to relate to people in the right way.
Our problem isn’t so much that we don’t get what we want- especially around the holidays- we often do! It’s just that we ask those things to do for us what they simply can’t. And so we’re disappointed again, and again, and again. We hope that this year will be different- that the family dinner will be perfect, that the opening of presents will be just so, that everyone will love exactly what we got them, no one will fight… and what we find is that it rarely happens exactly that way and we’re disappointed.
Or worse, it happens exactly that way and still, somehow, it’s not quite enough…
Simeon was satisfied, because he was looking to and for the right thing.
But before you think he was just a wild-eyed dreamer, look again. He was pretty realistic about the trouble this Savior would bring. Look what he said next.
Jesus’ parents were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, the baby’s mother, “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 2:33-35
Simeon prophesied that Jesus would have a confrontational effect on the world around Him. He’d cause many to fall, but would be a joy to others. Sent as a sign from God, and yet… opposed. Like so much in life, how Jesus impacts you depends on how you take Him. And as a result of that dynamic, we can say along with Simeon that Jesus reveals the deepest thoughts of our hearts. How?
Just by showing up. Just by being the presence of God to us, the salvation that God has been promising since the beginning. Christmas… Christ, reveals the deepest thoughts of our hearts by breaking into our world and claiming our allegiance. By saying: Here is salvation, and nowhere else. Not in your family, your job or career, your artistic pursuits, not in your 401k. Not in getting what you want, no matter how good what you want may be.
I love that for Simeon, who had waited all his life, Advent was no disappointment. Why? Because it revealed the deepest thoughts, hopes, dreams, and aspirations of his heart. And that heart was set on something real, something deep- something that wouldn’t disappoint. What He was waiting for was Jesus. And Jesus is who showed up.
What’s the deepest part of you? What do you worship? What do you rest all your hopes of happiness and fulfillment on?
Jesus, as the angels sang, the Savior, Christ the LORD, by showing up and claiming our worship, reveals where we place that worship, what our hearts are resting on.
And no matter what it is we put our hearts on, it will always come up short. Just try it. Try looking to your spouse to make you happy. Your kids. Your anything… anything but Him. Whatever it is, no matter how great, just like unwrapping that thing we so thought we wanted, when we actually get it, we find, it doesn’t do quite all we had hoped it would do for us. No- nothing wrong with family, job, career, 401k… But don’t ask it to do for you what only Jesus can.
Bring lasting peace…. Save you.
Every year we have in Christmas a beautiful reminder: A reminder that God has shown up on the scene, become Immanuel, God With Us, to be our salvation, our peace, our joy. AND a built in-reminder when we stare at the pile of torn wrapping paper and presents we’re thinking about returning… that nothing else can fill that place for us.
So- this year- enjoy Christmas. Enjoy the presents, the family, all the trappings of the Season. There’s nothing wrong with that. But remember- when you inevitably feel a twinge when it’s not exactly like you hoped it would be, when even should you get everything on your list, you find that there’s still something missing, something not quite there… that is, in a sense, Christmas doing its best possible work: Pointing you to your need for something deeper, pointing out where you are putting your hopes for happiness, on people, on presents and things, and pointing you towards something, Someone, that truly can bring peace, Jesus.
Bob is the Director of Equipping and Spiritual Formation for the Ecclesia Network.
He’s the co-author of Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership as well as Ministry Mantras: Language for Cultivating Kingdom Culture.
He planted the Evergreen Community in Portland, OR in 2004 and holds a DMin from George Fox/Portland Seminary.
Bob currently lives in Boise, ID with his wife, Amy, his kids, Jack, Jane, and Josie and his dog, Bentley.