Back in the 1970s a research team of psychologists from Stanford University performed on a group of 4 an experiment they called the "marshmallow test." They would place these kids in a room one at a time with one of the psychologists, who had a bag of marshmallows. He would ask the child a series of questions or give them certain tasks to do. If they answered the question or performed the task well, they would get a marshmallow. But the real test came when there was a knock on the door of the room. The researcher would get up and stick his head out the door, and then he would run back to the table and say to the child, "I've got to go run an errand. I'm going to leave a marshmallow here on the table in front of you. If you don't eat the marshmallow while I'm gone, when I get back you get two. But if you eat the marshmallow, it's the only one you're going to get."
Thomas Paine once wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls." The marshmallow test is the ultimate soul test for any 4, because it demonstrates the eternal battle between impulse and restraint, desire and control, gratification and delay. These kids would develop all kinds of strategies to enable them to wait. They'd sing songs. They'd tell themselves stories. They'd sit on their hands. One little guy actually licked the table around the marshmallow, thinking perhaps the flavor had transferred into the wood.
What's amazing about the marshmallow test is what it revealed about the direction these kids would take in life. The research team tracked these kids into adolescence and then into adulthood. They found that those who were able to wait as 4 grew up to be more socially competent, better able to cope with stress, and less likely to give up under pressure than those who could not wait. The marshmallow grabbers grew up to be more stubborn and indecisive, more easily upset by frustration, and more resentful about not getting enough. Most amazingly, the group of marshmallow waiters had SAT scores that averaged 210 points higher than the group of marshmallow grabbers. Moreover, years later the study showed the marshmallow grabbers were still unable to delay gratification. Their poor impulse control was much more likely to lead to delinquency, substance abuse, and divorce.
Our inability to control our impulses, our refusal to wait and trust, lies close to the core of human sinfulness. It's been that way since Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve first took that bite from the forbidden marshmallow in the Garden of Eden. Waiting has always been hard for humanity. It's particularly hard for us Americans, because we live in a microwaving, FExing, eating culture. We don't like to wait for anything or anyone.
How good are you at waiting? How good are you at waiting in traffic? How good are you at waiting for your child to come home for the holidays from college? How good are you at waiting for them to go back to college after the holidays? And, maybe more importantly, what are you waiting for? What's the marshmallow in life you really want? Maybe you're a parent of a prodigal and you're waiting for them to return home both to you and to the Lord. Maybe you're single and you're waiting for the marshmallow of marriage. Maybe you're married and you want kids or you want more kids, and you're waiting for a child or another child. Maybe your health is not good and you're waiting for healing.
Waiting is difficult for us, particularly at this time of the year. We go to the supermarket and the lines are longer than normal, and we have to wait. We go to Eddie Bauer and the store is filled, and we have to wait.
Then there's Christmas morning. Waiting for Christmas has always been a challenge, because there are those gifts under the tree. I'm supposed to be an adult, but I like to go over and look at them and pick them up and shake them.
And yet waiting is one of the most important things we need to learn in life. In his highly influential book Emotional Intelligence, psychologist Daniel Goleman argues that the ability to wait well, to delay gratification, is "the master aptitude that leads to personal maturity and effective living."
God likes to make us wait. He's trying to develop maturity in us, so he has no qualms about making us wait. In the Old Testament alone, on 43 different occasions God's people are told wait on the Lord. Throughout history, God has devised innumerable marshmallow tests for his people.
Go to Genesis. Abraham and Sarah are given the promised marshmallow of a child, and yet they have to wait 24 years. In Exodus 1, Israel is in captivity and oppression in Egypt. They're waiting for deliverance, and they have to wait 400 years. After they get out of captivity, Moses is promised he can lead them to the Promised Land, but they go to the desert and wait and wander 40 years.
My guess is that most of us here are waiting on something, some personal marshmallow we desperately want. So what does it take to wait well? That's what this story in Luke 2 about Simeon shows us. As we get the background to Luke 2, we see it's a hard time in Israel's history. They're poor, they're weak, and they're living under the oppression of the Romans. Moreover, they have not heard a specific word from God in over 400 years. There's a lot of excitement and anticipation that something's afoot, that the Messiah might be on the rise, but nobody knows for sure.
We learn how to wait by holding to the hope of Christ
That's when we come to this story in Luke 2, and Luke introduces us to this man Simeon. Simeon is old. He's godly, and he has been waiting a long time for the consolation of Israel, for the Messiah. So when Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus into the temple to dedicate him, the Spirit leads Simeon, and he grabs that baby.
Years before he had been told he wouldn't die till he had seen the Messiah with his own two eyes, and time was running out. When the moment finally comes, one look through his cataract lenses is all it takes. He holds him in his arms, and then he gives that praise. He says:
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.
That first phrase Simeon uses there, "You now dismiss your servant," in Latin that's called the nunc dimittis. It's a famous phrase in the history of the church. It means Simeon's time of waiting was done. He completed his task. He finally got the marshmallow he was waiting for. The Messiah had come.
But what kept him waiting faithfully and fervently through the years of his long life? I suggest it was an incredible hope he had that God would in his time and in his way bring about the birth of the Christ. The apostle Paul says in Romans 8, "Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently." The reason Simeon was able to wait so well was because he had the hope that Christmas was coming.
Many of us are excited about family coming to town and the presents we're going to get, the fun we're going to have. But for a lot of people this is the most difficult time of year. One man I know said he hates Christmas because it's so lonely. Another person says she'd like to cocoon through the entire month of December. A lot of us struggle with Christmas because reality doesn't match expectations, or we've had bad experiences in the past, or family relational tangles create tension, or because we're waiting for something to change, and it hasn't.
Simeon took that little baby Jesus and held him in his hands, and he saw in him the hope of humanity's salvation. As he said, that baby was a light to the Gentiles. He was glory to God's people Israel. He was salvation for Jews and Gentiles, for slaves and free, for men, women, and children, for young and old, rich and poor, black, white, brown, yellow. Jesus is the hope of salvation for everyone.
In Luke's gospel the word salvation carries connotations of being holistic, which means that ultimately, when our salvation comes in its entirety, every part of us that has been damaged, corrupted, hurt, or ruined by sin will someday be healedour relationship with God, our relationships with each other, and also our minds, our emotions, and our bodies, which have been hurt and broken and wounded by living in the pain and destruction of a fallen world.
A number of years ago some good friends of mine, Marshall and Susan Shelley, sent out their Christmas letter. It said:
On March 14th of this year our daughter Mandy was born, and before she had completely emerged the doctor said, "We need to measure her head." When I asked if something was wrong, he said, "It looks small, possibly microcephalic." That was the first time we heard the word, but it wasn't the last. Mandy indeed had microcephalia condition, which means her brain was not fully developed. The first three months of life led to her also having seizures and developing cataracts in both eyes. Surgery removed the cataracts and medication has the seizures basically under control, but her brain is still not and probably never will be normal. Mandy is a precious child, a gift from God, but one who will need special care for whatever years God sees fit to allow us to have her. We still don't know if she can see or hear, and the chances that she'll learn to walk or sit up are remote. The first few months were filled with an aching loneliness. Where was God in all of this? What possible good could come out of this?
I'd love to tell you Mandy turned out fine and Marshall and Susan lived happily ever after. But that's not what happened. In fact, from a human perspective, things got far worse. The year after Mandy was born, Susan got pregnant again. Early in the pregnancy they realized something was wrong with this baby. The following November she gave birth to Toby, and he had so many problems he only lived for a few, short minutes. Four months later, Mandy, their microcephalic daughter, died. They lost two kids in less than four months. Where's the hope in that?
We learn to wait by looking ahead to our ultimate salvation
A few years later, as Marshall looked back on the experience of losing two of his kids, he wrote this:
Before my children died, I considered the doctrines of resurrection and heaven pleasant but remote, a bit quaint. Now they're central and strategic. As I held both Toby and Mandy within seconds of death I was overwhelmed by a sense of how close every one of us is to eternity. I was cheek to cheek with a child now entering everlasting life. That sense, though sometimes overshadowed by the busyness of life, is never far away. Many times now heaven seems so much more substantial than earth. My wife Susan sometimes says, "I have one foot in heaven and one foot on earth." We've already sent part of ourselves on ahead, and we can understand better what Jesus meant when he said, "Where your treasure is there your hearts will be also."
Jesus is our only hope for healing in a hurting world. It's our hope in him and his ultimate salvation that enables us to wait well, to wait on the things we want, the marshmallows in our lives. But waiting is not passive. Waiting on the Lord is the continual, daily decision to say: Lord, I'll trust you and obey you. Even though the circumstances of my life are not turning out the way I want and may never turn out how I want, Lord, I'm betting everything on you. And I will live for you regardless of the circumstances.
As Simeon was in the temple, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he knew he was holding baby Jesus. So he gave a prophecy to Joseph and Mary about their son:
Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "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."
This prophecy refers to three decades down the road, when Jesus is a grown man and starts his public ministry preaching the Kingdom of God. When he does so he will gather around him disciples, people who believe in him and trust in him, and they will follow him. But it also refers to people who will not believe Jesus or follow him and will speak against him. The statement to Mary, "a sword will pierce your own soul," is a veiled reference to the crucifixion, the day Jesus will be stripped naked and hung on a Roman execution rack before his mother and his enemies.
But in the process, and this is the core of the prophecy, Jesus will be revealed to the hearts of everyone. In other words, Christmas is about Jesus coming to provide the hope of salvation. But that hope must be lodged in every human heart.
Jesus wants our hearts. He wants every single thread of our hearts. That's why he came to earth as a baby and grew up to be a man and preached the gospel of the kingdom and went to the cross and died and rose from the dead and ascended to heaven and sent us his Holy Spirit, so by his Spirit he could have every part, 100 percent, of our hearts.
How is your heart this Christmas? Is it hurting? Is it discouraged? Is it angry? Is it unforgiving? Is it bitter? Is it critical? Is it apathetic? Is it weary from waiting? To wait well in a world where we don't always get what we want and where we hurt, we need hearts filled with the hope of Jesus.
Simeon passed God's marshmallow test because he had a heart filled with hope, the hope that comes from focusing on the Christ child and the salvific, redemptive work he would eventually do. That's what we need this Christmas. We need hearts filled with hope because they're focused on Jesus. And in focusing on Jesus we know and trust, that because he's sovereign, he's got us right in his hands.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado.