This sermon is part of the sermon series "Songs for the Not-So-Holly-Jolly". See series.
In the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a famous experiment that has come to be known as "The Marshmallow Test." Groups of 4-years olds were given a marshmallow and told that if they waited 20 minutes before eating it, they would receive another. If they ate it, they would not get any more marshmallows.
Some kids could wait and others could not. The researchers then followed the progress of each child into adolescence and demonstrated that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted and more dependable (as determined by surveys of their parents and teachers), and scored an average of 210 points higher on the SATs.
How would you have done on the marshmallow test? Are you willing to wait for things, or do you want your marshmallow right now? I'm pretty sure I would have been sent home for not only eating my marshmallow, but taking the other kids' marshmallows as well. I'm not really good at waiting for anything. I get cranky when I have to stand in line at the store, which means I get cranky every time I go to the store. Waiting is very stressful for me—even waiting for Christmas.
How are you at waiting for Christmas?
A friend of mine recently told me that she grew up in a small apartment—five kids in two bedrooms right across the hall from each other. After putting the kids to bed on Christmas Eve, her father would tie the door knobs together to prevent them from getting up too early! When he woke up, at his leisure, he would untie the doors and let them run to the tree.
I'm surprised my dad didn't try that after the time I got up, woke my little brothers, and started tearing into the presents about three in the morning one Christmas, just a few minutes after he had collapsed into bed after laborious assembling gifts for his three young sons. As I remember it, he used some of the same persuasive words with us that I imagine he had used in the assembly process.
To this day I get in trouble for being too excited about Christmas. I've been unjustly accused of shaking my presents to try and figure out what is in them, to the point that right now, at our house, I don't think there's a single present under the tree for me. Everyone's afraid I'll guess what my gifts are, so they put them out at the last minute.
I've been trying to convince my wife, Susan, and our daughters that Christmas Eve is the more proper time to open gifts. I just want to cut the anticipation time down by eight hours or so! They aren't going for it.
I do love Christmas morning—the presents, the prospect of food and friends, everything about it. In spite of the stress, the wait is always worth it.
I want to tell you the story of a relatively obscure character in the Christmas story, an old man named Simeon. The Bible says that Simeon was a good man who tried hard to follow God's law. He has some things to teach us about waiting, as he had been waiting for something important for a long, long time. Although he was very old, he hung in there for one reason: he believed that God had told him he would not die before he had seen the Savior—the Messiah of Israel!
It was a dark time in Israel. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, there had been no new revelation from God through either the Scripture or the prophets in over 400 years. Not exactly the context for optimism. But although his body was failing, his spirit grew stronger, because the hope that was in him was greater than the hopelessness around him.
Day after day, month after month, year after year, Simeon waited. He watched and he waited. He must have known the prophecies—known what to look for. He would go to the temple whenever couples brought their sons to be dedicated, and he would watch and pray. "Is it this one, Lord? Is it that one?" He watched and he prayed and he waited. He was waiting for Christmas every day, for years, with the same—or greater—anticipation that you and I have on Christmas Eve.
The other key people in this story were Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. It was time for them to go to the temple in Jerusalem, where Mary would participate in a purity rite that all women went through after childbirth, and Jesus would be consecrated to God, as were all first-born Jewish sons. As they entered the temple to fulfill their vows, a stranger approached them. The stranger was the old man Simeon. He reached out his arms for the baby.
Have you ever been there as a parent? You have your new, incredibly cute baby, complete strangers will stop you and want to "ooh and ahh" over them. What do you do when it's a toothless old man whose hygiene may have lapsed over the past half century who wants to hold your baby? I can see Mary looking to Joseph for help, wondering whether or not to hand over their precious baby boy to an old man they had never seen before. But something must have eased her mind because she handed over baby Jesus to Simeon.
Simeon held him aloft, and as he began to weep, he blessed his Savior. Then he prayed and gave thanks to God for allowing him to see the child that would reveal the true nature of God to God's people. He prayed, "I'm ready to die. You can take me home now. It's been worth the wait." Then Simeon made some prophetic statements, both good news and bad news. He stated that this child would be responsible for both the rise and fall of many in days ahead—for both the death and the resurrection of all who would come after.
Simeon was the first to look at this baby and state that he was not only the Messiah of Israel, but he was also going to be the Savior of all who would believe in him, even Gentiles like us. But then he looked at young Mary, who was still just an adolescent herself, and said, "And someday he'll break your own heart as well." He was preparing her for thirty some years later, when she would witness the arrest, beating, and execution of her first-born son.
These were strange words from a strange old man. If my wife had been in Mary's position, she'd have probably turned around and gotten out of there as fast as she could. But the Bible says that Joseph and Mary "marveled at what was said."
Is it worth the wait?
We all have things we want so badly we can hardly stand it—things like healthy relationships, the end of pain and suffering, a restoration of normal, whatever that is for you. The waiting seems like torture. And the question we all wonder is, Is it worth the wait?
Tonight I want to remind you just how much faithfulness, hope, perseverance, and responsiveness to the Spirit count with God. You may not have a lot of knowledge about theology or the Bible; you may not always let other drivers merge; you may not always recycle your trash or get thank-you notes written on time; you may not always have the right thing to say when someone you love is hurting. But if you have hope that God is at work, in spite of the circumstances, God will reward you, and it will be worth the wait. The question is then, what will you do while you're waiting?
On November 18, 1995, the Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman came out on stage at New York's Lincoln Center. If you've ever seen Perlman in action, then you know that just getting on stage is no small matter for him. Stricken with polio as a child, Perlman wears braces on both legs and walks with two crutches. To see him come across the stage is a sight you don't forget. He moves painfully, but with dignity, until he gets to his chair. He sits down slowly, lays his crutches aside, undoes the clasps on his braces, tucks one foot back and stretches the other forward. Then he reaches down, picks up his violin, notches it under his chin, nods to the maestro, and begins to play.
On this particular occasion, however, something went wrong. Just as he finished the first stanza, a string on Perlman's violin broke. You could hear it snap, going off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant or what Perlman had to do. People who were there that night later said: "We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches, and limp his way off stage…or else wait for someone to bring him another [string or violin]."
But Perlman didn't. Instead, he paused for a moment, closed his eyes, and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra recommenced, and he joined them where he'd left off. He played with a passion, power, and purity like the audience had never heard before. Of course, all of them knew that it was impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. But that night, that player refused to know that. "You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head," someone said. "At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them they had never made before."
The author who recounts this tale closes it like this: "When [Perlman] finished, there was an awesome silence in the room." And then, suddenly, the audience exploded to its feet. "We were all … screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done." Perlman "smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then said, not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone: 'You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.'"
While you are waiting for whatever it is your heart longs for, what kind of music will your life make with what you have left? Will you refuse to let pessimism rob you of today's joys? Will you find ways to encourage others who are also waiting? Will you continue to watch and wait, knowing that for the follower of Christ, Christmas comes again every day?
Keep watching and waiting. The wait will be worth it!
Ed Rowell is pastor of Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, Colorado, and author of Preaching with Spiritual Passion (Baker).