What Do I Do with My Heartache at Christmas?
What Do I Do with My Heartache at Christmas?
During this Christmas season, we're talking about the "Real Questions of Christmas"—because we all enter into every Christmas season with visions fit for a Norman Rockwell painting, but we end up living something akin to a National Lampoon Christmas.
As we live in that gap between Christmas expectations and Christmas reality, we end up raising really profound questions about Christmas: questions that were, in fact, raised and wrestled with in the very first Christmas. So we're trying to go back to the first Christmas to answer a handful of these questions we raise.
To get us thinking about what we do with our heartache at Christmas, I'd like you to consider something that's called the "Marshmallow Test."
Basically, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a Stanford professor of psychology initiated a study about delayed gratification that affectionately became known as the Marshmallow Test. What they did was take four-year-olds and put them in a room—one at a time—to meet with a psychologist, who would sit down at a table with them. Then they'd pull out a bag of marshmallows, take one out, and put it right in front of that four-year-old.
They'd tell them, "Now, I've got to run an errand, so I'm going to leave this marshmallow here on the table in front of you. You can have this marshmallow at any time. But if you don't eat it, then when I get back, I'll give you two! But if you eat this one, it's the only one you're going to eat. Do you understand?" Then the four-year old would nod their head and repeat back the instructions, just to make sure that everything registered in their four-year old brain.
Then the researcher would leave the room with the child all alone—sitting on that chair and staring at that marshmallow right in front of them on the table. And the researcher would leave them there for 15 minutes! It was like some form of sick medieval torture for a four-year old.
The Marshmallow Test strained the very souls of these four-year-olds, as they battled between impulse and restraint, desire and self-control, gratification and delay. That's why some couldn't take it and would gobble up the marshmallow as soon as the researcher left the room. Others would eventually cave and eat it because they couldn't take the wait.
But others developed pretty ingenious strategies for coping with the torture of not eating that marshmallow for the promise of two when the researcher came back. Some covered their eyes, so they wouldn't see the marshmallow and stare at temptation, while others folded their arms on that table and rested their head on them. Some talked to themselves to somehow psych themselves up not to eat it, while others sang to distract themselves from eating it. Some played with their hands and feet, while others sat on their hands and even tried to sleep, just so they wouldn't eat that marshmallow. Some picked up the marshmallow and smelled it just to get as close as they could to eating it without actually doing it. One four-year-old even licked the table all around the marshmallow, just to get a taste of it, as if by osmosis, without actually eating it!
The heartache and angst of waiting just about killed these four-year olds in the Marshmallow Test. I would suggest to us that this is much of our heartache at Christmas: not all of it, but much of our heartache to whatever degree we feel.
We all enter into this season of enchantment, feeling how things should be, but then we run headlong into how very far from it we are. So then we begin to ask things like, "How long until that relationship is restored? How long until that friend or family member is finally whole? How long until this financial crunch is over? How long until my loneliness is quenched with a significant relationship? How long until my hurt is healed, or that ache is silenced? How long until that struggle is over, or that habit and sin is broken? How long until I'm different and better with people and before God? How long until our world is free of terrorist bombings and random shootings? How long until we get to open all those presents underneath the tree because c'mon, we're only human?"
Much of our heartache and angst at Christmas is tied up with waiting for things as they should be and how we know they should be, and that heartache is exacerbated by that waiting. At some level, this whole heartache of Christmas we experience reveals that we're actually living God's Marshmallow Test of us. So how do we survive and pass that test? In the heartache, how do we hold out for when that relationship, that person, our world, or even ourselves are as they should be?
Ironically, we do that by actually embracing Christmas and what it really means. In particular, we embrace the reality of Christmas, as one of the very first participants of the very first Christmas did—a participant whose name was Simeon.
Waiting on God
This is the setting and scene to what leads up to the encounter with Simeon: Jesus has already been born, so Mary and Joseph go through all the ceremonies that went along with introducing him to their community and establishing their family before God. Notice what shape that takes.
(Read Luke 2:21-24)
These are all very standard Jewish practices that go along with having a baby. At just eight days old, Joseph and Mary assemble family and friends around to circumcise their baby—marking him, literally, as Jewish. Then Joseph would announce his name as Jesus to everyone there. That was phase one of making Jesus a part of the Jewish community.
Then there was phase two. Forty days after Mary gave birth, they went to the temple in Jerusalem where they would offer sacrifices for Mary and pay money to redeem Jesus as their firstborn son.
That was all very standard Jewish stuff for the day because it was prescribed in the Law, just as Luke alludes to and quotes. These are no renegades. Joseph and Mary are ordinary, run-of-the-mill Jews who loved God and brought their son Jesus into that. In fact, they are so ordinary and run-of-the-mill that they offer two birds instead of the exceptional, wealthy-family offering of a lamb and a bird for this sort of ceremony.
Joseph and Mary would have blended in with all the other Jewish men and women there in the temple who were milling around. Maybe the only odd thing was that they had Jesus, because he didn't need to be there. Other than that, however, they were another couple of Jewish faces in a sea of Jewish faces there in the temple courts.
But there's another face in the sea of Jewish faces in the temple that day, and it is that of an obscure man whom we only meet right here. His name is Simeon.
(Read Luke 2:25-26)
That's all we know about Simeon. He's a Jew's Jew, thoroughly righteous and devout. Since he's probably near death, he's always assumed to have been old. Some extra-biblical traditions put Simeon at 112 years old right here, which probably stretches it a bit, but we get the gist of his age. Simeon's an exemplary older man. He's a "golden oldie" in the best sense of the phrase, whom anyone would want to adopt as a surrogate grandparent. But did you catch Simeon's posture in life?
It says that Simeon was waiting. God had promised him that he wouldn't die until he saw the Messiah, the consolation of Israel, with his own eyes. So Simeon waited. And he waited. And he waited. And he waited for years on end because God had promised him another marshmallow.
That is simply amazing, if you stand back and think about it for a second, because I don't think I could do that. I seriously have trouble waiting for Christmas to open all those presents under the tree, because I get so anxious at this time of year. I want to hold them and shake them. In fact, when my boys were much younger, I used to half-seriously try to make deals with them about opening one gift before it was Christmas. They'd have stop me and tell me to hold off until Christmas.
But that's not Simeon. Simeon has taken and kept this posture of waiting through all the years. He hasn't become jaded and cynical with all the waiting. He hasn't become an old and surly curmudgeon. He hasn't thrown up his hands in disgust and quit waiting for God's marshmallow. Simeon has kept this posture of waiting, even though years rolled on without so much as a glimmer of a marshmallow.
He kept looking for the Messiah. He kept trusting that God would bring it in his time. He kept praying for God to help him to hold on and wait, and even for God to speed it up. He kept following God in obedience, without trying to make deals with God to bring it more quickly. He kept going to the temple and scanning the crowds for this child come from God, asking God, "Is that him? Is that him? God, is that him?" All of that is why we even know about Simeon and run into him here. Simeon has taken this active stance of waiting on God to deliver that marshmallow of his.
Let me use an analogy here. Consider my dog, Milo. My wife Jenny buys these individually wrapped cheese sticks that you can unwrap to snack on. That way, it's only a bit of cheese, not a wheel of cheese, and you can always have fresh cheese because they're individually wrapped. But whenever I pull out one of those cheese sticks to eat, Milo comes running. He hears the distinctive sounds of the cheese package being ripped open, and he races over to me because he knows that I'm a sucker to give him a bit of it. But I never give it to him right away, because I know that I shouldn't do it as a responsible dog owner. Besides, I want to eat it, so I always start. No matter where I go or what I do, Milo is there watching and waiting patiently for his bit of cheese. He doesn't quit once I walk away. He doesn't sulk if he doesn't get it right away. He doesn't bark, beg, bite, or annoy. He just sits there near me, looking up with those big brown dog eyes of his, waiting for his cheese to come from me, and I always seem to give in.
That is what it is to take a posture of actively waiting, much like the posture Simeon took with God. Simeon shows us what it is to wait well on God. In the midst of our heartache at Christmas, waiting well means not getting bitter, walking away, or demanding results from God. Waiting well is this active stance toward life and God, even in the heartache. It is intentionally trusting. It is prayerfully dependent and obedient to God. It is watching and scanning for God to bring us that marshmallow of his.
So with that certain something you're waiting for right now that's causing you heartache, would you wait well for it? Would you not give up, get jaded, or become bitter about it because God loves you and knows exactly what you need? Would you trust, pray, and obey God until he brings resolution? Would you intentionally take that kind of an active posture of waiting for God?
This is super important because, as I've heard John Ortberg say before, waiting isn't just a matter of getting what we're waiting for: It is also a matter of the kind of person we become in the process. Recall the Marshmallow Test, because what's amazing is what the Marshmallow Test revealed about the sort of people those kids would become. The researchers ended up tracking these kids into adolescence and early adulthood.
The four-year olds who were able to wait grew up to be more socially competent, better able to cope with frustrations in life, and less likely to become rattled under pressure and stress in life. The four-year-olds who couldn't wait grew up more likely to be stubborn and indecisive, to regress or become immobilized by stress, to be resentful about not getting enough, and prone to jealousy and envy.
This is super important. Wait well on God for that marshmallow of his.
But what does it take to wait that way on God, even with our heartache and angst? What do we need to realize about God to enable us to wait this way? Well, look what happens when Simeon actually lays his eyes on Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.
Relief, not resolution of Christmas
(Read Luke 2:27-32)
Simeon got what he was waiting for—sort of. Somehow, someway in that mass of Jewish humanity at the temple, Simeon locks eyes on that child. And then something—or rather, someone—leaps up inside of him to say, "There he is, Simeon!"
Simeon dashes over to Joseph and Mary, and he pulls Jesus right out of their arms. As if having a stranger grab your baby isn't uncomfortable and disturbing enough, Simeon begins to sing this song, Nunc Dimittis, over that baby in relief of his waiting. That's the name of Simeon's song, because Nunc Dimittis means "Now Depart" in Latin, which is the very first line of that song. Simeon sings over this remarkable child, who is God's salvation and rescue, in sight of everyone. This remarkable child, he sings, is light come from God to illuminate the way for Gentiles to come to God and to showcase Israel as his people of origin.
Now, remember something here: Simeon had waited to lay eyes on the consolation of Israel, whom God would use to rescue Israel. But here, he sings about laying eyes on not just the consolation of Israel, but the light of the world for Gentiles and Jews. The coming of Jesus Christ was better than what he was waiting for. His wait was more than worth it, because Christmas was more than what he expected for his wait.
Was Simeon's waiting over, now that he had laid eyes on Jesus? I think the answer is: sort of. At one level, Simeon's waiting is over because he's seen Jesus, whom God had promised to show him as the consolation of Israel. But why was he waiting for that? Because at a deeper and more fundamental level, Simeon was waiting for God to actually console, to eradicate the heartache he had between how he felt things should be and what he was actually experiencing. Simeon was waiting for God to actually rescue and console him through Christ by taking away his sin and overturning Rome, which was making his life a living nightmare. Simeon was waiting for God to make everything right—everything that had gone wrong from all our sin and this world's evil.
When Simeon sees Jesus come at Christmas, his waiting was relieved because Jesus had hit the scene. But his waiting wasn't totally resolved, because Jesus hadn't yet completed the work of rescuing and consoling him and the rest of Israel: that is, Simeon's waiting was only relieved, not resolved. Simeon experienced relief, not resolution, in his waiting.
Don't miss the power of having his waiting relieved. By having relief in his waiting, it meant that he could wait for God to completely resolve his deeper waiting one day: that would come in Jesus' future work.
Think about it this way. Remember back to the summertime, when we'd get a mosquito bite? I know it's not the most pleasant of memories from our summers, because whenever we get a mosquito bite, what do we do? We itch them. Sure, I know the more medically trained among us might tell us to put on bug itch cream and not itch them, because they'll go away faster. But that's never how I see any of us deal with them, because we're actually sane. We itch them—why? For relief so we can wait for them to resolve and go away. Our itching relieves us in our waiting for that mosquito bite to resolve.
That is what Christ coming at Christmas does. It scratches that itch we have in our waiting so we can hold out for God to fully resolve our waiting. That is the hope from Jesus Christ coming at Christmas.
We may be waiting for loneliness to abate through a deep connection with someone or a healed connection with someone, but Christ comes at Christmas to give us a relationship with God that runs so deep that the bonds are eternal. That serves to relieve those aches until God resolves them—which may only fully happen in eternity, when we experience the perfect community of God's people through the ages, and we are together as one.
We may be waiting for a habit to change or a cycle of sin to be broken, but Christ comes at Christmas to give us forgiveness from our sin, enabling us to keep working and struggling to break that cycle. That serves to console those aches for habits and sin to cease, until God resolves them by power-washing us in heaven and our world when he remakes it.
We may be waiting for peace, without terrorists, bombs, and conflict, but Christ comes at Christmas to give us peace with God that forms the basis of peace with others and being peacemakers in our world. That sets to relieve that ache for peace until God resolves it, which will only be fully resolved in eternity, when he irresistibly takes control to bring peace.
That is the perspective and faith we need to take in our waiting, so we can wait well on God for that marshmallow of his. Christ coming at Christmas scratches that itch of our waiting so we can hold on for God to completely resolve it one day, when Christ comes back again. There is relief from the itch of our waiting on God, because Christ coming at Christmas means God has already given us what we're needing in our waiting. It reminds us that what God has in store for us is worth an ongoing wait for him to fully resolve it.
Imagine Jesus Christ there in the arms of Simeon, as he sings over him. Can you see Jesus as a baby there in your mind's eye?
Take hope that Christ came at Christmas to give you a relationship of acceptance with God, forgiveness of your sin, freedom from guilt, peace with God, and a life justified before him. That is God's scratch in your itching of waiting on him until he fully resolves it. That is God's relief for you in your waiting on him to completely resolve what you're waiting for him to do. That is God's relief in your waiting that causes such heartache and angst in this season. Since Christ has come at Christmas to relieve us in our waiting, we can wait well on God for that marshmallow of his.
How can we actually experience this relief and be assured of this resolution? How do we know that all this talk of Christmas isn't wishful and idealistic thinking, but deeply rooted in reality? Look at how Simeon rounds out his encounter with Joseph and Mary.
Resolution through sorrow
(Read Luke 2:33-35)
Right after Simeon sings that song about Jesus, Joseph and Mary are simply stunned—because a complete stranger, who was a Jew's Jew, has come and sung revelation that simply confirmed everything they had privately held before. They reason, "How could he know any of that, if not by God showing him?" They simply marvel, which may be why this stuck in their memory and made it into Luke's account of Jesus' life.
But then the other shoe drops. Simeon gives them new information that they never knew and that the angels failed to be clear about. Their baby boy, Jesus, would be a point of contention, not universal acceptance. That would cut Mary to the very quick of her soul, as if a large and broad double-edged sword were plunged into her heart: because she's his mother, and she would be powerless to do anything about it except helplessly watch it unfold.
Jesus, Simeon says, would become the litmus test for people before God. Based on how people respond to Christ—either in faith or in rejection—their true colors with God come shining through. In that sense, some will rise to be with him, and others will fall away from God and separate themselves from his presence.
You see, what Simeon is alluding to here is the cross Jesus would bear in the future, which may be another reason that this stuck in their memory for Luke to share in his account of Jesus' life. Simeon's giving the very first hint that the baby they were dedicating to God in the temple that day was truly dedicated to God—even to the extent of going to a cross to die for our sin. At the Cross, Christ would bear all the poison of that itch of ours and the world's, and he would die there to rid us of it. By doing that, Jesus became the litmus test for anyone with God.
Will we trust God by embracing what his Son did to bring us to him, who answers our waiting in his time? Or will we trust ourselves to do it on our own, to power up and to conjure up what we're waiting for that pangs us with heartache?
How we respond to that determines whether we'll rise to God himself and eventually have that itch of our waiting resolved, or whether we'll fall from God and fail to find the source of our resolution. Because let's face it: if we could have done it on our own, we would have done it by now.
We can experience relief now by faith in Christ and what he did at the Cross, which he was destined for as a baby at Christmas. We can even be assured of God's eternal resolution, because if God sent his Son to die for our relief, then what won't he also do to one day fully resolve this?
Look to Christ in faith. Look again, in your mind's eye, to that baby in Simeon's arms. Can you see him? That child will bear a cross for you and me, and he'll die there to erase our debt of sin with God and to take away the power of sin's poison in our fallen world that he'll erase one day.
Embrace him by asking him into your life to forgive you and lead you. Rest your heart in him by faith that he died to give you a relationship of acceptance with God, forgiveness of your sin, freedom from guilt, and a life justified before God. That is God's relief for us now. That is God's assurance of the extent he'll go to one day, resolving what we're waiting for and giving us that marshmallow of his he's promised us.
So what do we do with our heartache at Christmas? We see how much of it has come because we're experiencing the gap between what we feel should be and what actually is. We see that we're actually waiting and experiencing God's marshmallow test. We look to Christ in faith so that we can wait well on God for that marshmallow of his, because Christ has come at Christmas to relieve us in our waiting.
That's why Simeon sang as he did in seeing Christ come at Christmas. But that was his time to know God's relief to the heartache of his waiting and look forward to God's full resolution later. That was his day to face and pass God's marshmallow test.
Today is our day with God's marshmallow test. So wait well, won't you? Do so by embracing the relief that is Christ come at Christmas by faith, and then also look beyond, by faith in Christ, for God to completely resolve it one day, even into the extents of eternity.
Steve Luxa is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Davis in Davis, California.