The presents are opened, the food has been consumed, and wrapping paper is strewn around the wilting Christmas tree. I’ve always felt that December 26th is sort of holiday hangover– the anticipation of Christmas is gone, replaced in the cold light of day by gifts you want to return and credit card bills to pay. Attention now turns to New Year’s celebrations, and the hope that maybe the coming year will be better than this one.
Hold on. Pause for a minute. Don’t rush on from Christmas quite yet. Because there’s one more part of the Christmas story that we need to hear. We often forget about this account of baby Jesus because we rush straight from the nativity to the New Year. But this may be the most important part of the story, because it doesn’t let us move on from Christmas without forcing us to answer the question: “What will your response to this baby be?”
A week after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph brought him to the temple. There they had an encounter with an old man named Simeon who had been waiting to see the arrival of God’s promised King. He took the infant Sovereign in his arms and pronounced a strange and frightening blessing over the baby and his mother:
Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35)
“This baby,” he said to Mary, “is appointed for the fall and rising of many. He will be like a fork in the road to everyone who meets him; they will go one way or the other. No one will be able to stay on the fence about him; they will either follow him, or they will fall away from him. He will make everyone choose sides.”
Sometimes we like to think of Jesus as so meek and mild that nothing bad could ever happen because of him. After all, he’s just a baby. But Simeon said that this baby from the manger would make everyone choose sides, and that many people would choose the wrong side. Some people would meet Jesus and love him, and would rise from death to new life. Others would meet Jesus and hate him, stumbling into death and judgment. To everyone who met him, Jesus would either be rescue or ruination. But nobody would be able to sit on the fence and just be like, “Oh, Jesus? He’s okay I guess.”
Yet strangely, that’s exactly what we try to do with this baby King. We sentimentalize the story of his birth until the whole message of Christmas is frosted over with syrupy nostalgia. We gather around the hearth and sing the hymns of the incarnation, never stopping to consider the import and weight of the words we mindlessly recite. We decorate our homes with beautiful nativity figurines, with Mary and Joseph and the shepherds looking so peaceful. And with Christmas thus safely sanitized, we inoculate ourselves from its message.
But Simeon won’t let us move on quite so quickly. “Because of this baby, the thoughts of many will be revealed,” he reminds us. What you really think about the God of the universe and his message of salvation is revealed every December by your response to the Christmas story. Do you “come and adore him?” Do you “fall on your knees?” Or do you put him on the mantle, pay him lip service, and then pack him back into his box once the holidays are over? Is Jesus just a nativity figure to you, or is he Lord?
What Simeon said about this baby is still true: you can’t stay on the fence about Jesus. Either you believe he really is the King, he really is the Savior, he really did conquer death, and that changes everything… or he’s a nobody, and you should stop paying attention. There isn’t any middle ground that makes sense. Either he’s the King, or he’s a clown. Either he’s the Way, the Truth, and the Life… or he’s a liar and a loser.
So you can either fall down and worship him, or walk away. You can believe him, or not. You can give him your heart and your life and follow him forever, or you can throw him out with the used wrapping paper and go on with your life. But the one thing you can’t do is have it both ways: you can’t sorta like Jesus and sing the songs on Christmas, but still live your life on your own terms. He didn’t leave that option open. Christmas forces us to choose sides. You’ve got to get off the fence.