A few days after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph made their way from Bethlehem to Jerusalem where they took the baby to the temple, as was the custom, to have him consecrated to the Lord. Historians believe the baby Jesus would have been 40 to 41 days old.
After offering their customary sacrifice, they encountered Simeon, a man who was “righteous and devout” and who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” The account of this sobering baby dedication is told in Luke 2:25-35.
As Simeon was moved by the Spirit, he took the child in his arms and praised God, saying: “ For your 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.”
After the blessing, Joseph and Mary marveled. But Simeon continued, “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 will be revealed. And a sword that will pierce your own soul too.”
I love the old spiritual, “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” But I am not sure that title fits the predictive blessing of Simeon. According to this wise old priest, the child born to Joseph and Mary will reveal God’s gift of salvation. But in demonstrating this “light” and “glory,” he will also upset the status quo and inevitably confront significant opposition. And those who follow him may be called to do the same.
Unlike many of the myths of Christmas, salvation may involve more that deciding whether you are going to be naughty or nice. According to Luke, salvation involves “denying self” and “bearing the cross,” a summons for us to be determined and courageous in our following the one born in Bethlehem.
A life lived by faith still involves navigating the twists and turns we encounter on our journey, an unpredictable expedition winding between the peaks of good and evil, feast and famine, and blessing and injustice.
And depending on our own sense of calling and mission, our journey will be unique. Some of us are more likely to contend with the perils of prosperity, while others are more likely to experience the pangs of persecution.
Although the birth of Jesus is celebrated with hope, peace, joy, and love, this matter of following Jesus is risky business. It requires durable commitment, frequent forgiveness, and tenacious perseverance.
Like the shepherds and the wise men, we have followed the star to find the babe in the manger. As a new year begins, will we dare to follow him further?
(Barry Howard serves as a leadership coach and consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches. He and his wife, Amanda, live in Pensacola, Florida.)