What Simeon Says: A Sobering Baby Dedication

simeon-with-jesus

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.)

How a Nativity Rekindled a Mother’s Hope

nativity

(The following article was first published in 2012.  It is re-posted in memory of Elliott and Frances Dobelstein.)

During the season of Christmas and Advent, a variety of nativity scenes are being displayed in home, churches, and communities around the world. At First Baptist Church of Pensacola, there is a small nativity scene in the window of the Paul Royal Recreation and Outreach Center that has a story to tell—a story of hope and a story of perseverance.

In 1972, Frances and Elliott Dobelstein purchased and displayed a rather large lighted outdoor nativity scene on the front lawn of our church campus. While many passersby enjoyed seeing the colorful manger scene atop Palafox Hill, the outdoor display became more difficult to maintain and to protect from vandals.

As the Dobelsteins grew older, they wanted to continue to sponsor the display but they could no longer perform the manual labor required to set up, take down, and store the display. It was then that Frances made an appointment with me to share a vision and a memory that together make a story worth telling:

On December 28, 1971, the Dobelsteins’ son, Wayne, was critically injured in a snorkeling accident while on a field trip with the diving club from his school. Wayne, who was 16 years old at the time, did not survive the accident. Devastated when they received the news, the Dobelstein family travelled to Marathon Key to bring their son home. When the family arrived in Marathon Key, the harsh reality of the loss of their son became almost impossible to bear. Frances, who had been a person of strong faith, says that she was at a breaking point. That night she took a walk outside their hotel room desperately praying for the strength to get through this dark night. Frances said, “I happened to pass a church, and on the front lawn I saw a nativity scene. It wasn’t fancy. It was old and appeared to be made of plastic.”

Frances doesn’t remember all she thought about that night as she stared at the manger, but she does recollect thinking, “God not only had a son, but God knows what it feels like to lose a son.” She said it was at that moment her resolve changed and a glimmer of hope emerged. “On the darkest night of my life, I had a quiet peace that God was with me in this tragedy and would help me to make it through.”

When the Dobelsteins returned to Pensacola, they asked Dr. Jim Pleitz, who served as their pastor at that time, if they could place a lighted nativity scene on the campus of First Baptist Church as a testimony of hope in the midst of the night.

Years later, in 2008 the Dobelsteins purchased a new small, table-top nativity that is now displayed in the window of the ROC, a scene reminiscent of the one Frances saw on that dark night in 1971. This year marks 40 years that the Dobelsteins have sponsored a nativity scene on our church campus.

When some folks gaze at the manger, they think about “good news of great joy which shall be to all people.” But for others, like Elliott and Frances Dobelstein, the sight of the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes brings hope that twinkles as bright as a Christmas star shining over Bethlehem on a dark desert night.

 

 

Advent Devotional: Getting Reacquainted with the Prince of Peace

peace candles

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

At times life can be like a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs. At other times life is like a maze and you don’t know which direction to turn next.

In the creation narrative in Genesis, God is introduced as one who brings order out of chaos, as one who brings light into darkness.  But there may be tumultuous seasons along your journey where your order collapses into chaos,  or moments when it seems the light gives way to darkness. This is especially when there is an unexpected diagnosis, trauma, or death within your family or among your circle of friends.

Of all the names in the Bible that refer to the promised messiah, during the past few years the title “Prince of Peace” has taken on new meaning for our family. Across our years of marriage and ministry, we have been blessed with good health, supportive congregations, and encouraging friends. However, over the past twenty years, we have experienced the sickness and eventual death of multiple family members.

When a family member is being treated for a catastrophic illness, you learn to be extremely flexible. You learn to pray in deeper ways than you have prayed before. You learn not to panic when the phone rings in the middle of the night. You strive to keep all of your family members on the same page regarding care and treatment. You take time to treasure your phone calls and visits with friends and family members because you are more aware of the uncertainty of the future. Such circumstances tend to intensify your stress level and keep your emotions on edge.

God has promised never to leave us but to give us strength in times of adversity. The prophet Isaiah told of a coming messiah who would be an insightful counselor, a proactive God, a dependable parent, and an ambassador of peace. As Christians, we believe that these attributes describe the life, ministry, and disposition of Jesus.

The Apostle Paul encouraged believers to look to the Prince of Peace for strength in every season and every circumstance: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

When unexpected difficulties and challenges come your way, take time to get reacquainted with the Prince of Peace. He will help guide your decisions and guard your emotions as you navigate the twists and turns of life. It is his nature to bring order out of chaos.

Prayer: God of peace, thank you for promising to be with us in all of the seasons of life. Whether we are on the highest mountain or in the lowest valley, grant us inner peace through our companionship with Jesus, who is the ultimate Prince of Peace. Amen.

(Barry Howard serves as a leadership coach with the Center for Healthy Churches and a pastoral counselor with Faith and Hope Counseling Center. He and his wife Amanda reside in Pensacola, Florida.)