The Wish Book – A Message for Christmas

Luke 2:21-38

1970 Sears Wish Book 001When I was a kid, back in the late 60s and early 70s, there was one event that was the highlight of every fall—when the Sears Wishbook arrived in the mail. For you kids out there, this was before the days of the internet when shopping was actually done in stores and catalogs were made of paper (and no, we did not have to fight dinosaurs to get to the mailbox). The Sears Wishbook was a 600-page catalog that had everything a kid could possibly desire, and every year we waited for it so that we could take a Flair Pen and circle all the stuff we wanted for Christmas.

I treated that Wish Book like it was holy scripture. It had an Old Testament, which was the first half of the catalog that consisted mostly of clothes, household gadgets, and tools—a section that had to be endured and flipped through quickly in order to get to the good stuff in the New Testament, which was where the toys appeared. It was a wonderland of possibility and I remember analyzing every potential toy by parsing the meaning of each description, it’s potential cost weighed against Santa Claus’s budget (an economic reality of which my mom always reminded me), and it’s probable fun factor. I cross-referenced the ads in the Wish Book with the commercials I watched every Saturday morning during Scooby Doo and the Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour, and in a few months I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted and what to expect when I got it.

The Johnny Express Truck, with a top speed of .0001 miles per hour.

The Johnny Express Truck, with a top speed of .0001 miles per hour.

Except that it rarely worked out that way in reality. The Wish Book, in fact, often failed to deliver. Three such failures come to mind. The first was the Johnny Express, which I wanted when I was about six. This was state of the art technology in the late 60s—a truck that ran on batteries and that had a remote control that was wired to the truck, which meant that you had to follow it around. It’s maximum speed was about .0001 miles per hour, which meant that there was very little difference between it standing still and moving. Even though it was slower than molasses in January, it still burned up four D batteries every half hour. But that was ok, since the wire broke a couple of days after Christmas. Since it was motorized, you couldn’t push the thing with your hand. I was only six but I was already learning about false advertising.

Electric FootballIn 1972 I got an electric Super Bowl football game featuring the Miami Dolphins and the Dallas Cowboys—you know, the kind where the field vibrates with electricity and the players wander around like they’re a bunch of toddlers in a day care. Two things were wrong with this: first, I grew up near Pittsburgh and was a Steeler fan. How could Santa not know this? Second, this electric football game promised you could “control the play by programming each individual player to go forward, left or right.” No, you couldn’t. The Dolphins and Cowboys were locked in a perpetual electric scrum while the spring-loaded “Triple Threat Quarterback” hurled the tiny plastic ball under the couch every time.

big jim sport camperThen in 1973 I got Big Jim and his Sport Camper. Big Jim was kind of a kinder, gentler version of GI Joe which, my parents thought was great, even though what I really wanted was a GI Joe with the beard and the Kung Fu grip. Big Jim’s sole purpose seemed to be looking buff, flexing his biceps (you could do that by bending his arm), and swinging his arm with “karate chop action.” Jim had a camper, which looked cool in the catalog but, actually, was pretty boring. In about three months I gave Big Jim and his camper to my little sisters, where they had Big Jim kick wimpy Ken’s butt and drive off with Barbie to live a happy life of camping and karate chopping things.

My wishes from the Wish Book never really turned out how I hoped they would, and yet every Christmas I went back there hoping that I’d find the perfect toy that would satisfy all my dreams.

No matter what age we are, Christmas is a time for wishing. Anxious kids will go to bed on Christmas Eve wishing for what’s under the tree. Parents will go to bed wishing that their credit card company would forget about all those charges from Best Buy. We all have some sort of Wish Book running in our heads all the time—things we desire, things we hope will make life better, things we wish for our families and our futures.

That was also true in the days when Jesus was born. Since I’ve spent more of my time in the last several decades studying, analyzing, and circling passages in the Bible, one of the things I’ve come to understand is that the Old Testament (the real one, the one with robes instead of leisure suits) was actually the Wish Book of ancient Israel. A lot of people skip over the Old Testament, just like we skipped over the boring parts of the Sears catalog, but those who continue to grow up in the Christian faith come to realize that the early books of the Bible are really an important part of the whole biblical catalog.

wishTheologian NT Wright has said that the Old Testament is a story in search of an ending. It’s the story of God creating the world and creating humans to reflect his glory within it. The humans fail, however, and God begins a rescue operation that makes Big Jim’s Rescue Rig (sold separately) look even wimpier by comparison. God chooses a family, the family of Abraham, and tells Abraham that through his family “all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Abraham’s family will eventually suffer as slaves in Egypt, be freed by Moses, wander in the desert for 40 years, and establish a kingdom in a land of their own. But they can’t stop the sin that has plagued them since the beginning. Eventually, they are taken away from their homeland in exile by a foreign power and after 70 years are allowed to return. Still, for most of their history, they are a subject people, oppressed and disappointed like kids who hope for toys and get coal in their stockings instead.

And yet, there was a wish—a wish for a Savior that would be born; a savior that would set them free once and for all; a savior that would conquer Israel’s enemies and give them hope and new life. They wished for a Messiah who would come like a mighty warrior king and redeem them, making it possible for God to dwell with them once again.

These are some of the wishes we find in the Old Testament—images like that we find in Isaiah, which we read earlier as our Call to Worship. God gives Isaiah a vision of a child to be born, one who will be “Wonderful, Counselor, Everlasting God, Prince of Peace.” Year after year, century after century, however, the wished-for gift had not arrived. Oh sure, there were plenty of people who looked like the perfect Messiah. Warriors like the Maccabees, who were the GI Joes of their day, or Judas the Galilean who led a revolt against the Romans right around the time Jesus was born. Big Judas’ karate chop action wasn’t enough, however, and he got himself killed by Rome.

simeon_anna_grtSome of the older people in Israel had been waiting and wishing a long time for a real Savior—people like Simeon and Anna, whom we read about earlier. In Luke’s Gospel, these senior citizens at the temple act as kind of a link between the Old and New Testaments. Anna would have been old enough to remember when the Romans conquered Jerusalem, old enough to see many defective pretenders to the throne. Simeon, Luke tells us, was a righteous and devout man who was “looking for the consolation of Israel”—still waiting and wishing for the day that it would come.

In fact, the Holy Spirit had told Simeon that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Simeon, a man who had been poring over the catalog, looking for the ultimate gift, would be able to see it and touch it before he came to the end of his life. I imagine Simeon getting up every day, like an expectant child on Christmas morning, walking haltingly and slowly to the Temple, like those plastic football players on the vibrating field, and wondering if today was the day.

And then, one day, a poor couple comes into the Temple to dedicate their firstborn son, as the law of Moses required. He is only 8 days old, still a little shriveled, swaddled in a worn and dirty blanket. And Simeon looked at him and knew—this was the gift I’ve been waiting for, the gift we’ve all been waiting for. But it was a surprise—it didn’t look like the picture everyone had hoped for in the catalog: not a warrior, not a politician, not an action figure, but a tiny, helpless, leaky, burpy, baby born to a family so poor that they could only offer the minimum sacrifice of two pigeons for his temple dedication.

You know, one of the advantages that Christmas shoppers have today over the Sears Wish Book is that they can go online and look at reviews of people who have actually seen and used the product. We hardly shop for anything now without looking at the reviews. Well, Simeon provides what is the first review of the gift of Jesus and he does it in the form of a prayer:

Rembrandt_Simeon_houdt_Jesus_vast“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

He gives the child in his arms five stars. This is the gift we’ve all been waiting for.

It’s a gift, however, that’s bound to make some happy and some bitterly disappointed—especially those who were looking for GI Joe and instead got Little Jesus. “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel,” says Simeon to the child’s parents, “and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

Simeon knew that this gift, this child, would operate exactly as God had promised in the Old Testament catalog. He would represent his people and represent God. He would lift up the lowly and challenge the powerful. He would be opposed by those who had read the catalog differently, and who were bent on fulfilling their own wishes for power. The inner thoughts of many would be revealed—the sin and brokenness of their lives exposed—and, for many, those inner lives would be healed by his grace and love. And he would love his people, love us, enough to die on a cross, taking all our sin upon himself. A sword would pierce his side, and his death would pierce the heart of his mother who now held him in her arms after Simeon gave him back to her. But it would be through his death and resurrection that all of us would be offered the ultimate gift—the gift of salvation…salvation from sin and death and salvation for the life and work of his kingdom.

Christmas is a time to remember that all our wishes have come true in Jesus Christ.

We think of Christmas as a time for wishing, but the truth about Christmas is that it’s actually a time for us to remember that all of our wishes have already come true in Jesus Christ, the one who came to save us. Christmas is a time to celebrate the gift that we’ve already been given. As the great theologian Karl Barth put it, “To celebrate Christmas is to see salvation. It means no longer only to believe in Christmas, not only to hope for it and to wander toward it in the dark night, but to see it… Empty wishing, seeking, and desiring do not belong to Christmas. No…to celebrate Christmas means precisely to see what we only seek; it means to be allowed to take and use what we long for.”

Simeon saw the gift of salvation before he died. A lot of people, especially a lot of religious people, think that they can only receive salvation after they’ve died and gone to heaven. Well, at least that’s what they wish for. They hope they won’t be eternally disappointed, like the kid who wishes for an Xbox and gets nothing but underwear and dress socks for Christmas instead.

But Simeon saw salvation, experienced it, touched it, in this life. Simeon lived the remainder of his life in joy, anticipating and knowing that even though he would die, death itself would, somehow, ultimately be defeated by the baby he had held in his arms. “Now dismiss your servant in peace according to your word,” prays Simeon to the Lord, “for my eyes have seen your salvation.” This is the Easter story breaking in on the Christmas story—Simeon declares at the beginning of the Gospel what Jesus will declare near the end: “It is finished!” Salvation has come. Death has been defeated. God has fulfilled the Wish Book with his own Son—the Word become flesh.

Tonight, we gather with lots of wishes occupying our thoughts. Children wish for toys that work, adults wish for a way of life that works. Some of us wish for days gone by, for loved ones we miss who are no longer sitting next to us on Christmas Eve. Some of us wish for some sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Some of us wish that our past sins, mistakes, and choices would no longer have a hold on us.

20 days old baby sleeping in a christmas nativity cribBut tonight I want to tell you that the gift you really wish for has already been given to you. It takes open eyes and an open heart to see it. Like Simeon, God will reveal it to you if you are looking for it. Indeed, it’s God that makes the first move toward us, a move of grace and love, an invitation to receive the gift you’ve already been given. There’s nothing for us to do, think, or feel except to be like old Simeon and simply receive the babe who has been given to us.

When we receive him, our wishes get put into perspective. Material things lose their luster in comparison to the riches of his glory. Grief and pain lose their sting when we realize that he has defeated death through the cross and the empty tomb. Our past sins and mistakes get erased by the power of his love, his grace, and his forgiveness. Our lives can be made new and given an eternal purpose. When we receive him, we see his salvation made real in us.

You know, I no longer have any of the stuff I got from wishing from the Sears Wish Book. Sometimes I wish I did because when I looked them up online there were people paying top dollar for those toys in mint condition—of course, mine weren’t even in mint condition by the end of Christmas morning. Now, I’m more likely to choose something from the front of the catalog, though. Underwear and socks now are acceptable gifts to get, especially if they come from the REI or LL Bean catalogs! It’s fun to remember those toys and the good Christmases of the past, however. You might have some of those great memories, too.

But tonight we celebrate the one gift that lasts forever—the one gift that does everything promised in the ultimate Wish Book—the Word of God. It’s the gift of salvation and life in Jesus Christ.

 A Prayer for Christmas

Father God, you have given us a gift that can never be broken, never be lost, and never be returned. On this night long ago, you gave us your own Son, a helpless baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. You sent him for us and for our salvation, indeed, the salvation of your whole creation. You sent him to live with us, to show us the way, the truth, and the life, to enable us to come to you. You sent him to reveal your kingdom that will come on earth as it is in heaven. You sent him to heal, to love, to forgive. You sent him to die, to take on the death that comes to us all because of sin. And you sent him to rise, to reveal the defeat of death and the beginning of your new creation—a new creation in which the broken pieces of our lives and the broken systems of your creation will be put right once and for all.

Father, we hold out our hands, like Simeon of old, to receive him. Holy Spirit, enable us each to see our salvation in him. We confess that we are not worthy, that we are not righteous like Simeon, but we remember the words of John the Apostle when he said, “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

We know that when we receive him, our own ambitions and issues will fall, and yet new life will rise in us. We know that when we follow him we, too, may be opposed. You will send us forth to touch the inner thoughts of many, even as our own have been touched. A sword may pierce our souls, too, but as a divine surgery that heals us and makes us whole. .

Heal us and redeem us as we receive him now, the child Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Source: 

Barth, Karl and William H. Willimon. The Early Preaching of Karl Barth. Westminster/John Knox, 2009. Pp. 79-88.

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