“Seek the Lord while He may be found; call on Him while He is near!”
– Isaiah 55:6
“You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart.”
– Deuteronomy 4:29/Jeremiah 29:13
One of the most exciting bits of news I got as a young boy of about 11, was the announcement that my big cousin Joel would be flying out to spend a couple of weeks with us in the summer. You see, I had never actually met him. I grew up in Los Angeles, and Joel grew up in Long Island, New York. Sure, I heard about him from my grandfather, and just knowing that we were related was enough for me to love him. But now, for the first time, I was going to get to see him!
My grandfather was living with us at the time, and on top of his dresser were a few framed family photos, including a recent one of Joel. Well, from the minute we got the announcement, almost every day I would stop at my grandpa’s room and study Joel’s face in the photo. Why? Because when the time came, I wanted to be the first one to spot him at the airport and hug him! And I was, and I did!
On Tuesday, much of the world will be remembering and celebrating the birth of the Messiah, as will I and my extended family. And while I don’t think it’s worth arguing over the precise date of Yeshua’s birth, what is important is the fact of His birth – the implications of the First Advent of the Son of God into this world.
Now, as it happens, today is the 21st day of Advent. It began on December 2. To be honest, I used to wonder why the high churches had this long countdown until Christmas Day. But as I think back on my growing anticipation and eagerness as the time drew near for my cousin Joel’s visit, it makes sense. I think it is altogether fitting that we anticipate the Day, and make a big deal of the season.
What I’d like to do for a few minutes is to focus our attention on those few and exceptional people who were really “on the lookout” for Messiah’s appearing, and as a result figure prominently in the Nativity story. And I’d like us to contemplate what we can learn from them. The first of these exceptional people was Simeon. I invite you to turn to Luke chapter 2, and we’ll begin at verse 24.
Simeon (Luke 2:24-35)
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon (Shimon), who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my 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.” The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “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 hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Shimon (Simeon) is such a great name; it’s from the root Shema – ‘to hear’. I point this out because Shimon was a man who listened for Adonai’s quiet, intimate voice. He was sensitive to God’s leading. Luke tells us that he was righteous and devout. That means he did the right things, and his heart was humble and right with Adonai. We’re also told that he was waiting for the consolation of Israel – a poetic way of saying that he was zealously on the lookout for the coming of the Messiah. In fact, Alfred Edersheim points out that these were the three characteristics of piety by Old Testament standards. Beyond that, Luke says the Holy Spirit was upon him. Shimon obviously walked with God, and had God’s favor on his life.
This man enjoyed so real and close a relationship with Adonai that the Ruach told him explicitly he would see Messiah before he died. We don’t know when he was told this, and we aren’t told his age. It’s possible that it was revealed to him many years earlier. In any case, at the pivotal moment in time, Shimon was compelled by the Spirit to go into the Temple courts, and there Adonai directed him to Yosef and Miriam. They had brought Yeshua there to perform Pidyon HaBen – the redemption of the firstborn son which customarily takes place 30 days after birth. Shimon took the child into his arms, and praised God and also prophesied. The praise was for the privilege of being an eyewitness to Yeshua, whom he called, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory for Israel. The prophecy, however, highlighted the fact that Messiah would be the ultimate source of contention in Israel, and that His mother would experience great sorrow on His account.
Anna (Luke 2:36-38)
There was also a prophetess, Anna (Channah), the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
This woman, Channah is fascinating! First of all, she has a great name – it means ‘favor’ or ‘grace’. Next, she is identified as a prophetess. What a rare and awesome privilege and calling! Like Shimon, Channah obviously had a very close, personal relationship with Adonai. But high spiritual calling is sometimes accompanied by personal pain. Luke tells us she had only been married seven years when her husband died, leaving her a widow for the rest of her life.
It’s what she did with those years that reveals her character. She spent every minute she could in the Temple, praying, and often fasting. Because her time was spent, not in the synagogue, but in the Temple, she would not have been influenced by the traditions of the rabbis.
Her father’s name, Phanuel, means ‘the face of God’. In Jewish mystical tradition (and recorded in the Book of Enoch), Phanuel is the fourth angel who stands in the presence of God, after Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. There is great significance in her and her father’s names. – and significance even to the tribe of their ancestry!
The tribe of Asher was situated in the far north, along the Mediterranean coast, in what is modern-day Lebanon. Asher means ‘happy’ and, in fulfillment of Jacob’s prophecy, this tribe was very prosperous, and renowned for its good food. According to rabbinical tradition, the women of Asher were known for their beauty and were considered most fit to be wives to royalty. And here we have a woman who has been widowed for most of her adult life, but dedicated herself to prayer and to the service of the God of Israel. You might say He was a Husband to her.
Channah was one of those rare individuals who was “on the lookout” for Messiah. As a prophetess, she would have been sensitive to God’s leading. As Shimon held Yeshua and gave thanks to Adonai and prophesied, Channah quickly came up to Yosef and Miriam as well. She knew in her spirit that this was the One! And she likewise thanked God. But she wasn’t about to keep this joy to herself. She spread the news far and wide: “Messiah is here! Jerusalem’s redemption is at hand!”
Our third example of those who were actively looking for Messiah is that of the Magi, or wise men, who journeyed from the east (most likely Arabia) to pay homage to Him. This encounter is found at the beginning of Matthew chapter two.
Wise men from the east (Matthew 2:1-12)
After Yeshua was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
There’s an interesting thematic thread woven through the Jewish Bible; it’s subtle, but very important. It is how men and women from other nations of the world were drawn to the God of Israel, and ultimately joined themselves to the people of Israel. And, of course, it continues and greatly expands in the New Covenant.
Here we have a group of learned men who have traveled many hundreds of miles, over a period of several weeks to come to Jerusalem, even though they weren’t Jewish. Magi were an order of priestly men who held high office, often serving as personal advisors to kings. They were both astronomers and mystics; they knew how to track the movement of stars, and interpret signs in the night sky. This group of Magi witnessed a significant stellar alignment, and realized a momentous event had taken place in Israel, and they knew that Israel was very important.
But how would they know about the birth of a Jewish king? Perhaps they knew of the prophecy of Numbers 24, that a star will rise in Jacob, and a scepter in Israel. And perhaps they had studied prophecies that foretold the coming of the Messiah. But how would they have access to this knowledge? It was because our people had been captive in Babylon for 70 years, and many remained in the east. And through righteous Jewish men who rose to prominence in Babylon and Persia like Daniel, and Nehemiah and Mordecai the knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures spread, including amazing prophecies of a coming king – the Messiah. And so these Magi arrived in Jerusalem, inquiring about this newborn Jewish king.
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
Herod the Great was disturbed, because as far as he was concerned, he was the king of the Jews. Jerusalem was disturbed because Herod the Great suffered from a severe case of paranoia, and put anybody he suspected of disloyalty to death, eventually murdering his own wife and family members. So you can just imagine how he was going to take this news.
When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
Herod was on a mission to kill this baby he perceived as a rival to the throne. First, he summoned the Torah teachers in order to find out where the Messiah was to be born. And they didn’t miss a beat – they quoted Micah chapter 5, which foretold the birthplace – Beit Lechem ‘The House of Bread’. Then Herod sent for the Magi, and informed them that they would find the child in Bethlehem. He pretended to want to pay homage himself, so he asked them to report back.
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
We don’t have time this morning to explore the possibilities of the nature of this stellar sign, or supernatural manifestation, but it was extraordinary, and by aligning their travel route by it, the wise men arrived to the very home where Yosef and Miriam and Yeshua were living. Luke continues his narrative:
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The family was still in Bethlehem. Perhaps this census was taking considerable time, and people hadn’t yet been released to leave their ancestral cities. Perhaps it was simply to give Miriam time to recover from childbirth, and for Yeshua to gain weight and strength before making any journeys. In any case, they are at this point living in a house. The wise men weren’t at the cave or stable with the animals and the shepherds. This takes place later.
As the Magi entered the home, they bowed themselves to the ground and worshiped. That is the proper response upon encountering the Messiah of Israel. And then they presented Him with extravagant gifts – also a proper response. Yeshua by all rights ought to have our first affections and receive our very best, not the ‘leftovers’ after we’ve satisfied ourselves.
Excuse the pun, but let me ‘wrap’ this up. Things had been quiet between God and Israel for the better part of 400 years from the time of the prophet Malachi. That’s a lot of time from a human perspective, more than enough to become complacent. When God broke through into human history in the Incarnation, He did so quietly, and only those who were spiritually alert and on the lookout were drawn to Him.
You know who wasn’t looking for Messiah’s appearance? Israel’s religious leaders – the very ones who ought to have led the way!
It wasn’t the first time that foreigners were more spiritually attuned than Israel’s leaders. In the days of Elisha the prophet, Namaan the foreign (Aramean) military leader showed more spiritual insight, and displayed more loyalty to the God of Israel than Israel’s own king (Jehoram). The Gentile sailors aboard the ship on which the prophet Jonah sailed were more submissive to the will of the God of Israel than was the Jewish prophet himself!
At Messiah Yeshua’s first Advent, most of the people were oblivious. And it’s easy enough in retrospect to see how they missed out on the Good News. But is it possible we have become just as complacent, just as spiritually insensitive – tone deaf to the things of God? Yeshua said, “But when the Son of Man returns, will He find faith in the Earth?”
Who, among those hearing the sound of my voice will be on the lookout for Messiah’s Second Advent? This message isn’t for ‘the other guy’. It is a warning for me, and it is a warning for you. Wise men still seek Him, and wise men still give him their very best gifts. But let’s make every effort, with the help of the Holy Spirit, not to be asleep and oblivious; not to be caught unaware at Yeshua’s return.
So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him (Matthew 24:44).
And now, dear children, continue in Him, so that when He appears, we may be confident and unashamed before Him at His coming (1 John 2:28).