My anniversary is coming up. This December 29th, Mandi and I will be celebrating our 24th. We have come a long way. We have been through a lot together, and we’ve put each other through a lot. Marriage is not for the faint of heart. I have been told by some that marriage is war; by others that marriage is a sentence of death. A man isn’t complete, they say, until he’s married. Then he’s finished! One guy told me marriage is like a bathtub—once you’re in it for a while, it’s not so hot. Another person told me he felt marriage was nature’s way of keeping people from fighting with strangers.
Despite these negative views of matrimony, Mandi and I have not only survived but still enjoy being with each other. “How do you do that?” People ask us. “What is the secret to having a successful marriage?” I don’t think there is any one “secret.” At least, even after 24 years I cannot yet summarize things that concisely. But one of the things I have been learning these last 24 years is how important it is to not let the good times make me think that the challenges of marriage are over forever.
Look here at the story of the newlywed couple in Luke 2:21-35. Mary and Joseph have both been visited by angels and told that the child they were going to have was not the result of infidelity but was a miracle of God. They were told that this child was going to be Emanuel and that he was going to save his people from their sins. The angelic hosts had filled the heavens and appeared to some shepherds who in turn sought Mary and Joseph out, told them all that they had seen and worshiped little Jesus and left praising God, telling everyone who would listen to them about their discovery of The Answer to the promises of old.
All that was a little over a month ago. Now, they are presenting their son, The Son, at The Temple of God. The law and the tradition in those days was that on the fortieth day after the birth of your son, he was to be presented at the temple with a sacrifice dedicating him to God.
So here they are. At the height of all this excitement, presenting the Savior of the world to the world at this Temple service. And all that building up of hope, pride, zeal and joy is confirmed by an old devout man who comes running up to them just before little Jesus is formally presented to the priests. He’s got this wild look on this face. His eyes are spinning like peas in a whistle, and before Mary and Joseph know what is going on this guy takes the child in his arms and says:
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 (Luke 2:29-32, NIV).
Fantastic! This is it! This really is what we have been waiting for! Can you imagine hearing anything more confirming of your hope than that? And Mary and Joseph “marveled” at what was said about their son (Luke 2:33).
Simeon, being the devout man of God he was, saw this reaction in the faces of these young people. He saw the exultation on their faces. The joy and happiness of knowing that God had fulfilled his promises. The Savior had come. Their deliverance was at hand. God’s judgment was coming. These pagan Romans were about to get their butts kicked all the way to kingdom come! I can see Simeon’s huge grin change to a thoughtful and caring smile. Youth is great. But they don’t have a lot of life experience yet (Remember, unlike they are depicted in that painting, Mary and Joseph were most likely teenagers). This joy they are experiencing is great and true and right. But this was not the end of their work, it was the beginning. This wonderful victory was not where they were, it was where they were going. Simeon, then blessed them, handed Jesus back to Mary and looked into her eyes and lovingly, soberly spoke these words:
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 (Luke 2:34-35, NIV).
Ouch! Right at the height of this emotional high, this mountaintop experience, reality hits Mary and Joseph right in the face. It’s going to be a while before all this finally happens. They have to raise this kid. This is not going to be a clear and easy ascension to the thrown of David as they had thought, but will be a road marked with pain, suffering, challenge, and heartaches. And in the end, a sword will pierce Mary’s heart too.
The season of Advent is all about waiting and hoping for the Lord’s coming. We’ve spent the last four Sundays building up the excitement and hope of Christmas. Christmas came and we celebrated the gift of Jesus Christ to us.
Well, Advent is over. The gifts have been opened (and maybe even returned for cash), and the relatives and in-laws have gone home. The party is over.
After a wedding, when the reception is over and the bride and groom whip off in their limo to their honeymoon, the real work at marriage begins, when they realize they had no idea that they were doing when they agreed to get married. After Christmas when we have focused so much on joy, and giving, and love, and hope, and kindness and grace, we have to go back home where we encounter all sorts of nasty things, negative people, events, problems, messes, illnesses, hurts, jerks, scrooges, liars, cheats, gossips, ner-do-wells, complainers, killjoys, and thumb-suckers that seem to suck the joy right out of us!
Joy takes work. It does not grow on trees. If you want to keep renewed as you put another Christmas behind you, you need to be learning the lesson that Simeon gave Mary and Joseph all those years ago, and that is this: The blessings of God are not meant to keep us on the mountaintop, they are meant to keep us going through the next valley.