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Is there nothing more agonizing for a child than waiting for Christmas to arrive? I remember when my sister, two brothers and I would alternate between agony and ecstasy every December as we anticipated the arrival of Christmas.
With each day's waiting more torturous than the next, we would put on our David Seville and the Chipmunks album on the hi-fi and commiserate with them as they pleaded, "Please, Christmas, don't be late!"
We would stare longingly at the calendar or at the clock or at the gifts underneath the Christmas tree, hoping the sheer force of our desire would make the time speed by. Every morning, even before our feet hit the floor, one of us would call out, "Is it Christmas yet?"
Every morning, to our disappointment, one of our parents would answer, "Not yet."
One year on Christmas Eve, the four of us got up at 5 a.m. or so, sneaked into the living room and sat in front of the tree with ants in our pants. We sniffed the packages with our names on them, poked at the tape, licked the ribbon.
Christmas was coming, we could feel it in our bones!
We tried to control our anticipation and keep quiet, but four squirmy siblings itching to rip into Christmas loot are anything but quiet. Mom got up and shooed us back to bed - and then banned us from the living room for the rest of the day.
It was the single, longest day of the O'Brand children's lives.
I can only imagine how the Israelites felt as they longed for Christmas to come, too, although they didn't have a date on a calendar on which to count the days. They didn't even know it was Christmas that they were waiting for. They only knew they had a groaning in their bones and a longing for the Promised One who would bring them redemption. They longed for a Redeemer and a Rescuer.
At Christmas, we sing, "O come, O come, Emmanuel!" The songwriter describes Israel as mourning in "lonely exile" and depicts the Jews as pleading for God to "ransom" them and to "free Thine own from Satan's tyranny."
Israel, once mighty and powerful over its enemies, had been enslaved, oppressed and harassed by a succession of kings and despots and nations. As a people and a nation, the Israelites were without a king from within their own ranks and, in the minds of many, without hope.
They lived in longing and in lonely exile for hundreds of years.
Two of my favorite biblical Christmas characters are Anna and Simeon. Their stories are found in Luke's gospel. "There was also a prophetess, Anna." She was a widow in her 80s and spent probably 50 years or more living at the temple, praying for the promised Messiah.
Likewise, Simeon was "waiting for the consolation of Israel." God had promised that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ. When Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the temple, Simeon and Anna were both there to see the long-awaited answer to their longing - to their people's longing.
Christmas had come to Israel!
Written almost 300 years ago, another familiar Christmas song, filled with longing, goes:
"Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free.
From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel's strength and consolation, hope of all the earth Thou art,
Dear desire of ev'ry nation, joy of ev'ry longing heart."
At the beginning of Advent, my pastor said we live as a longing people. For thousands of years, God's people longed for a Savior - and then he came. But we still long because, even though he's come, life isn't as it will be one day when he returns.
He has come, but he hasn't righted every wrong - yet. He hasn't wiped away every tear, healed every disease, bound up every broken heart.
He has come and he brought forgiveness with him, but sin still dwells and afflicts. We still live with sadness and brokenness. We still live with longing and waiting and anticipation.
But we also live with hope. Jesus has come and he said he'll be back to get us and clean up the mess. He's going to make sense of everything. He's going to whup sin and death.
So, like little kids with ants in their pants, we wait.