Welcome to the final Sunday of Advent, the season of waiting and anticipating leading up to Christmas. A poet has written this challenge concerning Advent. Let this help you to push against any sense of rushing on this morning.
“The season of Advent means there is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before… . What is possible is not to see it, to miss it, to turn just as it brushes past you. And you begin to grasp what it was you missed, like Moses in the cleft of the rock, watching God’s [back] fade in the distance. So stay. Sit. Linger. Tarry. Ponder. Wait. Behold. Wonder. There will be time enough for running. For rushing. For worrying. For pushing. For now, stay. Wait. Something is on the horizon.” -Jan L. Richardson, Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas (Pilgrim Press, 1998)
That’s what I invite you to do this morning. We’re going to take a slow walk through the backstory of the next character who encounters the infant Jesus and immediately knows he is the long-awaited Messiah.
She comes on the scene right after Simeon. We watched on last week as Simeon, who had been waiting to see the Messiah with his own eyes, finally is led by the Holy Spirit into the Temple just as Joseph and Mary are bringing their infant son to dedicate him to the Lord. In that God-ordained moment, Simeon supernaturally knows that this child is the long-awaited One, the One Simeon calls “the consolation of Israel.”
Right after Simeon goes his way, a second stranger approach Joseph and Mary. We learn even less about this person. And today I want to give you the backstory on this elderly woman who brings a supernatural message concerning Jesus even while he is still an infant.
In Mark Mitchell’s study of this passage, he points out that the woman who comes on the scene right after Simeon comes from tribe of Asher. And there’s a whole backstory to Asher that colors in the richness of who it is that comes to Jesus here. I want to tell you Asher’s story.
Asher was the eighth of Jacob’s twelve sons—this is Jacob who was later renamed Israel by God. So Asher’s father is the one from whom the whole nation of Israel gets its name. Asher was born in a place very much in today’s news, the land that is now Northern Syria.
And here’s Asher’s backstory. Jacob was married to two women. The Bible nowhere condones that, it just states the unfortunate reality of the situation. His wives, Leah and Rachel, struggled with infertility. Asher was actually born when Leah suggested that Jacob sleep with her handmaid—not a desirable situation by far. But when he was born, Leah was so happy that she named him “Happy.” That’s what his name, Asher, means.
So his name was happy, but we have little reason to think that he felt happy. Jacob played favorites between the two wives, and that didn’t play to Asher’s favor.
Asher didn’t have the honor of being the firstborn son—that was Reuben.
Asher wasn’t the strongest—that was Judah.
Asher wasn’t his father’s doted-on youngest son—that was Benjamin.
And Asher wasn’t his father’s favorite son, even if a father shouldn’t play favorites—that was Joseph.
So Asher was the kind of guy who kind of got lost in the shadows. He’s not the kind of person you would look at and think, “Now this guy is really going places!”
His name is happy, but his circumstances are anything but.
The family Asher grows up in is highly dysfunctional. Sometimes we joke about having a family that puts the fun in dysfunctional, but he really did grow up in a messed-up family. Maybe you can relate to that. The Bible nowhere presents perfect families. If anything, it presents families as they often are.
Right about now, you may be wondering, what does any of this have to do with Christmas, with Jesus coming? This is part of it. We’re going to build up to Jesus coming.
For Asher, that meant a Dad who played favorites. It meant being in the midst of some really nasty sibling rivalry. He grew up in a family marked by lies and deception and resentment.
And along the way, Asher gets swept up in it. Just like with us today, the family you grow up in is the single greatest influence in shaping you, whether for good or evil, for healthy relationships or for damaged relationships. The damage sweeps Asher along—and he ends up going along with a deeply disturbing plot to actually sell into human trafficking their father’s favorite, who is Joseph. Asher sees his elderly father devastated at having lost his son. And then years later, Asher is part of his family’s delegation to Egypt during famine, who discovers to his horror that Joseph is not only alive, but in a position where if he choose to, Joseph could take fearsome revenge on Asher and his siblings.
So all that to say again, Asher doesn’t look very promising. If you were hiring for your company and you did a background check and learned all this kind of dysfunction and crime and deception and lying, there’s no way you would hire him.
But God. Somewhere along the line, Asher apparently changed. Because when it comes time for his father Jacob to die, Jacob calls for each of his dozen sons to be brought to his bedside. One by one, Jacob has a final word for each son. When Asher steps forward, the blessing his father speaks is a bit mysterious upon hearing it, but you can tell it is positive. Here’s what Jacob prophesies over his son Asher:
“Asher’s food will be rich;
he will provide delicacies fit for a king.” Genesis 49:20
The prediction there is that in some way, Asher’s descendants will be blessed.
Fast-forward four hundred years, and a second prophecy of blessing is spoken over Asher’s lineage, the tribe of Asher. The scene is that the nation of Israel, all twelve tribes, are standing on the verge of the Promised Land. Moses knows that he is going to die. And just like Jacob did with his sons, Moses gives his blessing to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. He goes through eleven of the twelve tribes, but not in the customary order. He saves Asher for his final blessing. And to the descendants of Asher is given this prophetic promise:
About Asher [Moses] said:
“Most blessed of sons is Asher;
let him be favored by his brothers,
and let him bathe his feet in oil.
The bolts of your gates will be iron and bronze,
and your strength will equal your days.”
Again, you might be asking, what does this have to do with Christmas and Jesus? Hang in there. We’re building the case to get there. The promise given to Asher’s descendants—and we’re about to meet one of them—the promise is of triple blessing.
First is that he will be favored by his brothers. Was Asher favored by his brothers in his lifetime? Far from it! But God changes his lineage. By the time the dozen tribes of Israel are ready to enter the Promised Land, Asher’s lineage has multiplied to more than 50,000 men plus women and children. All told, the tribe of Asher had grown to far more than the population of Fishers today. God promised Asher’s lineage a legacy, and God did what he promised.
The second blessing promised Asher’s lineage says, “Let him bathe his feet in oil.” That doesn’t sound desirable to us today, but back then it had to do with wealth and refreshment. Everyone walked everywhere, and so your feet would get dirty and would constantly need to be bathed. But it was only those who were wealthy who could afford not only to wash their feet, but then also to soothe their feet with olive oil.
When the Promised Land was allotted by portion to each of the tribes of Israel, the portion set apart for the tribe of Asher is Galilee—which became renowned for the rich soil producing abundant olives and olive oil. That’s true of Galilee even still today.
For the believer in Jesus Christ, oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. And everyone who trusts in Christ gets to in a sense “bathe your feet in oil”—that is, you get to walk in the blessing of God. The Holy Spirit goes with you wherever you go. You get to experience the Holy Spirit’s cleansing from sin along the way.
And then the third prophetic promise given to Asher’s descendants is, “The bolts of your gates will be iron and bronze, and your strength will equal your days.” Another version reads, “Safe behind iron-clad doors and gates, your strength like iron as long as you live.”
The prophetic picture here is of strength to withstand enemy attacks. For as long as they needed strength, God would see to it that they had sufficient strength.
So what does any of this have to do with Advent, and Jesus? Here it is:
- From a guy who was named “happy” but for quite a while didn’t have many reasons to be happy;
- From someone who was raised in a highly dysfunctional family and got caught up in its dangerously messed-up ways himself;
- From the lineage of someone who sold his own brother into human trafficking and then lied to his own father about it;
- From a family lineage that seemed otherwise forgettable, with no kings or priests or mighty judges or great men of God;
Nonetheless, this man’s lineage receives a series of promises of blessings to come in the future: blessings of wealth, blessings of multiplication, blessings of refreshing, and blessings of strength to successfully resist the enemy.
All of that leads up to a moment in the Temple, right after Simeon walks away from his encounter with Jesus. And this moment, as brief as it is, pulls together all of the blessings promised to Asher. We read the following, in Luke chapter two, verses 36-38:
“There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, 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.” Luke 2:36-38
Anna had been married for seven years. Her husband died. And then the years marched on slowly as a widow, until this moment she had been waiting for. It would be understandable if we read, “As she aged, she became bitter and disillusioned.” But instead, we’re told she devoted herself to coming to God’s house daily. She kept the faith. Despite her circumstances, she believed she would see the goodness of the Lord in her lifetime. She didn’t know how that would play out. She had no idea when she would experience a spiritual breakthrough. But she persevered by faith, fasting and praying. She had the mindset of eagerly waiting for what the Lord might do—something we all can learn from. She was part of the fellowship of the wait-ers, the fellowship of those who wait for what the Lord will do.
So here’s the first tie-in from Asher to his descendant Anna, and the first tie-in from Anna to Christmas: When it comes to Christmas, the big question is not going to be have you gotten everything you’ve waited for; have you gotten everything you want yet? That doesn’t happen in this lifetime. The really important question, the Anna kind of question, is what kind of person are you becoming while you wait? While you wait in this incredibly impatient era, will you wait, like Anna, with faith and devotion and never-quit-commitment to believing that the Lord is going to do something that will amaze the watching world? This is the kind of person the Lord has always been looking for—his eyes range throughout the earth looking to support those whose hearts are completely his. That was Anna. And the Lord rewarded her faith.
What kind of person are you becoming while you wait? You might be waiting for a better family life. You may be waiting for a better marriage. Maybe you’re waiting for better finances or a better walk with the Lord.
The question is will you wait with patience and faithfulness? Will you wait on the Lord? You can’t know how long you’ll be waiting. But what matters is who you become while you wait. You can become impatient. You can become disillusioned with misplaced expectations. You can grow bitter.
Or…you can do like Anna, and wait on the Lord—however long it takes. And then in time, in his time, you will receive the blessing of seeing what only those who persevere in faith get to. That’s the big takeaway from Anna.
Everything we’ve touched on this morning—generations marching on in the line of one unassuming nobody named Asher—leads up to this moment: from the line of average Asher, someone who grew up in a family that was deeply flawed, someone who for a while was himself caught up in the family sin, but on whom God nonetheless set his hand of promised blessing, from that lineage comes this wise old woman who is, like Simeon, among the very first to recognize Jesus as the Redeemer we’ve all been waiting for, the Redeemer we all so desperately need.
You may be dreading being back with your messed up extended family this Christmas. Here’s where the good news comes in: Jesus came to adopt you into God’s family, so you can experience God as your heavenly Father who loves you. Scripture says of God, “He sets the lonely in families.” I don’t know how well your family loved you or failed to love you. I can tell you Jesus came so that you can experience the secure love of God as heavenly Father. Jesus came to adopt you into God’s family.
It may be that your family’s dysfunctional ways have influenced you into sinful patterns like lying, or sibling rivalry, or playing favorites, or deception. The good news of Jesus comes in here, too: Jesus came to forgive sin and empower change. Jesus was sent to bring about a whole new sense of identity, as one known and loved by God. In Jesus, nobodies become somebodies. You get a new name: child of God.
It may be that there’s nothing particularly special about your family lineage and nothing spectacular about you to date. Again, the good news of Jesus speaks to that: Jesus came to give you a clear divine purpose. In Christ we are commissioned. We are blessed to be a blessing. Through us, God carries out his plan to bless the people of the world.
Everything promised to the lineage of ordinary Asher finds its fulfillment in Jesus, whom Anna encounters in the Temple—and she cannot help but tell everyone she meets about the redemption he came to bring.
We leave this account of elderly Anna with the question her story raises: What kind of person are you becoming while you wait? Whatever it is that you’re waiting for, hoping for, yearning for right now, what kind of person are you becoming while you wait?
No one can tell you how long you’re going to wait. What you can know is that even while you wait, God wants to bless you. He wants to bless you and make you a blessing—just as surely as he did with Simeon, just as surely as he did with the line of Asher, and just as surely as he did with Anna from Asher. All it takes is waiting in faith. With devotion. With an eagerness to receive the Lord’s blessing, and an eagerness to be a blessing to others.
And so I want to pray that for you. Our Father in heaven, we thank and praise you for ordinary Asher. We can relate to someone like Asher. Not a perfect family. Not a perfect person. But you chose him. You placed your hand of favor upon him. You gave powerful and precious promises to him.
And in time, in your perfect timing, you blessed his lineage, and you made them a blessing. We want nothing less. This Christmas and beyond, we pray, bless us and make us a blessing. Give us opportunities to be a blessing to the people we live with, work with, go to school with, and work out with.
Anything and everything you want to do, we’re in. Fill us with your Spirit. Lead and guide our steps. And until each moment to bring blessing arrives, keep us faith-filled and faithful. We ask all this, and we give you all our thanks and praise for the awesome gift of Jesus, in his mighty name! Amen.