After All the Excitement
When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons”.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, 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 Christ. 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 marvelled 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.”
There was also a prophetess, Anna, 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. When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him. (Luke 2:22-40)
The Christmas focus is now past – the shops have had their post Christmas sales – in some homes the Christmas trees have come down – the public holidays are coming to a close – the focus is on the year’s end and new year’s beginning – but babies born a week ago are still around. That’s the way of things with babies – there’s excitement over the news of the pregnancy – there’s great attention at the birth – but shortly afterwards except for parents and family, the world moves on and pays periodic notice only at birthdays or Christmas. But the reality with babies is a 24 hour a day reality – a feeding, nursing, holding, cleaning reality – a washing, worrying, weaning reality.
At Christmas if the world hears any story it is Luke 2 – the first 20 verses – going to Bethlehem – no room in the inn – baby born – angels and shepherds – going and seeing – going back and rejoicing. Now that’s a different birth – not the norm – but like all births there’s also the days after, and the weeks, and the years, and the rest of Luke 2.
We pick up Jesus’ story about 6 weeks after his birth – we can’t be precise here but he’s still a baby. The proud parents – fulfilling God’s commands and knowing in their own hearts that their child was special – go to the temple in Jerusalem according to the requirements of the law and are again reminded that God is doing something new for his people involving their little boy. Neither Simeon or Anna are the regular welcoming committee – like greeters at the temple door – on the lookout for the Lord’s Christ – waiting, maybe bored, maybe expectant – and yet both of them encounter Mary and Joseph and Jesus. The encounters do not validate Mary and Joseph’s experiences but they do contextualise the situation and also provide a sense of continuity – that what God is doing is part of a plan and not made up on the spur of the moment.
Simeon’s encounter is the more controversial of the two. He is at the temple at the specific urging of the Holy Spirit and it is he who takes hold of Jesus rather than Mary and Joseph seeking Simeon out. We assume Simeon is old because his vigil of waiting for the Messiah is now at an end and he is now ready to depart in peace (presumably meaning to die and go to the Lord). He doesn’t need to see this little one grown up and be God’s salvation and the revelation to the gentiles and the glory for Israel – seeing Jesus in his arms – trusting God’s Word is enough. What he does do is give an explanation to Mary and Joseph – a sort of stage direction – a narrator’s commentary – and here is the controversy for he doesn’t say that Jesus will win the Nobel Peace Prize, or find the cure for cancer, or create a world order which will bring about peace and prosperity for millennia – but says that Jesus will be controversial – causing the falling and rising of many in Israel – he will be spoken against – and he will reveal not just deeds but thoughts and expose them – and then directly to Mary tells her that a sword will pierce her soul too. This is not the fairy godmother saying, “And he will live happily ever after”. This child seems to be about hardship, suffering, pain, and maybe even death.
This is the story of Christmas that the world doesn’t want to hear. None of us really do – who wants to put babies and suffering into the same sentence let alone the same situation? None of us. And yet this is what Christmas remains about – there were enough hints that Jesus’ birth was not a run-of-the-mill forgettable one – for God was acting in a decisive way entering this world – not to play tourist or landlord checking up on the tenants – but to rescue and save people – Jews and gentiles – to be light in the darkness – to be life in the face of death.
We don’t know the details of what Anna said but Luke summarises her words with the descriptions ‘giving thanks to God’ and ‘spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem’. Redemption is about ‘buying back’ and perhaps Anna and her listeners figured that Jesus would make some deal with the Romans to restore Jerusalem and Israel. I think it is unlikely that they thought along the lines of Luther who described the redemption achieved by Jesus as one ‘not with silver or gold but with his holy and precious blood and his innocent suffering and death’. For now the child is still a child – growing up, becoming wise in the ways of the Lord, and God’s grace was upon him – in time his followers would say that he is God’s grace and truth – but for now, even now, we can give thanks to God.
As followers of Jesus, we know that Simeon and Anna weren’t wishful thinkers or doting grandparent types or delusional but were messengers to Mary and Joseph, to those who would listen back then, and to us today. They relied on God’s Word to them and did not see ‘how Jesus turned out’. And yet the word given to them and the Word of God given to others provides the lens to see what the world misses. They seem like any other new parents – he’s just another Jewish child in the temple – later he’s a teacher, a miracle worker – later still, he’s just one of an unnumbered group who was crucified – but the words about him from both Simeon and Anna and including what Jesus himself said bear witness to the truth that God has rescued and saved his people through Jesus.
Our sin is controversial – sadly evil can leave us breathless and stunned – and Christmas is about dealing with human sin – and the rescue comes in the shape of a baby. Jesus is born to die – not as an unfortunate end result of life – he is born to die – to be a sacrifice so that you and I will not suffer for our sins and evil in fear and loneliness. God takes our situation seriously – it is serious – and his love is determined – and focused – not a will of the wisp thing – but faithful towards a world that will reject and ridicule, mock and minimise God’s actions. Our controversial sin requires a controversial rescue – and that was and is the message of Christmas – and Easter.
And that rescue is still happening today as people meet and encounter Jesus – through his Word whether spoken or made visible with water, bread and wine. We say Simeon’s words as one of the responses to meeting Jesus in Holy Communion – and where Simeon held a baby – we have held bread and wine – and yet we both have seen the salvation God has worked among us – and praised God for Jesus Christ for he has entered our 24 hour per day reality and gives us his peace.
- Luke 2:22 - 40