Sermon for Today. Luke 2:22-40.
What’s the longest you’ve ever had to wait for something? Maybe we have waited a long time in a queue to buy something we really wanted, maybe we have waited a long time to receive a letter, perhaps with good news in it. Maybe we were sick and we had to wait a long time to get better. Maybe we had to wait a long time for someone to return who had gone away. Life is full of waiting and some of us are better at it than others. In today’s reading from Luke chapter 2 we come across the joy of a man and a woman who had waited their whole lives for something and now finally in their old age it had happened.
Joseph and Mary were bringing the baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. In Jewish life there were three ceremonies that occurred after a child was born. If it was a boy the first of these was circumcision, which happened on the eighth day after birth. This act symbolised the Jews’ separation from Gentiles and their unique relationship with God, it was a time of joy when friends and family members celebrated the baby’s becoming part of God’s covenant nation, (not unlike our baptism of infants in the church today). The second ceremony was the “Redemption of the firstborn”. A firstborn son was presented to God one month after birth. The ceremony included buying back or redeeming the child from God through an offering. The point of this was for the parents to acknowledge that the child belonged to God, who alone has the power to give life. The third ceremony was the “Purification of the mother”. For forty days after the birth of a son and eighty days after the birth of a daughter, the mother was ceremonially unclean and could not enter the temple. At the end of this time, the parents were to bring a lamb for a burnt offering and a dove or a pigeon for a sin offering. The priest would sacrifice these animals and declare the mother to be clean. If a lamb was too expensive, the parents could bring a second dove or pigeon instead. This is what Mary and Joseph did.
So there are Mary and Joseph, with Jesus at the Temple, for Mary’s purification, when they come across an old man called Simeon. Simeon had been waiting for many years for this day. God had made a promise to Simeon that he would not die before he had seen Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour. Simeon was now old, but he had never lost hope. He had nurtured a vision for years, perhaps wondering at times if it was just a dream or wishful thinking. Then one day, he lifts up his eyes in the Temple, he sees a young couple with a baby, and no longer doubts, but knows in his heart that what God said would happen is indeed happening.
Luke tells us that Simeon is both righteous and devout. He is a good man, he lives his life is such a way as would be a good example to all and he is totally committed to God in his heart, mind, soul and strength.
We are told that Simeon was waiting for “the consolation of Israel” (v.25), a strange phrase, what does it mean? In the Message translation, this phrase reads that Simeon was a man who “lived in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel”. Things were really not that great for the people of Israel at this time. Thanks to the Romans, they had lost their political independence, (though King Herod was still allowed to reign over them in cruelty). Thanks to the scribes and the Pharisees, the Jewish religion had become more about outward show and religious ritual than an internal change of heart. Yet there were godly men and women like Simeon, Anna and many more who were eagerly waiting for God to come and rescue them. Simeon knew that time had come as soon as he saw Jesus.
Simeon takes the child Jesus in his arms and utters his timeless words, inspired by the Holy Spirit and known to many as the Nunc Dimittis (the first words of the Latin translation):
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
Simeon’s heart is flooded with thanksgiving and praise. He thanks God for what this child means to him personally and for what it means for all people, both Jew and for Gentile. As far as Simeon is concerned, he is ready to die because that which he has longed for for many years has come to pass. The saviour is here and he has seen and held Salvation in his arms!
Simeon declares that Jesus is a “Light for revelation to the Gentiles”. Now to those who had no knowledge of God, who were living in darkness, the Light of Salvation has come. Jesus also brings “glory” to Israel because they above all nations were the ones chosen by God for the purpose of spreading the true religion among the nations of the world and selected to be the people among whom the Christ would be born.
What Simeon said about Jesus amazed Joseph and Mary. Of course the angel Gabriel and the Shepherds had previously said wonderful things about this child, but these earlier messages did not include anything so specific about the significance of this child for both Gentiles and Israel.
Simeon then prays a prayer of blessing over Mary and Joseph and says something to Mary that must not have been too easy for them to hear:
‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
When people encountered Jesus, there would be no sitting on the fence. He would be the great divider, as William Hendriksen puts it, “a person’s relation or attitude towards Jesus would be absolutely decisive of his eternal destiny.”(William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Luke, Banner of Truth Trust, 1978, p.170)
Where we will exist in eternity is 100% determined by our attitude towards Jesus, he is after all the way, the truth and the life, and no one can come to the Father except by Him (John 14).
I’m sure that Mary in particular would have come back to Simeon’s words many times over the course of her life. In the moment of her deepest agony, when Jesus hung on the cross these words would have provided a measure of comfort that in fact God was in control and it was indeed part of His great plan for the Salvation of all who would come to Him in repentance and faith. Of course, upon Jesus’ resurrection these words would have led to an even greater strengthening of Mary’s faith as her heart was filled with joy and worship.
Our reading concludes with a short piece about Anna, an elderly widow and prophet. She had practically lived at the temple for many years, fasting and praying night and day. Like Simeon she had waited and waited and waited for God to do something. She had not given up hope, she had prayed and fasted and then one day she saw the answer to her prayer and suddenly her heart was filled with praise. Imagine her joy as she watches the scene with Simeon holding Jesus aloft and uttering those famous words. Anna is filled with gratitude to God and she cannot help talking about it.
Simeon and Anna and many others had to wait a long time for Jesus to come. When He did come they recognised Him immediately and their lives were never the same again. The good news is that we don’t have to wait, Jesus is alive and through the presence of the Holy Spirit He is here with us now. Like Anna, like Simeon it is important that we recognise Him, that we worship Him and that we acknowledge Him as our Lord and our Saviour, our master and our God. One of the names by which Jesus is known in the Bible is Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’. We do not have a far away remote god, we have a God who is intimately present at every moment, who understands and knows us, who ‘perceives our thoughts from afar’ and who ‘knit us together in our mothers womb’ (Psalm 139).
Do you know Jesus? Is He the most important Person in your life? Do you acknowledge Him as your Lord and your Saviour? Now is not the time for waiting, now is the time for receiving Him. Amen.