Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
December 27, 2015
Luke 2: 22-32 (CEB)
22When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (23It’s written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord.”) 24They offered a sacrifice in keeping with what’s stated in the Law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
25A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law. 28Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said,
29“Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word,
30 because my eyes have seen your salvation.
31You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples.
32It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and a glory for your people Israel.”
As you all know, we have spent weeks building up to Christmas and our celebration of Christ’s birth. And such anticipation is appropriate, it takes much preparation to welcome a new baby…I have been discovering that over and over again in the past year! But I do hope that our Advent time of preparation together enabled you to celebrate Christmas in a powerful way this year, knowing and experiencing the presence of Christ in new ways. And I am so glad that we are gathered here this morning to continue our worship of God and celebration of the Savior’s birth. Because here’s the thing, when it comes to having a baby, it doesn’t only involve a lot of preparation, beforehand, there are also a lot of new experiences after the baby is born.
You know what I mean, right? There are all those “firsts” that are such a big deal with a new baby. Baby’s first photo, baby’s first ride in the car seat, baby’s arrival at home. For many of us, the baby’s first day at church is important, or the first time the baby is introduced to his or her extended family. And then there are the more mundane things, like baby’s first trip to Target, or baby’s first time in the Starbucks drive-thru.
As it turns out, parents’ observance and celebration of their newborn’s “firsts” is a long-standing tradition. Today it involves some of those things I just mentioned, but 2,000 years ago, the ways parents celebrated their newborns happened in somewhat different ways. In the case of those of Jewish heritage, there were clearly defined laws regarding the earliest days of a newborn’s life. As devout Jews, Joseph and Mary would have followed these regulations closely, and Luke records their diligent observance. Just before the passage we read this morning, Luke tells us that eight days after Jesus was born, his parents circumcised him and gave him the name Jesus, as instructed by the angel before he was born. Where we pick up this morning, forty days have passed since Jesus’ birth, and his parents are in the Temple for another “first,” another rite of passage.
The visit of the Holy Family to the Temple on this occasion actually serves a dual purpose. First, Mary is bringing an offering for her right of purification. You see, according to Jewish custom, after giving birth, women were considered ritually unclean for a period of forty days, at which time they had to bring an offering to the Temple to be declared ritually clean by the priest. The second purpose of the visit to the Temple that we read about this morning relates to Jesus. According to Jewish custom, the first-born male of every household belonged to God. It was expected that they would grow up, learn the ways of the priests and serve in God’s Temple. However, it was possible for parents to bring an offering to, in a sense, “buy back” the child so that he could grow up and continue the family trade, or inherit the family land, and so on. So that is the offering Mary and Joseph have come to make. The normal offering was a lamb, but there was a provision for the poor, and that is what Jesus’ earthly parents bring to the Temple, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
The irony of this whole scene should not be lost on us. First of all, as the mother of the Christ-child, divinely conceived, Mary would not have been ritually unclean. Similarly, there was no reason for Mary and Joseph to “buy back” their son, who was going to spend his whole life serving God anyway, and ultimately by giving his own life as a sacrificial offering…forget the turtledoves or pigeons. But this tells us a lot about the kind of people that Mary and Joseph were, people who loved and served God with whole-hearted devotion; just the sort of people to raise God’s very own son, and as they entered the Temple, they obviously made an impression.
You know, the Temple was an extremely busy place. There was only one; this isn’t like the Christian churches of the south with one on every corner. When it came to fulfilling many of the ritual obligations, all Jewish people were expected to go to the Temple. So all day everyday there were people in and out, hustling and bustling with their animal offerings in tow. There wouldn’t be any reason for a poor family with a tiny baby and a couple of small birds to stand out; they would have been one of many such families. But as Joseph and Mary make their way into the Temple with the baby Jesus, they immediately draw the attention of a man named Simeon.
We don’t know a whole lot about Simeon. There is no explanation as to why he was at the Temple, perhaps he was a priest, but that is not mentioned explicitly. We can guess that Simeon was probably advanced in years, but other than that all we know for sure about Simeon is what Luke tells us: “he was righteous and devout,” and “the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Can you imagine such a man? Perhaps he was retired, or maybe he was still working. But with such a promise from God, I suspect he must’ve made a point each day to head over the Temple for a few hours to watch the people coming and going, eagerly wondering if this was the day he would see the Messiah as promised.
Then one day, things seem a little different for Simeon. There is a certain electricity in the air. On this day, it is the Spirit that drives Simeon to the Temple. And then it happens, he sees Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, and he knows. Can you identify with Simeon? Is there anything you’ve ever longed-for or waited for? Something, which, you know, if you could just experience it, you would know peace once and for all? These are the sorts of things we actively pursue, are they not? Such desires occupy our hearts, our minds, our energies; they can be the source of both great sorrow and extreme joy. And it certainly must have been so for Simeon because we can see so clearly the amazing joy he experienced when he took the baby Jesus into his arms.
“Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.” This is the final of the “first carols of Christmas.” The song of praise now on Simeon’s lips celebrates the light and salvation that has come for all people, Jew and Gentile alike. The wizened man looks into the face of this tiny child and he can see what is to come. He knows because it has long been foretold. And Simeon is so excited that he cries out, in essence, “Yes! Finally! Alleluia! This is what I have been waiting for! Now I can die in peace!” Simeon knows that he holds in his arms not just the fulfillment of the Spirit’s promise to him, but the fulfillment of all God’s promises to Israel.
But Jesus was just a baby; only forty days old. Still, Simeon knew. It’s really amazing how God works, isn’t it? As the great reformer Martin Luther put it, God became small for us in Christ; he showed us his heart, so our hearts might be won. Infants wield a kind of power. Muscular men with calloused hands become gentle as pillows when handed a baby; potent people with gruff voices adopt a falsetto and coo to an infant. God came down, not to thrash evildoers or crush the Romans, but as an infant, to elicit love, to nurture tenderness.
As I have said so many times this Christmas season, God comes to us in Jesus to give us just what we need: forgiveness, mercy, peace, grace, and love. Simeon waited his whole life, not for minutes or months but decades, to see the Messiah. When he breaks out into song as we heard this morning, it is because he finally holds the Christ-child in his arms. He holds in his hands the fulfillment of all his greatest hopes.
A common question in our world today goes something like this, “Why does Christianity matter?” or “Why does faith in Christ matter?” These questions get asked because the world tells us that we can have all we need if we just work hard and follow the American dream. But as we have all learned, following the American dream is a disappointing as it is fulfilling. And that’s why Christianity matters. Because when everything else falls short, faith in Christ can still give us hope. When we are like Simeon, with nothing before us but death, we can still experience joy. A life without Christ is dark, it is restless; there is no peace. But if we can embrace the love that God has shown to us in Jesus Christ, it will turn our world upside-down. It will make life matter in all the best ways possible. Simeon knew that, he experienced it, and then he sang out in joy!
Have you welcomed the Christ-child into your heart this Christmas? Because here’s the thing: all that you long for in life, and everything you most need are here for you if you will only embrace this Christ. He is peace and joy, and light and hope. He is forgiveness, and grace, and love. And what we celebrate at Christmas-time is that Christ is here. Let’s welcome him now.
Will you pray with me?