December 31, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here.
Is your tree still up? It’s still Christmas, you know. All this coming week, too, with temperatures hovering at or below zero, it’s still Christmas.
The angels have returned to the heavenly realms, after breaking into this earthly realm to announce peace and good will to the shepherds.
The shepherds have told everyone they know the story of that encounter, and are back in the fields with the sheep.
Most of Joseph’s relatives who were in town for the holidays have gone home, leaving a little more room in the house for the new family to get stronger before they set out on their own journey.
The magi from the East are on their way, but it will be some time before they show up to offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s still Christmas. Luke continues the story in chapter two of his gospel:
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
“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.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “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.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:22-40)
Listening to this story of Simeon and Anna meeting Jesus in the temple, I always bump up against this question: How did they know? How did they know that this was the One they’d been waiting for? What clued them into the fact that their prayers had been answered, and they were in the presence of Messiah?
Keep in mind that Simeon and Anna were the first ones to recognize salvation without any angel announcements or stars guiding them. So how did they do it? How did they know?
Let’s take a closer look at these two. First, we need to recognize that Luke often pairs a male and female experience when he tells the important parts of the story of Jesus. Mary’s song is balanced with Zachariah’s song back in chapter 1. Anna’s “pairing with Simeon … illustrate[s] an important theme in Luke: men and women stand side-by-side before God, equal in honor and grace, endowed with the same gifts, with the same responsibilities.” Luke is reflecting the equality between male and female that God had in mind from the beginning of creation. In Genesis 1:27 we read, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
And in Galatians 3:28 Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Luke will repeat this pairing of male and female interactions with Christ throughout his gospel.
Jesus will speak of the widow of Zarephath in the same sentence as Naaman (Luke 4:25-28) Other pairings include “the healing of the demoniac and Peter’s mother-in-law ( 4:31-39), and the centurion of Capernaum and the widow of Nain ( 7:1-17).”
Anna’s designation as a prophet is also significant. Including her story with Simeon’s is important to Luke’s version of the gospel. He wants to be sure we understand that Jesus the Savior came for all people, died for all people, and can be recognized, accepted, and proclaimed by anyone, male or female.
Anna and Simeon show us how to do this. And so do Mary and Joseph.
So here we have a couple of faithful, law-abiding parents, bringing their firstborn to the temple to dedicate him to the Lord, and to complete the ritual necessary for Mary’s purification. According to Jewish law, the firstborn – whether human or animal – belonged to the Lord. Firstborn animals were sacrificed, but parents could redeem firstborn children by paying five shekels into the temple treasury.
Luke doesn’t tell us that Mary and Joseph did this. Instead, they dedicate Jesus to the Lord, much as Hannah dedicated young Samuel to the Lord back in the Old Testament. And it is clear that they are poor, because of the offering they bring for Mary’s purification – the law allows for two doves instead of a lamb and a dove, if the parents are poor.
Keep this in mind. Jesus was poor. His family was poor. And yet, Simeon and Anna recognize that this poor child is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Let’s consider Simeon. He is a righteous man who has been waiting for Messiah his entire life. God has told him he will see Israel’s salvation before he dies, and he is constantly worshiping in the temple as he waits for this to happen. He has been waiting for some time, but he has not given up hope. What does he do when he recognizes salvation is right in front of him? He takes the baby and sings a song.
But this is no sweet lullaby. It is a prophetic word from the Lord about the significance of the child Jesus. Simeon is ready to die, now that he has seen God’s salvation. He sings about division and peace, a sword and joy. He warns Mary that she will suffer, as she watches her son suffer.
Let’s consider Anna.
Anna proclaims the Savior to anyone who will listen, “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. That’s an important clue: in order to recognize salvation when it’s right in front of us, we have to be looking for redemption. We have to be eagerly expecting salvation to come.
What does salvation look like? How will we know it when we see it?
Simeon’s song describes God’s salvation as something that God has “prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Salvation is out there in the open, a revelation to everyone who will see it.
It also looks like trouble. Simeon goes on to say,
“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.”
This good news of God’s salvation will meet strong opposition. Jesus will grow up to argue with religious leaders, to face torture and a horrendous death. And why? Simeon tells us it’s because Christ reveals the truth about us.
Christ exposes our sinfulness for what it is. “The inner thoughts of many will be revealed” – and when those inner thoughts are not centered on Christ, they are centered on sin. We don’t like revealing that.
We don’t like to have our hypocrisy exposed. We don’t like our failures of faith to be shown to the world. No wonder Jesus faced opposition. If we are going to call ourselves followers of Jesus, we will face the same opposition, too.
So here’s what salvation looks like:
- It looks like God at work, exposing our sin as well as our faith.
- It looks like caring more about “the least” than “the most”
- It looks like a vulnerable, human baby and an old man ready to die, encompassing both birth and death in salvation’s story.
It looks like Jesus.
How can we be more like Simeon and Anna, so we can recognize what salvation looks like when we see it?
Simeon was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel.”
Simeon was devoted to hope in God. He was looking forward, not backward. And he was receptive to God’s spirit. Notice that the Holy Spirit is mentioned three times in short order here:
- The Holy Spirit rested on Simeon.
- It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
- Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple
If we want to be able to see God’s salvation when it comes through the door, we need to be looking forward, devoted to hope in God, and open to the Holy Spirit.
And what about Anna? She “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” Anna devoted herself to prayer and worship. If we want to be able to recognize God’s salvation when we see it, we need to be devoted to prayer, to worship, to spiritual practices like fasting that focus our attention on God.
We prepare ourselves for salvation as Simeon and Anna did:
- In humble obedience and complete devotion to God
- Expectantly, hopefully worshipping
- Open to the Holy Spirit filling us and speaking into our lives
It’s still Christmas, but it’s also the eve of a New Year.
Each new year, we make decisions about who we want to be. We make resolutions; we set goals. This can be a good thing. Goals give us focus and direction.
Often, these goals are focused on improving ourselves. Losing weight, saving money, getting a better job — but there’s a catch: even the best goals are often inherently self-centered.
Christ did not call us to live that way. Simeon and Anna did not live that way. To live the life God has in mind for us, we must be willing to devote our whole lives to following Jesus.
During the month of January, I invite you to shake up your perception of Christian living. I invite you to deny yourself and go all-in as you follow Jesus, with the full knowledge that while it won’t make your life easier, you will find joy in the journey.
With Simeon, you will be able to confidently say, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace” at the end of your life. Like Anna, your life will be one of rejoicing. Like Jesus, you will grow in wisdom and strength, and in favor with God. Amen.