Sunday, December 30, 2018

The First Sunday after Christmas (Christmas 1)

Luke 2:22-40; Galatians 4:1-7; Isaiah 11:1-5

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
This morning's Gospel really belongs on February 2nd, 40 days after Christmas, because it describes what happened that day Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple when he was 40 days old. The Old Testament Law pronounced the mother unclean for 40 days after giving birth to a boy (60 days for a girl), teaching that we are all born sinful and unclean, that every birth is the birth of a sinner under God's wrath, and that rescue from sin and wrath would come ultimately through a first-born male child belonging to God. The Law also required that the first-born belonged to the Lord and had to be redeemed by a blood sacrifice, usually a lamb or a goat, though if the parents were poor, two pigeons would suffice. This pointed to the sacrifice that God would ultimately make to redeem us by sending His only-begotten Son to redeem us with His innocent blood. Every point of the Law Jesus kept perfectly for us, down to the purification of His mother, though, of course, she needed no purification for bearing the sinless Son of God, and His own redemption at the price of two pigeons, though He came as God's sacrificial Lamb to redeem the world. But we will save that for February 2nd, at the Presentation of our Lord, when you will hear this Gospel again.
Today, on this sixth day of the twelve days of Christmas, our focus will be on the two senior saints in this passage - Simeon and Anna. Sadly, our youth-oriented culture tends to despise the old and frail. We tend to value energy and excitement over wisdom and experience. We are impoverished for it. There is much to be learned from the wisdom of their experience. You can learn more about marriage by talking to two people who have been married for 50 or 60 years than you can from any book pulled from the shelf. In fact many congregations pair up their newlyweds with a senior couple in the congregation as kind of marriage sponsors. You can learn a great deal about life from those who have lived many years. You can learn much about prayer from those who have prayed a long time. You can learn about patience from those who wait.
Seniors do a great deal of waiting. They wait for buses and taxis and rides. They spend a lot of time in waiting rooms, in which about the only thing you can do is wait. They wait for the mail to come, for family to call, for friends to drop by. Sometimes they wait in vain for people who don't show up, or who get sidetracked by other more urgent matters. If they are sick, they wait for the doctors to diagnose, and the medicines to medicate. Sometimes that wait can be long. The body heals more slowly when you are old. Sometimes things don't heal completely. Some wait to die. Often times our senior saints find that they have outlived their entire families. When one such saint became sick and was completely confined to a hospital bed, she said that she was tired and she wanted to die. She was getting tired of waiting. Another senior saint, who is now with the Lord, once said that the toughest part of the waiting is all the funerals you have to go to.
"I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope," the psalmist prays. Senior saints can teach us a few things about praying that psalm, about waiting on the Lord and trusting in His Word. Simeon and Anna are two people who waited long years on the Lord, whose hope was in His Word. Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die." Simeon and Anna lived under that promise. If we take the time to listen to them we can learn a few things about it means to live in the shadow of death, and to die in the light of life.
St. Luke describes old Simeon as a "righteous and devout" man, meaning that he trusted in God's promise of salvation and lived in that trust. Simeon was a man whose life was governed by the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit was upon him. He had been told by the Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, the Lord's Christ. That was a heavy honor. Imagine what it would be like knowing that you would not die until you saw God's Promise of salvation fulfilled before your own eyes, but not knowing when that would be. 
Year after year went by in the temple, marked by the holy days of the temple liturgy - Yom Kippur, Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Tabernacles. Every day, the morning and evening sacrifices and prayer. Every day Simeon waited and watched. Would today be the day? The evening sacrifice; the morning sacrifice. Another day, nothing. Perhaps tomorrow He will come. More waiting. We don't know how many years Simeon waited, but he must have been quite old. You can hear the relief come from deep within his bones when he sighs, "Now let your servant depart in peace."
Imagine the excitement of old Simeon that day when Mary and Joseph came to the temple with their precious bundle, the newborn Messiah wrapped in a blanket, just 40 days old, and the Holy Spirit brought him to the temple at just the right time so that their paths would cross. Oh, it must have been a marvelous moment when Simeon took that precious bundle in his arms (you grandparents know a little bit of what that's like when you first hold a new grandchild) and hoisted the baby high in the air and sang out his glorious song that echoed all throughout the temple: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word.For mine eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.A Light to lighten the Gentiles,And the Glory of your people Israel.”
It is a joyful song, not a sigh of resignation. Simeon is confident, bold, very much alive. It is Simeon's "deliver us from evil," that the Lord would at last take him from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven. Simeon speaks to God the way a servant speaks to his master who has promised him freedom. "Master," he says, "release your servant now in peace, just like you said you would." He holds God to his promise, trusting that this tiny, poor baby will be His Savior. He trusts God's Word. He lives in the "now" of Christ. He doesn't need anything more than this baby to say, "my eyes have seen your salvation."
What did Simeon's eyes see? Nothing more than the shepherds saw in the manger the night of the birth. Or what the wise men would see a bit later. Simeon saw a baby boy who looked just like any other baby boy. No halos hovering over his head. No chorus of angels singing at his side. All Simeon could see was a squirming infant wrapped in a blanket and his poor parents who had come to do what the Law required of them. But the Spirit of God said, "This One is different. He's the One you've been waiting for." Simeon trusted God's Word. With the tiny baby cradled in his arms, he knew that he could depart in peace. He could die without fear. He had seen God's salvation in the face of this poor and humble Child, and now he could depart in peace. God had kept His promise.
Such high and glorious names Simeon gives this poor infant! He calls Him God's Salvation, the Light of the Gentiles, the Glory of Israel. "Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation." “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” “I bring near my deliverance, it is not far off, and my salvation will not tarry; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory."
Cradled in Simeon's arms is God's salvation, God's devil-crushing victory over sin and death. We are weak, but this Child is our strength. We are filled with darkness, but He is our Light. We are sinful, but He is the sinless One who became sin for us so that in Him we might become God's righteousness. He is Light shining into our darkness, opening the eyes of the blind, opening our eyes to God's love and His desire to save. He is the Glory of Israel, the reason God had an Israel, a chosen people, so that His beloved and chosen Son would be born into the world to suffer and die, to rise and reign.
Simeon must have sounded like an old man gone stark raving mad, calling this tiny baby the Salvation of God and the Glory of Israel. Even Mary and Joseph were amazed at his words. Who would have guessed that such infinitely wonderful things could be said about such a tiny baby? Our saviors are big and strong. Our lights are bright. Our glory is glitter and gold. This Child appears so small and helpless and poor. The enemies around us loom so large - the cancers, the viruses, the violence, the evil, the guilt, the death. It is David and his slingshot versus Goliath and his sword. How can a little Child be strong enough?
Old Simeon is our preacher this morning. "Don't believe your eyes. Trust God's Word. Look to this Child that Mary wrapped in a blanket and brought to the temple. Receive this Child in the empty arms of faith. Hold him as your own, for He has come to be your Light and your Salvation. He is the Glory of God's Israel come down to you. It doesn't matter who you are or what you've done, whether you are good or bad, rich or poor, young or old, married or single. This Child has come to save you, so that you too can depart in peace." 
The Church traditionally sings Simeon's song on two different occasions. We call it the Nunc dimittis, from its first two words in Latin, "Now depart." It is the traditional hymn of Compline, the prayer at the close of the day. Just before we go to sleep at night, we are to pray, "Lord, now let your servant depart in peace." Sleep is a picture of death just as rising in the morning is a picture of the resurrection. If I die before I wake, I know that God's only begotten Child will care for me. "The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?"
Later in history, Simeon's song came into the liturgy of the Lord's Supper. What a perfect place to sing St. Simeon's song of deliverance. We have heard the Word of Christ. "My body given for you; my blood shed for you." He is more present for you here in the Supper than when His little body was cradled in Simeon's arms. Then we sing, "Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your Word." To repeat a clever phrase I heard from a wise Pastor: "We go to the Sacrament as though going to our death, so that we might go to our death as though going to the Sacrament."
Simeon knew the cost. Even at 40 days, the cross casts its shadow over the Child. He was set for the falling and rising of many. Many would stumble over Him in unbelief and fall to their condemnation. Some would look to Him in faith and rise to eternal life. He would be a sign spoken against, despised and rejected, a curse on men's lips. The sword that would pierce His side would also pierce the soul of his mother, as she stood by and watched her Son give His life for the world. Those who bear Christ are not immune to suffering and sorrow in this life. Not Mary, his mother. Not the Church. Not you and me. The cross marks the life of this Child, and it marks all who follow Him. But if we learn one thing from St. Simeon, it is this: Where Christ looks most helpless and weak, there He is most Savior, most Light, most Glory, most Son of God for us - in the manger, in the arms of Simeon, on the cross, in the Sacrament.
There was also a woman named Anna in the temple. She had been married for seven years, and had likely been widowed at the age of 24 or 25. Though she certainly would have been free to marry again and raise a family, Anna instead devoted herself to prayer and fasting, watching and waiting for the coming redemption of Israel. Luke tells us that she was from the tribe of Asher. Asher had been among the wealthiest of the tribes of Israel. Yet Asher's religious history reflected the spiritual sleepiness and indifference that often comes with the life of prosperity. No prophet or judge had come from the tribe of Asher. But now in these last days is St. Anna, a prophetess, a woman who spoke the Word of God with prophetic power. Even the numbers of her life were a prophetic witness to God's grace: She'd been married for a perfect seven years. Now she was 84 years old, seven times twelve. In the seventh twelfth, or the twelfth seven, of her life, she was given to see the Salvation of God, the Glory of Israel.
Her life was now complete. Everything she had hoped for, everything for which she had prayed and fasted and waited was found in this little Child born of Mary. She gave thanks to God and spoke about Him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. She bore witness to Jesus, directing everyone who was looking for the redemption of Jerusalem to Him. There He is! The One in Simeon's arms! He is the One we've all been waiting for. Anna is a picture of the Church - receiving Christ, thanking God, witnessing in the world.
Simeon and Anna. Mary and Joseph. And there in the middle of it all, a tiny 40 day old baby. It is a little congregation. Everyone is represented. The young and the old, the married and the single, the widowed - people who would otherwise have nothing in common are gathered by the Spirit of God around Jesus hidden in humility. People, the likes of you and me, who live in the shadow of death, can, by the grace of this Child in Simeon's arms, die in the light of life. And we too can sing with saints Anna and St. Simeon: Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your Word.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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