Isaiah 52:7-15, Luke 2:22-35
December 29, 2013
On Christmas eve, I talked about the Shepherds coming to find the Christ child, having heard the announcement given by the angels. I said how that had to be an amazing confirmation for Mary and Joseph of the validity of all that was happening to them.
I think that’s an important thing to consider. Because again, we know these stories. They are as familiar to us as this season we celebrate. And I think it’s very hard for us to imagine what it was like for the people to whom it was happening. It was all new to them, no matter how well they were prepared for it by angels and dreams and prophecies.
Whenever I try to “step back” from my understanding of these stories – from my perspective – it always amazes me how much we take as a matter of course. It’s hard to imagine how any of these people were able to understand or believe what was happening to them. And I think it had to be most difficult for the ones who were at the center of all this, Mary and Joseph! As this unfolded all around them, I have to believe that they felt like they were in the middle of a whirlwind! And I can imagine them, little by little, coming to accept and understand that they were part of something big. I hope today we can understand all that just a little more.
As this passage opens, this peasant girl brings her one week old baby into the Temple. She and Joseph were there to dedicate their first born son to God, which was what their tradition called them to do. To that end, they were about to give their sacrifice and take part in this ancient ritual. And if you think about it, this ceremony reminds us of our own sacrament of Infant Baptism, or perhaps the “Dedication” ceremony in some faiths. For the Jews, this was the time when the child was officially given its name. And we preserve a little part of that, too. Just before our sacrament is administered, just before the baby is baptized, we ask “What is the name of this child?”
So in this story, right before that ceremony was about to begin, this man named Simeon comes forward and takes the baby in his arms. And to the astonishment of all, he gives what amounts to a prophecy over the child. Again, we read this as a matter of course, but to the people listening, there would have been a feeling of discomfort, and maybe even shock and outrage! “Did you hear what he said?”
Again, we can only imagine what Mary and Joseph thought about this. “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace,” Simeon said, “For as you have said, my eyes have now seen your salvation.” That was being said about their son. Despite all the angelic revelations and the miracles they had seen up till now, for their son to be called “God’s salvation” brought this whole thing to a new level! They were part of something big!
But this was bigger than that. Simeon went on to talk about this child as being “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to the people of Israel.” That would be a recurring theme in the life and ministry of Jesus. His message was not to be just for the people of Israel – as they expected – but to all people. They were originally called by God to be “the chosen people.” That part they got. But they were also called to be a “light to the nations.” God chose them to be the instruments by which all people would come to know him. That part they forgot. But here it is again in the earliest days of Jesus’ life. And it came before in what the angel said to the shepherds – which I’m sure they told Mary and Joseph. The angel said the “Good news of great joy will come to all people.” Simeon said that same thing. The days of exclusivism in the people’s faith were to be over. This was now to be as it was meant to be, for “all the people.”
Well, that would be hard for some. Simeon hints of that when he turns to Mary and says, “Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel.” That prophecy would come true, too. People would be divided over Jesus’ message. Many would not accept the inclusion of the Gentiles. The Messiah who preached that was not to have an easy time of it.
Even in the early church, that question would loom! We’ve looked at the book of Acts in recent years, and we’ve seen how the “question of the Gentiles” was one of the huge themes running through that entire book. It was the cause for the first Christian Council in Jerusalem! They would struggle with that for a long time!
The other thing Simeon said was also true of the ministry of Jesus. “The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” The time of exclusivity was over, and now the time of following the rituals and formulas was also! No matter how and when those kinds of things impacted Jesus during his ministry, he always brought the focus back to what was in people’s hearts. And again, that was great for some, but hard for others.
The same is true for us. Matters of the heart are always much more important, and more difficult than matters of “religion.” It’s always easier to “go through the motions” in our faith than it is to search our hearts and see our real need for God’s mercy. Isn’t that true? But that’s what God is interested in. That’s what God has always been interested in! All ritual and practice has always been meant to call attention to what’s in people’s hearts. It has always had the intention of bringing the people’s hearts back to God. We could read scripture after scripture, throughout the Bible, which say just that – in the Old Testament and the New!
Simeon told those things in his prophecy that day. It was a day of confirmation, yes, but it was also a day of controversy! What was ahead for Jesus, and for this family, and for the world, would not be easy! But it would set the stage for all history to follow. Over the centuries, some would get it, others would not. I hope we do! I hope we see this time of Christmas, not just as a time when Jesus came into the world, but as a time when the world would change. God was calling his people to a new level of love and mercy. He was showing them the kind of people he wanted them to be by living that example himself. As it’s been said, the goal of every Christian should be to be like Jesus!
That’s a tall order, isn’t it? But the key is, as Paul said, that we are to grow “from one degree of glory to the next.” We are to grow day by day, little by little, into the image of Christ. And the key to that is making sure we do so! It’s too easy to get stopped along that road, isn’t it? It’s too easy to become content with “where we are now,” and to not bother to “go any further.”
That’s where I’m glad that Christmas falls one week before New Years Day. Because New Years Day is a time for “resolutions.” It is a time when we look back and see where we’ve come, and to look ahead and see where we’re going. It’s a time to take stock of our lives and to resolve to make changes. May this be our resolution, that we will keep moving forward throughout the year along that road of becoming more like Jesus.
Will you do that? It won’t be an easy road. It will call you and challenge you to do things outside your “comfort zone.” It will call you to love and affirm those you might not have considered before. It will call you to make peace with some who you never had any intention of making peace with before. It will call you to search your heart and see how it compares to the heart of God.
That is a tall order. Mary and Joseph were finding out that they were indeed part of something big! And so are we! I hope you have a happy and blessed new year – a new year when you are sure that you are the people of God!
Eternal God, we thank you for your love and mercy to us. And we ask for the New Year that you teach us to have that same love and mercy for others. Help us, as we “run the race set before us” to “look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” May we strive to do what is pleasing in your sight, not ours. For this we pray in our Messiah’s name, Amen.