27 December 2015

Sermon – “Simeon’s Song” (Luke 2:25-35)

Allow me to begin by saying with what a great sense of privilege it is that I come before you at All Nations this morning. My wife Karen and I have been worshiping here only a few short weeks after resettling in Halifax and your pastor and elders have entrusted me with what I regard as a sacred responsibility—to open the word of God with you so that together we may hear him speak to us and to our lives today. I hope that by his grace and power I can in some small way live up to that calling in the next few minutes this morning. And so let us begin by praying together… 
God, the Father of lights, by the entrance of your word you give light to our souls: Grant to us the spirit of wisdom and understanding; that being taught by you in holy Scripture, we may receive with faith the words of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I don’t know if any of you have had your radios on this morning. If you did, you might have noticed a distinct change in the music. Those Christmas tunes that have been blaring at us for weeks have suddenly stopped. No more rockin’ around the Christmas tree, no more chestnuts roasting on that open fire, no more holly, jolly Christmas, no more mommy kissing Santa Claus… All the anticipation that led up to that magical day has vanished for another year and tomorrow morning for many of us it will be back to work as usual.
For the rest of the world Christmas ended on December 25th. For the church, however, December 25th is only the first of twelve days of Christmas. And there are some who maintain a tradition of a forty-day Christmas season, leading all the way to February 2nd. And that is exactly the locus of the reading from Luke’s gospel this morning.
It is forty days after Jesus’ birth and Joseph and Mary have come to the Temple in Jerusalem to do what the Law required of them. In the books of Exodus and Leviticus there were two separate regulations regarding the birth of a child. One was that the first-born male in any family was to be consecrated to the Lord, as a remembrance of how the first-born males of Egypt had perished before the Israelites gained their freedom (Exodus 13:11-15). The other was that a woman was considered ritually unclean for forty days following the delivery of a child. At the end of that period she was to come to the priest with an offering of a one-year-old lamb and a young pigeon or a dove. The law also provided that if she was too poor to afford a lamb, she could offer two pigeons (Leviticus 12:1-8).
These Old Testament regulations form the context of our passage from Luke. Mary and Joseph have come to satisfy those two conditions of the Law: to consecrate their newborn son to the Lord and to make the offering required on behalf of Mary.
What Luke has given us in just three verses is a wonderful and touching picture of their faithfulness—a quality we have seen in both of them since we were first introduced to them at the outset of the gospel story. Certainly one of the themes that come through strongly in Mary’s story (and there are many) is faithfulness, beginning with her response to the angel announcing that she was to give birth to the Saviour, the Son of the Most High. Do you remember what she said on that occasion? “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” And her profound hymn, which she sang to her cousin Elizabeth and which Pastor Dave preached about a week ago in Advent, gives eloquent voice to her deeply rooted faith in God.
Joseph’s story on the other hand is found mainly in Matthew’s gospel and it too is a testimony of faithfulness—not least in his decision to go ahead and take Mary as his wife in spite of the fact that she was pregnant and he had had nothing to do with it. So now we find this couple continuing in that pattern of faithfulness as they come to present the offering prescribed in the Law.

The faithfulness of Simeon

It is at this point that a third character enters the picture: Simeon. And in Simeon the Bible gives us a third example of faithfulness. In our NIV Bibles he is described as “righteous and devout”. Frankly I find it hard to think of two more misunderstood words in the world today. I suspect when most people think of a righteous person, they think “self-righteous”. What pops into their minds is someone who is “holier than thou”. And to be devout isn’t much better. For many people it is just one step removed from being a fanatic. But neither of those things is what Simeon was. I think J.B. Phillips came closest to what Luke intended when he described Simeon as “an upright man, devoted to the service of God”.
Even more than that, Luke tells us, “He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him”. Can you remember when you were a child, longing for Christmas to come, so that you could dig under the Christmas tree and open your gifts? We don’t know how long Simeon had been waiting, but I suspect it was a very long time, not days or weeks or months or even years, but perhaps decades. God had given him a special revelation that he would not die before he had set his eyes on the promised Messiah. In my mind’s eye I can imagine him coming into the Temple precincts day after day, praying that this might at last be the day.
Then, out of the corner of his eye he sees a couple with their tiny baby. And something tells him that this child is the one. Had he had any inkling that the Messiah was to be a child? And what made him so sure that among all the people jostling through the Temple courts that this was the one? Luke doesn’t bother to tell us how he knew—the Bible is so often tantalizingly silent on those details—only that Simeon was moved by the Holy Spirit. And so as quickly as his old bones would move him, Simeon made his way over to Joseph and Mary, took the baby into his arms and began to praise God. I can imagine tears of joy flowing down his cheeks as he cried aloud,
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
      you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
      and the glory of your people Israel.
It doesn’t come across in any English translation, but the word with which Simeon addressed God in his song is almost unique in the New Testament. The usual word for “Lord” is kyrios and you will find it more than six hundred times. The word Simeon uses is despotes and you will find it used of God only three times. Elsewhere the word refers to slave-owners, who have absolute authority over their slaves. So it is that in the next line Simeon refers to himself as a slave, for that is what the word “servant” literally means. Thus we see in Simeon a man who has totally and utterly devoted himself to God, one who has laid himself before God as a servant and a slave, whose only desire is to serve him. Now all those years of faithful service, of prayer and patient expectation, have been fulfilled.

The rewards of faithfulness

In those few fleeting moments with the Christ child in his arms, God had rewarded Simeon for all those years of faithful waiting. Now at last he could know true peace, that beautiful shalom, of which the Old Testament gives us so many pictures, such as these words from Isaiah:
‘No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
     or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
     so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
     the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain,
     nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
     they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
     while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
     and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
     and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
     on all my holy mountain,’
says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:22-25)
Simeon’s words also echo those of Job who, after he had lost his wealth, his children and finally his health, still remained faithful to God. “My eyes have seen your salvation,” cries Simeon. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,” declared Job after his sufferings had ended and he stood before the Lord, “but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5).
There is a promise that runs through the Bible that our faithfulness to God will be rewarded, that it does not go unrecognized—not always in this life, as was Simeon’s privilege, but most certainly in the age to come. To the prophet Jeremiah God spoke these words: “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (Jeremiah 17:10). “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters,” writes the apostle Paul in the New Testament, “stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). “Look, I am coming soon!” declares the risen, glorified Lord Jesus in almost the last words of the Bible. “My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done” (Revelation 22:12).

The faithfulness of God

In Simeon and his song we have a wonderful example of faithfulness. Yet we would do both him and the Lord whom he served an incalculable injustice if we were to stop there. For the far greater reality that filled Simeon’s heart and caused it to overflow was the faithfulness of God. In his arms he held the confirmation of all of God’s promises. God, who had faithfully shepherded and guided his people from the calling of Abraham to the crossing of the Red Sea to the conquering of the Promised Land, through the reigns of kings good and bad, through times of disobedience and rebellion, through captivity in Babylon, had now come to his people in the person of this tiny baby. The sun that had long lain hidden beneath the horizon had finally begun to spread its rays across the sky, to bring its light not only to the people of Israel but to all the world.
Yet light inevitably casts shadows. As he gently returned the child Messiah to his mother’s arms, Simeon spoke more foreboding words, dark words about the falling and rising of many, about the child becoming a sign to be spoken against, about a sword that would pierce Mary’s soul. It is in those words that we discover that the faithfulness of God leads us not only to the birth of the Christ child, but also to his death. For in Christ we have a God who not only fulfils his promises, but whose faithfulness led him to the cross, to go to the very death for you and for me.
Our faithfulness (or perhaps I should say my faithfulness) is intermittent at best. Jesus is the friend who sticks closer than a brother, whose faithfulness has led him to take even sin, our death, upon himself. If we are to be faithful like Simeon, or like Mary and Joseph, it will be because we have a God who has first been faithful to us. The one who was held in Simeon’s arms now holds us in his, with hands scarred by nails—and we can be sure that he will never let us go.