December 31, 2017
Preached by Rev. George Yando on December 31, 2017.
What Do You See?
Our Gospel lesson this morning tells a wonderful little story that kind of winds up Luke account of the birth of Jesus. It’s the lesson set to be read on the First Sunday after Christmas, the story of Simeon. It’s perfect for Christmas and for this last Sunday of the year.
The scene is that of an old man holding a baby. Can’t you just picture it? Maybe you saw a similar scene over the holidays. The grand-parents, or maybe great-grand-parents coming for Christmas, wanting especially to be there this year, because they get to see their new grandchild or great-grandchild. Mother hands the baby to her father, or grandfather, the baby’s grandfather or great-grandfather, and there’s that wonderful image: a pair of gnarled old hands cradling a new life, his time-worn face looking down at the little face of innocence staring wide-eyed back at him. It’s a wonderful image, the image the picture Luke paints that draws the story of the birth of Jesus to a close. But why is it there?
Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were careful to observe all of the Jewish laws concerning the birth of babies. They had taken him to the Temple on the eighth day for the rite of circumcision. Then it was back to Bethlehem for another four weeks to await the time for the ritual of purification of the mother after a birth.
The text tells us they made a sacrificial offering of two turtledoves for the purification. The standard offering was a lamb, but the law allowed the giving of a pair of turtledoves if the family was especially poor. Luke includes that little detail as a way of reminding his readers that Jesus identified with the poor, that he had been born into a poor home, to a family who couldn’t afford a lamb for the sacrificial offering at the rite of purification, only a pair of turtledoves.
As they arrive in Jerusalem and walk up the steps to the Temple, an old man confronts them and asks to see the baby. Luke tells it this way: Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel . . . “
Which means he was looking for the Messiah. He had probably stationed himself there at the Temple because of a prophecy in the book of Malachi that said when the Messiah comes he will “suddenly come to His Temple.” Simeon may have been there for years, standing at entrance to the Temple, day after day, waiting, checking out all of the babies that were brought, looking and hoping to see the one for whom he waited.
The Old Testament lesson we read this morning from Isaiah reminds us that the prophets of ancient Israel served two functions. On the one hand, they were spokespersons for God. On the other, they served as intercessors for the people. Not only did they tell the people what God wanted them to hear, they also told God what the people wanted God to hear, which was most often complaints, complaints such as, “When are you going to send the Messiah that you promised?” Isaiah fulfilled this role of advocate for the people when he says, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet.” Isaiah saw himself as a kind of lobbyist, pleading the case of the people before God.
Simeon evidently saw himself as an advocate prophet as well, because, here he was standing daily at the entrance to the Temple, a reminder to God of His promise. Standing there at the top of the steps the way a watchman stands on the wall, scanning the horizon, in Simeon case, “looking for the consolation of Israel.” Spotting Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus, he asks to see the baby. Simeon looks into the face of the baby and sings, “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.”
“The Messiah has come. The Saviour of the World has been born!” That’s how Luke concludes his account of the Christmas story, with the image of an old man announcing, “This is the One we have been waiting for, Israel’s consolation has come.”
Why does Luke tell it that way? Why wait till the end of the story to make this particular announcement, in this way? Some say that Simeon represents old Israel, waiting all these years for the coming of the Messiah. Old Israel is superseded, the way the new year, symbolized by a baby, supersedes the old year, symbolized by Father Time, the old man.
That may have been what Luke had in mind, but historically, it hasn’t turned out that way. Israel is still around, still waiting, as a matter of fact, for the coming of Messiah. And Christianity hasn’t exactly taken over, since there are a lot of non-Christian nations in the world, and even the so-called Christian nations aren’t very Christian. The scene is hardly that of Messianic triumph, the triumph of the new over the old.
This is what I see: I see Luke having to announce that Messiah has come, and he has someone with impeccable credentials do it, someone who knew who he was looking for. Why? Because it wasn’t obvious at all that Messiah had come.
How many people saw it? How many people recognized the birth of Jesus for what it was? The day after Jesus was born, the sun rose as usual to reveal a scene pretty much the same as the day before. The Romans still occupied the land and the Jews were the people who continued to live under occupation. Society hadn’t changed. The rich were still rich and getting richer, the poor were still poor and getting poorer. The sick continued to be sick and the problems that plagued humankind hadn’t disappeared.
Luke must have heard the inevitable question: If Messiah has come, why hasn’t it made a difference yet?” On Christmas Day it is different, if only for a day. People are especially nice to one another, they go out of their way to be decent and helpful, especially to those less fortunate. We can usually count on cease-fires being established in most of the hot spots in the world, and they usually hold, at least for the day. Folks pitch in at various shelters to serve up Turkey dinner for the homeless, and the network news will gather up whatever sentimental vignettes they can find about people being loving to one another. We seem to be able to get it together for twenty-four hours or so, but that’s usually about it. It begs the question, “Why can’t Christmas last all year long?” A good question indeed! The best answer I’ve come up with is, “I guess it just isn’t that kind of a world, at least, not yet. It’s still the kind of world where that hope is seen to be simplistic and naive.
So, has Messiah really come? “Why can’t Christmas last all year long?” If you have ever hoped that the Christmas spirit would last forever, that it would transform the world permanently, then you have an idea of what Israel was waiting for. They were waiting for the transformation of this world into the Kingdom of God. They believed that would happen when Messiah came, everything would be changed, so completely and so dramatically that you couldn’t help but notice and be sure. It would be obvious when Messiah came, make no mistake about it.
Instead Luke tell us that after the annunciations to Mary and to Elizabeth, the visitation to the shepherds, the nativity scene, all the beautiful stories of Christmas, Luke winds up his tale with an old man making the announcement, “This is it. Here’s the One we’ve been waiting for!” Then he sings that beautiful song we now know as the Nunc dimittis, called so because those are the first two words, in Latin, that Simeon speaks, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word for my eyes have seen your salvation.” And this old man ought to know what he’s talking about. After all he’s made a career out of waiting for Messiah.
But Luke recalls Simeon saying something more. You have to read a little farther. The words of the Nunc dimittis are not Simeon’s final word on the matter; he doesn’t leave it with, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Simeon finishes up by saying, “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.” That last word if for Mary. “A sword will pierce your own soul as well.” A reference to the time when her son would grow up, be arrested, tortured, crucified and die. Perhaps also a reference to that moment in her life when he would go on his own, perhaps even rebuking her, by calling his disciples, those who did the will of the Father, “his mother and brothers and sisters.” That rebuke too must have pierced her soul.
But the other word is for us. “This child is set for the falling and rising of many . . .” In the Bible, when a prophet sets something “before the people,” it means that it is now up to the people. The people have to make a choice. The prophets had a way of doing that. They brought things home to the people by asking, “Now what do you think of this? How will you respond? Which path are you going to take? What decision are you going to make?”
Luke, like a prophet, has set the Christmas story before us in just this way. He’s now finished telling it and it’s a beautiful story, and he just sets it right out there before us. It’s not a panacea for our problems. It’s not a magic kingdom. It’s not a supernaturally imposed order from above. It’s not something that is done for us at all. It’s something that challenges us to do something. This child has been set before us. What are we going to do with Him?
He’s not going to solve the problems that you wrestle with, but you can, by following Him. He’s not going to take away the pain that you suffer, but you can bear that pain, redemptively, with His help, by following Him. He’s not going to end the fighting and the suffering and the hardship in this world, but you can, by following Him.
An old man and a baby. Simeon has been waiting and watching and now that he’s seen, he knows. He knows what he’s been waiting for and now he’s seen it and he recognizes it for what it is. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word,” he says, “for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Simeon knows what he’s seen.
But stay with him, because he’s not quite finished. “This child is set for the falling and rising of many . . .” he goes on to say. You know what Simeon is doing when he utters those words? He’s handing that baby to you, putting him in your arms and saying, “Here. You hold him. Look at him and tell me what you see.”
You see, Simeon has made his choice. “My eyes have seen your salvation.” Then he hands the baby to you. He sets this baby before you and says, “Now you’ve got to decide. What do you see?” Amen.