I think the first thing we need to do is to catch the atmosphere of this most beautiful and moving passage from Luke. A young couple bring their new baby (just over month old), 60 miles – probably walking most of the way – from Nazareth to Jerusalem to present their first-born, their pride and joy, to God in his most holy place, the Temple. Think of a couple proudly bringing their first baby to baptism here and you will imagine the picture. We don’t know what time of year it was, but always making sure the baby was warm and well wrapped up, and yet no doubt having something smart – probably handed down in the family like a christening robe – to wear for this very special occasion.
Under the Old Testament law, which Luke is careful to emphasise, they had to wait forty days for purposes of ritual purity before the mother would (so to speak) go public, and – under a separate Old Testament Law – the first born son would be dedicated to God. In theory, this meant that the child belonged to God and would spend his life in his service, but in practice the child would then be ‘redeemed’ – or ‘bought back’ – with a sacrifice (Lev 12:8), which would be a lamb for those who could afford it, or two pigeons or doves (as in the case of Mary and Joseph) who could not. It was symbolic, but behind is always the implication that our children really belong to God, and we are given the great responsibility of stewardship in bringing them up and sending them out into the world. This Temple ceremony would be very simple and no doubt routine for the Temple priests, but always special for the parents. How well I remember my own huge emotional pride in bringing our first-born daughter to our church for baptism.
They wouldn’t have expected anyone to take very much notice of them in the throng around the Temple courtyards – it was highly special for them, but not for anyone else – but, to their amazement, two old people pick them out as if by instinct and home in on the baby.
The first is the old man Simeon, who (we read) was righteous and devout, and was waiting for the ‘consolation’ of Israel. That’s a very interesting word to me, and often passed over. What does it mean in this context? What was he waiting for exactly?
He was obviously not one of the young hot-heads – the would-be revolutionaries, looking out for any opportunity to put a knife in the back of a Roman soldier, or trying to whip up a crowd to rebellious fervour.
This word Luke uses, translated here ‘consolation’ of Israel in verse 25 is very interesting. It refers literally to someone who is ‘called alongside’. It’s the same word as John quotes Jesus as using in John 14:16 in reference to the Holy Spirit. There Jesus says he will send down another ‘Comforter’ (AV) or more generally in modern translations ‘Advocate’ (NIV ‘Counsellor’) who will come to our aid. So Simeon sees in this baby the one whom God would send to ‘come alongside’ Israel in its suffering and oppression, not as a military commander, but as someone who comforts the suffering, brings relief to the oppressed, and speaks out on behalf of those who have no voice of their own. It has to me the same connotations as Matthew’s use of the word ‘Emmanuel’ – God is with us – alongside us – God is for us. And, of course, I see here also a reference to Hebrew chapter 2, our first reading (which sits so well with this Gospel reading), where Jesus is described as our ‘brother’ who shares out humanity and (v.18) - because he suffered himself when he was tempted - is able to help those who are being tempted, as we are.
Simeon is prompted by the Holy Spirit to come into the Temple when Mary and Joseph are there. God has promised him that he will not die until he has seen with his own eyes the ‘Lord’s Christ’ or God’s anointed one. Then – seeing Jesus – he takes him in his arms and praises God in the words so familiar to those of us who used to say Evensong – the Nunc Dimittis. Now he can die in peace because his eyes have seen ‘God’s Salvation’ – the Saviour sent by God to his people, and the one who will fulfil the task in which Israel had never succeeded – to be the light of God to the whole world.
Then Simeon blesses the child and turn to address Mary with words of prophecy that hint of suffering to come. Jesus will become a man who stands squarely across our path and whom we cannot avoid. And either we will be attracted to him and embrace him and follow him. Or we will find him an obstacle to our path and want to rid ourselves of him. And as we are compelled to make a decision about him one way or the other, so our inner thoughts and motivations will be revealed, stirring up either loving loyalty, or a road-block which can stir into hatred. Simeon sees in this moment of prophetic insight that
this Saviour, this Anointed One, must become therefore a focus of controversy who will inevitably bring his mother much grief and pain.
His words are immediately reinforced by Anna, who spent every day in prayer, fasting and worship in the Temple area. She comes up to them at that very moment and Luke tells us that she then begins to speak to everyone who will listen that this child would stand at the very focal point of what she calls ‘the redemption of Jerusalem’. The word ‘redemption’ speaks of sacrifice, as does our first reading from Hebrews,(and remember that the reason Mary and Joseph have come to the Temple is to ‘redeem’ – or literally ‘buy back’ Jesus with a sacrifice), but for Anna, everything centres on Jerusalem and especially the Temple where sacrifices were taking place every day. Could this Jesus become the one, great sacrifice which would eclipse all others and atone for the sins of the whole world?
It is such a powerful and human story, and so full of meaning, we have only begun to touch the surface in the time we have. But what can we take from it this morning? I want to suggest that we pause, firstly to look backwards and then to look forwards.
As we reach the end of Epiphany, look back to Christmas for a moment. This baby in the Temple was God coming to share our humanity from birth right through to death. As this passage from Hebrews chapter 2 says, ‘he had to be made like his brothers (and sisters) - (that’s us) - in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest...’ He was born to be, in Simeon’s words our ‘consolation’ – that is, the one who comes alongside to be our advocate before God; our comforter in sorrow; (remember that the word ‘cum-forte’ is Latin and means not someone who just sits and says ‘there, there’ but someone who comes with strength (like a fort) to lift us up out of the pit; our strengthener in temptation and hard times, our counsellor in times of trial, our true and constant friend. This was the baby who was to grow and become strong, and be filled with wisdom and the grace of God. And we thank God this morning for Jesus who is beside us in every experience of life.
And we also today begin to look forward, as we begin our approach to the season of Lent and Good Friday. For this is the baby who is himself to be the sacrifice (Hebrew 2:17) ‘that he might make atonement for the sins of the people’ and win for us forgiveness for the past, and hope and freedom for the future. This supreme sacrifice will not come without great cost – it cost Jesus his life and his Mary terrible grief. So, as we come to Communion, we thank God this morning for Jesus who is to die on the cross to redeem us all, and to be a light to all nations – and today to each one of us.
He stands across our path and brings us up short, just as Simeon predicted, and demands a response. And some will welcome him from the heart and become his loyal followers, and some will find him a road-block to be bull-dozed out of the way. Those two miraculously come together in the spotlight of the cross. But his presence in the world calls for a response from each of us, because (verse 35) he causes the thoughts of our hearts to be revealed. Do we turn out to be those who ‘speak against him’ because he has become a road-block? Or do we embrace him as our light and our salvation? Look back and embrace Jesus as your Brother in full humanity, and look forward and embrace him as your Saviour and your Lord.
1. What feature of this episode do you find most arresting? Why?
2. Why do you think Jesus was ‘destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed?’ (Verses 34,35)
3. Is this still the case? How and why?
4. How does this Gospel passage, read in conjunction with the Epistle Hebrews 2: 14 – end, help us understand better (a) Christmas and (b) Good Friday?