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Our biblical narrative for this first Sunday after Christmas focuses on two elderly members
of the community of faith – Simeon and Anna. You and I know Simeon and Anna…
In the text, they are presented as the personification of the faithful, the pious, of Israel in the first century;
but they also personify the faithful of the Church in every age.
Simeon is like the friendly, prayerful man who shakes your hand
as he offers you a bulletin every Sunday morning.
He cares about you, and about the work of the Church.
He is interested in national affairs, and hopeful that the world will, by God’s grace,
become a better place for all.
This man trusts in the power of the Holy Spirit, because he has witnessed the Spirit’s work in his life.
He has known both joy and sadness in his life,
and the Spirit has sustained him through the years.
If truth be told, he is expecting God to show up any day now, to bring light to those who cannot see,
to guide those who dwell in darkness into a bright and new life.
We know Anna as well.
Anna is the like the nice older lady who sits behind you in worship.
She’s always present, always helpful, always caring for someone else.
Her husband died long ago, and, in truth, she has been married to the Church for most of her years.
She lives simply and prays deeply.
She knows the Scriptures and lives its principles. She has a heart of gold.
She can be trusted to do what is best and say what is most helpful to others.
Luke, the physician, who sets out to write an orderly account of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth,
reports to us that the righteous Simeon has been “waiting for the consolation of Israel”.
The prayerful Anna has been “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
They call to mind a later character in the narrative, Joseph of Arimethea,
that “good and upright man” who took Jesus’ body from the cross
and provided a decent burial in a nearby tomb.
Joseph, Luke reports, had been “waiting for the kingdom of God”.
Hear the Word of God from the second chapter of Luke, Luke 2:22-40:
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “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.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “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.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
As I have stated several times recently,
times and circumstances have changed greatly over the millennia,
but the basic needs and desires of people have not changed all that much.
We still long for someone to save us, because we cannot save ourselves.
We still watch for the Messiah, for the One who will make human life more just and bearable for all.
We still hope for a light to shine upon all who dwell in darkness, guiding them to hope and truth.
We still long for God’s shalom, peace and wholeness and wellness, to abide –
in places like Jerusalem and South Sudan and Syria, and in our own homes and businesses.
According to the narrative in Luke, when Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the Temple
about 40 days after his birth for the ceremony of consecration of the firstborn son, they met Simeon.
Simeon was a devout Jew who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death
until he had seen the Messiah. When Simeon laid his eyes upon the baby Jesus,
he took the child into his arms, praised God in heaven,
and then offered a pair of blessings to the young couple.
Rooted in the prophesies of Isaiah, Simeon responds to the child’s presence
with what has been called the Nunc dimittis, also called the Song of Simeon.
This canticle, or hymn, placed in the second chapter of Luke,
is named after the first words in Latin, which mean “Now you dismiss”.
Ever since the 4th century, at least, this song has been included in evening worship services,
such as Vespers or Evensong.
Both the Magnificat, from the mouth of Mary, and the Nunc dimittis, from Simeon,
are often sung during the Anglican service of Evening Prayer.
In many Lutheran orders of service, the Nunc Dimittis is sung after receiving communion.
Why have these texts been so meaningful to the Church over so many centuries?
When we hear Simeon’s song, we hear common human longing and hopefulness.
We hear affirmation that God is still at work in the world on behalf of human need.
We hear that our experience of the risen Jesus Christ is connected with the larger story of humankind
across all the generations.
Now you can dismiss your servant in peace, Simeon proclaims,
for I have seen what I have been waiting for…
For what have we been waiting? For what or for whom do our souls long?
In what circumstances, would we cry out to God, “Now, O Lord, now, I can die in peace?
Consider the influence of the Temple among the people of Israel in the first century.
Herod had rebuilt the Temple to make it even more glorious than the Temple built by Solomon.
It had taken 50 years to rebuild it. “It was magnificent beyond words.”
The dome was covered by pure gold leaf, like Georgia’s state capital building, but far more grand.
“The altar was glittering and majestic. It was the center of hope for Jewish people throughout the world.”
(Donald Miller, The Gospel According to Luke, page 39)
But Simeon knew the prophecies that the locus of God’s presence on earth
would no longer be bound to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Simeon knew the prophecies that a child born poor would bring comfort to all who mourn,
and would bring a crisis of belief to the world.
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,” he proclaimed,
“and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—
and (Mary) a sword will pierce your own soul as well.”
Simeon’s blessing to Mary and Joseph introduces a crisis.
To this point, the birth of Jesus has been all joy.
But Simeon foretells the conflict that will come.
The saving action of God in Jesus Christ calls for a response, a decision.
Many will reject him. Many will speak against him. The inner motives of many will be revealed.
And tragedy will follow for the young mother, for, as Simeon implied,
the shadow of the cross appears early in Luke’s gospel.
All of this begs the question for us: To whom will we look for our salvation?
To what do we look for the redemption of the world?
I imagine that on this New Year’s Eve, and on New Year’s Day tomorrow,
some of us will enjoy the entertainment from the television.
There are some wonderful football games to be played over the next two days.
But our lives do not depend on football. Whether our team wins or loses
will not make that much difference in our lives, though it may feel like it at the moment.
The team for whom we cheer has little if anything to do with our salvation,
or with the redemption of the world.
Consider the power and influence of Rome in the first century.
Rome’s arenas hosted sport of various kinds, much to the enjoyment of local citizens,
not too unlike the events in our stadiums today.
As I said earlier, people have not changed that much over time.
The borders of the Roman Empire stretched across the known world.
Rome consolidated its power, built roads to connect its subjects and its commerce,
established a common language, the koine Greek, united governance over disparate peoples.
Simeon and Anna proclaim that this baby born in Bethlehem will usurp all that power and authority,
will eventually overwhelm all that military might and governmental monopoly.
This is astounding prophesy!
God’s representative on earth, the one to bring about God’s will,
will not be the one that sits on a throne in Rome,
nor in some monarch’s palace, but will be the one at work among the common people.
God will be at work among poor young families who cannot find a room in an inn on Christmas Eve.
God will be at work among faithful women who show up every time the doors are open for worship.
God will be at work among pious men who pray for the shalom of the world.
Salvation will lie not in earthly powers and parties,
not in the well-made plans of princes and principalities,
but salvation will come in a child born in Bethlehem.
Salvation will come in the One who heals the sick and cures the lame,
who speaks truth to power and proclaims freedom for the oppressed.
Anna prophesied that the child born would become the One who would redeem Jerusalem.
As astounding as was the news then and is now: Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.
The presence of God would be found not in the grand Temple, but in the person of Jesus.
The Temple was utterly destroyed in 70 a.d., but the good news of Jesus continued.
Something could happen to this wonderfully renovated facility, God forbid,
but the good news of Jesus would continue.
When we baptize children at this font, we ask the parents:
“Will you look to the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation, as you do your own?”
After all these years, young parents still look to Jesus for help and for hope.
After all these generations, after the Temple is long gone, after the Roman Empire long ago faded,
the old and the young still turn to Jesus for the light of revelation, for the truth which sets us free.
The Church of today turns to Jesus for forgiveness for the sins which weigh heavy upon our hearts.
We turn to him and pray for the world to be set right, for him to bring some order out of the chaos.
We turn to him for comfort in our sorrow and consolation for all who suffer.
Friends, in this New Year, may Simeon and Anna be models for us.
May we, like them, resolve to wait upon the Lord,
for those who wait upon the Lord will find their strength renewed like eagle’s.
May we, like them, resolve to look for the Lord’s salvation,
for those who look for the Lord’s salvation will not be disappointed.
May we, like them, resolve to watch for the coming of the kingdom of heaven,
for those watch for it learn to participate in it,
and those who participate in the kingdom of heaven find themselves in the very presence of the Messiah,
the Lord Jesus Christ, who is being born among us, once again, this very day.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
December 31, 2017
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
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Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
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