Read: Luke 2:25-35
The Song that the aged Simeon sang as he held baby Jesus in his arms has served as a parting blessing for believers of all ages ever since.
Christmas may be over, but I’m not ready to leave it just yet. I’d like to listen to one last Christmas song. It’s recorded in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:25-32)
Joseph and Mary, with their new baby boy, have traveled from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to visit the temple. They’ve gone there in order to fulfill the requirements of the Old Testament law. A faithful Jewish family had to perform several religious acts upon the birth of a child, particularly if that child were a first-born male. The primary ritual was the circumcision and naming of the boy. That happened on the eighth day after the birth. Jesus, the name given by the angel, was a name pregnant with meaning. In Hebrew it is Yeshuah, which means, “the Lord is salvation”; Jesus’ name means “Savior.” His name didn’t simply designate him (like any Tom, Dick or Harry), but in and of itself proclaimed his mission in the world.
The law also prescribed a period of purification for the mother: 33 days in the case of a male child, 66 if it were female, during which time the mother was considered to be ritually unclean and needed to be sequestered at home. But at the end of this time the parents were required to go to the Temple to make offerings. For a first-born male money had to be paid in order to redeem the child because the law declared that every first-born male was sacred to the Lord. And finally, the parents had to offer animal sacrifices, a lamb for a thank offering and a bird—a pigeon or a dove—for a sin offering. The law also stated that if a family were too poor to afford a valuable lamb, they were allowed to substitute a second bird for the thank offering.
Happy to Go
So Joseph and Mary come with a poor family’s offering, a pair of birds. As they stand in the temple presenting their child and offering their thanks to God, an aged priest comes forward: Simeon. Simeon had been led there by the Spirit that day, Luke tells us. God had somehow revealed to him that he would not see death until his eyes beheld the Savior of the world, the Messiah of Israel. And then the Spirit somehow showed him that this was the day, and Jesus was the One. So Simeon took the infant in his arms and blessed the Lord and prayed his prayer of thanks, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace.” To Simeon was given one of the greatest gifts anyone could ever receive: at the very end of life to see the fulfillment of his life’s dream, and not only his dream, but the true hope of the whole world.
What are you dreaming for? What would make you able to say, “I can die happy now, I can die in peace. I have realized my fondest ambition. My prayers have been answered.” Last Christmas my mother-in-law came to spend the day with us. She’s 89 now, still doing well. In the afternoon, following our Christmas dinner, she sat in an arm chair holding our granddaughter on her lap, her youngest great-grandchild. Later she said to my wife, “You know, when I was young I used to pray that the Lord would enable me to see my children established in their own homes, that I would live long enough to see them through that stage in life. And now here I am, holding my youngest child’s grand-daughter on my lap.”
How good God is when he gives us the fulfillment of our prayers, when we live to see our dreams come true, and even more than we dreamed of or prayed for. But I think that as we grow older, or at least more spiritually mature, our longings will begin to transcend merely personal desires. If we, like Simeon, are tutored in the School of the Holy Spirit, we will learn to pray for things that are bigger and better than just our own happiness or satisfaction. We will find that we desire more than simply peace and comfort for us and ours. We will increasingly want what Jesus taught us to pray for first: for God to be honored, for his kingdom to come, for his will to be done here on earth as in heaven.
Simeon, Luke tells us, was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” Not just waiting passively, of course, but actively watching, and even more actively praying. Simeon was longing to see the fulfillment of the promises of God, beginning with that most ancient of promises, that the day would dawn when the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head, though the serpent should bruise his heel. That’s what Simeon was praying for and watching for and yearning for as he served in the temple and the days turned into months, and the months into years, and the years into decades, and his life was nearly spent.
And now finally one day here comes this young Jewish family bringing their child in obedience to the requirements of the law. And as he gazes upon the infant Jesus, Simeon knows that he has at last found what he was looking for. Now he can pray, “Lord, let your servant depart in peace.”
How to Die in Peace
Here’s why, Simeon adds: “For my eyes have seen your salvation, a light for the [nations], and for glory to your people Israel.” What does he mean by that? Was Simeon merely giving voice to a kind of narrow, nationalistic hope? When he speaks of glory for the people of Israel is he thinking only about overthrowing the Roman oppressors? Was it political liberation that he longed for? It may have been at least partly that.
This kind of earthly deliverance was surely in the mind and heart of every devout Jew, just as today there are faithful believers in Christ living in North Korea or Iran who long for freedom from oppressive governors. There are many Christians in the world today for whom salvation means not simply going to heaven one day, but also seeing the establishment of a more just and peaceful society here and now right where they’re living. That too is part of what salvation means.
Speaking of Simeon, the 19th century Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte wrote,
Salvation in that day, as in this, had as many meanings as there were men’s minds. Salvation had the very heavenliest of meanings to one and the very earthliest of meanings to another. To one man in the temple that day the salvation of God meant salvation from Caesar. While to another man it meant his salvation from himself.Alexander Whyte
Surely this is right. Perhaps we could go even further and say it wasn’t just other people who had these different hopes or expectations. The desire for various kinds of salvation can exist in one and the same heart: a longing for salvation from Caesar, but even more a longing for salvation from self; a longing for salvation from futility, and pain, from disease, addiction, or death, and also for salvation from the cancer-like sin that spreads its ganglions into every part of our nature. How we long to hold God’s salvation in our arms, and that our eyes, too, would see all the promises of God come true.
What are you longing for? Are you praying that the Lord will enable you to see him, and then enable you to say, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace.” If it’s salvation you truly want, I can tell you that the Lord will give you your prayer. He will grant you that desire.
Falling or Rising
But there’s a dark note at the very end of Simeon’s song. “And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother, ‘Behold this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also)’” (vv. 34-35). Even as a tiny baby the shadow of the cross falls across Jesus. Well would Mary remember these words long years later as she stood by that cross and watched the price that her son had to pay in order to bring light to the nations and salvation to the world. This salvation, this Savior, comes as either good news or bad news to people. He is blessed, but he is also opposed. To some he is the cornerstone, to others, a stumbling block.
So each of us faces a further question. Not just “What are you longing for?” but “What do you make of Jesus Christ?” For your answer to that will determine whether you rise or fall. May God give each of us grace to embrace him, to rejoice that we have seen him with the eyes of faith, and to build our lives upon him today and forever.