Text: Luke 2:21-40
Date: Christmas I + Holy Innocents, Martyrs + 12/28/08
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
Did you get what you wanted for Christmas? According to a recent survey 60% of people receiving gifts at Christmas will tend to return or exchange at least one item they received. Most likely gifts to be returned are clothing. Least likely are gifts from children or family. But the long return lines at the stores in the days immediately following Christmas suggest people were somewhat disappointed and did not get what they wanted for Christmas.
The same thing seems to apply to the Church’s annual celebration of Christmas. People, many of whom possibly rarely attend worship services at all the rest of the year, still tend to come out for the annual Christmas pageant out of at least some vague hope they may discover or remember something that seems to have been missing in life lately. There are the old familiar carols and hymns and songs of Christmas that everyone has somehow been able to memorize with only once-a-year rehearsals. Nevertheless, the crowds of Christmas churchgoers seem to quickly disappear as people fail to get or discover anything new that they may have hoped for or wanted at Christmas. Did you get what you hoped for or wanted for Christmas?
Something similar could be said as we hear the history of the first Christmas. On the one hand, did you ever stop and think about all those crowds of people in Bethlehem, filling the reservations in the inn and other guest houses, how they were all completely oblivious and unaware of the momentous event happening just outside the door in a little stable? “Just some poor family that got into town too late to get a room. Oh, and she gave birth to a baby out there? Wow. Too bad.” And yet for shepherds rushing into town they saw nothing less than the Savior and Messiah of Israel. Later, wise men from the east, too, would come and be impressed and worship at the infant’s side. The difference, of course, is faith—faith informed by the Word of God giving direction and explanation.
Today we hear another witness of faith. A man named Simeon who met the 40-day old infant Jesus coming to His temple, taking Him up in his arms and singing of peace and salvation, light and the glory of Israel.
Throughout the Old Testament God had made His presence known, His glory, as when He led Israel out of the slavery of Egypt in the Exodus appearing to them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The glory of God was visible as it dwelt over the ark and the tabernacle and God would lead His people. In Exodus 40 Moses writes:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys (Ex. 40:34-38).
At the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, God took up resident there, the cloud of the glory of the Lord filling the house of the Lord (1 Ki. 8:10-11). In the year 592 bc, however, Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord depart from the temple before it was destroyed (Ezek. 8). After the exile, the second temple was built in Jerusalem, but the glory of the Lord did not fill it because the Most Holy Place was left empty since the ark of the covenant had been lost through the Babylonian conquest. Nevertheless, God promised to fill His temple with even greater glory. He said, “Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts…. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts” (Hag. 2:6-7, 9). It is this promise of the return of the glory, the presence of the Lord to His temple that is coming to fulfillment here as Jesus is brought to the temple with His mother for her purification.
Enter the man named Simeon and his Spirit-inspired canticle, the Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, which is Latin for the first words, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace.” Mary and Joseph are faithful to the commands of the Lord in coming to the temple for the purification sacrifice on the 40th day after the birth of the firstborn son. Simeon was there because he was given the direct revelation of the Holy Spirit “that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” And where else would one expect to see the Lord’s Christ but in the Jerusalem Temple!
Simeon took the child up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.” The word translated “letting” is the word for loosing from and forgiving sins. So Simeon sings of the heart of the Gospel, centered in the Savior. And when we sing these words, we acknowledge the forgiveness of sins we have received by faith in Jesus.
How appropriate it is that Simeon’s song, the Nunc Dimittis, found its home in the liturgy of the Church as words of response to the receiving of forgiveness in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood! For, in an even more intimate way than Simeon holding the infant Jesus in his arms, having received his body and blood in this sacramental meal we sing, “Lord, now you have released us, your servants, from our sins according to your Word and we depart in peace.” Here is what we were hoping and looking for at Christmas, the Lord’s peace and forgiveness.
This is the great thing we celebrate today, namely, how Simeon’s eyes are opened by the Lord’s Word and faith to see God’s salvation in the humility of the forty-day-old Jesus, still wrapped in infant’s clothing. Other eyes will miss what’s really going on because God-given faith is missing. So with us. As Simeon saw with his physical eyes the infant Christ, so we see with our physical eyes the sacramental body and blood of the crucified and risen Christ, and we sing, “for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Other eyes see only a little bread and wine. But faith informed by the Lord’s Word, “This is my body, this is my blood” see the glory of the Lord’s presence and promise for the forgiveness of our sins.
Forgiveness, life and salvation come to you again today. Where the Word of forgiveness and salvation is, there is God to be found—the God of grace and God of glory. Simeon saw, touched and took up the Incarnate Word into his arms and blessed God. We discover that now the Son of God takes us up in His arms and blesses us with His protection, salvation and love. For His arms were stretched out on a cross for the life of the world. His arms still bear the marks of His sacrifice, but glorified now. His arms now reach down to baptize, to absolve, to give Himself in the flesh in the sacrament of the altar, and will receive each one thus prepared in faith in the place He has prepared for us in His eternal kingdom. May we, therefore, sing with as great a joy and faith as Simeon,
Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace;
Your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation
which You have prepared in the sight of ev’ry people:
A light to reveal You to the nations
and the glory of Your people Israel.