This is my message from Sunday, January 1, 2023.
Here’s the link to Luke 2:21-40.
Consider for a moment our church. It has a long history. It was founded roughly a century and a half ago or so. It has traditions or way of doing things that were formed in the past. Many people have come and gone. Family, friends, and neighbours. The walls and rooms around us hold the memories of many years. Think of the many baptisms. Think of all the Sunday school classes, WMS meetings, and Bible studies. All the committee meetings and worship services.
As a congregation, you’ve experienced joys and disappointments. You’ve endured hardships and celebrated victories. And through it all you’ve worshipped, prayed, and shared fellowship with all kinds of people — with one another. Especially for those of you who have made this church your home for decades and decades, your present day experience of faith, of church community, of what it means to trust God with the whole of your life, is deeply rooted in Temple’s story. Because of your time here, you’ve known God’s presence and provision. You’ve seen God at work in this place. Maybe you met Jesus here and know many others who have. Being a part of this church means being a part of what God is doing in the world.
What does this mean for what you expect or hope from God now?
I’ve always loved our passage, especially the part with Simeon. He was a faithful, prayerful, hopeful man. As our text says, Simeon was looking forward to the consolation of Israel. He had waited all of his life for God to act on his promise to send the Messiah. And he arrives on the scene because according to Jewish law Mary and Joseph are bringing the infant Jesus to the Jerusalem temple for dedication. Like Simeon, Mary and Joseph were obedient Jews. Jesus was a Jew. Following the Mosaic law would be a deeply rooted priority for this family. And Simeon, led by the Spirit, went to the temple at the same time they did. Because at some point before this God had revealed to Simeon that he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s Messiah.
Consider that for a moment. What a gift this was for Simeon! God wasn’t under any obligation to do this for him but in grace chose to do so. So not only was God making good on his promise of the Messiah, but he did so in a way that shows just how much he cares for the individual people waiting for the Messiah. And most importantly what we see here is that what’s happening in and through the arrival of Jesus is deeply rooted in the past, in what God had done before, in the history of Israel–which is the history of God’s redemptive actions in the world.
Simeon is now an old man. He’s well-versed in the Scripture of his people and their history. Listen to Simeon’s song: For my eyes have seen your salvation. You have prepared it in the presence of all peoples–a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel.
Then we have the prophetess Anna. According to the text, she was quite possibly well over a 100 years old. And she was an old Jewish woman, devoted to God, spending her time fasting and praying in the temple. Perhaps she overheard Simeon. Perhaps being a prophetess, God had given her special insight. But she recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Seeing the infant Jesus, she began to speak about him to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. All because all her life she too had been meditating upon and praying for the coming Messiah.
Both Anna and Simeon express the fact that this child Jesus is the culmination of Israel’s story. Witnessing his dedication in the temple, they stand at a crossroads of history.
In other words, In Jesus we see the fulfillment of all God had done in the past. Everything had been leading up to this point, to the coming of Jesus. Indeed, this calls to mind what Paul would write decades later in Galations 4:4-5: But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.
Part of what this means for us is that however God moves or acts in the present, it will be consistent with what he has done in the past. And this is what helps us trust God. It tells us he is faithful. It tells us he is trustwothy and reliable. Who God has been in decades, centuries, and, yes, millenia past is who he is now.
Both Anna and Simeon saw their faithful God at work in the arrival of Jesus. Even though neither of them would live to see Jesus as an adult engaged in his earthly ministry, they recognized him as the one through whom God was acting to deliver Israel.
In Jesus we see the fulfillment of all God had done in the past. The past is important. Because it brings us to the present.
Anna and Simeon’s many years of faithful prayer and service prepared them to recognize Jesus, to see God at work in him. How has your past prepared you to live in the present? To be attentive to God’s activity in the present? Is Christ at the center of our hopes and expectations? What does that mean for our present and even our future? Both as individuals and as a church?
Because when we look at Simeon and Anna, yes, they were both older in years; but they also anticipated with hope and faith what God would do in the future. They were well-aware of their past but not stuck there. They knew God was still active in the present and would continue to be at work in the future.
Reading today’s passage, some might wish that Simeon’s words ended with his song. It’s hopeful and thankful, full of peace and joy. But they do not. Blessing the family, he went on to say to Mary about Jesus: Indeed, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel–and a sword will pierce your own soul–that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
His words here give us pause. They remind us that Jesus was not accepted by most as the Messiah. Instead, he experienced rejection, betrayal, and ultimately crucifixion. And though this was all a part of God’s plan, it still couldn’t have been easy for Mary to hear–a sword will pierce your own soul.
Jesus was God’s promised Messiah; but he was also God! God kept his promise but in a way no one anticipated. God himself came. Israel believed the Messiah would deliver his people. No one thought he would disrupt his people. He was the fulfillment of the old who came to make all things new. But not everyone wanted or welcomed him or what he was doing.
So, yes, he was Israel’s consolation, the redemption of Jerusalem, a light for revelation to the Gentiles. Hope. Just not in the way most people at the time expected or were prepared for. It’s both astonishing and sobering to realize that most of the people at the time did not see God at work in Jesus and did not recognize him as the Messiah. Because here was God both keeping his promise from the past on the one hand, and doing so in a new, surprising way on the other hand.
Some were so locked into a view of how God should work that they were unable–indeed, unwilling–to see God in Jesus. For every Simeon and Anna who said yes to God in Christ, there were more who said no.
You know, we’re funny creatures sometimes. We say that we want God to do something new in our midst. We want to see God at work. The way we often put it is we want revival. I hear this from churches. I hear this at denominational meetings. I’ve heard it at lot. Yet I wonder. Are we like Simeon and Anna, rooted in history but receptive to God’s new actions in the present? Or are we like so many other Israelites at the time, so attached to the past that we’re unable to see what God might be doing now?
It’s worth asking ourselves: If it means seeing God at work and being able to participate in what he’s doing now, are we willing to accept that he might be at work in a new way? Are our hearts and minds open — do we have the ears to hear and the eyes to see what God is doing and what he wants to do? Both Simeon and Anna had a vision of God’s work that extended beyond themselves — back into the distant past and into the future. They knew they were participants in a much larger story. Do we?
And of course we only meet Simeon and Anna because of Jesus. They’re not the main characters in the story — they’re in the supporting cast! Jesus is the star of the story. And if we want to be both rooted in our past, in our history, grateful for all that God has done, and be prepared for what God might be doing now, we have to put Jesus at the center of our story too. The way we live in the present and honour the past is to focus on Christ. He is the center of what God has done, is doing, and will do.
Be grateful for whatever God has done in our past. But pray for an openness to what he is presently doing. And trust that whatever he has in store for our future is good even if it is different from what we’ve known. So let us pray that God will help us in this. Because Christ is — or ought ot be — at the center of what God is doing in our lives and in the life of our church.
And as long as we’re here, God is not done with us. God is not stuck in the past. We don’t have to be either. Remember what Scripture says in Hebrews 13:8: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. The same Jesus in whom you placed your faith in the past is here now. So will we trust him to lead us in the present and into the future?