Philip Brooks was so overwhelmed by a visit to Bethlehem in 1865 that he penned the lyrics to this familiar Christmas song:
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still
The dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!
As we run to and fro preparing for Christmas we hear this song and many more like it—on the radio while we are stuck in traffic, in the shopping mall’s hustle and bustle, and in the Christmas movies that we watch every year. However, the music that proclaims the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is playing in the background. If we aren’t attentive, if we aren’t listening, we miss the message all together. If our hearts are cluttered with worldly thoughts and self-serving ambition we cannot see the beauty and the glory of God revealed in the birth of the Christ Child.
My own heart is cut to the quick when I consider that the splendor and majesty of the incarnation is so grand that everything else associated with this time of year is mere prattle and trinket in comparison. Our prayer this morning is for God to cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
Today is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent. Our advent series has focused on four pairs of people that we encounter in the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew. In the past three weeks we have talked about Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, the shepherds and magi. Today, we conclude our series by looking at the story of Simeon and Anna. The common denominator of these stories is that when God came to earth in human form, the people to whom God revealed himself and the people who recognized him were not the high and mighty, nor the rich and powerful. The music of God’s word had been playing in the background for centuries through the mouths of the prophets, but those who were occupied with this world missed it completely. Rather God came and revealed himself to the lowly and humble living in submission and obedience to him. He came to the poor in spirit, to the meek, to those hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and to the pure in heart. Simeon and Anna were two people who were pure in heart, and as a result they saw God. Here is the backdrop to their story.
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22-24 TNIV)
Joseph and Mary came to Jerusalem for two reasons, for Mary to receive the rite of purification and to consecrate their firstborn son to the Lord. They didn’t necessarily have to go to Jerusalem, but they were close by and stopped before returning home to Galilee. “The Law” is mentioned three times and “the Lord” is mentioned four times, thus highlighting the fact that Joseph and Mary were living in humble obedience to God’s word.
According to Leviticus 12, a woman became ceremonially unclean after childbirth. If she had a son she would be ceremonially unclean for seven days. On the eighth day the boy would be circumcised (as Luke records in verse 21). Then she would have to wait thirty-three days to be purified. If a woman had a girl the amount of time would be doubled. (Don’t ask me why it is different.) When the days of purification were over the mother would offer a sacrifice, a lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. If she could not afford a lamb, then she could bring two doves or two young pigeons. Then the woman would be clean. The fact that Joseph and Mary brought two birds indicates they were poor.
The Law also required that a firstborn son be consecrated to the Lord. This was the Lord’s word in Exodus 13, when Israel was brought out of slavery from Egypt. It was a reminder that Pharaoh’s stubborn heart had led to the death of every firstborn person and animal except for those who had been passed over through the blood of a lamb. The firstborn were set apart to serve the Lord.
Later, according to Numbers 18, every firstborn son was presented to the Lord and redeemed from priestly service for the price of five shekels. The redemption price was used to support the priesthood. We hear echoes of Samuel, whom Hannah promised to give to the Lord for all his days. Luke fails to mention the purchase price, but we see that everything happened to Jesus according to the Law. He was a Jew under the Law so that he could redeem those under the Law.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms
and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is 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. 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 very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then had been a widow for eighty–four years. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.(Luke 2:22–38 TNIV)
Imagine the scene: Jerusalem was a very busy place and the temple would be quite crowded. There is nothing remarkable about Joseph and Mary. They appear as a plain, obscure, simple, poor couple carrying a child. The shepherds had not posted the arrival of the Christ on Facebook or Twitter. Joseph and Mary didn’t have a fancy jogging stroller. Jesus wasn’t dressed in Baby Gap. The baby might have been squirming or in need of a fresh diaper. He may have just burped up some of his last meal or been squealing because he was hungry.
And yet there were two people who had been paying attention to the background music and they were able to see and know that this was no ordinary child. This was the child who would fulfill God’s promises to his people and to the entire world. This encounter was so remarkable that despite all that Joseph and Mary had witnessed and experienced—visits from angels, a virgin birth, a shining star, gifts from magi—they were still filled with wonder and amazement.
We don’t know very much about Simeon and Anna. We presume Simeon is elderly since he is ready to die. Luke tells us that he is righteous and devout. “Righteous” and “blameless” had been the adjectives Luke used to describe Zechariah and Elizabeth. Anna is an old woman. She had been married for seven years but has been a widow for a very long time. We can read the text to mean that she was either 84 years old or that she was a widow for 84 years, meaning that she was around 105. Luke tells us that Anna is a prophetess and provides us with information on her lineage. Even though Asher was one of the ten tribes wiped out by Assyria, her heritage with the people of God was important to her and to Luke. Luke also tells us that she was present at the temple day and night, worshipping God by fasting and praying. I have a picture of Mother Teresa in my mind.
Joseph and Mary are young, married. They have their whole life ahead of them. But Simeon and Anna are old, single, and alone. They are at the other end of things. As T.S. Eliot says in his poem A Song for Simeon they have “no tomorrow.” Old people like Simeon and Anna are passed over in our society. We don’t give them much regard. We get irritated because they drive too slow or take a long time to cross the street. But Simeon and Anna are in on the action, they are in the know, they have a front row seat to the greatest show on earth – God’s human entrance at the temple in Jerusalem. The priests, the professionals doing spiritual work, didn’t hear the music. But Simeon and Anna had eyes to see Israel’s consolation and redeemer. In the heart of a busy temple area these four adults and a baby have a surprise rendezvous arranged by God.
Rembrandt was so taken with this scene that he painted it eight times and used his own mother as the model for Anna. Early in his life he painted with a macro lens, including the temple in the scene. But later in life he zoomed in on Simeon and Anna. At the time of his death, an unfinished portrait of Simeon was found in his studio.
Now let’s add in a few more details about Simeon. We see in the text that Simeon and the Holy Spirit are well acquainted. The Spirit is mentioned three times to balance the threefold mention of the Law in verses 22–24. First, the Spirit was upon him. This was very rare prior to Pentecost. In the Old Testament, the Spirit came upon a person for special purposes but not as a permanent resident. Second, the Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he saw the Messiah. Third, the Spirit directed Simeon into the temple area at the exact moment that Mary and Joseph arrived.
The text tells us that Simeon was looking for, waiting for the consolation of Israel. This is another way of saying that he was looking for the Messiah, the one who according to Isaiah would comfort his people. This was our Scripture reading this morning from Isaiah 52:
Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem. (Isaiah 52:9 TNIV)
God spoke to his people in Babylonian exile of good news proclaiming the promise of one who would bring comfort from oppression and restoration to Jerusalem. But even though the Jews had returned to their land they continued to be oppressed by different nations. Israel was still waiting for the one who would set them free. Simeon had been watching and waiting with eager anticipation because he had God’s assurance that he would not die until the Messiah came.
Simeon reminds of me of the movie, The Bucket List. The story is about two men with terminal cancer who make a list of all the things they want to do before they die, before they kick the bucket. Thus they embark on a series of wild adventures. Simeon had a bucket list, but with only one item. The only thing he desired was to see the Messiah before he died.
Simeon offers two blessings, one to the Lord and one to Joseph and Mary. The first blessing occurs when he lays his eyes upon baby Jesus and takes him in his arms. The blessing he utters is the fourth song or praise that we find in Luke’s birth narrative, called the Nunc Dimittis, the Latin words for the first two words in the text, “now dismiss” or “now release.” The Magnificat, the Benedictus, the Gloria, and the Nunc Dimittis form the basis for a rich storehouse of Advent worship.
Simeon proclaims that he can now die in peace because he has seen the salvation of the Lord. He is now released from his vigil. He can check off the one item in his bucket list. God’s promised Messiah has come, the one who would bring light to the Gentiles and glory to Israel. Our Advent reading this morning from Isaiah 60 speaks of this light and glory:
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:1–3 TNIV)
Light is the appropriate metaphor for the Gentiles who lived in darkness, outside the circle of God’s people and God’s word. Glory is appropriately matched with Israel because God’s glory was often manifested in Israel’s story: God’s glory, his presence dwelling amidst his people. God’s salvation has come to all people. Simeon has waited, God’s word has been fulfilled, the servant has served his Sovereign Lord well, and now he can die.
When Anna comes onto the scene, she too, like Simeon, recognizes the identity of Jesus. She breaks out in praise and then begins to tell everyone who had been looking that the redemption of Israel has arrived. The word for “looking forward” in verse 38 is the same as Simeon’s “waiting” in verse 25.
Luke is making it clear that many people, not just Simeon and Anna, were looking for, anticipating the arrival of God’s Messiah.
What are you waiting and looking for with eager expectation? Many children, certainly not all, have incredible anticipation for Christmas morning. They wait, not so patiently counting down the advent calendar, anticipating the arrival of family, and eating the homemade Christmas delights. It is hard for them to fall asleep on Christmas Eve and they wake you at an untimely hour. As we grow older we set our sights on other things – the university we might attend, the career we will embark on, the person we will marry, the arrival of children, our financial ship to come in, places to visit, and hundreds of other things.
But as we grow into our waning years, one by one these things seem to fade away. I am beginning to see this more clearly. Maybe we have done some of the things we wanted, but it no longer matters. Our health begins to fade and gradually we come to realize like Simeon and Anna that there will come a day when there is no tomorrow.
Liz and I have some elderly neighbors with whom we have gotten involved. Bob, who is 94, went to the hospital three months ago in dire need of medical attention, and then was transferred to a care facility. A couple of weeks later Amelia fell, broke her hip, and joined Bob in the care facility – roommates once again. Liz and I have collected their mail and visited them often. They have been on a vigil, looking and waiting for the time when they could return home. Miraculously, that happened three days ago. But now I wonder what they will long for. What do any of us long for, look forward to? For those like Simeon and Anna who have been trained to listen to the background music, we can live with the one supreme longing that causes our eyes to twinkle and our hearts to be warmed—to be dismissed in peace and see the Lord.
Simeon had a second blessing, this one for Joseph and Mary. We are not told what he said. But then he spoke a sobering, prophetic word that revealed the future to Mary. He said four things. First, Jesus will “cause the falling and rising of many in Israel.” Some will receive Jesus and be raised up, resurrected. For others Jesus will become “a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall” (Is. 8:14; 28:16; Luke 20:17-18; Romans 9:33: 1 Peter 2:6-8). Second, Jesus will be “a sign that will be spoken against.” He will be rejected and opposed. He will face the hatred of the world. Third, in response to Jesus “the thoughts of many will be revealed.” Jesus will force a response, causing the inner thoughts and decisions of men and women to be revealed, illuminated, and brought out into the open. And finally, a sword will pierce Mary’s soul. Mary will suffer great sorrow as she watches her son opposed, rejected, and crucified. There will be no consolation for Israel without suffering.
This can be a word for us too, especially at Christmas. Many of us have unrealistic expectations of a perfect holiday. We want complete and trouble-free joy. However, that rarely happens. In the midst of the laughter and celebrations there are things that also bring sorrow and sadness to our heart – the loss of a loved one or estranged family members. For some, Christmas is the most depressing time of year. Joy and pain are blended together as they were for Mary. Just as Jesus suffered, so we will, one way or another. But the Scriptures tell us to see our suffering in the light of Jesus’ sufferings. Christ’s sufferings are our sufferings. Christ’s resurrection is our salvation. What truly gives us joy at Christmas and every other time of year is that the Lord’s salvation has come.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Simeon and Anna were two obscure, humble people with pure hearts,—hearts directed in devotion to God. As a result, in the midst of ordinary life, in a place teeming with people, at a time when God’s people lived under the oppression of a foreign power, their eyes beheld the Lord. In the most well known Rembrandt painting we might notice that Simeon’s eyes are closed while Jesus’ eyes are open. Simeon had learned to see with the eyes of his heart.
The promise that Jesus makes in Matthew 5 is available to each and every one of us. You do not need a degree in theology. You don’t need more knowledge. God is everywhere around us, working in the ordinary, obscure moments of each and every day. The story of Simeon and Anna encourages us to pay attention to the background music, to listen to the Holy Spirit and see God at work in our lives and in the lives of others. How does our heart become pure? We allow God to strip away all our earthly attachments, leaving only the one supreme longing, and allow the Holy Spirit access to the deep places in our soul, giving us clear vision. Pure hearts and the Holy Spirit can open our eyes to a whole new world.
Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22 TNIV).
I heard a song by George Strait this week on the radio entitled I Saw God Today. The chorus goes like this:
I’ve been to church
I’ve read the book
I know He’s here, but I don’t look
near as often as I should
Yeah, I know I should
His fingerprints are everywhere
I’d just slow down to stop and stare
opened my eyes and man I swear
I saw God today
Simeon and Anna could have written that song. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man well acquainted with grief wrote:
Advent creates new men and women. Look up, you whose eyes are fixed on this earth, you who are captivated by the events and changes on the surface of this earth. Look up, you who turned away from heaven to this ground because you had become disillusioned.
Look up, you whose eyes are laden with tears, you who mourn the loss of all that the earth has snatched away. Look up, you who cannot lift up your eyes because you are so laden with guilt. ‘Look up, your redemption is drawing near.’ … God will come, Jesus will take possession of you and you will be redeemed people.1
What a joy it is to behold God’s salvation in Christ and to wait eagerly for him to come again and take us home. Joy to the World, the Lord has come.
Lord, allow your servants to go in peace. We have experienced your salvation that you had promised, fulfilled, and now offer to everyone. Give us pure hearts and spiritual eyes in order to see you and serve you until you come again. Amen.
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as quoted in A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God (Upper Room Books, Nashville,2003), 44-45.
© 2010 Peninsula Bible Church Cupertino