Scripture: Luke 2:21-40
The end of the year is usually a time of taking stock. We look back on the year that has passed and we decide whether it’s been a good year or a bad one, or kind of a mixed bag; we think about the important things that have happened, that have changed our lives for better or for worse; we remember what’s happened in the world around us, the shootings and the Nazi rallies and the political drama and the celebrity deaths; and of course we decide what it is that we are going to change about ourselves in the new year.
Over the past couple years I’ve noticed a trend, which is increasingly to want to say good riddance to the old year which has not lived up to our expectations in any number of ways. Maybe this isn’t a trend at all – maybe it’s just human nature, and we are tired, and when it feels like we are drawing to the end of one thing and something new is about to begin, we are just anxious to get on with it, for a sense of newness. But somehow it seems like the despair and longing for a clean slate grows stronger every year, and on Facebook I see people posting good riddance to 2017 and everything it brought with it – as if 2018 will magically be different. And maybe it will.
Since this does seem to be a very human thing, let’s start here. It’s December 31, the last day of 2017; tomorrow is a new page on a new calendar. What parts of 2017, personal or global, are you looking forward to leaving behind? (They can be realistic or not.)
It’s in this context of despair and the longing for new beginnings that I’d like to introduce you to a man named Simeon.
Simeon was a man who believed in a promise that God had made. It was, first of all, a promise that God had made to Israel, and by extension, to the world: that Israel would be restored, that it would be liberated from the oppressive grip of the Roman Empire, that God’s people would once again be free to live as God’s people, ruled by a king from the line of David, experiencing God’s blessings and in turn being a blessing to the world. But it was, second of all, a promise God had made to Simeon, because the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would live to see the Messiah, the one who would accomplish this restoration.
Simeon was, presumably, an old man, who had been waiting for the fulfillment of this promise for a long time. (Luke doesn’t really tell us that – I’m just filling in the gaps. What we know is that Simeon has been waiting, with expectation.) And, presumably, the years have come and gone, and that promise has remained unfulfilled. Each Rosh Hashanah Simeon has reason to bid good riddance to the year that has gone by, that has seemingly only brought more hardship and more oppression and still no one to save God’s people from any of it. And each year Simeon holds out hope, rooted in faith and prayer, that this year might be different from the last.
And while we’re at it I’d like to introduce you to a woman named Anna, who was, in fact, very old. Luke often likes to have male and female counterparts in his stories, and Anna is Simeon’s female counterpart. She, too, is faithful and devout, staying in the Temple courtyard night and day fasting and praying to God. Her prayers, too, Luke leads us to believe, have to do with the “redemption of Jerusalem.” And Anna, the widow, waits; and the years come and the years go, and Jerusalem is no closer to being redeemed, and sometimes redemption seems a lot farther away than it ever has been, but each year, Anna holds out hope rooted in faith and prayer that this year might be different from the last.
And then one year it is.
The Holy Spirit leads Simeon to the Temple that day, where he happens upon a young family, a mother and father and a small several-week-old baby.
There are two things that might be happening here, in accordance with Jewish custom. The first is the ritual cleansing of Mary. When a mother gave birth, she was considered unclean for seven days and then in a state of purification for another 33 days (for a boy) or 66 days (for a girl.) After those 40 or 73 days, she went to the Temple to make an offering of a young lamb and a turtledove or a pigeon – or, in the case of poor families, two turtledoves or two pigeons. (Which does Jesus’ mother offer?) Already, there, we know something about his family.
The second is the redemption of a firstborn son. In remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, in which all firstborn Egyptian sons were killed, Israelites were supposed to dedicate their own firstborn sons to God’s service – or, usually, pay a certain amount to redeem them. Luke mentions this law, but doesn’t say anything more about it – maybe, as some commentaries suggest, because Jesus was not in fact redeemed from God’s service.
Either way, as the Holy Family approaches the Temple to fulfill their obligation as good Jews, Simeon approaches them. And he knows, as takes newborn Jesus in his arms (I do have note that he didn’t ask first) that the promise he has been waiting all these years to see fulfilled – is.
All those years of waiting, all those years of increasing hardship and despair instead of restoration and liberation, and Simeon never gave up hope that God was at work, that God was indeed going to make good on God’s promise, that God was indeed making all things new.
Question: What promises, from God or otherwise, are you waiting to see fulfilled this year? What are you holding out hope for – on a personal or global scale?
When Simeon holds the baby Jesus, he praises God and says these words that sound almost like a hymn. They are sometimes called the Nunc Dimittis, which is the first two words in Latin: Now you can dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” All the waiting is over; the hope and purpose of Simeon’s life has been completed.
Here’s the thing that impresses me about Simeon, though: Jesus is just a baby. And at this point, 40 days into his earthly life, Jesus hasn’t redeemed or restored a thing – at least not visibly in any way, and certainly not in the way Simeon was expecting. Jesus hasn’t freed Israel from Roman rule. Jesus hasn’t taken his place on the Davidic throne. At this point, 40 days into his earthly life, Jesus is still spending most of his time eating, sleeping, and pooping. And somehow this is enough for Simeon to say “Now, God, you can let me go, because my eyes have seen your salvation.”
And then Anna joins in, and she too sees this tiny baby and hears Simeon’s testimony and she, too, praises God and goes off to tell “everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” that this is something they should know about; that their waiting, too, has not been in vain.
And Jesus hasn’t done anything yet.
What kind of faith is that, that makes it enough to just see this baby and believe that God’s promise has come to pass? That makes it so much enough that Simeon can say he’s seen what he came here to see? That Anna can go and tell others? It’s enough because, seeing him, they know now that the rest is unfolding; that it won’t be long now until God’s promise of liberation and restoration comes to fruition. They don’t need to see it all. Seeing one piece of it, remembering and receiving confirmation that God is still at work, is enough.
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but 2018 is probably not going to be the year that we see all of God’s promises fulfilled in their ultimate sense. I could be wrong, of course; maybe Jesus really is getting ready to come back and bring peace and renew creation, and sometimes I hope so. But he didn’t last year, or the year before that.
But God has not left us without signs that God is at work. And even if we don’t get to see the whole promise fulfilled, maybe we can see part of it. Maybe we can see steps toward peace in the world around us. Maybe we can see the arc of history bending ever so slightly toward justice as events play out on the political and social stage in the US. Maybe we can see some small movement toward reconciliation and wholeness in our own lives – even if we’re not quite there yet.
Question: What is giving you hope that God is at work as we transition into this new year?
Luke concludes this part of the story: “When Mary and Joseph 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.” The story, and God’s promise, continues to unfold.
May these things be reason for us to praise God as we flip to that new page on the calendar, to begin the new year in faithful hope, and to say, “My eyes have seen your salvation,” even while we’re still waiting.