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Eighteen years ago I was given a very special opportunity: the opportunity to preach in the local church in which I had grown up, from whose youth fellowship I had graduated more than twenty-seven years earlier.
And I couldn't help but recall the experience of another preacher, of about two thousand years ago, who went home and wasn't particularly well received.
According to the thirteenth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, this preacher, coming to his own country, taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?
“Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?" And they took offense at him."
And I suspect that if it were possible to ask Jesus about that experience, he might take me aside and say, "John, there are three nevers in this preaching business. Never let them know who you are. Never let them know that YOU know anything.
“But finally, never, never let them see you as one who has moved beyond his circumstances." And then he would smile slyly, knowing full well that HE had violated all the nevers. And also knowing that it was not possible to do otherwise.
But then, Jesus didn't have a whole lot of luck with so-called holy places. On his arrival in Jerusalem, for the last week of his earthly life, we learn from the twenty-first chapter of the gospel according the Matthew that he entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and seats of those who sold pigeons.
But let's face it. Jesus was a trouble-maker. And we have clues of this very early in his life. In fact, the first time he shows up in the temple, as a mere babe in Mary's arms, he begins his long career as a trouble-maker.
The reason Jesus was in the temple was for the fulfillment of the rite of purification. According to the Mosaic law, as spelled out in the twelfth chapter of Leviticus, "If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean.
“On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.
“When the days of her purification are completed, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering; and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering.
“He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child.
“If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean."
So actually, this visitation would appear to have more to do with Mary than with Jesus. But as it turns out, Jesus truly becomes the star attraction, and not because of anything that he does.
"For there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.
“It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple...."
And right about here I think we need to ask some questions. Was Simeon really necessary to the gospel story? Why was Simeon necessary? Wouldn't we be just as well off without him in the story? After all, we've had the birth and the stable scene and the angels and the visitors and all that stuff; so why can't we just skip over this stuff and get on to the adult ministry of Jesus?
Well, for one thing, I think God wanted to reassure Mary and Joseph. God wanted to provide further confirmation of who this child was. But not only are Mary and Joseph reassured; we also, you and I, are reassured.
The miracle of the gift was not isolated in the stable. Christmas is over only for those who do not understand the miracle of the gift.
But another consideration. Simeon is a representative for each of us in the twenty-eighth verse of the second chapter of Luke.
"...and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God."
Just as in our infant baptism, when a small child is recognized as a member of the community of faith, so Jesus became a member of all of us when Simeon held him. And when Simeon gave thanksgiving to God for the Messiah, he was speaking on our behalf.
But when Simeon prays, "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word," it is tempting to quickly interpret this as meaning, "OK, you've kept your part of the bargain, and now I'm prepared for death."
But to me that smacks too much of resignation. Rather, when I hear Simeon speaking of dismissing in peace, I hear celebration! This is not the closing of an agreement, but rather the opening up of God through the granting of God's greatest gift. Simeon has confirmed, for himself and for us, that the long-awaited gift was worth waiting for.
And he goes on to pray, "for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples," and we can hear the song of the suffering servant in the fifty-second chapter of Isaiah:
"The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God." And in that prayer the person of Jesus of Nazareth becomes more than person, transcends humanity, and symbolizes God's saving grace for God's people. To have seen the salvation is to have seen the relationship of God to humanity.
Simeon does not "just see" but in fact experiences the salvation of which he speaks.
But being able to see the salvation is significant. Because God is no longer "out there"; God is no longer distanced from us; God is not just "in the heavens." But God has become incarnate, in the flesh, in our midst, among us. As Simeon shows us in his prayer, God's salvation has been prepared in the presence of all peoples. And Simeon's reference to "all peoples" is tremendously important here; because it means that Jesus was not sent to only the Jewish people, but to everybody.
God was not operating within a closed system, but had opened the gates.
And Simeon expands on this when he characterizes the Christ as "a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel." And again we hear Isaiah in the forty-second chapter: "I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations."
And again, in the forty-ninth chapter: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
Now Simeon's prayer, and all that it implied, must have been rather overwhelming to Mary and Joseph. And I'm sure that they thought that this was all quite wonderful. But then, what parents don't think their children are wonderful?
At least, when they're very, very young and haven't had the opportunity to prove that they might be less than wonderful. So Mary and Joseph have heard the baby Jesus declared to be the savior of humanity, and there they are in the temple, proud and beaming, with smiles of delight on their faces--and they are about to hear what a trouble-maker he's going to be.
And Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph, and says to Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed."
Now I ask you, is that any way to treat a mother? Why couldn't Simeon have mentioned the rising and just forgotten about the falling of many? Why couldn't he have just mentioned the sign without speaking of it negatively?
Is there any way for Mary to not draw the conclusion that hard times are ahead for Jesus? That his life will be tumultuous and possibly dangerous?
But it gets worse, as Simeon tells Mary that "the inner thoughts of many will be revealed--and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
So put yourself in Mary's shoes. What does she make of all this? Does she smile, ignore it, and go on about her business? Or does she take it all very seriously and suffer great anguish in the process?
Or do you suppose that maybe she's thinking to herself, "I certainly hope my son won't be a trouble-maker"? The problem with that is that it's already too late.
Because we know from the second chapter of Matthew that Herod, in an effort to be rid of Jesus, ordered all the male children two years old and under in the region of Bethlehem to be killed.
Jesus didn't have to DO anything to cause trouble. What he WAS was sufficient.
But Simeon was prophetic. The teaching of Christ did cause many to speak against him. And Mary surely did feel great pain in her soul as she stood beneath the cross at the crucifixion.
So Simeon is a party-pooper, a wet blanker, raining on our parade and all that sort of thing. But what did you expect? That Jesus would lead a life of ease and plenty, always doing the "right" thing but never offending anyone?
How many leaders of any kind do you know of who never offended anyone?
It is my sense of the life of Jesus the Christ that not only was he a trouble-maker, but he knew that he had to be, that he could not avoid it. In the tenth chapter of Matthew he tells us, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." But he was speaking not so much of the sword that pierces as he was of the sword that divides, that separates, that pits good against evil. And one cannot speak for good without provoking the powers of evil.
Last Sunday we celebrated Christmas Day. For those outside the Christian community that marked the end of a season. For those of us within the community it should mark a time of new beginnings.
But unfortunately, for many so-called Christians, there are only two events in the Christian year: Christmas and Easter. Christ was born and Christ was resurrected.
I say this is unfortunate, because the power of those two events can only fully be grasped by what happens between them: the life and teachings of Jesus. And it is in immersing ourselves in the understanding of what that life was and what that life meant that we can come to understand what we are and what our existence means.
When Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and offered praise to God in his beautiful prayer...he could have stopped there. But he didn't. Instead, he turned to Mary, and, in so many words, told her, and us, of the trials to come.
But in that mixed blessing we have a foretaste of the sacrifice that God, through the Christ, made for us, in a gift that keeps on giving.
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