SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR'S DAY, JANUARY 1, 2006
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 upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had the seen Lord’s Christ. 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:
(This sermon is meant to be delivered or read as a monologue, Simeon [Shimon] being the speaker. While a preacher will find it more effective to commit the content to memory, and then simply share the substance of the material, it could be read as is to a congregation. The preacher might also find it effective to wear some kind of garb, indicating the presence of a first century prophet.)
WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
You can call me, Shimon. It’s a fairly common name even if, what some of us do, who bare that name, is fairly uncommon. I understand you want to know about my visit with Joseph and Mary, given that I was the first one to identify their child for whom he really was. There are some things I can tell you - and some things I can’t. But that would be nothing unusual. In any case, let me tell you a few things about myself and about Mary and Joseph, things you don’t already know. And then, let me surprise you by telling you some things about yourself, also some things you don’t already know. That’s one of my roles as a prophet. Don’t get me wrong. Some people think prophets foretell the future. That’s really not it at all. We do - how do you say it in your slang - we do tell it like it is! And that comes off as surprising for most people. We talk straight, do you say, from the donkey’s mouth?
There are many of us who spend a lot of time in the temple area. You might say we feel close to God here, and to many things, which happen in his name. We think and pray a lot about what has been promised to us as the people of God, and we wait for the fulfillment of those promises in our own time. Ever since I was young I had this strong feeling that God was calling me to a personal relationship with him-- and more than that. I felt that the Messiah for whom we have been waiting was going to be revealed to me in a special way. Have you ever had this sense that you were on the verge of discovery, that some truth or understanding was going to surprise you? I can’t explain it, but this has always been true for me.
You know in our people’s beliefs, God had long ago promised that he was going to provide hope and comfort for us. As Isaiah once put it (40:1), Israel’s hard service has been completed and her sins have been paid for. We knew this to be the case, but we were looking for the visible evidence of this, the Messiah who would reverse our plight and bring us the knowledge that peace and fulfillment of our hopes and dreams had come to us at last. Of course, the full sense in which this might be true was not clear to everyone, not even to me at first, not even to Mary and Joseph.
When they came that day to the temple, this I can tell you, they were fulfilling their obligations as good parents. According to Jewish Law, every male child was to be circumcised at eight days and thus welcomed into the Jewish community. At that time he would be given a name. And in this child’s case, it was the ancient name, Joshua, meaning "deliverer." They also brought a sacrifice, as was traditional. As somewhat common people, Joseph being a carpenter, they presented a pigeon and two turtledoves, a way of saying that they were returning life to God who had given them life in this new child.
When I saw them come, something struck me. How do you explain such things? Their own sense of piety? The way the woman carried the child? Suddenly, I knew that this is what I had been waiting for and all Israel with me. I asked to see him, and offer a blessing. And when I spoke, the words, which rolled out of my mouth, came from beyond me. I found myself saying that this child would be a blessing to people everywhere and that he would be the standard by which all humankind would come to judge themselves. Strange and surprising, wasn’t it? But, you know, when you think about God and how he relates to us, say, in his grace, isn’t that also surprising? I have long ceased to worry about whether things that have to do with God could possibly be. His thoughts are beyond our own and his ways past finding out. This is one of the things, as I said earlier, that I can’t explain to you.
I have had some time since Joseph and Mary were here, a number of years now, to think about all this. But it is as if it happened yesterday. And as I think about it, I can tell you a number of things about what all this means to me. More than that, I can tell you what some of these things mean to you, and you may find that surprising.
At first, I wasn’t so sure about what it would mean for us as the people of Israel-- that our plight would be reversed in the coming of the Messiah. Many people had different ideas on this, and some still do. Some were looking for political emancipation from the Roman yoke. Some were hoping we might be able to be united as a people, around one charismatic leader, instead of having all these factions like Zealots and Pharisees and Sadducees and Essenes who are constantly pulling us in different directions. I too was often unsure about what God’s deliverance would look like. Gradually, however, I came to understand that Isaiah had deeper meanings in store for us and that this child would take us beyond previous comprehension of the meaning of deliverance and freedom. God has that ability to take us farther than we can imagine or dream.
And now let me tell you the most radical meaning of these words. First, this was a revelation not only for our people, Israel, but this was meant for all people - including the Gentiles. I mean, who could have imagined this, that freedom from sin’s burden, that God’s acceptance, should reach even to those from whom we had been estranged for so long? You can imagine that such a notion was and will not be popularly received, but it will clearly establish this new beginning as a watershed in religious history.
More radical, even than that, however, is the notion that this child is not merely to be a symbol of victory and hope in accord with all of this, a kind of triumphal surprise, but that he will lead all people to a new self-understanding, a new relationship with God, through suffering and rejection. I warned Mary that she would have to undergo great pain, like a sword piercing her very heart, as she experienced the ultimate rejection and crucifixion of her son. But this, surprising to say would be the way in which God would destroy the power of sin and death and ally himself with the pain and suffering of humans everywhere. I can tell you this now, but I am still overwhelmed at the thought of it.
When you reflect on it, however, how could it be otherwise? We have always believed that God is on the side of the poor, the sick, the lame and blind, the mistreated, the imprisoned - all those sometimes rejected by the affluent, the high-achievers. God’s poor, a kind of broad category for all these socially and spiritually disenfranchised, these are the ones you would expect God would finally justify and vindicate. And here come Joseph and Mary and their child, born in a donkey’s feedbox, living on the margins of society administered by a foreign power. Here comes Jesus, a wandering preacher with no place to call his home, surrendered by his closest friends into the hands of vindictive powers. Yet through this child become a man, my prophecy says, a sign that will be spoken against, through this appearance in flesh of God’s own comfort for the poor, is the surprise only God can bring - for his thoughts are not ours, his ways not our own. Who could have imagined that God wo! uld resolve Israel’s plight through a suffering messiah? Could you?
Those are some of the things I have thought about in these last years, after that first appearance in the temple. And I am more convinced than ever, with the passage of time, as old years come to a close and new ones come into being, that what I experienced that day in Jerusalem was indeed what all of us have been waiting for. Think about it! What kinds of things do you typically wait for? Getting some present, achieving some goal? Landing a job, finding a spouse? Winning the lottery? Having a child? Building a home? Where does it all end, this attempt to complete and fill a life with the accumulation of things? But here in this child become a man, there is a greater destiny, a fuller grace. There is the consolation that your sins are forgiven, your future is assured. And with our identification with this suffering Messiah, there is also the assurance that in our problems, our illnesses, or sorrows, there is one who has been there before us, and who comforts us in a way! none other can.
When I said earlier that I meant to surprise even you with the story of that day when Joseph and Mary came with the child, I wasn’t kidding. I looked the child in the eye and knew there was potential there because God is faithful and here was the maturing of his unfolding promise. And when I look in your eyes, I know that there is surprise for you here too. At some point, you may also discover that God’s promise is meant for you, and that this child, born for you in Bethlehem, is Savior of the world. At some point, and may it be now, you may discover that the crucifixion is not just scandal, but the means by which God himself reaches out to accept you and empower you, lowly and humble as you yourself are.
Most of all, and I cannot say this without some sense of emotion, there will be moments for you, moments when you look at a child, face to face, and know that then, you are being called to express God’s hope and love in your own words. At a birthday party, after a sports event , after a problematic moment when a son or daughter has done something terribly wrong, even at the moment of a graduation, you are there as God’s own prophet, waiting to say something that no one else can say. What words can you offer? How can you, child of God, let someone know that God loves even them and that God will be with them in every moment of sadness and disillusionment in life? The words will be yours, as they were mine, but God himself who goes with us wherever we are, will shape them and make them say what someone needs to hear.
I, Shimon, am not singular or unique. God used me, and wants to use you to. Your opportunity is as certain as his love for you, and for all people everywhere. What are you waiting for?
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus