In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How many of you have ever dealt with the frustration of a gift that didn’t arrive in time for the occasion? Maybe it’s a special birthday present, or an anniversary gift. Not that long ago, it may have been a Christmas present. You order it in plenty of time to arrive on time—or so you think—only to be disappointed in some way. Maybe the seller didn’t have the item in the size or color or style you wanted. Perhaps it sold out. Oh, it was in stock when you ordered it; but, unfortunately, the warehouse miscounted somehow, and the item won’t be available until after Christmas. A couple of those scenarios happened to me with gifts I had ordered for my wife for this last Christmas. For one of them, I thought that I had ordered it in plenty of time. Then I got the good news by email: “Your item is due to arrive for in-store pickup on … December 27.” Hooray, two days late! Though I was a little disappointed, Linda wasn’t. She just asked, “Well, couldn’t you turn it into a Valentine’s Day gift instead?” Well, I didn’t want to, not really; but, that is what’s going to happen.
Doesn’t it seem a bit late to be talking about Christmas? After all, that was, what, about forty days ago, wasn’t it? Yes, today is the fortieth day of Christmas. I like to consider this and some of the other Feasts connected to the Infancy of Jesus as parts of the Christmas season set in other times of the year. If you looked at the service, you may even have noticed that we’re singing a couple of Christmas carols today. In one of them we sing, “Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a virgin’s womb.” As I pondered our text, those lines kept running through my mind. We will look at that shortly.
While some Christians have the tradition of taking down their Christmas tree and decorations on Epiphany Eve or Epiphany Day, others keep the tree and decorations up until today, the Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord in the temple at Jerusalem. The Christian liturgical calendar can certainly feel like we’re jumping around in time, jumping around in the life of Jesus—from His birth on December 25th to His circumcision and naming on the eighth day, January 1st, and then as much as two years later with the visit of the Magi on January 6th, and then to His baptism when He’s about 30 years old, on the following Sunday. And now a few weeks later, He’s an infant again, 40 days old, being presented to the LORD in the temple.
We are about halfway through this Epiphany season, the Church’s season of light, beginning with the Magi following the light of a star to the Christ Child in Bethlehem, and concluding with Jesus’ Transfiguration, the revelation of His glory to three of His disciples, when “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as light” (Mt 17:2). Today, halfway between those Feasts, on this Feast Day we hear the first ever singing of that inspired song, the Nunc Dimittis, as the Holy Spirit leads Simeon to declare, “Now set free Your servant, Master, according to Your word in peace, because my eyes have beheld Your Salvation, which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a Light for revelation to the Gentiles, and Glory for Your people Israel” (Lk 2:29–32; after Just). These things remind us of what John says at the beginning of his Gospel about Jesus, the Word who is God: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome It” (Jn 1:4–5), and that Jesus Himself declares, “I AM the Light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). It is a fitting day to observe Candlemas, a day when Christians traditionally have brought their candles to church to be blessed for use the rest of the year.
The Light is revealed to two Old Testament saints, Simeon and Anna, who have been among the faithful remnant in Israel. Simeon is usually depicted as an old man; indeed, he is commonly referred to as “aged Simeon,” even though St. Luke actually doesn’t say anything about Simeon’s age. It is longstanding church tradition to honor him thus. The other Old Testament saint here, Anna, is said to be 84 years old. So we think of these dear saints as a matched set, an elderly man and an elderly woman, both believers, both filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesying about the Infant Redeemer Jesus. Simeon was “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” whom he held in his arms, and Anna spoke of Jesus “to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:25, 38).
The faithful remnant in Israel had waited a long time for this promised consolation and redemption to come from the LORD. The Psalms are filled with these longings of God’s people, as Psalm 119 says, “My soul longs for Your Salvation; I hope in Your Word. My eyes long for Your promise; I ask, ‘When will You comfort me?’” (vv 81–82). The words of Psalm 25 also may well have been on the lips of Simeon and Anna and their fellow believers:
4 Make me to know Your ways, O LORD; teach me Your paths.
5 Lead me in Your truth and teach me,
for You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all the day long.
6 Remember Your mercy, O LORD, and Your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
7 Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to Your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of Your goodness, O LORD!
How many days … and then months … and then years they must have waited to see the promised consolation of Israel and the promised redemption of Jerusalem. Consolation, comfort, peace, being set free from constant tumult. Redemption, being redeemed, purchased, bought back from captivity and bondage. Simeon and Anna knew the condition of their people, God’s people, and that Israel’s exile and captivity, at times coming so close to utter destruction, were the wages of their faithlessness, God’s righteous judgment for their turning against Him to go after other gods. That is, at heart, the natural-born condition of the whole human race, and of each one of us: to seek substitute gods, to seek self, to serve self, to love self. So long has the world been this way—in captivity, in darkness, in bondage to sin, death, and the devil—that it seems normal, as though “that’s just the way things are, that’s just the way the world works” is regarded as “maybe that’s the way God (or the universe, or nature) meant it to be.”
“Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a virgin’s womb.” “And behold,” look! see! “there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon … And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death,” would not behold death, “before he [would behold] the Lord’s Christ,” the Messiah of YHWH. This sight is not ordinary physical sight—a wonder in itself, to be sure—but this sight is a gift of the Holy Spirit. As He was upon Simeon and Anna, so He is upon you through Baptism, to enlighten you to see and believe in Jesus through the lamp of His Word, the light of the Gospel. Joseph and Mary bring the 40-day-old Jesus to the temple “to present Him to the Lord,” and how much more of a present, a gift, this little Jesus is than they realized! Is He what Simeon and Anna were expecting? They certainly believed what the Spirit revealed to them about this Infant. Perhaps they did know what to expect, as the LORD has so often made and kept His promises through special births. Perhaps Simeon and Anna realized the connection between this Presentation and the presentation of Samuel in the temple by his mother Hannah. And their names also form a connection between the two presentations. Samuel, Shemu-El, means “God has heard,” and Simeon, Shim’on, means “he has heard.” Anna in the Greek New Testament is actually Hannah, the same name as Samuel’s mother, a name that means “grace.” Now these young parents present Jesus, Yeshua, “Salvation,” “the LORD saves,” not simply to serve the LORD, but to be the LORD who serves! He is the fulfillment of the Psalmody for today, from Psalm 48, “We have thought on Your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of Your temple” (v 9), and Psalm 84, “How lovely is Your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (vv 1–2). Here in Jesus is the Dwelling Place of the LORD in the flesh. He is the new and eternal Temple not made with human hands. Now and forever He is the place where the LORD is present among His people!
The temple was also the place of sacrifice, and the words of Simeon foretell that this new Temple, Jesus, would be that place. “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising [resurrection] of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed, and a sword will pierce through your own soul also, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34–35). Why should Simeon’s announcement that Jesus will be the Revealer of salvation lead to conflict and opposition? Jesus’ words and actions will cause upheavals. There will be those who trust in Him, but many will be scandalized by Him, as Isaiah foretold, “And He will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling … And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken” (Isa 8:14a, 15a). “His death and resurrection is the ultimate sign of revelation; it will be the center of dispute for the rest of human history” (Just, p. 124). Not only would Jesus be the place of sacrifice, of course; He ever shall be the final great Sacrifice for sin. It is often pointed out that Mary and Joseph brought two doves or pigeons for sacrifice instead of a lamb and a dove because they were poor and could not afford a lamb. This was a sign of Jesus’ humility, that though rich, for our sakes He became poor, so that by His poverty we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9). The truth is, no one, no human being, no matter how rich, could possibly afford the necessary lamb, the pure, perfect, absolutely spotless Lamb who could truly take away sin. So, as Father Abraham said to his son Isaac, “God will provide for Himself the Lamb” (Gen 22:8). “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” For “you were ransomed,” redeemed, paid for, “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, as that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake” (1 Pe 1:18–20). And for your sake, here He is, “Late in time behold Him come,” God the Gift, God the Present.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds by His Spirit in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.