The first Sunday after Christmas was December 31, 2017. The RCL texts for this week in year B are Luke 2:22-40 and Psalm 148. Here’s my sermon for this bitterly cold weekend at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Greene, Iowa. This column from David Lose helped me reflect on what Simeon’s actually saying.
Merry Christmas! It almost seems strange to still say that this weekend, doesn’t it? Christmas was almost a week ago, and by this point, the holiday seems over. The world has moved on to thinking about new years’ resolutions and the next holiday. Christin and I got back from visiting family about two hours ago, and since you’re here today, I assume you’re probably done with any holiday vacation plans.
And yet, it’s still Christmas. The 12 Days of Christmas isn’t just a silly song; it’s how long the Christmas season is in the church. I think that’s to remind us that it’s worth taking time to appreciate what’s happened at Christmas.
There’s a theme in today’s readings of praising God, giving thanks for what God has done, and to be able to praise the Lord with the kind of joy the Psalm talks about, we need to take the time to reflect on what’s happened.
Today’s Gospel story is about these two characters, Simeon and Anna, but I wonder if this incident is really more for Mary’s sake. Think about what Mary has been through. She was engaged to be married to Joseph, then her world got turned upside down by this angel coming to her and letting her know she’s going to get pregnant—without any of the usual prerequisites. Oh, and the child is going to be the Son of God and reign over all God’s people on the throne of David forever.
Mary responds that she’s willing to serve God however God wants, and then she leaves to go visit her relative Elizabeth. Most likely, this is not just a social visit; she’s a pregnant, unwed teenager getting sent away to stay with her relatives in the hill country for a few months.
When she gets there, Elizabeth greets Mary by telling her that the child in her womb leaped for joy. This thing with the angels isn’t just a weird dream Mary’s had; Elizabeth confirms what’s happening. This child will be the Lord, the Messiah.
I think that’s when Mary starts to grasp the implications of what’s going on. Her son will change the world. He’s going to save God’s people from their sins. God is turning the world upside down. Mary sings this beautiful song of praise that we read a few weeks ago, about how God has been faithful throughout history and how God is turning the world upside down, bringing the proud down from their thrones, sending the rich away empty, but filling the hungry with good things.
That’s part of what we’re called to appreciate, although our little human brains cannot fully grasp it. This is a cosmic event, the center of history.
The time comes for Mary to give birth, and it happens to be during the census, so she and Joseph travel to his ancestral home of Bethlehem, and she gives birth to the baby and names him Jesus. There are angels, and shepherds, and you know the story.
Eight days later, it’s time to circumcise the child, as Jewish tradition requires. And so Mary and Joseph take their baby to Jerusalem, and here’s where our story today picks up. Mary has seen glimpses of how this child is going to change the world, but at the temple, she has two encounters that show her this is more than an abstract cosmic event. For these two people, it’s personal.
First, there’s Simeon, this righteous, devout man who has been waiting his whole life to see the Messiah. Luke doesn’t tell us exactly how old Simeon is, but it says he had been told that he wouldn’t die before getting to see the Lord’s Messiah.
He sings this beautiful song and gives Mary a blessing, which makes sense, but if you pay attention to the song and the blessing, they’re really rather strange. Who comes up to a young couple presenting their 8-day old child at the temple and starts talking about death?
But for Simeon, at last he can die in peace. Who knows how long he’s been waiting, but I suspect it’s been a long time. He’s kept the faith, showing up again and again, trusting that God will keep the promise given to him, hoping that he hasn’t somehow misunderstood, hoping that his faith hasn’t been in vain.
This is such an interesting story for the week after Christmas. How many of you remember waiting for Christmas, preparing, getting excited, maybe this year, or maybe back when you were a kid, and then suddenly, it was over? You saw the relatives, ate the nice meal, maybe opened some presents, and then suddenly, everyone goes home, everyone goes back to work.
It’s hard to try to keep the level of excitement it seems like we’re supposed to have for 12 days. Sometimes, it can even feel like nothing happened, like all the waiting and preparing was for nothing, or at least not as big of a deal as you expected.
I think many of us worry about that kind of letdown for our faith. What if our waiting is in vain? What if life doesn’t get better, what if something happens? What if the healing doesn’t come? What if Christmas this year felt like just another day, not life-changing at all?
I wonder if Simeon knew he was waiting for a child. I wonder if we know what we’re waiting for, if we’re waiting and expecting a powerful, conquering God who will fix everything.
Simeon gets to see the proof that God is with him, that God is keeping God’s promises, and it’s all wrapped up in this little child. Whether or not he expected a child, once he sees Jesus, Simeon is able to face his death with hope and faith. He’s able to depart in peace, confident that God is with him, and that’s enough to give him the courage to face the future, the courage to be ready to die. His waiting has not been in vain, and neither has ours.
When we look at this little child, even though we can’t literally see him here in the flesh with us, we know God has come to be with us too. This promise of faith gives us the strength to face the new year, the strength to continue on, to face death when it comes, and the strength to persevere in faith and to praise God.
Simeon’s not the only one they encounter. There’s also Anna, this 84-year-old prophet who lives in the temple, choosing to spend all the time she has left in the world worshiping God day and night. She sees Mary and Joseph with Jesus, and she too has a personal encounter with God. Just like Simeon, Anna recognizes that this child is the fulfillment of God’s promise. This child is the evidence that God is faithful, the proof of God’s presence.
Go back for a minute to what Mary and Joseph must be thinking as all this happens. They are charged with raising the child who will not only change the whole world by his words and deeds in the future, but who has already changed the lives of Anna and Simeon. What an amazing responsibility they have, to raise the Son of God!
With this story, Luke tells us the same thing I think Mary began to realize. Christmas isn’t the end of the story; it’s the beginning. Christmas is not just a cute story from long ago about a child being born in a strange way in the little town of Bethlehem. Christmas is the beginning of God changing the world.
Christmas means God has come to us. The promises are fulfilled. The Messiah has come. The world will be turned upside down, and people’s lives will be given meaning. You and I have the same proof that Anna and Simeon got that day in the temple.
God has come to us. The Son of God is born. This is the good news we carry, the reason we’re here today. God has come to us, and God is still with today and forever.
Because God is with us, we are like Simeon, prepared to die in peace, knowing God is faithful. We are like Anna, coming together to give praise and thanksgiving to God. We are like Mary and Joseph, recognizing that this child is God in the flesh. God has come to us, and nothing will ever be the same again. Merry Christmas!