Today’s Gospel is a tender scene. The infant Jesus, a 40-day-old baby, is brought to the temple. Mary and Joseph were obeying the Word of the Lord in doing this. They were there for the ritual purification according to the Law of Moses, and they were there to offer the prescribed sacrifice. Mary and Joseph brought with them an offering of a pair of turtle doves. That was the alternative sacrifice for the poor folks. If you couldn’t afford a lamb, that’s what you brought. But then, on the other hand, what need had they to bring a lamb when they already held within their arms the true lamb – who takes away the sins of the world.
Before going further, there’s an obvious lesson that none of us should overlook. Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple. They did so in obedience to the Law, and to worship God. To put it simply, they brought Jesus to church. What do we learn from this? Christian mothers and fathers bring their children to church. There’s simply no question where the Christian family will be on the Lord’s Day. They come to church. They come to church on the Lord’s Day to worship God, to confess their sins, to receive absolution – to hear His preaching and receive the Sacrament. Whether we feel the need for it or not, or have the desire to go or not go matters very little. The Lord commands us to go.
Jesus says, Where two or three are gathered in My name there I am. We believe in the 5th chief part of the Catechism on the Office of the Keys about the ministry. That when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command … retaining and absolving sins … it is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself. We go to church because Jesus said, “Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of me.” He said, “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
We come to church. We receive the Sacrament. So that, in the words of the Catechism, “I may learn to believe that Christ, out of great love, died for my sin, and also learn from Him to love God and my neighbor.”
This isn’t the Roman Catholic idea of a day of obligation. Your need for being in the presence of the Lord is far greater than that. Your life hinges upon it. Your breath, your life, your salvation, your resurrection all depends upon the Word of God that is preached, heard, and believed.
Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple. And so should we bring ourselves, and those we love. It pleases God. It fortifies our families – it wards off the devil – and connects us with the Word of Christ and the communion of saints.
And what great examples of the holy life of faith we have this morning in the lives of old Simeon and Anna! They’re the ones waiting around in the temple, praying, keeping vigil, watching for the Lord to enter into His temple. And somehow the Holy Spirit had let them in on a secret – perhaps word had gotten out from those shepherds in the field outside Bethlehem. And what’s the secret? Well, remember all those readings from Christmas Eve? They’re kind of all over the place, but are there to let you in on the secret that’s making Simeon and Anna pretty giddy in our Gospel this morning.
And it’s this, the glory of God, the presence of the Lord that travelled with God’s people in the ark, in the tabernacle, in the cloud and in the fire. The presence of the Lord that later moved to the temple, but then departed. Well, there was an incredible vision proclaimed by the prophets, that the rebuilt second temple would one day be filled with an even greater glory. And it’s all happening now, right before their eyes. Remember that line that we know from Handel’s Messiah. “The Lord will suddenly come to His temple.”
Well, here it is! And maybe with not all the fanfare one might expect. Just a couple senior citizens, Simeon and Anna, to greet Him! But the Lord, as you know, has a thing for humble entrances! But it wasn’t to be missed by Simeon. He was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel. And at some point the Holy Spirit had whispered into his ear, and tipped him off, that he wouldn’t see death until he had seen the Lord’s Christ with his very own eyes.
So when the glory of the Lord entered the temple, wrapped and swaddled and pressed to Mary’s chest, boy did his eyes light up. Beaming, he moved across the temple court, and I’d imagine like a gentleman he asked mother Mary if he could hold her little baby. And the privilege wasn’t denied him. He took Jesus in his arms. And looking into the eyes of Christ he sang, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” Mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared in the sight all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.”
Oh, and you know that song too. Every Lord’s Day you come into the presence of God and behold His glory – His sacrificial love for sinners. And at the Sacrament, like Simeon, you reach out and take the body and blood of the Lord swaddled under bread and wine – and you quite literally see your salvation.
Mary and Joseph pondered those words of Simeon. But that’s not all he told them. Simeon blessed them, and spoke to Mary, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel,” and he told her that a sword would pierce her soul too.
And when she stood at the cross looking up at her Son, remembering His tiny body, His little hands and little feet, that she had once bathed, now painfully pierced, bloody, and bearing the sins of the whole world. She was pierced herself – to her very soul. But how faithful this Mother of God was, who believed the Word spoken to her by the angel Gabriel, and confirmed through many signs and wonders. Imagine the pain and the hope of this faithful mother looking up at her crucified Son, and entrusting her child to the God of heaven who would raise her and her Son from the grave.
Yes, Simeon said this Child would be destined for the fall and rising of many. But the Greek word here for rising is really resurrection. Because that’s what it’s all about. Jesus on the cross is the death of sin. It is the destruction of the grave. And eternal life for all who will receive this crucified King.
Simeon, with his arms around this infant King, blessed Mary and told her what to expect, that a sword would pierce her soul. And it did. But that piercing sword is ultimately Jesus’ own preaching – which pierces Israel – which goes out to the whole world – causing the rise and fall of many who will either receive or reject the consolation of His love.
The Holy Family and Simeon aren’t the only folks at the temple that day. There’s also an old woman named Anna. What we know about her is that she wouldn’t leave the temple – practically lived there. She’s a church lady. Remember at Christmas how those shepherds spread the word about Jesus’ birth. But now look at Anna, she has such love for the Gospel, she’s speaking about Jesus’ death. Speaking to everyone she can about the redemption of Jerusalem. In a day of evangelism programs, wouldn’t be a bad idea to toss them all out and just have a good look at old Anna. She’s present where Christ has promised to be and can’t stop talking about Him to everyone she meets.
So, plenty to learn on this First Sunday after Christmas. Plenty to learn from Simeon and old Anna. Most importantly, we recognize Christ in our midst. And then from Him we learn how to live and how to die.
As you heard, Simeon’s song that he sang with Jesus in his arms, you sing that after Holy Communion every week: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” We call it the Nunc Dimittis, the Latin way of saying “Depart.” But it’s not just about returning to your church pew. And it’s not just about busting out of the church doors after the service and going home, either.
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart,” Simeon’s song, is about going to our true home and dying a Christian death. It’s about jealously desiring the future life even more than this one – and being willing, eager even, to depart this life and live with Christ forever. I’ve never officiated a Lutheran funeral where we didn’t sing this at the end of the service. But don’t misunderstand me here. This isn’t some morbid gloomy take on things. Quite the opposite, actually, it’s the foundation of Christian joy.
Because when we sing the Nunc Dimittis, it’s our way of practicing our Christian death, so that when it comes, we will be ready, peaceful, and well, to push things a little, giddy even, like Simeon and old Anna. Sure, they were old, but their future beamed brightly.
This is what we do when we go to the Lord’s Supper. We grab hold of Christ and we practice and rehearse how to depart this life, how to die, all so that we can more fully live in this one. Putting all our trust in God, and daily finding new ways to love and serve our neighbor. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
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