Sunday December 28th @ St Barnabas and St Michael’s
“Have you ever had that experience of knowing something good will happen but you’re not sure when? I certainly have. I had been waiting for that day when the young family came into the temple for many, many years. It was the answer to my prayers, my hopes, my deepest longings, and once I had seen that child cradled in His mother’s arms, I knew that I could at last die a happy and contented man.
Oh, sorry, I realised I should have said who I am. My name is Simeon, and I have this reputation of being righteous and devout because I spend so much time in the temple. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find I’m just like any other person living in Jerusalem. I have my doubts, my questions, my fears like anyone else. And just like anyone else I have been waiting ever since the rabbis first taught me for what the prophets of old called the consolation of Israel.
Because, I don’t know if you know, but it isn’t easy living in Jerusalem at this particular point in time. We’re an occupied city, and there are Roman soldiers everywhere. And even if you don’t bump up against the Romans, you’re bound to meet the crazy family of Herod and his gang. And when Herod clicks his fingers, you jump, or you might just find yourself dying a rather unfortunate death. I’ve seen men, women, even children die in that way, and I believe he’s planning something nasty in Bethlehem some time pretty soon.
So, you see, this business about the consolation of Israel really is rather important. It’s the hope we have in the Scriptures that the Messiah will appear and set His people free. It’s about a time of peace, when fear is no more, and all the scattered children of God will once again be united in the promised land. And living like we do, it’s little wonder we cling on to this hope so tightly. Of course, from time to time, some fool decides that he’s the Messiah and sets about attacking the Romans, but he never lasts very long.
But for some time now I have had this conviction that I really would see this consolation of Israel. It wasn’t something I ate, or the fact I had been to so many temple ceremonies. It was, well, how can I put it? – a still, small voice deep inside me telling me I would not die before I had seen the Christ, the Messiah. And you know how it is with these things, the more I ignored it, the stronger it got. It was almost like the Holy Spirit was writing this message on my heart, that I would be one of the first witnesses of the good news.
But could it really be true? After all, the daily prayers carried on being offered in the temple, and year after year, the same ceremonies followed in their predictable cycle, but still there was no sign of the Messiah appearing. In fact there were times when I really wondered whether I was going mad, whether all this devotion was somehow affecting me and leading me to lose my grip. But still this voice would not go away, still this conviction nagged away at the back of my mind.
And then there was Anna. Everyone in the temple knows who Anna is. She says she has been widowed for 84 years – as if you could believe that – but she is a faithful, old bird, who seems to spend all her time in the temple. And if anyone knows the secret of prayer, Anna does. Oh no, not with all the show and ceremony of the Pharisee types who make sure everyone knows they are praying. But if you look hard enough, you will find Anna praying, silently, almost secretly, tucked away in an obscure corner. And talking to her one day I found out she too had this same sense that something new, something exciting was going to happen.
But what exactly? We both thought the Messiah would turn up as an adult, as the messenger of God in all His splendour, and that the glory of the Lord would suddenly fill the whole temple. That’s what the Scriptures the rabbis taught us said – although I knew there were other parts of the prophecies they didn’t mention quite as much, such as the suffering servant, and the son who is pierced.
Yet when that child came into the temple that day I suddenly knew this was the one I had been waiting for. I can’t explain why I knew, or how I happened to be there. I just turned out to be in the right place at the right time, as if the Holy Spirit had been preparing me for all these years to stand in exactly this position in the temple courts on that morning. Because actually, there were as always plenty of people thronging the courts at this time. There were people who were changing money for the temple sacrifice, and the sacrificial offerings sounding none too happy at the prospect of their impending doom. There were the pilgrims from far away, who were happy just being at last in Jerusalem, the epicentre of their faith. There were other young families there was well, ready to dedicate their children – most of them about to sacrifice a young lamb and a pigeon, as the book of Leviticus decreed it.
However in the midst of all this hustle and bustle there was something about this young family that drew me to them. It wasn’t that they were rich. Unlike other families, they clearly couldn’t afford a lamb, and they had to make do with offering two pigeons instead. Nor were they well-connected. The husband’s hands bore the calluses and the hard patches of skin of someone used to hard, manual labour. No, it was, looking back, something about the child, a kind of stillness, a kind of presence, that drew me to them. Am I making any kind of sense at all? It’s really not that easy to explain, but I guess when the Holy Spirit is at work, it’s never that easy to put it all into words, is it?
Anyway, there I was, with this young family standing before me, and the odd thing was, they didn’t seem at all surprised at this strange old man standing before them. As I learnt afterwards, so many miraculous things had already happened that nothing really surprised them any more, and my presence was the least of their concerns. So we stood and looked at each other for a moment. And as I looked at this child, this special child, then something so important and so wonderful struck about the one who would be called the Messiah. He wouldn’t be a ready-made Saviour, one who would suddenly burst into history as the finished article. He would be a child, weak and helpless, who would grow up as one of us, who would laugh our laughter, weep our tears, feel our hunger, share our pain. And instead of overpowering us with His glory, the Lord would simply point to His Son and ask, “Do you believe in Him?”
Such simple, such brilliant, such wonderful good news! And before I knew it, I had taken the child into my arms and was praising God with all my heart:
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
And then I began to realise what exactly I had just said. Because if what I had just said was true, and I believe the Holy Spirit had led me to say it, then this child would bring about a complete revolution in the way we worshipped God. For if actually what really mattered was faith in this child, then we wouldn’t need any more temples and sacrifices and priests and offerings, and all those complicated laws and regulations which told us the right way to worship. What would matter would be the attitude of our heart, whether we would be willing to stake our lives and our reputations on one special individual who we believed to be the Son of God. And if that was the case, then this way of faith wouldn’t only be open to the people who had the law and the prophets, people like us, the Jews, but it would be open to anyone who saw and believed – even the Gentiles.
No wonder Joseph and Mary were amazed at what I said. Oh yes, they knew that their child Jesus would save His people from their sins. They knew that this child would be the promised successor to the great King David and would reign forever. But I’m not sure up to that point they had ever quite realised how much the whole world would be changed by the birth of that child. Like me, they had thought of God’s people as being one particular race and one particular nation, rather than a gathering of the faithful from every land and country. And as I stood before them holding their child in my hands and praising God they too suddenly saw just how revolutionary, just how unexpected was this good news the Lord had brought to the earth.
But even as I stood there praising God with all my heart, I also began to see just how much suffering and pain this little child would have to undergo. Because, you see, the people who run temples and offer sacrifices and lay down laws and regulations, are the people who have power and influence. And such people don’t like anything or anyone that threatens their own position, even if that person happens to be the Son of God. And I could see even then that these rich, religious people would stop at nothing to prevent this little child from setting up His kingdom. They would spread rumours about Him, and challenge His teaching face to face. They would plot against Him, and report Him to the Romans. They would no doubt threaten His followers and turn them out from the temple. In fact, I wondered if indeed they would one day do this child harm, whether He might become that mysterious suffering servant the prophet Isaiah spoke about all those centuries ago.
Because I have seen religion at its worst. I have seen the Pharisees praying on streets corners, and announcing their giving with much fanfare and blowing of trumpets. And religion like that isn’t about worshipping God – it’s about worshipping yourself. It’s letting God and everyone else know how good you are, and how bad the rest of you lot are. And because it’s all about self, religion like that will ruthlessly crush anything that challenges its authority, even if it is the good news that the Christ, the Messiah, has come.
And if the coming of God’s Messiah would cause such conflict, what, I wonder, would become of His earthly parents? That young woman – not much older than a girl really – who took Jesus back into her arms and held Him so tight would only be able to watch helplessly as her Son grew up, suffered and, yes, I am sure of it, would die. It would be like a sword piercing her very own soul, with all the grief and pain that only a mother could ever experience for her own child. Such would be the cost to her of Jesus coming into the world and it goes without saying, I have been praying for ever since, even more so since I got wind of what Herod’s planning to do down in Bethlehem.
But you mustn’t think I left the temple courts that day downbeat and depressed. After all, just as soon as I had finished what I had to say, who came shuffling along but Anna – you know, the old lady I was telling you about earlier. And when she saw the child, she didn’t say much, but I could see this broad smile break out across her face, and I suddenly saw a much younger woman in front of me, full of joy and delight at the wonderful good news she had been waiting for even longer than me.
And it was then that I realised the most important thing of all that day. Yes, this child was indeed the consolation of Israel, the Messiah, the one we had all been waiting for. Yes, He would revolutionise the whole way we worship God, and set up a kingdom based on faith and trust in Him. And yes, there would be opposition and suffering for all who chose to believe. But, as Anna’s expression reminded me, the light of this salvation would be greater than stronger than even death itself, that no matter what would happen to this child, the love of God that He revealed to the world would eventually conquer and win through.
Well, Joseph and Mary soon went off and presented their necessary offering, and I imagine they must have left the temple courts soon afterwards. I don’t believe I will ever see that child again. I know I am getting older, and each day getting to the temple courts seems to be more and more of an effort. But I know I don’t need to see any more to believe. I know that God’s salvation is coming, and thanks to this child Jesus I can face whatever lies ahead. The real challenge before me is to live as one who has met the Messiah, and to tell others of Him. Because at the end of the day I reckon that’s all that matters, to make God’s kingdom a reality in own life and to invite others to join in.”