St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 29th December 2013
Reading – Luke 2:22-35
Well, it’s that time of the year. For the next few days our screens will be full of reviews of the past year. Whether we are watching the news or following the sport, or even catching up with our favourite series, sooner or later there will be a look back over the past twelve months, and all that’s happened in 2013. And what a year it’s been! A few things have been utterly predictable – like Plymouth Argyle failing to win promotion. A few more things were possible, but we daren’t quite believe they would happen – like Andy Murray winning Wimbledon. But most events were of course completely unexpected – like, for example, Wigan defeating Manchester City to win the FA Cup.
Then again, predicting the future is always an uncertain business. I wonder how many of you remember all the fuss towards the end of 1999 about the millennium bug. It was thought that because most older computers could not cope with the change of date, whole systems around the world would crash and there would be a devastating effect on financial markets and travel, for example. In the end midnight came and virtually nothing happened. It all turned out to be a false alarm.
On the other hand I expect many of us can remember back to a famous weather forecast in 1987 when Michael Fish said, ‘Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way; well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t…’ That was the day of the great storm which claimed 20 lives and devastated Southern England, and I am sure you all have stories of how the weather affected you then.
As we look forward to the coming year, the only thing of which we can be certain is that what lies ahead is uncertain and making any kind of forecast is extremely difficult. It’s not for nothing that the old prayer book talks about being wearied by the “changes and chances of this fleeting world”. So the question I want to ask is: what difference does it make for us to live by faith?
And this is where we come to one of the forgotten episodes of the Christmas story – the presentation of Jesus in the temple. We know all about the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and the flight from Bethlehem into Egypt. But forty days after Jesus was born, and before the wise men arrived, Joseph and Mary made an extremely important visit to Jerusalem in order to fulfil the requirements of the Jewish law. And it was there that they met a person who, as far as I am concerned, is one of my great heroes of the Christian faith – Simeon.
What do we know about Simeon?
First of all, he lived by the promises of God.
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 before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
What we are not told is how exactly the Holy Spirit made this revelation to Simeon. Maybe it was in some kind of dream. Maybe it was in some kind of great vision. But I suspect the reality was rather more ordinary than this. After all, Simeon was someone who had heard and been taught about the promises of God right from his very earliest age. He would have known by heart the great prophecies of someone like Isaiah, and like so many of his time he would have known all about the promise that at some point God would come and comfort His people.
To that extent, Simeon was no different from any other devout Jew of his era. But what marked him out was that at some point the Holy Spirit spoke clearly to him through this Scripture and made it personal. This was not a passage of Scripture meant for a different time or a different place. It was God’s own word, directly addressed to him. He would be the one to see Isaiah’s vision fulfilled. He would be the one to see the Lord’s Messiah.
Now again we don’t know how Simeon reacted when the Holy Spirit spoke to him in this way. Was he excited? Was he fearful? What we do know, however, is that he trusted. And he kept on trusting even as the weeks turned into months, and the months turned into years. Because he knew that if God had spoken he could rely upon that word. It didn’t mean that Simeon’s life was easy. As he looked in the mirror, he could see that he was visibly ageing. Tasks that used to be so simple were becoming that much harder. He could no longer see or hear as well as he used to. But he kept on trusting – even perhaps when other people told him he was mistaken or had simply misunderstood what the Lord has said.
And it seems to me that as we look forward to a new year, there is so much we can learn from Simeon’s example. Yes, we cannot tell what 2014 will bring. So much will be unexpected, even unwelcome, and we will face all kinds of changes, both large and small. But God will not change. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. And that means we can rely upon His promises. We may not see how they can be fulfilled in our lives, we may at times wonder if our faith really can deliver. But our part is simply to read God’s word and to trust. After all, if God is God, surely we can leave Him to work out the details, can’t we!? As the chorus of an old, old hymn puts it:
I know who holds the future
And He’ll guide me with his hand
With God things don’t just happen,
Everything by him is planned.
Simeon was someone who lived by the promises of God.
Secondly, he was open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
So here is Simeon, good old Simeon, known for his clean living and religious devotion. He’s been trusting the Lord for many years now and he still believes he will see the fulfilment of God’s promise. But even he can’t help wondering at times when all this will come about. He knows his time on earth is drawing to an end and the waiting isn’t getting any easier. And then one day… no, it can’t be, yes, it’s really happening, the Holy Spirit tells him this is the day. Despite his aching limbs, despite his questions, he makes it up to the temple courts in double quick time to see what he’s been waiting for most of his life.
But what does he see? At first glance it looks like just another ordinary, busy day in the temple. There are the priests going about their business, and the money changers plying their trade. There are the worshippers come to offer sacrifices and the pilgrims fulfilling their vows. No sign here of a Messiah, apparently. And then…he catches sight of Mary and Joseph and the baby.
Now there is no outward indication this is anything than an ordinary couple. Despite all those paintings we have seen Mary isn’t wearing a rich blue robe, and Jesus doesn’t have a halo over his head. They are a poor family, only able to offer the sacrifice the Law allows for the most needy in the land – a pair of doves or two young pigeons. But the Holy Spirit tells Simeon clearly – here is the Messiah, the one he has been waiting for, the one promised by all the prophets of old.
I wonder, can you relate to the work of the Holy Spirit in Simeon’s life? If we have believed and trusted in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, then we should expect the Holy Spirit also to work in our lives, because quite simply the Holy Spirit is the presence of living Lord Jesus. We should be aware of the Holy Spirit’s promptings. We should rely on the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom in such a way that we see others from God’s perspective. For while in Simeon’s day the gift of the Holy Spirit was only available to a few, with the coming of Jesus that gift of the Holy Spirit is promised to all believers. And it seems to me that if we are going to make sense of all that’s going to happen over the coming year, we need ourselves to be open more and more to the Holy Spirit and learn to follow His leading. Otherwise our faith will be a nice idea, and an interesting set of beliefs, but it won’t really make a radical difference to, or connect with, our daily lives. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 8: those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
Simeon lived by the promises of God.
Simeon was open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
And, thirdly, Simeon discovered the purposes of God in Jesus Christ.
I just want you to picture the scene for a moment. Here are Mary and Joseph nervously entering the temple courts, perhaps aware everyone has noticed their meagre offering. An old man, a stranger, comes up and asks to hold their child. There have been already so many strange events happening to them over the past year. Mary looks anxiously at Joseph, and as Joseph gives the nod, she hands her precious child over. They must have wondered what was going to happen next.
But they needn’t have feared. As Simeon holds Jesus, his mouth opens and there comes forth the most wonderful and most moving words of prophecy that ever since have rightly been treasured by believers down through the ages:
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.
Now I just want to go back a few verses for a moment. We were told back in verse 25 that Simeon was righteous and devout. And what was he waiting for? The consolation of Israel. That’s hardly surprising because everyone in those days interpreted the prophecies as God restoring His own particular people. But as Simeon takes the baby in his arms, as the Holy Spirit opens his eyes to the wonder and mystery of God, he sees that the Lord’s purposes are much greater and much wider than he ever imagined. This little baby would not simply be a light that would bring glory to God’s people. He would bring the light of revelation to the entire world.
From now on whenever anyone wants to understand who God is and what He is like, all they have to do is look at Jesus. Jesus has come and made God’s purposes fully known, and He has become the source of salvation to all who believe and trust in Him. It’s little wonder, then, that Simeon prays: Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. His calling to be the herald of the Messiah has been fulfilled and he can rest easy now that he has played out his own small part in God’s salvation purposes.
So how does Simeon’s song relate to us as we face another year? Well, maybe the way to answer that question is to think about how Christ is made known today. So let’s step back and ask a preliminary question, namely: Where can Jesus be found physically on earth at the start of 2014? Now I realise that may sound like a slightly daft question. Jesus Himself of course is risen and ascended, seated at the Father’s right hand. But, and this is the point I want to make clear, our calling as His church to be none other than the body of Christ, that is the physical presence of Jesus right here in this place as we gather together in worship and praise.
Later on, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus Himself said: You are the light of the world. And what does that mean? That in some small way just as Simeon saw in Jesus the salvation of God so people see in us something of the good news of Jesus Christ. Because ultimately that is the reason why Jesus came to call us out of darkness into light – not simply so that we could enjoy the benefits of eternal life with Him forever, but so that together we share the good news of His coming to a world that still does not yet know Him.
Or as the apostle Peter puts it in his first letter: But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. So whatever plans you have may set for yourself in the coming year, remember what God’s plan is for you. Being part of a church is not an optional extra for the ultra-keen Christian. It’s an essential part of fulfilling God’s purposes so that as the body of Christ we can make Jesus known in the world. So as you look ahead to 2014 and begin to make your plans, may I just ask you to consider what part you will play in the body of Christ?
Yes, none of us know what the coming year will bring. Yes, we will face all kinds of changes and challenges. But whatever comes our way, let’s remember this forgotten character called Simeon and the lessons we can learn from Him. God has made promises to us in His word which He will always keep. He has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us and to give us wisdom. He has called us to be His people so that together we might declare His praises. And may our prayer be that in all lies ahead we hold on these unchangeable truths so that through us others come to believe and like Simeon learn to praise God’s holy name. For His name’s sake. Amen.