[Picture: The Presentation of the Temple, by Philippe de Champaigne, public domain]
Pastor Hopkins preached this sermon on the first Sunday after Christmas, 12/29/2019. The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the first Sunday after Christmas, click here.
A few years ago, I attended a theological conference put on by a bunch of very bright folks. That year all the presentations were supposed to show us all the ways God was specifically, locally, and tangibly present in places like the tabernacle and in the Temple. So we heard papers given on how God made Himself present in the furnishings of the tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, the showbread of the Temple, and so on and so forth for three whole days.
Some of the finer points were known to us already, but none of it would have been the least bit surprising to Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, and had likely spent his whole adult life serving God in the Temple. Throughout his years, St. Luke tells us that Simeon was “looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” verse 25
Simeon certainly knew God’s presence there in the Temple – After all, the LORD had put His Name there (2 Kings 21), but the fact that he was looking for the consolation of Israel meant that he had not seen it yet. He saw all the sacrifices: bulls and lambs, turtledoves and young pigeons, flour and wine; and yet none of them brought the ultimate consolation that Israel so desperately needed. So Simeon was waiting.
Mary and Joseph were waiting, too. Thirty-two days had passed since Jesus’ circumcision, since the first shedding of His blood. Now, finally, Jesus was to be presented in the Temple, where He would be called “holy to the Lord.”
But that’s not the only reason they’re there. According to the Law of Moses, a mother was ritually impure for 40 days after the birth of a male child. In that time, she wasn’t permitted to touch anything holy or come into the sanctuary (Leviticus 12). So Mary was to come to the Temple with her Child and be ritually purified.
It seems so strange that this applies to her. How can she be denied entrance into the sanctuary, when her very own womb was the sanctuary that contained God’s Son? And how could she be told not to touch anything holy, when the Holy One of Israel is feeding at her breast?
And yet, Mary does not think so much of herself as to shun Moses’ Law. She shows up with the 40-day-old Jesus in tow and brings sacrifices fitting her poverty: a pair of doves. But Simeon has seen all that before. He has seen every sort of sacrifice for every sort of sin. Adultery, theft, pride, jealousy, greediness and gossip, and whatever else you have; Simeon has heard it all. There is nothing new under the Sun, including any sin of yours or mine. They are all there in the commandments, and no matter what expert sinners you and I may be, it has all been done before. Likewise, all those sacrifices have been given before.
Year in and year out sacrifices were brought to the temple, and not a one of them ever really forgave sin, at least not by itself. Hebrews 10
The point, of course, is that you cannot make wrongs right on your own. Your sorrow will not do the trick, and neither will the blood of birds and bulls. What the world needs is a worthy Sacrifice, which Mary brings in her arms this morning.
This Child, the Holy Spirit told Simeon, is the Lord’s Christ, the Anointed One. This, at last, is something he has not seen before. Simeon holds the infant Jesus in his arms and praises God with a confession every bit as good as St. Peter’s:
Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel. verses 29-32
God the Holy Spirit had made good on His promise, and Simeon held that Promise close. Finally, with his own eyes and with his own hands, Simeon has seen and touched the One promised since the fall. This Child, begotten, not made, is God come to us from God. This Child, the Light of the World, is the Light which now fills the Temple. By this Light everyone can now see, even the Gentiles; even Simeon, and even you.
Now, at long last, Simeon can depart in peace; he is free. That is to say, that once you have seen Jesus, once you have been touched by His Flesh, there is really nothing more you need to see or touch. Once you have seen Jesus, Simeon would tell you, the truest joy is seeing Him again.
But Simeon did not depart in peace only because he had seen Jesus. He was able to go in peace and joy because he knew what comes next. It’s what he told St. Mary:
Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed. verses 34b-35
That is troubling. That is new. After all, Mary had already been told about her Holy Child. It seemed that that Angel Gabriel had said all that needed to be said – and all of it good news. Up until this morning, all Mary knew was the angel’s words, the words you know so well: that
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end. Luke 1:32-33
But now, all of a sudden, there is rising and falling, and swords and pierced souls. What a thing to hear on a day that is supposed to be pure happiness. I’m sure you’d agree that it’s just too soon for this. Mary and Joseph are still basking in the joy of Christmas, you and I are still basking in the joy of Christmas. But some things simply need to be said.
And yet what sounds like bad news for Jesus and Mary is actually the best news we could hear. Jesus, the Sacrifice for our sin, left the Temple that day bound for Golgotha. There He would offer Himself as the Sacrifice, and so make all the Temple sacrifices obsolete, even as He would make all of your sins obsolete.
Now the same God who filled the Temple with His Glory, who filled the womb of the Virgin with His Son, and who fills the pages of Scripture by His Spirit, fills each of you.
The Salvation that Simeon held in his arms is poured out over your head. In your baptism, His Name is placed on you just as it was placed on the Temple. Thus, as the Apostle Paul writes, (1 Corinthians 6:19) your bodies themselves are temples, filled with the God who has emptied Himself.
The way in which God is now present with His people is greater than the tabernacle or Temple. No more veils, no more sacrifices, no more distance; there was nothing separating Simeon from Jesus, and there is now nothing separating you either. For Christ is born as one of us to be our Brother. And you have seen Him. You have seen and do see God in a new and better way than anyone ever has.
Very soon, in His Holy Supper, you too will again know the joy of Simeon, the kind that comes when the Lord’s Christ, Jesus, puts Himself into your hands and into your mouths. You will not only see your Salvation; you will taste your Salvation.
And so when you leave here today, you will depart in peace, according to His Word. Your eyes have seen His Salvation, which He has prepared in the presence of all peoples. The Light of the World, who has taken residence in you, shines through you, for revelation to the Gentiles, and for the glory of His people, Israel.