Seeing Jesus, with Simeon (4/5)

There is a kind of purpose in his steps as he walks into the temple. There is a kind of alertness in this old man’s body, as he strides across the courtyard. It’s almost as if he is looking for something, looking for someone. His body speaks of his confidence that he will in fact find what he’s looking for.

Anyone who has spent much time in the temple will know who this man is. His name is Simeon. And even those who don’t know him could quickly find out about him. He has a reputation.

Simeon is described using words that no one would use lightly – he is described as a righteous man. Do we even believe, today, that such a person is possible? A righteous person? In our culture we are deeply cynical about any claim to righteousness – we think it both naïve and arrogant to describe anyone as righteous. But that’s just how Simeon is described – a righteous man. He is someone who knows the law of God and follows it.

He is someone who speaks honestly;

He is someone who gives generously;

He is someone who conducts his business with integrity;

He wouldn’t slander anyone behind his or her back;

He treats friend and stranger with respect and grace.

Simeon is described as a righteous man, even if we think such a pereson impossible to find.

Simeon is described using words that no one would use lightly – Simeon is also described as devout person. And if we are cynical about the possibility of meeting a truly righteous man, we will also, perhaps, be unimpressed at meeting a devout person. In our culture, we are impressed by competent people; we are impressed by successful people; we are impressed by intelligent people, and beautiful people. But a devout person? Devotion to God and devotion to the practices of one’s faith, particularly the Christian faith, are not considered standout qualities in our culture.

But that’s just how Simeon is described. He is devout.

Someone who prays to God deeply and honestly,

someone who worships God faithfully,

someone who offers sacrifices meaningfully,

someone who shares in religious festivals regularly

Simeon is described as a person who is faithful to the law of God – righteous. And he is described as faithful in the worship of God – devout.

This Simeon enters the temple, and those who see him, see the purpose in his steps – see the alertness in his body. They have the impression that Simeon is looking for something, looking for someone. His body speaks of his confidence that he will in fact find what he’s looking for.

Simeon has always believed that this day would arrive. He has always had a deep sense that God would show him something amazing. That with his own eyes he would see the one through whom God would put the world to rights – that with his own eyes he would see the one through whom God would change the lot of his people – that with his own eyes he would see the one through whom God would finally do everything implied in the word “save” – to save, to help, to forgive, to set free, to embrace, to love, to give a future, to make human lives beautiful and righteous.

Simeon walks through the temple courtyards, and his eyes are wide. God’s Spirit has prodded him:   “Go to the temple, and keep your eyes peeled.” God has spoken in his heart and mind: “Go to the temple, Simeon, and keep your eyes wide open. This is the day you’ve been waiting for…” Did he know exactly what he was looking for? Perhaps not.

But when he saw one particular family there in the temple; when he saw one particular child held in the arms of his no-doubt tired mother – he knew he was seeing what he had been waiting for, the thing God had promised.

This righteous man, Simeon.

This devout man, Simeon.

This Spirit-led man, Simeon.

He sees this family and this infant, and suddenly knows this is what he has been waiting for – and what his people have been waiting for. His response is one of grace and gratitude. He takes the child in his arms and he sings a song that the Church has been singing every since.

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.

Let us listen to that song of Simeon:

What did Simeon see when he walked into the temple? What did he see that made him break into this song at once worshipful and melancholic?

He saw a family not unlike many other families he would have seen in that temple over the years – and not unlike so many other families in human history. He saw a mother and a father and their child. Perhaps the mother he saw was more than a little tired – after all it has only been 40 days since the child was born – there are still middle-of-the-night feedings and sleepless nights caring for this child.

This past week Monday, February 2nd, was in fact 40 days after Christmas. That day, 40 days after Christmas, is when the church has traditionally celebrated the presentation of Jesus; the day when the church has traditionally read this story of Simeon and Jesus in the temple. And after only 40 days no doubt this is still a tired mother. And perhaps Joseph is equally out of sorts – perhaps sleeping no better than the mother, and perhaps still unsure about what it means to be father and husband. A family like any other.

Mary and Joseph are perhaps not at their best – and this infant is perhaps hungry, or fussy. But here they are at the temple, to fulfill the requirements of the law – to bring an offering of thanks and praise. They’ve come to present this first-born son, and their offering of pigeons, as an expression of worship and service to the God of covenant and creation – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “This is your child, O God. We are your children. We worship you.”

The gospel-writer, Luke, wants us to see that this child Jesus is raised within the covenant traditions of the Hebrew people. Luke wants us to see that he is a Jewish child, rooted in the faith and traditions of the Jewish people. Luke wants us to see that this Jesus is not only born into the human family, abstractly considered. This Jesus is not only the revelation of some abstract god up there and out there. This Jesus is one who is related to, and who reveals, the God of Israel.

So you cannot understand this child without understanding the family and people into which he is born. You cannot know this child without knowing the story their wilderness wanderings; without knowing the stories of their kings, faithful and unfaithful; without knowing the story of their exile. And you can’t understand or know this child if you haven’t heard God’s ancient promise to his people that they will one day come home. You cannot draw near to this child without also drawing near to worship and wrestle with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

All of that to say: When we see this child, we must see him here, and only here. When we see this child, we must see him in this temple, we must see him in this act of dedication and worship. If we want to see Jesus at all, we must see him here.

Luke himself makes it possible, of course, for us to see Jesus just here. Luke himself makes it possible, by sharing this story, for us to see Jesus as the child of Mary, a child of Israel, a child of covenant promise – the perfect expression of God’s promise.

Mary and Joseph are amazed at what is said about their little boy. They are astonished at the beautiful and melancholic song that Simeon sings. And perhaps with the singing of this song they begin to fathom again what has seemed unfathomable to them. Perhaps with the singing of this song begin to believe again what the angel has spoken to them many months ago, now. Perhaps with the singing of this song they can trust again that this child is Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua – the one who saves.

We listen to another version of the song of Simeon:

With our eyes wide, what else do we see in the temple?

Not only do we see Simeon – a man righteous and devout; Spirit-led.

Not only do we see Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus.

Not only do we see two pigeons offered in praise and sacrifice.

We see Anna, also.

And if we have a hard time accepting that a man could be both righteous and devout – or that such a life of devotion is meaningful – we may have an equally hard time imagining an Anna in our cultural context. We would probably dismiss her as an odd-ball – wonder whether she’s wroth our attention.

Luke tells us: “There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of great age, having lived with her husband sever years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.”

An odd-ball for sure – spending her days hanging around the temple in some excessive expression of religiosity. Someone you probably would skirt around on your way to worship.

But it turns out that this odd-ball sees something, and hears something, that we might have missed. It turns out that her life of fasting and prayer in the temple prepared her to see something we might not have seen at first glance – or at second glance, or third glance, for that matter. Her prayerful life of attention to God has meant that when the moment arrived, she both saw and recognized the child in whom is God’s promise of a return home is fulfilled.

Anna sees a common family – mother and father and child – not unlike so many other families passing through the temple. But when she heard the song of Simeon perhaps Anna also began to find something fathomable that she had begun to doubt and wonder about – that after years and generations of waiting, God had done what God had promised.

When the realization strikes her; and when the realization that this is the moment, goes deep into her heart and mind, Anna becomes an evangelist – a servant of the Word. It was Mary who would later become the first apostle of the resurrection, as she went to tell others that Jesus had risen. But here at the beginning of the story of Jesus, Anna is one of the first to become a servant of the word – an evangelist of this word of promise. We read: “At that moment Anna came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel.”

Perhaps the song she sang for her remaining days and years was the song of Simeon, a song the church has sung every since:

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.

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