Sermon for Christmas 1 (Year B), December 27, 2020 (Luke 2:22-40)

“St. Simeon with the Christ Child” (2014) by Andrey N. Mironov. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

This sermon originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church, East Setauket, New York.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, this first Sunday of Christmas.

A few years ago, a poem for Christmas written by the author Madeleine L’Engle for the 1996 poem collection, Winter Song, came to my attention through a pastor friend, and I would like to share it with you this morning.  This poem is titled, “In the Darkest Hour”:

It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss–
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.

It was a time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight–
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.

And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.

A fair number of us have probably either read L’Engle’s work as students, her book A Wrinkle In Time often being preferred classroom reading; or perhaps you’ve read it as parents with your children, but Ms. L’Engle was also a Christian—an Episcopalian, to be precise—who wrote on topics of faith in addition to science fantasy.  And in this particular poem, she speaks to the reality lying behind Simeon’s “waiting for the consolation of Israel” that is in our text this morning—describing that sinful world which Simeon inhabited and which we still inhabit.  But how similar is it to ours, this world to which Christ came, and do we, too, like Simeon await the consolation of Israel, its being saved by the Messiah?  While Simeon saw the Messiah in the flesh, we now live in Him as God’s children, and await His second coming.  While Simeon proclaims his joy at seeing the beginning of the Messiah’s work, we now live with the consolation that Jesus has brought us through His completed work.

The world into which Christ was born was one, as the poem says, of “war & tumult of war,” “fear & lust for power,” “license & greed and blight.”  If we work from the general understanding that Christ was born sometime around 6 BC—and while that doesn’t seem to make sense given that BC generally denotes the time “before Christ,” suffice to say, the medieval scholar who tried to calculate the year of Christ’s birth got his math wrong—the 160-or-so years leading up to Christ’s birth were marked by violence, war, and paranoia in Judaea.  Far earlier, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian province of Syria, of which Judaea was a part, in 332 BC.  At his death in 323, the control of the region fell to one of his generals, Ptolemy, who also ruled Egypt and whose dynasty ended when Cleopatra—yes, that Cleopatra—supposedly committed suicide by asp-bite.  The Ptolemies ruled Judaea until 198 BC, when descendants of another of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, conquered Judaea and pursued an aggressive policy of Hellenization—they wanted to make everyone in the area more culturally Greek than Hebrew, and so they began outlawing various aspects of Jewish religion.  Things came to a head in 168 BC when the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (say that ten times fast) outlawed Jewish worship practices and desecrated the temple, resulting in a revolt by members of the Jewish Hasmonean priestly family, most notably, Judah Maccabee (Judah the Hammer) and his brothers.  The Maccabees finally regained Jewish control of Jerusalem in 164 and rededicated the Temple.  This is remembered by our Jewish friends in the festival of Hanukkah, the Festival of the Dedication.

The Hasmonean Dynasty that descended from Judah Maccabee ruled Jerusalem and Judaea up through the time of Christ, but their rule was marked by continued conflict with the Greeks and others, as well as infighting, mainly about which rulers were properly Jewish or were too Greek.  In 139 BC, part of the Hasmonean family called upon the Romans for help and allied with them, and by the 60s BC, Rome was deciding who should be king in Jerusalem.   The Hasmoneans didn’t stop killing each other, though, so in 40 BC, the Romans, fed up with the fighting, chose Herod the Idumaean to be king.  Yes, that Herod.  He was an outsider—a Jew of dubious piety, but of Arab origin who had married into the Hasmonean royal line.  His reign was not accepted by the Jews in Jerusalem, so over the next three to four years, with Roman help, Herod went about violently subduing the region.  After conquering Jerusalem, Herod spent the next several decades of his rule murdering various family members (including his wife) and engaging in massive building projects, including rebuilding the Temple.  Concerning Herod’s murderous tendencies, the Emperor Augustus in Rome is said to have remarked, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”  It was under this Herod’s reign, then, that Jesus was born, and into this same Herod’s Temple that Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus and where Simeon saw Him.

“Simeon’s Song of Praise” (1631) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Mauritshuis. Public Domain.

Furthermore, along with the long years of warfare and strife, death’s constant friend, taxation, took its toll on Judaea.  Luke’s account of the Nativity notably begins with the implementation of a tax census, and it was through taxation that Judaea’s Roman overlords exerted their power.  Distance from Rome’s bureaucratic center encouraged the creation of corrupt tax policies in the provinces, where tax collectors raised rates and skimmed the excess for themselves.  The embattled people of Judaea faced this added injustice.

In the midst of this long history of death, and taxes, it is easy to see how a man like Simeon would have waited expectantly “for the consolation of Israel,” the comfort of the coming of the Messiah to deliver Israel from her enemies and cleanse her of her sins.  The prophet Isaiah said some seven centuries prior that God would send a Messiah who would bring all people, both Jew and Gentile, into a right relationship with himself; who would speak comfort to them and bring peace to Jerusalem and the whole world and gather the nations to His holy mountain to worship Him.  Remember a few weeks ago when we heard Isaiah 40 on the second Sunday in Advent?  “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.”  This is the promised consolation, foretold also by God through the prophets Zephaniah and Habakkuk and Malachi.  The Messiah will come and bring justice and peace to Israel and all the world, and all the world’s evils will end.  In 6 BC, Israel had long been awaiting His coming.

St. Luke tells us that Simeon—traditionally thought to be an older man, but maybe not—had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until the Messiah came.  So, he had been waiting for the prophesied Messiah to come when an infant was brought into the Temple and the world suddenly changed.  Here was the promised Messiah.  Here was the promised consolation of Israel.  He was small, he was delicate, he was, as Luther says, the “gurgling babe” playing in his mother’s lap, but he was also the One who would save His people from their sins.  And upon seeing this tiny babe, this little Messiah, Simeon sang:

“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.”

Here was Israel’s consolation, its Messiah in the flesh before his eyes.  Simeon had indeed seen the Lord’s salvation, and he knew that this little baby would save Israel—all of Israel, both Jew and Gentile—from their sins, though He would have to suffer to do so. 

We do not know whether Simeon lived to see Christ’s saving work upon the cross, but he had seen the Messiah and the Lord’s work begin taking place through Him.  Simeon is not as blessed or lucky as we are, though, because we actually live now having seen the full work of Israel’s promised consolation.  We all live, now, in and knowing  Jesus Christ in a way Simeon may have not.

Our world in many ways remains the same as the one into which Christ was born and in which Simeon waited.  The world is full of Herods—in our collective lives we have seen Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Hussein, Ceaucescu, Mugabe, the Kims, and a rogue’s gallery of other tyrants rise and fall on waves of human destruction.  Wars and rumors of war continue around the globe, in far flung places like central Asia and Eastern Europe, in Africa, and in the Middle East.  Closer to home, domestic terrorism and gang violence cause us to fear for our own safety.  We just saw someone set off a bomb in downtown Nashville on Christmas morning.  We watch the global economy with baited breath—a downturn in China can mean financial ruin at home.  Sin still tears at us—we sin, and we experience the effects of sin.   Hatred and distrust divide us—abuse and divorce destroy families and relationships.  We lie, cheat, and steal.  We deal unfairly with one another, and are not generous with our neighbors in need.  We do not act as good stewards of creation, but instead exploit it for our own ends rather than ensuring its bounty for future generations.  Illness racks our bodies—cancer steals our physical health and dementia robs us of our minds.  And of course, it goes without saying, we have had to deal with COVID and all the fears and worries that it has visited upon us this year.  COVID-19 has certainly robbed us of any feelings of consolation this year.

The world does not change.
“Massacre of the Innocents” (1565-1567), by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (ca. 1526-1569). Windsor Castle. Public Domain.

It is tempting and easy to look as the year turns at all of the awfulness that pervades the world, and say “Where is my consolation?  I don’t feel any different, and the world doesn’t look any different than it did for Simeon.  The world still seems to be going to Hell in a handbasket, I’m not getting any younger, and there aren’t a lot of great things on the horizon to look forward to.  2020 wasn’t a great year and 2021 probably won’t be much better.  What consolation do I have?  Are these promises even for me?  Is God even there?”

The truth is, we do have God’s consolation, and these promises are for us.  We may be living in a sin-wracked world where nothing seems to get better, but, unlike Simeon, we all live now with the promised consolation of Israel.  We all live now with the consolation of Israel because you and I have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and through this baptism, we are God’s chosen people.  The promise Simeon waited to see fulfilled has been extended to us, and because Christ came and died and rose again to save you and me from sin, death, and the devil, we have God’s guarantee that He has saved us.  What Simeon saw the beginning of, we have seen the end.  What Simeon waited his whole life for, we have had since day one.

But wait, you say, all the things Isaiah and the other prophets prophesied haven’t yet come to pass!  This is true—God’s final judgment hasn’t come upon the earth, and there are people yet to be born who will be saved,  but because we are Christ’s through baptism, we know that death and the devil have no real power over us and that the sin that threatens us daily has not and will not win in the end.  We may be subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but Christ has won.  Christ has taken all the evils of this world, all the evils done to and done by you and me, nailed them to the cross with Himself, and buried them.  The work is done.  We are saved, regardless of whether we feel it or not, and that is the greatest comfort of all.

So now, today, as we stare down the barrel of a New Year with all of its unknowns, fears and uncertainties, let us remember Simeon’s song, that we, too, have seen the glory of God’s redeeming grace in the work of His Son, Jesus Christ, and that in Him we have comfort and consolation.  The world cannot throw anything our way that can undo what He has done.  Let us face the New Year, then, firm in the knowledge that our consolation, our Messiah, has come and will come again.  We need not fear.  The season of Advent may be over for this year, but we can still keep its words on our lips as we go into 2021: Maranatha, which means, Come Lord Jesus!  Come quickly, Lord!  Maranatha!

And now, may the peace which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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