Simeon took [Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying:
‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.’
The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Luke 2:28b-35 (NIV)
We bought a maverick set of lights after last Christmas which have come into their own this year. I have failed to work out how to switch them on and need help every time. Then, unprovoked, they turn themselves on when least expected! I’m half expecting them to continue shining even when the batteries are removed at the end of Christmas and they’re tucked safely in the attic.
Perhaps they are a metaphor for this important but often missed story from the Gospel according to Luke. The light shines even if we’re not ready for it … and in places where its potency had been long forgotten.
As ever, Tom Wright finds a way to remind us that says that what is happening here is that the kingdom of God is confronting the kingdom of the world: the usual things are challenged not just for Mary and Joseph but for all of us.
1. A light in the Temple
Mary and Joseph set out to do something that’s absolutely normal for devout Jews – and encounter another two devout Jews who see everything in a completely different light. Both couples are seeking to please God but the young couple have to learn lessons from the older ones. Mary and Joseph have gone expecting to do the right thing: present their son to God; Mary to be purified according to the Jewish custom; fulfil all righteousness as we sometimes say.
If we read Luke’s Gospel carefully we see that, far from setting out to destroy the temple, Jesus was as faithful as Mary and Joseph. There are 22 references to the Temple in the Gospel and the earthly story of Jesus begins and virtually ends there. When he is arrested, Jesus challenges the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him:
‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour – when darkness reigns.’
Luke 22: 52 (NIV)
But Simeon’s prophecy shows that Jesus will make a shattering difference to the expectations of all those connected to the Temple. Speaking at the holiest spot for Jewish people he describes the baby as:
‘[God’s] salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’
Luke 2: 30-32 (NIV)
God’s salvation for the Gentiles!
The light in the Temple, this baby is to be …
2. A light for the world
A wider vision is working itself out in the baby who needs to be fed, changed and held by human parents. A baby who is being spoken about as a world-changer.
What do we know about these two people?
Simeon is a devout old man filled assured by the Holy Spirit he would not die until he saw God’s Christ. He is then led to the temple at the very hour that Jesus is presented. What a moving picture.
Anna is a devout prophet of advanced age who lives in the temple area, continually in prayer and fasting. She was either 84 and a widow or had been a widow for 84 years – the Greek is uncertain.
In a beautiful description, New Testament Professor Fred Craddock says:
‘These two aged saints are Israel in miniature, and Israel at its best: devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfilment of God’s promises. And they, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, are old, ready to move offstage, to “depart in peace”.’
Luke Interpretation Series, John Knox Press, p 40
Imagine being a young mother and not just having the angel’s words to you confirmed in the temple, but being told:
‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Luke 2: 34,35, NIV
Jesus is to be a light for the world – but the darkness will battle against it.
3. Lights in the darkness
What are your expectations for the way your faith impacts the world? How do you expect God to make himself known?
What are we cruising through, assuming that things will be as they always are?
Mary and Joseph were acting devoutly, but out of Jewish traditional expectations. What happened was not at all usual. No mother wants to hear, as Mary did, that a sword would pierce her own soul; that great suffering lay ahead because of her son. Most people hold on to great hopes for their children and grandchildren but the two elderly prophets in the Gospel talked of Jesus bringing a “God-revealing light” to draw people to God. The consequences of his life would be earth-shaking.
A number of those consequences are here today – in us. This story isn’t just about the impact Jesus had while on earth. It’s about the impact of the Kingdom of God when it works through people like us. There’s something in this story about how our lives speak messages that we don’t understand; the subtle undertones of how we treat people, how we behave publicly, the way in which we welcome others, our attitude to God.
God’s Kingdom is growing – and the role of Christian people is to help it: our stance for justice; our voice raised against evil; the Church refusing to collude with power just for a quiet life – all of this is a sign of light in the darkness.
During his ministry, Jesus talks about the importance of bearing good fruit in our lives and says:
‘A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.’
Luke 6: 45 (NIV)
How full of God are we willing to make our lives? How devoted to him are we? And it’s not about waiting until we’re perfect or assuming others are better at being godly than we are.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, there is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Anthem: Leonard Cohen