Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Child that Provokes a Response

Often at Christmas, Luke 2:1-20 is read, recounting the birth of Jesus and the angelic message to the shepherds. But consider now the account that follows in Luke 2:21-38.
        "And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, 'Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord') and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, 'a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.' Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
'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.'
And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, 'Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.'
        And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem."
Christmas time is often a time of waiting and fulfillment. Some await opening the presents under the Christmas tree. When I was younger, my siblings and I would organize the presents so that each one of us had a stack under the tree. We were able to open them on Christmas Eve, but we had to wait the whole day until the evening. I think this increased the anticipation more than if we had opened the presents first thing on Christmas Day. For many of us, we might await seeing relatives, traveling to them or getting the home ready for them to visit us. Or perhaps you look forward to some other annual tradition.

The Prophetess Anna, by Rembrandt 
In Luke 2:22-38, we meet two people who had been waiting for a long time. They had been waiting for the Messiah, the Christ. All Israel had been waiting a long time for this promised Savior and King. By this time, the Jews had a heightened sense of their sins. They knew that the prophets had given them many wonderful prophecies of prominence and prosperity, but in the present they were oppressed and corrupted. In response, some of the Jews had fallen into legalism and others had compromised with the Gentiles. Yet some were faithful and devout who waited for the consolation of Israel, the future time when the Messiah would come as a sign of God’s favor and redemption. Two of these Israelites are mentioned in our passage, Simeon and Anna. Anna was an eighty-four year old widow and prophetess. Simeon was probably also old, approaching death, and yet had received a special promise that he would see the Lord’s Christ before he died. Both of them had lived lives during eventful years. They had seen kings rise and fall. They had seen the Romans take over Israel. They had seen Herod’s tyrannical reign as a Roman vassal and Herod’s massive construction projects, including his work to rebuild the temple. Throughout all these events, though, Simeon had remained righteous and devout and Anna had not departed from worshipping in the temple with fasting and prayer, night and day. They were like watchmen waiting for the morning to dawn, standing by their post in expectation. They trusted the promises by faith in the midst of the unsettling events of their age.

Then one day, a poor couple comes in with a 40-day-old infant to offering the purification offering of two young pigeons. We know they were somewhat poor, because the normal offering was a lamb and a pigeon, but those who were poor were allowed by the Levitical law to offer two pigeons instead. There was nothing remarkable about this couple and their infant. There were many couples coming to do this. But the Spirit revealed to Simeon and Anna that this infant was the Lord’s Christ, the salvation of God. And just like Zechariah and Mary and Gabriel and the angels, they break out into prophetic song and proclamation that gives us insight into the nature of this Savior.

A major theme that stands out in Simeon’s song is how Jesus the Savior is the Light. The Kingdom of Satan is the kingdom of darkness. Darkness stands for sin, for ignorance, for deception. People can hide in the darkness, and many get lost in the darkness. The Gentiles lived in this darkness of sin and deception, and Israel had lost its bright glory. But those who had dwelt in darkness now had seen a great light. God had come to earth as an infant, and by His life, teachings, death, and resurrection He would reveal God’s saving truth to the nations and fulfill the hopes of the faithful of Israel.

We learn from Simeon’s words that “this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel…” (v. 34). His coming was a great blessing to some and a judgement upon others. Some were faithfully waiting for the light and would be glorified by its coming. Others were hiding in the darkness, not wanting their sin to be revealed. They were exposed by the coming of Christ. The birth of Jesus had brought a crisis to mankind – all would either need to bow the knee like the shepherds and wise men, or they would fight against Him like King Herod. Neutrality was not an option. Jesus did not allow people to merely think of him as a nice man or a sweet baby. No, either He was God on earth - the prophet, priest, and king - or He was a dangerous imposter. As C.S. Lewis later argued, either Jesus was a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. By forcing mankind to make this choice, Jesus revealed the thoughts of many. He exposed the hypocrisy and self-confidence of the Pharisees and shed light on the faithfulness of those like Simeon and Anna. Those who had longed for the Messiah with true faith in God’s promises were raised up and glorified at the coming of their Lord.

This infant now sits at the right hand of God in heaven with mature glory and authority, and He continues to be for the fall and rising of many. He remains a sign that is opposed by many. He continues to reveal the thoughts of many. His gospel calls for a response of faith, repentance, and total allegiance. He is coming again, and those who faithfully trust His promises will be glorified at His coming.

When Mary and Joseph heard these words about Jesus, it is said that they “marveled at what was said about him.” They marveled so much that they remembered the words Simeon spoke, they treasured them. Mary could be the one who told them to Luke. They received the truth about Jesus with awe and wonder. May this be our response as well! May we marvel at the words about Jesus so that we treasure them and remember their comfort and their challenge.
“Their example, then, serves to remind us that we will never be good students of Christ, until we too feel wonder and awe whenever God’s word is preached to us…If we attend to God’s word, if it so delights and moves us to awe that we make every attempt to understand it, if its teaching, finally, is the means of our salvation, let us draw others to the same light.” (Calvin, Songs of the Nativity, 179)
So let us marvel like Mary and Joseph, but let us also then give thanks and speak of Jesus like Anna did. Let us praise God and tell others, encouraging fellow believers and drawing in unbelievers to the light.

In Acts 13:47 we find something curious that is related to this passage. Simeon’s proclamation that Jesus was a light to the Gentiles repeated a prophecy of Isaiah 49 that the servant of the Lord would be a light for the Gentiles. But in Acts, Paul and Barnabas defend their ministry to the Gentiles by repeating the same prophecy, saying, “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” Jesus is the Light, and all who follow Him reflect His light. If you have received Christ as Lord and Savior, then He has made you a light to the Gentiles. No, you and I are not God’s salvation like Jesus is. But we carry the words about Jesus with us, bringing the words of blessing and challenge to all. By our lives of Christlikeness and our words of witness we proclaim the salvation of Christ. It is through us that He continues to bring people to a crisis of decision, revealing their thoughts, raising up those who receive Him and stumbling those who reject His salvation.

So let us examine our own response to the babe in the manger who is now the King on the throne. Does He have our allegiance and our trust? If He is our Savior and Lord, then we may be at peace like Simeon. Redemption and comfort has come to earth. And having received this peace, let us reflect this Light of revelation and glory into our dark and distressed world.

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