Child of Destiny
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 firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ”Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven 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. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
People love to tell stories about their kids – and grandkids. We all do it. We tell the stories to anyone who will listen, and we tell them to the kids themselves. Why?
Perhaps one reason is that we believe that some of those stories we remember from their early years contain glimmers of what would come to full-light later on. We think we can see threads of continuity through life.
It is surprising how few stories we have of Jesus as a child. The gospels of Mark and John start with Jesus as a full grown adult. Only Matthew and Luke have stories of Jesus’ birth – which are quite different from each other.
Matthew goes from the story of the wise men visiting Jesus, to his family’s escape to Egypt to avoid the crazy king Herod. They return and the next thing you know, Jesus is grown up and is ready to be baptized by John.
Luke alone has one single story of Jesus as a boy, age 12, confounding the Bible teachers in the temple. That’s it.
Clearly the gospels were not even trying to be full biographies as we think of them. If they knew more of Mary’s stories, they didn’t consider them important to tell.
Why this story?
Which makes us wonder why Luke felt it important to tell this story we read today, of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the temple as an infant.
If you didn’t know any better, you might think that Jesus was being used as an object lesson in how to be a good, faithful, Law-of-Moses-abiding person. You might think that this story illustrates, for other Jews, the importance of doing everything required by the Torah, the Old Testament, as an encouragement to do the same.
But we do know better. By the time Luke wrote down this story of the baby Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, there was no temple in Jerusalem. In 70 AD the Romans came, in force, in response to a Jewish revolt, and crushed the temple as an object lesson.
Now we can see that this is like telling a story about the families on the Titanic. The people reading the story are not being instructed in cruise manners and customs: they know what is going to happen.
So why would Luke bother to tell his readers about these Jewish customs and practices, and what does this children’s story have to do with us? Let’s look at the story closely.
Roots – back to Abraham
First, it’s quite clear that for Luke, to understand Jesus is to understand his roots. Jesus is born into completely faithful, observant Judaism. Jesus has just been circumcised, as the Law of Moses commanded; that means he has been given the sign of the covenant. In fact, circumcision goes back further than Moses, hundreds of years, all the way back to Father Abraham.
Why is that important? It was God’s covenant and promise to Abraham that set in motion the whole story of the people of Israel, the story of God’s chosen. Jesus has just been circumcised, that is, branded with that logo. He is part of that story in which God said to Abraham, through your descendants, all the families of the earth will be blessed. How is that going to work out?
Well, it has taken some time. Hundreds of years after Abraham, the Jews found themselves slaves in Egypt. But God heard their cries and had compassion on them. He saved them from slavery by the hand of Moses who led them out. They came to Mount Sinai where Moses gave the the Torah, God’s instructions.
Mary and Joseph were keeping faithful to these laws. One of the laws was that after giving birth to a son, a woman had to go through a purification period of 40 days, after which she would offer sacrifices at the temple. She should bring a lamb, unless she was poor, in which case a pair of doves would have to do. Mary and Joseph were poor: they brought turtle doves.
Meeting Sam (Simeon)
At the temple they meet a man named Simeon. We would call him Sam, short for Samuel; Simeon was also short for Samuel. (Fitzmyer, Luke, AB, 426)
Perhaps Sam was named after that famous biblical character, Samuel, who knows? But it is interesting to remember that as a little boy, Samuel too was presented at the temple by his mother and father.
Samuel’s mother’s name was Hannah, or as the New Testament would say, Anna – a name which also shows up in this story (if you remember, we have learned that Mary’s song of praise is modeled after Hannah’s song of praise).
Anyway, the little boy Samuel grew up in the temple, and one night heard God calling him. The message God gave to Samuel, for the old priest Eli, was partly good, partly bad news. The message Simeon gives to to Mary and Joseph about Jesus is also mixed. God is now doing something new – but it will get a mixed reaction; some will receive it, others not; it will cause a division.
Who was this man Sam, or Simeon? All we know about him was that Luke tells us he is
“righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.”
Why would Israel need consoling? Because all of these people, who knew what God’s promise-covenant with Abraham was all about, knew that it had not come true yet. They felt that the blessings were not even true for themselves, let alone being the source of blessing for the whole world.
But here is where the story gets interesting. Sam, or Simeon has, like little Samuel before him, heard the voice of God giving him a message. He believes, he says, that he has been granted the gift of living long enough to see the way God is going to save his people. Luke tells us,
26 “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.”
Nunc Dimittis (now, dismiss)
Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit guided him into the temple where he meets Mary and Joseph with Jesus; he takes the baby into his arms and says his famous poem:
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.“
He pictures himself like a sentinel on the wall, on night duty, and now the sun has risen, and his commanding officer dismisses him. The light has started shining, Messiah has come, the consolation Israel had been dreaming of.
Lights and Shadows
But as one scholar put it, “anyone who turns on light creates shadows.” (Craddock, Luke, Interpretation, p. 39).
All through this story Luke has woven in echoes of the prophet Isaiah. He told of a light that would shine on all the nations, “all flesh will see God’s salvation” (Is 40:4). Isaiah says that the servant of the Lord will be “a light to the nations” (42:6). This will bring the long awaited “consolation” (or “comfort” – same word in Greek, Isa. 40:1).
But the light of Messiah will cast shadows. Simeon continues:
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Jesus himself is destined to experience this division in Israel. Some will follow him as Messiah, the new and true King, whose Kingdom has come, whose Kingdom has no end. Others will shout “crucify him.” The light casts shadows.
Luke’s community had witnessed this happen. Some had followed Jesus; some came to the light. Others did not. Some actually experienced the resurrected Jesus of Easter morning. Some experienced him in worship “in the breaking of the bread.”
But others had rejected the prince of peace, had raised up the sword against Rome, and now the temple was in ruins. Light casts shadows.
Today’s Lights and Shadows
Today we see the same. We can bear witness to the light that has shined in our hearts. We are those gentiles on whom the light has shinned. We know of God’s salvation through Jesus.
But sadly, we see those who cling to the darkness. They somehow miss that the light of Jesus is what illumines God for us.
In the light of Jesus, we see God’s overwhelming compassion for the sick whom Jesus heals – even if he has to break Sabbath customs to do it. There are folks today who seem have no concern for sick people as long as they have good insurance for themselves.
In the light of Jesus we see God’s concern for hungry people, as Jesus stopped to feed them. There are those among us who are well-fed who do not want any of their bounty to go to hungry people.
In the light of Jesus, we see God’s embrace of foreigners, even Roman soldiers – the “enemy,” and his embrace of other non-Israelites. There are those among us who think that helping anyone who is not an American citizen is unnecessary.
In the light of Jesus we see a God of extravagant forgiveness who teaches us to forgive those who sin against us. There are those who live in the darkness of believing they are justified in bitterness, resentment and even vengeance.
Over and over we see that light casts shadows. Following Jesus has never been the majority response. Isaiah predicted a small remnant; Jesus spoke of the narrow path. Simeon spoke of the falling as well as the rising of many.
The light has come, but some prefer the selfish darkness of the shadows.
We are called to walk in the light today! We are called to rejoice that Messiah has come. The long awaited promise to Abraham, the blessing that is for the whole world has come at last!
Let us rejoice to live in the light! Let us live in the light of a loving, merciful, compassionate, welcoming embracing, forgiving Heavenly Father! And let us take up that light and bear it out into the selfish darkness of our day!