Sermon for Presentation of our Lord Sunday – February 2, 2020
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I love the elderly. I hope to be one of them some day. When it came time for me to do my summer-long clinical pastor education residency, I chose to do my learning as a student chaplain at a nursing home in the Bay Area. I had friends who were chaplains at San Quentin prison, others at emergency rooms in downtown Oakland, while I sat with people who were at the very end of their lives. It was there that I really came to appreciate the wisdom that so many older people have. I’m not trying to flatter anyone here today. There are some ornery old cusses among the aged as well! But even the ornery ones (who are some of my favorites) usually have something to teach us.
I had one elderly gentleman at the nursing home who had been a stage manager for Billie Holiday – the legendary jazz singer who died when she was only 44 after years of alcoholism and drug abuse. This man, now a devout Christian, had seen so much. He told me stories of despair and hope, of suffering and sin and redemption, of death and the new life he had found in Jesus. I would come to the nursing home fresh out of classes on Luther’s Theology of the Cross. I had knowledge. I could quote freely from Luther’s Heidelberg Disputations of 1518. But this man had lived the theology of the cross. I cherish the lectures I heard from Dr. Tim Lull and Fred Gaiser and Gerhard Forde, but this man pointed me to Christ Jesus in a different way. As he was so very near the end of his life, he held on to Christ with both hands, inviting me to do the same – such that it was sometimes hard to tell who was being a chaplain to whom.
This morning we get to spend some time with a couple of elderly people, each of whom, in their own way, have some wisdom to impart to us. Each of whom point us to Christ Jesus.
First we have Simeon. Simeon is described as righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. One day Simeon was at the temple in Jerusalem and he saw a young family. There was the mother, so very young. There was the father, looking tired but proud. There was the baby, just over a month old, with a fuzzy head and that milky-sweet new baby smell. This was a devout young family. They were keeping the law laid out in the book of Leviticus by coming to the temple. The mother was to undergo the ritual of purification that all Jewish women went through after giving birth. The child was to be presented on the fortieth day of his life to the Lord God, along with a sacrifice. The prescribed sacrifice was a lamb, but scripture allowed for a sliding scale. If you couldn’t afford a lamb, two turtledoves would suffice. This young couple barely had two denarii to rub together, and so they offered the doves. Simeon saw the child and somehow knew that he was the One. He saw the child and somehow knew he was the Messiah, the Savior, the one who had come to bring both consolation to Israel and light to the Gentiles. He took this baby in his arms and he sang a song:
Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people.
A light to reveal you to the nations, and the glory of your people, Israel.
With his song, old Simeon is teaching us some important things about Christ. He teaches us that Jesus is the glory of Israel, the fulfillment of everything God had promised to his chosen people. Now that the Lord himself had come into his holy temple, he was no longer hidden away in the inner sanctum, obscured by a curtain or a wisp of smoke. Now he was right there in Simeon’s arms, revealing the glory of God! Moreover, Simeon teaches us through his song that Jesus is a light not only to the Jewish people, but a light revealing God to all people. He is a light revealed to the nations, as was promised to Abraham so long ago. And because the Messiah has come, because the Savior has come, because the Lord has come as this forty-day old baby, Simeon teaches us that we can “go in peace.”
This song of Simeon has been used in Christian worship services since the fourth century. It has traditionally been part of evening worship services so that, having received the Lord in his Word, we would go home in peace to sleep. It has been used the Anglican tradition at the Burial of the Dead, making an obvious connection to Simeon going to the end of his life with peace, having held the Savior in his own arms, seeing him as God had promised. When Martin Luther set about to reform the medieval liturgy, he wanted Simeon’s song be sung every Sunday after the celebration of the Lord’s Supper to remind us that in the Supper we take hold of Jesus in our own hands, and so we can go in peace to serve the Lord.
Simeon wasn’t just gaga over a cute baby. He knew that this was the Messiah. He knew this baby was the Savior. He even knew what this child would eventually endure in order to save us. And so after blessing the Holy Family, he leaned over to Mary and said that this child was destined for the rising and falling of many, and that a sword would pierce her own soul too.
Old Simeon has wisdom for us – the wisdom of faith, the wisdom of trusting in God’s promises, the wisdom of the cross, the wisdom of holding on to Jesus with both hands so that we might go in peace.
We have another elderly friend to visit this morning. We also have Anna. Anna was eighty-four years old, widowed after only seven years of marriage. Anna practically lived at the temple. She was there all the time! You know the type – we have a few of those here at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church, folks who are here so much I’m surprised their mail doesn’t come here! Anna never left the temple, Luke tells us. She was there all the time, worshipping, fasting, and praying, night and day.
When Mary and Joseph and Jesus showed up at the temple, like Simeon, Anna knew that her Lord had come. Anna began to praise God. And then Anna did something that Simeon didn’t – at least we’re not told he did. Anna began to tell others about Jesus. Luke tells us that Anna began “to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Anna started pointing others to Christ. “The Lord has come!” she told them. “The Lord is in his holy temple!” “The one who has come to redeem Jerusalem is here!”
Anna shows us that when it comes to evangelism, when it comes to witness, when it comes to pointing the people around us to Jesus, there is no such thing as retirement! Anna was preaching Christ at eighty-four years old! Anna’s many years of prayer and fasting and worship gave her a wisdom such that she was able to perceive the coming of the Messiah, and even at eighty-four years old she was pointing people to him.
In an age of rapidly changing technology, the wisdom of older people is often overlooked. I remember being a teenager and being asked to set the clock on the VCR and thinking that adults were hopelessly dumb. Now I can’t hardly do anything on my smartphone without one of my boys walking me through it, and I’m not even 50 yet! Our technology-driven culture often values the knowledge of youth more than the wisdom of the aged.
But today we all would do well to listen to these elderly saints Simeon and Anna. We would do well to listen to their wisdom and their witness. They saw the Lord come into his holy temple. They saw the promises of God fulfilled after so many years of waiting and watching and hoping. They saw the arrival of the One who came to save us all.
Simeon teaches us to take hold of Jesus with both hands, to take him into our arms just as he did, to hold onto him with our heads and our hearts, to trust him.
As we take hold of Jesus, we can go in peace. Whether we’re going to our beds or to our graves, because God has sent us Jesus, we can go in peace.
As we take hold of Jesus here today as he comes to us in bread and wine, we can go in peace to serve our Lord. We can go out with Simeon’s song on our lips:
O Lord now let your servant, depart in heav’nly peace,
for I have seen the glory of your redeeming grace:
a light to lead the nations until your holy hill,
the glory of your people, your chosen Israel.
Simeon teaches us the song.
Anna teaches us to share it with others.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church