Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
For many of us, these words of Simeon which we have just heard, “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”, signal a blessed departure from Evensong. I remember once being at a particularly tedious Evensong where we had a very long reading from the book of Genesis. The reader went on and on and eventually concluded, quite properly with ‘Here endeth the lesson’, to which one of the congregation humourously replied, ‘Thanks be to God’. Here though, the departure in mind is Simeon’s departure from this life, having beheld God’s promised salvation. A fulfilled promise which brings to an end Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth and reminds us of the strange way God fulfils his promises. To appreciate this though, we need to step back and look at the rest of the story Luke tells about the coming of the Messiah.
Luke’s story begins and ends in the temple, the symbol of God’s living presence among his people. In the first chapter we find a priest called Zechariah on the duty rota to offer incense to God in the temple. He had probably done it a hundred times before. He’d get his charcoal going and put some incense on it and wave it about, nothing out of the ordinary about this fairly mundane ritual. Except this time was different. This time, as Zechariah was waving his censer and the people were praying outside, an angle appeared. Zechariah, was understandably terrified. But the angel calmed his nerves and gave him a message. He was told that he and his wife, Elizabeth, who were both very old would have a son, a son who would make Israel ready for God’s return to them. In the words of Malachi, the Lord they sought would suddenly come to his temple, and Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, would be the one to prepare his way.
Now, at the end of Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus, we return to the temple. Here, another elderly man receives a message from God. Not this time in the form of an angel coming from heaven, but as the fulfilment of a promise which God had made many years before. Simeon could depart this world in peace knowing that in the baby he held in his arms, he had seen salvation. At this moment, the Lord had returned to his house as Malachi had prophesied. But look at the way in which he comes into his temple.
Many expected the Lord to come as a warrior to occupy that which was his by right. But he comes as a child. ‘Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’, but none had realised that they would fall, not beneath the might of a conquering war-lord, but would be silenced by a baby that needed to be carried. So often we want to see shock and awe, for our enemies to fall beneath incontrovertible force, whether intellectually or politically. We respect strong leaders who get things done, whatever the cost. And so often the church looks little different to the world. We want to have our way, on general synod, even perhaps in this church. We can be tempted to use coercion to win the day. But though we might win the battle, it will be at the expense of our soul. If we are Christians then we are followers of Jesus, and the manner of Jesus’ coming turns our conceptions of power and influence on their head.
Yes the Lord is like a refining fire, he purifies his people. But how does the Lord purify? Not violently and destructively, but by bringing them light. Yes, the Lord will restore the glory of his people. Not by destroying his enemies though, but by making this child a light for the enlightenment of the gentiles, allowing those who were his enemies to become his friends. The outcasts are to be admitted to his holy nation and this will be the glory of Israel. This wasn’t the revelation the world was expecting, and it certainly wasn’t the sort of glory Israel had wanted and prayed for. But it was what God had intended, and it was, in reality, more truthful and glorious than they could have ever expected. Perhaps sometimes, we need to be open to God leading us into better future than we could have imagined by ourselves?
The Lord comes to Judge. But how does he judge? Notice that we often talk about “the rise and fall” of people, nations, empires. But not here. With Jesus the order is reversed. He will cause the falling and rising of many in Israel. He will cause us to stumble and to be seen for what we truly are, but he will also lift us back up back up to new life in him. No one will be immune from falling under this judgement and restoration, not even Jesus’ mother. His sword of judgement would pierce here own soul too, as she came to realise that her relationship with her son was not to be one of a mother but of a disciple. Yes, Mary had to learn this like the rest of us; we all come to Jesus the same way. And it would be by his hand that she would also be raised back up too.
When the Lord comes to his temple, he surprises us with his lowliness, with his willingness to step down and become weak, and this not only judges our attempts to find our worth in strength and power over others, but frees us from the burden of having to mask our own failings and weakness.
St Augustine of Hippo wrote,
Human pride pressed us down so low, that divine humility alone could lift us up.” (Sermon 188)
And so when we embrace divine humility, when we embrace the God who shows his power and glory through weakness, we are transformed and raised up. The salvation Simeon saw was a baby, the saving presence of a God who gently changes the world, who refuses to fight fire with fire, who refuses to save by violence or coercion, a God who chooses to identify with humanity, not in its pride and aggression, but in its weakness and vulnerability. Simeon and Anna had waited a lifetime to arrive at this moment of seeing God’s salvation, of holding it in their hands. But for Mary and Joseph, this was going to be the beginning of a much longer story. And it is a story which we are caught up into as well. We must learn to follow Jesus into the deepest darkness, to the places where human life is regarded as dispensable and cheap, to put aside our pride and status and to raise up those who have fallen. And in doing this we will be showing Christ’s light to the world, we will become mirrors which reflect the light of the world into the gloom, we will become people who lead others into liberty.