IN WITH THE NEW
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
December 31, 2017, 1st Sunday after Christmas, Year B
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Luke 2:22-40
“Simeon took [Jesus] 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…’”
(A first-person sermon.)
Yesterday I saw the most extraordinary thing. I’d been at the Temple for several hours – you know I spend a lot of time there, these days. When you’re as old as I, it seems the best place to be. I’d been at my prayers for some time, intoning those Hebrew words that run through our minds as easy as blood through the veins… nodding to the other old men I see there… and – if truth be told – dozing a bit. I make it a practice to come to the Temple each morning – although the cracking of my knees, as I rise from my bed, makes it all too plain how much more comfortable it would be to stay at home.
I do make the trip, though, leaning heavily on my staff; and I imagine what the other people must say as I pass them by: “There goes old Simeon, looking every bit as ancient as Father Abraham!” But still I make the journey. I make it because I don’t want to miss what could happen one day, there in the Temple. And, as it turns out – praise the Most High! – on this particular day I didn’t.
I haven’t spoken of this to many others: it’s not the sort of subject you bring up with someone you’ve just met. They may think you’re a few denarii short of a full purse, if you know what I mean. One day, several years ago, I was busy with my prayers as usual, when my mind started to wander. I’ve been at this business of prayer long enough to know that it’s never a straight-line journey. Your thoughts wander in and out of the mind’s narrow alleyways, and every once in a while you encounter something you never expected to find.
That’s the way it was for me. I’d been looking at my hands – marveling at how bony and age-spotted they’ve become – when my thoughts wandered over to the subject of my own death. It’s a topic that’s never far from your mind, when you’ve seen as many winters as I have. I tried, then, to calculate how many hours I must have spent at my prayers in the Temple, over the course of my entire life – and I gave up on that task as utterly hopeless. I felt a sadness come upon me, then: a sadness not so much at the fact of my death itself – which surely cannot be far away – but a sadness at how many of those prayers of mine have gone unanswered: a lone voice echoing in an empty room.
Mostly I felt sad about the coming of Messiah. For so many years have I prayed – along with all the rest of Israel – that his arrival would not be long delayed. I’ve always imagined that, one day, these old eyes would behold him.
On that day, I knew it for certain. Don’t ask me how, but I’ve always had a feeling that the Most High had a purpose in allowing me to live so long, to stand by and watch so many friends leave this earth, until I alone was left. I’ve come to believe the Lord was giving me the privilege of seeing the long-expected One before I die. Call me a foolish old man, but the longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve become convinced that this – and this alone – is why I’m still here.
There are some who have reached my exalted age feeling little concern for the lives of the young – but you know me, I’ve always taken a keen interest in the rising generations. Standing on the steps outside the Temple, there’s nothing I like better than to watch the young parents, as they carry their firstborn sons in for the ceremony of dedication. So full of hope and joy are they! It’s a proud, proud moment for them, with their families gathered all around.
I’ve seen joy on their faces as they lead in the chosen lamb for the sacrifice – a perfect, pure-white beast. Not every family can afford such a lamb, of course – but every couple gathers up their coins to buy one, if they can. The dedication of a firstborn son is no occasion for frugality.
But back to the present. My prayers were ended, and I was slowly making my way outside, when I saw them: a mother carrying her little baby, her husband by her side. The father was leading no little white lamb: he carried, instead, a couple of turtledoves inside a battered wooden cage. The presence of those cooing birds said it all: for you know, the Law of Moses, in its abundant mercy, makes allowances for the poorest of the poor. Those two birds fulfill the minimum requirement. They are a poor man’s offering, no doubt about it.
Yet there was something about this couple – ordinary as they were – that made my eyes linger on them. The mother was so very young, but there was a sort of peace reflected in her face – a peace I have rarely seen, even in women of my own age and experience. She averted her eyes from mine, as all virtuous women do – but before she did, I caught in them a glint of something I can only describe as holy. As for the father, he showed no self-consciousness at bearing such a paltry offering. Clearly, for him it was all about his wife and his son: that was plain to see.
I walked over to them, and – leaning my staff against a pillar – I reached out my hands to the young mother. Without a word, she placed the child into them. It was almost as though she had expected me to be there. Now that I think of it, perhaps that’s what I’ve always been doing, in the Temple – waiting for them to arrive.
He was a tiny little thing, that baby – and he slept on, so peacefully, all the time I held him. If you asked me how I knew he was the one, I couldn’t tell you, exactly. The best I can say is that I felt a kind of joy, that started somewhere in the deepest part of me, and radiated outward. My hands no longer shook, my knees no longer ached, and I think I stood straighter than I had for many a year.
I don’t recall where the words came from, but suddenly I heard myself speaking. “Master,” I said to the Lord,
“now you can release your servant;
release me in peace as you promised.
For with my own eyes have I seen your salvation;
now it is out in the open for everyone to see:
A God-revealing light to all the nations,
and of everlasting glory for your people Israel.”
There was a kind of surprise in the parents’ faces as I said these words. Clearly, they had not expected such a thing. But they made no move to take the child from me, and for that I was grateful. I had the distinct feeling that these two had seen far stranger things in recent days than an old man waxing poetic over the miracle of a child.
I offered them the traditional blessing, and then I turned to the mother to give the child back. For the first time, she looked me full in the face. I was struck, just then, by the beauty of her spirit. Yet there was also a kind of sadness there, lingering in those eyes that seemed both young and lively – and, at the same time, as old as creation. “This child,” I said to her, quietly,
“marks both the failure and
the recovery of many in Israel,
A figure misunderstood and contradicted –
the pain of a sword-thrust through you –
But the rejection will force honesty,
as God reveals who they really are.”
I felt the need to warn her, somehow – to warn her that, as the mother of this child, her path would not be easy. But I think she knew it already.
Then I looked up, and saw old Anna coming forward. Anna spent her days in the women’s section of the Temple, as I spent my days in the men’s. Rarely had we spoken to one another (for that would have been unseemly), but as we passed each other coming in or going out, now and again we would catch each other’s eye, recognizing a kindred spirit.
She, too, came up to the child – as though something had drawn her there. I saw tears in her old eyes (as I suppose there were in mine, as well). She, too, offered up words of prayer to the Lord, and began to beckon to others – as though to say “Come and see – see this child for whom we have waited!” The others probably thought she was daft – making such a fuss over this ordinary-looking couple. But it did my heart good to see her. It was good to know someone else had seen it as well: God’s love wrapped up in human flesh.
It’s plain for anyone to see that my days are nearly ended – as are Anna’s, too, I suppose. You who are younger may imagine it makes me sad to admit such a thing. But that’s not the way of it. You see, I have dwelt in the presence of the Lord for so long that I know it is no sad thing to witness the passing of the old. It would, in fact, be far sadder to see the old hang on forever.
Isaiah the prophet knew this, I am quite certain. He spoke for the Lord when he wrote,
“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.”
And again the prophet writes,
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.”
Blessed am I among all God’s people, for with my own eyes have I seen this salvation! If you keep your eyes open, and your heart pure, perhaps you may see it too.
[Scripture passages from the song of Simeon are adapted from Eugene Peterson, The Message : The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003), Lk 2:29-35.]
Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.