Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Luke 2: 22-38)
I have seen it happen more times than I can count, and every time it is mysterious and it is beautiful.
A loved one is dying. Maybe their illness happened suddenly, or maybe it’s been building for a while, like a slow-moving storm approaching. But they are bed-ridden now, at the local Hospice House or in the comforts of their home. By now, word has gotten out to all the necessary people – immediate family, extended family, longtime friends who are like family. You need to come to see Grandma soon. She is not long for this world.
The doctors are saying that she could go anytime now. In fact, from a medical perspective it’s a bit of a surprise that she’s still here. Lingering, hanging on. The question is, for what?
Some family members have just flown in from Europe. A beloved granddaughter, her husband and three great grandkids. They’ve lived in Paris for over a decade. They got here as fast as they could. Their biggest fear during the ten-hour flight across the Atlantic was that she would pass before they got to see her. They were fully prepared for that possibility.
But lo and behold, she is still there when they arrive straight from the airport. Not very responsive, although she did give her youngest great grandchild what sure felt like an intentional squeeze of the hand, as if to say, I hear you. I see you. Together with the other gathered family they swap stories, they sing songs, they love on her before finally leaving for the night.
Grandma dies an hour later.
And although she had no way of expressing to it, it sure seems like Grandma willed herself to stick around just a little bit longer, long enough to see all the people she wanted to see, long enough to say all the goodbyes she needed to say, including that beloved granddaughter and her husband and three great grandkids from Europe. Somehow holding off the inevitability of death until she finally got to see what she was waiting to see.
I have seen this happen more times than I can count, my friends; and every time it is mysterious and beautiful. And it feels right. Like it’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be.
Our scripture today bears a striking similarities to this scenario – this sweet story of two people in their twilight who finally see what they have been waiting all their lives to see, what had long ago been promised to them: Emmanuel, God-with-Us, God come into the world to be in the world. We meet Simeon, a devout and righteous man. And we also meet Anna, a prophetess at the ripe old age of 84. It’s made clear to us that both are near the end of their earthly life, and that both have been waiting to see Jesus. Or, as the scriptures say, waiting for the consolation of Israel. The Greek word translated “consolation” here, paraklesis, literally means encouragement or comfort. Which was exactly what Simeon and Anna and all of God’s people needed most. Times had been tough on the faithful for hundreds of years, and Simeon and Anna were the embodiment of that hopeful, anguished waiting, praying for God to finally do what God has long promised to do.
Holding off the inevitability of death until they finally got to see what they’d been waiting to see.
Now I don’t know about you, but I like to think of Simeon as the longtime church member, the one who’s seemingly there whenever the doors are open, and sometimes when they’re not. The perennial church volunteer, happy to serve wherever they are needed. Greeter one Sunday. Nursery worker the next. His own children have long grown up and left, but he is a father and grandfather figure to many. He knows what’s going on in their lives. He cares deeply. He sends cards of congratulation and encouragement. And on the rare Sunday when he’s not there, the people wonder if something has happened to him.
And I like to think of Anna as the quintessential church matriarch. She’s taught the same adult Sunday school class for as long as anyone can remember – and she’s taught it with a wisdom that leaves you both impressed and inspired, and those are not always the same thing. She is a wealth of knowledge and insight, but no one finds it or her intimidating or overbearing. She has seen it all. She possesses a wonderful ability to view both the big picture as well as what’s right in front. She has a reverence for tradition but you’ll never hear her complain about change, because if there’s one thing that wisdom has shown her time and time again, if there’s one thing she knows for certain in this uncertain life, it is that God is always doing a new thing.
The minute Simeon sees Mary and Joseph bringing baby Jesus to the temple, he knows. He knows! How, we wonder? How does he know? No one else notices. To everyone else, this is nothing more than two parents bringing their baby to the temple for his customary circumcision. Two poor parents, as it turns out. The turtle doves are what gives that away. Scripture notes the turtle doves that Mary and Joseph bring to the temple. Turns out that turtle doves are not only, according to a well-known Christmas tune, what one brings to their true love on the second day of Christmas. More importantly, they were the sacrifice of choice for temple-goers who could not afford a proper lamb or goat.
To everyone else in the temple that day, nothing about this scene was noteworthy – two young, poor parents just getting by, dutifully bringing their son on the eighth day after his birth. No doubt there had been thousands of Marys and Josephs who had done the same thing over the years, and no doubt our beloved Simeon had seen every last one of them walking through the doors.
But Mary and Joseph are not quite like all those other parents, and Jesus certainly was unlike any other tiny baby brought to the temple. And only Simeon sees it. No one else does. Simeon takes baby Jesus in his arms – which raises the question: what did Mary and Joseph think this? This old man, unknown to them, reaching for their newborn. Were they previously aware of Simeon? Or did they see in him what they had seen in other Simeons before?
We don’t know. All we know is that Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and sings a song. Songs, as we have been talking about this Advent, are more than just words set to music. They are a timeless message that takes root deep in the recesses of our soul; a melody that gets stuck in there and will not let us go. Simeon’s song is one of immeasurable gratitude and hope – hope in the child he holds in his arms that he knows is not just any child, and gratitude that God has made good on God’s promise to grant Simeon the chance to see him.
It is not long after that Anna appears on the scene and sees the same thing Simeon does, the same thing that no one else seems to notice. And while it’s not a song that comes out of her mouth, it is nevertheless praise to a God who gives Anna the greatest gift she could ever receive: the culmination of all those hopes and dreams she carried in her, prophesied about, and gave testimony to for 84 years. The consolation, encouragement, comfort of beloved Israel.
Make no mistake: this is a sweet, sweet story. One of the sweetest in the whole birth narrative. But it is not without a little edge to it. I’ll let Trinity patron saint Frederick Buechner explain:
(Mary and Joseph) were pleased as punch about the blessing Simeon gave their baby, so he blessed them too for good measure. Until something about the mother stopped him, and his expression changed. What he saw in her face was a long way off, but it was there so plainly he couldn’t pretend. ‘A sword will pierce your soul,’ he said. He would rather have bitten off his tongue than say it, but in that holy place he had no choice. Then he handed her back the baby and departed in something less than the perfect peace he’d dreamed of all the long years of his waiting.”
A sword will pierce your soul. In the same way Simeon had seen the hope of the world in this child, he also saw in that moment where his road would eventually lead, and the pain and anguish it would cause his mother. Hope, it turns out, can sometimes leave a mark, so precarious its promise.
Tell me this, Advent people – what is it like to hope in something that has not yet happened, to put your whole trust in something that has not come to pass? Tell me this, waiting people – how does it feel to wait and wait and wait some more, only the words of a lingering promise left for you to hold on to?
I want you to know that, as your pastor, I think about you a lot. It’s what we do. I think about those of you who, like Simeon, like Anna, have been in this church for decades upon decades. You who have seen it all. You who have faithfully served this church while pastors have come and gone; you who’ve stayed with this church through the good times and the bad, times when things were relatively stable and times when everything was turned upside down. I think about you.
I think about those of you who, like Mary, like Joseph, are relatively new to the scene, who are trying to make ends meet or just trying to make sense of it all. You who are looking for a blessing, desperate for a good word, longing for a community that chooses to embrace you as you are and does not ask you to be someone you are not.
And I think of the youngest of you who, like Jesus, are at the beginning of your journey; just looking for a place to belong, to be, to not have to fit a mold or expectation that the grownups put on you. You who are dealing with stress, anxiety, and a heaviness of life that the older among us cannot fathom you having to bear. You who above all else need a place where you are safe, where you are cherished, and where you are loved.
I think about all of us – this beloved community of faith, this band of Jesus-followers, waiting and hoping for God to move mightily in our world. Will we see it when it happens? When it walks through our front doors, will we recognize it? Will we be like Simeon and Anna, waiting patiently, serving faithfully, leaving everything else to God? Will we come to understand that this waiting – arduous and painful as it sometimes can be – this active waiting actually leads us to a deeper vision, a heightened awareness, a greater sense of hope? Will we be prepared to welcome Jesus not just into our predetermined categories, all boxed nice and neat into our comfort zones, but will we let him loose in our hearts, in this church, in our community and our world, in such a way that we are changed from the inside out? When that moment finally comes, will we see it?
Wait with me, dear siblings in Christ. Wait with great expectation. Wait, knowing the waiting will not last forever. Wait with me and join me in a song of hope – for it is a melody we’ve been hearing for a long, long time, and it is also a song that will leave a mark on our hearts. A song we sing in anticipation of that glorious moment when our eyes will see your salvation, God, a salvation prepared in the presence of all your people, a light of revelation to the whole world and an everlasting glory to your people here.
Wait with me. Wait so we can all see what we have been waiting for.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 From Frederick Buechner’s character sketch of Simeon in Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 156-157.