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The Privilege of Seeing the Future

December 28, 2008 – First Sunday of Christmastide 

Luke 2:22-40

22When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

 25Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 
 29“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, 
      you now dismiss your servant in peace. 
 30For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
    31which you have prepared in the sight of all people, 
 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles 
      and for glory to your people
Israel.”

 33The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,35so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

 36There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

 39When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

Predicting the Future

 

Here we are at the end of another year.  The news media has begun their standard “Best of 2008” articles and features.  We have reviewed the best electronic gadgets of 2008 – cell phones kind of led the way there.  We have also been treated to the most admired people of 2008 – Barack Obama won that contest going away, it seems. And, before the year is over, we’ll see more of the “Best of….” and “Worst of…” lists for 2008. 

 

Following close on the heels of the stories that look back at 2008, are those that look ahead to 2009.  Writers and producers are already picking the trends that will “change your life” is 2009.  Of course, cell phones are at the top of that list, too, so maybe 2009 is not going to be al that different from 2008.  We have a new administration that takes office in January, and pundits are already speculating on either the “success” or “failure” of the Obama administration before it even begins.  I saw a CNN article the other day asking if “America’s honeymoon” with Barack Obama was over.  And, he’s not even president yet! 

 

I’m old enough to remember the 1950s.  Now that was a decade that could predict the future.  We were told that the kitchens of tomorrow would do all the work of food preparation automatically.  And, while some devices like the microwave have speeded up the popping of popcorn, not too much has changed in the kitchen as far as I can tell. 

 

But the big promise of the 1950s was that by the next century we would all be riding in flying cars.  Remember those?  “Highways in the sky” I remember one article calling them.  Well, no flying cars. 

 

But, then some of the things that seemed amusing, but useless did come about.  Like Dick Tracy’s wrist radio.  Okay, not exactly, but cell phones (there they are again) are pretty close.  I actually saw a wrist-mounted cell phone with camera (remember Dick Tracy’s 2-way wrist radio got upgraded to a TV?), and the article remarked that Dick Tracy would have been proud.

 

Some other things have happened that no one foresaw.  Like the ability to communicate instantly around the world for free.  The internet has changed lots of things, giving us a portal into worlds we would never have visited, or been able to access before.

 

And, no mention of predicting the future would be complete without reference to my favorite psychic, Jean Dixon.  Remember Jean Dixon?  1960s psychic, whose track record was spotty at best.  Yet on every late December National Inquirer, there she was offering up her 10 predictions for the coming year.  And, right or wrong, she would be back the next year for another shot at getting it right.

 

Seeing The Future

 

But, our story today is not about predicting the future as much as it is about seeing the future.  In Luke’s second chapter we find two of my favorite characters in the story of Jesus’ birth – Simeon and Anna.  Both Simeon and Anna are somewhat mysterious figures.  Luke gives us only a sketch about each one:

 

n      Simeon, a devout righteous man who lives in Jerusalem.  The Spirit of God is upon him, and moved by the Spirit Simeon goes to the Temple and encounters Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.

n      Anna, described as a prophetess and widow.  Anna, whose husband died perhaps 60-years ago, and who has stayed in the Temple courts since that time. 

 

Two very old and odd characters, but they give us a glimpse into the future because God has let them see it. 

 

Simeon is quoted directly by Luke: 

 

29“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, 
      you now dismiss your servant in peace. 
 30For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
    31which you have prepared in the sight of all people, 
 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles 
      and for glory to your people
Israel.”

 

And, then turning to Mary, Simeon says:

 

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,35so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

 

What’s in the pronouncements of this old man?  On the surface, Simeon seems like every other devout Jewish elder – he prays for the “consolation of Israel” which is a phrase understood in the first century to mean the coming of the Messiah of God, the Christ.  That was the prayer daily of devout Jews, particularly under the oppressive weight of the Roman occupation.

 

But there is more to Simeon than just an oft-repeated prayer.  Simeon has been told by the Holy Spirit that he will not die until he sees the Lord’s Christ, the Messiah.  And, the Holy Spirit moves Simeon to go to the Temple that day, at that hour, for the most important moment of his life.

 

Mary and Joseph have come to the Temple to follow the ritual purification law, and to redeem Jesus as their firstborn son.  The redemption of the firstborn is first seen in Exodus 13, as Moses prepares the Israelites for the exodus from Egypt.  Moses tells them that in future they are to redeem their firstborn son, by offering a sacrifice to God, and then they are to explain to the son why they are observing this ritual.  Of course, Jesus is too young to comprehend what is happening, but as Mary and Joseph prepare to “redeem” their firstborn, Simeon sees the baby and takes him in his arms.

 

Can you imagine Mary’s concern?  When your children were small, did you ever have someone pick them up, or try to take them from you?  Well-intended as people are, those actions make mothers, and fathers, very nervous. 

 

But somehow, Simeon’s face showed his faith, and his kindness calmed their fears.  But then Simeon says very strange things indeed – quoting from the prophet Isaiah, talking about how this child will be a light for the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel.  That, after all, was how the prophet referred to the Messiah! 

 

But then Simeon turns to Mary.  Now the future is not so grandiose, it becomes much more personal.  Jesus, Simeon says, will cause the rise and fall of many.  He will be a sign that will be spoken against.  And, a sword will pierce your heart, too, he says to Mary.  Her heart, too?  Will Jesus side be pierced?  And so the shadow of the cross falls across this firstborn male child, this son of God, this babe who is God incarnate. 

 

Before Mary and Joseph can recover from Simeon’s words, or fully understand them, Anna, an old prophetess appears.  Called Anna in Luke’s gospel, she has the same name as Hannah, the mother of Samuel.  Hannah means “the Lord was gracious.”  Anna runs around telling all who will listen that this child will bring about the redemption of Jerusalem, meaning the entire nation.

 

The Future of God Involves His People

 

Can you imagine what Mary and Joseph must have felt?  A strange sense of pride because two old devout Jews, a man and a woman, have told of wondrous things that will involve their son, their Jesus. 

 

Not too many years before she died, my mother told me the story of a woman who came to our home when my dad was a seminary student at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.  I was about 3 or 4 at the time.  As the woman was leaving, she turned to my mother and looking at me she said, “That boy is going to be a preacher.” 

 

Now that might not have been such a hard guess to make.  After all, there we were at Southwestern Seminary where my father was preparing for ministry.  “Like father, like son” is an old saying for a reason.  But, still my mother cherished that moment, telling me about only much later in life after I had indeed become a preacher. 

 

There is something we want to believe when others tell us our children are talented, or capable, or destined for big things.  Even if we only half-way believe it, or don’t put much stock in it, we still like to hear it said about our own children.

 

And, so Mary and Joseph that day must have gone home with a glow inside their hearts. 

 

That would all quickly be replaced by their flight to Egypt to escape the terror of Herod who was killing all the boy babies.  And so Mary must have thought about the second part of Simeon’s prophecy, that Jesus would be a sign spoken against, and a sword would pierce Mary’s heart, too. 

 

But still, there it was, a glimpse of the future.  A promise that Jesus would play a role in God’s salvation story, the redemption of Israel.  And, just maybe the Gentiles, too, although I am sure Mary and Joseph had little comprehension of what that might mean.  For the Jews were no missionary people.  They were not sharing their position in God’s future with anyone.  If they had a future, for that looked very dark at the time of Jesus’ birth. 

 

Seeing The Future Again

 

Looking back on the words of Simeon and Anna, we can see that they did come true.  Simeon and Anna did know what they were talking about, their prophecying was really from God.  Jesus, we now know, would cause the fall and rise of many, would be a sign spoken against, would attract opposition, suffer, and die. 

 

But, just as Simeon and Anna also said, Jesus would be a light for the Gentiles and for the glory of God’s people.  He would be the consolation of Israel, he would redeem Jerusalem spiritually. 

 

And what of today?  Can we see the future of God today as Simeon and Anna did?  Some can still see that future.  One such person was Sundar Singh. 

 

Sundar Singh was born into a wealthy and religious family in India in 1889.  As he grew, his mother especially was concerned for Sundar’s spiritual growth and enlightenment.  She not only sent Sundar to study with Christian missionaries, she also had a Hindu holyman, a sadhu, come to their home to instruct young Sundar. 

 

But, at the age of 14, after his mother’s death, Sundar Singh was an angry young man.  So angry that one day he brought a Bible home, called all the neighbors around, and one by one burned its pages in the fire.  His father was outraged at the disrespect showed for the Christian religion, even though he himself was not a Christian. 

 

That night, as a reproved Sundar lay down to sleep, he prayed that God would reveal himself to him, or if not, Sundar was prepared to take his own life by lying down on the train tracks near his home. 

 

In the night, Sundar Singh recounted, a strange glow came into his room.  Sundar searched for the source of the light, but all was still an dark outside his room.  As the light grew brighter, Sundar saw a figure in the light, a figure that in his words seemed “strange yet familiar.” 

 

Then, a voice spoke to him in Urdu, his tribal language – “Sundar, how long will you mock me?  I have come to save you because you prayed to find the way of truth.  Why then don’t you accept it?” 

 

Sundar said that it was then that he saw the marks of blood on the hands and feet of this person whom he knew to be Jesus.  He said at that moment he was filled with deep sorrow and remorse for his conduct, but also with a wonderful peace.  And though the vision was gone, the peace and joy remained.

 

A Different Future

 

Sundar was soon baptized by the local missionaries.  Renounced by his father for accepting the Christian faith, 33 days after his baptism Sundar set out on foot, wearing the robes of a “sadhu” – a Hindu holy man who traveled on foot, and depended on the kindness of others for his food and shelter.

 

Although Hindu sadhus never bathed – a sign of a true holy man – Sundar did.  And as he walked from village to village, he talked to his people in the language they understood about the Master he followed.

 

Word spread of the “apostle with the bleeding feet” as he was called.  Walking barefoot across rocky terrain inflicted cuts on Sundar’s feet, yet still he carried the message of Christ. 

 

Speaking to his people in India, and then in Tibet and other countries, Sundar Singh used common words, illustrations from everyday life, and stories familiar to those cultures to tell them of the God who created the world and sent his son to save his people. 

 

Sundar Singh was heralded as a great and original evangelist.  He spoke in Europe, England, and around the world.  His biography was written and rewritten, and he was called the greatest evangelist India had ever known. 

 

God is still in the business of showing people the future. But God shows us the future, not just for our own benefit, but for the blessing of the world.  Like Simeon, our prayer should be to see the Lord’s redemption. Like Anna, our witness should be of Jesus who is the redeemer of all creation.  Like Sundar Singh, our prayer should be a search for the truth so that we may live our lives into the future that God has prepared for his creation.