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Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on New Year’s Day Sunday, January 1, 2012.  Whatever 2012 holds, the point Luke is making in this story about Simeon is that Jesus changes the future. 

Jesus Still Changes The Future

Luke 2:22-40 NIV/84

22 When 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”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now 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. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 Moved 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, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

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

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then 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,35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There 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, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming 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.

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

Happy New Year!

This is the first day of 2012.  Already around the world journalists have chronicled the changing of the calendar, reporting on the ceremonies and celebrations that ushered out the old year, and ushered in the new.  The oddest of all those celebrations was in Samoa where they decided to move themselves across the international dateline.

The Samoans made the switch by eliminating December 30 this year.  Asia and Australia are roughly 12-or-so-hours ahead of us here in the United States, so it’s already new year’s night there.  In any event, when you fly to Samoa now you’ll cross the international dateline and leap ahead into the next day.

This idea of a new year resonates with our society because it also holds the promise of a new you – new beginnings, a new start, a fresh opportunity to do the things that we missed out on in 2011.

As this new year dawns, there is no shortage of those who predict the trends for 2012, and even some who predict actual events.  Interestingly this year most predictions seem to center around either politics or the economy or both, which doesn’t require one to be psychic to hazard a guess in one direction or another.  We seem to want to know what the future holds by giving it our best guess, and when that doesn’t work out, we look forward to the next year, and go at it again.

Simeon Saw The Future of God

With all this talk about the future, it’s fitting that the lectionary Gospel reading today comes from Luke 2:22-40.  It’s one of my favorite stories around the birth of Jesus because it features two very ordinary people, Simeon and Anna, and their extraordinary vision of the future.

Let’s deal with Simeon first.  We actually know a lot about Simeon.  He lived in Jerusalem, which is not surprising because Jerusalem is the civic and religious center of the nation.  Jerusalem contains the Temple.  And so Simeon is referred to as “righteous” and “devout.”  Which means in simple language, he lived an upright life observing all the Jewish laws and practices, and he participated in the ceremonies in the Temple.

But Simeon is more than an ordinary righteous Jew.  He was waiting for the consolation of Israel – which simply means that which brings the shalom of God to the nation.  In other words, “the consolation of Israel” is the messianic appearance.  If we miss that point, Luke reiterates by saying,

“It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”

So, the Messiah, the Christ, was going to be seen by Simeon before he died, that’s God’s promise to Simeon.

Simeon had seen the future of Israel, and it involved the presence of the Messiah, God’s Anointed, the Christ.

And of course, Simeon is convinced that the baby Jesus, child of Mary and Joseph from all outward appearances, is the Messiah.

Okay, right here let’s take a reality check for just one minute.  We have an old man, Simeon, to whom the Holy Spirit has revealed that before he dies he will see the Messiah in the flesh.  How unlikely is that?

Well, it’s very unlikely.  First of all, no one who hoped for the coming of the Messiah had any inkling that the Messiah would come as a baby.  Because after all, a baby has to grow up, and that takes years.  Thirty years in Jesus’ case, to be exact, before he would begin to preach and teach, and demonstrate the presence of the Kingdom of God through signs and miracles.

No, everyone in that day who was still looking for a Messiah – God’s Anointed – was looking for someone to deliver Judea from the Roman occupiers.  A baby couldn’t do that! The prevailing thought was that a grown man, would be revealed as the Messiah, and then he would vanquish the Roman army, and restore the nation to its former glory.

So, if Simeon is looking for the Lord’s anointed, he should be looking at young men who are strong, fearless, and ready for a confrontation with Rome.  But instead Simeon zeroes in on Mary and Joseph, and little baby Jesus.

Mary and Joseph are in the Temple to offer the sacrifice for her ceremonial cleansing, which was necessary so that she can move from the experience of childbirth back into to normal society.  A Temple sacrifice was the only way to make that happen.

The other factor was that even if you’re looking for a baby who will grow up to be the new Messiah, which baby?  The Temple is a big place, and the sacrifice that Mary and Joseph offer indicates that they were a poor family.  So, even poor families came to the Temple, which on any given day was a chaotic combination of street market, central bank, religious center, and a cool place to hang out.  (Okay, I made up that part about hanging out, but the Temple complex could accommodate thousands of people on any day.)

But somehow, and we are not told how, Simeon is there in the Temple that day and he encounters Mary and Joseph, and he takes the baby Jesus in his arms and says –

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

Note that Simeon is talking about the future, both his and Israel’s.  (Israel was not the geographic or political name for the region that included Judea and the surrounding area.  But the name “Israel” is used by Simeon in the Old Testament sense of the people of God.)

Simeon’s future is very near:  he can now die in peace because God’s promise has been fulfilled to him.

But the future of Israel, the people of God, is also very near because God’s promise of the Messiah has also been fulfilled.  Jesus is God’s “salvation” and God’s “light.”

But the future also has an interesting twist to it.  The future of God’s people Israel, also belongs to everyone else.

Jesus is God’s “revelation” to the Gentiles.  In other words, the future of God involves everyone else, and not just Israel.  But the Messiah is also for the “glory” of Israel.

I think here that Simeon is saying that God will shine a spotlight on his people, Israel, because God’s salvation (which is what the name Yeshua or Jesus actually means) will come from Israel and will be a blessing to all the other nations of the world.

The future involves everybody, in other words. And despite the popular idea among the first century Jews that they were God’s unique people, Simeon knows and reminds Mary and Joseph that he has seen God’s salvation (Jesus) for everybody.

How Jesus Changes The Future

If the future of God is about everybody, all nations and not just Israel, then how does Jesus go about changing it for everybody?

Even though Simeon has seen “God’s salvation” in the baby Jesus, it will take 30 years for that “salvation” to begin to be announced to the world through Jesus earthly ministry.

According to Luke’s Gospel in chapter 4, Jesus begins his ministry by announcing what he is going to do, and how he is going to be able to do it.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

   18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus literally fulfills the promise of God in the book of Isaiah, chapter 61.  But to get the context of this you have to turn back to Isaiah 60.  God promises that the fortunes of Israel will be restored after the Babylonian captivity, which they ultimately are at least for a time, and when compared to the Babylonian captivity itself.  Here’s how Isaiah, speaking the words of God, begins chapter 60:

 1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, 
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

So there are the thoughts of Simeon, taken from the writing of Isaiah.  Isaiah says the “light has come” and it is the glory of the Lord.  And lest Israel think that light is only for them, Isaiah says, “Nations will come to your light…”

Of course, some in Israel will not interpret this as the promise of a messiah.  Many will think that this passage means that God is coming back to Jerusalem, back to the Temple (once it is properly rebuilt and restore).  And, that is true, but this time God’s presence in the Temple will be in person.  God will show up, but he will show up as a little baby, who will be both the light and glory of God.

It’s in that context that Jesus takes the scroll of Isaiah, and then reads a portion of what we call chapter 61, but which was really a part of this passage from chapter 60.  (Chapter and verse divisions we not added to the Bible until the 13th century in a scheme designed by Archbishop Stephen Langton.)

Here’s the portion Jesus reads from Isaiah –

1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, 
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners [
blind in Septuagint]
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor

This is where Jesus stops, but listen to the rest of this passage.  Those who heard Jesus that day would have known and understood that he was reading this short passage as a kind of shorthand way of referring to the rest of the reading from this section.  Listen to what Isaiah says:

…and the day of vengeance of our God, 
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor.

 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
5 Aliens will shepherd your flocks;
foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
6 And you will be called priests of the LORD,
you will be named ministers of our God.
You will feed on the wealth of nations,
and in their riches you will boast.

 7 Instead of their shame
my people will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
they will rejoice in their inheritance;
and so they will inherit a double portion in their land,
and everlasting joy will be theirs.

 8 “For I, the LORD, love justice;
I hate robbery and iniquity.
In my faithfulness I will reward them
and make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants will be known among the nations
and their offspring among the peoples.
All who see them will acknowledge
that they are a people the LORD has blessed.”

 10 I delight greatly in the LORD;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the soil makes the sprout come up
and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness and praise
spring up before all nations.

This is the future when God returns to his people.  Everything will be made right, the nation will prosper, and “righteousness and praise [will] spring up before all nations.”

The future means that God will return, and that Israel will be blessed to be a blessing to all the nations.

But Simeon was right to also understand that Jesus’ life and message would create conflict and division.

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

Very shortly after the people of Nazareth marvel at Jesus’ teaching in their synagogue, they turn on him and he leaves Nazareth, a prophet without honor in his own community.

But the future God has planned still remains in place.  Jesus, anointed by God’s spirit in the tradition of the anointings of kings like David, means literally that he is God’s Messiah, the Anointed One.

It also means that his ministry will be just as Isaiah predicted, and just as Jesus read.  The return of God to make things right.  To preach “good news” which is the gospel, to the poor; to free the prisoners; to make the blind see again.

Our Future Is This Same Future

All of this brings us back to today, the first day of 2012, a new year.  What does the future hold for us?  Exactly what it held for Jesus because his future becomes ours.

Near the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus tells us what we should be doing, and how important our tasks are in the Kingdom of God.  Listen to Matthew 25: 

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

   34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

   37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

   40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

   41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

   44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

   45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

In this passage, Jesus tells us about our future.  The same cast of characters is here – Jesus and all the nations.  But this is the ultimate future, the end of time as we know it.  And Jesus is telling us plainly what our futures should have been about.

We should have been feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, helping the prisoners.  In other words, this is the real life application of Isaiah’s prophecy, and Jesus’ announcement of what his ministry would be about.

The poor from Isaiah now become those who are hungry, homeless, or need clothes.  The good news for them is that someone cares for them and provides for their needs.

Those who are sick are cared for, cured, healed, and restored to their rightful place in the community.  These could be the oppressed who due to ill health such as leprosy, or other debilitating diseases, are cast out of their own homes and families.

And those who are prisoners are cared for, freeing them from the stigma of their positions at the bottom of society.

The point of all of this is that our future is inextricably tied to Jesus’ future, which was the fulfillment of the promise of God written about in Isaiah.

So, if you’re wondering what the future holds in 2012, for followers of Jesus its that same as it was in the year 112, or 1312, or 1912:  we are to continue to live out the life of Jesus to the world.  God’s future is our future, now and forever.