Part 1 of 4 – Looking at Christmas Backwards: “Mine Eyes Have Seen the …..”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, December 1, 2019
Reading: Luke 2:22-35
This morning I want to take you into the heart of an old man who, in many ways, was looking for the meaning of his life, meaning that would elevate him and give him joy. As Simone de Beauvoir once wrote: “There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence meaning.”
He needed meaning, this old man. He was also deeply concerned about the state of his nation. He knew things weren't right, and for all his praying and all his asking, it seemed that God wasn’t doing anything. He wanted God to act. This was Simeon, who probably served in the temple, and likely came from a line of priests that were Levitical in background. Simeon did what pastors and priests and rabbis do, he went to the temple to perform the normal duties. On this particular day, he was to receive a child, as he’d probably done hundreds of times before. According to the Book of Exodus, Chapter 13, after eight days, a child is to be dedicated to God. He was also going to prepare, in a sense, to receive the sacrifices of the parents. For parents made sacrifices to God in thanks for their child. If they had money, they would sacrifice a lamb from the farm, but if they were poor, they would give a couple of birds, either a dove or a pigeon, but they offered something.
Simeon was ready to receive the mother of the child for a ritual purification after the birth. It was an ordinary day. He was heading to the temple to carry out his religious duties. But this day was a day like no other, a day when he went to the temple, not because of duty, but because he was being led by the Holy Spirit. When he got there and the child was placed in his arms, he knew that everything he had been waiting for, everything that he had been hoping for, was fulfilled in his presence.
He belonged to a group of people that were known as “the quiet of the land” – I love that phrase. They were a group of Jews who prayed for the salvation of their nation, but they did so not by using violence, like the zealots, not by trying to overthrow political powers or using political means; they did it with prayer and devotion. We’re told by Luke that he was a devout man, a prayerful man, who believed that God was going to do something. Now in his very presence, he holds a child in his hands, and he looks upon this child and realises that all he can do is sing praise to God. “This is the Messiah! This is everything I’ve waited for, this is everything I’ve prayed for, this is everything I’ve hoped for. Here He is in my arms, Simeon, an old man, and here He is.”
His song went like this: “Sovereign Lord, You have promised that I may now go in peace; for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations, a light of revelation for the gentiles, and glory for the people Israel.”
Our Christian tradition knows this as Nunc Dimittis, which in the Eastern church is sung at the vespers. In the Western church, it’s sung at compline. We sing it quite a few times during the year. He’d waited his whole life for the Messiah, every single day he’d prayed for this, but now the Messiah was in his hands. The parents, of course, who had brought this child, were not wealthy or affluent, they did not bring a lamb, they brought doves – two turtle doves, (two pigeons maybe) that’s all they could bring. They did not come from a powerful or an esteemed family, they came as the poor, but they brought their son to dedicate him to the Father.
So, what changed? What did Simeon see at that moment? Well, we’re told, “Mine eyes have seen the salvation of our God.” Before his very eyes, he saw it. He knew that in seeing this child, he was seeing something more than he’d ever seen before. This was the glorious moment. He knew what Seneca had hoped for, that there would be a hand down that would lift humanity up. He had witnessed salvation. And Lord, was it needed! His nation was dominated by the Roman Empire. His nation was not free. The king was corrupt, King Herod was not a good man, he was in the pocket of the Romans. The religious elite had become cold and easily co-opted by the power of Rome, and there was a lack of passion in the land for God; God was being pushed to the outer corners of people’s lives, not the centre. There was corruption: tax collectors who were taking money, we read about them often in the gospels, persecuting the poor; sin was rampant, and there was anger and talk of revolution. Kind of makes you think that things don’t change much, doesn’t it?
And here he is now, holding this child and knowing that things are about to change. Oh, change had been promised before. There was the promise that the kings of Israel would bring about the kingdom and the reign of God, that the prophets would speak, and people would listen, but that didn’t happen, and the prophets were often cast away and rejected. Although there had been an elevation in cultic worship. People doing some worship things hoping they might be saved, and the world might be changed, new forms of nationalism that the zealots upheld. All of this had been tried, but Simeon knew that what he had in his hands was different. What he had and what he saw, was actually God breaking into the scene, God coming to do something. This wasn’t up to the people anymore, this wasn’t up to the selection of kings or prophets or priests; this was God doing something, and for Simeon, all he could do was sing: “My eyes, oh, my eyes have seen Your salvation, I can die in peace.”
What an incredible day for this old man. His whole life praying, and finally it is fulfilled before his very eyes. The world was going to change because of this, it was going to change radically. It was going to include the Gentiles, as is in Simeon’s song. The Gentiles would be brought into a covenant relationship with God, they would now be able to worship God. They would be received and welcomed and redeemed by God. But Israel – Israel would be glorified, lifted up, redeemed. This was revolutionary stuff to those who wanted the status quo within Israel to keep as a cultic community, worshipping their God in a certain way and in a certain temple. It was revolutionary that the doors were now being opened to the Gentiles. It was revolutionary to those who questioned whether Israel was of any value or had any power. Their Messiah had come, Joshua had come. The world was going to change. In all its brokenness and need, this old man saw hope.
I read a beautiful story some years ago of a young man called Paul, who had just received his professional dedication and papers. It was Christmas Eve and he had gone into his office like any other day, to begin his new career, when he was told by his older brother that there was a gift waiting for him in the garage downstairs. So, he left his office and went downstairs, and there was a brand new, shiny red car. Oh, he had wanted a red car so badly, and his brother had given it to him on Christmas Eve! He got in the car, and as he was exiting the garage, he saw on the side of the road a young boy begging. This boy saw the car and he cried out to Paul, “That’s the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen, I’ve never seen a car like that before. Wow, it’s awesome.”
Paul said to the young boy, “You like my car?”
The boy said, “I do.”
And Paul says, “My older brother just gave it to me, I didn’t even have to pay for it, it was free, just look at this. I have this fabulous car.”
The young boy says, “Oh, it’s awesome.”
And Paul said, “Well, would you like to have a ride in the car?”
And the boy said, “I’d love to have a ride in the car” – not something one would do in this day and age, right?
The boy got in the car and as they drove along he said, “This is a wonderful car, and your brother gave it to you?”
Paul says, “Yes, my brother gave it to me,” and then he thought, “Oh no, this boy wants me to give him something.”
But they kept driving and the boy said, “Can you go to my home? Can you drive to my home?”
And Paul says, “Well, I guess I’ll drive to your home,” thinking, “Oh, he just wants to show off to his friends.”
So, they head to the home of the boy. They go through the poorest parts of the city, and they arrive outside a tenement building. The boy gets out of the car and says, “Now just wait, I’ll be back in a minute. I want to show my brother this car.”
The boy goes up into the tenement building and he’s there a long time, and Paul’s getting a little anxious, when finally, down the steps, this boy is holding his younger brother, who is crippled with polio and has never walked in his life. He carries his brother to the car and says, “Look at this car. This is the most beautiful thing.”
And Paul thought, “Oh, he’s just showing off.” But the boy said to his younger brother, “You know, some day I will give you a car like this. Some day you will be able to drive around the streets of the city and see the beautiful trees and the lights on the big houses, and you will see the display in the windows.”
Paul said, “Why don’t you get in the car with me now and I will take you there?”
Paul drove along the streets and they looked in the windows. The boy who had never walked, never seen big trees, saw them for the first time. He looked at his brother and with a smile on his face. His older brother said, “I told you, some day you will see what I have seen. Some day you will know and understand just how beautiful things can be.”
The two brothers enjoyed themselves and saw what they hadn't seen before in the red car. Paul said to himself, “I wish everyone had a brother like that boy.”
When Simeon held Jesus in his arms, his eyes saw what he’d never seen before. When he held this Child, it was unlike any other. This was the moment, this was the red car, this was the shiny lights, this was the store windows. Simeon also knew that the Child that he was holding, would be a wounded Child. He said to the mother, “This Child will be the cause of the rising of some and the falling of others. This Child will elevate some and bring down others, He will expose the hearts and the consciences of people. And you as his mother, it will be like a piercing of your heart.” He knew that this Child would be wounded, he knew that this mother would suffer. He knew what was coming.
But what did he know? What did Anna, in her old age, after having been a widow for many years, what did she know, that she still praised God when she saw this child? What did Simeon and Anna see?
What they saw, was God. What they saw was how God acts. What they saw was what God would do. That God would give His own Son for the sake of the world. That God would give His own Child for the salvation of the lost. That God would give Himself to bring Gentiles unto God. He would give Himself that Israel might be glorified. He gave of Himself that the world might be reconciled to Him. He gave of Himself, and He did so as a child.
“Mine eyes – mine eyes have seen Your salvation. I can depart now in peace,” said Simeon. “I now know that God acts, that I have meaning, that my nation will be saved. I know I can depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Your salvation.” Wow, from an old man to us. Amen.