When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him 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,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
“Pastor,” I was asked. “How often do you talk about death in your congregation?”
I was puzzled. “Death? Like metaphorical death, or actual death death.”
He clarified, “Death death - the end of life.”
“Actual literal death? I can’t say it comes up too often outside of funerals.”
He responded, “Well, I guarantee the folks in your congregation have a lot of questions about it; I’m just curious what you would say.”
At least a dozen times every week I catch myself wishing that someone would rescue me from my lonely office, or from superficial conversation and engage me in a theological discussion - ask me a question about God, or let me ask them a question. Every once in a while someone does just that...and it always catches me off guard. Like with the example I just gave, which came from a conversation I had with a casual friend a few months back.
He asked me what I would say about death. A rather vague question, I thought. I didn’t know exactly how to answer; and so, having learned at least one thing from Jesus, I answered his question with a question (as Jesus always seemed to do). I asked, “Do you think people would appreciate talking about death at church?”
He seemed to think people would find it helpful. He called death the proverbial elephant in the room - something everyone knows is there but no one has the audacity to mention it. He clarified that he wasn’t looking for a hellfire and brimstone and damnation; nor was he looking for generic assurances about heaven and halos and harps. He just wondered why it was never brought up in his church and wondered if his experience was unique or the norm.
I had that conversation tucked back in my mind, reserved for a sermon to be delivered at some later date. Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, perhaps - pretty much the only two days reserved on the church calendar when death would be an appropriate topic.
But then I heard the news that Bill Schwartz died in his sleep on Thursday. This news, combined with the Gospel message for today, led me to understand that my message on this First Sunday in Christmas would be less about snowmen, Santa, and baby Jesus; and more about death.
Here’s the Gospel context: It has been approximately 40 days since Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph, following the rules of their faith, bring Jesus to the temple in order to make sacrifices and consecrate their child to the Lord. An old man named Simeon comes out of the crowd comes takes Jesus in his arms. He says something so beautiful it deserves to be put to music: “Now Lord, let your servant go in peace.”
He acknowledges that he is now ready to die.
Simeon recognizes a beautiful truth when he holds the Christ Child, and he is no longer afraid. Simeon does not ask for death; rather, he accepts it courageously and confidently because he now realizes that God's promise of salvation is true. Only after seeing and holding God's promise in his hands, only after touching and feeling the promise of life which God granted to him through Christ, only then can Simeon bring himself to accept that he will die.
How wonderful it would be to hold the promise of eternal life in our hands; how wonderful it would be to see it with our eyes, to touch it and feel it. If only Christ would have left us something before he died; if only he would have given people today the promise of eternal life in some easily-accessible form. If only we had something to see and hold and touch and feel so that we too could accept death and recognize heaven in our midst.
Alas, we do have something - we have the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper. Elements saturated with the eternal promise and joy of Jesus Christ.
A lot of us have been raised on the erroneous impression that taking communion is something we have to do in order to make it to heaven. As if taking communion, going to church, being baptized, and trying to be a good person are all admission requirements to heaven.
But Jesus never left us any passwords, keys, secret handshakes, entrance exams or treasure maps, to help us get into heaven. Instead he left reminders throughout the world that heaven is here now and that it is as real as death. Reminders like holding a baby, singing a favorite song, a smile from a stranger, a hug from a friend, an outstretched hand of someone offering help, forgiveness of an enemy...and bread and wine given along with the words of assurance that death is not the end.
On that day over two thousand year ago, an elderly man named Simeon walked into the temple afraid of death. But while in the temple he recognized Christ, he recognized God’s promise of salvation was true; and he sang a joyful song about no longer being afraid of death.
And now, today, we prepare to receive Christ through the Lord’s Supper. At which time we too recognize that God’s promise of salvation is true. And we will gather to sing a joyful song about no longer being afraid of death.
In conclusion I wish to pass on a Christmas wish from a professor of mine from seminary.
“My wish for you on this day and in the days to come isn't simply a "merry" Christmas, but also a ‘blessed’ one; a Christmas so infused by God's promise of presence and peace that you can leave worship to go out into the world with confidence, neither denying the harsh realities of this life nor being deterred by them, but rather facing whatever comes your way in the coming week and year with courage. For you are God's beloved child, and it was for your sake that Christ was born!”