Christmas 2020 may be history and the Christmas carols may have been put to rest for another year, but the celebration doesn’t need to end.
Today on the Front Porch Swing I want to introduce the fourth song in Luke’s gospel celebrating Jesus’ birth. After describing how Mary pondered all that the shepherds had reported concerning the angels’ announcement, Luke immediately describes the next significant events in the infant Jesus’ brief life: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21, ESV)
Just like his older cousin, John, Jesus was circumcised and given his official name when he was eight days old. It was more than Jewish tradition, it was the Law.
Forty days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary brought him to Jerusalem to present the sacrifice required for every first-born male baby. Luke is careful to share that Jesus’ parents offered a pair of turtle doves or pigeons, rather than a lamb, thus revealing that that this young couple were very poor.
Before they could even enter the temple area, with Joseph carrying the caged birds and Mary clinging to her baby, they were accosted by a stranger – a very old man – boldly running toward them.
The Holy Spirit had promised Simeon, the old man, that he would live to see the birth of the promised Messiah. Each morning, I suspect, Simeon would ask God if this might be the day. I imagine him being awakened early that morning and told by the Holy Spirit, “This is the day!” Off he rushed to the temple lest he miss the occasion. Spying the young couple with baby and birds in tow, he was moved by the Spirit to run as fast as his old legs could. I see the old man with tears streaming through his whitened beard as he reaches out to take the baby into his arms. (I wonder what Mary’s thinking. What would any mother think?)
I envision Mary with fear in her eyes as this stranger pulls the baby away.
Before they could respond, the old man began to speak. Perhaps chanting like a rabbi pronouncing a Sabbath blessing. The old man’s hands trembled, more from anticipation than old age, but his voice was strong and steady as he pronounced a blessing over baby Jesus, a blessing inspired by the same Holy Spirit that had spoken through old Zechariah when John was circumcised.
Now, thanks to Dr. Luke, we can still ponder the lyrics after 2000 years:
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:29–32, ESV)
Simeon begins with a resolution, “Now, I am ready to die in peace.” His weary old eyes gazed upon the baby that would become the promised savior of the world. For Gentiles, blindly searching for God in all the wrong places, this baby would bring light and knowledge of the one true God. Mary’s baby, now in Simeon’s arms, was the promised “seed of the woman” who would deal the death blow to the evil serpent. The tiny infant was the long expected Messiah that every true Israelite anticipated with the final words at every Passover Seder, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Having sung his blessing over the baby, Simeon turned his attention the young couple standing before him. His face now heavy with sadness, and turning to Mary adds a warning that “this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
Do you understand what Simeon has just said?
The birth of a baby should bring joy and happiness. Parents anticipate what the child will become as an adult, and they plan for the child to be there to care for them and bury them. But, Simeon has predicted that the baby will experience conflict and pain and suffer a violent death. All for a good cause: the final and perfect sacrifice for sin so that people like you and me can live with hope and purpose. Mary, intuitive as she is, deposited these words in her heart along with all the wonderful promises she had heard from the shepherds back in Bethlehem.
A popular contemporary Christmas carol asks the question, “Mary did you know…?” I doubt that she understood that, alongside of the rich blessing of being chosen to give birth to the Messiah, she would also experience deep, deep pain and grief.
Fast forward thirty-three years from this scene of a baby in the temple to a cross outside the city walls. There hangs the only truly innocent person that has ever lived. There, suspended in shame and unimaginable pain, is the Son of God. And there stands several women who had loved and followed Jesus. See that older woman, overwhelmed with pain and grief, as she watches the little baby she had swaddled in the manger now shamefully naked and mangled on a Roman cross. Her very soul has been pierced as with a sword. Just like old Simeon has prophesied.
But listen! I hear her son sharing last words. Words like, “John, treat my mother like she was yours.” Or like, “Father, forgive them; they don’t understand what they are doing.” Words like “It is finished.” (His mission to seek and to save the lost is finished. The debt has been paid in full. There would be no more need for the blood of lambs or doves.)
Those words belong in the Christmas story as much as “Glory to God in the highest. Peace on earth, good will among people with whom God is pleased.”
That peace has been won once for all through Jesus’ brutal death and amazing resurrection.
I know it’s not in Luke, but I can hear the grandest choir ever assembled standing around a glorious throne singing, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! The Lord God omnipotent reigns forever and ever! Amen.”
Now those truly are Christmas lyrics.