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Gospel: Luke 2:22-40 (NIV)
- Hymn: CW 356 “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”
- Hymn of the Day: CW 355 “Let All Together Praise Our God”
- Hymn: CW 330 “Peace Came to Earth”
- Hymn: CW 950 “Lord, Bid Your Servant Go in Peace”
Christmas 1, Yr. B December 31, 2023
Luke 2:22-40 Pastor Wolfe
Christmas Joy Has Just Begun
For as much buildup as there is to Christmas, it sure does disappear fast, doesn’t it? Friday morning on my way to the gym I saw two trees already out on the curb. Christmas is already 50% off at Walmart and I saw the Valentine’s section setting up. For people who focus on Christmas instead of Christ, the buildup IS the main event.
I pray that’s not true for any of us. Now it’s okay if you took some decorations down or started cleaning up, but I hope you haven’t moved on spiritually. The season of Christmas begins on December 25th – it lasts until Epiphany on January 6th. Christmas is a short season, but let’s not move on as quickly as the rest of the world. Last week’s celebration of that silent night in Bethlehem was only the beginning of our Christmas joy. Today as we see Jesus dedicated at the temple 40 days after his birth we recognize along with Mary and Joseph that Christmas brings joy in God’s promises long and lasting, and joy that shows itself in devotion and dedication.
Scripture doesn’t tell us much about Jesus’ family in the days after that miraculous Christmas night. It was custom for Jews to formally name their babies eight days after their birth, at the same time they were circumcised. Luke records that in verse 21 just before our text. Perhaps to avoid the strain of travel Joseph and Mary chose to stay in Bethlehem for a while, though it seems they found more normal accommodations. Next week we’ll hear about the Magi from the East who came months later and found Jesus and his family in a house.
When Jesus was forty days old Mary and Joseph made the short trip to Jerusalem to ceremonially purify Mary after childbirth, and to make the atonement sacrifice connected with it. (You can learn more in Leviticus 12.) The sacrifice was usually a one-year-old lamb and a pigeon or a dove, though poor families could bring just two doves. The law also required that a firstborn son be consecrated, or dedicated to the Lord, on this 40th day after his birth.
The whole point of God’s precise directions for ceremonial cleanness and temple sacrifice was to show the people that a sacrifice had to be made to restore the relationship between sinful people and a holy God. None of these acts ever did anything to take away people’s sins – this was a teaching moment. God himself says as much in Hebrews 10:11 when he describes Old Testament priests. “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” Even as an infant Jesus is fulfilling God’s law in our place and being offered as a better sacrifice. What Paul said in Galatians 4 rings true here, “God sent his Son, born under law, to redeem those under law.” Jesus was circumcised according to the law, so now that special law is fulfilled for us. Circumcision today is a matter of tradition and medicine, not faith. In the same way, Jesus was dedicated to God so that now through faith we too have been dedicated to him. Yes, as we said on Christmas Day, Jesus came to be our substitute under the law. We see that even here as a baby.
But our focus today is what we learn about Jesus from the people that Mary and Joseph met at the temple that day. First up is a man named Simeon. We don’t know how old Simeon was. We usually picture him as elderly, but there’s nothing in the Bible that would make it necessary. What we do know about him is remarkable enough. “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 on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts.”
God had somehow revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he saw the Messiah with his own eyes. Imagine the comfort of that promise. To know that in your own lifetime you would see your Savior. We don’t know how long Simeon waited for God to fulfill this special promise, but the sense of the account and his reaction leads us to think he must have been waiting a while. Then on this day when Mary and Joseph enter the temple, God tells Simeon somehow, “There he is.” Simeon walks over, takes the baby in his arms (imagine Mary’s reaction!) and praises God.
Simeon’s joyful song is one that we know well. We used to sing his words after celebrating the Lord’s Supper regularly. “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” Simeon’s song of joy at holding the Savior in his arms perfectly fit our joy at receiving him in the Sacrament. When God makes a promise, he WILL keep it. Jesus’ birth is only the tip of the iceberg to God’s promises of grace. Jesus was born for a reason – to bring salvation to the world. He is the light of forgiveness to the Gentiles. He is the glory of Israel as the greatest of these people of the Promise.
Simeon prophesied and said that this child would “cause the falling and rising of many in Israel…that the thoughts of many would be revealed.” And indeed Jesus lifts up the humble penitent sinner, and causes the proud, stiff-necked, self-righteous to fall into judgment. The name and words of Jesus still today reveal where a person’s heart is with or against God. Simeon even predicts Mary’s own pain in seeing Jesus’ suffering when he tells her, “a sword will pierce your own soul too.”.
If you’ve put away Christmas in your heart and mind the way some have put away their trees and decorations, get it back out! Christmas doesn’t end with a new day on a calendar. Christmas meaning doesn’t change with the seasons at all. Christmas is a season to celebrate God’s promises kept. The world waited a long time for a Savior to be born. Simeon waited a long time to hold his Savior in his arms. But our Christmas joy is founded in knowing his promises are lasting for all time. We make fun of those who leave their Christmas lights on the house all year long, but maybe we’d all be better off leaving the lights on all year to remind us that Christmas joy doesn’t end with the Christmas season.
It’s tempting, I suppose, to make Simeon and Anna the center of this text, but God is truly the center. Simeon’s song was all about God and the gift of salvation he had sent into the world through Jesus. He’s our reminder of Christmas joy in Jesus. As we look at Anna too, we find that she shows us how to keep God at the center of our story. Anna shows Christmas joy in her devotion and her dedication to God.
If someone were to make a movie of her life, it would seem to be a tragedy. Luke tells us that Anna was married only seven years, and then widowed. She’s very old when Mary and Joseph enter the temple area, either 84 years old or widowed for 84 years. But even though she might not have had the life she wanted Anna found joy in what was really important. Luke says, “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 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.” It seems that in spite of a tragic life, Anna lived with peace and hope. She was taken care of at the temple and she knew what the promise of God’s forgiveness meant for her. Anna had what she needed to have, and she knew what she needed to know. And so with thanks to God she lived with devotion and dedication to him without worrying about the things she didn’t have, and didn’t know.
While Simeon is the example of joy in Christ, Anna is the pattern of peace in faith. How often don’t we let worries about what God hasn’t given to us ruin the things he has given? We worry about what we don’t have instead of being content with what we do. We worry about the things we don’t know instead of praising God for all the things he’s told us. I can’t tell you what 2024 will look like. Maybe from a worldly perspective it will be better for you than 2023 was. Or maybe not. But do you want to know the best way to find peace? Spend your time in worship and prayer like Anna. I remember during the pandemic in 202 there was a study of people’s mental health. Do you know that the only group to report a positive gain in mental health that year was Christians who attended worship every week? Not Democrats or Republicans or the young or the old or whatever other identity you can think of. ONLY Christians in practice. It should be so obvious, but it’s so easy to forget. Every week we gather here, no matter what season it is we celebrate Christmas joy and Christmas peace in Christ.
Simeon celebrated when he saw the Savior. So do we. Anna gave thanks and told everyone she could what she knew of the child. And we’re blessed to know even more in Scripture. This year, let’s long for Christ like Simeon. And let’s live for Christ like Anna. This year let’s recognize that God has a plan for us, and let’s think and act with purpose to carry out that plan. Bethlehem is only the beginning. The beginning of salvation worked out for us by Christ. The beginning of a new life devoted to him. The beginning of a lasting Christmas joy that never ends. Amen.