Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On the Last Day of the Year...

Happy New Year's Eve, everyone! Sorry for the lack of updates, I've been on my whirlwind tour of the west, having spent not quite four days in New Mexico and then moved on to California. Below is the sermon I preached at my home church this past Sunday; enjoy.

Grace and peace to you from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them a light has shined.” Listen to the words of Isaiah’s prophecy. “You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.” The nation of which Isaiah speaks has the joy of abundant harvests and military victories—no sign of famine or defeat. Indeed, all their foes and oppressors have been defeated by God. But even more than military victory, this people enjoys an end to all war—“For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

For the kingdom of Judah, to whom Isaiah is speaking, this is the most wonderful vision of peace and prosperity they could imagine. Isaiah does not even say this will happen, in some distant future; he speaks in the past tense. The people already has seen a great light. For Isaiah, their hope is already present. And what is the reason for this hope? “A child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests on his shoulders.” Though the word is not used here, this is usually referred to as a Messianic prophecy, from the Hebrew mesiach, meaning “anointed”. Just as David was anointed by Samuel, the mesiach is the king, set apart by being anointed. This child,with authority resting on his shoulders, is a king and the hope of the kingdom.

But what happens in the years after this prophecy? The Northern Kingdom, Israel, is conquered by Assyria. Then Judah, the Southern Kingdom, is conquered by the next great empire—Babylon. Jerusalem is captured, and the very Temple of God is destroyed. The people are taken into exile in Babylon. A generation later, Babylon falls to Persia, and though the exiles are allowed to return home, they are still subjects of a foreign empire. They are certainly not permitted to have a mesiach, for anointing a king would be tantamount to rebellion. So it continues: after Persia comes Greece and after Greece, Rome.

With Rome, we find ourselves at the reconstructed Temple with an old man who hopes for the consolation of Israel—Simeon. Like the other Jews under Roman rule, Simeon remembers the prophecies of Isaiah and still trusts in God’s promises. Indeed, Simeon has received a promise of his own—the Holy Spirit of God has made known to him that he would see the promised mesiach with his own living eyes. Can we even imagine what this meant to Simeon? The words of Isaiah, spoken as though they had already come to pass, have been waiting in the hearts and minds of the Jews for more than seven hundred years. Now Simeon is going to see them fulfilled in his own short remaining span of life.

With the history of that prophecy behind him, Simeon looks forward in the hope given to him by the Holy Spirit, and guided by that Spirit, he goes to the Temple on the same day that Mary and Joseph arrive to present Jesus. Now, imagine you were those new parents—you go to a public place with your baby son, and some old man, a complete stranger, grabs him out of your arms and begins shouting: “Now I can die!” No wonder Mary and Joseph are “amazed” at Simeon’s words! But Simeon is looking forward, seeing in a tiny child the hope of a people—the hope of the whole world. Though his own life is nearly over, Simeon praises God for fulfilling the promise in this child.

Simeon looks forward, and this forward perspective, from the older generation to the infant child, is paralleled in Luke by the promise made to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. God tells Zechariah that his son will “turn the hearts of parents to their children.” The parents now look to the children, the old to the young. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth receive a child in their old age; Simeon has waited his whole life; likewise, Anna, the prophet also in the Temple this day, is either eighty-four, or she has been a widow eighty-four years—making her over a hundred. All of them look to the child Jesus for hope, even though they will be long gone by the time he reaches adulthood.

In Simeon’s words over Jesus, we hear another kind of looking forward—Simeon looks forward to the kind of Messiah this will be. Simeon praises God, saying that salvation has been “prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Jesus will be more than the king promised to Judah; he will bring salvation to all peoples, Jew and Gentile alike. Though Simeon hopes for the consolation of his people, he looks beyond them and sees the hope of the Gentiles—even the Romans, who oppress him—as well. But Simeon also recognizes that Jesus’ salvation will be a source of conflict; he warns Mary of the discord and strife that will come from Jesus’ life. Jesus will be a “sign that will be opposed.” It is with Simeon that we see the first signs of how divisive Jesus will be, even among his own people; but that is the kind of Messiah that God has provided. Our Christmas story is always connected to the Good Friday story. Even though Simeon’s foresight reveals a Messiah perhaps very different from the king promised in Isaiah, Simeon knows that God’s promises have been fulfilled, and that he may indeed be dismissed in peace.

And what of us, today, another two thousand years further away from Isaiah? Are we not like Simeon, having waited and hoped for the promises to be fulfilled? Do we not look at the world around us, and wish for the world described in Isaiah? Does it seem sometimes that those promises will never come to pass? Perhaps the real question is—do we, like Simeon, maintain our trust in God’s faithfulness and stay steadfast in our hope?

Simeon recognized in a poor family, in an infant baby, the mesiach God had promised to his people. He saw that Jesus would not be just the king of Judah, but would fulfill those promises in a new and unexpected way. Simeon did not live to see Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and miraculous resurrection; but he did not need to. He had seen enough in the baby to satisfy all his hope and longing. The promises were fulfilled, though they had not come to fruition; the Messiah had come, though he was yet just an infant. We, too, are in this place of already-but-not-yet. The famines have not yet ended; the boots of the tramping warriors have not yet been burned; the kingdom of God still seems far away. But like Simeon, we have seen enough. The Messiah has come to us; he has lived and died and lived again; and we have died and risen with him. When we gather at this table, we both hope for and experience the meal of that kingdom over which our Messiah rules. So let us, with Simeon, with Anna, with Mary and Joseph, rejoice now in the fulfillment of our hope, even as we wait for its completion.

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