Advent, Christmas, Simeon
For the last several years, I have taken our youth group to the Dare2Share conference. These are great events that help to challenge students in their faith and also teach them how to share their faith. These conferences usually have somewhere around 10,000 people in attendance. Two years in a row (once in Chicago and once in St. Louis) I was trying to move our large group of students on foot, and was doing my best to keep them together. In the midst of this process I wasn’t paying much attention to anyone else around me. Both years, I accidentally ran into someone while trying to herd my students. As I turned to apologize to the person I had bumped into, the person greeted me by name! Both times, I had bumped into someone I knew but hadn’t seen in years! In a building full of thousands of people I didn’t know, I literally ran into the one person I did know.
Most of us have stories that are similar to this—the time you traveled to the other side of the country and saw someone from back home, or the time you took a trip and kept seeing the same person every place you went. We think about those situations and remark about how it was such a “coincidence”. Some of those situations really might just be coincidental, but sometimes those situations are orchestrated by God.
This morning we’re going to look at the story of Simeon, who had what might seem like a chance encounter with Jesus, but it was actually a meeting that was divinely orchestrated. We find Simeon’s story in Luke 2:25-35. In verses 25-26, Luke gives us a little insight into who Simeon was.
At that time there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was righteous and devout and was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him 26 and had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. (Luke 2:25-26, NLT)
It seems that Simeon was just a regular guy. We aren’t told that he was a priest or a Levite, simply that he was committed to God and was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. For whatever reason, God had sent the Holy Spirit to Simeon and told him that he wouldn’t die until after he had seen the Messiah. We don’t know how old Simeon was or how long ago God had made this promise to him, but it seems reasonable to believe that Simeon may have been an older man—a man who expected that he would soon reach the end of his life, and so God’s promise meant that the Messiah was coming soon. Regardless of how old Simeon actually was, we know that he was excited to know that He would get to see the Messiah with his own two eyes.
Simeon’s Encounter with the Messiah
Luke goes on to tell us that the Holy Spirit led Simeon to the temple on the same day that Jesus had been brought there to be circumcised. This is one of those situations that we might be tempted to call a coincidence, but the Bible tells us that there was nothing coincidental about it—God was leading Simeon to the place where he would meet the Messiah. God had planned this meeting long before this day.
We don’t know how Simeon knew that this particular child was the promised Messiah (as it seems likely that there could have been more than one child being circumcised on that day), but somehow the Holy Spirit led Simeon to the baby Jesus with his parents.
I don’t know exactly how this played out, but in my mind I picture the priest finishing up the circumcision and handing the child back to his parents when Simeon shows up on the scene—a picture of pure joy at the sight of this child. I imagine him telling Mary and Joseph how God had promised that he would see the Messiah before he died and now that promise was being fulfilled. In his joy, I imagine him asking Mary and Joseph to hold the newborn Jesus. Somehow, he convinced them he wasn’t crazy and they handed their child to him. When he took the baby into his arms, he let out an exclamation of praise and prophesied about Jesus. We don’t know if he sang these words or not, but what he says about Jesus is poetic, prophetic, and probably more profound than he could have realized.
“Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace, as you have promised. 30 I have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared for all people. 32 He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!” (Luke 2:29-32, NLT)
Simeon declares to the Lord that he was now ready to die—for he had seen the Messiah. This seems like a strange thing to say when you’re joyful, but it makes sense, given the context. It is as though Simeon is saying to God, “I know that you have fulfilled your promise to me and nothing else could top this experience. Whenever you’re ready to take me home, I’m ready to go!” Simeon was filled with joy at this experience, but his song was not just about himself; he also gave a prophecy about Jesus that teaches us several things.
First, we see that Simeon equates Jesus with salvation. Simeon had been promised that he would see the Messiah, but that is not the word he uses in his prophecy. He doesn’t say, “I have seen the Messiah,” but he says, “I have seen your salvation” (v. 30). This is significant because it reminds us of who Jesus really is—he is salvation for those who believe.
Different people view Jesus in different ways, and many don’t see Him as salvation.
- Some see Jesus as a great moral teacher who gave some good advice about loving each other.
- Some see Jesus as a revolutionary, who crusaded for the rights of the poor and the oppressed of the society of the day. They see him as one who stood up against an oppressive government.
- Some see Jesus as a victim of circumstance—a good man who was misunderstood and as a result paid the ultimate price.
- Some see Jesus as a regular guy who history has made into a legend. They believe that Jesus never intended for people to worship Him, and that He would be appalled to see the way that Christians revere Him today.
While some of these views of Jesus have elements of the truth, none of them even comes close to picturing Jesus the way that He really was (and is). The problem many people have in their understanding of Jesus is that they imagine that Jesus was basically like them. So when they imagine what Jesus would say or do, it sounds remarkably like what they would say or do. Jesus was like us in the sense that He was a human being who experienced the same temptations as us, but Jesus is also different because He never once gave into temptation—he was not sinful as we are. Jesus’ view of the world was different from ours, because ours is clouded by sin. Jesus’ thoughts and actions were different from ours because he was not in bondage to a sinful nature as we are. When we project our own preconceptions and baggage on Jesus, we make him into someone he was not. We should not try to make Jesus like us, but rather we should try to be like Jesus.
When Simeon describes Jesus as the Lord’s salvation, it is significant. Though Simeon probably didn’t fully understand it, he points out that Jesus Christ is the only way for human beings to be saved. It doesn’t matter how good you try to be or how hard you work, or how highly other people think of you—you (and I) have incurred a debt that we cannot possibly repay because of our sin. It is only through Jesus that our debt can be paid. It is not enough to view Jesus as a great moral teacher; we must view Him as He was and is—the Lord of all creation, who deserves and requires us to worship and follow Him. It is only when we view Him in this way that He can be our salvation.
Second, we see that Jesus came for all people. This was a significant statement, because the Jews had lost sight of the fact that God’s plan was to save people from every nation through them. Many Jews viewed the Messiah as being only for their benefit, but the truth is that Jesus came to save Jews and Gentiles (i.e. everyone else) alike!
That seems like an elementary truth for us today, but we sometimes fall into the same trap. We wouldn’t say it directly, but our actions reveal that we think that some people are not good enough to be saved—as though we deserve salvation but they don’t. We look at people who are different than we are and look down on them. We ignore them, and make them feel like outsiders to the church, and by extension, to the gospel. We do this to lots of people but may not realize it. We do it to:
- The person of a different socioeconomic status than us.
- The person with a different education level than us.
- The person who has more skeletons in their past than us.
- The person who wasn’t born in the same country (or town) as us.
- The person whose style of worship looks different than ours.
- The person who holds a different political position than ours.
What Simeon’s declaration reminds us is that God sent Jesus into the world as the only means of salvation for everyone—even those who are different than us, or those we think don’t deserve it. The message of Jesus is that no one deserves salvation. And that’s why we celebrate the birth of Jesus—he loves us even though we don’t deserve it! Simeon’s statement reminds us that there is no such thing as a second-class citizen in the kingdom of God.
Third, it is through Jesus that God is revealed. The Jews had a long history with God. He had been faithful to them for thousands of years. To one degree or another, the Jewish people knew God. The rest of the world did not. It is through Jesus (who was called Emmanuel—God with us) that the Jews understood the character of God more clearly, and the rest of the world had light to see the one true God.
There are lots of people who will tell you that they believe in God. When people hear that I’m a pastor, they will often tell me that they believe in God (I suppose so that I think highly of them, or so that I won’t try to talk to them about faith issues). That statement, in and of itself, does not mean much to me. Lots of people throughout history have believed in a god of some sort, and the vast majority of them were wrong. Many of the god-beliefs of the past are now taught in history classes under the heading of “mythology”. Human beings have a sense that there must be a greater power than us, but on our own, we are unable to rightly understand who He is. Jesus reveals to us the one true God. It is only through Jesus that we can truly understand the nature of God. When someone tells me they believe in God, my follow-up question is, “What do you believe about Jesus?” How they answer that question is far more telling (and far more important.) If you do not understand the nature of Jesus Christ, then you do not understand the nature of God. Simply stated: If you’re wrong about Jesus, you’re wrong about God. Jesus is the light by which human beings can come to see God.
When Simeon finished this statement we are told that Jesus’ parents were amazed at what he had said. I imagine that this feeling of amazement was beginning to be familiar to Mary and Joseph. Time and time again over the last several months (and especially in the last 8 days) they were amazed at the ways God had orchestrated everything surrounding the birth of their son. From the announcement that Mary would become pregnant, to the news that Elizabeth was going to have a child at such an old age, to the actual birth of Jesus, with its attendant characters, to now the arrival of this man Simeon and the things he told them about Jesus, Mary and Joseph had spent a lot of time being amazed. I have to imagine that the whole thing was overwhelming for them as they began to think about what their future (and their son’s future) might hold.
Simeon’s Second Statement
While they were still standing there, amazed, Simeon turned to Mary and told her:
“This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, but he will be a joy to many others. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. 35 As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” (Luke 2:34-35, NLT)
Simeon now strikes a somewhat more somber tone as he speaks to Mary. I imagine him speaking to her with sadness in his eyes and compassion in his voice. He reveals a little bit more about what Jesus’ future will be like—and how that will affect Mary.
Jesus is a polarizing figure. Simeon told Mary that Jesus would cause many to fall, but would be a joy to others. Jesus was sent from God, but many people would not like what He had to say and they would oppose Him.
This was certainly true throughout Jesus’ ministry. Many people had wrong notions about God, and they didn’t like what Jesus had to say. They opposed Him at every step. Not much has changed. The message of Jesus is that we are sinners who deserve condemnation. Jesus tells us that we are not basically good and that we cannot earn God’s favor. That is not a popular message, especially now, in a country that values self-reliance. So even today there are many who oppose Jesus and His teachings.
The flip side, however, is that Jesus will bring great joy to many others. The bad news of Jesus’ message is very bad indeed—we are powerless to save ourselves—but the good news is far better: though we cannot save ourselves, Jesus has come to pay the penalty for us.
It is not possible to be lukewarm about the person and message of Jesus Christ. The person who is unmoved by Jesus doesn’t really understand His message. Those who understand will either oppose Him or embrace Him—there is no middle ground.
Jesus reveals the nature of our hearts. What you believe about Jesus reveals many other things. It reveals your beliefs about God, and it reveals your belief about yourself. The person who rejects Jesus’ message reveals one of two things—either that they don’t understand the message of Christ, or that they don’t think they need a Savior because they think they are good enough. What you believe about Jesus reveals the true nature of your heart.
Being associated with Jesus will pierce your soul. Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her soul—as we contemplate what that means our minds immediately go to the cross, imagining the pain of having to watch your son be rejected, ridiculed, beaten, and killed. I cannot imagine the pain which Mary bore through that whole process. But I think there is a degree to which Simeon’s words speak to each of us as well. Because people either oppose Jesus or embrace Him, if you are a follower of Jesus, many will oppose you as well. But our souls are not only pierced as we are rejected by others; our souls are pierced as we watch people we love turn their backs on the Lord. When we understand the truth that Jesus is the only means of salvation, we understand that those who reject Him have no hope—and it hurts to see people we love turning away from their only hope—the salvation that is offered through Jesus Christ.
The song of Simeon is interesting because it foreshadows the life of Jesus. Here, while Jesus was just eight days old, God gave Simeon insight into what He is going to do through this child. Simeon’s song paints a picture of great hope, and yet also acknowledges that there is also great pain associated with the life of Jesus Christ.
Simeon’s song reminds us about the true meaning of Christmas. We know that Christmas isn’t really about Santa and presents and the indulgence that is often common in our society (though we often get swept up in this mentality as well), it isn’t about battles over manger scenes or whether people say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. Christmas isn’t even primarily about family. Christmas is about the child who was born to give the world the greatest gift it could ever receive—the gift of salvation, of forgiveness, and of a relationship with God. The reason we celebrate the birth of Jesus is because we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus—we celebrate because Jesus brings salvation to those who believe.
If we understand this, then it will have an impact on how we act. We will be concerned with trying to help people to understand who Jesus was and is, and why that is important. Lots of people are indifferent to Jesus simply because no one has ever explained why He matters. That’s the problem with why people are confused about the meaning of Christmas. Lots of people know that Christmas has something to do with a baby born in a manger, but they don’t understand why it’s such a big deal. We need to take responsibility for helping people understand why Christmas matters. It isn’t just about a baby born in a manger, it is about who that baby was and why that baby was born. It is about what that baby did, and it’s about what that means for us. We celebrate Christmas because it was the moment when God came on the scene and changed everything—and for those who trust in Him, it really is good news of great joy.
We’re only a couple of days away from Christmas now, but it’s distinctly possible that you might find yourself with opportunities to talk to others about the true nature of Christmas. You might find yourself sitting at work, talking to a cashier, or sitting around a table with members of your family and suddenly find that you have an opening to talk about why we celebrate Christmas. The temptation will be to laugh to yourself and say, “What a coincidence—Rick said this might happen!” But you would be better served to have eyes to see like Simeon, and recognize that God himself has put this opportunity in front of you. It is a divine appointment. Use that moment to share the joy of Christmas with others, because chances are high that they don’t “get it”. If you really understand what Christmas is all about, you’ll find it hard not to share the good news.