“There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon” – Luke 2: 25
Luke tells the story of how, forty days after his birth, Jesus was taken to the temple by Mary and Joseph. This was the expected thing for them to do. It was the custom of God’s people in that time and place. Mary’s ritual cleansing called for the sacrifice of a lamb and a pigeon, but because she and Joseph were poor folks, they offered instead a pair of pigeons, the accepted substitute that poor people could make in place of a more expensive offering.
Mary and Joseph brought the baby to the Temple. If Jesus had been born in Nazareth, Mary and Joseph’s hometown, Simeon would never have seen Jesus. But Caesar just happened to have decreed a general census, so they had had to go to Bethlehem: Joseph had no choice. Jerusalem was only six miles away, and so the Temple in Jerusalem was an appropriate place.
It’s not as though this young family had the vast temple complex to themselves. This house of the Lord at the centre of Jerusalem was always swarming with activity. Numerous people were there to worship and fulfil their religious obligations. The little threesome would have been hardly noticed among the press of hundreds of people. After all, new babies were brought to the temple all the time.
But the young couple and their child were noticed by two people. The first was Simeon. Setting eyes on God’s chosen Liberator of his people was the one thing that Simeon wanted to do before he died. Somehow, he felt drawn to go to the temple that day. In itself, this was not surprising. He was a devout man who often visited the temple. Maybe, he hoped, this would be the day when God would grant him the privilege of laying eyes on God’s promised messiah.
Simeon walked through the milling crowds. He saw a couple with their child who looked no different from the people around them. Yet a rush of certainty inside him told him that their new baby was the messiah! The messiah a baby? Simeon had always pictured him differently, as a strong man dressed in armour, or some superhuman figure radiating light. But – a baby? Something welled up inside Simeon. It burst out as a prayer to God, a flood of words in a prophetic form. Now Simeon was an old man, slow, cautious, reverent, careful. Yet there, in the temple, filled with the Holy Spirit, he cried out in a loud voice:
“Lord, now you have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Saviour, whom you have prepared for all the world to see;
A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.”
Mary and Joseph looked at him startled. You’d think by now, with all the strange things that had happened recently in their lives, they would have become incapable of surprise. But the old man’s song left them speechless. As they stood silent, the old man spoke to them the words of the traditional blessing, took the baby in his arms, and addressed Mary. “Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign, but a sword will pierce through your own soul.” Why did not this old man simply say something conventional, such as “What a beautiful baby!” Mary felt that sword cutting her already, and always remembered his words.
Then an old woman came up. She too began to praise God aloud to perfect strangers nearby, her old face crinkled in a smile of delight. She too saw something special: this child would start a new exodus, a fresh redemption for God’s subjugated people. Some in the crowd recognized her. “She’s Anna”, they said, – the daughter of Phanuel, eighty-four years old. “She’s been a widow longer than most of us have been alive. And pious! Lives at the temple, prays all the time, fasts more than she eats. And now dancing a jig over a baby some couple has brought in!”
These old people, Simeon and Anna, were regarded as prophets, inspired to speak God’s Word. They represented the very finest of Israel––those who knew God’s Word and believed because of it. They saw this baby and believed that God was fulfilling His promises. Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the consolation of Israel and the Saviour of the world. Many would fall and rise at His coming. The rich and powerful would turn away from the Saviour. The mighty would be cast down from their thrones and the powerful in their conceit not recognize their Lord. But an old woman and an old man who were righteous and devout—these poor, humble, insignificant people saw and believed. Prayer and worship, devout and obedient and righteous living—these were what were important as a response to God’s grace.
The two young parents must have been rattled, astounded at what happened to them. The next few years of their lives back home at Nazareth would be quiet and uneventful as they delighted in their child’s growth. But they never forgot that day in Jerusalem when they met these old people, Anna and Simeon. And neither should we.
These stories of Simeon and Anna prove that spiritual life is not a brief sprint, as we sometimes presume, but a marathon. These two had spent many years seeking God’s blessing. For us in an age of instant gratification, those four weeks of Advent perhaps seemed to drag. For them, decades of watching and waiting seemed quite appropriate. The irony is that, while Simeon could not die until he met the Saviour in person, we cannot really live until we do. We cannot be at peace until we know that Jesus Christ has come into our lives, to love us into the Kingdom of God.
Sometimes we wonder, “What thing would you like to do before you die? With the first day of 2021 happening this week, perhaps it is an appropriate one. What is there that you would still like to accomplish on this planet? Maybe you would answer the question light-heartedly, saying you’d like to win the lottery (just once!), or do a bungee jump. But others of you might answer more thoughtfully; perhaps you’d like to write your memoires for your grandchildren, or you’d like to visit Norway after you have received your vaccine. What one thing would you like to do or see or experience while you are still able?
But, instead of asking “What would you like to do?” perhaps I should have asked, “How would you like to be remembered?” The most significant aspect of Simeon and Anna has been the legacies they left behind. For two millennia, their names have been synonymous with patience, and faithfulness, and serenity. What do you want your legacy to be? What shall we write as an epitaph on your tombstone? What should be written on mine?
The Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel was best known for developing dynamite into an explosive to be used as a mining tool, as well as a tool of war. He once wrote confidently, “My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they will abide by golden peace.”
But then an interesting thing happened; a Paris newspaper erroneously printed Nobel’s obituary seven years before he died. In it, Nobel was described as “the inventor of dynamite, a substance which has led to the deaths of thousands, including his own brother.” Nobel read it and he was horrified. At that point, Alfred Nobel decided to change his legacy, so he revised his last will and testament. Upon his death, the bulk of his massive estate was placed in trust to award prizes annually to leaders in the areas of science, chemistry, medicine, literature, and most notably, the Nobel prize for Peace. That is how we remember him.
“There was a man in Sale whose name was Keith who…” What will people say about me? “There was a woman / man named …” – well, put your own name in. How has your life shaped up? I bet its most important features are totally different from how you dreamed as a teenager. New Year resolutions never last. “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”. God typically works his purpose out / triumphs through our choices. We have been given the choice to be open to seeing God in all the unforeseen things that happen, and to cooperating with the Holy Spirit in them. Will our legacy be: “They were open to the Spirit, as God happened unexpectedly to encounter them in the humble, the poor, the weak and needy”?
Perhaps there is still time to write our legacy through our living. Perhaps there is still time to live so that people will remember our faithfulness, or generosity, or wisdom, or patience, or peacefulness, or unconditional love. How then will you choose to live your life so that the legacy you leave will be a good one? Maybe the beginning of a new year this week is a good time to think about something more important than a New Year’s resolution. Perhaps it’s a time to consider what kind of name, and memories, and contributions we will leave behind. What do we want people to write, to think, to say about us after we have gone? May God grant us the days and the ways to live our lives so that they will touch people for generations to come, like Simeon and Anna. That is my New Year’s prayer for us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.