Good morning. I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Christmas. I spent what will likely be my last non-working Christmas Day for a while at my in-laws. Did anyone get some good presents?
Now, I wonder if anyone was particularly holy, and got a book like this?
I didn’t this year! This one is from a previous year. But it’s a book of readings and prayers for the whole year - these are all from the book of Psalms. We usually call these books “devotionals.”
Our reading today shows us 4 people around the baby Jesus. Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna. 4 people about whom we actually have very little information. But there is one thing in this passage that they all share - devotion. We start with Mary and Joseph heading down to Jerusalem to the Temple to fulfil their obligations to the Law. To consecrate Jesus, and to offer a sacrifice. The fact that it was a pair of doves or pigeons indicate that they were not a wealthy couple.
Simeon, we are told, was also a devout man. A righteous man. A man with the Holy Spirit on him.
It’s worth noting here how important the Holy Spirit is throughout the books of Luke and Acts. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it all kicks off at Pentecost. Luke mentions the Holy Spirit more than twice as much as any other gospel - almost as much as the rest of them put together! And Acts has 30 times as many mentions again!
Just look at the first 2 chapters of Luke. The angel tells Zechariah that his son will be filled with the Spirit. Gabriel tells Mary that the Spirit will come upon her and she will become pregnant. When Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit. When John is born and Zechariah receives his voice back, he is filled with the Spirit and prophesies over his son. This thread carries on throughout the book of Luke, and then continues, obviously, throughout the book of Acts following the day of Pentecost.
And now we have Simeon, a man with the Spirit upon him.
On this particular day, which was most likely a normal day, just like any other, Simeon is going about his normal business when he feels led by the Spirit to go to the temple. And this is a sign of someone who is in step with God. Someone who is always listening to the promptings of the Spirit, and obedient to God’s voice.
Finally, we have Anna. A widow of probably more than 50 years, who never leaves the Temple, but spends all her time there, worshipping and praying and fasting. Devoted, as they all were. Coming into God’s presence.
What we see in these 4 people is devotion as a foundation for life. Devoting ourselves to prayer and fasting and worship. Walking in step with God’s Spirit - always listening for His prompting in our everyday lives. Seeking out God’s presence on a daily basis. And, as I suspect for these people, devotion is often costly. It requires that we give up something.
However, before we get too far into thinking about what we’re going to give up, let’s go back to thinking about Christmas presents. Here’s an important question. Who prefers to know what they’re getting for Christmas, and who prefers surprised? Hands up for surprises? Hands up for knowing?
Probably the best thing about Christmas is that whether or not your presents are a surprise, you know that, come the 25th December, you’re going to be able to open them all and enjoy them.
I got a mixture of both. I’m wearing a new shirt, which I knew I was getting. But when I opened this present from my parents I had no idea what to expect! Any guesses? Well - if you guessed Yoda slippers, you’d be right!
The first character in our reading today, Simeon, didn’t have that luxury. He knew what his present was - that he would see the Messiah before he died. But he didn’t have a timescale.
We’re don’t know how long he had waited. It might’ve been days, months, years. Maybe even decades. But on this occasion, he finally sees the one thing that he had been waiting for. He glimpses the Messiah. The chosen one. The one who will bring the light of revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for Israel. The great promise that God had been making for thousands of years was finally going to come to fruition!
Like devotion, the promises of God make a great foundation for our lives. We’re told in 2 Corinthians 1:20 that “no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God.” God always keeps His promises, and it is through Jesus that all His promises are fulfilled. And, like Simeon, there are promises that God has made to us. Promises that we can stand on. Promises that we can believe in. Promises that we can build our lives upon.
John 3:16 - For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. A promise of eternal life for each one of us, made possible through Jesus.
1 John 1:19 - If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. Forgive, made possible through Jesus.
Matthew 28:20 - Behold I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Jesus promises to always be with us.
Scripture is full of promises for us. And, much like Simeon, we are called to walk in patience and obedience as we see those promises fulfilled in our lives.
Maybe even now there is a Scripture that you have as central to your life? Something that, at some time in the past, has captured your imagination and made your heart sing. That the Holy Spirit nudged towards you.
I don’t know how you find this period of time between Christmas and New Year, but one of my friends posted this picture on Facebook the other day, and it pretty much summed up how I felt while I was away. Christmas is wonderfully festive and great, and then you have these days where, well, it’s all cheese and forgetting which day of the week it is! You can’t say Happy New Year yet, but if feels a little odd to say Merry Christmas.
As Christians, we also live in a strange inbetweeny time. We know that Jesus has come, and that by coming he has ushered in the Kingdom of God. But we also know He’s coming again, and that until He does the Kingdom is not fully here. Things are not as they were. But things are not yet as they should be. Christmas has happened, but the New has not yet arrived.
The Now and the Not Yet. The tension between these two things is actually really important. You can feel it throughout the New Testament, but so often we fail to feel it in our own lives; in our own faith.
Simeon and Anna show us lives of devotion, lives that were built on the promises of God, lives that were lived in step with the Spirit. These are, as we’ve said, great foundations for our lives. But if all we ever build are foundations, no matter how strong those foundations are, then we still won’t have much of a building! If all they had built next door was foundations, and then told us that it was time to move in, I think we’d all be a little upset!
Simeon, when he see Jesus, praises God for the fulfillment of His promise, and then prophesies over Jesus. Indeed, he declares to Mary and Joseph words that we know come true in Jesus lifetime - that he will cause many to rise and fall in Israel, that he will be spoken against, that he we reveal hearts, and that Mary’s own soul will be pierced when she stands and sees her child executed.
A thanksgiving and a proclamation.
Anna, too, responds in thanksgiving and proclamation. She gives thanks for the child, and then she “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”
We too are called to a proclamation. To talk about Jesus. To tell people about what we believe. About why we believe. Indeed, this is why we live in this not yet time - in 2 Peter we read that God’s desire is that none should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
It is good to be faithfully patient like Simeon, but I think we also need to rediscover the impatience of the Apostles and the early church. They imagined that Jesus was coming back soon. Really soon. So soon that they should be preparing for it - making ready for the coming of the King. They were convinced that He was coming back in their lifetime, and it gave them an urgency in their proclamation of the gospel. We seem to be the opposite - convinced that Jesus won’t come back in our lifetime, so our proclamation is less than urgent.
If I told you that Jesus was definitely coming back on the 1st January 2020, how would you live your life differently in 2019? What things would you do? What things would you stop doing? What would your focus be? What things would suddenly seem a lot less important?
We don’t have that guarantee. We don’t live with the definite. We live with the tension. With the now and the not yet.
But we could do a lot worse than follow the example of Simeon and Anna. Simeon lived with that tension daily - knowing that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, but never knowing if today was the day. How did they live? They lived lives of devotion. Of worship. Of prayer and fasting. Of seeking the presence of God. Of living in step with the Spirit, knowing His voice and obeying His promptings. And of proclaiming the coming Kingdom.
Sounds hard. Or it does to me, anyway. It would certainly make an impressive list of New Year resolutions later this week. But, much like a New Year’s gym membership, it’s probably going to fall by the wayside fairly quickly.
Luckily, there’s one more gift that God offers us. A gift that keeps on giving. The very essence of God with us - the Holy Spirit. That thread that runs through Luke and Acts. It’s a gift that we receive when we first accept Jesus into our lives, but it’s a gift that we can always ask for more of. In Ephesians we’re told to be continually being filled with the Spirit.
It is the Spirit who gives us the strength to be devoted. It is the Spirit who draws us into God’s presence. It is the Spirit who gives us a foretaste of the Not-Yet Kingdom, and it is the Spirit who gives us boldness to proclaim that Kingdom.