Departing In Peace

Luke 2:22-40 (12/27/15)

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Luke 2:28-29 And [Simeon] took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word…”

Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord…This morning’s Gospel reading really belongs on February 2nd, 40 days after Christmas, because it describes what happened the day Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple when he was 40 days old.  The OT Law said that the mother was unclean for 40 days after giving birth to a boy.  The Law also required that the first-born belonged to the Lord and had to be redeemed by blood sacrifice, usually a lamb or a goat, though if the parents were poor, two pigeons would suffice.  It pointed to the sacrifice that God would ultimately make to redeem us by sending His only-begotten Son to redeem us with His blood.

Today, on this third day of the twelve days of Christmas, our focus will be on the two senior saints in this passage – Simeon and Anna.  Our society tends to value energy and excitement over wisdom and experience.  And that is sad, for there is much to be learned from those who have lived a long life.  You can learn a great deal about life from those who have lived many years.  You can learn more about marriage by talking to two people who have been married for 50 or 60 years than you can from any book pulled from the shelf.  You can learn much about prayer from those who have prayed a long time.  You can learn about patience from those who wait.

Seniors do a great deal of waiting.  They wait for buses and taxis and rides; they wait for the mail to come, for family to call, for friends to drop by.  If they are sick, they wait for the doctors to diagnose, and the medicines to medicate.  Sometimes that wait can be long.  The body heals more slowly when you are old.  Sometimes things don’t heal completely.  Some wait to die.

Simeon was one who waited.  Luke describes old St. Simeon as a “just and devout” man, meaning that he trusted in God’s promise of salvation and lived in that trust.  He had been told by the Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, the Lord’s Christ.  That was a heavy honor.  Imagine what it would be like knowing that you would not die until you saw God’s Promise of salvation fulfilled before your own eyes, but not knowing when that would be.

Year after year went by in the temple, marked by the holy days of the temple liturgy – Yom Kippur, Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Tabernacles.  Every day Simeon waited and watched: would today be the day?  The evening sacrifice; the morning sacrifice.  Another day, and no Christ.  We don’t know how many years Simeon waited, but he must have been quite old.  You can hear the relief come from deep within his bones when he sighs, “Now You are letting Your servant depart in peace.”

Imagine the excitement of old Simeon that day when Mary and Joseph came to the temple with the newborn Messiah wrapped in a blanket, just 40 days old, and the Holy Spirit brought him to the temple at just the right time so that their paths crossed.  It must have been a marvelous moment when Simeon took that precious little bundle in his arms and sang out his glorious song that echoed all throughout the temple:

“Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word.  For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared in the face of all peoples.  A Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the Glory of Thy people Israel.”  It is a joyful song, not a sigh of resignation.  Simeon is confident, he is bold, he is very much alive.  He now knows at last that the Lord will take him from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.  He holds God to his promise, trusting that this tiny baby will be His Savior.  He trusts God’s Word and doesn’t need anything more than this baby to say, “my eyes have seen Thy salvation.”

What did Simeon’s eyes see?  Nothing more than the shepherds saw in the manger the night Jesus was born.   Simeon saw a baby boy who looked just like any other baby boy.  There were no halos hovering over his head, no chorus of angels singing at his side.  All Simeon could see was a squirming infant wrapped in a blanket and his poor parents who had come to do what the Law required of them.  But the Spirit of God said, “This One is different.  He is the One you have been waiting for.”  Simeon trusted God’s Word.  With the tiny baby cradled in his arms, he knew he could depart in peace, He knew could die without fear.  He had seen God’s salvation in the face of this poor and humble Child, and now he could depart in peace.  God had kept His promise.

Such high and glorious names Simeon gives this poor infant!  He calls Him God’s Salvation, the Light of the Gentiles, the Glory of Israel.  Cradled in Simeon’s arms is God’s salvation, God’s devil-crushing, hell-defeating death-defying victory over sin and death.  We are weak, but this Child is our strength.  We are filled with darkness, but He is Light.  We are sinful, but He is the sinless One who became sin for us so that in Him we might become God’s righteousness.

To those around him that day Simeon must have sounded like an old man gone stark raving mad, calling this tiny baby the Salvation of God and the Glory of Israel.  Even Mary and Joseph were amazed at his words.  Who would have guessed that such infinitely wonderful things could be said about such a tiny baby, this Child who appears so small and helpless and poor.  How can a little Child be strong enough?

Old Simeon is our preacher this morning, and he simply says, “Do not believe your eyes.  Trust God’s Word.  Look to this Child that Mary wrapped in a blanket and brought to the temple.  Receive this Child in the empty arms of faith.  Hold him as your own, for He has come to be your Light and your Salvation.  He is the Glory of God’s Israel come down to you.  It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done, whether you are good or bad, rich or poor, young or old, married or single.  This Child has come to save you, so that you too can depart in peace.”

The Church traditionally sings Simeon’s song on two different occasions.  We call it the Nunc dimittis, from its first two words in Latin, “Now depart.”  It is the traditional hymn of Compline, the prayer at the close of the day.  Just before we go to sleep at night, we pray, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace.”  Sleep is a picture of death just as rising in the morning is a picture of the resurrection.  If I die before I wake, I know that God’s only begotten Child will care for me.  As the psalmist prays, even so do we: “The Lord is my light and my salvation.  Whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life.  Of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1)

Later in history, Simeon’s song came to be part of the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper.  It is a brilliant addition to the liturgy and the perfect place to sing these words, just after we ourselves have received the Lord’s body and blood, just after we ourselves have cradled Him in our arms and received Him in the most personal and tangible way.  What a perfect time and place to sing Simeon’s song of deliverance, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word.”  Dr. Kenneth Korby, a highly respected Doctor and teacher in our church body put it this way while he was still alive: “We go to the Sacrament as though going to our death, so that we might go to our death as though going to the Sacrament.”

If we learn one thing from St. Simeon, it is this: Where Christ looks most helpless and weak, there He is most our Savior, most Light, most Glory, most Son of God for us – in the manger, in the arms of Simeon, on the cross, in the Sacrament.

There was also a woman named Anna in the temple.  She had been married for seven years, and had likely been widowed at the age of 24 or 25.  Though she certainly would have been free to marry again and raise a family, Anna instead devoted herself to prayer and fasting, to watching and waiting for the coming redemption of Israel.  St. Luke tells us that she was from the tribe of Asher which was one of the wealthiest tribes of Israel.  No prophet or judge had ever come from the tribe of Asher.  But now in these last days comes St. Anna, a prophetess, a woman who spoke the Word of God with prophetic power.  And in the 84th year of her life she was given to see the Salvation of God, the Glory of Israel.

Her life also, like Simeon’s, was now complete.  Everything she had hoped for, everything for which she had prayed and fasted and waited was found in this little Child born of Mary.  She also gave thanks to God and spoke about Him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.  She also bore witness to Jesus, directing everyone who was looking for the redemption of Jerusalem to Him:  “There He is!  The One in Simeon’s arms!  He is the One we have all been waiting for.”

Simeon and Anna.  Mary and Joseph.  And there in the middle of it all, a tiny 40 day old baby.  It is a little congregation.  Everyone is represented.  The young and the old, the married and the single, the widowed – people who would otherwise have nothing in common are gathered by the Spirit of God around Jesus.  People, like you and me, who live in the shadow of death, can, by the grace of this Child in Simeon’s arms, die in the light of life.  And we too can and will sing with Saint Anna and Saint Simeon: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word.”

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.