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Advent – Also Starring

The theme for this week hope in the God who is always in control. Our sermon is from Luke 2, the story of Simeon who blessed the newborn Jesus. He connects this baby into the story of hope that had been centuries in the making.  Let’s go to Luke’s account:

Luke 2:22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law,  28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, 29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”  33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”  36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.  38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.

         As each nativity character is given their star role and script in these first two chapters of Luke, we are first introduced to them as being described by God as ‘righteous’ in his sight’ as they go about their duties.

From the context we can determine Simeon was an older man whose whole life has been one long wait. We surmise that his life was dedicated to waiting a fulfillment of the promise that their God loved them, was faithful to them, and would one day bring his kingdom to their door. At one point in his life, Simeon heard a promise and felt the Spirit tell him that he will see the Messiah before the end of his life.

In chapter one we meet an old priest named Zacharias who is serving in the appointed order of his temple service division – called the course of Abijah.  This happens to be the 8th of a 24 round duty roster of temple service established since the time of King David.  Several thousand priest served in these 24 courses in this time period.  And one special duty of temple service was that of entering the temple and going before the altar to burn incense over the offering.  You had to be chosen by lot to do this, and Zacharias number had come up!

Luke 1:8 (Odds graphic) Luke 1:8   Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.

Entering the Holy Place and kindling the incense upon the golden altar was quite possibly a Once-in-a-lifetime experience. But this was Zacharias’ day, the lot fell to him!

I was speaking to a retired friend of mine, and ours, the Rev. Dr. Hoyt Byrum last month because I had heard that Hoyt had won the annual Family Promise fundraiser ball drop… Grace Communion Melbourne has supported the Family Promise ministry in years past.  For the ball drop, you purchase a certain number of golf balls with sequential numbers on them like buying a raffle ticket, and then a helicopter flies over the Viera East Golf course and releases the balls over a certain hole on the green.  If your golf stops closest to the hole, you win!  I remember hearing the helicopter fly overhead that afternoon but didn’t give it a second thought.  Well, Hoyt won the drop this year and the grand prize was $5,000!  –Knowing Hoyt he has probably purchased the equivalent of that many chances to win over the past 10 years.  Anyway, when I heard he had won I called to congratulate him… and to ask him for a loan… Just kidding!

Zacharias won the ball drop!  And his duty would go something like this: First he’d choose two special friends to assist him. One would remove the ashes from the previous evening’s sacrifice, and the second would carefully enter and place new burning coals on the altar. Finally, Zacharias would enter the Holy Place alone, bearing the golden censer, and at the given signal he would spread the incense over the coals. As the incense kindled and a cloud of fragrance arose from the altar, the prayer of the worshipers outside would rise into the presence of God.  It was a beautiful symbolic experience of worship.  But then it turns from ritual into reality! As he is clocking out so to speak, suddenly an angel is standing there telling him not to fear, and that his petition has been heard.  He and Elizabeth will have a child!  But you when you’re used to just going with the flow, handling life as best you can, you win some, you lose some, don’t get too excited about anything beyond today, just punching the time clock not quite ready for God to show up… and so you open your mouth to an angel and something like this pops out: “Well, how will I know for sure this is going to happen?”  There’s a Southern expression that sometimes goes along with utter surprise and shock…  and it’s this: “Well shut my mouth!”  And God did! And so some months later Zacharias has to write the name of his newborn son down on a tablet before he could speak or hear again!

So now as we come back to our text in chapter two, we hear Simeon described by God as righteous and devout…  But he is also noted as someone who has waited patiently for the consolation of Israel!

Each of us at some point in our educational or vocational life has known the difference between going through the motions and experiencing the real thing…The difference between just “Get ‘er done” and being truly present and attentive to the moment.  The temptation to just ‘go through the motions will always pull at our flesh. because the flesh is works oriented.  It is deaf and dumb to faith.  This is especially true of the religious community Jesus was born into. There were plenty of Jewish men and women who went to temple because that was what they always did, and no doubt there were a number of priests who may have been doing their job because it was all they knew. But when the fullness of time had arrived, and Jesus has come into the picture, even the ritual of temple worship blossoms with unexpected revelation, miraculous reality, and joy filled redemption!

And so we meet these two new characters with their starring Advent roles, both of whom have spent much time in prayer at the temple.

Simeon, Anna, and Christ child :  Simeon is righteous and patient—waiting, ALL HIS LIFE, for the consolation of Israel, the Messiah. Simeon not only spoke the right words… he really believed them. He wasn’t one to just let his outward action define his relationship with God, he sought and deepened that relationship in his own heart.  In the Christmas story as Luke tells it, those who understood were those who paid attention.

  • Mary was open to the angel’s announcement, Luke 1:2
  •  The wise men paid attention to their dreams –  Matt 2:1-12
  •  Elizabeth was aware when John kicked in her womb –  Luke 1:41
  •  Simeon is watching and waiting – Luke 2:25

Do we do that? Are we watching and waiting for the Lord to appear? Are we like Simeon, watching for when he will appear day after day?   In our text, Simeon’s prophecy, given to him by the Spirit, is somewhat of a surprise to even Joseph and Mary! They marvel at his insight into Who Jesus is and what his life will mean for both Jew and gentile!

They have come to the temple to fulfill the ceremonial law of Moses.  Mary’s time of ritual purification after the birth of her male child has arrived and they are following the law as given to them in Leviticus the 12th chapter. They are to meet the priest with a prescribed offering, a lamb for a burnt offering and a dove for a sin offering.   If the family cannot afford a lamb, the acceptable alternative was two turtle doves.  Joseph and Mary arrive with doves… And then suddenly Simeon draws the attention of all toward them!

Let’s stop and attempt a cultural-connection for a moment… You’re at the front gate with your family at Disneyworld – the kids have never been, and you really can’t afford even a one day ticket price.  (Adult – $120, child $110 one day, one person).  But all their friends have planned to meet up there today, parents as well.  It will be well over $500 for your family to do a day at Disney, and that’s just getting through the gate!  But you have a friend who works there who says he can legally get a couple of you in free… He just has to meet you and escort you in through a separate gate. As other families head through the turn stiles dolling out $100 dollar bills and sliding credit cards, you turn your back and start to pay your friend in 20’s. Suddenly Mickie Mouse dances out and starts entertaining your youngest child (There is Pre-covid hugging and lap time involved!).  Now you are in the lime light…attention is drawn to your family just as you are try to get through the gate unnoticed by those paying full price…

Oh, you don’t think anybody in 1st century Jewish society who brought lambs to the temple and those who could only afford doves?  Joseph and Mary were probably not trying to draw attention to themselves and their offering when Simeon calls them out.

Simeon, with aged eyes, perhaps squinting through a cataract or two, sees more than the priests who are present!  His proclaims God’s global purpose, revealing what the prophet’s foretold:  That Jesus is not only salvation for the Jewish people, but a light for revelation to the Gentiles! This is Simeon’s blessing.

Luke 2:29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation

He also uses a strange term for Lord in verse 29, not the term usually used. His word for Lord is much more like master, like slave master—someone who has complete control over his life. The wording here actually connotes a special duty that slaves had, which was probably not a desired one. The servant had to stay up all night watching for a special star to rise. When it finally did, he told his master, and the master then would then discharge him from the task. Or as Simeon puts it—let him depart in peace.

That moment has come. He knows his duty is fulfilled.  Simeon has done his part to stay faithful until deliverance came, until the star rose. Contrast that with Zechariah, who says to the angel, in effect: “What are you doing here!? You’re not supposed to be here!” Simeon is the symbol of the faith of Israel preparing the way and then giving center stage to the faith of Christ. Now let us depart, now let us get out of your way. For Simeon, as old as he is, there is the double meaning of death here. “My life is fulfilled, I’ve seen all I ever need to see, now I can die in peace.”

So often through Jesus’ life people question the way he goes about things. They ask him, yeah, but when are you going to bring back the kingdom? Yeah, but when are you going to plow our enemies into the dirt and take your throne? Even Peter says, “You won’t die, that’s not how it works, Jesus!” In contrast we have Simeon, a man who was paying attention, who is overjoyed to see God’s plan falling into place. Are we paying close enough attention to see when God’s deliverance comes along?  Simeon is the one singing to us, of all the starring cast members of the Nativity it is Simeon who is singing: “Do you see what I see?”  To see when and how God’s blessing comes along and to stop and be thankful right then and there…

God doesn’t always give us what we want, but he does give us what we need. So often God’s deliverance and blessing comes to us in the strangest packaging—in something more original and engaging than we could have ever imagined.  Look at the rest of this exchange…

Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:33-35 ESV)

Wow… we are moved from an old man gripping the finger of a child to the piercing of our innermost thoughts and affections!  This is intense, perhaps not even the words Mary might have expected. If Jesus was to be just a good teacher or a comforting good luck charm, he wasn’t very good at it. If he was only supposed to be gentle Jesus meek and mild, he pretty much failed at that. He got in trouble for questioning authorities, he challenged the comfortable. Jesus came into the real world, where people go hungry so they can feed their children, where people get evicted and have to sleep in the cold. This prophecy, and the life of Jesus that followed, was strong, real-world medicine.

When we hear people talk about how human beings are basically good, that we need to embrace our own goodness and dig deep down to the Christmas spirit, etc., we ought to wonder how realistic this is.   Simeon is saying people will rise and fall, kingdoms will rise and fall, that history itself will be sliced in half because of this baby you hold in your arms. He has come to bring peace, for sure, but war will result as well. There will be struggle, and a sword will pierce your soul as well, Mary.  So Simeon’s words were far from flowery promises. They are a prophecy of a very real and painful future, but also of a final victory.

And last but not least in the line-up of Advents main stars is Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She is a widow of eighty-four who had become like the temple furniture… always present… worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.  And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38 ESV)

Typical to Luke’s writing, he matches the male character with a female character and Anna represents the female side of the waiting and watching which Simeon represent. Like Simeon, she is someone who walks in faith that God will do what he says he will do.

Asher is one of the “lost” ten tribes of Israel that had been carried off by Assyria. It’s an interesting detail for Luke to include.

The Religious Establishment

                              The Poor and Unnoticed by men

                              The Young and the Elderly

                              Both Male and Female Evangelists

                              The Lost Tribes of Israel

Not only does he bring in the religious establishment, not only does he include the poor and unimportant, unnoticed by men, not only does he bring in the young and the elderly, both male and female evangelists, and the lost tribes of Israel as well.

God made sure that everyone was represented at the birth of Jesus. In reality our manger scenes at home are far too small!

Anna had probably been a widow from the time she was a late teenager/early adult. Like Elizabeth, she is a representation of God’s gift to barren women.   Her name Anna can also be rendered “Hannah” from the original language—like the mother of Samuel the prophet who had been without a child her whole life. Anna is also someone who is waiting, and she spends much of her life alone as she waits.

This is so counter cultural to our world.  Our Western world especially looks at those who wait all their life for something as real losers!  Winner’s grab for all the gusto they can get as early in life as possible and then just disappear in old age having lost influence and value to society.

She would be seen as the least of the losers… an outlier now included in the most important story of all. Everything had been taken from her in so many ways—her marriage, the ability to have children, and yet here we see her “coming up at that very hour.” Here we see her caught up by God into his purposes, to be one of the first evangelists of the gospel.

There are plenty main characters who weren’t watching and waiting —Mary, Joseph, the shepherds—each crucial to the story.  But the story here in Luke is of those who were watching and waiting, finally seeing what they were waiting for come to fruition.

What can we learn from our friends, Simeon and Anna?

  • Watching and waiting—both of these folks lived in expectancy of God’s action and goodness. Theirs was a lifestyle of waiting for the Messiah to come, continually reminding the community that God is good, and God delivers. Do we live that way? Waiting on God’s action in the world? Or do we just live in our own strength and the world’s rules—just happen to do something a little different with our Sunday mornings?
  • Depart in peace—Simeon saw for only a moment. Simeon probably died soon after. He didn’t have to see the whole thing, just a glimmer of God’s life, and that was enough. Are we content to be part of that?  My faith seems so mercurial when I look at Simeons… I don’t know about you but I too often ask for reaffirmation of his work in and through me… But To join in God’s work if only for a moment? We live in such a gimme gimme world, a culture that wants everything and wants it now and wants it continually. Could we ever live with Simeon’s peace: to get to see maybe just a moment of joy, a moment of love, a moment of beauty and let that feed our soul?
  • Anna who was always in the temple—Is there someone in your life who is like an Anna? Someone who might be out of touch with culture and trends, but lives instead with a quiet, simple faith? This is a person to listen to. Even though our fast-paced world may not have time for them, God has time for them. Even though we may think of them as unimportant, God thinks of them as central to the picture.

The title of this message is “Advent also starring…” These are some supporting roles to the greatest story ever told. Advent also stars you —what will your role be?

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