Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Luke 2:25-40
There is a certain cartoon printed each year at this time. It depicts the present year as a tired, old man trudging to the end of his course where he greets the new year pictured as an impish baby, usually with a top hat. It’s a somber moment as well as a light one. It’s an end and a beginning, a consummation as well as hope for tomorrow. That image is not unlike today’s Gospel—the meeting of the very old and very young, an end and a beginning, the fulfillment of a long-awaited hope. The Gospel lesson reminds us that our life in Christ is a journey from a new birth to a good death.
Certainly that was how Simeon and Anna looked upon the Christ Child. The scene is the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was only 40 days old. Joseph and Mary had come to perform two Old Testament rites—purification (which was for women after giving birth), and the sacrifice required for all firstborn sons. To this family, the old man named Simeon walked, asking to hold the baby. What a touching scene that followed—the aged man cradling the newborn in his frail arms.
But there’s more to the picture. To the parents amazement, the old fellow broke forth in a song. It was a heartfelt hymn of thanks for this Child. Simeon was overcome with joy because his eyes beheld God’s “salvation,” that is, the Christ Child cradled in his arms.
Then there was the other old figure, an 84 year old widow named Anna. Like most widows of that day, Anna was quite poor. She depended on the alms and generosity of the temple for her livelihood. She came by at that moment and heard Simeon’s song. She, too, hurried to see the child. Why all the fuss? What excited these two aged saints? It’s really quite simple.
The hope and prospect of meeting this babe had been the focus of their entire lives. Simeon is described simply as a pious, God-fearing man. He was one of the few left who had read, understood, and believed the Old Testament promises concerning the Messiah. That day marked the zenith of his aged life. In some wondrous way, the Holy Spirit told him he would see the Messiah before his death. And then the Spirit moved him that day to go to the temple at the right moment. There he saw the glorious fulfillment of his hopes. Likewise, the elderly prophetess, Anna, was numbered with those still looking for “the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Now it had all come true. Simeon and Anna were old, yes, but their future beamed brightly. God had kept His holy Word; now this aged pair stood on death’s door fearless and confident. Simeon and Anna had as much joy as anyone could hope for—and more. I wonder how many people today, at the end of the year, only a few days after Christmas, can say that.
The mood of these post-Christmas days is usually a bit depressing for many people. Many are blue simply because Christmas is over. Vacation is brief and soon will end. Christmas toys may be found already broken. Some gifts came as disappointments and were promptly returned. A lot of folks are already taking down their decorations. Another Christmas has come and gone, and for most people that means farewell to the joy of the season.
The reason for all this is because so many people celebrate Christmas only like a birthday party. Birthdays come once a year, a time for brief happiness—tempered by the fact we are another year older. There’s no real lasting significance, though, to the average birthday celebration. And year after year people treat Christmas like a once-a-year festival where, for a while, the past is forgotten and the future ignored. The big attractions are the presents to be opened and the feast to be devoured. Oh, many are touched by the quaint, old “legend” about a cuddly baby laid in a manger, but less than a week later the thrill is gone and the baby forgotten. The only interest and prospect now is the bottle of champagne to be opened at the New Year’s Eve bash. Let’s face it, many people treat God and His Son with little more than sweet affection and passing interest at Christmas. Afterwards they pack them away just like the figures in a nativity scene.
But, Christmas is not the story of innocent sweetness that has no bearing on “real life.” When you get right down to it, Christmas is a matter of life and death. Even in the midst of all his joy, Simeon realized this all too keenly. He prophesied that that baby would split the world, separating the people of God from all the rest, including the pretenders. Surely when King Herod sent his troops to slaughter the babes of Bethlehem, Simeon’s words were painfully evident. He also said Mary’s own heart would be pierced with sorrow over her Son and His mission. One wonders as she watched Jesus die on Good Friday, if Simeon’s words came painfully back to Mary’s mind.
It is joyful to sing a song of Christmas, to hold a candle in church on Christmas Eve, to exchange gifts, and to eat the feast. But, if that’s the only place Christmas has in your year, you’ve missed the point! We who are gathered here today apparently understand that; we are here to keep celebrating Christmas. What remains for us is to learn anew the lesson of Simeon and Anna.
The Nativity of our Lord is a matter of life and death—of new life in Him and a good death in Him. Simeon teaches us how vital it is to build life on Christ, the Rock of our Salvation. When our life’s foundation is built on Him, no storm or sorrow can rob us of our true joy. The Bible speaks of Christ as a Rock that will either save or destroy us. His death on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday will either cause life for all who trust in Him and His promises, or they will cause the death of those who reject Him and His Word of life. To keep Him as a tiny babe with no real claim on life is a sure way to get crushed—a sure way of making every Christmas a disappointment. How sad! For Jesus was born in Bethelehem and died on Calvary to save us from our sins, paying the enormous debt of sin we all owed God. He came, not to condemn us, not to disappoint us; He came that we might have life in all its abundance.
With Simeon, we must learn that having Christ brings true peace. His words are a fitting confession for us, too: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.” It’s not that we’re planning on dying soon—God willing. Rather, we mean “Here, O Lord, is my whole life. You gave it. You saved it. Now free me to be Your servant—free me from spiritual shallowness and guilt, and from past and future fears.”
And, from Anna, we learn the lasting joy of rendering service to God, of living in God’s temple and worshiping regularly. Here we feast on the Bread of Life—His Word and Sacrament. From them we receive the grace to join Anna in living the devout life, of telling and showing others, perhaps especially our children, that Jesus is for every day of the year. With her, we daily look for the redemption that is ours in Christ.
Well, soon that top-hatted, sashed baby boy named “2018” will crawl into our lives. Once again, it will be the passing away of the old and the beginning of the new, the consummation of one year and the hope of another. My prayer for all of us is that we, like Simeon and Anna, greet the future with the joy and hope of Christmas fixed firmly in our hearts. And, with that joy, to love and live with abandon for God, for surely our new birth in Christ will carry us to a good death in Christ!