Sunday, December 20, 2009

Before We Go

Before We Go

Third of Three Sermons
on the “Christmas Carols” of the Early Church

© copyright 2009 Robert J. Elder
Sunday, December 20, 2009

Luke 2:25-35

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word.

Two weeks ago we started a series of three Advent sermons by remembering the first song in a trilogy of songs from the gospel of Luke. The first of those was probably the best-known, the much loved song of Mary, the Magnificat.

The second song, which we shared last week, was the less well-known Song of Zechariah, the Benedictus, or “blessing.”

The third song we share today is the song of Simeon, which also carries a traditional Latin title from the first words of the passage in the Latin translation, Nunc Dimittis. As the infant Jesus was presented at the Temple, old Simeon, who had been waiting his whole life to see the Messiah, realized the promise of God had been kept and he burst into song.


Several years ago, the New York Times reported that a local music teacher came to the Brooklyn Public Library and borrowed a copy of the full orchestral score of Handel’s Messiah. For some reason, the distracted librarian failed to make a record of the loan. Several other requests came for the score, and the library staff spent a good deal of time looking for it. When the day came that the music teacher returned to the library with the score, he placed it on the circulation desk, and was “astonished to hear the librarian spontaneously, joyously, and loudly shouting, ‘The Messiah is here! The Messiah is back!’... Alas, as the Times reported, ‘A few minutes later everyone went back to work.’”[1]

Garrison Keillor once wrote in one of his classic Lake Wobegon, Minnesota stories about his imaginary childhood in that imaginary town.[2] I recall that story when I think of the story of Simeon, like those librarians waiting for the Messiah to come. Keillor wrote that the principal in his elementary school had come up with the idea of “storm homes” for all the children: pre-arranged homes in the town where children from the country could go in the event of a Minnesota blizzard:

[My storm home] was the Kloeckls’, an old couple who lived in a little green cottage by the lake ... it looked like the home of the kindly old couple that the children lost in the forest suddenly come upon in a clearing and know they are lucky to be in a story with a happy ending. That was how I felt about the Kloeckls, after I got their name on a slip of paper and walked by their house and inspected it ... I imagined the Kloeckls had personally chosen me as their storm child because they liked me. “Him!” they had told Mr. Detman. “In the event of a blizzard, we want that boy! The skinny one with the thick glasses!”

No blizzard came during school hours that year, all the snowstorms were convenient evening or weekend ones, and I never got to stay with the Kloeckls, but they were often in my thoughts and they grew large in my imagination. My Storm Home. Blizzards aren’t the only storms and not the worst by any means. I could imagine worse things. If the worst should come, I could go to the Kloeckls and knock on their door. “Hello,” I’d say. “I’m your storm child.”

“Oh, I know,” she’d say. “I was wondering when you’d come. Oh, it’s good to see you. How would you like a hot chocolate and an oatmeal cookie?”

We’d sit at the table. “Looks like this storm is going to last awhile.”


“Terrible storm. They say it’s going to get worse before it stops. I just pray for anyone who’s out in this.”


“But we’re so glad to have you. I can’t tell you. Carl! Come down and see who’s here!”

“Is it the storm child?”

“Yes! Himself, in the flesh!”

Simeon is perhaps the least well-known of the three singers of songs surrounding Jesus’ birth. You may recall that Zechariah, on hearing the instructions of the angel in the temple, did not believe. Luke tells us that Simeon, whose name means “hears and obeys,” had a more appropriate reaction to a promise. He received a promise of God through the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah, the anointed one of God who would come to save his people. So Simeon was a waiter. Not like the person who serves tables at the restaurant, but one whose calling was to wait and watch until God made his move. It’s never easy to be one who waits. And the most difficult waiting of all may well be the waiting we do when we wait upon God.

So this is a bittersweet story in two ways. First, Simeon received the joyful news for which he had waited his whole life, but that meant that he would now, of course, be prepared to die, which we may assume probably took place not too much later. And second, the child Jesus, now but a few days old, was celebrated in song, and returned to his mother with the words, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

One commentator on this passage said, Simeon “speaks poetically of the terrible price both [Mary] and her son must pay,” reminding us that we would never have had Christmas had it not been for Good Friday and Easter. “In that reversal of nature, which carries with it a pain unlike any other, the parent will bury the child.”[3] Christmas celebrates the birth only because it led to a death by which all the world was able to aspire once again to life.

In the Song of Simeon, the shortest of the three songs in the birth stories from Luke, Simeon begins in celebration that he can now go to his reward “in peace.” Peace is a word Luke uses at least 12 times in his gospel. It is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Shalom,” which means peace, but which means much more than that. It means wholeness, completeness.

Simeon was not just singing that he was free now to go to his death with an absence of conflict, not that kind of peace. No, he meant that something that had lacked completion was now finished, that his life had a beginning, middle, and now a satisfactory end, he was whole, and knew that his eyes had seen the next step in God’s plan for the saving of the world.

And Simeon sang at the beginning of the gospel about a salvation which was both a glory to God’s chosen people, the people Israel, but also — and this is the part that seems able to read the future — a salvation that would be a light to the nations. Simeon knew the prophecy of Isaiah, and he wasn’t shy about referring to it here in his song, long before Jesus had begun to teach, long before the parables, the walk on water, the healing ministry, the teaching in the temple, the last supper of Maundy Thursday, the cross of Good Friday, the resurrection of Easter Sunday. It was long before the first tentative steps the apostles would one day take into the gentile world to proclaim Christ crucified and risen again. Long before any of this, an old man – singing a song at the end of his long waiting life as he held the Christ child in his trembling arms – could see it all, the salvation of the whole world lay in potential in the shape of this child.

No wonder he could depart in shalom, in peace. The whole of the gospel rested there in plausible form in that very moment of recognition and celebration.

While we are in darkness, there are no distinctions, no good no bad, no beautiful or ugly, just darkness. But once light comes, distinctions emerge. “Anyone who turns on the light creates shadows.”[4] We would like to think in this season of what is pleasant, the warm glow of the stable, the mothering of Mary, the protective staff of Joseph, the kindly admiration of passing shepherds that we don’t much need preachers or prophets coming along to remind us of crucifixion. Yet here it is, in only the second chapter of Luke, as Simeon speaks to Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” Even in the season for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, Simeon’s song is there to keep us mindful of his death. No wonder we rarely hear this song, it spoils all the fun.

But the fact is, to celebrate his birth, as Simeon knew and announced, is to be drawn into his mission, and his mission always involves conflict with those who would resist it. It is the price of the redemption, the salvation for which Simeon and all Israel had been praying for the previous 5 or 6 hundred years.

Simeon reminds us of something we forget only at our peril, that there are some causes, some things worth dying for. I am sure that on September 11, 2001, there were police officers and fire fighters who entered the World Trade Towers, knowing they would almost certainly not come out alive. They went in anyway. Whether they made the decision to go in an instant, or over a lifetime of commitment to the safety of others, they had made it and judged it worth dying for.

It has been said that those who find nothing in the world worth the price of their dying will be condemned one day to die for nothing, for we all die. What better time to be made aware of this truth then at the observation of a birth. We see nothing but potential stretched out in front of a new baby, but in the end, that child, like all children, will commit himself or herself to something, and their life will be spent, whether for good or ill, it will be spent.

We join Simeon in his prayer as we contemplate the birth of Jesus. “Let your servant depart in peace,” we say: shalom, in wholeness, complete, having given the gift of this life we have received for something worth our having been given it. Lord make me whole, we say, because we know we are not. Give me shalom, peace, wholeness, a sense of being at one with your purpose.

Think of this song of Simeon and his words to Mary.

“Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace...and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Someone once said, “Here is a sure way to spoil a perfectly good Christmas party. Call your friends to a moment of reflection and ask them whether there is anything they would be willing to die for. In the stunned silence of the moment the partygoers may move closer to the true meaning of Christmas than they will in the joyous singing of carols and the exchanging of gifts.”[5]

There is so much in the Christmas story that speaks especially to a willingness to go where God is leading even when there is no clear human capacity for understanding that things will come out all right if we do. The angel speaks to Mary, and she says, “Let it be to me according to your word...” The angel speaks also to Zechariah, and when he can finally see that the promise of God means blessing for him and for his people, he bursts out in songs of praise to God. The Holy Spirit moves in the life of Simeon to bear witness to the most important event of his long life, and he is able to sing about the wholeness, the shalom of the people that will result from the birth of this child. There is an old poem by George MacLeod, called “Not Just for a Time,” captures this so well:

Jesus saves in the measure that we let him rule
always and not just for a time.
In the measure that we are enslaved to him
always and not just for a time.
You just try it in these coming days – I am not pleading
because you have already, in fact, made up your mind to do so –
just try being a wise man (or woman) this Christmas.
Bring the gold to him. Offer him the material world
in which you move, and run it on human lines.
Bring the incense to him. Offer him your spiritual life,
your instincts and desires, lay them at his feet.
It is easy at Christmas
when the spirit of Give is everywhere about.
And, if you want his way to rule,
and his love to save,
not just for a time,
then offer him myrrh, the symbol of burying.
Kill your old self. Keep the world turned upside down
just for his sake, and you will find that Jesus comes to save -
not just for a time.[6]

There is so much more possibility in our world than we can ever see or guess, there is so much that God can accomplish. Come, thou long-expected Jesus. We are doing the best we can.

And we are waiting…

[1] Tom Long, “They Also Serve Who Wait,” in Shepherds and Bathrobes, CSS Press, p. 47.

[2] Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days, Viking Press, 1985, pp. 248-249.

[3] Fred Craddock, Luke, John Knox Press, 1990, p. 39.

[4] Ibid., p. 39.

[5] “God as Santa, Santa as God,” by Miroslav Volf, Christian Century, December 19-26, 2002.

[6] “Not Just for a Time,” Advent Talk, December, 1958, Daily Readings with George MacLeod, Ron Ferguson, ed., HarperCollins, 1991.