Sunday, December 30, 2012

Christmas One
Exodus 13:1-3a, 11-15
Psalm 111
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:22-40

And whatsoever ye do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

The New Living Translation translates our verse, “And whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus, all the while giving thanks through him to God the Father.” Whatever you do or say, keep in mind that your words and deeds will make an impression on the world. It isn’t easy. We are human and we are imperfect. Paul is not demanding perfection; he is simply reminding us to consider our words and actions and what impact they will have on the world. The life lived in thanksgiving is one that keeps God in the forefront, and when God leads, our path is one that glorifies Him.

The Hebrew people lived in a world where people were acceptable sacrifices to the gods; even children were laid upon the altar. But our God removed His people from Egypt and delivered them to a place where they could worship Him in a way that truly honors Him with their resources. The Exodus was the first of many great works and a foreshadowing of the greatest work that He performed in and through Jesus Christ. The deliverance was not easy; Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against the Hebrews and he refused to let them leave despite his promises. So God made the ultimate demand, the demand that the other gods had no right to make. He gives life to all, include humankind, so only He has the right to take that life away. As a last resort, God took the first born of Egypt, man and beast. But as proof that He is God, He saved the firstborn of the Hebrews. He saved His sons.

Though the sacrifice of children was forbidden in the religious faith of the Jews, they continued to offer sacrifices to God in response to His Law. There were specific rules involving every aspect of life, including the birth of children. It was believed that forty days was long enough for the purification needed to be acceptable in the temple, so that’s when the children were taken to be presented to the Lord. Mary and Joseph were pious Jews, so when the time came for Jesus to be presented, they took Him to the Temple. They offered the proper sacrifices and did all that was required.

In the Gospel lesson for today we meet two people, a man and a woman, both of whom were waiting expectantly for the coming of the Messiah. The first person was a man named Simeon who was righteous and devout. It is interesting that Luke describes him as both righteous and devout. Matthew Henry suggests that righteousness is lived for the sake of other people and one who is devout is devout toward God. “…these must always go together, and each will befriend the other, but neither will atone for the defect of the other.” In other words, we love God and neighbor, not one or the other. If we hate our neighbor we cannot love God. And if we love God, we will always love our neighbor.

Simeon was unusual in that the Holy Spirit was upon him. There are not many examples of the Holy Spirit on men before Christ finished His work, and yet we see Him clearly in the Luke’s Gospel. Luke, being a man of science and medicine was focused on the miraculous works of God, as we see in the telling of Jesus’ birth and in His presentation at the Temple. Simeon apparently lived in Jerusalem; he prayed often. He lived in thanksgiving of God’s works. He was an example to us of the life that glorifies God.

Simeon had been given a promise; he would not die until he saw the Messiah. Now, we assume that Simeon was a man of old age, but that is not necessarily so. According to Matthew Henry, early Christian writers identified Simeon as the son of Hillel and the father of Gamaliel.

Hillel was a famous Jewish leader who lived at the time that Jesus was born. He was a sage and a scholar who founded a school for leaders. He was respected for his knowledge of the Law. The most famous of his statements remembered today is a form of the Golden Rule, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” Gamaliel was another Jewish scholar and teacher of the Law. As a matter of fact, it is likely that Saul/Paul was his student. We hear about Gamaliel in the book of acts, when the apostles were before the Sanhedrin. Gamaliel spoke a word of caution to the men of Israel.

He spoke two examples which showed how the followers were dispersed as soon as the leaders was killed. The opposite affect was happening to the followers of Jesus. Instead of running away, they were getting stronger. Though Gamaliel did not believe in Jesus, he warned the others to beware. “Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will be overthrown: but if it is of God, ye will not be able to overthrow them; lest haply ye be found even to be fighting against God.”

If Simeon was indeed the son of Hillel and the father of Gamaliel, then he was likely a learned man, knowledgeable of the Law. What was different about Simeon, however, is that He was filled with the Holy Spirit. He believed the promise and looked forward to the redemption of Israel. On that day, when Jesus was just forty days old, the promise to Simeon was fulfilled. He knew to be in the Temple not because he was a learned or even a devout man. He knew because God led him there. He knew that Jesus was the Messiah, not because he knew God’s word better than anyone, but because God whispered it in His ear.

At that moment, Simeon said, “Now lettest thou thy servant depart, Lord, According to thy word, in peace; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of thy people Israel.” Did Simeon die at that time? Perhaps not. Simeon may have been little more than a middle aged man. However, Simeon was confident that God’s promise was fulfilled in that moment that he knew he could die in peace. He may have lived a long life, after all Hillel lived to be 120 years old.

If Simeon was Gamaliel’s father, is it possible that he shared the story of this moment with his son? Perhaps Gamaliel did not make the connection between his father’s story and the man Jesus, but might it have been in his heart and in his spirit that there was something different about Jesus and His followers? Simeon had the Holy Spirit to show him the truth.

Tradition holds that Gamaliel did convert to Christianity, having been baptized by Peter and John, but he kept his Christianity a secret until his death so that he could remain in the Sanhedrin and offer aid to the Christians who were being persecuted. The Jewish account of his life maintains that he remained a Pharisee until he died. His speech at the trial of the apostles gives some credence to the possibility that he had faith in Jesus.

In the story of Simeon we see a bold proclamation of what Jesus came to do, that He would be the salvation of Israel and a light to the Gentiles. This was an amazing thing to say. But I wonder if there is something to this idea that his witness went beyond the words spoken to the child’s mother and father. Simeon knew by the power of the Holy Spirit that the boy Jesus would die, and that his death would pierce the very soul of His mother. These are powerful words. But what if his witness went to his son who later saved the lives of those apostles by his calm and reasoned approach to the situation?

We often try to find some meaning to these stories, beyond that which we hear. It seems strange that Simeon’s whole purpose in life would be to confirm to Mary and Joseph the reality of their son’s life, after all it seems like God was pretty clear to them all along that Jesus came to save the world with His very life. Perhaps God used Simeon in ways we will never know, just as He uses us in ways we may never know.

Could a simple word or story about our own relationship with God cause someone to help a Christian in ways we might never expect?

The second person we meet at the Temple is an elderly woman named Anna. We know that she was old. She was at least eighty-four, but she could have been more than a hundred, depending on the translation. She had been living in the Temple for many decades, living a life of pious prayer and fasting. Her life was indeed one of glorifying God. She worshipped day and night.

Can you imagine that life? We live in world where we are expected to keep things exciting, to do new things and constantly change our ways so that we won’t get bored. We chase after every whim and we can’t seem to spend even an hour quietly worshipping God. But Anna did it every day, all day. Her life was spent in thanksgiving for all God’s works. What would we say to the widow whose husband died after just seven years? She was probably just twenty-something. “You have a long life ahead of you. Live! Do something new! Chase after your dreams! Do something exciting!” Anna chose to worship God all day and all night with fasting and prayer.

She came upon the scene as Simeon told Mary and Joseph about their son’s future and she began praising God loudly and telling everyone about Jesus. “He’s the one we’ve been waiting for! He’s the promised King!” Simeon may have quietly shared the story of Jesus with his family, but Anna was not going to be silent. She was ready to tell the world.

When Paul says, “And whatsoever ye do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him,” he is not telling us how to live our calling in the world. We might be like Simeon, led by the Spirit to be at the right place at the right moment to see or hear or do something that seems rather insignificant in the scheme of things. But our quiet life of faithful living will impact others in some way. Or, we might be like Anna, loudly proclaiming the truth we know so that others will hear and believe in the good works of our God. But whatever you do in word or deed, do it in Jesus’ name with thanks to God, and He will be glorified.

I think my favorite part of this story, however, is the response of Mary and Joseph. They marveled at the words spoken about their son. They knew because they too experienced the Holy Spirit and the messengers of God. And yet they marveled at those words. Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever feel that you know what God is doing in your life, and yet continue to marvel when it gets done? I know I do.

Our God is great and He does great things. The most incredible part is that He does so much of it through us. He calls us to live that holy life, to live faithfully in thanksgiving, doing everything in His name. Whether it is with quiet voice or loud proclamation, His name will change the world.

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