My Eyes Have Seen the Savior
Luke 2:22-40 : The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel."
And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-- and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Simeon from today’s text is an intriguing character. We don’t know much about him. Reading the text it’s easy to assume that he is an old man since Anna the Prophet is very old and because Simeon’s one desire before he dies is to see God’s Messiah; but the text doesn’t say that he is old. It’s easy to assume he is part of the Temple establishment too, since he is righteous and devout and the Holy Spirit rests on him – but the text doesn’t say that. What we know is that Simeon is single minded. He is looking for only one thing: he is looking for the consolation of Israel in the person of the Lord’s Messiah.
Those are words that come to us across a vast expanse of time and space. What do they mean? Israel is and was a tiny country, perched on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean – a crossroads for trade and political intrigue, caught forever between warring superpowers. It seems that there have always been oppressed people in that land, then and now. At the time of Jesus, Israel had been dominated, by the Assyrians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans, for centuries. They were weary of the endless rounds of war, destruction, exile, and return. They lived with the constant fear of violence, of offending the mighty power of Rome. Deep in their collective consciousness was the memory of liberation from Egypt, the Exodus – the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom to be who they were without fear. But that reality had not been theirs for hundreds of years, by the time of Simeon.
But Simeon had not forgotten. He was keeping vigil for the promise of an end to oppression. And somehow, even though everything around him carried on much as it had for as long as anyone could remember, Simeon had hope. He had hope because the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. The one who was coming to restore Israel—although probably Simeon thought this meant that the Messiah would overthrow the might of Rome in a military victory. Either way he was waiting for the Messiah, and he was standing sentry, watching everywhere he went, even though nothing around him gave him any reason to believe that anything would ever be different. One day he was walking around the streets of Jerusalem and he felt a nudge. The Holy Spirit led him through the outer porch of the Temple where the Gentiles were allowed to be, into the Temple proper, to the place where sacrifices were made, and he saw a young couple with a very young baby. And he knew, somehow, because God revealed it to him, that this impossibly vulnerable baby who could not yet hold up his own head was the promised consolation of Israel—the Lord’s Messiah. This baby was God’s salvation. And so Simeon could be at peace.
This text is about hope. Simeon had hope when he was keeping vigil, and when he saw the baby Jesus he still had to have hope, because obviously a baby isn’t doing anything about the power of Rome, at least not yet. But hope is a tricky subject. To know what hope is in the first place you have to need it. And the only way to need hope is to be in a situation that doesn’t have it. The Christian faith is fundamentally about light in the dark; it is about experiencing the truth of new life even when nothing around you gives you any reason for hope. The Christian faith makes the most sense in places of suffering; in places without hope.
I read an article recently about an Iraqi woman named Olga Yaqob who has been nicknamed the Mother Theresa of Baghdad. Now she lives in Boston and is a chaplain at Boston University. But for twenty four years, she served the poorest of the poor in war-torn Iraq. She served children, prisoners in Abu Ghraib, all the every day people of Iraq who have suffered so greatly from three decades of war and economic sanctions. She says this: “Living a life of suffering with my people in Iraq for more than twenty years, I have seen not only God’s words and promises alive, but also his face.” How in the world can she claim to have seen with her own eyes the face of God, like some kind of modern-day Simeon? What does she mean? She talks about a period of time during the first Gulf War when she was in the desert for three months with many sick and dying children and elderly folks. She says that she experienced seeing the face of Christ in these children, because of what Jesus said in Matthew 25” Just as you fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the prisoners – just as you did these things to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” When she heard these children ask for food and healing and love, she saw the face of Christ in them. And she said this made her finally understand why God had said to Moses that no one could see God’s face and live. She had seen the face of God in the face of these children, and she would never be the same. In that wilderness experience of the desert, Olga Yaqob says that she died and was born again to a new life.
All this may seem very epic and strange and far away. I’ve been talking about oppressed Israel of 2000 years ago and the suffering people of Iraq for the last thirty years. But we need not search far at all to find the face of Christ that brings both suffering and hope. In our own Twin Cities, according to a Wilder Foundation report in 2012, 9% of the children attending Minneapolis public elementary schools are homeless. Recently I was at Youthlink and there was a young man, let’s call him Matthew. I was taking Matthew downstairs to open the laundry room for him. He was saying how it made him mad when some of the other youths complained about the food at Youthlink. He said, “it’s like they’ve never been hungry.” I asked him, “have you ever been hungry?” He answered, “I grew up hungry.” And in that moment something in me changed. I realized that all around me, every day, right here, there are people who are living without hope. And that it is part of my call as a follower of the way of Jesus to enter into their experience, their suffering. It is not that I have any answers for them. I usually feel helpless in face of the complexity of their problems and the enormity of their need. But I have also met the face of Christ in them. When Matthew told me he had grown up hungry, I felt the presence of Christ who cares for the hungry and who says that when we feed the hungry, we feed him.
I want to say this to all of us. Some of us have personally experienced the ravages of war that has destroyed so much in Iraq, and also in Uganda, in Nigeria, and elsewhere. Some of us have known what it is to be poor, and a few of us have known what it is to be hungry. But all of us have experienced poverty of spirit, and have seen, close by, others who are struggling. Either way, I think most of us are tempted by our culture’s many opportunities to numb ourselves to the suffering in our midst. We have endless sensory opportunities to shut our minds and hearts to what is happening around us, like Netflix and Facebook and Candy Crush, of which I am as guilty as anyone else.
But I want to invite all of us at St Matthews to be refreshed and nourished here, so that when we leave this building it will be with a new resolve. It will be to go out of our way to encounter those who are suffering, who are not an ocean and an age away but are in our own city, and to dare to hope that we will meet Christ in them. If you want your spiritual life to be revitalized, go look for Jesus among the poor. This is not just a metaphor: there is a living reality about the presence of God who is everywhere, but who especially cares about the widow, the orphan, the alien, the hungry, and the oppressed. Let us meet Christ in them and then open our hands and our hearts and our lifestyles to develop relationships with them—to share what we have, and to receive what they have to give us, which is hope: the hope of transformation, the hope of conversion. No one can see the face of God and live. We can expect to die to some things and be raised in the power of the life of God if we encounter his Son in the face of the poor. This dying and rising has already happened in a deeply real way to each of us who were baptized. In fact the core meaning of baptism is to die with Christ to our egos, die to the old ways of thinking about ourselves and God and others, and rising to new life and a new creation in Christ. Let us dare to encounter Christ in the face of the poor, in the face of our own suffering and that of others around and among us, so that with Simeon, we can say “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior.” Amen.