Simeon in the Temple, Dutch artist Rembrandt, oil on canvas, c. 1669, National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden.
Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel."
I remember as a young boy growing up that December 24th was always such a wonderful day! We would gather with extended family for a delicious dinner, there would be gifts given and received, and then a Christmas Eve candlelight service that always seemed so mystical and holy to me. The next morning, of course, all of those gifts around the tree that we would tear into with the wrapping paper flying and the cries of excitement when we got just what we wanted—and some surprises we didn’t expect. I realize that this is not the experience of everyone at this time of year; for many, it is very different, much less materialistic and perhaps not nearly as happy. I wish I could wave a magic wand and give everyone exactly what they want this Christmas.
Speaking of that, and I don’t know if this is the reality for everyone who gets older, but I have noticed that my list of “wants” has shrunk with age. Things don’t hold the fascination they once did, nor does the allure of the latest movie or television show, and even fanaticism for my favorite sports teams has faded over the years. I’m finding my focus narrowing; I’m not sure why. Maybe I realize that the time I have left in life is much shorter than what has been lived—or maybe one of the gifts of age is a “seasoning” that illuminates what is really the most important. For me, it is the people I have met, whom I care about, the ones I hold in my heart. I wish I showed them the truth of how I feel more clearly; my selfishness and sin cloud what is true about how I treasure them. And there is one Person above all the rest—Jesus—and, as I get older, all I really want in my life is to get to know Him better, to be with Him, and to love Him more with each passing day. I just want to see Jesus. I wish this “wish” of mine was more obvious to Him as well.
There is a man briefly mentioned in the gospel of Luke, around the time of Jesus’ birth, that first Christmas, who had the same desire. His name was Simeon. Luke said that this man, a resident of Jerusalem, a devout and righteous man, had one thing left on his bucket list as he neared the end of his life. He was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” (Luke 2:25) That is an interesting phrase. Consolation is the comfort one receives in the face of disappointment or loss. At this point, the nation of Israel had experienced plenty of both. Having lost their homeland to Babylon five centuries before, they had been allowed to return. Nevertheless, they had suffered the oppression of subsequent conquerors—Persia, Alexander’s Hellenistic Empire and now the Romans. But Simeon, a man who knew the prophecies of Isaiah, Micah and all the rest, believed that hope and solace were coming in the form of the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah. In fact, the Lord had revealed to Simeon that he would not die without actually seeing the Promised One. That was Simeon’s one remaining wish—he just wanted to see Jesus.
And now there were rumors. The miraculous birth of Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s son John had been widely publicized—Zechariah, a priest in this very Temple in Jerusalem. (Luke 1:65) Those shepherds, some of whom kept Temple flocks, had reported strange happenings in the night sky over the small village of Bethlehem just over a week ago—talk of an angelic visitation and proclamation regarding the long-awaited Messiah. But that day, the day Simeon wandered into the Temple, he wasn’t drawn by rumors. He was led by the Spirit so that His wish would be fulfilled—to see Jesus. That’s how it happens for all of us. The Holy Spirit always draws us to Jesus and reveals to us who He really is—the Savior that we all need. Simeon had been watching through a very long, dark night, but, now, the sun was finally coming up.
Taking that Son in his arms, Simeon spoke praise to the Lord while Jesus’ parents looked on and listened intently. (Rembrandt's painting above, the last of his life, recorded this moment. He didn't actually finish this painting; an assistant painted in the woman in the background--probably Anna or Jesus' mother, Mary. I love this painting--it captures the image of an older man holding the Messiah he had looked for all his life.) Truly, Simeon declared, the light was dawning with this child, a radiance and glory for both the people of Israel and for those who weren’t Jewish—for everyone who needed salvation. And that is everyone—regardless of ethnicity.
Then Simeon looked at Mary and spoke prophetically, yet ominously, to her. Simeon told Mary that this baby would be “a sign that will be spoken against,” literally “a target that people would shoot at.” (Luke 2:34) The trouble is that, while we all need a savior, none of us wants to admit that and most of us fight against that proposition in the name of independence and autonomy--what the Bible calls sin. And that’s the thing about Jesus. As Simeon told Mary, He reveals the “thoughts of many hearts.” (Luke 2:35) He exposes the ugliness and self-centeredness of the human heart. He did when He lived on earth and He still does. We either recognize this ugliness in ourselves and cling to Him for rescue or we reject Him so that we can pretend the ugliness isn’t really there. But we all know it is there. That rejection nailed Him to the Cross that was necessary for our rescue, a Cross that would “pierce” the soul of his mother as she stood by and helplessly watched His execution. Simeon warned Mary about that, too, even though the child was just eight days old.
But Simeon wasn’t the only prophet Mary and Joseph met that day in Jerusalem. A woman named Anna, now in her mid-eighties, had lived as a widow for decades. Clearly, the Lord was the love of her life as she worshiped, fasted and prayed, night and day, never leaving the Temple. Luke did not record the precise words that Anna spoke over the child, but she told everyone within ear shot that this was the Messiah who would “redeem,” or “buy back” from slavery, all those who were in chains to their sin. Anna was a widow, she knew a life of pain and loss. But the “sweetness” of love for the Lord had overwhelmed the bitter moments of her bittersweet life. And the focus of her devotion was now being held in the arms of His mother just a few feet away. Can you imagine what Anna felt in that moment?
Luke provides no less than 27 sets of stories in his gospel that focus in one case on a man and in another case on a woman. There are two pairings in Luke, chapter one, alone: Zechariah and Mary are both visited by the angel Gabriel and sing songs of praise—and then there are two prophets, a man and a woman, Simeon and Anna. Why did Luke structure his gospel in this way? Because he wanted to make it clear that the Savior came for everyone—Jews and Gentiles, men and women.
Today, I want to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a prayer that, this holiday season, all you will really want for Christmas is Jesus. I pray that our lives will emulate the desires of Simeon and Anna, two people whose “wants” had been stripped to what Jesus told his friend Martha was the only thing that is really needed in life—to sit at His feet and listen to Him as her sister Mary had done. (Luke 10:42) The best part is that, if that is what we really want, I know that the Lord will make us a powerful and precious “present” of His Presence—not just on Christmas, but every day for the rest of our lives.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the example of people like Simeon and Anna who were so devoted to You and to Your Word. We want to be just like them! We know that following You will mean some days of sadness and suffering. But the joy, contentment and purpose You offer us fills our lives with meaning and enables us to endure the hard times in the process. We trust You and we love You, Lord! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.