Monday, February 18, 2013

The Consolation of Israel [Luke 2.21-40] (1 January 2012)

Most years we do not get the opportunity that we have today. Christians worship on Sundays for the most part and on one Friday of the year. Many churches do not even have a service on Christmas, unless Christmas happens to fall on a Sunday, as it did last year. Strange, isn’t it, to say ‘last year’ when it was only last week!? And it is only when Christmas falls on a Sunday that the following Sunday happens to coincide with the events narrated in today’s text. And Christians, being Gentiles for the most part, being non-Jewish, really have no point of reference for these events. Circumcision, purification, temple, the sacrificial system, all are foreign to us and we choose to avoid passages in the bible that deal with such aspects of Old Testament faith.

However, the reality is this: Jesus was born into a devout Jewish family and he died a devout Jew. And so, if we wish to understand who Jesus was and what he did – or at least what he was perceived to be doing – we cannot avoid passages that deal with aspects of Old Testament faith.

And so we have in today’s passage a event that happened on the eighth day of Jesus’ life. In other words, today is the anniversary of Jesus’ circumcision. And so today’s message is not a New Year’s message. I consider that Pastor Arun Andrews, who gave us a beautiful message yesterday, has already given us a New Year’s challenge, freeing today for a look at the events recorded by Luke.

Today’s passage is humongous, however, and there is no way we can cover all of it. But we can zero in on one character. And so let us focus on the person who makes a prophecy – Simeon.

Simeon is the third person – after John the Baptist and Elizabeth – whom Luke tells us is associated with the Holy Spirit. But Luke makes the association extremely strong by linking Simeon and the Holy Spirit not once but three times in the span of three verses. Luke tells us that he was righteous and devout and that he awaited the restoration of Israel and that the Holy Spirit was upon him – presumably a constant state of affairs. He was constantly under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Moreover, the Holy Spirit had told him that he would live long enough to see the Messiah. What image did Simeon have of this Messiah? In all probability, his image of the Messiah initially coincided with the predominant views of the Jews. 

There were three primary kinds of Messiahs that the Jews expected. We most often hear about the military Messiah, a commander who was expected to drive out the enemies of Israel and restore the kingdom of David. But there were other Jews who expected a prophet Messiah, one like Moses who would give them the new law that Ezekiel spoke of. And still others hoped for a priest Messiah, one like Aaron who would restore the temple and the role of the priests a spoken of by Malachi.

Each of these views was existent at the time Jesus was born, though of course the view with the noisiest followers was the military Messiah. Strangely enough even among Christians, this is the view that is most often propounded. Maybe that’s something we Christians need to introspect over.

Whatever Simeon’s initial leanings, it appears that, under the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit, he developed a view that would have been rejected by almost all the first century Jews. Seven centuries of exile, deportation, slavery and occupation had made the Jews a very exclusivist people. For them, salvation was first for the Jew and only for the Jew. The Gentiles could, very literally, go to hell. The very notion of being a light to the Gentiles was pretty foreign at that time. The Gentiles were scum who had tormented the Jews and who deserved to be punished.

But look at what Simeon says. “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.”

Under the influence of the Holy Spirit Simeon had come to a view that refused to make Yahweh a local, tribal god fighting it out among other local tribal gods. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit Simeon recovered an understanding of the reality that Yahweh was the only god, the god who had chosen Israel so that through Israel he would bless the Jews and the Gentiles. Yahweh is the god who wept when Israel went astray and when Egyptians died during the events recorded in Exodus. And Yahweh is the god who rejoiced when Israel was faithful and when the Syrian Namaan obeyed the directions of Elisha. Yahweh, in other words, was not just concerned with one nation in one corner of the world, but with all nations and peoples around the entire world. This was a revolutionary view in those days and it could have come to Simeon only under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

And the Holy Spirit leads Simeon to more. In fact, he is the only person in the Gospels who seems to actually know what is going to happen to Jesus a few decades later. He tells Mary and Joseph, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

What? Everyone there would have known that Simeon was awaiting the revelation of the Messiah. But what was he saying? This child will cause the falling and rising of Israelites? Was the Messiah not supposed to deliver Israel from her enemies? What Simeon was saying opened the door to the possibility that some in Israel might be excluded from the work of the Messiah. That was contrary to what the Jews expected. They expected every Jew to be included in the work of the Messiah.

And this child would be a sign that will be spoken against? Actually the word is much stronger. A sign that would be rejected. Who would be foolish enough to reject God’s Messiah? A person would reject something only if that something would disappoint him. How could the work of the Messiah be disappointing to anyone? How could the work of the Messiah not be up to standard?

And what was this about revealing the thoughts of hearts? The Messiah was someone who would restore Israel to her former glory – either the kingdom, the office of the prophet or the priesthood. But he was not supposed to be some mind reader! Why was Simeon not mentioning the three offices – king, prophet and priest – that actually involved the ritual of anointing? Who wanted a Messiah who would read minds when all of Israel was under Roman occupation? That just seems to miss the obvious need and provide the unnecessary.

And what was this about a sword piercing Mary’s heart? Becoming the mother of the Messiah was a secret, quiet hope of most Jewish girls in those days. In a highly patriarchal culture, the glory of a woman was in her children. And what could transcend the glory of being the mother of the Messiah? That was supposed to be a glorious, joyous role, not one that causes pain. In context, Simeon was saying that the rejection of Jesus would be so severe that it would go much beyond disappointment for Mary. She would not simply experience shame. She would experience a sword thrust into her heart.

Simeon, in true spirit of the Old Testament prophets, could be understood as being a party pooper. The circumcision of a male child was a huge occasion of tremendous joy among Jews and more so if that child was also the first child. Mary and Joseph would have entered the temple with hearts dancing with joy. And before they could proceed with the rite of circumcision, Simeon comes and upsets the applecart.

Why would he do such a thing? Luke clearly tells us that he came that day to the temple under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There was no coincidence involved. Moreover, it seems even the timing was not coincidental. And while others would have endorsed a fully grown Messiah, Simeon goes to these new parents and carries their baby. Don’t you think that strange? Perhaps we who already accept Jesus as the Messiah fail to comprehend how astounding that act would have seemed.

The differences between a grown man and a baby are easy to observe. Apart from the obvious size difference, we can see that a grown man can fend for himself; a baby is helpless. A grown man can be independent; a baby is utterly dependent on care givers. A grown man can make decisions for himself; a baby has decisions made for him.

And so Simeon sees the baby Jesus and sees what the Holy Spirit had trained him to see. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel. Now you will remember that the Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The word that the NIV translates as ‘consolation’ is the same as the Septuagint uses in Isaiah 40.1: “Comfort, comfort my people.” Now it would not be okay to depend solely on one word. 

However, if you do a study of the word נָחַם in the Old Testament you will find that it occurs so frequently in Isaiah 40-66 that the Jews called that portion of Isaiah ‘The Book of Comfort’. And it is in these chapters that we find what that comforting would look like. All the Songs of Yahweh’s suffering Servant are to be found in these chapters. Apart from the book of Psalms, Christian worship books use passages from these chapters more often than any others. Why? Because we in hindsight now see what Simeon under the influence of the Holy Spirit saw with foresight.

Simeon saw that the power of Yahweh, the strong arm of the Lord, the mighty hand of God is revealed not in his blasting everyone who comes in his way like the local, tribal gods claimed to do. Rather, Yahweh’s strength is revealed in the fact that he is secure enough to be vulnerable with sinful humans. In the baby Jesus, Yahweh reveals that even by becoming so helpless, so dependent, so much at risk, he will accomplish his purposes for all of creation.

And so under the influence of the Holy Spirit Simeon celebrates the vulnerability of Yahweh made real in the baby Jesus. This baby would grow up and become a man. And in that man the vulnerability would continue until he was nailed to a tree. “My eyes have seen your salvation.”

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