By Michael Milton
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
You cannot dance to the music of Charles Ives. The late 19th- and early 20th-century American composer was inspired by his transcendentalist philosophy. This led to a highly personalized musical expression that employed the most innovative and radically technical means possible. His music sometime went into two or three different directions at one time.
You cannot dance to the Song of Simeon.
Simeon's Song begins with a sentiment that conjures up the joyful, upbeat, rhythmic, folk music of a Jewish wedding. It changes mood and becomes quiet, contemplative, and then it ends with a thump. You can’t dance to it, but you can marvel at it and learn from it.
The powerful message from this mysterious figure was delivered to Mary and Joseph after the first Christmas but has a divine purpose for us today. Simeon’s Song, the Nunc Dimittis—the Canticle of Simeon, tells us in Luke 2:23-35 that our Lord Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God's promise for our salvation and God is calling every man to rest in Him alone for eternal life.
We witness the Lord's call for us to rest in Christ as the Promised One as we take in the lessons of this passage.
There Is a Lesson in the Setting: The Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple
Following a time of ritual purification after the birth of Jesus, the parents of our Lord (we may call Joseph the parent of Christ--Scripture does in verse 27) went up to offer a sacrifice and dedicate their child to God. It is interesting to note that to go from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is literally to go down, but because the Temple was there, they "went up" to the place where God’s presence ceremonially dwelt. It is in this setting, that they encountered Simeon and heard the Word of God.
The object of the trip was obedience to God. The end of their obedience was to hear the confirmation of the Word of God: that their child is the Savior of the world.
Here is the lesson: We rest in the Lord as we obey. We find the true power of Christ in our lives as we go up to dedicate ourselves to Him, to follow His revealed will in our lives. We come to know the fullness of the Lord particularly as we obey God in going into His House.
Another pastor related that he had a very elderly lady in his congregation who could barely see or hear and couldn’t walk very well. But she was always at church. She received her church bulletin early by a fellow member of the church, and would routinely hold the bulletin up close to her weak eyes, find the sermon text of the day, consider the title of the sermon and the hymns selected, and contemplate that. She would then go to church the next day where she could see and hear almost nothing. One day she remarked that all she got out of the service was what she received from the bulletin. The minister, allowing her the option of not going to church, told her, "Well, you don't get much out of the service, so, dear, why don't you just stay home?" The lady responded, "Well, you know, the psalmist said, 'The Lord is in His holy temple,' and I come to this place to meet the Lord." Of how many who attend church can that be said?
Angels had ministered to Mary and Joseph. Angels had announced His coming. His birth was miraculous in every way—and yet we see the holy family going up to worship the Lord. If anyone needed not go to Church it was this family, right? They had the closest possible relationship with the Lord. But they obeyed. They went up to the Temple.
My friends, to make Jesus the center of your life is to come into His presence in worship, not only privately but also as part of the congregation of the faithful. Some of you may need to recommit to making the Lord's House a priority in your life. Some of you may need to reexamine your motivation for coming to Church. All of us need to listen. "The Lord is in His Holy Temple." Let us go up to Jerusalem!
There Is a Lesson in the Servant Named Simeon (vv. 25-28)
When Jesus was born, religion was at a low ebb, to be sure. The faith of Israel was corrupted by a religious ruling-class that was made up of legalistic Pharisees on one side and worldly Sadducees on the other side. The Word of the Lord was silent. Prophecy was non-existent. Evil and ruthless rulers like Herod governed the land.
But even in seemingly God-forsaken times God is very much in control, and He still has His special servants on duty. We don’t know much about this strange figure encountered by the Holy Family in the court of the Temple, but Scripture tells us some things that are clues as we listen to God’s Word to us today:
(1) We know that Simeon was just and devout. We have seen the description of just—which may also be translated righteous— in such people as Mary's husband, Joseph, in Mary herself, in Zechariah and Elizabeth, and later in Joseph of Arimathea. The combination of just and devout speaks to his relationship with both man and God. Simeon was a man who is a model for all of us. You can be a godly man or woman even in the midst of a wicked and corrupt generation. You can follow the Lord even in an ungodly workplace, or for that matter in an ungodly home, if you are filled with the Spirit of God and are seeking His glory in your life.
(2) We know that Simeon was waiting on the Messiah. This is what is meant when it says that he was waiting on the Consolation of Israel. Simeon was a holy waiter. He lived in a period of spiritual drought, but he believed God and waited for the Consolation. We need Simeons today who can improve our dry days in this country. We wait on the Lord to send revival, to raise up godly men and women, and to stir the Church in America to a renewed holiness of life and doctrine. If you read closely, you will find that Simeon didn’t just wait around by twiddling his thumbs. Rather, Simeon waited by praying, by walking with the Lord.
(3) We note that the Holy Spirit was upon Simeon and that the Spirit guided him into the Temple. The latter phrase is the same phrase that occurs in the Book of Revelation (1:10; and see also 4:2; 17:3; 21:10) when John of Patmos was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day. Simeon was under the power and influence of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, subject to being used by God, to being blessed by God, and to being led by God. How do we do that? We are told to walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4). The flesh speaks of the sensual. This man could have sensed all of the problems of his day and retreated from God. But he was a Spirit-filled man and therefore looked to God not to circumstances. Simeon was no doubt like Enoch who walked with God. This is how we must live our lives if we will be used of the Lord, and if we will be blessed by the Lord. We must follow Him, look to Him, resist what one writer has called reality and affirm the truth behind the earthly reality. The end of such faith, of private and public worship, of reading the Word and opening up your life to what the Spirit is saying, is to walk in the Holy Spirit and be an instrument of God. When we do we encounter the fullness of Jesus in our lives and blessings follow His presence.
(4) We see, finally, in verse 27 that Simeon took Jesus in his arms. Simeon embraced the object of his prayers in a personal way. It is wonderful to see that this man, Simeon, who was probably not a priest but what we might call a layman, took up this babe and blessed Him in a way that Jesus Himself would one day do with other infants. It is important is to see that Simeon's faith and waiting led him to hold on to object of his faith: Jesus. Oh, my dear friend, knock and door will be opened. Seek and you will find. Don’t be satisfied with a Christianity that has all of the form of religion but denies the power thereof. Reach out today and take hold of Christ! Embrace Him as the object of your desire! Nothing else will satisfy you but a deep abiding relationship with Jesus Christ!
Mr. Street was the janitor of our school when I was a boy. He was a strange character in the eyes of this little boy. He had no teeth and no dentures and the combination of no teeth and a lot of practice allowed him to spit farther than anyone I have ever known. That was significant to me for some reason. Mr. Street's world was a world of trash and picking up after dirty little kids. But, if you looked closely at Mr. Street, and listened beyond his odd exterior, you would see that as he made his way around the schoolyard with his trash bag and "pick-em-up stick" you could see his flabby lips moving. You could hear him singing hymns to God. Mr. Street was a man whose odd exterior and trashy work was transformed into an opportunity to walk with God.
We need some odd people today. We need some Simeons and some Mr. Streets. We need men and women and boys and girls who, though they live among the moral trash of this world, go about their lives singing the Songs of Christmas to the Lord.
That's the lesson of Simeon: we come to rest in the Lord and experience His power in living when we are led by the Spirit of God.
There Is a Lesson in Simeon’s Song (vv. 29-32—The Canticle of Simeon)
As with the other Songs of Christmas, this Song of Simeon, called the Nunc Dimittis from the opening words in Latin is a spontaneous Spirit-induced Song of Praise and Prophecy delivered with Power and Poetry of the soul!
The lesson here is that in Jesus alone can we find out eternal rest.
(1) The first movement in this Song is a key. Simeon declared—and I use William Hendrickson's translation—"Now, Sovereign Master, thou art releasing thy servant." We must prepare for our eternal rest by turning to Jesus. Christ is needed, and then one can die. This passage is speaking about preparation for death. Simeon's hope is in the coming of Christ and in His appearance—only then could Simeon die.
You are not ready to die until you've embraced Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. You may be ready to graduate, you may be ready to buy your first home, you may be ready to retire, you may be ready to do many things—but, friend, without Jesus you are not ready to die. Jesus came to pay the penalty of Simeon's sins and yours. Turn to Him in confession of your sins and repentance from them and surrender to Jesus Christ as the resurrected and living Lord of life. Jesus said, "Whoever believes in Me will not perish but have eternal life."
(2) The second movement in this Song announces that the key to everlasting life in Jesus is available to all. Jesus is "a light to the Gentiles" and "a glory for" the people of Israel. These are the words of that from our season of Epiphany.
Christ has appeared as not only the Promised One of the Old Testament covenant people but to every ethic group, every tribe and tongue on the face of the earth. God's rich bounty of grace and mercy, of forgiveness of sins and new life is an announcement to the whole world!
There are many advertisements around for financial companies who encourage us as we prepare to die. They don’t say it quite like that, but we are sold on buying insurance policies, estate plans and so forth, in order to get things ready. They rarely add the object: to get things ready to die!
I had a fine Christian gentleman in a former congregation who became a grandfather, really, to my son. Before he died, he began to put everything in order. All of his financial matters, his estate and his gifts that were to go to the church and to the work of evangelizing future generations were set. He was doing what he was supposed to do. He did not, though, just fade away but tragically fell and inured his head in the fall. The accident propelled him toward his grave and in the process robbed him of otherwise lucid moments that he might have spent with us, taking care of relationships as well as he did financial matters.
Beloved, follow Simeon's Song and take care of the most important things right now. You are not ready to leave and go out onto those highways until you get things right with God! You are not ready to die until you confess Christ as Lord, until you commit to follow Him, until you confess your sins and turn from them right now.
That’s the lesson in the Song.
There Is, Finally, a Lesson in Simeon's Sermon
This fourth lesson is most difficult: there is a cost to following Christ.
The Bible says that Simeon's Song brought amazement to Mary and Joseph. God had already revealed the truth of His Son to them, but now they knew the truth. God was not keeping His Promise a secret.
But then, after that, there is a change in the mood of the Song. We preach and then sing a hymn of response. Simeon sang his Song and then preached a sermon of response—and the sermon was poignant and direct. While the whole piece starts with a lilting, joyous folk tune in a major key, it ends as a prophetic solo in a somber strain in a minor key.
The Sermon of Simeon is aimed at Jesus' mother and tells of the greatness of her Son and the impact of Him on her personally. Jesus, Simeon prophesies, will cause some to rise and some to fall. I quote the great commentator William Hendriksen:
"In other words a person's relation or attitude toward Jesus would be absolutely decisive of his eternal destiny. Some would reject Him; others would by sovereign grace accept Him. The former would fall; that is, they would (unless they repented) be excluded from the kingdom. The latter would rise; that is, they would be welcomed to the kingdom and its wedding feast."1
Make sure you hear that part of Simeon's Song today. To rest in Christ alone for salvation means you will rise with Him unto eternal life. To reject Christ is to fall to your eternal death. Neutrality with Jesus is impossible. The great question of the hour is now and always: "So, what will you do with Jesus?"
The second part of the sermon, if you will, hits Mary hard. It tells her that in the life of her son, who is the Savior of the world, Mary will be pierced through with a sword of pain. The original indicates that the sword is the large and broad sword, a symbol in the Bible of intense pain, of frightful and piercing anguish.
Someone has written:
"At the cross her station keeping
Stood the mournful mother weeping.
Close to Jesus to the last:
Through her heart, his sorrow sharing,
All his bitter anguish bearing,
Now at length the sword had passed."2
Of course, the poetry misses it when it says that "all his bitter anguish bearing"—for Mary could never know the fullness of Christ’s anguish as He bled and died for the sins of many, but she knew great pain.
Now what is the lesson here? To follow Jesus and rest in Him alone is not without pain in this world. I would lie to you today if I invited you to "turn to Christ and the rest will simply be a garden party!" Following Christ meant a piercing pain to Mary. She would watch as her son put aside His hammer and plane one day in the shop of Joseph and walked toward a pathway that end at a cross. She would, like others, be despised and rejected by others for confessing Jesus as Lord. Of course, Mary knew a pain that is different than any other human knew, for she knew the pain of watching her innocent Bethlehem babe being nailed to a cross. But you must know that there is pain in following Jesus as you put Him above all others and bear the reproach of a devout disciple.
Simeon's Song—this portion of God's Word—ends with this line: "That the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."
As I read this and prayed over it, I began to experience a pain myself: the pain of realizing that my sins—not just other's, but my sins nailed Christ to a cross. He suffered and bled and died for me. And dear friends, Christ came to shed the light of God's holiness on your life and show that you are a filthy sinner without His blood to wash you clean. You are a hopeless case without Jesus.
The whole of the matter is simply this: God wants you to rest in Jesus alone for life and eternal life.
Simeon has helped us learn some lessons about that:
1. We rest in the Lord as we obey. We find the true power of Christ in our lives as we "go up" to dedicate ourselves to Him, to follow His revealed will in our lives. We come to know the fullness of the Lord as we, particularly, obey God in going into His House.
2. We come to rest in the Lord and experience His power in living when we are led by the Spirit of God.
3. You are not ready to die until you confess Christ as Lord, until you commit to follow Him, until you confess your sins and turn from them.
4. There is a cost to following Jesus Christ.
Beethoven died and left an unfinished symphony. Simeon died after seeing the Savior, and his song is a hauntingly beautiful composition that exalts the God of Salvation and predicts His suffering, but it, too, is an unfinished symphony.
Mary would weep, to be sure. There would be a crucifixion for certain. But there would be a resurrection.
The Holy Spirit Himself finished this Song with the words of another Mary: "He is risen!"
This Christmas it is good to keep that in mind as well.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, You who came in the fullness of time to the earth in Your first Advent and who will come in Your perfect timing at the second Advent, do come into our lives today. Do come, Lord Jesus, and give us the joy of Your presence and a taste of the reality of Your resurrected and reigning glory. Help us to practice holy waiting in all of our lives, that we may give all the glory to You as You work out Your perfect plan in our lives. And so in waiting we worship You Son of God, Son of Man, Lord of Life, Savior of the World. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Luke, p.170.
2. As quoted from Hendriksen, Luke, p. 171.