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The First Sunday After Christmas is good to hear from Simeon in Luke chapter 2. It’s good because the First Sunday After Christmas can seem like a letdown, like the highpoint of our Christmas celebration has come and gone. For weeks we prepared, and then finally the climax of our celebration: Christmas Eve with carols and candlelight, and Christmas Morning with the Word become flesh for us to eat and drink. And now it’s easy to think, “Well, that’s done and over.” But Christmas isn’t over. We celebrate Jesus’ birth for 12 days. And that’s why it’s good to hear from Simeon this morning. Simeon revives our celebration and refreshes our joy.
In the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, everyone is celebrating and rejoicing. Everyone! Mary is told that she is going to have a baby and she rejoices and celebrates: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…” Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, gives birth to John the Baptist and Zechariah rejoices: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel…” Mary gives birth in Bethlehem, and outside of town in the fields a multitude of angels celebrates: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” And in the temple, Simeon takes up a baby in his arms and rejoices: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.”
At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, everyone is celebrating and rejoicing. And the reason they’re celebrating is not merely because of babies—babies being conceived and babies being born. The reason they’re rejoicing is because God is stirring among them. God is moving and acting in their midst. You see, at the same time that Luke chapters one and two are full of celebrating and rejoicing, Luke chapters one and two are also thoroughly Jewish, utterly Israelite. The gospel begins in the temple in Jerusalem with Zechariah, a temple priest, offering incense to God. And his wife, Elizabeth, is a descendant of Moses’ brother, Aaron, who was the first High Priest. Mary is a young maiden from Nazareth in Galilee, and she’s engaged to Joseph, who is of the house and lineage of David. Mary, Zechariah, Simeon: they’re all Israelites, descendants of Abraham, the chosen people of God. To them belong the oracles of God, the adoption, the covenants, the worship, and the promises. “Israel,” says the Lord, “is my firstborn, my son.” Moses says, God chose Israel, out of all the peoples on the earth, to be his treasured possession. And the reason everyone is celebrating and rejoicing at the beginning of Luke’s Gospels is because God is keeping his promises of old, the promises he made to his people, Israel.
An angel tells Zechariah, “Your wife will have a son, and you shall call him John. He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before the Lord God to make ready for him a people prepared for his coming.” And when John is born, Zechariah praises to God, because God was keeping the promises he made to Israel through the prophets; he was keeping the oath he swore to Abraham and his descendants, to save his chosen people, to deliver them from their enemies.
The angel Gabriel says to Mary, “You will bear a son and call his name Jesus. He will be called the Son of the Most High, and he will sit on the throne of David, and will reign over the house of Jacob, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary rejoices, because God was showing favor to his people Israel. God was fulfilling the promises he made to Abraham, to David, and to his chosen people Israel.
And now, forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus and go to the Temple. They were there in obedience to the Jewish Law that commanded every firstborn male be presented and consecrated to God, and that every female offer a sacrifice of purification forty days after giving birth. And there in the Temple was an old saint named Simeon. Simeon was a faithful Israelite, who was waiting for the consolation of Israel. He was waiting for God to act, to keep the promises he made to his chosen people. The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he saw the Lord’s Christ. And the Spirit leads him to this point, and he sees in the infant-Jesus the Lord’s Christ. Simeon sweeps up the child in his arms and celebrates. What else could he do? God is keeping his promises to Israel; God is being faithful to his promise to Simeon. So Simeon rejoices, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word—according to your promise; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared before all peoples, a light for revelation to the gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
I have a good friend from the seminary and his dad loved this story of Simeon. He loved Simeon’s song, the Nunc Dimittis. In fact, my friend tells me that before his dad died, he used to sing the Nunc Dimittis by himself every day as part of his daily devotions. When I asked my friend why this story—why Simeon’s song—was so important to his dad, I got an answer I wasn’t expecting. My friend told me, “My dad never took God’s grace for granted. He never saw his call to salvation as something God had to do, that it was something God was required to do. He saw his call to salvation as a matter of God’s favor, a matter of God’s gracious choice. After all,” my friend went on, “God is the God of Israel; he promised to save them. So my dad would ask, ‘who are we gentiles that the God of Israel, the creator of all things, would call us and save us?’” And my friend continued, “My dad loved this story, he loved the Song of Simeon, because it was at this point that my dad would anticipate that in time the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus, would call him and save him.”
This story of Simeon is the first indication, the first glimpse that we find in the Gospel according to Luke that God’s movement, his activity, his salvation is going to spill out beyond his chosen people Israel to the Gentiles. When Simeon takes up the child Jesus, he says, “my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared before ALL PEOPLES, a light for revelation to the GENTILES.” And what we have in those words is the anticipation of the spread of God’s salvation out beyond Israel. We have the anticipation of Jesus’ words after he is raised from the dead: “On the basis of my name—on the basis of the name of Jesus the Christ—repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed to all nations.” We have the anticipation of the book of Acts, with the missionary journeys of Paul and the call of the gentiles to salvation through the preaching of the gospel. In Simeon’s celebration and praise, we have the anticipation that God is going to save gentiles—Greeks, Romans, Germans, Chinese, Russians, Danes, Lakota, Swedes, Irish, Africans—even you.
God didn’t have to call you to salvation; it wasn’t something he was required to do. You didn’t have it coming to you, no matter how many generations of Lutherans are in your family. But for no particular reason, other than that He wanted to, God has called you by the gospel. In these latter days, God has graciously chosen to reveal his Son to you; God has graciously chosen to reveal his salvation to you in Jesus Christ and to make you his treasured possession. Through the gospel that was preached to you, God’s Holy Spirit has shown that this Jesus, who comes to fulfill God’s promises to his people Israel, has come for you, too. Through the gospel that was preached to you, God’s Holy Spirit has shown that Jesus, the savior of Israel, is your savior, too.
It’s good to hear from Simeon in Luke chapter 2 on the First Sunday After Christmas. Simeon revives our celebration and refreshes our joy. After all, what else are you going to do when God just up and calls you out of the blue; when he graciously chooses to reveal his Son and his salvation to you and to make you his treasured possession?! When God brings you through those doors and gathers you here to show you his grace and favor in Jesus Christ; when God enters into fellowship with you through the body and blood of Jesus; when God forgives your sins, and promises you salvation and eternal life, there’s nothing left to do but celebrate and rejoice.
Let me show you how this works. “But Pastor, the presents are all unwrapped, the family has come and gone, and Christmas is over.” No, it’s not. Rejoice and celebrate because God has revealed the light of his salvation to you in the face of Jesus Christ. But there’s a global pandemic. Yes, but rejoice and celebrate because God has made you his treasured possession. But we’re not even in the sanctuary. Yes, and that’s a real bummer, but rejoice and celebrate; God is lavishing his saving grace upon you in his Word and promises, in the body and blood of Jesus. But I stubbed my toe when I got out of bed, my back hurts, I’m sick, I’m lonely, life is difficult, and I’m miserable. I’m sorry, but rejoice and celebrate; God has called you by the gospel, made you his own, and promised that nothing will separate you from his salvation in Jesus Christ. You get the idea. Let this truth have its way with you and stir up your hearts and minds to joy.
By the sheer grace of God your eyes, like Simeon’s, have seen God’s salvation in the babe born of Mary, Jesus—the Lord’s Christ, your savior. On this First Sunday After Christmas, and every day, celebrate and rejoice because the grace and favor of God has come to you!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant[a] depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.[b] She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.