It’s been just a couple of days since we celebrated Jesus’ birth and now the Sunday readings ratchet forward forty days to His presentation in the temple. This is the first of many appearances Jesus would make in the temple, culminating with Holy Week. But this one is His first and it is filled with prophetic fulfillment and significance. If you run the numbers from Luke, it’s been 490 days since the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah the priest to announce that he and his wife Elizabeth were going to conceive a son in their old age and name him John. 490 days later, Jesus makes His first appearance in the same temple. 70 weeks.
The prophetess Anna also speaks of fulfillment in the numbers of her life. Married a brief seven years. Seven. And now she is eighty four, seven times twelve. These may appear to be coincidences, but there is a strong undercurrent of fulfillment that runs with this episode in Jesus’ infancy. The entire OT had come to its focal point in this little Child. This was the One!
The prophet Malachi had written: “Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to His temple, the messenger of the covenant whom you desire will come,” says the Lord Almighty. I don’t think anyone expected the Lord to be carried to the temple by His parents, but then no one expected God to become Man either. And so the mystery of the manger continues here in the temple, as the infant Priest of humanity makes His first appearance. Humbly, hiddenly. God in the Flesh had come to His temple
The temple was the place of sacrifice, the place where lambs were brought as sacrifice for sin or as Passover lambs to be slaughtered. Here God’s tender Lamb appears, promised from eternal years, 40 days old to be redeemed as the first born in accordance with the law of Moses. They came to offer the prescribed sacrifice – a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons – the poor man’s sacrifice of redemption. “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.” Every first born son anticipated God’s Son. And now God’s Son fulfills the sacrifice. The Redeemer is redeemed by the blood of two turtledoves under the Law.
Christ came to fulfill the Law to the last little strong of the pen. At eight days He was circumcized according to the Law of Moses. At forty days He was redeemed by a humble sacrifice. It was also, as Luke tells us, the period of purification for His mother. For what did she need to be purified, you might wonder. And well you should! Mary had just given birth to the sinless Son of God. There was no purer birth than this one. And yet, she comes to the temple for her purification, like every Israelite mother.
Here we see Christ’s work for our redemption. He is the Substitute, the Sin-bearer, the Sacrifice. Though He is sinless, yet for our sakes, He became our sin. He is the Sinner in place of sinful humanity. He joined the human race, not only in sharing our flesh, blood, and bone, but also in taking up our burden under the Law. And so it is fitting and proper, that Jesus be redeemed at the temple and His mother purified. He is the sinless Sinner, the One who takes our place in perfection under the Law. The Redeemer is redeemed.
Waiting to greet Him are two very old – Simeon and Anna. Together they represent the OT prophet and priest waiting to see their fulfillment. Simeon was very old, and had been told that he would not die until he had seen the Christ with his own eyes. That’s the opposite of the way things usually work. Usually we’re told we have only so long to live. But Simeon was told he would not die until He saw the Lord’s Anointed One, the Christ, for Himself.
You can only imagine what it was like for old Simeon to walk about the temple day after day, wondering if this was the day, waiting and watching. He’s like the whole OT embodies in one old man, watching for the fulfillment of Israel. How his heart must have skipped a beat that day Mary and Joseph came to the temple carrying their 40 day old son, and the Holy Spirit whispered to his spirit, “this is the One you are waiting for.” And Simeon gather the little Child into his old, tired arms, and lifts His eyes to heaven, and sings out this song: Master, now you let your servant depart in peace.
His time of service had come to its end. You can almost hear the relief in his voice. His tired old eyes had seen the Lord’s salvation. His arms had embrace Him and lifted Him up. This tiny Child was the redemption of Israel and the salvation of the Gentiles – the world’s redeemer. Only faith could perceive this, faith worked by the Spirit through the Word. Only faith could see through the humility, the weakness, the poverty and gaze upon the face of God.
We sing Simeon’s hymn too. It’s a Lutheran innovation to sing it at the close of the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. The traditional place for this hymn is at the close of each day. It’s the Christian’s “Now I lay be down to sleep” prayer. But if you stop and think for a moment, it’s a very appropriate hymn to sing as we depart from Communion. We have beheld the salvation of our Lord. We have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. We have heard His words addressed to us personally – my Body given for you; my Blood shed for you. The body and blood born of Mary, laid in a manger, nailed to a cross, raised from the dead, glorified at the right hand of God – this He gives to us as our food and drink, and we, like Simeon sing our song of release, of freedom. We can truly depart in peace.
Make no mistake, Simeon is saying he’s now free to die. Not leave the temple, die. When I was a kid, I used to think we were thanking God because we were free to go home from church now. That was my prayer, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant, depart in peace.” But I quickly came to realize that this was Simeon’s death song, and a joyous one. He was released from his life’s sentence and free to die.
And so are we. We’ve worshipped the Child of the manger, the Man of the cross. We have beheld His glory, hidden beneath word and water, bread and wine. We can truly depart in peace, according to God’s Word.
The cross hangs over the scene like a cloud. Simeon tells Mary, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed.” There is no neutral position with respect to this Child. No middle ground when it comes to Jesus. You either trust Him with your life and salvation or you do not. You can’t reshape Him, or reinvent Him, or revision Him. You can only receive Him as He is for you – your Savior, your Lord, your Christ, your Redeemer. You either rise with Him or you fall without Him. There is no neutral place.
Mary too would feel the bitter pangs of the cross. “A sword will pierce through your own soul also.” She would see her Son crucified. And what sorrow and anguish that must have been. No parent wants to attend the death of a child. What a burden it must have been for her, to stand at the foot of His cross and watch. Yet even here in the temple, on her Son’s fortieth day, she is reminded that He does not belong to her. She and Joseph were there to redeem Him, to buy Him back with two tiny turtledoves. “May we please have Him back for just a little while?”
Imagine that. The Redeemer of mankind, whose blood cleanses us from our sins, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, is Himself redeemed by the blood of two pigeons. Such sublime and deep humility! The Lord of all becomes the Servant of all. And His servants – Anna and Simeon – rejoice.
There is a temptation at Christmas time to dwell on the cute and the glorious and the glittery. The manger, the swaddled newborn, the adoring shepherds, the bright angels. But we are reminded very quickly in Luke’s gospel that the work of redemption is always bloody work. On the eighth day (our New Year’s Day), He was circumcised under the Law and given the name Jesus. On the fortieth day He was redeemed by blood in the temple. He takes our place under the Law, and by His blood He frees us from our slavery to sin, to death, to the power of the law to condemn.
Christmas joy inevitably gives way to the reality of the new year. The wrapped presents have now disclosed their mysteries. Perhaps there are a few left for the next nine days. The lights will grow dim. The trees will dry out, at least the real ones. We will go back to the realities of our vocations with all the ambiguities, uncertainties, griefs, sins. We will feel the burden of our sins and the sins of others.
But like old Anna and Simeon in the temple, we have, by the grace of God, been given to embrace this Child of Bethlehem in Word and Sacrament, and having embraced Him in the open, empty, receiving arms of faith, we too are prepared to depart in peace.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
In the name of Jesus,