In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are only two reasons to be in the Temple of the Lord. One of them is to offer something to God, to bring Him a sacrifice. That is, in fact, what Mary and Joseph are doing in the Temple. As the Law commanded, they are in the Temple forty days after the birth of their Son. In our calendar, if you count forty days from December 25, you get December 2. So they are there, as the Law required, so that Mary can offer the sacrifice for her purification. Leviticus says that the mother must bring either a lamb, unblemished, a year old; or, if she cannot afford it, two pigeons or two turtledoves. And that’s what she brings, the sacrifice of the poor for her purification. But they are also in the Temple for another reason, because Jesus is not just a son, but the firstborn son. Going all the way back to the Exodus, the firstborn son was holy to the Lord; he belonged to the Lord. The firstborn male of animals was to be sacrificed, and the firstborn male of men was to be redeemed, or bought back. God said to Israel, “When your son asks you in time to come why you do this, tell him that Yahweh brought you out of slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand, that He slaughtered the firstborn of Egypt, both man and animal. So the firstborn male is holy to the Lord; the animals are to be sacrificed and the humans redeemed.” Because Pharaoh refused to let God’s Son Israel go, God took the firstborn of Egypt. And from that point on, the firstborn males are holy to the Lord. So Mary and Joseph are in the Temple not only to offer the sacrifice for Mary’s purification but also to offer their firstborn son to God, and to buy Him back. That’s one reason to be in the Temple, to offer something to God. The other reason is to receive something from Him, for Him to offer you something. And that’s why Simeon’s there. He is simply waiting; waiting for the consolation of Israel; waiting for the Christ whom the Holy Spirit promised he would see. He has nothing left to offer; he’s simply waiting to receive something from God.
Two reasons to be in the House of God: to offer Him something or to receive something from Him. Aren’t these the two reasons why people still come to the Lord’s House, even in our time? But looking across American Christianity, it seems that most people come because of the first reason. They come to bring something to God, to offer Him something: praise, worship, thanksgiving, time, money. But if that’s the primary reason we come, isn’t the assumption that salvation is in the past? That it has already happened to us, and now we are simply living the life of giving everything back to God? And the strange thing is that when people come to church primarily to offer something to God, even His gifts get turned into something for us to do. So Baptism becomes our action, how we show that God has done something for us. It becomes our commitment to God, our promise to Him to be faithful. It’s no longer God giving us His promise, putting His Name on us, joining us to Jesus’ death and resurrection, washing away our sins and saving us.
Or when we come to the altar of the Lord, the Sacrament becomes our work, how we remember what Jesus has done, how we show our unity, the way we proclaim the Lord’s death, or we do it simply because Jesus commanded it. It’s no longer Jesus giving us His life-giving Body and Blood, forgiving our sins as we eat and drink, giving us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Even the Lord’s gifts become our works.
But notice Simeon again. He’s not doing anything but waiting; perhaps he is nearing the end of his life. He’s just waiting in the Temple for the consolation of Israel, for God to reveal His salvation before all the nations. And then, as Mary and Joseph bring their offerings into the Temple, Simeon receives their Son into his arms. I don’t know if Simeon expected God’s salvation to appear as a 40-day old baby, whether he thought it should be that way, whether he would do it differently. It doesn’t really matter, because the Holy Spirit is upon him, and the Spirit reveals to Him that this baby is indeed the salvation of the whole world. And then, hear him as he speaks: his words are not his own; they don’t come from his heart or his opinions of God. They are simply the repeating of God’s work of salvation. Even what Simeon offers comes from the offering of God to Him.
This is how it goes for sinners: either we come primarily to give something to God, and so we turn even His gifts into our action; or, we come primarily to receive something from God, and even our gifts are His. This is worship in the Scriptures, not coming up with the most creative words to describe God, but to repeat God’s works of salvation on behalf of His people. Our words are really His words; our gifts are really His gifts; our works are really His works. If we come thinking we are to offer Him something, even the preaching of His Word becomes instruction on how we ought to live. We think we’re here to learn how to live; how to solve the problems of our lives, how to do better; give more, come to church more, pray more. But the opposite is true, as Simeon knew: we come here, instead, to learn how to die. “Master, now you are releasing your slave in peace according to Your Word,” he says. Not releasing away from God, but releasing to Him, out of sin and death, into eternal life. Now that Simeon has seen and held the consolation of Israel, he is ready to die. Whether he dies that day or ten years from then, it no longer matters.
Mary and Joseph’s sacrifice is not really theirs. God is not so much interested in the pigeons as He is in the Lamb, which they carry in their arms. They could not afford the sacrifice, and neither can we. But, as Abraham said to Isaac, the Lord will provide the sacrifice. And He does, in that baby presented to His Father; as both the sacrifice and the redemption. Only in Jesus does the Word of God at the Exodus find its meaning: Jesus is the firstborn who is both the sacrifice and the redemption price. After Him, no more sacrifices for purification, no more offerings for sin. Now it is only Him who offers us something, who gives to us Jesus in our ears, and into our mouths. And from purified hearts, minds, and mouths come the sacrifices of thanksgiving full of God’s own word to us.
So today we come to this place, to this House of God on the Lord’s Day, and we are here, like Simeon, to learn how die. It is only in the death of Christ that we have life; the Spirit gives life, but only out of death. We eat and drink, and the Holy Spirit says that here is the promised salvation, the Christ of God. It may not be how we expected it to come, it may not be how we would do it, or how we think God should do it. Nevertheless, we do not hesitate. This bread and this wine have the promise of God, and faith simply receives what God gives, where He gives it, how He has promised to give it. “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word. For Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou has prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.” Here and now, in the House of the Lord, He teaches us to live so that we may dread the grave as little as our beds; and also, how to die so that we may rise glorious at the awe-full day.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/2/14