2017 February Issue
When We Meet The Child
A new world was born when Jesus was born—the world of God's Kingdom on earth to embrace and redeem all the peoples of the world, free them from bondage and oppression and confirm the right of each person to become fully human as a child of God. As things have turned out, this has not worked out very well. One message of Christmas is that God has not given up. God is still with us; there is still hope. The Messiah comes. How can this be?
It can be as it was in the beginning. A baby is born among us, and his arrival announced that the power of sin and evil had been broken. An elderly man saw a helpless baby and knew at once that in this child lay the hope of the world,
All around the child were defeat and weakness, sin and guilt, suffering and death. But where is this salvation? "God has done nothing," Handel Brown observes. Then, with wise insight, Brown says, "The Babe is Salvation. God has done everything. He has sent His Son and in none other is there salvation; for neither is there any other name under heaven that is given among men, wherein we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). He does not give Salvation. "He gives Himself.1 Jesus is Salvation.” It is only as we receive Him that we have power to become Sons of God" (John 1:12).
The arrival of Jesus announced a revolution. But it was to be a revolution of love. For Him, love becomes the way to live and to die. All persons are to be treated as sisters and brothers; a radical idea in his day, as perhaps it is in our own. Willingness to give one's life for a friend—even for his enemy—is always called for. Love to the point of forgiveness is always called for. The will of God is the guiding light to abundant living. The life of Jesus is the life of doing God's will by doing God's love.
This revolution of love began the day Mary and Joseph presented their newborn son at the Temple in Jerusalem. As they neared the Temple, a man stood in the shadows, watching. This man was Simeon, the old prophet. For years, he had waited every day for some sign that the Messiah was coming, the longed-for Savior of Israel. That was his job. As the family neared the entry, Simeon stepped out to greet them. When they came close, he reached out to lift a corner of the blanket covering the Baby. At once, he knew that he looked upon the Messiah! God's promise to the people of Israel had been fulfilled! Simeon was almost overcome with joy! It was the moment he had been living for. He had a life-long determination to live until he could look upon the face of the One who would save his people—Israel. Perhaps he was surprised to see the Messiah come as a newborn child. But when he looked upon the baby's face, there was no doubt in Simeon's mind; he had seen the Messiah! His joy was so full that he broke forth into singing, even as he held the baby in his arms. He blessed God and sang:
As you have promised, Lord,
you now dismiss your servant in peace,
For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
A light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32 NIV).
This song of Simeon's is known in church history as the Nunc Dimittis, a Latin phrase which means in English "Now you are letting...depart." It refers to Simeon's impending death. He is ready to depart, now that he has seen the Savior Messiah. He has fulfilled his duties and his life. He has permission to leave.
The Nunc Dimittis is a hymn of joy and praise. It centers on the significance that surrounds the coming of Jesus and on salvation for all people, Jew and Gentile alike. Simeon understands that he is being released from his mission, not only to affirm his faithfulness, but to proclaim his realization that God is the God of all people.
There is also recognition that Jesus is salvation. He does not give salvation, He gives Himself. "It is only as we receive Him that we have the power to become sons (and daughters) of God" (John 1:12).
Simeon was overjoyed by God's surprise; there is no evidence that his recognition of the Messiah as a newborn baby rather than the expected fully ready adult Messiah had any effect on Simeon's acceptance that salvation had come at last to the people, and to the world.
Might we not also find hope in this? Any time we decide, we can welcome the Savior into our lives. Here is a hope worth remembering, no matter how long it takes to fulfill. It took Simeon a lifetime, and that's all any of us has.
We will look at how our fulfillment may come about. We first note that the Nunc Dimittis did not end with Simeon's praise nor the provision God made for our salvation. Simeon had a last word for Mary. He told her that Jesus was destined to cause "the fall and rising of many and for a sign which will be spoken against" (Luke 2:35 NKJB). This is Simeon's commentary of judgment. More directly to Mary, he said, "Yes, and a sword will pierce your own soul as well, that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed" (Luke 2:35b).
This refers to the time when Jesus grows up. He was arrested, tortured, crucified, and died. It would be a hard time for Mary.
When the time of Jesus' presentation in the temple was finished, the family returned to their home town of Nazareth in Galilee.
The adult Jesus and Simeon would have had much in common. Other than what you might normally expect, one of the things that characterizes both of them is that inner serenity known as shalom - the "peace that passes understanding." It is the experience of Simeon when he looked upon the face of the baby, knowing that his hopes had been fulfilled. Shalom—the peace of fulfillment. It comes to the person who follows God's purposes, knowing who you are, what is really important in life. Shalom is the peace to be bound when you have a fulfilled life, a life that is filled full of what God intends. Not even peace of mind but the peace of God. Of Simeon and Jesus. Of Anna. How does it come? It comes, first of all I think, when you have a purpose for your life and you are living an overall purpose, a direction, a goal, a reason for doing and being. It comes from living intentionally. This is purposeful living. It means not letting life just happen, not wandering around, or living with your shoulders always shrugged. It means persistence like Simeon s, with all those decades of faithful and patient watching. It comes, more than anything, from staying in touch with God, by prayer and spiritual disciplines. But most of all, I think, from that "still, small voice" which you can't hear unless you are paying attention, listening. For me, it doesn't happen unless I want it to. The requirement is to "be still, and know that God is God. For myself, I translate that to read, "shut up and listen." God can get through to you in many ways. But it seems that the greatest source for the experience of shalom is just to let yourself be available to God.
Then there is judgment, which in experience is about as far from shalom as you can get. But it seems that opposites are essential to life after all. Darkness and daylight. Black and white. Sin and salvation. War and peace. Rising and falling. Each defines the other. Edward O'Hearn has an interesting little book called Biblical Companions. In the chapter on Simeon, he discusses celebration and makes the point that legitimate celebration must include the dark side of things as well as the light.
To illustrate, he talks about the popular song a few years back, called "Both Sides Now," and how Joni Mitchell, the song's writer, shows that looking at life from one side only is both naive and inadequate. Her song offers two one-sided views about life and love, and suggests that either perspective—innocent or guilty, for example—gives a false understanding which makes it impossible to know ourselves, or to know another. For illustration, the song "Both Sides Now" says about love:
"I've looked at life from both sides now,
From give and take, and still somehow It's love's illusions I recall;
I really don't know love at all."2
I'd say that's a pretty good position to take, if you're being judged. And I'd say also that it's a pretty good position to take if you're doing the judging. More lives are wrecked by judgmentalism than this world dreams of, the lives of both of the judgers and of the judgees.
When it comes to God's judgment, it's easy enough to think in terms of specific acts, with appropriate rewards or punishments. The eye for eye, tooth for tooth mentality which underlies this approach is simple enough: if someone does something to you, do something to get back at them. If immediate response is not possible, keep track of the situation until an appropriate time is available. Suppose we were to think of this mentality as God's way of dealing with grievances, either person-to-person or person-to-God ones.
There is a better way, which indeed appears to be God's way. Assuming that we know anything at all about that, judgment requires the understanding that God does not judge on the basis of revenge, but on the basis of unconditional love for the person (or relationship) being judged. God's approach to judgment is better than ours because God is not vindictive, doesn't have to prove a point - and because God is God.
From the Christian perspective, God's judgment has nothing to do with "crime and punishment," a condemnation of us because of our sinful and stupid ways. God is in the business of reconciliation between persons, and in the redemption of our individual lives. God's dealings with us are therefore intended to make us aware of how we are living day by day, and how we can increasingly find the better way of living day by day, with unconditional love—"no strings attached"—for ourselves, for our fellow humans, and for our God. Do you think it would be worthwhile to consider God's way? Or do you have a better one?
Those of us looking for quick solutions or simple advice for all the problems will have to look somewhere other than the Christian faith. What our faith does provide (among other things) is a solid spiritual environment in which we can function and grow, whatever the circumstance or condition, and an atmosphere of trust, caring, and acceptance. We can look at "both sides now" and find our way through fear and love, disappointments and triumphs, sadness and joy, loneliness and togetherness, life and death.
Christ will be with us in all things. As Simeon said, he has been "set before the people." This includes you. Now what will we do with him? He will not solve any of our problems. There is no Internet contact we can make to input our problems. There is no personal databank to give us answers. We can't just push a few buttons and make life work for us. God "knows what we need before we ask." We already have God. And God is more reliable, ready and willing than any computer system.
What we can do is keep in touch with God. We don't even need to ask, just keep looking to God as the source of our salvation. Stay awake. Pay attention. Be available, be open, be patient. Be involved in worship, caring groups, Bible study, and any group or situation which allows you to minister to others' needs. There is no limit to what God can and will do, in and through us. Be alert for the "still, small voice" of the Holy Spirit.
As I said, there is no "Spiritual Internet" to help us solve our problems. But there is prayer, and prayer is mostly living and being present to God. Then there is Jesus: looking upon Jesus with the wonder that Simeon had when he looked upon the baby; with gratitude and excitement over what we see; with openness to what God can bring to pass; with joy and deep concern for what the future can become; with deep trust in God's power to make all things happen that are possible. Simeon was not aware of the presence of the Messiah until he looked - and then he knew immediately. He knew what to do.
And so should we look around and find. As we heard earlier, Jesus does not give salvation; he is salvation. That is why we must look upon Him until we see. Not what do you see? But who do you see? Can you see yourself looking upon Him? It is through Him that "we have the power to become sons (and daughters) of God" (John 1:12). Yes, "God has done everything. He has sent His Son, and in none other is there salvation.... Jesus is Salvation. He does not give salvation. He gives Himself."
Even though he is a Jew, Simeon puts the Gentiles first when he sings about this ministry of salvation. Simeon knows the true glory of his people is in the service they offer to humanity. The Jews have long been known as "God's chosen people." Someone made a wise observation when he said, "Yes, we are God's chosen people. We are chosen to serve." An unknown person from among the Christians responded. Those who claim the Christian faith would be more likely to observe, as this man did, that "we are likely to be known as God's frozen people."
Some words interpreting the Nunc Dimittis in modern terms will serve to bring to a close our thoughts about the significance and meaning of Jesus' presentation in the Temple and his meeting with that saintly old prophet Simeon:
“In his temple now behold Him. See the long-expected Lord! Ancient prophets had foretold Him; God has now fulfilled His word. Now to praise Him, His redeemed shall break forth with one accord. In the arms of her who bore Him. Virgin pure, behold Him lie While His aged saints adore Him, Ere in perfect faith they die: Alleluia! Alleluia! Lo, the incarnate God most High!
“Jesus, by your Presentation.
“When they blest you, weak and poor, Make us see your great salvation, Seal us with your promise sure; And present us, in your glory,
“To your Father, cleansed and pure.”3
Although "weakness, defeat, suffering, guilt, sin, and death still held men in bondage," Anna and Simeon knew that "the power of evil was overcome by the arrival of the holy child. These two people were given eyes to see and recognize Him and they rejoiced." 4
Charles E. Gruenewald
P.O. Box 652
Oakville WA 98568
1. Handel H. Brown, When Jesus Comes, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1963, p114.
2. Edward J. O'Hearn. Biblical Companions Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., Huntington, Indiana, 1979, p118.
3. Henry Pye, In His Temple Now Behold Him, quoted from The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990), (Nos. 603-605).
4. Alice Parmee, They Beheld His Glory, (Kent Publishing, Inc., New Haven, CT, 1967). p22.