Making Room For Christ - Week Five: "Nunc Dimittis"
Christmas is over.
The day came and went in a flash. After all of the preparation, the scrambling, the shopping, cooking, baking, driving to and fro, family gatherings, office parties, church services and late night wrapping sessions...
And now comes the weird bit of time between Christmas and New Year's Day--A time when it seems like Christmas only it isn't. It's a time when you don't really want to take down all of your Christmas decorations because you labored so long to put them up--but you also can't really stand hearing any more Christmas songs so there's that...
The child was born, and now we'll move on... at some point the decorations will be put away, the lights snuffed and everything will be stored in red and green rubbermaid boxes, which we'll heft up into the attic.
If you think about the story of Christ's birth, though, it's not that dissimilar. Sure, there was a ton of awesomeness that happened on the night of his birth--angels, shepherds, the drummer boy, Dominic the Christmas donkey... and what not.
But then Mary and Joseph had to deal with a new baby, sleepless nights, Joseph trying to find work, a place to live... real life, in other words.
Which is where we find them in Luke chapter 2:22-40:
22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”These young parents--Mary and Joseph--were no doubt tired, strung out, weary and worried. But they did their duty. Forty days after Jesus' birth they presented him at the Temple with a sacrifice to consecrate him before God.
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
Their sacrifice was two turtledoves--now you know why the song has it in there--because that's all they could afford. Turtledoves were the sacrifice of the poor, and Lord knows these two young parents were poor.
On their way into the Temple, however, they encounter Simeon, a man who is described as righteous and devout. His whole life he had been waiting for the "consolation" of Israel, which is a flowery way of saying that he was waiting for the coming of the Messiah--the Promised One who would reconcile Israel with God and restore her once again to a place of favor.
Consider this. Simeon had been waiting his whole life to catch a glimpse of the Messiah. His whole life. At some point he was given a strong feeling by God that he would live to see the Messiah. But as the days stretched on, and he began to grow old, I am sure that he wondered if that feeling had been right. But the morning of this story was different. Simeon rose and just knew that he had to get to the Temple--that this might be the day.
As he stood there waiting, watching, his tired old eyes scanning the faces of the worshippers who were entering, he suddenly saw them. The tired, young couple carrying their pauper's sacrifice. And that feeling came over him--the one that he'd had so strongly when he knew that he would live to see the Messiah. Only this time the feeling, the voice inside of him, said "This is the One. This is the Messiah."
It's funny that the Spirit of God is mentioned three times in this short passage alone. Obviously, something was happening with Simeon. And something was also happening with Mary and her little son.
Imagine what Mary must have felt as the old, venerable man--this man who everyone knew had been praying, waiting and worshipping at the Temple in anticipation for the coming of the Messiah--came forward to hold her child.
Imagine what she must have felt to hear his cryptic words--words that would have exhilarated and terrified her all at once. It's not like Mary didn't know that her son was special, but then to have Simeon of all people verify it--that just made everything all the more real.
Then there was Anna, the prophetess with a symbolic name. Her name in Hebrew is Hannah, which is the name of Samuel's mother from the Old Testament--a woman who prayed and begged for God to give her a child. Anna had been waiting for the Messiah, too. She never left the temple, the text tells us. Anna spent every day of her life praying, pleading for God to rescue his people, for the Messiah to be born, for a new day to dawn.
So there stands Mary overwhelmed by everything. She doesn't feel ready for any of this. She never has felt ready. The timing was awful.
Simeon waited his whole life to see a glimpse of redemption.
Anna gave all of the best years she had to offer to pray, fast, wait and live in expectation.
You would think that the timing could have been better for all of them, wouldn't you? You would think that God would have waited until Mary was physically, economically and emotionally ready to be the mother of the Son of God. You would think that God would have given Simeon and Anna a bit of a break and keep them from wasting their entire lives just waiting.
Everyone has their own understanding of God's timing. We all do. But as we are constantly reminded in life--things don't always work out exactly the way we think they should work out. And naturally for most of us we assume that's because God's timing is really not the greatest.
Timing is everything, after all, isn't it? So many things in life come down to seconds, inches, moments when we choose one door over another, one response over another... one person over another.
The story of Jesus' birth is full of references to God's timing, and it sounds so absolutely perfect when you read it on the surface. Scripture says that when the "fullness of time" had come, God chose to enter into history through the babe Jesus. It tells us that when the "appointed" time had come, Mary gave birth to her first born son. Here in this text we find that at the "proper" time Mary and Joseph come to present Jesus at the Temple. And we find the prophet and prophetess full of the "expectant" time of the coming of the Messiah finally being rewarded after a lifetime of waiting.
All of these moments come together--the fullness of time, the appointed time, the proper time, the expectant time---to create the perfect time. God's time. A moment when Jesus the babe is once again confirmed to be Jesus the Christ. To his parents, to the prophet and prophetess, to all who witnessed it and heard the story and finally to us, reading it all these many years later.
It really does come down to this: God's timing is right on time every time--even though it might not be our time.
Waiting on God's timing can be difficult. Simeon and Anna could attest to that. Dealing with the aftermath of God's timing can also be difficult. Mary and Joseph could certainly attest to that.
But they were all focused on one thing. The promise of God of a day of redemption, the fullness of God's time at last. And in the end, their desire for that moment, their expectancy of that moment was enough.
Gregory of Nyssa, one of the ancient church fathers wrote about this kind of focus as an act of "constantly going on in the quest to see redemption" as the thing that "generates further desire."
Soren Kierkegaard wrote that the "purity of heart is to will one thing."
To will one thing. To constantly go on in the quest to see redemption. To focus on God's promises. To wait on God's time.
Can we live like this? Can this be our lifestyle? Or are we ready to push on through to the next thing---to pack up our ornaments and lights store everything away and move on---and in so doing miss the moment of God's timing?
This story teaches us that God's timing provokes a crisis, a decision for all people. When God enters history, when God shows up, when God does what God does--you can either embrace it, or run from it. You can either step into it, or step away. You can either be ready and waiting, or absent from impatience.
At every moment of significance there are those who step forward, who are devoted and courageous--and there are those who hang back in silence.
When Mary's moment came, she told the angel, "I am the Lord's servant." The timing was awful. She was not ready to be a mother, much less the mother of the Messiah. And I am sure there were more than a few moments in those early days as she changed poopy diapers, stayed awake all night with a restless little one, worried about the future, wondered if they would have enough to eat... when she wondered if God's timing was slightly off.
But she stayed focused on the promise.
Simeon spent his entire life waiting for the coming of the Messiah. Anna did, too. I am sure there were days when they doubted if they would ever see the day of redemption.
But they stayed focused on the promise.
I remember when my wife and I decided that God had called us to move to Chicago so I could attend seminary. It was terrible timing. We had an awesome house--our dream house, to be real--in an incredible neighborhood in our favorite city we had ever lived in: Tallahassee, Florida. Merideth had a great job, I was studying to be a professor of history, and had a great ministry.
But we said yes to the call and put our house up for sale. It didn't sell. Not for months. We were moving in June so that Merideth could get settled in the Chicago office of the law firm where she worked and so I could begin classes shortly thereafter. We had a place to live, a school for my kid---everything was happening. Except the house hadn't sold.
We were driving down the road at the end of May talking about what we were going to do. I remember saying that maybe we had made a mistake. Maybe we had misread our feelings. The phone rang. It was a couple who had looked at our house months before and we'd never heard from them again. "We want to buy your house," they told us. "And we need to close on it by June 30th.
I also needed to sell my car. It, too, had been for sale for months. Nothing. Not a nibble. The Saturday before we moved, we had a garage sale. We sold everything we could think of--washer, dryer, lawn mower, bedroom furniture--anything we didn't want to take to Chicago with us.
A guy drove up and approached me. "You still have that Toyota Camry for sale?" he asked. "Yup." I said. "Okay then." he said. He took it for a test drive, wrote me a check for a deposit and we started the process to transfer the title over to him.
A week later, we drove away in a rented truck filled with all of the worldly goods we didn't sell ready to start a new life in the Windy City.
I would love to tell you that the entire time we were waiting I was at perfect peace, content to rest in the arms of Jesus as we waited on God's timing.
But I wasn't.
Still, everything happened in just the right time. It freaked me out a bit, but it happened. Now every time I wonder about God's time, I remember that time. I remember God showing up in the 11th hour, when he could have showed up in the first hour. I remember God rescuing us when it was the fourth quarter, with no time left on the clock--when he could have showed up before the game even started.
When you find redemption in the 11th hour---you never forget it, and you never stop wondering just how God pulled that off...
The prayer that Simeon prays in this text is a famous prayer. In Latin it is known as the Nunc Dimittis, "Now let your servant go in peace..." This prayer is one that I pray at every funeral I preach as a witness to the resurrection, and the promises of God through Christ for those who die in Him. It is also a prayer that for centuries has been prayed at close of day, as part of evening worship and prayers.
It is a prayer of affirmation that signs and symbols of God's grace and redemption are all around us. It is a prayer of hope and trust.
Are you able to live filled with trust and hope that everything is going to be all right? Are you able to stay focused on the promises of God?
Or are you ready to pack everything up and move on to the next thing? Christmas is over, but the work of the promised Son who came on Christmas is far from over. Keep living in expectation.
God's timing is right on time every time--even though it might not be our time.