“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
These words from the Gospel reading today (Luke 2:22-40) are also found in our liturgy right after the Lord’s Supper as one of the songs we sing in response to the gifts we’ve received at the altar. It’s called the Nunc Dimittis, which simply means “Now Dismiss” in Latin; it’s also called the “Song of Simeon,” because they are the words of Simeon in this text from Luke.
Let’s look more closely at what’s happening in the text for some context. Jesus was born and then eight days later Mary and Joseph took Jesus to be circumcised. His blood was shed in this procedure in accordance with the Law. Then later, since Jesus was the firstborn, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord in the Temple, offering a sacrifice of two turtledoves or two young pigeons. This was a sacrifice of poor people; richer people sacrificed lambs or goats, but poor people were allowed to sacrifice these birds, since they were inexpensive to buy. The Lord himself, though, provided the Lamb for the sacrifice, in the person of Jesus Christ (cf. Genesis 22:8).
So, Jesus’ parents had him circumcised at the appointed time, presented before the Lord at the Temple at the appointed time, and offered the appointed sacrifice. They did everything according to the Law of the Lord.
And in the Temple that day was the man Simeon; “… it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” That is, the Lord had told Simeon that before he died, he would see with his own eyes the one anointed by the Lord to bring salvation to His people. So, when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus into the temple, Simeon sees Jesus and “… took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
Think about Simeon’s words and what a faithful response they are to the Lord’s promises. Simeon sees a little baby and declares that in this baby, he has seen the Lord’s salvation. You might think that the Lord’s Christ would come in glory, but no, he came as a helpless baby, being carried into the temple by his earthly parents. The Lord truly acts in mysterious ways. The Lord’s Christ, the Son of God, our Savior, came in the humble flesh of a baby. His glory was unseen, being veiled by flesh and blood. And yet Simeon recognized that in this baby Jesus, lay all his hopes for salvation which have been fulfilled. For veiled in this humble flesh and blood is the Lord’s Christ, the one anointed to bring salvation.
Do you see then why the Church has been singing these words of Simeon after the Lord’s Supper for centuries? The Lord has also told you that you will not see death before you see the Lord’s Christ. And the Lord has fulfilled this promise in the Supper. He has given you Christ’s body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine, which is simply a way of saying that we don’t really know how the Lord does it, we just trust in his word that it is true. Like the baby that Simeon beheld, we too behold humble-looking bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper and have faith that there is more here than meets the eye; that this is the Lord’s Christ come for us to bring us salvation. Simeon saw past the veil of flesh and blood to see the Lord’s Christ; likewise, we too look past the veil of bread and wine to see the flesh and blood and therein the Lord’s Christ.
So, the Lord has fulfilled his promise to you. He has shown you and given you Jesus Christ in the Lord’s Supper. And He is your salvation; your own eyes have seen it, your own senses have felt it. The Lord gives you this gift of Christ and the salvation he brings in His Supper. The Lord is blessing you at His Table as He gathers you together as one people of God, the Church Israel.
And, to echo Simeon’s words, this is a table that He has prepared in the presence of all peoples. This harkens back a little bit to Psalm 23 where David speaks to the Lord, saying, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” For the Church is in the midst of a fallen, sinful world, and yet within the Church the Lord has prepared a table for us where His goodness and mercy follows us and where we dwell in the house of the Lord, here and now in the Church militant, and hereafter in the life to come in the Church triumphant. For He dwells with us now through His Word and Sacrament, and our own eyes have seen His salvation in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
And the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, who is in the Supper gives us His very own body and blood for our salvation. For he is a light for revelation to the Gentiles, meaning all nations, and the glory to His people Israel, meaning the Church. So, Christ is the glory of the Church and a light to all nations. He is the reason we are the Church and the one to whom we bear witness as the Lord’s Christ.
And since Jesus Christ is the glory of the Church, we should speak to the people of all nations about him. That is what Anna the prophetess does in the text. She recognizes that in this Jesus Christ, God is redeeming His people, the Church, and what does she do? First, she gives thanks, and then she speaks of Jesus to all. She was another one who looked beyond what she saw to recognize the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises through faith. She saw the humble baby, and proclaimed him as the Christ, the one in whom we have redemption.
And yet, although Jesus Christ is God’s salvation for us and for the redemption of His people, he is also “a sign that is opposed” as Simeon foresaw. Jesus Christ reveals the thoughts from many hearts. You know where people stand with relation to God by the thoughts of their hearts regarding Jesus Christ. Since Christ is the appointed means of our salvation, and we only have this salvation and redemption to God through Him, then he causes the rise and fall of many. Those who rise are those whose hearts have faith. Those who fall are those whose hearts lack faith. Christ both unites and divides, joining the sheep together in God’s flock, while separating the goats from their midst. It’s a tough thing, a hard word, a piercing word.
But, in these two people, Simeon and Anna, we see what faith looks like in God’s flock. Faith rejoices that our own eyes have seen the Lord’s salvation, faith gives thanks to God, faith speaks about Jesus Christ.
But unbelief rejects the Lord’s Christ. Unbelief looks at the baby in the arms of Mary and Joseph and scoffs that this baby could be the Savior of humanity. Unbelief looks at the cross on which Christ was nailed and scoffs that this shameful means of execution could be the means of our salvation. Unbelief looks at the tomb of Christ and scoffs that a dead man could rise from the grave. Unbeliefs looks at the waters of Baptism and scoffs that God could or would act through them with His Word. Unbelief looks at the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper and scoffs that Christ’s body and blood could or would be in and with them. Unbelief looks at the Bible as the words of men, rather than the Word of God. Unbelief, in short, scoffs at the Lord’s ways, because they don’t align with our fallen sense of reason (cf. 2 Kings 5:11ff).
But, all these things that seem impossible or at least unreasonable to our thoughts and reason are the way that the Lord has chosen to act for our salvation. He sent His Son in the flesh as a baby, His Son grew up as a baby into a child and then a man, His Son was executed and pierced on the cross (piercing his grieving mother’s soul in the process), and His Son rose from the dead. And just as Jesus was the firstborn of Mary, so too is he the firstborn of all creation – being the Word through whom the Father created all things – and he is also the firstborn of the dead – being the risen, incarnate Word through whom the Father is recreating all things. And God gives us the blessings of His Son in His written Word, His spoken Word, and His sacramental Word. God acts through His Word to bring you to faith and then keep you in faith, even as He acted through His incarnate Word for your salvation to make you children of God.
This is what faith is then, believing the promises of God. Believing against appearances and even believing against hope at times. As the book of Hebrews says, “… faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). There was nothing in that baby Jesus that gave off the appearance that in him was the fulfillment of all our hopes for salvation. The kings of the world wore purple robes and ornate crowns to make themselves look important, but here is the King of Kings, the Lord’s Christ, clothed in nothing more than the flesh of a baby. And yet, contrary to all expectations, this baby is our Savior. He saves us from our sins and the condemnation of death that our sins earn for us. He reconciles us to God, ending the war of rebellion started by Adam and Eve. And not only that, but he is reconciling all creation to God, ultimately restoring it to the perfection in which God originally created it when he returns.
(Image: Simeon’s Song of Praise, by Rembrandt – http://www.nationalmuseum.se/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37634861 )