Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
To God’s house they came, God’s righteous people. To the tabernacle. To the temple. To the synagogues. To the private homes and the catacombs. To the churches and to the cathedrals, they came and still do, for that is what God desires of His holy people: He calls us to be in His presence, to receive His gifts.
In Joseph and Mary’s case, they came because the Law demanded it. In days of old, the Lord had instructed His people through Moses that all the first-born males born of Israel would be consecrated to the Lord. They were to be redeemed—that is, purchased back, exchanged at a price—as a memorial of the price paid in Egypt to finally break Pharaoh’s stiff neck and proud spirit.
At the cost of many first-borns, including his own, that earthly oppressor learned the hard lesson that nothing will stand between God and the people He desires. No price is too great to redeem His own.
And so the infant Jesus was brought, along with His mother, for the purification rite. He was brought to Jerusalem, the city where kings rule, where priests serve, and where prophets die. He was the Spirit-conceived first-born of Mary and the only-begotten of His heavenly Father. Joseph knew that even though the child was not his own, he ought not trifle with God’s commands. He and his betrothed were not wealthy people, and so their sacrifice that day was a modest one: Two small birds; tokens of something free in spirit.
So, too, came Simeon to the house of the Lord that day, led by a still-freer Spirit, one that is not a small token but the very power of God. He came in hope and expectation, righteous and devout not because Simeon did everything right according to the Law, but because in faith he trusted that God was about to make everything right, for the first time since Eden’s tragedy.
He may not have known as he approached that day that this was the moment he had longed for. Yet he knew from the Spirit’s revelation that moment would come before the end of his years.
Anna, too, came to the Lord’s house that day. Or should I say: She dwelt in the Lord’s house? We are told that she was eighty-four years old, and did not depart from the temple. Whether that means she actually lived in the courtyard or among the colonnades, or that she was a faithful worshipper who lived nearby and spent every moment she could in the temple, we do not know.
What we do know was that she, like Simeon, was devout and righteous, fasting and praying constantly, and prophesying about the Lord God and His salvation.
There they were, destined to come together in that place, that day, at that time, the seven of them: Mary, and Joseph. Simeon, and Anna. Son, and Father, and Holy Spirit. For wherever Jesus is, the fullness of God is ever present: Revealing His truths to Simeon, proclaiming His redemption through Anna, causing wonder to swell and churn in the hearts of Joseph and Mary, and all who heard what was spoken that day.
According to Jewish and Christian tradition, this purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus would have taken place forty days after His birth. Luke’s account of the birth and presentation of Jesus and Matthew’s record of the nativity, the visit of the magi, and the flight into Egypt are not explicitly coordinated in the scriptures.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that Joseph and Mary probably would neither have gone all the way back to Nazareth and then to Jerusalem with forty days of Jesus’ birth, nor had time to go all the way to Egypt and await the death of Herod.
It’s likely then, that this episode which Luke describes in the middle of Chapter 2 is only the second public revelation of the birth of the Savior. Luke’s orderly account has moved from the departure of the shepherds, to Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day, and now to His presentation on the fortieth day. Whether or not the magi’s visit took place before or after this event is a matter of historical curiosity, but either option doesn’t invalidate the biblical timeline at all.
What really matters is that God has come to His people, meeting them where He would be met—in His holy temple, the place where He has put His name and where He has promised to be. His coming had been announced to Mary, to Joseph, and to the shepherds by His angels, His spirit messengers. God now uses the human tongues of messengers like Simeon and Anna to proclaim His arrival.
We don’t know exactly what Anna said that day. The specific words of Simeon, however, have been preserved for us by St. Luke, writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They are known as the Nunc Dimittis, from the Latin phrase which opens his statement. They essentially mean, “Now, dismiss…” Set to various musical scores, these words have been a part of the Christian worship experience for centuries, usually placed in the Divine Service at the point in which communicants are themselves dismissed after having seen and tasted the salvation of the Lord in His holy Supper.
At the proper time, we will unite ourselves today with the Church of every time and every place in singing those words, too, after we have received the salvation prepared in the presence of all peoples.
Yet how many of us truly come to the Lord’s house in the sort of joy and anticipation Simeon and Anna had? It’s particularly difficult sometimes, especially after having come through the stretch of Advent, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, with all its extra services and activities. We’ve had far too much on our plates, we think: Kids home from school, all that shopping that had to be done, visitors from out of town stacked up in the house, events to plan and to supervise, even more events to attend, perhaps even our own traveling to do. It’s our nature to throw up our hands and say, “Enough is enough, already! I need a break from all this church stuff!”
Some of your Christian brothers and sisters succumbed to that today, it seems. For others, it seems that any more than two or three times a year is too much. And, sadly, for far too many who want to claim so-called membership in our blessed parish family, managing to find their way to the Lord’s temple isn’t a priority at all.
That’s not to congratulate you for being here, however. I’m glad that you are, of course, but I’m nowhere near as glad as your heavenly Father is. He’s not glad because He needs you here; He’s glad because you need you here. Unless you desire to come to the Lord’s house to see and hear and touch and taste and sing His salvation, you cannot receive it. Without that desire, you have turned your back on His gifts, rejected His coming, closed your ears to the light revealed to Gentiles and Israel alike.
Apart from your Savior, your faith is dead, for we are branches connected to that vine. You cannot be granted God’s peace in which to depart, unless you have first arrived in His house to receive that peace.
Thanks be to God, you have received it. When the time came for your purification, you were brought to the Lord’s house. In some cases, the Lord was brought to you: At your parents’ home, in a hospital, or wherever you were presented to the Lord, washed in the waters of Holy Baptism, and received the commanded purification. Wherever His word and His name is proclaimed among His faithful people, there He has promised to be.
And so you, too, are holy to the Lord; you are set apart, made unique, made His servant who dwells in peace so that you may one day depart in peace. You will not only not see death before seeing the Lord’s Christ; you will not see the ultimate Death at all.
That is because He saw death for you. The Babe of Bethlehem was presented to the Lord in the temple, but He was also presented before the Lord’s judgment seat on the cross. There He heard the “guilty” verdict that was meant for you. There He experienced the sentence of unbearable punishment, suffering, and death that should have been yours. All because He took your place.
His righteousness has been made yours. His holiness has been applied to you. His Sonship has been multiplied, and you who are sons and daughters of Adam and Eve have been made one with the Son of Mary and Son of God. When He had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, He didn’t just return to Galilee with His mother and father to grow strong and filled with wisdom. He came in the weakness of an infant to bring the strength of God. He came as wisdom itself, to grant you the knowledge of the fear of the Lord.
He with whom His Father was well-pleased has placed the Father’s favor upon you. Marked as His own, you will not see eternal death, because you have seen the Lord’s Christ. You have seen Him with your eyes on the written page; seen Him with your ears as He is proclaimed and sung; seen Him with your skin as He was splashed upon you and clings there still, in the garment of His righteousness; seen Him with your tongue as you have tasted His body and blood. All that you are—rotten flesh through and through—has been consumed by the perfection of His flesh and the sweet purity of His forgiveness.
As this calendar year departs from us, all the hubbub of bad news and the paranoia about the supposed end of the Mayan calendar will soon pass by as well. At such a time, we would do well to be reminded that our departure as God’s servants comes at the time of the Father’s choosing, not our own; and certainly according to the will of any other man or woman. So depart from the Lord’s temple in peace—you have seen His salvation, and the favor of the Lord is upon you.
In Jesus’ holy (X) name, Amen.