Dear friends in Christ, Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
When is Christmas officially over? That discussion occurs in our home every year when it is time to put away the last Christmas decorations. Of course, for those with small children, you know that Christmas is over when the original batteries included with your children’s presents have died. And for those with budding adolescents, you know that Christmas is over when you haul out the Christmas tree and all that is left beneath the tree is a handful of lost Lego toys and a discarded Star Wars Advent calendar. For the party host, you know that Christmas is over when your trash and recycling bins are overflowing, and you’ve already missed the garbage man – twice. There is no “official” date on which Christmas is really over. A lot of the “pace” before the holidays is set by retailers, or as Lucy observed in A Charlie Brown Christmas, “It’s a big commercial racket… run by a big eastern syndicate.”
But when does Christmas end? Culturally, a lot of folks might say that Christmas extends on New Year’s Eve. Historically, the Christian Church has begun the celebration with the four weeks of Advent preceding December 25th, and then followed this with the “Twelve Days of Christmas” leading up to Epiphany on January 6th. Personally, I have grown to experience Christmas as a holiday that belongs in the heart all year round. It knows no limits –except perhaps for a Christmas wreath still around in March. And that is what I would to share with you today, and no story reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas more than the story of Simeon.
According to St. Luke’s gospel, the story unfolds in the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after Jesus’ birth. After eight days, Jesus had been circumcised and named in accordance with Jewish law. And now, thirty-two days later, again according to the law of Moses, his parents are performing their duty as pious Jews, this time in order to offer a sacrifice for a safe child birth, and to consecrate their child to the Lord. They were also required to offer a lamb as a sacrifice, but since they were poor, the book of Leviticus prescribed two doves.
Mary and Joseph must have been in a solemn, anxious mood, the way many young parents feel when their first child is to be baptized. It’s not hard to imagine the quiet procession they made to the Temple in Jerusalem passing from one majestic court to another. Nor is it difficult to imagine their reaction as an old man came forward out of the shadows to take their child into his arms and prophesy about him. Startled at first, perhaps, even a bit frightened, but then hearing Simeon’s strange blessing, Mary and Joseph were reminded of the events forty days earlier the night Jesus was born when angels and shepherds had broken into their lives to tell them of the greatness of their son.
But there was something different about this meeting with this old man that must have puzzled Mary and Joseph. It was the song he sang. We all have our favorite songs we like to hear at Christmas. Carols and music have a way of lifting our wintry spirits and making all our days merry and bright. In the first days of Advent who can resist the temptation of gleefully chanting, “Deck the Hall with Boughs of Holly.” Or on Christmas Eve, what can compare to the beauty of standing in gentle candlelight, with wax melting onto your fingers, and singing, “Silent Night.” Joy, candlelight, music and presents all seem to go hand in hand in our celebration of Christmas.
Even in today’s lesson, the baby Jesus in all his meekness and poverty is still the center of story. Mary and Joseph are seen standing nearby cradling the little Lord Jesus in their arms, but in comparison to the song of the angels on the hillside in Bethlehem, the song of Simeon is a dissonant and disquieting. After all, wasn’t this old man speaking about his own death in the midst of this joyous celebration of life? “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace.” Beautiful words, to be sure, but he was speaking of death none the less. Not exactly the tender, heart-warming message of the Sunday School Christmas pageant. But let me assure you that this is the true song of that holy night that you desire to hear, long after the Twelve Days of Christmas have passed.
My friends, although the Song of Simeon may sound as a melancholic melody of death, I believe it is really a jubilant song of life and hope. Simeon’s song was a confident word of blessing for Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus, and for himself, that from this time forth all would be well. Simeon’s faithful waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise had given him a broad perspective on life and time. He had longed for God’s consolation and comfort, and he had been steadily nudged and urged by the Holy Spirit to be faithful. But it was in that glorious meeting of the old man and child, that Simeon was given the final assurance that all would be well. And that is your promise as well. After touching the little life which God granted to him through Christ, he could offer his word of blessing. And so he did, peacefully, poignantly and beautifully. From that time forth, he knew the Savior of the world would be with God’s people. Yes, he knew it. He trusted it- and he could feel it in his hands.
That is the true promise of Christmas that does not fade when the last Christmas carol is sung, or when the last decoration is packed away in storage. The message of a savior born for you, to walk with you all your days, to give you confidence in your anxious hours, and to guide you with his light in the dark of night, is a promise offered to you, and it is the word of blessing God longs for you to share with others –even in the face of death.
I dare say, you and I are all a bit like Simeon. We are waiting for the consolation and comfort of our souls. It is said, that death doesn’t take a holiday, but frankly neither do the world’s others sorrows, sickness and trials. We all walk through life as wounded soldiers tinged with regrets, and overshadowed by unspoken disappointments and hurts. You long for the assurance that all will be well- not simply in death, but right now in life. If only you could hold the savior of the world in your arms.
My friends, let me assure you that you have been given that same word of hope to face trials of life and death as Simeon was given. Simeon, you see, trusted in God’s promise because he had grown to know God through scriptures. He meditated on the words. He placed himself in the Temple where God promised to be present and active. He allowed himself to be open to the nudging of the Holy Spirit. Those entry points are open to you as well. The Savior, born for you, is revealed in the gospels. As you read and meditate on these words, the Savior born for you, comes to you anew. When you enter into this holy sanctuary, the Savior born for you, comes to you in flesh and blood. When you are drawn into the community of believers, the Savior born for you, comes in the guise of the Holy Spirit to encourage you through the blessing of others. Yes, Jesus reveals himself anew so that you can face the challenges of life and death and for each of us, like Simeon, he offers a word of blessing..
Seven years ago this past week, I was called to Austin to be with my mother. She had been struggling with congestive heart failure, kidney failure, pneumonia and early Alzheimer’s, but she kept fighting back. This time, however, the adversaries were too numerous. She had said that she did not want any invasive procedures. We chose to respect her decision, but we felt we should ask her one more time. We celebrated Holy Communion together as a family, and when the grandchildren and spouses had left the room, my eldest sister explained the options. Still, my mother’s response was, “We all have to die sooner or later.” Those were words of blessing to us. They reminded us that we would soon be walking on holy ground between life and death. Like Simeon, she was content to depart this world in peace. Words of confession and faith, you see, are not just words, but they have reality. Blessings flow naturally from our faith and experience. They acknowledge the sacredness of life. My mother was offering a blessing to us. She was soon shifted from intensive care to a regular room to prepare for hospice care at the nursing home where she had spent her last months.
A few days later, I traveled to Austin again. We all had a sense that it was near the end. My sisters and father met me at the nursing home. We sang a few songs, read two psalms, prayed and said good bye. We stepped out of the room for a few minutes as they changed her morphine patch and shifted her in her bed. When we returned, I could see that her breath was slowing. I stood beside her bed holding her hand and stroked her arm. From that vantage point, I could see behind her gauzy oxygen mask, and I could see that she was forming the words, “I love you.” These were not words often spoken by my mother. When I would call her on the phone, and end the conversation, with the farewell, “I love you,” she would often utter the Lutheran response, “And also with you.” For a Norwegian Lutheran, “I love you” was truly amazing. She was offering her final blessing, and we offered her our blessing to speed her on our way. “We love you too” I said, “Now you can head home, so when you see the angel again, let go of this world and grab on.” Her breathing slowed. I held her hand and rubbed her shoulder. It was very peaceful. Within minutes she stopped breathing. I looked up and announced to my family, “She saw the angel.” That was the end. Peaceful. Beautiful.
You don’t have to be a pastor to confer a blessing. You and I are called to give blessings. Unfortunately, many of us are afraid. Perhaps you fear that your treasure will become empty or that your well of blessings will run dry. You may be afraid that your words will be too painful, and that your thoughts and prayers will seem insincere. Let me assure you, you will not become poor. The richest men and women I have known were not stingy in offering their blessings. Indeed, they were all the richer for their words and deeds, as were those they touched.
My friends, in the witness of Simeon, we discover again that the true message of Christmas doesn’t end when the last decoration is put away. Christ the Savior is born for you is a blessing that makes a difference in life and death- all the year round. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.