Some of you will remember the time when the National Anthem was played in the cinema at the end of a film. That was the time when there were usherettes with torches, uncomfortable cramped seating, ice-creams without popcorn, and clouds of cigarette smoke drifting across the screen. Do you remember too that people used to rush out before the National Anthem was played?
Today when I go to the cinema I'm always the last to leave. The cleaners are waiting to tidy up. The people are queuing for the next performance. But why stay so long? Its not that I'm waiting for the National Anthem to be played (just for old time’s sake) but that I like reading the credits! This list of unknowns have contributed to the making of the film – from the best boy to the caterers, from the location manager to the post-production team. While none of them appeared on the screen they all had a significant part to play in the production of the film.
And just as the film credits include these unknowns, so too does scripture. While there are many well-known figures, there are also a great number of people who are not the main players. While we may easily overlook them, their story is still significant. In their own way they had an important part to play. This is certainly true of Simeon and Anna. They appear briefly in Luke 2 and then we know nothing else about them. Briefly they take centre-stage and then make their exit.
1. Putting Simon and Anna into context
This is the last of a series of six sermons on the first two chapters of Luke's gospel, and having the overall title of 'the rise of Christianity'. Of course these two chapters are not unrelated to the rest of the gospel of Luke, neither are they unrelated to the companion volume the Acts of the Apostles.
Luke (the writer of the gospel and the narrator of Acts) is both a theologian and a historian. In his brief introduction to the gospel he refers to his painstaking researches and to his desire to write an orderly account of the rise of Christianity. He has done his homework. He had interviewed number of people. He had heard their testimony. He had selected his material. He refers to 'those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word' (1:2). Now most commentators take this to mean the testimony of the Apostles. Men who were called by Christ and sent out by him; those who had been with him from his baptism to his ascension, and who had been witnesses of his resurrection. (Acts 1:22). Clearly these individuals were the eyewitnesses to whom Luke refers.
But surely they were not alone. There were other first-hand observers. Were not people like Simeon and Anna also 'eyewitnesses and servants of the word'? Moved by the Holy Spirit they pondered upon the Word of God and they saw and they believed. And given their combined ages they had pondered for some considerable time!
What then can we learn from Simeon and Anna?
Notice how Simeon is described as being 'righteous and devout' (2:25). One commentator notes that he had 'excellent gifts - piety, innocence of life, faith and prophecy' (John Calvin, Gospels, 1.91).
The narrative of the first two chapters of Luke reveals three pairs of pious people – Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna. The covenant faith of the fathers was concentrated in this godly and faithful remnant. Between the OT and the NT they stand together like the neck of an hour glass. And what a disparate group they were! Young and old, men and women, priest and laymen – yet they were a holy sextet – a godly remnant – faithful, prayerful, obedient and submissive. They shared a common faith in the God of Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob; living blamelessly (like Zechariah and Elizabeth), righteous and devout (like Simeon and Anna); obedient and submissive (like Mary).
I wonder what sort of response best describes our attitude to the birth of Jesus? After all, we've heard it many times before. Are we sceptical? Unbelieving? Dismissive? Or, like the godly remnant, faithful, believing and trusting?
Luke says that Simeon 'was waiting for the consolation of Israel' (2:25). In other words he was waiting for the coming of the Messiah. Prophesied of old and having found fulfilment in the Lord Jesus Christ. He constantly read and reflected upon the OT, and the Holy Spirit revealed that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's anointed one. And that same Spirit who had inspired the songs of Mary and Zechariah, inspired Simeon to sing his song – ''Sovereign Lord as you have promised ... my eyes have seen your salvation'. This godly sage had prophetic insight. His simple faith had been rewarded. He had seen the Lord's Christ. Notice too that the Holy Spirit moved him to attend the Temple worship on the very day and very hour when the holy family were there at the time of sacrifice. Here was no chance meeting but a spirit-inspired encounter.
And for you and for me? Do we glimpse something here that touches upon our own experience of God in Christ? Of a word from the Lord? Of a whisper from the Spirit? Of a glimpse of the glory of God?
Notice (in 2:37) how she is described as one who worshipped and fasted and prayed. She was a lady known for her devotion, for her piety, and for her manner of living. Anna is an interesting person, isn't she? One American commentator refers to Simeon and Anna as 'two charming seniors' - a sort of Derby and Joan of the Temple precincts. Like Simeon she spent her days in the Temple – though unlike him she was there all the time. As soon as the gates were opened in the morning she was there. When the gates closed at night she was the last to leave. She was much in that holy place. Known by sight to generations of worshippers. Day in and day out, year in and year out.
We are told here of her pattern of devotion – she worshipped, she fasted and she prayed. Fasting and praying (which together with alms giving) were the three distinctive aspects of Jewish piety and practice. And her devotion flowed from her heart. Her heartfelt worship stood in contrast to that of the Temple worship. Her inner worship over and against the external worship of the Temple. Her living faith in contrast to dead orthodoxy!
Anna was ancient. Very ancient. Well beyond her sell-by date. Certainly eligible for a bus pass. If she had been married as a teenager of 15, then married for seven years and been a widow for 87 years then she was about 106. By our reckoning she would have already received six birthday cards from the Queen! But we know next to nothing about Anna. Who were her family? We are not told. What was the name of her husband? We are not told. Had they had any children? We are not told. All that is recorded in scripture is that she was a pious pensioner with a prophetic ministry. And notice too the two individuals standing next to each other. Anna, an old woman once a virgin, then briefly married and then a widow for many years. And by her side Mary, the young woman who was to pass from virgin mother, to being the wife of Joseph and mother of Jesus' brother and sisters, to being a widow who saw her son dying on the cross (and whose very soul was pierced as with a sword. 2:35). Yes, this sleeping child in the arms of his mother would one day stretch out his arms of love upon a Roman cross.
Unusually for the NT, Anna is described as a prophetess. Now there were others like her in the NT but she is the only one who is actually named. So here was this ancient, devout lady whose precise words are unrecorded, who gave thanks to God for the birth of Jesus (the one who would become central to the redemption of her people).
Those of you (if I may put it like this) those of you in the SAGA generation - what is your testimony – and if you shared it with us, would it inspire us – and help us to understand how God has led you thus far in your Christian life? You may not be as old and as pious as Anna, but you may well have words of encouragement and inspiration for younger Christians.
4. The Song of Simeon
In the first two chapters of Luke there are three (or four) songs or poems. There are the three well-known songs known by their Latin names - Mary's song (the Magnificat), Zechariah's song (the Benedictus) and Simeon's song (the Nunc Dimittis). And a fourth song – the song of the angels in 2:14 - 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests'.
We are all familiar with the Psalms or poems in the OT. And here in Luke are recorded these three or four NT Psalms or poems. Here are the songs of the poor, declared by the mouths of the poor, heard by the ears of the poor and yet all three songs speak of the richness of the good news. The songs are shot through with the mood and the sentiment of the OT. Words from the past that are echoed in the experience of the present and that prophetically point to the future. Words that are meant to inspire us and to speak to our hearts. Words that for centuries have been used in the church's liturgy. 'My soul doth magnify the Lord' (Magnificat); 'Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace' (Nunc Dimittis) 'Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people' (Benedictus).
Here are words inspired by the Holy Spirit (1:67) and the word is then applied. Words of prophecy. Words that are fulfilled. Words to convict. Words to challenge. Words to transform. Words to speak to our hearts. Words that point us to the Saviour. Both Mary and Simeon describe themselves as the Lord's servant. But there was an obvious difference between them. Mary was a young servant (1:48) and Simeon was an old servant (2:29). And what united them was their common faith in the living God. Again, the faith needs to be shared across the generations! Here the prophetic word, promised in the OT, now found its fulfilment in the NT. In Simeon's song the words of Isaiah the prophet found their fulfilment. Expressed in terms of being light for the non-Jews and glory for the Jews (2:32).
And having seen this child Simeon could now die in peace. His eyes had seen what the prophets had only dreamt about. They saw by faith. He saw by sight. And Simeon spoke twice – once as he took the child in his arms as he praised God in his song; and then as he blessed the holy family and spoke those solemn words to Mary concerning the death of her son (2:34-35). Yes, here was joy that the Saviour had come; that the prophetic words of the OT had at last been fulfilled, but also deep anguish for Mary.
The joy of the birth of the baby, would be followed by the death of the man. For as the prophetic word had anticipated the Incarnation, so the prophetic word pointed to the death of the one who would die on a cross. The crib anticipated the cross. And as always (during Jesus' earthly ministry), the shadow of the cross mingled with his own shadow as he walked. For this child, was born to die to reconcile man to God; to cleanse us from sin and death and be raised to life.
Today, can we join in singing the song of the angels – 'Glory to God in the highest', and in echoing the words of Simeon – 'Lord, dismiss your servant in peace, for mine eyes have seen your salvation'.
5. A word in season
In this narrative in Luke 1-2 we are struck by the simple faith and piety of these six people – Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna. But how does their faith impact upon our own spirituality and Christian living? How do we respond to the Christmas narrative? Over time have we become too dismissive, too unbelieving, too far removed in terms of the faith as we first understood it to be?
These spiritual seniors, Simeon and Anna were aged saints. They had kept the faith. They had run the course. They were pious and prayerful, devout and faithful. How much does that correspond with our experience? What have we learnt over the years? Have we applied it to our lives? Do we approach the New Year more confident and more secure in the faith we profess?
We learn much here about meditation upon God's word. This is implied in both the lives of Simeon and Anna. They read the Word and were responsive to the Spirit. Is that true of us as we read scripture? Does it impact upon us as it did when we first believed? The story has been told, the credits roll and we see the names of the saints including those of Simeon and Anna, and we pick out your name and mine. And in response let us say, 'Lord, dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation'.