We are thinking this Sunday about the events recorded by Luke the historian and gospel writer that follow the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ at Bethlehem. Luke records that on the eighth day Jesus was circumcised and named. We recall that God had ordained that a son should be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (Genesis 17:12) and so as faithful Jews his parents saw to it that Jesus received the sign and seal of circumcision. This is, of course, not surprising. Jesus was an Israelite. Indeed he was the only perfect Israelite and the one in whom Israel reached its climax. We need to remember that he came into the world as the great sin bearer, to defeat the works of the devil and die once and for all time. He came so that sinners, through faith in him and in his death on their behalf at Calvary, might go to heaven.
The events of Bethlehem and of Calvary are intertwined. Jesus' life was one of total pleasing of his Father by obeying him in every sense. In his circumcision we see his passive obedience, in his baptism and at Calvary we see his willing and active obedience. Luke places his emphasis here on the naming of the child. His circumcision and his name are closely linked. Submission to circumcision was an element in the Saviour's obedience and without this obedience he could not be truly Jesus the Saviour. The name Jesus means- "God saves" The child who was obedient in his circumcision is the same man who was obedient unto death on a cross (Philippians 2:8).
After forty days Joseph and Mary go up from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to present Jesus in the temple. This included an offering usually of two turtle-doves and a redemption fee. (You can read up the history of this later if you wish in Exodus 13 and Numbers 3) This may seem strange to us. On this fortieth day after his birthday, Jesus Christ the Redeemer of the world was himself redeemed by the payment of a ransom fee. The underlying idea of this redemption fee went back to the night of Israel's freedom from the captivity of Egypt at the Passover. In God's sight not only the Egyptians but also the Israelites had forfeited their lives. In place of death God was willing to accept from the tribe of Levi lifelong service in the tabernacle (later the temple) and from the first born of other tribes five shekels as a symbolic offering.
Jesus himself as an Israelite was under a sentence of death. He was born "under the law" (Galatians 4:4) However he was not only bound to keep the law. He also willingly and freely bore the law's penalty and satisfied its demand of perfect obedience. He had no personal guilt course, but of his own free will took upon himself the sin of the world. We can see the ransom fee at the presentation of Jesus at the temple as a symbol of the infinitely greater ransom to which Jesus referred when he said,
"The Son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45).
Jesus came to die and to pay the price for us and to rescue us from the consequences of our sin. And we see an echo of this when he was presented in the temple as a child of 8 days old. As we move on in our passage, we read that at this time there was a righteous and devout man called Simeon. We know little about him. He was clearly not a priest, but what we would now call a layman. He was righteous and devout. He was waiting for what the Bible calls the consolation of Israel, the coming of the long expected Messiah.
It must have seemed an inauspicious time. Israel had lost their independence under the Romans. Cruel King Herod was on the throne. Religion had become a matter of externals. There was the legalism of the scribes and the Pharisees. There was the secularism of the Sadducees. The voice of prophecy was silent. There were some devout men and women and Luke mentions two in particular- Simeon and Anna. Simeon was endowed with a rare and special blessing. This same Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen God's long awaited Messiah- Jesus Christ. At the time of the presentation of Jesus, Simeon was in the temple and he took the baby Jesus in his arms and announced the truth of his Messiahship in words which have become known and loved down the ages. The Song of Simeon is also known as the Nunc Dimittis to be found in the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer.
Simeon blessed God and shouted out the significance of Jesus both for the Jews and for the whole of the rest of the world, the Gentiles. Jesus is to be a light to the Gentile world and glory to the people whom God had specially chosen to make his nature known, the Jewish people. In Christ the division between Jew and Gentile would be gone. There are four great anthems surrounding the Christmas revelation. There is Elizabeth's (mother of John the Baptist) song of love; Mary's(the mother of Jesus) song of faith; Zechariah's(father of John the Baptist) song of hope and now we have Simeon's song of joyful self surrender.
Simeon's song is full of humble recognition of God's absolute sovereignty, trustful resignation, and with tenderness of heart with which he is holding the baby Jesus in his arms. Simeon has found peace and now he is ready to depart this life. Mary and Joseph were amazed at what they were hearing from Simeon. He told Mary that her child would become the great divider.
"Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too" (Luke 2: 34, 35)
In other words he was saying that a person's attitude to Jesus would decide absolutely that person's eternal destiny in either heaven or hell. Some would reject him. Others by God's sovereign grace would come to have eternal life in him. Those who rejected him would be excluded from the kingdom. Those who received him to them, would he give a rising to eternal life. By their attitude to Jesus, men would be constantly revealing their hearts and thoughts. They would indicate whether they were for or against Jesus. Neutrality about him would be forever impossible. And so it has proved. In a devastating parenthesis, Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her own soul too. This was at his presentation pointing Mary to her son's saving death at Calvary. Christmas, Good Friday, Easter and the Ascension of Jesus, therefore, are linked inexorably.
If Simeon was remarkable so also by God's grace was Anna. Her name means Grace. She was a widow and a prophetess. She was a woman of very advanced age. She was constantly in God's presence in the temple. She observes Simeon as he takes up the boy Jesus. She was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Filled with gratitude, she immediately gave thanks to God and began speaking with all like- minded people who were longing for the coming of the Messiah. The history of Anna, like that of Simeon, is only related by Luke in the whole of the Bible and nowhere else. She was a woman who clearly loved God's house and a woman of great self -denial and of much prayer. She was never weary of pleading with God that his promise of a Messiah would be fulfilled.
Anna received a rich reward for all her perseverance in the service of God. She had the great privilege of seeing Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, for whose coming she had so often and for so long prayed. It is refreshing and salutary to recognise that at a time of great wickedness at the birth of Jesus there was a remnant of the faithful among whom were Anna and Simeon. Thus it will ever be. There are lessons for us here. We need to be people of faith and of prayerfulness. We read in verse 38 that Anna after giving thanks to God for the birth of the Saviour, spoke about the child to all who were looking forward for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Let us strive, like them, to be men and women who walk by faith and look forward. We celebrate now the first Advent of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and we look forward and walk by faith as a prepared people waiting for the second Advent when Christ will return to judge and reign. Our passage, this morning, ends at verse 40 with these words:
"And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him"
Jesus grew and waxed strong in spirit, was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him. Luke repeats this at the end of the chapter in verse 52. He tells us that Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man. Here we encounter a great truth and a deep mystery that is beyond our finite minds to fully comprehend. All we must do is receive it as truth. Jesus the Saviour is both perfect God and perfect Man. Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ embraced everything that belongs to our nature, except for sin. (Hebrews 4:15,16) As a man he was born an infant and grew from infancy to boyhood. He increased in bodily strength and mental power during his passage from boyhood to adulthood. He was a full partaker in all of our conditions. We must rest content with this. This should give us much comfort. Our Lord is able to relate to us in every stage of our existence from the cradle to the grave. He knows by experience the temperament of the child, the boy and the young man. He has stood in their place.
As Simon made clear and Anna in her rejoicing at coming of the Messiah, Jesus who shared our nature and was the sinless one came to die and to rescue sinners from sin and endless torment. This account of the presentation of Jesus rescues us from any tendency to sentimentalise Christmas. The Bible makes it clear that this life can only be understood in the light of eternity. The question is where are we to spend eternity? We are faced with the hard reality of a Jesus who came to die and who spoke of a narrow way that leads to eternal life and a broad way that leads to hell and endless torment.(Matthew 7: 13,14) Have we come face to face with Jesus? What have we done with Jesus? Have we accepted him as Lord and so living for him and eagerly awaiting his second- coming or are we putting off a decision to a more convenient time that may never come. Upon that decision rests the eternal destiny of ourselves and of all those we love.