Sunday, December 30, 2012

Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:21-38)

Bill Engvall had a routine in the early 2000s in which he complained about the misuse of the word "awesome." People used it for so many things it didn't mean anything; Engvall said it should be reserved for the things that are really awesome. "On April 15 the IRS sends you a letter saying they made a mistake and they owe you money," he suggests as an example. "Now that's awesome."

I think Simeon might have said the same thing when he understood who Jesus was and the real nature of God's plan for salvation. We meet him in Luke 2 as an old man who has had the Holy Spirit reveal to him he would not die before seeing the Lord's Messiah.

Unless we remember that the people before Jesus came had a very different understanding of Messiah than we do, we might not understand just what Simeon might have been expecting. He's an old man, which means when he was younger he would have heard the old people of that day talk about the Maccabees. They were a family that led a revolt against Judea's conquerors about 160 years before Jesus was born. They established the Hasmonean Dynasty, which ruled Judea for the next hundred years, probably either until just before Simeon was born or during his youth. That hundred years was the only time between the Babylonian conquest to the establishment of the modern state of Israel that the Jewish people ruled themselves. It came to an end when the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem.

Simeon, like most people of his day, interpreted the Messiah prophecies to speak of a political and military leader who would overthrow Israel's occupiers and restore the kingdom. It had happened once, so there was no reason to expect it not to happen again. And the years in which Simeon lived boasted of several revolts, rebellions and uprisings against the Romans. The unrest was basically constant, flaring up now and again into a skirmish or battle. It wouldn't end until the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD.

So there was no shortage of potential leaders against the Romans, even if they all wound up failing one way or another. They had no success against Rome or against Rome's agent, King Herod.

I have no concrete knowledge of what Simeon felt or thought, but if I was in his shoes I would begin to wonder. After all, any successful revolt would take some time; Rome couldn't be thrown out in a day. Would he see the completion of the rebellion, or only its start? Would he see the Anointed Leader begin his campaign, or would he just have met him on the street sometime without knowing who he would be? Maybe he hadn't understood the Spirit's word to him...maybe it had been his own imagination or even some kind of deceiving spirit, not from God at all but from somewhere else and it would delight as his hope faded with age.

I put these possibilities in Simeon's mind because I know that even if I'm not in his situation, I've dealt with times when I wonder if I have heard God correctly. Have I discerned the spirits aright, or have I misunderstood? Did I follow what God wanted me to do, or did I deceive myself into thinking that when I was really just following my own lead?

What usually happens with me in those times is what happened with Simeon -- I learn that God has been working to do what he told me, but in a way far beyond my imagination. Simeon is at the temple, and he sees the people making their sacrifices and gifts, and he sees the parents of new firstborn coming to make their sacrifices as well. For some reason, he notices one couple who bring with them the pair of small birds designated as proper for those who can't afford a lamb.

And he sees.

The Spirit shows him that this baby is the promised Messiah, and that his salvation will be not in the temporary realms of human politics and kingdoms, but eternal and for all. He sees that God's plan was not only different from what he imagined, it was different and greater in scope than he could ever have imagined.

He sings of the great works of God that will come through the child before him, and then God confirms his words through the voice of the prophetess Anna. People who prophesied didn't just predict what would come but spoke God's words to the people. The Hebrew word translated "prophet" even means "mouthpiece" or "speaker." When Anna joins Simeon's song, she doesn't just echo his words but affirms them as truth.

This baby is the Messiah. He will grow and teach the people the truth of God and will offer himself as a sacrifice so that the broken relationship between humanity and God can be healed. His death will not end God's work in him but continue and magnify it, and it will put to death death itself and human sin and suffering.

Now that's awesome.

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