The Song of Simeon
Lord, I am your servant, and now I can die in peace, because you have kept your promise to me. With my own eyes I have seen what you have done to save your people, and foreign nations will also see this. Your mighty power is a light for all nations, and it will bring honor to your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32 CEV)
Now I Can Die
I don’t think I ever heard the phrase “bucket list” before I saw the film of the same name in 2007. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play men diagnosed with terminal cancer. Before they “kick the bucket,” they set off across the world spending Jack Nicholson’s money, crossing off items on their “bucket lists” – things they want to do or see before they die. They visit the Pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India and the Great Wall of China. They go sky-diving. They go on a safari in Africa. They climb Mount Everest.
Most of us have much simpler bucket lists. The Make-a-Wish Foundation fulfills the dreams of sick children who only wish to become honorary firemen or park rangers for a day.
Terminally ill parents want to hang on to see their children graduate from high school or reach some other milestone in their lives.
You don’t have to look far to find stories like these. My own next door neighbor’s brother-in-law was told by his doctors that he had only a very short time to live. His daughter was getting married, though, and he wanted more than anything to attend the wedding. The doctors strongly advised against him traveling to the wedding, but he went anyway. That’s what mattered most to him. He gave his daughter away in marriage and died the following day.
A quick Google search tells me that this happens hundreds of times per year.
Then there’s the story of 19 year-old Lauren Hill with inoperable brain cancer. The freshman at Mount Saint Joseph only wanted to play college basketball. The NCAA allowed the team to move up the start of the season just to make sure she could play in at least one game before she passed away. She not only played, she scored. And she went on to play in three more games before her illness forced her to retire last week on December 17.
In the gospel of Luke that we read today, when the old man Simeon says, “Lord, you are letting your servant depart in peace,” he’s talking about his bucket list. “I’m old. My time is done, but I’ve been hanging on for one last thing. But now, I’m ready to go. My hopes and dreams have finally been fulfilled, and now I can die.”
Simeon has only one thing on his bucket list: to see the Lord’s messiah. Simeon was waiting, Luke tells us, for the consolation of Israel.
The Consolation of Israel
Let me unpack that a minute.
The name “Israel: points to the story of God’s promises to his chosen people going back to the days of the patriarchs. Israel, remember, is the name God gave the patriarch Jacob some two thousand years before the birth of Christ.
To Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God promised that he would give them land and make them a great people, through whom the world would be blessed.
To Moses, God gave the law, which was both a way of life and a way of living in relationship to him through the tabernacle, and later the temple, promising his people his presence, his power and his blessings.
To David, God promised an eternal kingdom.
To the prophets, God promised judgment and salvation.
But now, in Simeon’s day,
- The land was under foreign control.
- The people were scattered over the face of the earth.
- The temple was controlled by corrupt leaders.
- The true intent of the law was ignored by all but a handful of faithful.
- Herod, a foreign imposter, sat on the throne of David.
- Israel was poor and powerless.
And the prophets had been silent for hundreds of years.
The consolation Simeon looked for was the reversal of all those things when the messiah came.
I Have Seen Your Salvation
Simeon was looking for the whole story to come out just as God had promised. And when he saw Jesus, he believed his hopes had come to fulfillment. His eyes had seen the salvation which God had prepared in the sight of all nation: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of God’s people Israel.
Simeon’s song sounds triumphant, as if the messiah’s work was already done. So do the other songs we find in Luke’s gospel, the songs of Mary, Zechariah and the angels. How can they speak this way? Jesus hasn’t done anything yet. He hasn’t healed any sick people, cast out any demons or eaten with any sinners. He hasn’t spoken any parables or given any sermons. He hasn’t died and risen again in victory. He hasn’t ascended into heaven and poured out the Holy Spirit on the church. And he definitely hadn’t come in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Nothing had changed in Simeon’s world. The Romans still ruled the land. The temple leaders still exploited the people. Israel was still poor and powerless. The people still suffered from the powers of sin and death. The promise had not yet been really fulfilled. So how could Simeon be satisfied in seeing this baby?
Simeon sees the whole story of Jesus playing out before his eyes as he looks at this new born baby boy.
A Prologue to the Whole Gospel Story
Jesus is the salvation which God has prepared in the sight of all the nations. God had promised to vindicate Israel in the sight of all the nations. The kings of the earth would come and bow before Israel’s messiah. The nations of the earth would bring their tribute. That hadn’t happened yet when Simeon held the little baby Jesus. In fact, it has happened exactly that way yet. That won’t happen until Jesus comes again in glory.
But Simeon’s prophetic words have come true in another sense. At that time, Caesar Augustus ruled all the known world. Caesar did not notice when this little baby was born in Bethlehem, even though it was his tax law that brought the holy couple from Nazareth in Galilee to the City of David. Decades later, though, Caesar’s governor Pontius Pilate would raise Jesus up on a Roman cross and nail a sign above his head, mocking him and his people with the words, “This is the king of the Jews.” The salvation of God, prepared in the sight of all the nations.
Jesus, Simeon sang, was also a light for revelation to the Gentiles. This, too, was a fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s age old dream. The prophet said,
“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:6-7)
Isaiah dreamed of a time in which the nations of the world would come to see the glory of Israel’s God. The people of the world would not only bow before Israel’s messiah, they would worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David.
And in Luke’s story, Jesus does indeed become light for the Gentile nations of the world. Luke’s gospel is the first volume of a two-book set. Luke continues the story in the Book of Acts, in which the story of Jesus is carried from Jerusalem to Samaria to Asia and Europe to the very heart of the Roman Empire. The church is planted throughout the world and one-by-one the world’s people come to know the light of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
Anticipating the Cross and the Empty Tomb
Simeon saw that Jesus would be Israel’s salvation from the nations and God’s revelation to the nations. That doesn’t mean that Simeon thought any of this would be easy or pain-free.
“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,” Simeon said to Mary. Jesus will cause conflict and division. How people respond to Jesus will reveal the true spiritual state of affairs in their hearts. Some who are on top now, those who are recognized as the community’s spiritual leaders, will tumble from their lofty heights. Others will be exalted to God’s right hand when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead. This sorting of the people – their rising and falling – has already begun, though the world might not recognize it, as people hear and respond to the church’s gospel message.
And in one of the most poignant sentences in the Bible, Simeon told Mary, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Mary will watch her own son undergo torture and be nailed to a Roman cross. The sword that pierced Jesus’ side pierced Mary’s soul as well.
As we read the new about the oppression of the church in so many parts of the world, it is clear that the sword of the gospel still pierces the hearts of Christian mothers around the world.
But Jesus’ death was not the last word. When Simeon says that Jesus is destined to be the cause of falling and rising of many of Israel, the word “rising” is the same word as the word “resurrection” used elsewhere in the gospel: anastasis. The rising that Simeon envisions is not confined to Israel’s social vindication in the sight of the Gentiles; rather, it is a “resurrection” rooted in Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead.
Simeon has this insight about Jesus because the Holy Spirit had revealed it to him. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit was upon him, and the Holy Spirit told him to go to the temple that day. The Holy Spirit’s activity here foreshadows the Holy Spirit’s actions in the Book of Acts.
Luke wants us to see it all from the very beginning. In the story of Jesus’ birth, we see prefigured his death, his resurrection, his exaltation, his pouring out of the Holy Spirit, the church’s mission to the Gentiles and the final judgment and vindication of God’s people.
Now there are times that I’ve listened to Christmas sermons that jumped from the cradle to the cross and thought to myself, “Let’s not rush past Christmas.” But with the story of Simeon, Luke sort of does. Luke does not linger at the manger.
Simeon helps us see that it all goes together: the birth of Jesus, his ministry to Israel, his crucifixion, his resurrection, his establishing his church and empowering it for its mission, the work of the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ coming in final victory. It’s all one gospel.
And because it’s all one gospel, the whole is in every part.
Salvation in Faith and Hope
The author of the Epistle of the Hebrews wrote that faith is the reality of what is hoped for and the proof of what is not seen. (Hebrews 11:1) That’s what was happening to Simeon. When Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms, the power of the Holy Spirit made it all real to him. The whole truth about Jesus flashed before his eyes. And even though most of the events had not yet come to pass, Simeon found satisfaction in his hope.
That’s why Simeon could say that his bucket list was complete. His eyes had seen God’s salvation, and the parts that hadn’t happened yet were as real to him as the baby that he was holding in his arms.
We, too, live in hope. Our situation is different than that of Simeon. Most of the events which Simeon envisioned happened a long time ago. Some of them, we only know through the pages of the scriptures and the church’s living memory. Others, such as the power of the Holy Spirit and the life of mission in the world, we experience every day. But mostly, we live in hope. We, too, long and pray for the final consolation of God’s people, for the day when God’s name is honored among the nations, when his kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. And we long for it because of what it will mean within the context of our own lives. We all live with our own brokenness that will only be healed when the baby born in the manger comes again to make all things new.
But because we have Jesus, we have it all. Oh, that the Holy Spirit would give us the same privilege that he gave Simeon – to know that the parts of Jesus’ story that we cannot touch with our own hands are as real as the parts we can.
Simeon longed for the consolation of Israel, the fulfillment of God’s age old promise to put this crazy world right. That’s all he longed for. That’s all he wanted for Christmas. That’s all that was on his bucket list. And in Mary’s son Jesus, he believed his dreams had been fulfilled.
What’s on your bucket list?