December 24, 2023 (morning)

Luke 2 :21-40

“Simeon’s Song”

After a long wait… about four years since we began the refugee sponsorship process, the Saleem family received the news this week that they will be flying to Canada on January 17th 2024. I don’t know if there was singing in their house, or maybe even dancing, when they got the good news of an actual date and plane tickets. But I’m sure that their hearts were filled with joy, anticipation, and probably a little fear as well about the huge transition they are about to make and the hopeful future that lies ahead for them now. And our hearts are full as well, as we look forward to welcoming them to Regina in the New Year.

This week in our Advent Devotional Study, we reflected on the story of Simeon – the old prophet in Jerusalem who met Mary and Joseph and their new baby, Jesus, when they came up to the temple, and who recognized that this child was the promised Messiah of God. Simeon had been waiting more than a few years for this good news. He may well have been waiting most of his life.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that Simeon was righteous and devout (he was a good and religious man) who was looking forward to the consolation of Israel. Living in the context of an occupied territory and all the struggles that come along with that situation, Simeon hoped and prayed for a leader who would come to help them.

I imagine that he prayed for peace for his people. He prayed for freedom from oppression. And as a person of deep religious faith, he prayed that God’s promises made to Israel through the prophets of times past would finally be fulfilled and a Saviour would be raised up.

We also read that the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon, which does sound pretty special… Until we remember that the Holy Spirit rests on each one of us as well. We have each received the gift of the Spirit of God through our Baptism, and God has poured out the Spirit on the Church as well so that, together, we may be guided by God’s wisdom and love all the days of our lives.

Well, the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon too, and the Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

On this particular day, a few weeks after Jesus’ birth, the Spirit guided Simeon to go up to the temple. And when Joseph and Mary came in with their child, Simeon immediately recognized that this was the Christ that he had been waiting for.

He took Jesus in his arms and praised God with a song:
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

Just as Mary’s Song is traditionally known as the “Magnificat” from the Latin translation of the text, Simeon’s Song is called the “Nunc Dimittis” from the first two words of his song in Latin. “Nunc Dimittis” literally means “Now release” or “permission to depart.” And as a canticle, Simeon’s Song is most often sung at the close of an evening Vespers service or sometimes at the end of a funeral as part of the final blessing.

I asked folks in the Advent Study groups to think about Simeon and how seeing the Messiah gave him a sense of peace and hope for the future of his people. Once he had held the child Jesus in his arms, he felt like it was okay for him to die. He could leave the world in peace because the future was in God’s hands and the Christ had come.

And then I asked what it would take for us to feel that kind of peace at the end of lives. We may or may not have a “bucket list” of things we really want to do or experience before we die, but what would it take for us to leave the world in peace, trusting that our people, our communities, our loved ones, and hopefully even our whole world would be okay.

I’ve had the privilege of being present with a number of people of faith at the end of their lives. And very often, I’ve heard them say things that reminded me of Simeon’s words. “I’m ready to go now. I’ve lived a good life and fulfilled my purpose. I trust that my people will be in God’s hands, as will I.”

The Rev. Angie Song writes this: “Our elders’ beautiful and enduring faith is an example and a sign of God’s longstanding promise among us. When Simeon finally laid his eyes on the Christ, he had the distinct privilege of laying his hand on the Son of God and blessing the next generation! Simeon said to God, ‘Now you let your servant depart in peace’ because he had seen the light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel. Though he would not know how the next 30 years would play out, he didn’t need to. It was enough for Simeon to behold God’s plan actively at work.”

I usually think of the story about Simeon and Anna in the temple as this lovely encounter in which these faithful elders behold the Christ Child, bless him, and encourage his parents by telling them and everyone around what a special and important life Jesus is destined to lead.

But when we read the story this week, our group members noticed that Simeon’s message and prophecy didn’t sound like uniquely good news. After blessing the young family, Simeon says this to Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Oh my! When you hear that, your mind may jump forward to Mary standing near the cross at the end of her young adult son’s life. As the soldier’s sword pierces Jesus’ side, confirming that he is dead, it must have felt like her own soul was being pierced as well with the agony of watching her son’s terrible suffering.

I’m sure that Simeon didn’t want things to be difficult for Jesus or for his mother, but I think the wise old man knew that when you are called to a big, important, meaningful mission, it usually comes with both joys and grave challenges.

My experience is by no means on the same level, but it does remind me of my ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacraments twenty years ago. It was mostly a happy, hopeful, and encouraging experience to be ordained by the Presbytery of Ottawa and blessed for the ministry I would soon begin in Saskatoon. I remember the hands of the presbyters resting lovingly on my head and shoulders and the heartfelt prayers for the Holy Spirit’s guidance and help in the years ahead.

But I had asked a friend and mentor, the Rev. Hugh Donnelly to do the “Charge” at the end of the service. Those are the words of commissioning and sending that “charge” the new minister to go out and serve God faithfully. At the time, Hugh happened to be going through a challenging time in his own ministry. He was experiencing conflict in his congregation, brokenness in some of his collegial relationships, and I think he was feeling weary and discouraged by it all.

So Hugh gave me a very honest and real “Charge” just as Simeon did for Jesus and Mary. He commissioned me to enter into the ministry knowing full well that it was going to be hard. He told me that it would require sacrifice, that it wouldn’t always feel successful, and that sometimes it would break my heart. And he was right.

Fifteen years later, when I was elected to serve as the Moderator of the 2019 General Assembly, a member of First Church gave me two cards that expressed something similar in a rather humorous way. The first card said, “Congratulations!” and the second card said, “Condolences.” Because when you’re called to participate in the mission of God in the world in meaningful and important ways, it comes with both blessings and significant challenges.

I expect that those of you who have been parents understand what I’m talking about. We can tell from the monthly photos on Facebook posted by the parents of infants that having children brings them great joy. And later, there are the first day of school photos and the proud parent stories of their offspring’s successes and accomplishments.

But the things you don’t publish on social media as much are the times of worry and struggle. When your child is hurt, or sick, or facing severe difficulties at school, or at work, or in their relationships, you feel it too. And when they sign up to fight forest fires in Alberta, or to work with homeless people in the inner-city, or to nurse premature babies in the ICU, or to work for justice in the political sphere, or to raise their own kids in this challenging time in history, or to give their lives to ministry… you worry, and you pray, and you hope, and you just have to trust that God will be with them through it all.

The story of Simeon and Anna meeting Jesus in the temple at the beginning of his life and ministry reminds me that as people of faith, we get to do this thing called life together in community.

Yes, God does promise to be with each one of us through the joys and sorrows, successes and struggles of our lives as we live out the various callings that God has prepared for us. But God also surrounds us with people of faith who are both ready to bless and encourage us and to speak hard wisdom to us too.

God blesses us with righteous and devout elders, who have waited patiently and hoped fervently for the consolation of all God’s people and the redemption of the world. In the inter-generational community that we share in the church, we can pray, and hope, and encourage, and console one another as we seek to follow Jesus and live our lives in a good way.

And when we reach the end of our days, may God bless us with peace, knowing that we have fulfilled our purposes, that Christ is truly present, and that both our communities and our world are in God’s hands.