This sermon was preached by Dr Harold Ristau in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service on the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord. The text is Lk. 2:22-40, particularly the Song of Simeon.
“For my eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.”
When you ask most people why one would go to church, North American believers or even unbelievers would respond with some notion of “getting something out of it”.
We go to get something. God doesn’t mind. After all, it’s more blessed to give than to receive. And God is an extraordinary giver.
Yet most people don’t really “get” it—Divine service, that is, and the gifts offered and received in the Lord’s holy service.
A consumerist society, which we all “buy into” (whether we admit it or not), is all about doing things for personal benefit. That’s how capitalism works. If others get helped out along the way, all the better—but we are more in it for ourselves. We are not, by nature, altruistic. So, driven by a desire to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, we go out of our way to improve our wealth levels, comfort levels, physical appearances. It’s disappointing that often evangelism efforts in Canada involve twisting arms trying to convince people that Christianity is a “worthwhile” consideration; that true religion is only useful to us as opposed to a natural expression of a relationship between creatures and their Creator.
In other cultures, religion is more about giving and sacrificing. Yes, it’s a worship driven by fear not love. But there is a sense, in the best versions, that the creatures owe the creator worship and praise; and he owes them nothing. Theoretically, even if there wasn’t an afterlife, it would still be worthwhile going to the temple, to pay respects, give thanks and adore God. For, “Lord, I love the habitation of Your house, and the place where Your glory dwells.” We love it in itself and not just because we get stuff there, even though what we get there—the gracious and amazing gifts of God—is obviously necessary for our salvation.
In other words, our notion of perceiving church as a place where we “get stuff”, even in Lutheran circles, has sometimes deprived us of the beautiful sentiment of going to church to adore our Lord as we encounter His majesty. And believe it or not, in our going to church “to get” attitudes, we can make an equally works-righteous error as the worshippers in false religions, since our getting stems from a culture of entitlement. We deserve a stress-free retirement. We deserve a high wage. We deserve high marks ….
We deserve our “blessings”. For when it comes to the Gospel, it can also become about getting something we deserve, even though we may not believe we need to work for it.
Isn’t it a peculiar observation of the human condition that we are more apt to appreciate and value those things which we don’t feel entitled to? After all, when you are entitled to something, when you believe that you deserve something, you control that something. You get shocked when it is taken away from you, or told that you are not entitled to it … things like civil or human rights (as is how many Lutherans have felt over the last few months and are expressing these concerns in Ottawa as we speak). For all of us, we don’t value those things that much, think about it them much, until we feel like those entitlements are being threatened. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we didn’t believe that we were entitled to all the wonderful gifts that God distributes to us in His holy house, we would be more eager to attend and receive. People were horrified by the closure of churches; but they didn’t line up to enter when they were “open for business”, so to speak. I think it’s safe to say that there has been more running away from, rather than running to, our Father’s house and family meal over the last two years. Yet if we really valued what happens in the divine service, we would celebrate it every week, as the Bible and Confessions instruct, wouldn’t we? We wouldn’t show up late or find excuses to skip, avoid, or reschedule, right? We would faithfully say our prayers in the pews in preparation instead of reading the news in the bulletin; we would sing hymns with zeal, instead of mumbling the words, or arriving late for chapel; we would focus on Jesus instead of getting distracted by meandering thoughts, or tempted to take the time to reflect upon essay topics, wouldn’t we? In other words, none of us values the means of grace as much as we ought. Yet God does, and that counts the most.
Our Lord Jesus always shows up; He’s the first one there, never late, and with no locked doors barring access to His grace. Though we are faithless, He remains faithful. He is always well prepped, and–without exception–eager to receive, receive you, into His holy presence as invitees to His holy meal. This faithful steward of His own mysteries has prepared your heart, even when you haven’t. And even though He owes you nothing, He offers you everything. Just fix your eyes upon His crucified body. For He values you. He values you so much that He won’t let you get away with departing with anything but His peace. That’s right: His peace. And that is where the getting really gets good. When we go to church, we get peace.
And that, really, ought to be enough. That is what Simeon, righteous and devout, waiting eagerly for the “consolation of Israel”, wanted. And the Holy Spirit was upon him. He just wanted to see Jesus. And that was enough.
The Holy Spirit is upon us also, as we sing the Nunc Dimittis week after week, as the final celebratory hymn and thanksgiving for the Eucharist.
“How can it possibly get better than this?”, thinks Simeon, “seeing Jesus? I can die now, happily. What other purpose is there in life? I just saw Jesus, the saviour!” Simeon was ready to die; eagerly awaiting the Lord’s presence, and eagerly ready to enter heaven.
Nothing got in the way of his worship. It was as pure as one could conceive of on this side of eternity. There were no worries about germs, diseases, sanitizers, social distancing, masks; gluten in the bread or alcohol content in the—red or white—wine. Simeon wasn’t preoccupied as to whether he might get sick in his church. Nothing oppresses his thoughts as he just shouts out loud (maybe even sings), in ecstatic joy, the words given him by God: “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation ….”
Even if he got sick, or died, it would have been okay with him. After all, the new man doesn’t fear death. We all eagerly await our entrance into glory. And having beheld Jesus for that one brief moment in the temple … well, that was the climax of his existence. This was the existential meaning of life. He wasn’t gonna let anything get in the way. And now he was ready to die.
Even Mary and Joseph didn’t “get it” like Simeon did. They marvelled at his praise and worship! For Simeon understood well that this is the One to whom the birth of every firstborn Jewish boy pointed: the only-begotten Son of God. For this is the one to whom every pair of turtledoves or young pigeons proclaimed: the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
And not only Simeon, but Anna the prophetess, bound to the temple, valuing its presence, day and night, fasting and prayer, loved the habitation of the Lord’s house and the place where His glory dwells. Anna had a deep sense of the sanctity of God’s house, as a place where not just sacred things happened, but that was in itself sacred. It didn’t just contain the Lord’s presence—a useful or functional building to get something out of—but conveyed the Lord’s presence in its very being. It was home. Like sitting on your sofa at home, when nothing else is going on, it’s just the natural thing “to do”, or rather, “to be”. No wonder she loved hanging out there in the house of God.
Had this woman of God lived today, she would have been the kind of member to be the first to arrive at the doors of the church, and the last to leave. She was the kind who tidies up the pews, and whispers while others pray; eager to serve on the altar guild; no tolerance for irreverence of any practices that would profane the ongoing of the Lord’s house (btw students: these are often the pastor’s best helpers and supporters). And she joins Simeon, just as the congregation joins the pastor, and just as the Church joins the saviour, in celebrating the Redemption of the world:
“For my eyes have seen your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.”
And we, we, how much better off are we than Simeon, Anna, Joseph, and maybe even Mary, at that moment? We don’t just get to see Jesus, we get to receive Him, converse with Him, consume him. Through these means we get to be held by Him!
What a marvellous and mindboggling reality: the one whom Simeon embraced with his arms of gratitude—the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, God enfleshed—embraces us with arms of joy/gratitude. The arms of this tiny child would be stretched out on the cross to cradle the entire world, on a tiny hill just outside of Jerusalem. The message of Epiphany. Christ for all the nations. Christ the light of the world.
And this loving embrace of you and the world, includes all of the darkness and ugliness that follows you: your sins.
Precisely through that grip does the forgiveness of sins happen: not just your sins, or my sins, but those of the whole world, as His light penetrates the darkness and opens the eyes of the blind.
He forgives you your sins, through His light, love and presence—sins of not caring nearly as much as you should. He forgives you your sins for robotically treating worship as a custom or tradition: repeat with no meaning. He forgives you for the lack of mourning, even protest, or, at least, sincere and public grief, for so easily succumbing to changes in worship with little thought of theological and spiritual consequences. He forgives you for so easily treating his home as our means … to get. He forgives you for your tardiness in honouring His invitation, sloppiness when you enter, and being easily distracted by concerns, worries and fears of the world. He forgives you your sins for believing you are entitled or deserve more. He forgives you your sins for not considering enough what all this means, or despising those who are really excited about it all. He forgives you for believing you are better than others. He gives His pardon. You get His peace.
So fellow brothers and sisters in Christ: In a moment the presiding pastor will face you with the consecrated elements and console repentant sinners with the words “The peace of the Lord be with you all”. In the mystery of mysteries, the holy of holies, the divine liturgy of the glorious Eucharist—You both behold the saviour, hear the saviour and consume the saviour. Through your eating, hearing and believing—the child adored by the Magi, the holy family, Simeon and Anna, and prophets and prophetesses—He enters into your heart, once again, with His forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.
So, rejoice. For then YOUR eyes will have beheld HIS salvation that HE has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to HIS people Israel. Amen.