Summary: As Mary & Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, it provides an opportunity for the aged priest Simeon to further reveal the significance of the baby Jesus--the fulfillment of God's promises & our hopes & dreams, the source of rest & peace for our souls.
As you all know, we have spent weeks building up to Christmas and our celebration of Christ’s birth. And such anticipation is appropriate, it takes much preparation to welcome a new baby…if there’s anyone who knows that right now, it’s me! But I do hope that our Advent time of preparation together enabled you to celebrate Christmas in a powerful way this year, knowing and experiencing the presence of Christ in new ways. And I am so glad that we are gathered here this morning to continue our worship of God and celebration of the Savior’s birth. Because here’s the thing, when it comes to having a baby, it doesn’t only involve a lot of preparation, beforehand, there are also a lot of new experiences after the baby is born.
You know what I mean, right? There are all those “firsts” that are such a big deal with a new baby. Baby’s first photo, baby’s first ride in the car seat, baby’s arrival at home. For many of us, the baby’s first day at church is important, or the first time the baby is introduced to his or her extended family. And then there are the more mundane things, like baby’s first trip to Target, or baby’s first time in the Starbucks drive-thru.
As it turns out, parents’ observance and celebration of their newborn’s “firsts” is a long-standing tradition. Today it involves some of those things I just mentioned, but 2,000 years ago, the ways parents celebrated their newborns happened in somewhat different ways. In the case of those of Jewish heritage, there were clearly defined laws regarding the earliest days of a newborn’s life. As devout Jews, Joseph and Mary would have followed these regulations closely, and Luke records their diligent observance. Just before the passage we read this morning, Luke tells us that eight days after Jesus was born, his parents circumcised him and gave him the name Jesus, as instructed by the angel before he was born. Where we pick up this morning, forty days have passed since Jesus’ birth, and his parents are in the Temple for another “first,” another rite of passage.
The visit of the Holy Family to the Temple on this occasion actually serves a dual purpose. First, Mary is bringing an offering for her right of purification. You see, according to Jewish custom, after giving birth, women were considered ritually unclean for a period of forty days, at which time they had to bring an offering to the Temple to be declared ritually clean by the priest. The second purpose of the visit to the Temple that we read about this morning relates to Jesus. You see, according to Jewish custom, the first-born male of every household belonged to God. It was expected that they would grow up, learn the ways of the priests and serve in God’s Temple. However, it was possible for parents to bring an offering to, in a sense, “buy back” the child so that he could grow up and continue the family trade, or inherit the family land, and so on. So that is the offering Mary and Joseph have come to make. The normal offering was a lamb, but there was a provision for the poor, and that is what Jesus’ earthly parents bring to the Temple, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
The irony of this whole scene should not be lost on us. First of all, as the mother of the Christ-child, divinely conceived, Mary would not have been ritually unclean. Similarly, there was no reason for Mary and Joseph to “buy back” their son, who was going to spend his whole life serving God anyway, and ultimately by giving his own life as a sacrificial offering...forget the turtledoves or pigeons. But this tells us a lot about the kind of people that Mary and Joseph were, people who loved and served God with whole-hearted devotion; just the sort of people to raise God’s very own son, and as they entered the Temple, they obviously made an impression.
You know, the Temple was an extremely busy place. There was only one; this isn’t like the Christian churches of the south with one on every corner. When it came to fulfilling many of the ritual obligations, all Jewish people were expected to go to the Temple. So all day everyday there were people in and out, hustling and bustling with their animal offerings in tow. There wouldn’t be any reason for a poor family with a tiny baby and a couple of small birds to stand out; they would have been one of many such families. But as Joseph and Mary make their way into the Temple with the baby Jesus, they immediately draw the attention of a man named Simeon.
We don’t know a whole lot about Simeon. There is no explanation as to why he was at the Temple, perhaps he was a priest, but that is not mentioned explicitly. We can guess that Simeon was probably advanced in years, but other than that all that we know for sure about Simeon is what Luke tells us: “he was righteous and devout,” and “the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Can you imagine such a man? Perhaps he was retired, or maybe he was still working. But with such a promise from God, I suspect he must’ve made a point each day to head over the Temple for a few hours to watch the people coming and going, eagerly wondering if this was the day he would see the Messiah as promised.