Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmas 1 of Series C (Luke 2:22-40)

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this first Sunday after Christmas comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, are you ready to die? This seems an odd question the week after Christmas. Talking about death in the season of Christ’s birth seems out of place and improper. But that’s only if we have a shallow, Hallmark view of Christmas. The real story of Christmas is a story about death; it begins when cruel Herod kills the children of Bethlehem, making them the first to die because of Jesus, it then points us to that child’s death, and even has something to say about our own. And so I ask you again, dear friends in Christ, are you ready to die? Medieval Christians spoke of the ‘art of dying,’ the concept of being fully prepared in body and soul when death came. Today we would rather not even think or talk about death, often because we know that we’re unprepared, and we don’t really have any desire to be ready. But refusing to prepare for death doesn’t hold back our greatest enemy, it simply gives him more power. Death is coming, for each and every one of us, for me and for you—are you ready?

Simeon was. He cries out, with a baby in his arms, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.” He is ready to depart, he is ready to die. Why? Because he has seen the infant Jesus. Luke tells us that this Simeon “was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” Simeon was waiting for consolation, he looked for comfort for a creation groaning and mourning under the scourge of death. He knew what you knew, even if you try not to think about it: death is coming, for all people, and there is no escape. This world needs a Savior, because this world is filled with people who will die. The Holy Spirit had told Simeon that this world’s enemy wouldn’t claim him until he saw the Messiah, the One who had come to deliver humanity from the scourge of death. Simeon was looking for the Comforter and Consoler, the only One who could bring salvation from sin and from death, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, he knew that this baby boy was the One. And having seen Him with his own eyes, having held Him in his arms, Simeon was ready to die, “for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” This child still had to grow up and accomplish salvation, but for Simeon, deliverance was as good as done; he wasn’t going to wait around for thirty years—Lord, I’m ready! Let your servant depart in peace!

Anna the prophetess heard the testimony of Simeon. Like the shepherds heard from the angels, like the people of Bethlehem heard from the shepherds, she heard a wonderful proclamation of who this child was and what He had come to do, and she rejoices. She too had been waiting for this moment, with the faithful remnant in Israel, those who still looked for redemption. Luke tells us, “And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of Him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” She is prepared to die, for she has heard the testimony of Simeon about this child, she has been told who this baby is and what He has come to do. Salvation has come, redemption has arrived, and now she too can depart in peace.

For those waiting for deliverance, the birth of Christ prepares them to die, for they know that with His birth, death’s reign is swiftly coming to an end. They understand that when the child enters the temple that day, only forty days old, it is another step on the path of salvation. For Jesus is brought to the temple in obedience to the Law, His parents follow all that they were commanded to do by Moses. “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’).” This child is true man and true God; He has no sin, no impurity, He is holy at the moment of His conception. But yet He is placed under the Law, and that Law demands death to those who transgress it; it is that same Law that condemns you and me to death, for we have broken it in every way. And so when He comes to the temple that day, the sinless one has no need to stand under the Law for His own sake; He stands under it for you.

He comes to the temple for redemption, so that Mary and Joseph may “offer a sacrifice according to the Law of the Lord.” That Law is laid out in Exodus, where the people of Israel are commanded to give every firstborn to the Lord. The firstborn of animals are sacrificed, but firstborn children are redeemed, that is, an animal is sacrificed in their place. Death is demanded by the Law, but the child is spared; the animals die for them. But Jesus had no sin of His own, He was already holy to the Lord. He has come instead to redeem us. He has come to stand in our place, under the Law’s authority, bearing our sin, and then to give His life as the redemption price. Animals gave their lives to redeem the children of Israel, to make them holy before the Lord; Jesus, the Lamb of God, gave His life to redeem all people. Death is demanded by the Law, but you are spared, for Jesus died for you. He entered the temple that day as the sacrifice, the sacrifice that would be offered thirty years later upon the altar of the cross. He would die in the place of all people, He would die in your place, so that death would have no hold on you.

This would involve great suffering, for Simeon tells Mary that this child will be a “sign that is opposed,” and he warns her that “a sword shall pierce through your own soul also.” Jesus was born to die, so that salvation could be brought to all people; Simeon celebrated the death of that child when He called Jesus “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” With the eyes of faith, Simeon saw beyond that humble child to the work that this child would accomplish, that through Him salvation would be revealed to all people, both Jews and Gentiles. “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel…so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” All people will fall in Jesus, for the thoughts of all hearts will be revealed, with all their sin, deserving the penalty of death under the Law. Many will rise in Jesus, for the thoughts of their hearts will be revealed, showing that they repent of that sin and believe in the one who has come to conquer sin and death. Many will fall never to rise, for they have refused the Christ who raises up, but some will rise for eternity, never to fall again, for they have believed on Him who brought life in place of death.

Christ’s birth prepared Simeon and Anna for death; it even prepared Christ for His own death. Christ’s birth prepares you to die; this child is born to die, bringing you deliverance from death. He prepares you to die by baptizing you into His Name. There you fall, for at the font your sinful nature is put to death, but there you rise, for your eyes of faith are opened to see Jesus as your Savior. Baptism prepares you for death; having entered those waters, you can say, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,” for you have been given salvation. Are you ready to die? Yes, for you have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ!

Each and every day you fall and rise again; your thoughts are revealed by the work of God’s holy Law, showing your sin and corruption. If we cling to those sinful thoughts and deeds in stubborn unrepentance, then we fall never to rise. But when we, through the work of the Holy Spirit in us, repent of our sin and cling to Christ for forgiveness and salvation, He raises us up. Then we see His salvation with the eyes of faith, and we are ready to depart. Christ especially prepares us by giving to us the Lord’s Supper, for there we fall to our knees in repentance and rise in faith, having received His salvation. And then we depart in peace, singing Simeon’s hymn: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.” He sang as he held his Savior in his arms; we sing as we have just received our Savior into our mouths. Are you ready to die? Yes, for you have received the Body and Blood of Christ, the price of your redemption!

Are you ready to die? Apart from the redemption of Christ, the answer can only be ‘no.’ If Christ has not died for you or risen again for you, you might as well enjoy all the pleasure and fun you can in this life, because death is coming, and it is the end. But if Christ has redeemed you, if He has died in your place, taking the penalty of your sin upon Himself, if He has baptized you into His death and given to you His Body and Blood in the Supper, then you can answer confidently, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” You can live in confidence even in the face of death, for you know that it is a defeated enemy, that it has no hold on you. You are ready for death through faith in Christ, through your Baptism into His death, through your reception of His Body and His Blood in the Lord’s Supper. This doesn’t mean that death is no longer an enemy, or that you will never fear death again; it means that you will be ready for death, because you know in whom you have believed, the One who died to redeem you and rose to give you life. In Christ we fall, we depart with Simeon, but we do not stay in the grave, for in Christ we rise, we rise victorious over death, bearing the same victory that He won. In Jesus, only in Jesus, can we depart in peace. In the Name of this baby: our redemption, salvation, comfort and consolation, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

No comments: