When I was a baby, one family member on my dad’s side especially would stop by the house. He was what you’d call a “shirt-tail” relative. If you’re unfamiliar with that term, what it means is that someone is part of an extended family, but somewhere down the line. My dad had lots of nearby relatives who fit that description. In fact, I used to joke he dated my mother in the first place because she had grown up at the other end of the county. That way he knew they weren’t related to each other.
Well, back to this one person—Albert was his name—he had a fruit orchard down the road from our farm. An outgoing fellow, he would just—out of the blue—show up at the back door. Besides being extraverted, he had a sense of humor. For example, when I was still a baby, the former Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite into space. So Albert’s nickname for me? Sputnik, of course! Again, unannounced, he would just show up at the back door of our house, walk in, go directly to wherever I was, and take me into his arms. Maybe he would even toss me up in the air one or two times. It didn’t matter whether I was sleeping. And, if I started crying, well, that didn’t bother him at all—my mother, yes, but not him.
In today’s Gospel we see two people—one a man, the other a woman—who also were joyous when their eyes fell upon a baby, a baby they encountered at the temple in Jerusalem. The man—not unlike my shirt-tail relation—didn’t ask permission to take the baby into his arms. But that’s where the similarities between the two men end. For one thing, Albert probably wasn’t particularly righteous or devout. Another big difference—Simeon, as his name was—wasn’t guided by his own desires, his own inclinations, but by the Holy Spirit.
Just imagine how surprised Mary and Joseph must have felt by this stranger’s intrusion—so sudden, so spontaneous. Before they even had time to react, to object to him overstepping his bounds, he began praising God. I’m going to read his words again from the gospel, but this time as they appear according to the King James Version:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace
according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
Those of you who have been Lutherans for many years, actually decades, may remember that, in the Sunday liturgy, these words—known in Latin as the Nunc Dimittus— were sung right after Holy Communion. Then, when the Lutheran Book of Worship came out (ahem, a mere forty-two years ago), it became optional. And many churches stopped using it. Even when it is used, it no longer appears in the traditional version, which, to me, has such a lyrical, poetic sound about it.
Well, Simeon’s words had, to say the least, a much greater effect on Mary and Joseph. They “were amazed [they were astounded] at what was being said [about their baby boy].”
Even despite the fact Mary had already been told by the Angel Gabriel, by her cousin Elizabeth,
and by the shepherds that Jesus was a child like no other.
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Simeon was so overjoyed to have been moved, to have been prompted by the Spirit to recognize who Jesus was—for he had waiting many, many years for a sign. He had been waiting, “looking [forward to a sign of] the consolation of Israel.” Or for “the redemption of Israel,” the phrase mentioned a few verses later when the Prophetess Anna beheld the Christ Child. Now what exactly did that mean? The consolation of Israel? The redemption of Jerusalem? Well, it was an admission that life wasn’t going well at all for the people of God and hadn’t for a very long time. The usual reason was they were being punished for continuously breaking the covenant God had long before established with their ancestors. But sometimes—no matter what they did or failed to do—it just didn’t seem to line up anymore with all the suffering they were enduring. It seemed they were almost always being subjugated to, under the thumb of, one foreign power after another:
Would they never again be a sovereign nation?
Although we ourselves are certainly citizens of a such a nation—and a very powerful one at that—do we not also have longings for a better world? For a world filled with much more hope?
Even Simeon said as much. He announced not only through the Christ Child would new hope come to God’s chosen, but to the rest of humanity. Not only “for glory to your people Israel,” but also “for revelation to the Gentiles.”
Sometimes when I think about the state of the world, I’m thankful for all the good that people do. Right now I’m thinking about all the medical scientists—like those at the Centers for Disease and Control—who already are analyzing the latest coronavirus in order to develop a vaccine. I also think about the many good things we could be doing in the world, but aren’t, or can’t because of the actions of others (and sometimes because of ourselves). I think about…
- fear of others,
- hatred among people.
Still, I also think about what could be. And I remember beautiful sayings, quotations that express such a longing, such a yearning. As is often the case, I see them first—of all places—on something as mundane as a bumper sticker! That’s because—as some of you know—I love reading bumper stickers. (I don’t always like what I read, but still look at all of them.)
One such message goes like this: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, then there will be peace.” [Repeat.] Somewhat surprisingly, I discovered recently that that quotation is attributed to a rock star from the late 1960s—to the late guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Isn’t that a reminder that profound pronouncements can come not only from poets, statesmen, or religious leaders, but also from people from all walks of life.
Of course, we have longings, yearnings not only for the world at large, but also on a personal level—for ourselves and our loved ones and the communities we live in. We hope for prosperity, peace, and harmony in our families. For some of us, that hope is, in fact, a reality—at least for a time. Three generations of a family may—for a period—enjoy relative health, economic well-being, and positive relationships. But even when that is the case, we know it can’t last forever. What we at least hope for is that those who already have lived a long life—or a relatively long one—will leave this world before any of the others do.
At the same time, we know that even families with overall good, physical health are not necessarily blessed with healthy relationships. When those relationships have been damaged, maybe even severed, some long for reconciliation. They long for healing. Again, on a personal level, there may be in life other disappointments, other unfulfilled dreams. And acknowledging them can be very painful.
Although expressions of joy overflowed from the mouths of both Anna and Simeon, we must remember one of them had also had a word of warning. He told Mary that, although her son would be the light of hope not only for Israel but for all other people everywhere, his earthly life also would be marked with struggle and conflict. Simeon predicted it would meet an end filled with violence—so that a kind of “sword [would also] pierce [her] own soul…” That is, he foresaw the last thing that any loving mother wants to see—the death of her own child. But by such a death, God thereby brought to others the possibility of new life.
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In December 1994, when my brothers, our spouses, and I were visiting my parents for Christmas, one day our dad’s doctor called with some bad news: Our father’s cancer had returned, and this time it was terminal. When learning about his prognosis, Deborah and I knew we could no longer hold off doing something. We could no longer hold off having children. Because I had returned to school—graduate school, which was rather difficult—we had delayed starting a family. But the doctor’s phone call finally got us off center.
The last time I visited Dad before his death, he didn’t seem much anymore to be aware of things—due to the pain medication he was getting—and maybe along with some cognitive decline from his Parkinson’s Disease, which he had had for several years. Regardless, when only he and I were in the room, I shared a secret with him. I told him that Deborah and I had just found out that she was pregnant. Whether he understood I don’t know. He was no longer talking, but people do say that hearing is the last of the senses to go.
Now he and my mother already had a grandchild, who fortunately, had been growing up before their very eyes. But at some point, he figured Deborah and I would never have any of our own. Well, I like to think he did understand what I told him that day and that he felt some peace in knowing that, as his own spirit was leaving this world, another in our family would soon come into it.
When hopes and dreams don’t always unfold as we would like them to—sometimes, maybe not at all, may we always be comforted in knowing that God has fulfilled for us the ultimate dream—as happened with Simeon, Anna, and countless others—through the birth, the coming of his son into this place we call our earthly home. And because of that birth—and the life and the death and the resurrection following it—we also can praise God and, in finding that fulfillment, declare that we ourselves are ready to go in peace.