Note to the reader: I preached this homily at the Maraisburg Church of the Nazarene yesterday (15 December 2013) near Johannesburg, South Africa. We celebrated worship on the same morning that the nation buried former President Nelson Mandela, following a week of memorial services and loving remembrances.
SCRIPTURE READING: Luke 2:25-38 (CEB)
Have you ever waited so long for something that you wondered if it would ever come about?
Perhaps some of you are now past the average marriage age, and you wonder if you will ever find “the one.” Or in a tough economy with high unemployment, you’ve been searching for a good job for what seems like forever.
It’s Christmas time, and with Christmas childhood memories flood back. One year, my grandma sent a big box in the mail several weeks before Christmas Day. We opened it up, and inside were many packages carefully wrapped, one for each of us in the family. Dad put the gifts under the tree, and of course my brothers and I did what children do. When our parents weren’t looking, we’d pick up our present, shake it to see what noise it made, anything to help guess what was inside.
It seemed like we waited so long for Christmas Day! Finally, the wait got the best of us. Very early on Christmas morning when Dad and Mom were still asleep, I heard noise coming from the living room. Quietly, I made my way down the staircase, and found my two older brothers shining flashlights around the room! Of course, I opened mine up, too, and joined in the fun. Then, we carefully wrapped them up again and put them under the tree. The next morning, when it came time to open presents, we opened the gift from grandma. “Oh look! A flashlight!” we said, pretending like we hadn’t seen it before. It was hard to wait all the way to Christmas.
II. ISRAEL’S LONG WAIT: BACKGROUND TO LUKE 2:22-38
Whether it’s waiting for marriage, employment, or just opening up a Christmas present, one thing is sure: Waiting can be tough. That was certainly the case for Israel. There was about a 400 year silence between the close of the Old Testament and the opening of the New Testament. Malachi was the last Jewish prophet upon whom the spirit of prophecy had rested, and he wrote around 350 b.c. In those closing words of the Old Covenant, Malachi 4:5 spoke of Elijah the prophet coming “before the great and terrible day of the LORD” (CEB). Luke clearly considered John the Baptist an Elijah-like figure. In Luke 1:44, we even have the story of Mary visiting Elizabeth, her cousin. Both women were expecting babies, and the yet-to-be-born John leaps for joy when he hears the voice of Mary.
And now after this long silence, the spirit of prophecy is back in full force. The Holy Spirit is speaking again, and this time it’s to an old priest, Simeon, and to an old prophetess, Anna. The Spirit says to them that the long wait is almost over. Look at Luke 2:26:
The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
The term “Christ” comes from the Greek word, Christos. It means the “anointed One.” In Hebrew, the equivalent term is maschiach, the Messiah. Simeon and Anna were about to see the Saviour for whom they had waited so long!
III. PRESENTATION IN THE TEMPLE
Joseph and Mary were devout Jews, and so they followed the Mosaic Law. The tradition was to present all male infants at the Temple, to be blessed by an aging rabbi. Offering a dove or two young pigeons was the sign that the 7 day period of ritual impurity following childbirth was over. Those who were more wealthy offered a lamb. The fact that Joseph and Mary offered the sacrifice of the poor shows the humble circumstances into which our Saviour was born.
Let’s pause for a moment and think about what the story is telling us:
God can use small beginnings for big purposes.
The Holy Spirit said to Simeon: “He’s here, the One that I was telling you about! Get to the temple, Simeon.” Verses 28 through 32 tell us:
Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said, ‘Now master, let your servant go in peace, according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel’ (CEB).
Little baby, big plans!
Here is one child, just 8 days old, on a day when probably dozens of babies were presented at the Temple. His parents were poor and belonged to an obscure people in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. You would think that if God had a plan to save the world, God would have sent Jesus to be born in a fine house, to a prominent family in Rome. But God has a peculiar way of doing things. Here’s how the Apostle Paul described God’s ways:
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Cor. 1:27-29, NIV).
The Church of the Nazarene is a pro-life denomination in part because we believe that God comes to our rescue very often through little children. This morning you might think yourself to be insignificant. You aren’t from a prominent family, you have no wealth or position of influence. No one asked you to speak at the national ceremonies of remembrance this week for Nelson Mandela. What the story of Christmas and the story of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple teaches us is this: God can use humble beginnings for important things! Rich or poor, great or small, it doesn’t matter so much as how you answer this question: Are you available to God? You may feel unimportant. God thinks otherwise.
IV. ON CIRCUMCISION AND THE GENTILES
Yet there is a second important theme that shines through in this story from Luke 2. It has to do with this question:
Who are the people of God?
In Luke 2:22, we discover another reason Joseph and Mary were at the Temple in Jerusalem that day. It was the time to circumcise their infant son. This was the ancient practice that God had given Abraham long ago, to “mark off” the chosen people from the nations that surrounded them. Circumcision was a sign of belonging to the Hebrew people. It’s likely that baby Jesus was crying in Simeon’s arms, having just undergone the painful circumcision procedure performed on all Hebrew baby boys. How fascinating then that the old rabbi takes this moment (of all moments) to talk not just about Israel, but also about the Gentiles? Look again at verse 31. Simeon speaks of “all peoples,” then in v.32 he prophecies that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”
This salvation is so great, it cannot be contained by one people or tribe! Salvation is for all humanity, available for all. Luke – who wrote both his Gospel and the book of Acts – is giving us a taste of how the Gospel will spill over and touch all humankind.
This great salvation, this great light, is for all.
It is for Afrikaners and coloreds, Indians and Zulus, Kikuyus and Argentinans, Americans and Chinese and Russians, for all nations. No one can say: “Jesus is for us, but not for you.” God did not before the foundation of the world decide: “I think I’ll save _____, but I won’t save ______” The Lord’s Christ, the anointed one, came to earth, ministered, died, rose, and ascended to the Father for everyone.
So who are the people of God?
John answers this question in John 1:12 (NIV):
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
Nelson Mandela was a great reconciler of people, but I know a reconciler far greater than he, and his name if Jesus. Through Jesus, you can be reconciled to God. The gift of salvation is available for all, but you must receive it. “But preacher,” you say, “if you only knew what I’ve done, you would understand that I can’t belong to God’s family.” Hear me today: It doesn’t matter. If you are ready, with God’s help, to abandon your sin, to forsake your wrong way of living, then God is ready to forgive you and to receive you into His family. It’s not a question of whether He will receive you. He will. The only question is: Are you ready to receive Him?
V. CONCLUSION: CHARLES WESLEY’S “COME, THOU LONG EXPECTED JESUS”
Charles Wesley wrote the words to an old Advent hymn. In just a moment, the quartet will come to sing this for us. If God is speaking to you, and you’d like to come to the altar to speak with God, then come while the quarter sings:
Come, Thou long expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free!
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation
Hope of all the earth Thou art.
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Image credit: BBC