Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Song of Simeon (The Original Songs of Jesus' Birth - Part 3)

Working through the opening chapters of Luke has been like going to a wonderful party with lots of great food. You want to taste everything, but you only have room on your plate for so much. And in Luke 2, there are several people and events that I would love to preach abouy – the shepherds, Anna, the story about Jesus in the temple at age 12 – but I am going to have to save those stories for another time. What we have been meditating on together are the songs in these opening chapters, the Magnificat of Mary, the Benedictus of Zechariah, and today, the song of an aged Israelite named Simeon.

This third song will have a familiar ring to it, sharing several features with Mary’s song and Zechariah’s song-
-All three singers are filled with the Holy Spirit (1:35; 1:67; 2:25).
-All three songs are joyous hymns of praise, blessing God (1:47; 1:68; 2:28).
-All three of these hymns praise God for salvation (1:47; 1:69; 2:30).
-All three of these hymns praise God for His salvation of Israel (1:54; 1:68; 2:32).

But the song of Simeon will add a few more lyrics to the hymns of praise already celebrated by Mary and Zechariah.

The opening verses of Luke 2 record the well-known story of the birth of Jesus. What is not as familiar to us as non-Jews living in the 21st century are the rituals that new parents had to go through living under the Law of Moses.

According to Leviticus 12, after a woman gave birth to a son she was to go through a 40 purification process, which ended making an offering to the priest. This ideally would be a lamb, but Lev. 12:8 permitted those who were poor to offer two turtledoves or pigeons.

A second requirement of the Law was the redemption of the firstborn. God considered Israel as a nation to be His firstborn son, which is why He punished the Egyptians for their atrocities by taking the lives of their firstborn in the tenth and final plague. God also required the lives of Israel’s firstborn, but not of course in death. Instead, He commanded the Israelites to redeem their firstborn children with an offering.

Exodus 1311 When the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, 12 you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the LORD's. 13 Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. 14 And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’

Every time an Israelite couple was blessed with a firstborn son, they would redeem him (with a payment of five shekels according to Num. 18) as a reminder of what God did for the nation in the Exodus, redeeming His firstborn son from slavery.

As we have studied the songs of Mary and Zechariah, I have repeatedly pointed out connections between their lyrics and passages in the OT describing God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt. I can’t stress enough how profoundly the Exodus experience shapes the rest of the Bible story, including and especially the way the Bible portrays the birth and ministry and death of Jesus. The reason Exodus imagery is so powerful is because it was so familiar to practicing Jews. They were reminded of it every year in the greatest feast of all, Passover. They were reminded of it every week when they observed the Sabbath, which not only commemorated God’s rest from creation, but according to Deuteronomy 5, reminded Israel of its rest from the brutal slave labor of the Egyptian overlords. And they were reminded of it every time they had their first son, or their livestock had their first male offspring. As Joseph and Mary traveled to the temple with Jesus, this would have been on their mind.

But there is a third ritual at work here in Luke 2. On rare occasions in the OT, a couple didn’t simply redeem their son – they dedicated him to God’s special service. In the past two lessons I have alluded to the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1-2. This is exactly what she did with Samuel. She took him to the temple, and told the priest, “As long as he lives, he is lent to the LORD” (1 Sam. 1:28).

Purification, redemption dedication. Those three rituals are what Luke recounts for us in Luke 2.

Luke 2:22-24

Just as Hannah presented Samuel to the Lord in the temple, Joseph and Mary present Jesus to the Lord in the temple.

Incidentally, the parallels between Samuel and Jesus are clear when you put the  description of their growth and development side by side:

1 Samuel 226 Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and also with man.
 Luke 252 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.

Samuel was conceived by a miracle of God and then dedicated to the Lord’s service. Jesus was conceived by an even greater miracle of God and is taken to the temple to be dedicated to God’s service, what will prove to be an even greater service than that of Samuel.

You will notice also in verse 24 that Jesus’ parents make the offering permitted for the poor. No wonder Mary was so ecstatic when she sang in Luke 1:52 that the Lord had “exalted those of humble estate”.  She was one of the poor that God was coming to help! It means that Jesus was brought up by the very people He later says in Luke 4:18 He came to speak to, “to proclaim good news to the poor.”

So Mary and Joseph travel to the temple to fulfill their obligations to the Law.  But Luke doesn’t focus on what may have happened when they appeared before the priest. He instead focuses on a man named Simeon.

Luke 2:25-27

Luke tells us three things about Simeon:

First, he was very pious and devout, just as Zechariah and Elizabeth were, according to Luke 1:6.

Second, like most Israelites, Simeon was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” And with good reason. Over and over in the book of Isaiah, God promised that when the dark days of exile were over He would console or comfort His people. 

Isaiah 401 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
   that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD's hand
   double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
   and all flesh shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Isaiah 4913 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
   break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the LORD has comforted his people
   and will have compassion on his afflicted.14 But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me;
   my Lord has forgotten me.”15 Can a woman forget her nursing child,
   that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
   yet I will not forget you.

Isaiah 511 Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness,
   you who seek the LORD:
look to the rock from which you were hewn,
   and to the quarry from which you were dug.
2 Look to Abraham your father
   and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
   that I might bless him and multiply him.
3 For the LORD comforts Zion;
   he comforts all her waste places
and makes her wilderness like Eden,
   her desert like the garden of the LORD;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
   thanksgiving and the voice of song.

Isaiah 611 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
   because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;   he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
   to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
   the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
   the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.

And finally,

Isaiah 6612 For thus says the LORD:
“Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river,
   and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip,
   and bounced upon her knees.
13 As one whom his mother comforts,
   so I will comfort you;
   you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
14 You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
   your bones shall flourish like the grass;
and the hand of the LORD shall be known to his servants,
   and he shall show his indignation against his enemies.”

No wonder Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel! How could he not be, in view of these glorious promises in Isaiah? God will comfort His people by turning the barren desert of exile into a paradise like Eden, and transform their mourning and sorrow into unbridled joy, as He defeats their enemies and cherishes His people with affection and compassion.

That is what Simeon and everyone else longed for.

Luke says something else about Simeon. “The Holy Spirit was upon him, and it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ.” (2:25b-26).  

What a unique and special promise God gave to Simeon. Most commentators assume (and I agree) that he must have been old, but God by the Spirit gives this man a guarantee – your life will not end until you see what generations of Jews had longed for, the coming of the Messiah.

I can’t help but think as well of the promise in Joel 2-

Joel 228 And it shall come to pass afterward,
   that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
   your old men shall dream dreams,
   and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female servants
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

Luke has mentioned the Spirit coming on Mary in Luke 1:35, Elizabeth in Luke 1:41; Zechariah in 1:67; and now Simeon. Young and old, male and female, just like God promised.

And it was “in the Spirit” that Simeon came to the temple, guided by God at the very time and to the very place where he could see his promise, and Israel’s promise, come true.

 Luke 2:27-28

We have a lot of little babies among us, and more on the way. It is a tender blessing to hold a little one and think about the life they have ahead of them. But imagine what it must have been for this elderly man of God to hold in his arms – by the promise of God Himself – the very Messiah of Israel. And he did what we would expect a devout man to do in such a sacred moment – he worshipped.

The Nunc Dimittis
Simeon’s song begins with two words in Greek, “now dismiss – now dismiss your servant in peace.” The Latin translation of these two words is Nunc Dimittis, which is what this song has been called through the centuries. The ESV renders the first part of the song-

Luke 2:29

Simeon calls upon His Sovereign Lord and Master to dismiss him into His care, knowing that God is truly sovereign, that when He makes a promise He has the power to keep it, and that God has indeed kept His word and given him the privilege of seeing the Christ.

Simeon’s song in Luke 2 reflects the message of Isaiah, especially the promises found in Isaiah 40-66, where over and over Isaiah sees three things:
-God saving His people
-a figure – sometimes it seems to be an individual, other times it appears to be Israel itself – that he calls the servant of the Lord
-the images of light, granting light to Israel locked away in the dark gloom of captivity, and also giving light to the Gentiles, the nations.

Let me show you some example-

Isaiah 421 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
   he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
   or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
   he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged   till he has established justice in the earth;
   and the coastlands wait for his law. 5 Thus says God, the LORD,
   who created the heavens and stretched them out,
   who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
   and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;
   I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
   a light for the nations,
 7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
   from the prison those who sit in darkness.

God’s servant grants freedom to prisoners in darkness as a light to the nations.

Isaiah 495 And now the LORD says,
   he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
   and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD,
   and my God has become my strength—
6 he says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
   to raise up the tribes of Jacob
   and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
   that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

God’s servant formed from the womb to gather Israel back to God and to become a light to the nations.

One more –

Isaiah 601 Arise, shine, for your light has come,
   and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
   and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
   and his glory will be seen upon you.
3 And nations shall come to your light,
   and kings to the brightness of your rising.

The light of God’s glory will come on Israel, drawing all nations to the light.

These are the songs of Isaiah, and Simeon beautifully draws them together-

Luke 2:30-32

It is the Messiah who will stand in for Israel, who will be the true Servant prepared by God, who will be the light of the Lord – revealing to the Gentiles the God they should know, and becoming for Israel the very glory of God’s presence.

Just as God kept His word to Simeon, God is keeping His word to Israel and the nations. The dark night is over, a new day is dawning, the sunrise from on high has come!

Verse 33 says that Joseph and Mary “amazed” (NASB) by what was said about their son. From the stirring of John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb to the visit of the shepherd (which we didn’t get to study) to this inspired blessing from Simeon, over and over again they have heard remarkable words about their son.

Simeon has more to say, however. This time, the mood isn’t so celebratory. In fact, it may sound like his song ends with a sour note.

Luke 2:34-35

Simeon says that Jesus is “appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel.” You would expect – based on the splendid songs from Isaiah we read – that the Messiah is appointed for the “rising of many in Israel,” and He is. But Simeon says that God has also commissioned the Messiah for the “fall…of many in Israel.”

Not everyone in Israel is going to recognize what God is doing in Jesus, and at the very time of their visitation they will fail to see who Jesus is, and fall. Tragically, the will become like the Israelites Isaiah spoke of earlier, in Isaiah 8, when the Lord told Isaiah not to fear the people when they disobeyed his message-

Isaiah 813 But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. 14 And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 15 And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.

The very God who should be a sanctuary to His people will instead be a stone of offense and rock of stumbling, and now Simeon says that many will stumble over Jesus rather than acknowledge Him as God’s servant of salvation.

In Isaiah’s time, God gave the people signs, visual evidence of His promises, in the form of Isaiah and his sons, whose names had prophetic significance-

Isaiah 818 Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. 

But the people rejected Isaiah, thus opposing the very signs He gave them to assure them of His word. And in Luke 2:34b, Simeon says that God has appointed Jesus as a sign – but tragically, like Isaiah and his children – Jesus, the very embodiment of God’s promise, will be “a sign that is opposed.”

That’s not all. Simeon goes on to say that the conflict and opposition which Mary’s son will face will deeply wound her-

Luke 2:35a

What came to your mind when you read this passage? The crucifixion? That’s where my mind first goes, and undoubtedly that is included in Simeon’s warning. Though I have seen my Granny mourn the loss of children, I can’t imagine what it was like for Mary to stand by the cross and watched the life ebb from her son, while the cruel onlookers mocked and taunted Him.

But I think the sword pierced Mary’s soul on other occasions as well. To hear Jesus say, as He does at the end of the chapter, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” had to be confusing to Jesus’ parents. Or, how would you feel if you were Mary when Jesus was told in Luke 8 that His mother and brothers were looking for Him, and He replied, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” Or how about this statement-

Luke 11:27-28

I am not a parent, but I have to think that these sorts of statements by Jesus were at least a little awkward and uncomfortable for Mary to hear, if not painful. They sound like Jesus means His relationship with His mother isn’t like any ordinary mother-son relationship. And of course, that’s exactly right. But it had to be painful for Mary to realize this.

Yet to her credit she was with Jesus to the very end. Over and over Luke tells us she treasured what she heard and saw in her heart (2:19; 2:51). And by the end, she came to understand what Simeon meant, and why it was to her eternal advantage that Jesus wasn’t just like any other son. That process was a painful one. But Mary’s steadfastness to Jesus even when she must have been confused and even hurt proved what a great heart she had.

That’s what Jesus does - He tests the mettle of the heart.

Luke 2:35b

It isn’t easy to ignore Jesus today any more than it was in the first century. Think of all the books written by unbelievers in the last ten years designed to undermine Christianity. You can’t ignore someone who makes the kind of radical and compelling claims that Jesus made. But what we think about Him doesn’t change anything about Jesus. He is who He is. Our reaction speaks volumes about who we are, or as Simeon puts it, Jesus has a way of revealing the thoughts of the heart.

There is a story in Luke 11 that really sums this up-

Luke 11:14-23

Faith involves belief based on evidence, and the evidence about Jesus’ identity is clear. But faith not only involves the intellect, it also involves the will, the heart, the choice to surrender to God’s King, to be with Him, or to insist on being your own king, and to be against Him.

Jesus is still appointed for the fall and rising of many. And in Luke’s gospel, you know who it is who falls? The very ones who think they are on top – the self-righteous, the religious elite, the experts. But when Jesus confronts them, they see a rival, they are revealed for what they are, they turn against Him, and they fall.

And in Luke’s gospel, you know who it is who rises? The very ones who know they are at rock bottom. Samaritans and sinners, prodigals and publicans. But when Jesus confronts them, they see a Savior, who came to seek and save them, they go with Him, and they rise.

We have proclaimed Jesus today, in worship, in communion, in the word. He is confronting you today. What is your response going to reveal about your heart? Will today be a time of rising or falling for you? It depends on how you decide to respond to Jesus.

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