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“He is Faithful”
December 23, 2018
We experience the faithfulness of God as we ourselves seek to be faithful.
I. Joseph and Mary were faithful (Luke 2:21-24, 39-40)
II. Simeon was faithful (Luke 2:25-35)
III. Anna was faithful (Luke 2:36-38)
One of most inspiring people in early Christian history is the martyr Polycarp. I’ve told his story before, of course. He was the Bishop of Smyrna, an area under intense persecution in the 2nd century. Though he was old, he refused to leave the vicinity when the persecution began, but stayed at a farm nearby. And when they came to arrest him he came out and talked with soldiers. He gave them something to eat and drink, and he asked them to let him pray. His long prayer so moved the soldiers, that they told him they wished not to arrest such a holy old man. But he said "the will of God be done"
He was led to an arena, where the Procounsel tried to persuade him to recant his faith. But he refused. The procounsel threatened him. "Swear by Caesar and I will release you - curse the Christ". And Polycarp said “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he hath done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” A few minutes later they burned him at the stake. “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he hath done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”
Polycarp illustrates an important point here: We experience the faithfulness of God as we ourselves seek to be faithful. Polycarp sought to serve God those 86 years and God was faithful to him. King David knew this. He wrote of God: “To the faithful, you show yourself faithful.” Three more examples of this are found in our passage this week, Luke 2:21-40. We see this principle at work in the lives of Mary and Joseph, and of Simeon and of Anna. One of the beauties of Christmas, one of the great things the Christmas story shows is that we experience the faithfulness of God as we ourselves seek to be faithful.
Now let me make clear right away that I don’t think this is a vending machine thing where you put in the coin of faithfulness or obedience and an experience of God drops out. What I think the passage shows, and what I think this is, is a long term relationship thing, where you align your life with what God is doing, and as a result more and more you see him at work. As you walk with God in both immediate and long obedience, his promises become more and more clear to your heart, he presence more and more real through the Spirit and his faithfulness more and more evident. You and I will say, with Simeon in this passage, “My eyes have seen your salvation.” That’s the Christmas message from these verses. At Christmas our eyes see God’s salvation, his faithfulness made flesh and working within and among us. We experience this faithfulness as we ourselves seek to be faithful. Let’s turn to Luke chapter 2 and see this faithfulness first in Mary and Joseph.
Luke 2:21-24 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. 22And 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 23(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
Last week we looked at the high point of the Christmas story. Jesus was born in humble circumstances. The angels came with good news of great joy for all people. They told the shepherds “unto you is born this day in the City of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord. Verse 21 picks up after eight days have gone by, as Mary and Joseph show themselves faithful to the law of the Lord and the voice of the angel. First, in circumcision. This was the ancient sign of the Jews, given to Abraham, to set God’s people apart from the nations around them. Genesis 17:9 “Then God said to Abraham, "You must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come…. every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised.” Mary and Joseph were being faithful to the covenant God made with Abraham.
Second, Mary and Joseph were faithful in naming Jesus “Jesus.” This was the name God had given them. Luke 1:30 “And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Matthew 1:20 “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’” I find it fascinating that God chose to tell both Mary and Joseph independently that this baby was to be named Jesus. Maybe one of them always wanted to name their baby “Eliezar” or “Jehoshaphat” and God didn’t want them to disagree. And they didn’t. They respond in obedience and faith in the simple matter of his name.
Most Christmas stories show these events immediately after the birth. But according to the Law it would be 7 days to the circumcision and 33 more days before the time of purification would be completed. Mary and Joseph were faithful to the Law of Moses. Leviticus 12:2 “Say to the Israelites: 'A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. 3On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. 4Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.”
Luke says that in obedience to the law, when those days were over, they went to the Temple in Jerusalem. The visit has two purposes. First, to present Jesus to the Lord. Exodus 13 “The Lord said to Moses, 2‘Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal.’” With a son you had two choices: You could dedicate them to the service of the Lord, or you could redeem them for your family. Numbers 18:15 “The first offspring of every womb, both man and animal, that is offered to the Lord is yours. But you must redeem every firstborn son and every firstborn male of unclean animals. 16When they are a month old, you must redeem them at the redemption price, five shekels of silver.” This redemption price changed the firstborn from the Lord’s child to our child. But in special cases, like Samuel in the Old Testament, the child was consecrated to the Lord’s service. This is what was done with Jesus. He was “holy to the Lord,” from birth set apart for the Lord’s service. This shows the faithfulness of Mary and Joseph, who knew God, not they, had a unique claim on Jesus.
The second purpose was to present the purification offering for Mary. Leviticus 12:6 “When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering.... If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons.” Mary and Joseph were probably poor. They could not afford the purification lamb, and instead offered the two doves or two pigeons. It’s really something that the details of the Mosaic law were being followed so well more than a thousand years after they were given. It shows you how much Mary, Joseph, and the Jews were people of the Book, people who were faithful to what God had said.
The last evidence of Mary and Joseph’s faithfulness, and God’s response to it, is found at the end of our section, in verses 39 and 40: And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.
They did what the law required, then they returned to Nazareth, and raised Jesus. Can you imagine n the burden if you were given the job of raising God? Max Lucado of course, has imagined this. “Did you ever feel awkward teaching him how he created the world? When he saw a lamb being led to the slaughter, did he act funny? What did he and his cousin John talk about as kids. Did the thought ever occur to you that the God to whom you were praying was asleep under your own roof? Did you ever think, ‘That’s God eating my soup?’” It really did take an intense trust to risk being mom and dad to a child who was also deity. We don’t know what Jesus knew or did in those early years.
But let me point out that it takes intense trust to raise any of the children God gives. We have the risk and responsibility of teaching one God made and loves to walk and talk, to respect and obey, to learn and discern. We teach, as Mary and Joseph must have, that there is a Heavenly Father and earthly need, that there is love and laughter, tears and tragedy. All parents carry that burden. All the more wonderful then, when we see God’s faithful response to Mary and Joseph. Verse 40 “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor [grace] of God was upon him.” God gives what these parents would most have asked for, what they were longing for in all their faithfulness: He allows this child to grow into a responsible person, and to grow in grace. God’s hand was with him. He began to know God in human terms, as father and provider, refuge and strength, source of wisdom, grace, and knowledge.
This is what every parent wants for their child: That they would trust the Lord, walk with the Lord, serve the Lord. I listened to a Jen Wilkin podcast recently. I really like her stuff. She said what Gail and I have said for years, that our goal for our kids is not some career or income or even an easy life, but simply that they walk close to the Lord, faithful to the Lord through whatever their lives bring. I’m sure that’s how Mary and Joseph felt as they raised this child for his unique calling. As they showed themselves faithful, God showed himself faithful. Not cause and effect. Rather, they had a long-term relationship with God. They aligned their lives with what he was doing, and had the incredible privilege of seeing him faithfully working in the person of their Savior son.
The same truth is clear in the life of Simeon. Verses 25-35 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, 29“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation 31that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
It appears Simeon must have been old. The text doesn’t say, but the idea that seeing the consolation of Israel would free him to die implies it. And he is faithful.
First, he’s righteous and devout. To be righteous, again, is not to be without sin, but committed to God’s way. It was said of Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke 1. The Greek word for devout, in secular writings means “cautious.” It’s few New Testament uses seem to mean “careful about religious duties.” Simeon’s faithfulness is also seen in his waiting for the consolation of Israel. I love the phrase “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” “Consolation” has the same root as “comfort.” Simeon was looking for the Messiah, whose advent would bring comfort to his people, as promised in Isaiah. Simeon expected God to be faithful to this promise. In the same way, God offers consolation to us. God the Holy Spirit is our comforter. When we faithfully expect consolation, our expectations are fulfilled in Him. Just as Simeon was waiting for Messiah’s first advent so we wait for his return, based on his faithfulness to his promises.
Notice it is said of Simeon that the Holy Spirit was upon him. He had a vital long-term relationship with God. This experience of God’s faithfulness is not some kind of instant gratification. It is a relationship. So now, after all these years, the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Literally it says: he would not see death before he saw Messiah.
So Simeon was faithful, waiting for God to act and righteous and diligent in day to day duties. If we, like Simeon focus our hearts and minds on God, striving to be faithful, we will likely see God working. There was a man once who was an elder at a little church in England. One Sunday it snowed. He knew the regular preacher couldn’t get there. so the responsibility for preaching would fall on him. But he was old, and could have made an excuse and stayed home. Instead, he went. The church was nearly empty, but a young man came in. And before the message was over, the young man responded to the Gospel. He was Charles Spurgeon, the greatest English preacher of the 1800's. And the faithful man who preached? We don’t even know his name. But God does.
Simeon saw God’s faithfulness. One day, probably like any other, he was prompted by the Spirit to go to the temple. I’m sure he’d done this often. But this day he encountered Mary and Joseph and Jesus. I can’t imagine them not being shocked when Simeon took the baby, praising God, though probably less shocked than they would have been if this was any other baby. Simeon says “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word. He sees in Jesus the fulfillment of his waiting. That’s it Lord, from here on I can die happy. My eyes have seen, just you told me, just as you promised.
The next phrase is wonderful, one of the great truths of Christmas. Verse 30. “For my eyes have seen your salvation.” He’s holding a little baby, but he sees that baby as salvation, rescue, and healing, forgiveness of sins.
It’s hard to make the leap from a baby to the cross, but Simeon sees salvation, a them very present in the Advent Scriptures. We saw in Matthew that his name would be Jesus because he would save his people from their sins. Earlier in December we did a song by Meredith Andrews that echoes Simeon “Here is the promise we have waited for. He will not leave us in the dark. He will bear our weight. He will wear our shame. Come lift Him high. Behold the Savior. Jesus Christ. Law of love and light. Come lift Him high. Behold the Savior.”
Before we finish Simeon’s psalm, let me ask: have your eyes seen God’s salvation in Jesus Christ? We all need to be saved, rescued from sin, selfishness and death. Jesus is that salvation, and if you’ve never simply trusted in him, put your faith in him, then you’ve never seen your salvation. Simeon tells us this salvation is for all: it is prepared in the sight of all peoples, It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to Israel. Jesus is the light of the world, and here that light is intended for the Gentiles, as promised in Isaiah 49. There is enough salvation here, for Gentiles and Jews alike, for you and me alike.
But Simeon’s task is not quite finished yet: He has one more prophetic message. “This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” This is a prophetic insight into the life of Jesus. He would catalyze the fall of many, those who chose not to recognize or believe in him, but revealed their hearts as they spoke against him, persecuted him, crucified him. Simeon may have Isaiah’s prophecy in mind "See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, but the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame." Jesus will raise up the one who trusts in him, who rises from sin and death to salvation, forgiveness and life.
Then Simeon ends his brief appearance on the stage of history with a word to Mary, that a sword would pierce through her soul as well. This is a prophecy of the agony Mary would suffer, seeing her firstborn, this child of promise, beaten, tortured and crucified. This was a sword through her soul. But wait a second. Haven’t I been saying that those who seek to be faithful to God, as Mary certainly did, will find him faithful? Yes. But his faithfulness may not fit our human expectations or timing. God’s faithfulness to Mary and Joseph involved taking their child, and making him a sacrifice for sin. Can Mary have understood this? Probably not at the time. Yet Scripture shows she remained faithful to God. God’s faithfulness will not always be as obvious to us as it was to Simeon. Yet, in the end, he accomplishes his good purpose, even through things we initially evaluate as awful. Jesus died. But he rose victorious over sin and death. That wouldn’t remove Mary’s wound, but it would triumph over it.
In the last section it is faithful Anna who rejoices in God’s faithfulness. Verses 36-38 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38And 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.
Anna is called a prophetess, though we don’t have any record of her prophecy. She was very old, probably 84, maybe older. Either way, her obvious strength was long obedience to God. She’d been married only seven years when her husband died. Decades later she’s still near the temple, in the courts, serving day and night by fasting and prayer. This was her ministry, her worship. She showed the kind of daily devotion to God and daily faithfulness we’ve talked about in this whole passage. Polycarp showed it through 86 years of service to his king. Mary and Joseph showed it in their obedient response to the laws of Israel, and their committed dedication to raising Jesus. Simeon showed it in his righteous and devout life. Anna shows it in her daily prayers and fasting.
So often faithfulness is a long-term prospect. God calls us to this as well, whether it is in raising our family, or living the life of a disciple, or serving the church. We’re called a long obedience in the same direction. The huge blessing is that we experience God’s faithfulness in that, even when circumstances could raise doubt. We’ve told many hymn stories over the years. One that always sticks in my mind is of George Matheson. He was a Bible scholar and theologian in his twenties, and engaged to be married. But he was told he was going blind, and his fiancé, who I can never think well of, said she could not be married to a blind person and abandoned him. But in God’s faithfulness, Matheson was cared for by his sister, and pastored a large church, while blind. Then his sister fell in love and left to be married. In that moment Matheson wrote the hymn that some of us know: “O love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee.” Some people are not faithful, some people are faithful, but as Matheson, Anna, Simeon, Mary, and Joseph found out, God is always faithful, with us no matter what the circumstances of our lives and swords in our souls may be.
Anna had been faithful all these years, and now God responds to her faithfulness by giving her this glimpse of what she longed for. She comes up at the moment Simeon is pronouncing his blessing, and she also begins to give thanks to God. She knows, or learns, that this child is the one who would fulfill the desires, of those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. This is another great phrase, the redemption of Israel. The picture is of Israel in slavery and bondage, but a kinsman comes, a redeemer to pay the price of her rescue.
The same picture, of course, is used of our redemption from sin. As Paul says of this same Jesus, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” This was the Redeemer Anna had been waiting for, God’s true answer to her years of longing, fasting and praying. God’s redemption was here. His people would be saved. That’s the beauty of Christmas. In this first glimpse of our redeemer we know that a faithful God has sent redemption and we can trust in the price he pays to rescue us. In the baby in Simeon’s arms our eyes too can see our salvation, the same Savior who would offer himself as the sacrifice for our sins. And in the faithfulness of Mary and Joseph and Simeon and Anna we can see God’s calling on our lives, our response to this Savior. As we ourselves seek to be faithful, we too will experience the faithfulness of God, and rejoice.
A few months ago I told you about Le Chambon, a village in France that sheltered thousands of Jews during World War 2. I can’t get that true story out of my head. If you recall, the key to the resistance was the pastor of the Protestant, Huegonot church in the village. His own faith journey, during World War 1, had led him to see the preciousness of all human life. But when he came to Le Chambon the church did not share his convictions. It was only after years of faithful ministry that Andre Trocme began showed his people that saving and protecting lives was God’s calling. During the war, seeking to be faithful by keeping people safe, they saw God’s faithfulness. Trocme and others were not imprisoned, at least not for very long, and almost none of the over 5000 Jews and refugees they hid was ever rounded up. The author says “Members of the Gestapo knew that the village was full of Jews, knew it in detail, but they did not come after them, though they were seizing and killing Jews in France through the whole occupation. How could this be?” “One day I posed this question to a faculty member at Weslayan University. He was a distinguished mathematician and a circumspect thinker.” His response? “It was a miracle.”
It was a miracle of God’s faithfulness. We experience his faithfulness at Christmas in the long-promised birth of our Savior and Redeemer. And we will experience his faithfulness in our lives as we ourselves seek to be faithful.