SONGS OF THE SEASON—SIMEON’S SONG
A sermon on Luke 2: 25-39
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
December 30, 2018
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and 0ur Redeemer. Amen.
I am sure that probably all of you are familiar with the term “Bucket List”. A “bucket list” is defined as a list—either literal or figurative—of the things that one wants to accomplish or experience before one dies. Folks who study these kinds of things say that the expression “bucket list” is actually of relatively recent vintage. They say that it maybe dates as far back as the mid-1990’s. But most folks became acquainted with the phrase when it became a title of a popular 2007 movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. It is the story of two terminally ill cancer patients who decide to break out of their hospital room and live their final days to the fullest. Anybody here see that movie?
Nowadays everyone knows what a “bucket list” is. When you have a few minutes to spare, try Googling the phrase “bucket list” and see all the different lists that you come up with. It seems as if there are a lot of people who feel the need to share their bucket lists online, describing the things that they want to do—or the things that they think YOU ought to do—before dying.
One list that I recently found that was a lot of fun to look through was posted earlier this year. It is titled “100+ Things to Do before You Die.” (There were actually 113 items on this particular list…but who’s counting?) The author describes it as “the mother of all bucket lists” and “the only bucket list that you will ever need.” Those are pretty tall claims to be sure, as I imagine that no two individuals’ bucket lists will be exactly the same. But it was fun to look through and interesting to see what other people thought was worthy to be placed on such a list. Let me share a few of things that the author Hilary White included on hers:
Some of the things on this bucket list had to do with travel destinations—things like #14 (Go on an African safari) or #48 (Go to the top of the Eiffel Tower) or #75 (Visit Stonehenge). Some items on the list are acts of simple kindness that just make you feel good and are good for you—things like #11 (Give a shelter pet a home) or # 70 (Pay a stranger’s restaurant bill) or #103 (Forgive and let go of grudges). Some of the things on Ms. White’s list can cost quite a bit of money to do. But other things on her to-do list do not cost anything at all. These are simple things that anyone can do and enjoy—such as #1 (Watch a meteor shower) or #9 (Dance in the rain) or #29 (Make a snow angel).
I must confess that one of my favorite entries on this particular bucket list is #28. It reads like this: “Put vanilla pudding in a mayonnaise jar and eat it in public.” That might be good for a few laughs, now wouldn’t it?! Can’t wait to try it out…
In the gospel reading for today, we read the curious story about an old man named Simeon who was nearing the end of his life. He had made his own bucket list and we read about how he was able to check off the most important item on his list. It all happened while he was worshiping one day in the Temple…
Although there are several men who are named “Simeon” in the Scriptures, all we know about this particular man is what we are told in this passage in Luke 2. We are told that he was righteous and devout and that the Holy Spirit rested upon him. In verse 26, we are told that the Lord had revealed to him that he would see the Messiah before he passed away.
[Side bar here: Over the last several weeks, we have been focusing our attention on the Christmas story as related in the first two chapters of Luke. Have you noticed how many times the Holy Spirit has popped up in the story? Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit filled Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist), the same Spirit filled Elizabeth (his mother), the Holy Spirit was the means by which Mary became with child, and now we explicitly are told in today’s passage that the Holy Spirit was upon this man named Simeon. Obviously the Holy Spirit’s role was deemed to be critical in the story of Jesus’ birth. Yet we do not mention the Holy Spirit much this season of the year. For example, I cannot think of any Christmas carols whose main idea is to celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit in the Nativity story. I wonder why that is…I don’t know…that may be a sermon for Advent next year…]
Anyway, in Luke 2:22, we are told that Mary, Joseph and Jesus traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem in order to fulfill the Old Testament requirements after the birth of a child. Leviticus 12 gives instructions on what to do after the birth of a child. According to the law, the mother had to wait some 107 days before she could go to the Temple to be purified. Then she would offer a year old lamb and a young pigeon for an offering before she would be considered ritually clean once more. Additionally, Exodus 13 teaches that the firstborn male is to be dedicated to the Lord during a ceremony of presentation.
The Holy Spirit directed Simeon to the Temple and there he met Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus. We are told that Simeon took the baby in his arms and sang a song of praise to God for fulfilling his promise to him. In this song, he makes mention that the Messiah will be for all people—both Jew and Gentile. He sings that this salvation will be a light for the Gentiles and also for the glory of Israel. This has led some Christian groups to designate Simeon as “Simeon, the God-Receiver.”
But then there is a second part to Simeon’s proclamation. He goes on to predict to Mary and Joseph that Jesus would be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel—that he will be opposed by his own people. He concludes his prophecy by saying that Mary’s own soul would be pierced because of him.
Nobel Prize winning writer T. S. Eliot is regarded as one of the outstanding English literary figures of the 20th Century. In 1928, he wrote the poem titled “A Song for Simeon,” inspired by today’s gospel passage. The poem is in the voice of Simeon, who is pictured as a tired old man who has seen much of life and who desires to see no more. Simeon’s prophetic insight is clouded with the anticipation of future suffering for his descendants in the city of Jerusalem, for those who would follow in the Messiah’s way, for the child he holds in his arms, and for his mother Mary. It is nothing less than the pain and tumult that attends the overturning of the whole world with the coming of the Messiah. He also prophesies the total destruction of the nation of Israel by the Roman armies, which would occur just a couple of decades later in 70 AD.
And yet, Simeon’s weary prayer is for peace. Three times he prays for peace in this poem. I confess that this poem has profoundly touched me this week as I have meditated on it while preparing this sermon. And so I share it with you. Here is T. S. Eliot’s “A Song for Simeon”:
Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in the sunlight and memories in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.
Grant us Thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have taken and given honor and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow shall come?
They will take the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from foreign faces and the foreign swords.
Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us Thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
According to Thy word,
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saint’s stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart, thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of
those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of
those after me.
Let Thy servant depart,
having seen Thy salvation.
Now we return to the subject that began this morning’s sermon—bucket lists. Whatever else may have been on Simeon’s bucket list, seeing the Lord’s Messiah was the last—and no doubt the greatest—item on it. And now he could die in peace, having been able to finally hold the infant Jesus in his arms.
I now ask you the question: What is on your bucket list? I do not know if many of us have actually written down a bucket list of things that we want to accomplish. But I imagine that all of us have things we want to see, things we want to do, goals that we want to accomplish in the time that the Lord gives us while we are on this earth. So…what’s on your bucket list? Are there places that you want to visit? Are there things that you want to be able to experience? Are there people that you would like to meet…foods that you would like to try…books that you would like to read…things that you would like to do…What are the things on your bucket list? And what will you do to move yourself along the path of accomplishing them in the coming New Year?
Now let’s take it one step further…what things are on your spiritual bucket list? Do you have one? Seems to me that a “bucket list of the Spirit” might be a good thing for all of us to have—spiritual goals that we are working to accomplish. Maybe it could include things like visiting the Holy Land…or maybe the great cathedrals of Europe… or retracing the footsteps of great and influential servants of Jesus like Francis of Assisi or John Bunyan…Or maybe it could be something less elaborate—like reading the Bible all the way through…or mentoring a person who is young in the faith…or working at a homeless shelter. I do not know what should be on your spiritual bucket list, but it is a worthwhile thing to consider—what would you like to accomplish…to do…in Jesus’ name as a part of your bucket list?…
Songs are made for singing, right? And so as we have throughout this series of messages on the Biblical songs of the season, we will conclude with a hymn that takes its inspiration from today’s text. The opening line of the hymn “Lord, dismiss us with thy blessing” is derived from the beginning of Simeon’s song: “Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word.” The hymn is attributed to an 18th Century British Baptist pastor named John Fawcett. You would best know him as the author of the hymn that we sing at the conclusion of every Lord’s Supper service, “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.”
This hymn is a prayer that the Lord will bless us by granting us joy and peace throughout life’s journey. It also prays that “the fruits of Thy salvation” might be more evident in our lives. Those fruits include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control of which the scriptures teach. Such things are to be characteristic of—and not incidental to— the lives of those who follow Jesus. The hymn ends with the request “Ever faithful, ever faithful, to the truth may we be found.” That’s a good prayer for all of us to make as we stand at the end of 2018 and look ahead to the beginning of 2019. May the words of this hymn describe all of our lives in the New Year as we go forth with the Lord’s blessing to live…and to love…and to serve in His Name.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
Hymn #601 Lord, Dismiss Us with Thy Blessing