“Coming to the Temple” on Luke 2:22-35 by Joe Ellis — December 31, 2023
Where do you look when you aren't required to look at anything for your responsibilities? When you have those moments in your day when you can catch your breath, that you don’t have anything particular to do… where do you look? I’m letting you in on a bit of a New Year’s Resolution shaped by how easily it is to go through life perpetually having your attention drawn into the million different stimuli, things that fight for your eyes and bring your attention away from what’s really important. We could be drawn away by anything really, by worries, by the endless sites to explore online or the infinite number of shows to stream, by the never ending mountain of chores, the obligations we’ve taken on — all the while God is unfolding his story before us, a story that is somehow easy to miss. That’s the Christmas story — easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention.
As I think about how I want to live my life in 2024 — Simeon’s story in Luke 2 is utterly captivating. Simeon is a devout man who pays attention. He is watching for how God’s story was going to unfold in the small, nitty-gritty details of life. After all, it was just another day at the temple. People were coming and going. The regulars probably appeared in the courtyard, new ones wandered in from afar. Priests were scurrying about. Animals were bought and sold. Worshipers came and went, preoccupied with their own hopes, responsibilities, worries and disappointments. Simeon is always looking on. He sees a young family buying a sheep to offer to God, required for the mother’s purification after childbirth. He enjoys seeing that the father and mother are excited about this day, it's the first time they’ve been through this ritual with their newborn. They speak to a priest and disappear from sight. This isn't the baby he was waiting for.
Simeon is there to worship, but he’s also attentive. He’s prayed about this day, and he knows that he will see something special - that he will finally see what he’s been waiting for. So he watches, he waits.
How do you watch for what God is up to? Do you assume that you are are a character in God’s story that’s unfolding about you. Do you watch for what God will do next in the drama of life? Do you have an ear for what he wants of you?
Simeon finally sees what he’s been watching for. There they are, a young couple taking in the magnificent building as they shuffle into the courtyard. The husband has brought with them two pigeons for the purification sacrifice for the mother, a purification sacrifice that takes place 40 days after childbirth — pigeons were the best the family could afford (unlike that wealthy couple who bought a sheep for purification). This woman is cradling her child so tenderly in her arms. Simeon’s watching. Simeon approaches.
How do you watch the world? How do you pay attention to the movements of God in the mundane, the stressful, the distracting, the painful? How do you practice seeing God in the small? In the insignificant? In the unremarkable? How do you practice seeing God’s mighty plan unfolding through unremarkable realities that take up your day?
Simeon saw the small, but he was waiting for something big: Simeon was waiting for the Consolation of Israel. God had told Simeon many years earlier that he would not die before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. Simeon was waiting for Israel’s Consolation and the coming Messiah. We’re again talking about that powerful passage in Isaiah 40:1-5, that we hear so much during Advent. Simeon was waiting for God to make good on the promise made in Isaiah: “1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”. Then the passage goes on to say:
“3 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
That’s a glimpse of what Simeon was watching for. If you were told you were going to see that, what would you be on the lookout for? Would you imagine that God’s act of arriving would involve a young couple and babe sacrificing a couple of doves because they were too poor to offer anything else?
How do you watch? How do you look for God’s story unfolding in your own life? When things are unremarkable, painful, disappointing, joyful, boring — is there a way of discerning what God is unfolding in the disguise of humble appearances?
Simeon watched and saw this mother and father and their baby. The meeting moved him to cradle the baby in his arms and sing:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
That’s what Simeon saw and how he was moved to respond, but another person merely saw a poor family, parents fulfilling the basic requirements after having a baby.
How do you watch? How do practice seeing God’s hand?
It's not insignificant that there is so much language around eyes and seeing throughout this passage. One of the roles of the Messiah is to open the eyes of the blind, to help people see what they otherwise could not. For Simeon, this was happening with Jesus even as a baby.
Let me tell you another significant story in Mark 8:22-25 of when the Messiah helped someone to see. Jesus was in Bethsaida. Some people in the region heard that Jesus could help people to see, so they brought their blind friend and begged Jesus to heal him. Listen to this. “Jesus looked at the man, spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him. Then Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?” The man looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” So once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”
I love this story because it's a picture of discipleship with the Messiah. For this blind man, to see blurry people that looked like trees walking around was certainly better than what he saw before — darkness. But he was not yet seeing clearly.
For adults, going from being blind to having sight can be quite a painful process, incredibly uncomfortable. Even developing depth perception requires a great deal of learning. I read an account of one blind adult who received sight through an operation, but after, his depth perception was not developed. The way that he would figure out how near something was, was by tossing his shoe towards something.
Discipleship is like that — seeing the ways of God in our world is not easy. Like the blind man who saw only the broad outlines of people, we begin our discipleship with learning the broad outlines of the Gospel. We learn stories that begin with Simeon holding a baby at Christmas and end with Easter. We know that if we believe in Jesus, trust in Him for forgiveness, we will go to be with him in heaven when we die. These broad outlines that we see with our newfound sight, are so infinitely better than what we saw before — darkness. But we are just beginning to learn how to see, like that man who saw blurry people walking around like trees. Discipleship is taking these shapes of the Gospel, and overlaying them on the minute details of life: the small, insignificant, joyful, uncomfortable, piercing, hopeful realities of the present moment. Discipleship is learning to see the story of the Gospel in all things.
Simeon was far along this road of discipleship. He had learned how to see the fulfillment of Scripture and the Consolation of Israel in a one month old baby. Mary was beginning on this road as well. She had begun to see, quite powerfully who this baby would be. Remember that Gabriel had said to her in Luke 1: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” Mary is buoyed up with these words, God is helping her to see her child in a new light.
Then, forty days after Jesus’ birth, she meets Simeon in the Temple. Simeon helps Mary to see her child a bit more clearly. Through Simeon, Mary and Joseph see for the first time that their child will be a light to the Gentiles, the pagans, a light to those people who are outsiders, those people who are currently unwelcome trespassers in their land of Israel. Simeon goes on to bless Mary with what does not look at all like a blessing. Simeon says to her in Luke 2:34-35: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” This seems like difficult news, rather than a blessing. Simeon’s word are echoed elsewhere in Psalm 118:22 concerning Jesus: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner.” In 1 Peter 2:8, Jesus is “a stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” Simeon sees that this child will not have an easy road, this Son of David, this Emanuel. He will certainly not receive universal welcome and acceptance from his peers — but his future will be glorious. Simeon’s sight helped Mary and Joseph prepare for this tough road ahead. He fixes his gaze upon Mary and says, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Wow! “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Soon, Mary would see with her own eyes what this blessing meant. She would watch her own son pierced and crucified, dying ragged on the cross. Salvation through such a disgraceful death is about as hard to see as the Consolation of Israel arriving in a one month year old baby. Yet the work of the Messiah is to sharpen our vision to see the work of God unfolding in the most unlikely places.
Following Jesus is a continual process of sharpening our vision to see what God is specifically doing in the present moment. Moving from being able to see the broad outlines of Scripture unfolding in particular ways through our lives. Simeon challenges us not to drift through life with our eyes half closed. Simeon could see what others could not, that in the person of this babe was the Consolation of Israel, the long awaited Lord’s Messiah. Simeon came alongside Mary and Joseph, and helped them see the uncomfortable and the joyful work of God through this babe.
Are you willing to look for God in the joyful and in the uncomfortable? Are you willing to look for God’s will in your times of sinfulness and in your times of righteousness? Are you willing to look for God in the day that has past and the day that lies before you? We can be content with just seeing the broad outlines of the Gospel, but remain unable to see how God is at work in the small details of our life. Sort of like that one who could only see men walking around like trees, simply staying like that. We can simply rest in knowing the story, resting in the fact that Jesus has forgiven our sins, and will come get us when we die.
But do you want to be able to see the world in the way Simeon did? Simeon saw God’s work in the small and the insignificant. Simeon saw God’s work through a babe who would be rejected and outcast. Simeon saw God’s work through a babe who was destined for pain and suffering. And Simeon saw the in-breaking Consolation of God and His Messiah being born in the midst of a hurting, broken world — a world longing for a Saviour. He saw the fulfillment of his hopes and dreams, so that he could pray, “Lord, you may now dismiss me in peace” — I’ve seen what you’ve intended for me to see, I’m ready to die. (Luke 2:29)
Do you wish to see God in this world in the way that Simeon did? Now, we don’t know specifically what sort of practices Simeon had for seeing God in the nitty-gritty. But there is an old practice that can help sharpen our vision. There is a practice that can help us see how our life overlaps with God’s grand unfolding story, even in the small insignificant things in life — like someone walking into a room with a newborn. The practice is called The Examen. It's a way of learning to see God in the nitty-gritty reality of daily life. It requires setting aside 10-ish minutes to reflect on the day, and it has five parts:
First, the time begins with asking God for his light (so you can see what he wants you to see).
Second, you give thanks for the small and particular gifts he has given you. “Thank you for that nice cup of coffee, thank you for the warm greeting from that stranger.”
Third, we look back on the day, paying careful attention to the feelings that are stirred up as you reflect on everything that happened. “I was really anxious during that conversation with my boss.” “I sure laughed hard at that text.”
Fourth, we acknowledge our own shortcomings, facing up to what where we may have missed the mark. Remember, we are looking through the day with God, and sometimes he will help us to see more clearly what we missed in the moment.
Fifth and finally, we look at the day that is to come, and we ask God for his help, his guidance and support.
This is one way that we can begin to sharpen our vision to see with eyes like Simeon, helping us to see the movements of God in the nitty-gritty, the cute and cuddly, the hard and piercing, the joyful and fulfilling. As we enter into this New Year, consider the month of January as a trial period for the practice of the Examen — seeing more clearly how God’s wonderful story might be unfolding in the particulars of your life.