Text: Luke 2 21-40 (Jesus presented at the Temple) -- why not Matthew?
"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
This line, taken from the anti-slavery anthem "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," was the last sentence of the last speech given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 45 years ago in 1968. As I thought about today's Gospel passage from Luke, I also thought of King's famous speech from April 1968.
Both Simeon in our reading and Martin Luther King Jr. had a vision of salvation; and this vision in and of itself seemed to heal them. Today, I put their visions side by side.
In our reading from Luke, an old man named Simeon is prompted by the Spirit to go to the Temple in Jerusalem right after the first Christmas. When he gets there, he meets the infant Jesus. Simeon picks Jesus up, cradles him in his arms, and claims that in this baby he has seen Israel's Messiah and the world's salvation. Having finally met the Messiah, Simeon says that he can now die in peace. This is a remarkable thing to say after seeing a baby, wouldn't you agree?
The Messiah (which is a Hebrew word), or Christ (which is its Greek translation), or Anointed One (which is its English translation) was to be the long-awaited King of Israel. The Messiah would bring Israel back to the glory of its days under God's Anointed, King David. And yet Simeon somehow is able to say that in the baby Jesus he has seen this Messiah. And further, this Messiah is not just to be the ruler of Israel, but will also be a light of revelation to the rest of the world.
While Simeon's vision is healing, it also contains the shadow of the cross. Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph and then says to Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed -- and a sword will pierce your own soul too." Simeon's blessing is one that comes with a cost!
In a nutshell, Simeon has laid out the entire Gospel. The good news says that all of us are blessed by the coming of the Christ, but that a sword will pierce our souls and that his coming will lead to the falling and rising of many. The falling is the cross and the rising is new life in Christ.
Somehow, in holding this newborn baby in his arms, Simeon experiences salvation in an instant. This salvation involves dying to an old way of life, which can feel like a piercing sword. The good news is that after dying to our old way of life, we are free to rise to a new one, which is a life in which we are healed.
Imagine cradling a newborn baby in your arms, looking down at it, and seeing the Christ there. In really looking at a newborn baby, we sometimes forget about our worries and cares. We stop centring our attention on our small selves, and instead see life as it should be: whole and divine. The baby lacks power, but it contains infinite potential. The baby bears the image of God and will grow within a family, neighbourhood, and global culture. In seeing the divine in a baby, we might also be reminded of our own fragile but divine status as well. When we receive the grace to see like this, we touch salvation.
There is a Celtic Blessing that captures the message. It goes like this: "May the Christ who walks on wounded feet, walk with you on the road, May the Christ who serves with wounded hands, stretch out your hands to serve. May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart open your hearts to love. And may you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet, and may everyone you meet see the face of Christ in you."
Simeon looks at the newborn Jesus and has the grace to see there the face of Christ. And I believe that when Simeon looks up at Mary and Joseph, they also see the face of Christ in Simeon. Because in this moment, Simeon's old life has fallen away. He is living in the new life of Christ, which is a life freed from fear. Feeling blessed in that moment, and no longer afraid, Simeon says that he can now die. It is not that he needs to die, even though he is an old man; just that he no longer fears death. He is "in the moment;" he is following the prompting of the Spirit; he is free.
Simeon does not need to live another 30 years to see what the adult Jesus will do, to puzzle at his parables, or to experience Jesus' death and resurrection. For Simeon, it has all happened in an instant when he sees salvation in the face of a baby.
Simeon's epiphany is also ours, that in the face of Jesus we see God and meet our own salvation. This is an epiphany that we can experience each time we look at one another with love.
But the salvation found in the face of Jesus might also disappoint. God has come in Jesus, but as a helpless baby. Even thirty years later, when Jesus has grown to be a charismatic teacher and healer with a large following, he is powerless in the face of the might of the Roman Empire. He is killed.
Nevertheless, the dream of a new king David refuses to die. Jesus promises to come a second time. The next time, he says he will come "in clouds and with great power and glory." This is also the vision captured in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which looks at the Civil War in the United States of 150 years ago through the lens of the Day of Judgement. At the Second Coming, Jesus will be carrying what the Hymn calls "a terrible swift sword." However, almost 2000 years after Jesus' death and resurrection, we are still waiting for this terrible and glorious event.
I prefer the epiphany of Simeon and Martin Luther King Jr., that salvation can happen long before Jesus' terrible swift sword brings justice to the earth. It is not that I am opposed to justice, especially if God magically makes it happen. Rather, the brief moments of healing we sometimes experience tell us that we do not have to wait for the final vindication of God's power. Healing is always here for us, graciously offered by God in everyone we meet and love.
It might be easiest to see divinity in a baby. But we also see the face of Christ in seniors, in mid-lifers, in youth, and in children. Simeon saw it, I see it, and you see it. At worship each week, we remind ourselves of this reality and we celebrate the divine Love that flames inside each and every one of us.
And so we read again the story of Simeon and Jesus in the Temple. It is about babies and salvation; piercing swords and crosses; a fearful old way of life and a trusting new way. All this might seem like a lot to find in a short Scripture reading. But I think that the truths packed into that story from Luke can also be seen in our modern-day Simeon -- the African-American civil rights activist, Baptist minister, and cultural hero, Martin Luther King Jr.
Closing with a story about King and his struggle for civil rights for black Americans might also make us mindful of some current struggles for justice: for the rights of girls in Pakistan to attend school, led by 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who continues to recover from an assassination attempt; for an end to violence against women in India; and the Idle No More movement among First Nations people here in Canada. May the participants in all these struggles feel the same inspiration that Dr. King felt 50 years ago and have his same insight that healing is found in the struggle as well as in any of the successes of the movement.
In the spring of 1968, King was in Memphis Tennessee supporting a group of public works employees who were on strike. On the day before his murder, King delivered what became his final speech in the Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ.
It is called the "Mountaintop Speech" because King says that he has been the top of the mountain and has seen the Promised Land. His vision is of a world without racism and a world of peace and justice. King realizes that he may not get to the Promised Land. But just as it was with Simeon -- for whom it was sufficient to see the promise of the Messiah -- for Martin Luther King, the vision is enough. In fighting for this vision and believing in it, he has been healed and freed.
So I close this sermon with the end of King's speech from that night 45 years ago:
"I got to Memphis. And some talk about the threats that are out there. Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
Why not Matthew? For this Epiphany, I avoided the assigned reading from Matthew 2 (the Star, the Magi from the East, Jerusalem, and King Herod) because this is Year C in the Lectionary, the Year of Luke. Next year, when we are in Year A, the Year of Matthew, I will probably tackle the Magi and the Star.