Thursday, December 17, 2009

God at the Margins

Hope, promise, and expectation live in the most unlikely places. The birth narrative in Luke’s gospel is peopled with unknowns—unknowns who possessed a rich history with God and whose stories are preserved for our instruction. Simeon is just such an example. He was an individual on the margins, unnoticed in his day but preserved for us in the scripture as an example of how to walk with God.

Just after the birth of their child, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was a massive complex of buildings, a religious marketplace at the center of Jewish life. The young couple expected anonymity in the crush of humanity flowing in and out of the Temple, but instead they encountered a man who had patiently waited to see the promise of God fulfilled before he died:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2: 25 – 32)

Simeon’s actions and words are recorded for us not as a matter of historical curiosity, but rather to demonstrate how we can enter into God’s purpose in our day as well. Simeon had a dynamic relationship with the Holy Spirit. In just three verses the work of the Spirit is highlighted three times, and each mention points to a distinct aspect of the Spirit’s work in Simeon’s life:

• First the scripture says simply, “the Holy Spirit was upon him.” (v25) Simeon’s life was characterized by the presence of the Spirit in an abiding way: to know Simeon, to talk with him, was to taste something of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you have met people like him. Their lives are permeated with the presence of the Holy Spirit. They radiate the attributes of Godly character, like the list of His fruit in Galatians 5: 22-23. In Simeon’s case other people may not have been able to define the source of his distinctive character, but they undoubtedly sensed the difference.

• Second, the Holy Spirit had spoken to Simeon personally that “he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” (v26) This is significant because no amount of study in the Old Testament could lead anyone to such a promise. It was personal. That means Simeon had trained not only his intellect but also his spirit to receive from God. Simeon combined both the ability to hear and the faith to hold on to what he heard. Can you imagine the raised eyebrows he would have encountered if he chose to share such a personal promise from God? Yet the promise was true because the scriptures assure us so.

• Third, Simeon followed the leading of the Holy Spirit in practical ways. He was “moved by the Holy Spirit” on a particular day to be at a particular place at a particular time (v27). Perhaps Simeon was consciously aware of the Spirit’s direction, or perhaps it was something less defined. But whatever level of awareness Simeon possessed it was sufficient to put him in the right place at the right time. Dallas Willard has observed that God’s leading isn’t always some explicit command. In fact, we may not be able to separate our thoughts from his—until after the fact, when we realize God was leading and guiding toward a particular moment. Although we do not know Simeon’s age at the time of the encounter with Jesus, the text leads us to believe he was a man advanced in years. His interaction with the Holy Spirit that day was not some robotic control. It was the result of years of heartfelt seeking and cooperation with the still small voice so characteristic of God’s ways.

Simeon’s relationship with the Holy Spirit placed him before the baby Jesus. Simeon’s response to the moment is instructive as well:

He knew his moment had come. When Simeon declares, “dismiss your servant in peace,” (v29) he is not waxing poetic. He welcomes death because he has experienced the faithfulness of God. He has witnessed the promise of God to Abraham, to Israel, and to himself. He has seen the hope of Israel.

Simeon saw what others did not. He declared, “My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people” (vs 30-31) It was business as usual at the Temple that day. Priests, rabbis, and religious sorts of all kinds walked right past the King of Glory. Simeon saw a baby and witnessed the consolation of Israel. Here’s a difficult question: will I be held accountable for what the Father tried to show me, but I was unable to see?

Finally, Simeon understood that God’s purposes stretch beyond Israel to the entire world. There, in the shadow of the Temple, Simeon bore witness to the hope of the Gentiles. Most of the Temple was off-limits to women and pagans. But standing before Mary, and attracting the attention of a widow named Anna, Simeon declared that the court of the Gentiles now housed the presence of God. The God of Abraham had fulfilled a promise to bless the entire world. In our day, even among believers, we are tempted to think that God is at work on behalf of the few, when in fact his purposes include the many.

There is so much to celebrate in the Christmas story, but for followers of Jesus there is even more to learn.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Ray. I always find it funny when Jesus has prophetic words spoken over him. I don't think God "needed" Simeon to say that word to make it come true, but how cool is it, that because of the points you mention above, Simeon got to play a role in the destiny of Jesus.