A week ago when the Sunday School presented the Christmas program, I really appreciated what they did. It is always wonderful to hear children tell the story. The Bible talks about the way in which children can so effectively communicate gospel truths and that happened in the presentation last week. One of the plays was about a birthday party and this play was a good reminder that even though it is not wrong to engage in all kinds of fun celebrations, we must never lose sight of the fact that this is a birthday party for Jesus. If we desire to honor him, we cannot pass the day without focusing our celebration in His direction. That is why I am glad we are here today. I enjoy all the things we do, the gift giving, the family gatherings, but because Jesus is the central figure in this celebration, the meetings at church are also precious to me. I like to come to church on Christmas morning to hear the story of Jesus once again, be reminded about why we celebrate and give glory to God for all he has done by sending Jesus to this earth. We have been doing just that this morning and I appreciate your leadership in reminding us of Jesus coming through story and song.
The story of Jesus’ birth is an amazing story. It is obviously a supernatural event. From the prophetic revelations to the angel messengers, we can see God’s hand guiding what happened. In the story, we learn something about the baby who came. We are told that he is Christ the Lord and that He is the world’s Saviour. Amazement is present everywhere - the surprise of the angels praising God in the presence of the shepherds, the amazement of all those who heard it, Mary treasuring these things up in her heart and the shepherds glorifying and praising God. All of these unusual occurrences accompanying the birth of this child naturally cause us to raise the question, “who is this child?” He must be someone special in order for such amazing happenings to accompany his birth.
Today, we want to go a bit further in the story to a part we do not always examine. A significant event takes place when Jesus was 8 days old, which reveals more of this wonder and amazement and tells us more about who this child is. Today, we want to look at the fourth song of Christmas, which is Simeon’s song.
When a child is born, there are certain things that have to be done. You have to choose a name, you have to register the birth with vital statistics and so on. For Jewish people, there were also several things that had to be done. They had to name the child, if it was a male child, he had to be circumcised, He had to be redeemed if he was a firstborn child, because all the firstborn sons belonged to God (Numbers 18:15,16) and there was also a ritual for the mothers purification following childbirth. It was on one of these birth related occasions, probably the presentation of the firstborn to the Lord, that Mary and Joseph found themselves in the temple in Jerusalem. While they were there, they had what must have seemed, at the time, like an unusual encounter. An old man came up to them, asked to hold the child and pronounced a blessing on the child. That in itself was not unusual, but what he said was. The old man’s name was Simeon and he had received a promise that he would not die until he saw the Messiah of God. The Spirit of God revealed to him that Jesus was that Messiah and in the words he speaks, this fourth song of Christmas, Simeon says some things that help us to further identify who this child was whose birth was accompanied by such unusual occurrences. When we examine Simeon’s words, we learn three important things about the child whose birth we celebrate today.
As Simeon looked on the little child he held in his arms, he perceived some significant things about who he was. First of all, he said, “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people.”
What he was saying is that Jesus is the answer of God to save the people of the world.
The idea of salvation assumes desperate need. The other day, Carla and I went snow shoeing along the banks of the river. At one point, we crossed the river, and we weren’t sure that the ice was thick enough and so we were cautious. If one of us would have fallen through, we would have been in a situation in which we could not have helped ourselves. We would have needed someone to save us. That is the meaning of salvation - being in a desperate situation in which outside help is needed to prevent certain disaster. Our appreciation of the salvation God brought through Jesus depends on our understanding of our need.
Israel as a nation knew it needed salvation. They had not been an independent nation for about 600 years. For 70 of those years, they had not even been in their own land. As a nation, they were desperately looking for someone to save them from their oppressors. As Simeon looked at the child, he saw in him the fulfillment of promises which would have significance for Israel as a nation.
As Jesus lived on earth, we meet others who needed his help and reached out to Him. We learn that he was often sought out by sick people who were desperate for healing. The woman who haemorrhaged, and who touched his robe hoping to be healed knew that she needed help from someone with power to heal. She had exhausted all other possibilities of help. He spent a lot of time with tax collectors and sinners who were attracted to him and his message because they realized their need for forgiveness and freedom from the things that held them in bondage.
I read a story about a unique character who was converted in the Water Street Mission in New York. He was known as “the Old Colonel” and through drink he had sunk very low. At one time, he had been a college graduate and a brilliant law student. At the time of his conversion he was sixty years old but looked as if he were one hundred. He looked more like an animal than a human being. He was clothed in rags. The overcoat he wore was fastened with a nail. On the night of his conversion, he cried, “O Lord, if it is not too late, forgive and save this poor old sinner!” Although it had taken a long time, he finally realized that he needed a Savior.
The message that the child is Savior is good news when we understand that we are in a desperate situation. If we think that we are OK by ourselves and have no need of any help, this won’t mean much to us, but if we realize that we are dead in our transgressions and sins, then recognizing that the child is our salvation is good news indeed. As we think about this child on this day, do we appreciate how wonderful it is that we have a Savior?
But this phrase has another aspect to it. Simeon says, “…your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people.”
The wonder of the coming of Jesus into this world is that God did not administer a solution to the problems of the world by sitting in heaven and zapping a solution from a distance. Salvation was accomplished by incarnation. He came among us, to understand us and to bring us hope from the position of being here. When Simeon said “in the sight of all people” this is the wonderful thing he recognized.
What does it mean that God came among us?
A father had told his son he would send him to sleep in the attic, with only bread and water for his supper, if he broke the laws of the home once more. The child disobeyed again and was send to the attic: The father could not eat. He had the boy on his mind and his heart. His wife said: “I know what you are thinking. But you must not bring the boy from the attic. It would cause him to disobey again. He would have no respect for your word. You must not cheapen your relation as his father by failing to keep your promise.”
To which her husband replied: “You are right. I will not break my word. To do so would cause my son to lose his respect for my word. But he is so lonely up there.” He kissed his wife good-night, entered the attic, ate bread and water with the boy, and when the child went to sleep on the hard boards, his father’s arm was his pillow.”
That is incarnation and that is what our Savior did. God identified with our struggles and our need. That is good news. Whenever I am discouraged and wonder if God really is there, the one thought that always provides strength for me is that God cared enough about me that He came to earth and saved me. I think about the incarnation and the death and resurrection of Jesus and I know that a God who would leave heaven to redeem me cares for me now as well.
As Simeon saw the child, he understood these things and gave thanks to God. Are we giving thanks to God today for Jesus, our Savior who has been on earth?
Another thing that Simeon said as he looked at the little child was, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” I want to look at these two statements in reverse order.
That Messiah should come to Israel was not unexpected. When the wise men came from the east, the scribes in Israel knew where the Messiah would be born. They pointed quickly to Bethlehem. Israel had expected Messiah for many long years already. They knew he would come and hoped and longed for his coming. And so when he came, it was glory to Israel and was so for a number of reasons.
One writer says, “Messiah must have a birthplace. Three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa were known to the ancient world; Asia was chosen. But Asia has many countries—one of them is indicated, a little country known as the land of promise, Palestine.” It was glory to Israel because they were the nation chosen to give birth to the Savior of the world.
He was glory to Israel because He was the fulfillment of promises. It is interesting to study all the passages in the Bible which speak about the coming of God’s promised one. Now those promises were fulfilled. For a Jew, the announcement that Messiah had come was good news.
He was also glory to them because they would be the first ones to receive salvation. Jesus message was, “to the Jew first.” Because they had been God’s chosen nation and had born hardship on His behalf and had carried the promises, they were rewarded with being the first to be given an opportunity to receive the salvation God offered.
As we look at this, instead of the anti-Semitism which often tempts us, we ought to thanks to God for the nation which has brought us the world’s Savior.
But the really exciting message here for us is that this little child that Simeon held, was recognized to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”
Although the Old Testament had hinted at this, it was not always fully understood. In a number of passages in Isaiah, God had already made known that the Messiah who would come would be not only for Israel, but for all the Gentiles as well. Isaiah 49:6 says, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” When John the Baptist pointed to Jesus, he said a similar thing in the very next chapter, 3:6, “And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’”
God had promised that he would not only restore Israel to himself through the Messiah, he would also restore the Gentiles. Have you ever thought about just how important that is to us? We are Gentiles. This promise is for us. Because of this promise, which God made long ago and which Simeon saw fulfilled in the little child, we are here today! Salvation is ours today! God is not exclusive to one nation or people, whether Jews, or any other people who might claim him as their own. He is the Savior of the world. This should make us as Gentiles very thankful as we celebrate Jesus’ birth.
It should also increase the urgency in us to proclaim the message of salvation in the child, whom Simeon held, to all the world. It is this recognition that gave rise later to the mandate in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After Simeon recognized who Jesus was, he blessed Mary. In the blessing of Mary, he once again made a prediction about what Jesus life would be like. So far, the Christmas story is good news. A child who will bring much needed salvation by actually becoming one of us. A child who is the glory of Israel and light to the Gentiles. But not all the news is good. Simeon goes on to say, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”
The great importance of this child is emphasized in this statement. On the wall by the photocopier, someone has put the words, “If you meet me and forget me, you’ve lost nothing. If you meet Jesus Christ and forget Him, you’ve lost everything.” That is exactly what Simeon’s words mean. You can’t be neutral about Jesus. He is the deciding line. You must decide for him or against Him, you can’t sit on the fence.
For many it is difficult to make this decision. They stumble over Jesus. I Corinthians 1:23 says, “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” If Jesus makes you stumble, you are in a dangerous situation. Stumbling could cause a person to either reject him or fail to decide for him, which amounts to the same thing. I Peter 2:7,8 warns that such a reaction to Jesus will result in destruction. He says, “…to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected … causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.”
But there are also many who come to the deciding line and accept who he is. Jesus is the one who causes their rising. We always read about the priests and how they were so strong in their opposition to Jesus. At first, they could not accept Jesus, but in Acts 6:7 we read, “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” Perhaps, you have had trouble deciding for Jesus. It is not too late. The child Simeon held was and is our Savior, why not accept him today?
Some stumble, some accept and some are vehement in their opposition. In all the wonder of the coming of a Savior - the angels song, the shepherd’s amazement - this is the first disturbing note that he would be a rejected Messiah. Isaiah 53 had already predicted this. John says it in his gospel in John 1:10, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” Knowing that he will be rejected helps us to understand why we live in a world that is so often hostile to Him.
But even His rejection is important in the matter of making a decision about Jesus because it makes people think. When an issue is vehemently opposed by people, everyone must make a decision. The fact that Jesus is the deciding line and the stumbling he causes and the rejection of many forces all people to make a decision. What does the issue of Jesus reveal about your heart? As we sit and gaze at the child who was born on Christmas day; the child who lay in the manger, the child who was looked on by shepherds, the child who was held by Simeon; what is your choice? Jesus is the deciding line. Will we, with Simeon, recognize that He is salvation for us and indeed the salvation of the whole world? I trust that none of us will reject Him.
Who is this child whom angels sang about, whom shepherds told about, whom his mother cared for all the while wondering about Him and whose identity Simeon revealed as he held Him? He is the Savior who has come among us, the glory of Israel, the light for the Gentiles and the rejected Messiah all must decide about.
As we celebrate Christmas and realize once again the wonder and glory of who Jesus is, may we accept Him by faith and live lives that love Him and obey Him.