Sermon for Christmas 1
December 31, 2017
Jesus Makes for Peace
Have you ever gone back to visit a childhood home after being away for a long time? If you have, you have noticed that things didn’t seem as big as they once did. Those things that seemed large as a child looked out of proportion when you’ve gone back as an adult. The way that you remembered them were not exactly the same as you later saw them. What once loomed large for you as a child, seemed rather ordinary or even unnoticeable as an adult. The hill in the front of the house that was so big when rolling down it as a five year old was no more than a bump as an adult. That apple tree in the back yard that proved difficult to climb as an eight year old, now showed itself to be quite normal with its fruit easily within reach. The porch hat honestly could have held you and all your cousins, now could barely hold two chairs and a small table. What your memory once held as glorious in its own way, was now ordinary.
This visit of Jesus and His mother to the temple when he was forty days old is like that visit to a former home for the Jew turned Christian, or for the Old Testament believe who has grown into a New Testament believer. It is like that for Simeon and Anna as they behold the temple with its former glory diminished by their mature sight of the Christ as the current location of God’s glory. As Jesus is brought to the temple to fulfill all that is in the Law of Moses, God visits the His former earthly dwelling and we can see that its significance is greatly diminished as the entire sacrificial system is brought to a close and is finding its culmination in the baby that Simeon calls the consolation of Israel.
It was some fourteen hundred years earlier when the Israelites first beheld the glory of the Lord descend upon and enter the tabernacle in the wilderness (Ex 40:334-38). It was an event that prevented Moses from entering the tent and terrified the people. We also have the recorded God’s entry into the first temple built by Solomon about four hundred years after the Exodus (1 Ki 8). Now, as the glory of God enters into the temple built by Herod, few recognize it except Simeon and Anna, and the few others there to see and hear. What once loomed large not just for its craftsmanship and earthly splendor but for God’s presence, now was seen only in light of its former glory, a grand building, yes, but only that, for God’s glory has taken up residence elsewhere. His glory has a new temple, a new place to dwell in the midst of His people, a perfect place that is not shrouded by the blood of lambs, not even by the whole burnt offering of a turtledove.
Last Sunday was unique as it was both the Fourth Sunday in Advent and Christmas Eve, so we had services for both. Today also is unique for it is the First Sunday after Christmas and also the Eve of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus. That event occurs in the verse that precedes today’s Gospel reading. It is on the eighth day that Jesus is named and circumcised according to the Law. It was thirty-three days prior to His entry into Jerusalem and the place of sacrifice that Jesus had already shed His blood in fulfillment of the Law and its demands. Already, He had assumed His place under the Law as man and was glorifying God where the rest of us could not. Already, the second person of the Holy Trinity was grafted into the family to which He rightfully belonged through the ceremonial act of cutting away the sinful flesh and the spilling of blood according to the Law. He was already standing in our place doing for us what could never be done by us as He faithfully completed all that the Law demands.
I began today’s sermon with the idea that I would expound upon what we know as the Nunc Dimittis or Simeon’s Song, which we sing as the post-communion canticle in the Divine Service. But I quickly have discovered that it would require a series of sermons to cover those four verses. But I do want to cover the first: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.” Depending on which service we are using, the words vary slightly, but all in all, they remain much the same in our English translations from the Greek.
Sometimes we get so used to the way things are translated that we cannot conceive of that portion of Scripture being translated in any other way. Sometimes it has such a poetic ring that it is almost like singing as we read. A couple of good examples would be the way that we have all learned to recite Psalm 23 with its “yeas” and “thous.” The same could be said for the way we have all learned and now recite the Lord’s Prayer as we continue to use the “Thys” of a bygone era in English writing. As we have used the Nunc Dimittis in the Divine Service for millennia in Latin and for centuries in English, we have grown accustomed to the present translation and it would be near impossible for us to make any changes to the way that it is translated. It is not that it is incorrect, but it could be expanded in its understanding if different English words were chosen, even if they were less poetic.
Let me begin with my own translation: “Now, Master, in peace you are setting your slave free, according to your word.” I’ll explain the nouns first and then the verb. The word that is normally translated as “Lord” in this verse is not the same word that we normally see throughout the gospels when people address Jesus as in the Kyrie Eleison (Lord, have mercy). Nor is it the divine name Yahweh for which our Bibles substitute Lord with the small capital letters (Lord), most often translated as “master” when it stands alone. Here is used a word that is most often translated as “master” even when Luke would later use it in Acts 4:24. The Greek word is despoths from which we get the word “despot.”
This becomes more significant when we look at the word Simeon uses for himself and us. He uses the word doulos which is most always translated as “slave,” and carries with it an obligation that cannot simply be reneged. It is not so much that the words are translated badly as much as the way that we view the words because of our experiences in life and learning. When we think lord and servant, we tend to think along the line of British aristocracy where there is a lord of the manner and his servants who have the option of leaving when they wish. But when we think along the lines of master and slave, we think of 19th century America and degrading subjugation of certain people because of the color of their skin. We should find a place in the middle where we, as the slaves, are totally subject to God, our Master. We are completely at His mercy but not because He has subjugated us but because He is our Maker, our Creator. He is our Sovereign and we are completely subject to Him.
As to the verb, it allows for a passive understanding as we read, “are letting depart,” we can take the impression that God is standing aside and letting us leave peacefully, whereas that should be the farthest thing from our minds. God is doing anything but standing aside and letting things happen. Simeon is declaring that God is now making it possible to know peace and to have peace. Simeon can depart life in time peacefully because He has seen the child that makes for peace between God and man. The word apwlueis can be translated as “pardon,” “dismiss,” “send away,” and even as “divorce.” But nearly half the time it is translated as “release.” It is an active verb and God is doing the action. He is not standing by as Simeon departs. He is releasing Simeon from the debt that is owed by his sin. God is setting Simeon free because of the action of the child held in his arms. It is this same relationship of master and slave as well as the same action taken by God that sets us free, that releases us from the bondage that sin otherwise holds us under as captives to the Law of God and condemned under its edicts. Simeon is declaring that what had long subjugated man, was now being fulfilled so that man could be set free. Jesus was fulfilling the Law of God. He, even as an infant, was being obedient and faithful to God’s expectations in their relationship and He was doing it for you as He was for Simeon.
How appropriate that this song has found its place in the liturgy as the post-communion canticle where we get to sing of what we had just beheld, even held in our hands, the very Christ who shed His blood for our forgiveness as we leave the rail, this place, even this life, in peace. It is not as if God stood idly by and averted His eyes as we snuck through the fence and ran away to gain freedom. No, He tore down the fence. He gave us a writ of freedom. He pronounced absolution all because of the action undertaken by His Son, according to His promise from the first drop of blood in circumcision to the last drop of blood on the cross, He has proven good to His word. Go, in peace, in the name of Jesus. Amen.