SEEING GOD’S SALVATION
Byron C. Bangert
First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
January 9, 2000
Isaiah 52:7-10; Luke 2:21-40
Well, we made it through Y2K without major mishap. Even in places in the world that were less prepared, there were no major Y2K disasters. I am grateful for that, though some people seem to be disappointed. In some ways this sermon might be more compelling if there had been some disasters about which we were all aware, even some we had all experienced. Because our texts this morning arise out of situations in which the world is not right. They are words of hope and promise that have arisen out of circumstances that have not been particularly hopeful or promising.
Our text from Isaiah proclaims the end of the period of exile in Babylon for the people of Israel. The prophet celebrates the proclamation of good news, and peace, and salvation. The historical events behind this proclamation have to do with the defeat of Babylon at the hands of armies of Persia. Under Cyrus, the Persian ruler, the captive people of Israel will be allowed to return to their homes in Jerusalem and Judea. In an earlier passage the prophet actually calls this Cyrus God’s “anointed one,” that is, God’s messiah. So it is not as if the current situation is bleak; the current situation is full of promise: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”
This is like the newspaper headline that declares victory, the end of war! It’s been a long time since we’ve seen such a headline--in my lifetime, never. The Korean war, the VietNam war, the Gulf war, these hardly qualify. We are talking major, big-time victory, so far as the people of Israel in exile are concerned. As great or greater than the end of the Second World War. The Israelites are being set free; now they can go home. For the holy arm of God has been bared “before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”
God’s salvation in Isaiah is an event of major international proportions. It is the deliverance of the Israelites from Babylon, where they had been taken into exile when Jerusalem and Judah had been defeated almost 50 years before. Other nations will see this repatriation happening, as the prophet declares, and so God’s salvation will be manifest to all the world.
Hang on to that image of dramatic historical reversal as we turn to our text from the Gospel according to Luke. The scene is Jerusalem. Now there is no exile, as the captives have long since returned. Instead, there is occupation. Israel has come under the control of Rome. Somehow, in politics and world affairs, there always seem to be those who are the oppressors and those who are oppressed. Into such a world a child called Jesus was born to a woman and a man named Mary and Joseph. After having him circumcised and giving him this good Jewish name, and at the time of Mary’s purification, Luke says that they went to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. All this is done in accordance with the law of Moses. Jesus is a first-born son, for whom sacrifices are to be made unto God.
It happens that in the temple there is a man named Simeon, righteous and devout, who is waiting for the consolation of Israel, and a woman, Anna, who is looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. That is to say, Simeon and Anna are still waiting for the fulfillment of the promise of Isaiah and others of the prophets, a promise that seems to have been only partially fulfilled. It seems that they are waiting for Israel and her major city to be comforted and made whole, set free from bondage and oppression, restored to former glory. Now Simeon is apparently quite old, and possibly near death, but it has been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he will not see death until he has seen God’s Messiah. And Anna is 84 and never leaves the temple, worshiping there with prayer and fasting night and day.
Seeing Jesus, Simeon takes the child in his arms and praises God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.” The words hearken back to our text from Isaiah. There, “all flesh” would see God’s salvation in the dramatic historical deliverance of Israel out of exile from Babylon by God’s messiah, Cyrus of Persia. Here, it is just an old man, faithful and devout, who says he sees, and what he sees is but a child, and the parents of the child, as they present him in the temple. But for him this child is God’s Messiah. And Anna agrees.
This story tells us many things. The salvation Simeon sees in this child is rather different from the salvation the prophet proclaimed that the whole world would see. The story anticipates the rest of the story that Luke will tell in his Gospel and the Book of Acts regarding the rapid spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ even to Rome. By the time of Luke’s writing, the temple in Jerusalem has once again been destroyed, this time by the Romans in 70 C.E., but Christianity has spread throughout much of the known world. What Simeon “sees” is what Luke sees, a world dramatically changing. God’s salvation has not included the restoration of Israel as a nation, however. Rather, in a profoundly different way, God’s presence and power and deliverance are being made known to all the nations in the name of Jesus the Christ.
Yet inside these larger themes of world history and world salvation, there is also this particular story itself. A young child, his first-time parents, an old man, and an old woman. If we zoom in on this story as a human story, perhaps we will notice some things that are pertinent to the larger story. It is clear that uke wants us to see Mary and Joseph as observant, faithful worshipers of God. All that they do is in keeping with the law of Moses, the Torah, the commandments of God. According to Leviticus, over a month would have to have passed before the events in the temple could have taken place. That is how long Mary would have been regarded as unclean.
Now many of you know what it is like for a young mother, any young mother, with a first-born child on her hands. It is not exactly like Christmas. Those first few days of ecstatic joy at the birth of a new-born child can hardly be sustained. Some years ago church historian Martin Marty had a little essay on whether baby Jesus had diaper rash. Of course, Marty concluded. What real child would not? So, we might imagine, here are Mary and Joseph, with this “mewling and puking” little baby who messes his diapers and has been keeping mom and dad from getting much sleep, even after all the visitors stop coming at all hours of the day and night [Shakespeare, “As You Like It,” II, vii, 139]. And here is Simeon, the old man, whose eyesight may be growing dim, but who notices this little child with his parents in the temple and picks him up in his arms and says, “my eyes have seen [God’s] salvation”!
Now what kind of a story is that? Well, it is not quite the story that Luke tells, but I think it does help us to “see” what Luke is trying to say. It is not in a dramatic demonstration of power, it is not in military might, it is not in the victory of armies, it is not in the defeat of the enemy, that God’s salvation is to be found. It is in an old man’s--and an old woman’s--hopes, and it is in a young couple’s devotion, and it is in a little child’s face, that God’s good purpose for us and the world is revealed. This is not to say that ordinary events are the only kinds of events in which God is revealed. It is rather to say that what we take to be ordinary may not be ordinary at all. What we take to be ordinary certainly is not without the presence of God.
In some ways I think Yogi Berra has the definitive commentary on this text. In his immortal words, “If I hadn’t believed it, I wouldn’t have seen it.” If Simeon and Anna hadn’t believed in God’s salvation, they would hardly have seen it in a little child. Most of the time for most of us, seeing is believing. That is a helpful and necessary way to think in trying to make sense of everything that we know through our senses. But there is always much more to life than we can actually sense or see. All that is hidden in the heart, all that possesses value and meaning, all that lies beyond the present as possibility, cannot be seen without somehow being believed. When we see with eyes of faith, we see because we are able to believe. And when we see with eyes of suspicion or distrust or fear, what we see is very different, and can hardly recognize the presence of God.
So it was that not everyone saw in Jesus what Simeon and Anna and Luke see in him. After blessing Jesus, Simeon says to his mother, 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.” One commentary on our text observes, “For waiting Israel, Jesus corresponded to none of its expectations” [Paul J. Achtemeier and J. Leland Mebust, PROCLAMATION 2: ADVENT AND CHRISTMAS, Series B, Fortress Press, 1981, p. 49]. Jesus was not exactly the kind of Messiah that anyone had in mind. But for some who hoped and believed, they were able to see in him God’s grace and truth.
“How disruptive a savior this one will be!” writes Wayne Saffen.
“Because of him many will fall from places of pre-eminence, dominance.
It is not simply that he comes and is accepted
And occupies the slot prepared for him in the going system.
Another set of values will give [people] rank and place.
As many will fall, so also many will rise through him:
Casualties of life, victims of oppression, neglected ones,
Outcast for all the usual reasons from straight society,
The first shall be last and the last shall be first”
[THE FIRST SEASON, 52-53].
Whatever some believed, they did not believe that he was God’s anointed one, and so they did not see God’s salvation in him. To paraphrase a popular song, they were looking for God in all the wrong places. Or they were looking for a different kind of God than was revealed in him. Or they were not really looking for God at all.
Simeon’s word here speaks of the rejection and opposition that culminated in Jesus’ death. What Simeon sees is not a sentimental vision of peace, but a peace that comes at great price. By their opposition to Jesus, the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And Mary, in particular, will suffer the pain of this rejection as well--”a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Here, above all, it is clear that God’s salvation is not to be seen in the dramatic, incontrovertible, historically momentous victory that makes itself self-evident to all the world. The salvation in which Simeon and Anna find peace is accessible only to those who can see with eyes of faith, only to those who are open to believe, to trust, to hope, and to the profound transformations and reversals that come when God’s priorities displace those of the powers that be.
In another week we will be celebrating the birthday of a man who saw God’s salvation in ways that many of his contemporaries were unable to see. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of what he saw in terms of a dream. It was a dream that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal.’” It was a dream that “one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” It was a dream that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It was a dream that “one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” [”I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963].
That’s the kind of dream, the kind of vision, the kind of hope, that we see in Simeon and Anna. It is not the kind of dream that is wishful thinking. In some ways it is a dangerous dream. It may be that it’s only when you’ve believed it that you can see it. And it may be that it’s only when you’ve seen it, that you can live it. Those who do not believe it may oppose it. They may even kill the messenger. But they cannot kill the dream.
Will we ever live to see the day when our best and highest hopes are fulfilled?
It depends on how we look at things! What did Simeon and Anna see? A mother and father bringing a child to be dedicated to God. But faith grants them a greater vision. In this child they see the consolation of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles,” the salvation of God. It is a vision, not of things as they appear, nor as they have been, but as they are and will be. It is fulfillment in the form of joyful foretaste and renewed promise. It is perhaps enough to live by, and enough to depart in peace. AMEN.