Sermon – Christmas 1 – Luke 2:22-38
Trinity Lutheran, Sheboygan, WI
“Depart in Peace”
The family is all gathered around. The doctors have given the grave news. “Time is short. Say your goodbyes.” The pastor is called, and he comes to the hospital. He, too, knew this might be coming. This faithful child of God, who had so often heard the word and received the gifts in the local communion of saints... was now going to join the communion of saints that rest in Christ. God's name is invoked. Scriptures are read. Prayers are said. Then the pastor sings a familiar little song,
“Lord now lettest thou thy servant, depart in peace, according to Thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people. A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end, amen.”
That child of God, that saint of God, departs in peace. That loved one leaves the family, and enters into a blessed rest, today with Christ, in paradise. Because of the promises of God in Jesus Christ, it is a departure in peace. It is sorrow, but sweet sorrow, grief, but not without hope.
We don't know much about Simeon. He was righteous, which meant he had faith in God's word. Perhaps he was a priest in the temple, or maybe just a regular fellow. We get the impression he was old, but it doesn't say exactly how old. But we know he'd been waiting. It was revealed to him by the Spirit that he would not die until he met the Messiah. Quite an unusual promise. And so those days, perhaps years of waiting made it all the more joyful when he saw the infant Lord, and he couldn't help but take the baby up in his arms. And he prayed, he sang in joy, that now he could die in peace. For I have seen your salvation, Lord, with my own eyes. And your salvation is here in this child.
God keeps his promises. He kept his promise to Simeon, and to all the people of Israel.
To get a better sense of this event, we should also understand what happened in Ezekiel 8 to 11. God's presence had been with his people – his glory – manifest among them for many years. He appeared to Moses in the burning bush. He went before them in the wilderness – a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. And when the temple was built by Solomon, God's presence, his glory, shrouded in a cloud came to dwell in that temple. It was an ongoing miracle and blessing that God would dwell among his people, in his temple.
But the time came when God withdrew that presence, that glory, and Ezekiel saw the cloud depart from the temple. An ominous day, for God departing was a sign of his wrath and judgment. The Abominations they were doing in his presence “drove him” away, and he showed Ezekiel, in a vision, how he was leaving the temple and saying to the people, “you're on your own”. Without God's protection, calamity would be just around the corner.
What sins of yours are an abomination before God? Oh, is that too strong a word for you? Would you prefer “character flaw” or “foible” or “peccadillo”? Perhaps a milk-toast admission that nobody is perfect and oh, gosh golly, we're all sinners so move on to the Gospel, pastor. But think for a moment of the gravity of your sin – each and every sin – which sends a message to God, “I don't want you. I don't need you. Go away. I'll make my own rules. I'll decide what's best, and it's some other god over here, thank you.”
Each and every sin is worthy of God withdrawing his presence from you. From our first parents who ate a forbidden fruit and were cast out of God's paradise, to you and I who drag his commandments through the mud on a daily basis. We don't deserve God in our life, in our world, in our presence. Our thoughts, words, and deeds tell him “Get out. Go away. Drop dead.”
And so God forsakes us, like he withdrew his presence from the temple long ago... or does he? No, instead he has forsaken Christ. He has left his own son alone to suffer the punishments of the cross. To take once for all the forsaking of God that all deserve. In the great mystery of Christ on the cross, God turned his back on his own Son, giving him over to a punishment that you and I deserve. To forgive all sins, little and big, peccadillo and abomination. And to bring us eternally to his presence through the blood of Christ.
Even after the exile ended and the temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt, God's glory, the cloud of his presence, didn't return. Yet his promise remained that one day his glory would return to the temple. And Simeon, in particular, was promised he would see it. What a surprise then, that God did return to his temple – not in a pillar of fire or cloud, not in a blazing chariot or bolt of lightning, but in a little baby, 40 days old. In the humility of a lowly infant, the Lord of Glory returns to his temple, to dwell with his people. “My eyes have seen your salvation” Simeon says, yes, and my hands have held him. “The Light to the Nations” Jesus, the Light of the World, and the “Glory of Israel” - the glory of God now returns.
But even more. For not only did he dwell in the building for a short time, a building which is now destroyed.... but He himself becomes the true temple, the true dwelling of God with man. In the flesh of the man, Jesus Christ, God dwells with his people forever. His permanent residence is as a human being, one of us, standing in the place of all of us. Fulfilling the law for us. Dying as a sacrifice for us. But as that temple of his body was destroyed, yes, in three days it was restored, and a new aspect of God's glory was revealed. For now not even death can contain his glory, nor can it contain the life of those who live and die in him. Jesus lives forever. We will live forever, in him.
Now that all the wrapping paper is put away and the decorations are coming down, now that all the shopping malls are putting up hearts for valentines day, and radio stations are back to their purely secular format, now that the world outside the walls of the church has moved on from Christmas – perhaps we can focus with even clearer vision. Let our eyes see, along with Simeon's, the salvation that God reveals to us in Jesus Christ.
For like Simeon, we get to see him, hold him, touch him. Not as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes presented at the temple. But as a crucified and risen and ascended Lord, who still comes under the humble forms of bread and wine. When you receive the sacrament this day, you can sing with Simeon, “Lord, you now let your servant depart in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation”. Yes, in the bread and wine that are Christ's body and blood, we have the salvation he promises and accomplishes. In this simple receiving of his gifts in faith, He gives Light and Glory to all. Forgiveness, life, salvation – blessings too great to fathom, to deep to ponder.
And having been so blessed, we can, and we do, depart in peace. We depart in peace from this altar – strengthened for service in our daily vocations. We depart in peace from each other and God, knowing all is forgiven in Christ. And we are even prepared to depart from this world, like Simeon, we can die in peace, knowing our sins are forgiven and our debt is paid. Yes, even if I die today, I know my salvation is sure in Jesus Christ.
Depart in peace. Depart in peace and faith and hope and joy, Christians. For you have seen his glory, the light of the world, the salvation of our God in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.