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Text: Luke 2:22-40
Does God encourage Simeon’s foolish expectations?
The story in the Gospel passage takes place when Jesus is just 40 days old. Brought to the Temple in Jerusalem with his parents, he is seen by Simeon. Simeon took his own faith and its teachings seriously. You would call him religious. He had been told that in his life he would see the coming of the Messiah, a man who would restore Israel to its glorious position as a great and powerful nation. Not one under the thumb of Rome and ruled by petty and corrupt tyrants. When he sees Jesus, Simeon declares that his life’s wait is over. His wait is over. Jesus is the one he expected.
Yet it never happened the way Simeon hoped. In the story, these events happened at the beginning of the life of Jesus. But the story itself was written much later, nearly 100 years later. And by then Jerusalem had been conquered and sacked. The Temple in which the story takes place was destroyed seventy years after Jesus’ birth and before Luke wrote his Gospel. Simeon’s expectations were met only in the story, never in history.
Expectations are difficult and sometimes cruel masters. They start innocently, with a vision of what might be. Wouldn’t it be great if such and such happened? A fine job or a life’s good companion or a house in the country. In the case of Israel at the time of Jesus and Simeon, perhaps a vision of a free and restored Israel. Then to this vision is added a sense that what we hope for is what should be. That is, what we imagine is what we deserve, is natural and logical. Or predicted, by our parents, say, or our friends, or perhaps by a prophet. And finally vision and destiny merge into a kind of confident inevitability. Which becomes a focus and guide for our lives, part of the central story, a part which seems already written but as yet unrealized.
For this reason, unfulfilled expectations can shatter us. Expectations not fulfilled change us. Expectations seem as real as history. They can be as much a part of us as our past. Expectations are not the same as goals. Goals can be met more or less well. A partially realized goal is an accomplishment. But an expectation can only be met or not. And usually not, for no reality can equal the power of our visionary imaginations and hopes.
The destruction of the Temple in the year 70 shattered Israel’s view of itself and of its future. Israel’s expectations, personified in Simeon, were never met.
So how did this sad story ever make it into Luke? Why not leave it out, or remove it?
The expectation of Simeon was an expectation of power. The title Messiah, or Christ, means anointed one. The anointed one was king. The king was the national and religious ruler. The Messiah was a savior in the sense that he would save Israel from being conquered and oppressed, and would restore Israel’s greatness.
Yet the vision that was the foundation of Israel’s expectations was not one of power. It was a vision of light. The goal God set for Israel was not to rule other people and other lands. It was to be a good example to those people and lands. As Simeon sings when he picks up Jesus, Israel’s hope and destiny were to be a light to the nations. Israel was to be light like a beacon, a guide to what is good and godly. And to be light like a spot light, revealing God in all things. The Messiah was not to be a swinger of swords but a swinger of lanterns.
Evangelism, which means spreading the good news, is an activity of action, not of talk. It is a do what I do kind of thing. Not a do what I say kind of thing. Our friend Martin Luther spoke a lot of about the Word of God, but the words of God speak with us in what we do. Our salvation is not dependent on works, Luther reminded us. But it is expressed in works. The word of God goes out from us in works. It is what people see in us and our lives that makes us evangelical bearers of good news. Makes us lights to others.
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen. We know about Stephen from the book of Acts. You can read about him mostly in chapters six and seven. Stephen was a leader of the church and was also its first martyr, and much of the readings have to do with his execution by stoning. But he is known mostly for forgiving his executioners. His last words were “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Saint Stephen’s Day is always the day after Christmas, so this year it was this past Friday. St Stephen’s Day has traditionally been a day for the redistribution of wealth. In a minor way. That is, rich ladies and gentlemen would give gifts to the poor. The Feast of Stephen is a day for being grateful for all the abundance most of us have and realizing that we are called to share some of that with those who have little or nothing.
The closing hymn for today is Good King Wenceslas, who in the song brings food, wine, and firewood to a hungry and freezing peasant. He does this at peril to himself and his companion, but his goodness prevails, and they are kept warm on their mission. The closing words are: Therefore, Christians, be sure, you who have wealth or status, when you bless the poor, you yourselves will find blessing. Or to put it another way, when you provide light, you will find light.
To be a light to others requires humility, trust, and courage. It requires a sense that we are not greater than one another and that we do not therefore deserve more than they. It requires trusting that God will watch over us and provide for us as Jesus tells us God does, even when we make ourselves vulnerable. As caring for others always makes us. And it requires that, since being humble and trusting is scary and can lead to uncertain adventures, we are able to act in the face of fear.
In that, we expect to have God’s help. When Simeon is expecting God, the word that Luke uses means “receptive” or “open to God.” This story in Luke, written long after it should have been proven false by the events of history, is not mostly a story of history. It does not suggest that God encourages Simeon in his foolishness.
The story tells us more about God than it does about us. It does suggest, it seems to me, that God is a creature of expectations, too. That even though we, like Simeon, have been disappointed, we find that God continues to be with us in vision, destiny, and confidence. That God’s expectations, at least part of them and in some way we can partially understand, endure.
Expectations can be cruel and hurtful. But they also can support us in hope. We are made in the image of God, we are children of God, and we in our faith expect that the world will someday be as God intended it to be. And in the meantime, we continue to expect that, even though it sometimes takes more humility, trust, and courage than we can find in ourselves, we will with God’s help be a light to others.