[Simeon en Anna, Jan van’t Hoff]
I’m going to tell you some truth tonight, the best I know how.
Writing this series has gotten harder. I’m not telling you that to get you to say it’s good. I’m telling you that to help explain what I’m talking about.
A good friend affirmed me for keeping up this series, saying, “You’ve written it for two weeks in a row. I don’t do anything besides get out of bed for two weeks in a row.” I know what he meant and took it as a genuine compliment.
Writing it has felt a bit like composing twenty sermons in a row. I don’t often do that. No, I’ve never done that. When I do write a sermon, usually I preach that sermon, which wipes me out, and then I’m done for a while. I don’t turn around and write another and another. Plus, preaching is a different experience than writing. I’ve often said I experience God most when I’m preaching. Writing…sometimes.
I’ve wanted to stop this series, or skip a night (no, of course I didn’t write any of this ahead of time and yes, of course, I’m staying up late each night to write them), because I’m worn out. I’ve had several people tell me they enjoy it or even that it’s helping, but I’m certain the world will turn still and people will go on and know God even if I stop.
But when I started, I felt like I was to write all the way through Advent, and I am. It’s costing me. If you aren’t a writer, that might sound like, “I have to show up for work twenty-four whole days in a row.” If you are a writer, you probably know the skirmish going on inside me that makes this hard.
I haven’t gotten to that truth yet. It’s coming.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Jesus’ parents were poor; they offered the sacrifice allowed for people living in poverty. This isn’t the sacrifice everyone makes, but the one people make who could afford only two young pigeons. It’s a critical detail to understand the story.
Then this happened:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God,
We don’t know how long Simeon waited for the Messiah to arrive in the Temple. We infer a very long time. Simeon was a righteous and devout man, which turns out to be not that common of a description of people in the Bible, if you read through it. How many can you list? Yes, there are some, but not many. The Holy Spirit rested on him. Guess what? Very few got that description. Not only did Simeon have the Holy Spirit upon him, the Holy Spirit had informed him of something very specific. That itself stands out, that God let him know the future, in a manner of speaking. Not all the circumstances, but Simeon knew what would happen. It did.
A poor couple walked into the Temple and it happened. Simeon saw the Lord’s Messiah. In his flesh he saw God, whom he saw on his side, and his eyes beheld, and not another. God’s Spirit had told him this would happen and God’s Spirit told him when it happened. “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the Temple…” Simeon identifies this baby distinct from all the other babies in Jerusalem and speaks forth a prophecy, then tells Mary a personal prophecy, as well.
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
I’ve speculated with friends at what age Anna got married. So have Bible scholars. Conservatively, if she got married at 17, she’s been in the Temple for sixty years. Simeon prophesies but is not described as a prophet; Anna is. She lives in the Temple and fasts and prays night and day. We’re impressed with her, but she would have been no one then, no power, no wealth, not one of the priestly class, no official role in the Temple. Did God’s Spirit lead her directly to identify Jesus, or did God tell her indirectly through hearing Simeon’s declaration? She didn’t have to be told to go the Temple. God chose her as one of two witnesses to Jesus.
Simeon says, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word…” I’ve tried to imagine what it would take in my life for me to feel ready to tell God, “Okay, I’m good. All is complete for me now. I can go.”*
Simeon tells us it’s this: “…for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
What would that take for you? Anna simply joins in, glorifying God and telling people who hoped for Messiah, “Look, here. Right here.”
We don’t know more about either Anna or Simeon. They testified to who Jesus was. That’s the part both play in this wondrous drama, the task God gave them, their partnership in God’s Kingdom. Why?
From all I can see, they were faithful.
They showed up.
They watched years and years, decades of Roman occupation. They saw corrupt kings, hypocritical high priests, evil priests claiming to be righteous. They saw much to discourage them that God would follow through.
They kept showing up.
They did what they knew God had given them, what they knew to be right. They spent time with God. They lived their faith, every day. For perhaps half a century, perhaps seventy years. Every day. I doubt they were perfect. I suspect they had doubts. But they showed up and kept acting on what they knew, what they had seen, how they believed God led them.
When the time came, they trusted God enough that they did not question about a poor family carrying an outwardly unremarkable baby. They didn’t rationalize away the nudge they felt from God. (Have you ever done that and then wondered afterward, “Wait, was that God?” I know I have.) Simeon looked at this baby, going only on the inner tug he felt from God, and said, “Okay, I’m ready to die now. My life is complete.”
Faithfulness is showing up. Faithfulness is continuing to do right, to do what God has taught you, even when that looks ridiculous. Even when everyone around you seems to be explaining that you misunderstood, that “this is why it’s okay to ignore those things in our current situation,” faithfulness means continuing to walk with God.
Does it matter to anyone if I complete this series? Maybe not. But I think God said to, and I haven’t heard much direction from God lately, so I’m going to.
To be faithful, we have to overcome, or simply keep disbelieving, the voice that says, “It’s not that big of a deal. You’ve done good enough. Nobody’s perfect.” It gets doubly tricky because sometimes we’ve taken on things God never gave us, sometimes we are trying to keep a law we made for ourselves, and how are we to tell the difference? What if God is saying, “Let it go. Don’t be a legalist. Enjoy my freedom. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Faithfulness turns out to be a crucial part of grace, because grace tells us we don’t have to be perfect, we don’t have to achieve, we don’t have to be high caliber or capable. We just have to try. We just have to show up. God is pleased with our effort to use whatever gifts we have, whatever ability, great or small, and whatever strength we’re given. When we say “God judges the heart” we mean this.
What is faithfulness in a failing marriage? What is faithfulness when the people around you are doing evil, or cheering for evil, and you are powerless to stop them? What is faithfulness to love a parent who no longer recognizes you or a child who only resents you?
Anna was a widow for a very long time. We get only a snippet of her life, literally the best day of her life. She had bad days, maybe rough years. She kept showing up.
Time for that truth. I feel empty a lot. Something is missing, something hurts more than I can (or will) allow myself to look at straight on for more than a few moments at a time. Maybe I’m burnt out from seven years in Nicaragua. Maybe I’m still suffering reverse culture-shock and loss from leaving a country that fell into violence and chaos just as we said “Goodbye.” Maybe there are other losses that I’m grieving that I can’t even speak.
I’m not telling you this seeking pity or “fishing for compliments,” as my dad used to say.
Writing takes courage because you risk rejection, indifference, and realizing that you’ve poured time and effort into something that didn’t matter to anyone. The more you open up and pour yourself into the work, the greater that risk.
It’s a lot like relationships.
Here, then, faithfulness matters the most.
If what matters most are results, then the wiser (or more prudent) decision may be not to try. If it’s either succeed or fail, and only the bottom line counts, I’d recommend trying only if you can be pretty darned sure you’ll pull it off.
But faithfulness works differently. Faithfulness means my relationship with God makes the risk worthwhile, because even if I fail, what God does in me and through me means more. Following Jesus gives me a different bottom line. I can’t see what happens through my faithfulness, probably ever. I can only trust that if God tells me to try, it’s worth trying.
So we show up.
Like Anna and Simeon.
*This is very different than “Oh, God, just come back or make it end already, I can’t take any more. In a sense, this is the opposite, not “I can take no more” but “This is all I desire and I want nothing more.”