By Paul Koch –
The liturgy of the church seemed to simply become a part of me as I grew up in the church. I don’t remember ever having to study or learn the songs, I just seemed to know them. I had heard them sung from infancy throughout my life. These songs, though, shaped me in ways that I was unaware of. They allowed me to grow and learn and experience a deep and powerful confession of the faith. For instance, back in the days of coloring on the bulletin covers and eating cheerios from my mom’s purse I knew that when the Nunc Dimittis began that we were getting closer to the end of the service. It was the signal that everything was wrapping up. When the congregation stood and the organ began to play and everyone started to sing, “Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant…” I knew it wasn’t much longer until I would be out the door and on my way to freedom of post-church Sunday.
But as I grew into that song, as I began to mouth the words without looking at the hymn book, as I began to stand and sing along with the congregation, I found that I was participating in something really spectacular. In fact, when I began to join my brothers and sisters in Christ in receiving the gifts of the Lord’s Supper I found that my voice didn’t only join with those gathered around me, but together we were singing ancient words: words the church had sung for generations. They are the words first sung by a man named Simeon in the temple in Jerusalem.
Simeon was a man filled with the Holy Spirit. He was waiting for the coming of the Messiah. In fact, he was told by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So on the day that Mary and Joseph bring the Christ child to the temple to offer the appropriate sacrifice, Simeon was there. Imagine the excitement, the anticipation in Simeon’s heart as he looked through the crowd hoping to spy the arrival of the promised one. And then he sees them. Imagine as he presses through the people making his way toward that family. Once he greets them, he scoops up this infant child in his arms and says, “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.”
What an incredible confession, what a powerful thing to say. But to hold on to a baby, to clutch a child and declare that here you see the salvation of God is a statement with powerful consequences. So after this ancient song, Simeon turns to Mary and speaks words that are much more somber and even frightening. “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” This child, which of course they already know is the Son of God, this child is marked for the fall and rise of many. This child is the line drawn in the sand, the dividing marker which will either be embraced or vehemently opposed.
But this is what happens when salvation is not just an idea but a child. This opposition is to be expected when our hope is not something that is prayed about or meditated upon but is actually living and breathing and walking upon the earth. What Simeon sings about as he holds the Christ child is that salvation rests completely outside of ourselves. Our hope, our security, our assurance and comfort rest in another, in the child born of Mary. And such a thing will bring with it more than a few detractors. Such a confession will bring powerful opposition.
Our Lord Jesus Christ will rightly be called a stumbling block. A stone that you will either stumble over or be crushed by. But in the end there is no avoiding it. And this is perhaps what is so offensive about our salvation arriving in the arms of Mary and Joseph. For our Lord’s life will be one where everything else that we want to cling to, everything else that we deem to be important for our salvation will be stripped away. Again, our salvation is completely outside of us. It isn’t our best intentions, or our feelings, or our deepest desires that save but Jesus alone. He is a “light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.” But this was an insult to the works and religious orders of men.
What Simeon sees in his arms is an end to the quest for men to move closer to God by their own deeds, what he sees is a shocking revelation that even their best deeds are not good enough, for salvation had to come to them, salvation had to be born. Here we witness how Jesus is the great stumbling block, for he begins to strip away everything else we want to cling to. If we were tempted to believe that hope and security and identity is found in the things of this world, we find in Jesus one who slowly and methodically strips such things away from us. What does our financial security have to do with the child born of Mary? What does our popularity and prestige in society gain us before the one held in the arms of Simeon? If this child is our salvation, then your works and your honors and accomplishments cannot be your salvation. They cannot be your security. They cannot be your hope.
But we have a hard time letting go of our deeds. Jesus may very well strip them away from those worldly people who reject his coming, but we are in the church. We believe in His arrival; we celebrate His coming. And so we soon begin to think that if we continue in our confession, if we go through the religious motions of our given church, why then we can be sure of our salvation. Just as those outside of the church look to their own doings for their security and identity, so we do the same thing. We have a habit of finding our security and identity in going to the right church, saying the right prayer, or supporting the right ministry. But just as that child strips away the eternal claims of the world, so he strips away the saving claims of the churches. Anything that distorts, or adds to, or shifts the focus from the child born in Bethlehem is ultimately stripped away.
All that we are left with in the end, all that we have to hold on to, the only thing which we can find eternal security and hope is our Lord Jesus Christ. This child is marked as one who will turn the world upside down, marked for the fall and rising of many. He is the point at which all our efforts to gain salvation and security break into pieces. He is the place at which our broken lives are reborn in strength and hope.
And when it is all stripped away, when we are left without anything else to grab a hold of, when all our work and efforts and schemes lie crumbled upon the ground before our Lord, why then this marked child does something amazing. He reaches out when we have nowhere else to hide and begins to mark us. He marks us in the waters of Holy Baptism, sealing us as his own brothers and sisters, children of the Heavenly Father and heirs with Him of eternal life. He marks us upon the head and heart as those redeemed by his blood. When we have nothing else of our own to hold on to, when it has all been stripped away, when all that we have is Christ, we find that we have everything. Hope, security, life, salvation, forgiveness and love are ours – for we have been marked by the child born of Mary.
Simeon’s song is a song of one who has been marked, one who is ready to depart in peace because he has seen salvation. This is another thing that I learned growing into this song. A song that first just alerted me that we were getting close to the end of the service, a song that I learned to sing more vigorously after I too saw the salvation of God in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, is a song I have since sung at the funeral of many of God’s saints who indeed did depart in peace. This ancient song focuses us on the heart of our faith. It strips away all other pretenses and directs us to the Lord who came in manger, and cross, and Word and Sacrament. So, we too can join with Simeon and all God’s faithful in boldly singing, “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.”