Nunc Dimitis

Series: Advent Songs

Sermon by David Strain on Dec 20, 2015

Luke 2:22-38

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If you would please take a copy of the Scriptures and turn with me in them to page 857 in the church Bibles to Luke’s gospel, chapter 2; reading verses 21 through 35. I was handed a newspaper cutting and a suggestion from one of our senior elders this morning in light of the season and the excitement surrounding it that I ought to preach on a Star Wars Christmas! Sorry to disappoint you, but we’re going to think about Simeon’s song, the last of the four Advent songs that we’ve been considering together that frame Luke’s announcement and discussion and record of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

You will remember that we thought together three weeks ago, four weeks ago, about Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in the beginning of our time together there in chapter 1. She praises God for the child she was then carrying who would be the Savior. We looked at Zechariah’s great hymn of praise, the Benedictus, and he anticipates his son, John the Baptist, becoming the forerunner, preparing the way for the Lord Himself to step onto the scene of history in the person of Christ. And then last time we thought about the song of the angels, the Gloria, singing in the fields above Bethlehem the coming of Christ, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace among those with whom God is pleased!” And now today we’ve come to the final of the four Christmas carols that begin Luke’s gospel, the song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimitus, as it’s often known from the Latin of the first line of the song, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.” Before we consider its message together, however, let me ask if you’d bow your heads with me as we pray. Let’s pray!

Our Father, the Lord Jesus is a Light for revelation to the nations, to the Gentiles, and a glory for Your people, Israel. Grant, O God, that His light may shine into all our hearts that we may know You and come to You and find with Simeon the great satisfaction of our lives having found the Lord Jesus Christ. Would You work by Your Word and Spirit to that end among us now we pray, in Jesus’ name, amen.

Luke chapter 2 at the twenty-first verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

 

And 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 male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’ Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

 

‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’

 

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘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 thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.’”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.

William Whiting Borden was born in Chicago, November 1, 1887, to a wealthy silver mining family, and while he was in high school, Borden came under the preaching and was converted through the ministry of the great R. A. Torrey. After he graduated from Yale University he went on to Princeton Theological Seminary and there resolved to surrender his fortune, his family wealth, and to dedicate himself to missionary service seeking to reach the Muslim peoples living in Northern China with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Visiting Egypt, however, at the very beginning of his missionary career, he contracted cerebral meningitis and he died. His Bible was found after his death and inside were inscribed three phrases, each written at one of three phases in his life, in his Christian walk. When he resolved and consecrated himself for missionary service at university, he wrote on that occasion inside his Bible, “No reserves.” Nothing held back. He would surrender his life in the service of Jesus Christ. And then, having graduated from Yale, a well-connected, wealthy young man, he was offered prestigious and enticing business opportunities that seemed to divert him from a course of missionary service, but his resolve was strong. He would not be diverted. And so he wrote in his Bible, “No retreat.” No reserves. No retreat. And then arriving in Africa at the very beginning of his missionary career, just before he died, he penned a third phrase in his copy of the Scriptures. He was twenty-five years old when the Lord brought him home to glory and he wrote in his Bible just before he saw the Lord, “No regret.” No reserves. No retreat. No regrets. The last line of his epitaph says this about William Borden:  “Apart from faith in Christ there is no explanation for such a life.” No reserves. No retreat. No regrets. Apart from Jesus Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.

In many ways, you might say much the same thing about Simeon as we meet him in the passage before us. In verse 26 we learn that Simeon had been told by God through the Spirit that he would not die before seeing the Lord’s Christ, the Messiah. And as the baby Jesus is brought into the temple by His parents in accordance with the Law of Moses, Simeon realizes this child is the child for which he has been looking and waiting all these years. He is, we are told, a man of God, a devout man, a man who had dedicated himself to the service of his God. A man who might say, “No reserves,” as he gave himself to life on the Lord’s terms. He has been waiting all these years for the consolation of Israel. No retreat. He has been faithful in walking with God. And now as he sees Mary and Joseph and the baby Mary carries he recognizes the one for whom he has been waiting. The Lord’s salvation has come in the person of this child and he can say, “No regrets. Now, now at last my life is complete. I am satisfied.” And he lifts up his heart and voice and declares, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your Word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” The moment had come! The salvation of God was here! He had seen it with his own eyes, held it with his own arms - this child, this person, Jesus Christ. Isn’t he says, “No reserves. No retreat. No regrets.” Satisfied. At rest. Complete. Now that Jesus has come.

How do you make sense of Simeon’s song, Simeon’s life? No reserves. No retreat. No regrets. How do you make sense of a life like that? What was it that Borden’s epitaph said? “Apart from faith in Christ there is no explanation for such a life.” The explanation for such a life is Jesus! And in the larger context of the passage before us, the text that we read, I want you to see two big ideas about Jesus that help explain and show us where such a life may come from that, with William Borden and with Simeon, we too may begin to know that deep and profound contentment and satisfaction and sense of completeness that comes from knowing Jesus. If you’ll look at the passage, 21 through 32, you will see that there are two large themes that Luke emphasizes quite clearly and distinctly. In verses 21 through 24, Luke is concerned to show us the ceremonial and ritual requirements of the Law of Moses being carefully observed. There is a repeat phrase, “according to the Law of the Lord” used over and over again in these verses. And then in verses 25 through 32, there’s another repeat phrase in the second portion of the passage. If you look at verse 25, “the Holy Spirit was upon him.” Verse 26, “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit.” Verse 27, “he came in the Spirit into the temple.” This time the prophetic ministry of the Holy Spirit is the focus of this part of the passage. And so these two great themes, the ceremonial obligations of the Law of the Lord and the prophetic work of the Spirit of God dominate the passage. And what I want you to see is that Jesus Christ, this infant brought into the temple on that day that captures Simeon’s heart, is the fulfillment of the ceremonial obligations of the Law of the Lord and is Himself the final and climactic expression of God’s commitment to showing the world Himself by His prophetic Word.

  1. The Ceremonial Obligations of the Law of the Lord

Look at the passage with me and let’s think first of all about verses 21 through 24. And notice here the three ceremonies that Luke records. The three ceremonies. The first is the ceremony of circumcision, the sign of the covenant that God had made with Abraham. And as we’ve gone through these four songs at the beginning of Luke’s gospel we’ve seen how important the covenant with Abraham has been for Luke in explaining the significance of Jesus’ coming. Mary, you will remember, sang about God’s covenant and promise to Abraham and to his offspring forever, chapter 1 at verse 35. And in verse 72 and 73, Zechariah in very similar terms, sang about God’s holy covenant, the oath He swore to our father Abraham. And in much the same vain in chapter 2 and verse 10, the angel who announced the coming of Christ to the shepherds borrows his language and vocabulary from the covenant promise made to Abraham. You remember the promise? That “in your seed, in your child, all the nations of the earth would be blessed.” And the angel therefore declares to the shepherds a message of good news of great joy that will be for all the people. The covenant promise of God is a major theme in the songs of praise that frame Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth.

The covenant promise of God and the sign of circumcision.

And the sign of the covenant promise given to Abraham and to his children and to his children’s children was the sign of circumcision. Every male descendent of Abraham would have been circumcised. Jesus’ family, like countless others across the ages, countless others, no doubt, in the town of Bethlehem even, were simply obeying the command of Leviticus 12 verse 3 that the sign of the covenant should be administered after eight days. It was not a remarkable scene; it was frankly mundane, domestic, ordinary. No one would have given this child or His parents or their activity on this occasion a second glance or a second thought as this child is marked with the sign of the covenant. But we know, don’t we, and Simeon in just a few short weeks is about to learn for himself the true significance of this child and the moment the weight that attaches to his circumcision. This is not any child, any descendent of Abraham. Who is He? He is the son of Abraham to whom the covenant promise pointed, in whom the promise would be realized. He is the child of the covenant. No wonder Simeon’s song is filled with those notes of relief and rest and satisfaction and completion. It was not just, don’t you see, not just the word of promise that God had made to him particularly, verse 26, not just that that promise was being fulfilled, but that the promise made to the fathers, the promise made to Abraham not just for himself but for blessing to the whole world was now being fulfilled. And so Simeon would sing verse 31, that God’s salvation had come, salvation prepared in the presence of all peoples. Prepared, that is, according to the terms of God’s ancient covenant plan to bring salvation to the ends of the earth. And so Simeon sings for joy and with deep contentment. This tiny baby in his arms is the fulfillment of the ancient promise. Who would not sing at such a moment? In Jesus, God has kept His Word.

Mary’s Ritual Purification.

And then look at verse 22. Luke presses fast-forward and we skip ahead about five weeks after the date of Jesus’ circumcision. Mary and Joseph and their infant son are now in Jerusalem at the temple. They’ve come, Luke tells us, for two reasons. The first, verse 22, is for The covenant promise of God, Jesus’ mother. They’ve come for her cleansing. Leviticus 12 verses 1 to 4 tells us that for a period of forty days after child birth a mother was to be considered ritually unclean. At the end of that period she was to bring to the temple two sacrifices - a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon for a sin offering. The priest would offer them and make atonement for the sin of the mother. It was a symbolic way to say that sin passes from generation to generation and it therefore requires cleansing and atonement and purification. That’s why, for example, David could confess in Psalm 51, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.” We are sinners by nature. We sin because we are sinners. We’re not simply sinners because we sin. And so atonement was necessary. That’s why Mary is there in the temple, to receive the emblems and the symbol of forgiveness and cleansing and pardon.

And it’s precisely at this point in Luke’s account, I wonder if you see it, that we begin to notice sweet, rich, Gospel irony. After all, to whom will these sacrifices point us? Mary and Joseph apparently are too poor to provide a lamb and so Leviticus 12 verse 8, as verse 24 tells us, they could bring instead two turtledoves or two young pigeons. But they make sacrifice. To whom do the sacrifices point? Don’t they point to the holy, harmless, undefiled Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself? Do you understand what is happening here? Mary is making sacrifice for her own ritual cleansing while holding in her arms the child whose own blood is the meaning of the sacrifices she offers! The infant she carries is the Lamb who would make her truly clean. It’s a stunning moment! The true significance of what is taking place that morning in the temple would only find its full and clear explanation at Calvary when her child would shed His blood, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God. Cleansing comes by Jesus Christ, the one “who knew no sin, who became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” “Not all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain, could give the guilty conscience peace or wash away the stain. But Christ, the heavenly Lamb, takes all our sins away. A sacrifice of nobler name and richer blood than they.” Jesus makes us clean! Here’s the great Christmas gift. You can be clean by trusting Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The stain of guilt and sin, the sting of shame, washed away, purified, cleansed by the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the covenant child. There’s the theme of covenant fulfillment. There’s the theme of cleansing, purification. Jesus is the ultimate source of that cleansing.

Jesus is Consecrated to the Lord.

Thirdly, there’s the theme of consecration. Look at verses 22 and 23. Jesus is presented to the Lord. As it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.’” Exodus 13:2 required that every firstborn son be consecrated to the Lord. Parents, of course, could continue to raise their child provided they redeemed him by offering a sacrifice and paying a redemption price. Now grasp those twin themes again - consecration to God and redemption by the payment of a price and the shedding of blood. Don’t you see once again the rich Gospel irony of this moment? Here is Jesus Christ being dedicated and consecrated, made holy to the Lord according to the Law of Moses, for whom a redemption price is paid, who is Himself the price of our redemption that we who are wayward sinners might be consecrated to the Lord. So Mary brings her son, who is nonetheless God’s eternally begotten Son, who He sent forth in the fullness of time to be born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law. Jesus is our redemption price for whom Mary paid the price of redemption in the temple that day.

You see the point. Jesus Christ is the one who gives us true freedom. He sets us free. He buys us back. He is our ransom, our deliverer. He gives freedom to us. Jesus is the one by whom the promises of God are kept and fulfilled. You may trust God because Christ has come. Jesus is the one who provides true cleansing that your conscience may be clean in the sight of God and your record washed clean of every sin and stain in the blood of Christ. And Jesus is the one who brings to us true, abiding, lasting freedom who is our ransom price. And so Simeon knows satisfaction and rest and a sense of profound completeness because the child he carries in his arms that day, over whom he sings his song, is a perfect, complete Savior to him and to us all.

  1. The Prophetic Work of the Spirit of God

Then secondly, notice that Simeon sings as he does not just because Jesus fulfills the meaning of the ceremonies of the Law, but because Jesus is God’s final Word. In Jesus, God is showing Himself to us. Notice how Simeon is characterized in verses 25 through 28. Over and over again Luke highlights the role and ministry of the Holy Spirit in Simeon’s life. Simeon is being portrayed here as an oracle, a prophet of the living God, guided by the Holy Spirit; even guided in terms of his footsteps that morning into the temple that he might meet Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus. One wonders if he stood in astonishment and holy awe as he watched that family make their way forward to the priest, as they offered sacrifice for cleansing and for purification. And as Jesus is presented and consecrated to the Lord to be holy to God, was Simeon simply staggered as that flash of supernatural recognition stole through him as he saw, “This child is Himself the Lord’s salvation! Cleansing, pardon, redemption, freedom is bound up not in the blood of bulls and goats, not in the blood of lambs and pigeons and turtledoves, but in the blood of this child, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Simeon’s Proclamation Concerning Jesus.

Well however it happened, he takes the child in his arms and with a heart that is swelling in gratitude and in glorious relief he begins to sing the praises of Almighty God. Notice what he says. Not only is Jesus the fulfillment of God’s Word to Simeon and the fulfillment of God’s promise to our fathers and to Abraham, Jesus, Simeon tells us, is actually God’s final climactic word to the world. Verse 32, Jesus is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for his people, Israel.” He’s borrowing imagery from the prophecy of Isaiah, isn’t he? We read earlier from Isaiah chapter 9 that Jesus is the one in whom the people who walked in darkness would see a great light. Or, Isaiah 42:6, “I will give you as a covenant for the peoples a light for the nations to open eyes that are blind.” Isaiah 49:6, “I will make you as a light for the nations that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” Or Isaiah 60:1-3, “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. The Lord will arise upon you and his glory will be seen upon you and nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising.” The light of the knowledge of the glory of God now shines from the face of Jesus Christ. The truth is, Isaiah has been telling us and Simeon knows, by nature we wander in darkness but Jesus Christ is the light that penetrates and pierces the dark. By nature, we don’t know the truth. But Jesus is divine revelation, a light for revelation to the nations. We are spiritually deaf, but Jesus is the Word who makes us hear.

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,” Simeon among them. But Hebrews 1:1, “In these last days God has spoken to us by His Son.” “Hail the heaven born Prince of Peace. Hail the Son of righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings.” Jesus is a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory to His people, Israel. So He is the climax and the fulfillment not just of the symbols and the ceremonies of the Law - covenant, cleansing, consecration. He’s also the climax of prophesy, the summation of revelation, which is another way to say simply this - God’s heart unveiled that you may know Him in the baby of Bethlehem and the man of Calvary and the Lord who reigns on the throne. My old theology professor liked to say, you’ve heard me say this before now more than once, that “in God there is nothing unChristlike at all.” There is no unChristlikeness in God. You want to know God? Look at Jesus Christ! Here is your God, laid in a manger. Here is your God come down that you may know Him, carried that morning into the temple for whom sacrifices were made who would be the great final sacrifice. Here is your God! Loving you, giving himself for you, to draw you in. Jesus is God’s invitation to come and know Him for yourself. You see Him in the face of Jesus Christ. God’s last, final great word. Everything He would say to you is found in Him. Look to Christ and know your God.

While Simeon sings a hymn of deep contentment and satisfaction, “You can let me go. My life is complete. I am at peace. No reserves, no retreat, and now no regrets!” Apart from faith in Christ there is no explanation for such a life. But as you see the Christ Simeon saw, don’t you see the source of such a life opened for you? Jesus Christ, the one upon whom to base and found your life for time and eternity that you, with William Borden or with Simeon might say, “No reserves. I will give my all for Him who gave His all for me. No retreat. I will never back off from following Him who was poured out even unto death that I might live. And no regrets because in Jesus I have found ultimate satisfaction, true contentment, and real joy.” May the Lord be gracious to you and enable you this Christmas to sing Simeon’s song with deep contentment and true peace. May the Lord bless His Word to you. Let us pray!

Our Father, we pray that amidst the Christmas lights and the glitter and tinsel of it all, that You would show us the true Light that pierces the darkness that is Jesus Christ, a light for revelation to the nations, God’s final Word. Help us to hear Him, to see Him, to know Him, to find in Him true peace, ultimate rest, true satisfaction, final contentment for our souls. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

©2015 First Presbyterian Church.

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