The Christmas Story invites us to more than just a traditional reading of Matthew or Luke’s account each December. It is an invitation of participation and imagination. “The story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all,” Frederick Buechner writes. Influenced by Jason Gray’s album Christmas Stories, Russ Ramsey’s book Behold the Lamb of God. and a sermon by John Kinlaw at my church, I began to put myself in the shoes of this faithful servant Simeon. His part in the story is short but incredibly pivotal. What did he experience and think leading up to this day when he himself beheld the Lamb of God? Outside of the Scripture passage of Luke 2:25-35 used here, it is completely conjecture and imagination filling the gaps on my part. But it centers on one characteristic of Simeon – anticipation. So set your imagination loose and walk with me through the life of Simeon, a faithful servant of the Lord who anticipated His coming.
There was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was an older man, quite older than the average man was expected to live. It seemed as though he would never die. But his age was just the first of extraordinary things about this man. To see him at a distance was to see a slow, methodical walk as if every step mattered. To look into his face was to find an unexplainable glow, a fire burning beneath the wrinkled skin, a fire that found its outlet in his eyes. His gaze was piercing, but warm and peaceful. He certainly didn’t talk like most others did, either. He was fond of the old stories of Scripture and the God who was unfailing in His promises. He delivered them eagerly and earnestly with the edge of an ache and a longing. It was convicting to hear him speak with child like wonder and trust in the tales.
Simeon rose one morning the same as he had done for what seemed an age – with anticipation. He put on his robes and prepared a breakfast of fresh fish and bread. He lowered his head to pray God’s blessing on the meal. This prayer was not a matter of habit – none of his prayers were. He was beginning yet another conversation with Yahweh. Like a star-crossed lover, Simeon hung to these times, even for something as simple as his prayer before a meal. As he opened his mouth to pray, however, he found a force holding his tongue. He felt compelled to listen instead. In the silence of that moment, an urge rushed upon him. “Eat quickly, grab your staff, and head for the Temple. It’s time.” It was all Simeon could do to keep from choking on the fish. Like a child that has just been given a surprise gift, he set out of his house with what felt like a skip in his step.
The walk to the Temple was a lengthy one for anyone, but even more for Simeon at his age. It always gave him time to meditate and consider. Today’s journey started resurrecting thoughts of his youth, for this was truly where this journey started. He was a passionate young boy, full of vigor and imagination. He quickly found that his passions burned out of control. He was a reckless sinner. His temper would get the better of him. His impulses would have him act first and think later, if he thought at all. On more than one occasion, he would break his parents’ hearts with his choices. To his credit, his grief over his failures was as passionate as his lust for his own way. His passions didn’t need to be calmed; they needed to be steered, guided like a ship tossed in the waves to its port. His parents saw to it he had a mentor that would teach him and train him to follow the God of Israel. He latched his heart to the stories and the characters whose lives wove an incredible tapestry. His favorite was Samuel. Simeon connected with the earnestness with which Samuel’s mother prayed that he should be born. He gravitated toward this concept that Samuel was given to the service of the Lord, a service he never rejected and pursued hotly. He was the first of the kingdom prophets. He was Simeon’s hero. He wanted to be like him: set apart to the Holy One of Israel, to know Him and make Him known to His people. His childlike, impulsive passions turned to the only One who could ever fuel them. He set his heart on the city of Jerusalem. Where else might he better know God and make Him known than the holy city of Israel? It was rich with the history of kings, prophets, and saints. The temple of God, the center of the worship of Yahweh, was minutes away. He would gain no greater knowledge of God than here.
Sadly, he found the heart of the people of this city failing. The priests and the scribes turned their knowledge of the Scriptures into power. The deeper things of God were not meant for lesser mortals. They had become more concerned with their own standing in society than the citizens of Israel. As such, the people of Israel flocked in and out of the Temple, following the written word of the law mostly by habit, not by heart. They wished they could be good enough for God like the religious leaders but just weren’t on the same level. Though the exile had occurred hundreds of years before, the hearts of the people were still in an exiled state. Having spent the last 400 years without any revelation or word from the Lord, the old stories had become legend to them. The stories no longer moved this Roman oppressed nation, except to look with dreams of a king like David once more that could rescue them. But Simeon saw to the greater need of their hearts. They needed to be rescued from sin, rescued from the shackles made with their own hands. And while he filled many a heart with a word of courage and blessing from the Lord, he knew he was not the shepherd that could care for this flock. One greater was needed – one promised by Jehovah God.
Presently, Simeon turned the corner and the sight of the Temple in the distance met his eyes. This stirred Simeon’s heart and brought back a memory like a siren song to him. A long time ago, he had brought the best lamb his money could buy. He was heading to the Temple to make sacrifices like everyone else, but he was sacrificing more than a lamb that day. He was sacrificing his desires, his heart, his life to the Lord. He watched as the lamb was slain by the priest. The smell of blood mixed with smoke added depth to what was moving in his heart. It would be a messy thing to give himself to the Lord, and his flesh resisted. “These people are a lost hope, and you are no Samuel. Give it up already!” But for whatever temptation there was to draw him away, truth was burning in him as brightly as the fire that licked at the dead lamb’s corpse. The truth that Father Abraham had trusted in the Lord, ready to offer his own son to Him as a sacrifice. Moses led the people in an event that had been celebrated time out of memory – the sacrifice of a lamb to spare the life of a first born. Elijah, another of Simeon’s heroes, did not simply offer a sacrifice. He prayed that God would ignite it with fire and change the hearts of His wayward people in the process. Over and over again, the truth of the sacrifices broke upon Him in waves. God wasn’t interested in dead animals: He was passionate about the heart of the people He had called to Himself, that their messy lives would rise like blood and smoke intertwined as a sweet smelling fragrance to Him. Simeon bowed and prayed, a meeting place of the profane and divine struggling for dominance:
“Lord Jehovah, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, I am a wicked sinner. You are a gracious rescuer, steadfast in love, quick to forgiveness. I have chased the things of this world and caught nothing of value. You hold the only beauty that could ever fill me with wonder. I am Your servant; my life belongs to You. Like the prophets of old, I am yours. I want to know You, Your holiness, Your purity, Your love.”
What happened in that moment was so incredible, Simeon never told anyone about it, as no words would do it justice. Like the comet of heaven God sent to Elijah’s sacrifice, the fire of the Holy Spirit descended upon Simeon. It felt like it was coursing through every vein, searching and scorching all other passions he once knew. The temptations of his flesh that he was struggling with moments before blew up in smoke like the lamb smoldering before him. Simeon perceived – the same Holy Spirit that had descended upon King David of old was now upon him. There, in the blazes and ruin made by these holy flames, a new heart erupted. Then a voice, still and small, echoed all around him: “Child of Israel, I have received your prayer and you to myself. You shall do more than know me – you will hold me. You will not taste death until you have beheld the consolation of Israel, my Chosen One, who has been foretold of old. Prepare the way for my Kingdom.” The burning, the new heart, and especially the haunting voice led to an outburst of tears – tears of release and joy. He would never be the same. From that day forward, he studied the Scriptures with passion, walked with the brokenhearted of Israel, and prepared as many as would hear for the promised Messiah.
Though that event had taken place decades ago, the flame of anticipation burned as vibrantly now as it did then. The darkness of the world and the sins of his fellow Israelites did not dim the flame – they illuminated it. The long years of waiting for Simeon were broken down into mornings like these. The sun shattered the horizon with glorious dawn and the hope arose with it in his heart – could this be the day? There could be no mistaking this call by the Holy Spirit, whose voice he had come to know better than any human: “Go to the Temple. It is time. He is here!” Though Simeon moved at what most would consider a craw, he felt as though he were flying through the streets of Jerusalem.
As he passed through the gates and into the Temple courtyard, he found the place in its usual hustle and bustle. How would he know where to look? Perhaps he would lay eyes on one who was surrounded by an adoring crowd. “Ah, but no – God seldom works this way,” he thought. “What was it He had said to Samuel? Oh yes, God is not concerned with the outward appearance, but with the heart.” Simeon prayed, “Lord Jehovah, reveal to me Your precious consolation.” As he lifted his eyes, they landed on a very young couple, still in their teenage years. There, in the young wife’s arms, was a baby. Simeon’s heart starting beating so fast, he felt it might burst through his chest. He was looking at more than a child – this was the Christ, the promised One. He began to shuffle his way through the crowd, afraid he might lose them in the moment. Turns out there was little to fear – the couple was coming toward him as if God was drawing them together. As they met, Simeon gave a gracious bow and said, “Peace to you, I am Simeon, a servant of the Lord. Would you trust an old man with the pleasure of holding your son?” The young couple looked at one another. The husband nodded, and the wife held the young child out with a smile.
Simeon cradled the baby in his arms. This was so bizarre, so strange, and totally unlike anything he had expected! God was rescuing Israel through this little baby? But the thought went from speculation to rapture – God had fulfilled His promise to his servant and to all of Israel. The woman’s seed God had declared thousands of years ago in the Garden of Eden, the One who would defeat the evil one and rescue sinners – Simeon was embracing this very child! Tears filled his eyes freely and lifting them to heaven, he cried out:
“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.”
He handed the child back to His mother. He gathered the couple close and bowed his head. He prayed an encouragement and blessing upon them – the warmest of any he had ever bestowed.
Suddenly, the Spirit moved his mind and heart to Isaiah the prophet. The seer had foretold what God’s Chosen One would experience. He would be pierced for the transgressions of His people. He would be crushed, afflicted, bruised for their healing. He would assume the position of the sacrificial lamb. The very people He came to save would reveal their hardened hearts toward Him. The prophet’s words now illuminated the child before Simeon. Sin would cost something to destroy. The cost would be the life of the Chosen One cradled in His mother’s arms. Amidst the painful visions filling Simeon’s head, the Spirit spoke: “Tell her.” With as much sobering tenderness as he could muster and a lump in his throat, he fixed his eyes on the young mother, a hand on her shoulder.
“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.”
Simeon left the couple marveling at this encounter. He made his way down the streets of the old city as the day drew to a close. The sun was setting over the western sky, scattering rays over his path. It was a sweet reminder that his time was also drawing to a close. He stopped at his door and basked in the moment. God had seen it fit to call this man of passions to His deep passion for man. Though his forefathers had followed this same God’s calling through the centuries, Simeon was allowed to actually fix his physical eyes on the promise of God personified, something they never did. Simeon settled on his bed that night. Having spent each night before in eager anticipation, he now laid his head down in rest – the sweetest, peace-filled rest he had ever known. Messiah had come, bringing a kingdom with Him. And Simeon, the anticipating servant of the Lord, had held Him in his arms.