Luke 2:21-38 The Extraordinary Meeting
Jesus was named according to the custom of the Israelites. On the eighth day after birth, a boy was circumcised and his name was decided by his father, often honouring a dead relative. The name of Jesus however, was presented to Mary direct from the mouth of the Living One–before she had even conceived!
Not long after these events, a most unusual meeting came to pass. It happened like this …
Mary observed the forty days stated in the law of the Lord before approaching the temple in Jerusalem. This was the period set aside for purification; she could not touch what was sacred. As you know, the temple was the place where God’s presence had been most evident and where ceremonies and sacrifices were made in keeping with the law presented to Moses.
Joseph and Mary both brought the child to present him to the Lord. For the word spoken by God and written in the law of the Lord was this: ‘Every firstborn male who opens the womb, is to be acknowledged as the Lord’s child’.
The couple joined together in making this special pledge and sacrifice. The law of the Lord allowed for a woman not wealthy enough to offer up a lamb, to present ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’. In doing so, they remembered that the Lord God supplies all liberty and freedom from captivity.
Just as the parents were performing what was required of them, a man came and carefully relieved Mary of the child. Perhaps it would be best to tell his story.
Simeon was known for his dedication to God and for doing what was right. The restoration of Israel was utmost in his mind and he longed for Israel to be under one king again, free and prospering. The Holy Spirit was with him. Indeed, the Holy Spirit had impressed upon him that he would not die before laying eyes on God’s Chosen One.
So on this day, he sensed the Spirit was doing something new. He went into the temple courts, where he saw a couple with their firstborn. He recognised this as God’s handiwork. He took the child from his mother and cradled him. Do you know the most unusual words that came out of Simeon’s mouth? He said,
You have made good on your promise!
I have been your confidant,
and have spent myself for your peace.
Now as my physical eyes grow dim, my spiritual eyes have been awakened –
See, here is your salvation! –
What you have been preparing in the shadows has come into the light,
for all people to see and understand.
Gentiles, yes those blessed you would least expect,
given the complete picture –direct access to God!
Is this not Israel’s crowning glory?
To bring God’s blessing to all nations!
Still looking at the child in Simeon’s arms, both father and mother were caught up in wonder as they listened to these profound words. Simeon prayed for God’s blessings on each of the family in turn and addressed Mary especially, saying: “One thing is most assured: this child will show the power-hungry how empty they are, while sustaining the God-hungry. All Israel will know it–and many will point accusingly and say, ‘Snake!’ Then you will see what truly motivates people; their lives will be opened as if in the hands of a skilled fishmonger who divides bone from flesh. And you also, will know the deep sorrow of God.”
Suddenly a very old woman approached the small meeting as if she was somehow invited. Her face wrinkled into a smile and then praise for God flowed out of her mouth–full of life and vitality. She began gathering other worshippers from the temple to address them. She could not contain her excitement as she spoke about the significance of this child to those who were eagerly expecting peace in Jerusalem.
As Joseph and Mary found out, this woman was Anna, from the northern tribe of Asher, the daughter of Phanuel. She was very old and held in high regard. This is how old she was: married to her husband seven years until he died, and then a widow for eighty-four years. This made her 105 years old (the age of Judith the Hebrew heroine). This is how esteemed she was: a prophetess of the Lord and of the community in Jerusalem. She had been attentive to God; responding in continual worship night and day, month after month, year after year and decade after decade. She fasted and prayed, expecting God to act. This is how aware she was: her finger was always on the spiritual pulse of the temple of the Lord. This certainly proved to be true in this moment. I’m told she sang this beautiful song of gratitude–not with a frail warble, but with a voice so elegant and true and potent that it could best be described as otherworldly. Where Simeon had spoken of God-scale peace and of God-deep sorrow, Anna opened every heart to the spine-tingling wonder and eternal reality of who was before all–the fullness of God in firstborn flesh!
I cannot tell you what she sang. All I know is that it was the song of an entirely new union between God and people; this child was the One who would grow to lead us into a radically new way of being–yes, the best was yet to come. Indeed, Anna sang of something beyond herself, of someone beyond all of us, but at the same time absolutely within touch of ordinary men and women, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free. Perhaps that’s why she came to be at this extraordinary meeting.
When all of this was over, having fulfilled all that was asked of them according to God’s law, Joseph and Mary returned to their own town of Nazareth in Galilee. But their life raising the Son of God had just begun. They were all blessed with this growing maturity and Anna-like vitality. And as for Jesus–he flourished under the hand of his parents and under the hand of God.
At the time of Jesus’s birth, the Law of the Lord required all Jewish women to go through a purification period of 40 days after giving birth. During this time, the mother was deemed unclean and not allowed to touch anything sacred, which included going to the temple. At the end of 40 days, she had to go through a purification ceremony with a sacrificial offering of a lamb, a young pigeon or a dove, depending what she could afford. So when it was Mary’s time to do this, she went with Joseph to Jerusalem, even though Joseph didn’t need to go, for this was a requirement for mothers only. This showed Joseph’s total submission to God in terms of taking care of the Christ child that had been entrusted to his care as his own flesh and blood. Perhaps he had even got blood on his hands while helping Mary deliver baby Jesus. But most importantly, it showed he was fully committed as the father of Jesus. He was kind of saying to Mary, ‘We are both in this together’. It also showed his obedience to the will of God, which started with marrying Mary even after he found out that she was pregnant without any relationship with him.
As Joseph and Mary were law abiding Jews, they took Jesus to the temple to be presented to the Lord as well, because all firstborn males were to be consecrated to the work of the Lord. Joseph and Mary were committed to bringing Jesus up in the way of the Lord, just as we as Christian parents should be.
They also took the substituted sacrificial offering of young pigeons or a pair of doves as required by the Law of Moses. This identifies them with the poor, who lived in poverty and couldn’t afford a lamb. Later on, Jesus would reveal that he had come to save the lost, to give hope to the poor and to befriend sinners, and to be the sacrificial lamb for those who couldn’t afford one.
On their arrival at the temple, an old and devout man called Simeon was there. This man was a committed and faithful man of God. He held on to God’s promise that He would send a Saviour to redeem not just Israel, but the whole world. God told him that he would not die until the promised Messiah came into the world and he had seen him with his own eyes. So, he had been waiting for a long time for Jesus to be born. He was old and frail and it sounded like he could not wait to die. He was grieving for Israel, for the salvation of his people, just like the other prophets did before him.
What’s more amazing was that he was given insight by the Spirit so he would be able to recognise the ‘Messiah’ (or the ‘Christ’) instantly.
Just as promised, Simeon was moved by the Holy Spirit to go to the temple on the day Joseph and Mary brought Jesus in for the ceremonial offerings. As soon as they arrived, Simeon immediately recognised the child as the promised Messiah: the hope of the world, the consolation for his people Israel, the One he had been waiting for.
He got up, took Jesus in his arms as a priest would, and started praising God for being faithful in keeping his promise. Not that he was surprised by this, but because God had done this for the whole world to see. He had been preaching about the messianic hope for a long time, but people didn’t believe him, ridiculing him as being old and crazy. He was happy that people had now seen it as it had been promised. He started to worship and pray right there and then.
Simeon was excited that he could die in peace because the salvation God had promised had been fulfilled. He knew that he and the world had the hope of real life in Jesus. He had seen God’s salvation in Jesus, just like Jesus would say later to his disciples, ‘Because you have seen me, you have seen the Father.’ This literally means we cannot see God without looking at Jesus–accepting Jesus into our lives gives us a personal relationship with God. Jesus releases us from earthly and sinful things that hold us back. He helps us see more clearly, and make wise choices in life. There is no other way but by the grace of God through Jesus the Messiah; and this was the insight Simeon had.
Through Jesus’s light the Gentiles would be brought out of the darkness. They would be able to know God, and have a relationship with Him through Jesus. He would bring glory to the people of Israel as a sign of God’s promise to them. What’s more was that God’s salvation through Jesus Christ would be for all, because He loves the world so much that His desire is for everyone to be saved.
Mary and Joseph were amazed at how special their child was to God’s plan in restoring their broken world. They were even more amazed that they were part of it. Yes, the angel told them when he spoke of the miraculous conception, but they had no idea that it was as significant as Simeon described. It was kind of like, ‘Wow! Our son is the Saviour of the world. A hero! How marvellous is that?’
After blessing them as a family, Simeon turned to have a private conversation with Mary, which was in itself quite cool because at the time men at the temple barely spoke to women at all. This marked the egalitarian movement that Jesus brought, and would later speak about, emphasised in His relationship with women and people of low status.
Simeon said to Mary, ‘I’m afraid I also have bad news for you. Your son Jesus is destined to cause trouble for many people in Israel. He will cause the nation to divide into two: people that will accept his message, and those who will reject it. That is part of his work; to reveal the thoughts deeply hidden in people’s hearts. The hearts that love God and those that love the world will be clearly displayed, by their words and deeds. Because of this, he will be rejected by his own people and those whose hearts belong to the world. He will experience a great deal of pain and suffering, and a sword will pierce your heart too. You will feel a mother’s pain of watching your child suffer rejection and even death. That is Jesus’s mission as the Saviour.’
While Mary was still letting all that sink in, another witness seemed to notice who this infant Jesus was. She was a prophetess named Anna, the daughter of Phanuel of Asher, one of the ten tribes from the northern kingdom. She was very very old and was living in Jerusalem.
She had been a widow for eighty four years after being married to her husband for seven. The Holy Spirit was also upon her as with Simeon. She worshipped God, fasting and praying day and night. Her focus in life was worshipping and communicating with God. As a holy prophetess, she had divine insight into things normally hidden from ordinary people; she could recognise something other people did not see.
So as soon as she saw Jesus, she knew immediately who he was. She recognised his significance to her and to those who were looking for hope. She publicly gave thanks to God that she had seen the salvation she had been waiting for all her long life. Then she began to tell everyone in the temple courts about Jesus. ‘God’s salvation is here. Look no further, for he is now among us. Rejoice and give thanks to God for His mercy endures forever and his faithfulness lasts from generation to generation.’