“What Simeon Saw”
Sermon Text: Luke 2:22-40
December 29, 2013 – First Christian Church, Falls Church
If you ever venture upstairs to visit me in my office—which I hope you will–you might notice an odd-looking piece of artwork hanging on my wall. The figures are rough, sticklike, and colorful—as if a child drew them—and there is writing along the side of the print. It’s part of a series of artwork called “StoryPeople,” created by an artist, and fellow Iowan, named Brian Andreas. Brian designs sculptures and paintings to accompany what he calls “stories”—short sentences or fragments of paragraphs by unnamed authors. Sometimes they are imaginative and silly, sometimes heartbreaking and painful, sometimes sweet and romantic, sometimes inspiring and profound. All of them seem to get to the heart of the human experience. Because they are “anonymous” stories—told by real or fictitious people, I’ve never been sure—it’s quite easy to see your own story, or the stories of your relationships and friends, within them. I like combing the catalog to try to find the perfect story to give to my friends and loved ones, but the one that hangs in my office was actually selected for me by a lifelong best friend, given to me the summer that I graduated from college and packed my bags for seminary.
The one that doesn’t hang in my office, but probably should, is one that sneaks up on me every Christmas season. The story, called “Purple Madonna,” reads:
One time on Hollywood Boulevard I saw a young girl with a baby. It was a crisp winter morning & her hair shone dark purple in the sun. She was panhandling outside the Holiday Inn & the door clerk came out & told her to be on her way & I wondered if anyone would recognize the Christ child if they happened to meet. I remember thinking it’s not like there are any published pictures & purple seemed like a good color for a Madonna so I gave her a dollar just in case.
The story ends lightheartedly, but the message is poignant. If you simply substituted “Bethlehem” for “Hollywood Boulevard,” you may as well have ripped the story straight from the Gospels. A young woman with a baby. Poor. And no room in the inn. And like the narrator of the story I wonder, “if anyone—or, really, if I—would recognize the Christ child if we happened to meet.” How would you know? What’s the sign? What would you have to see to recognize him?
I ask these same questions of Simeon each time I read this Gospel story. Simeon was a righteous and devout man, who had been waiting for the Messiah a long time. He had been waiting so long, in fact, that God had revealed to him that he would not die until he saw God’s promise fulfilled. First century Jewish Messianic expectations were diverse, so it’s hard to say what, exactly, Simeon was looking for.
Perhaps he was expecting a king to be born among the rich and powerful. But what did Simeon see that day in the Temple? A young couple. The husband, a carpenter. They were so poor that they could not afford to sacrifice a lamb for the mother’s purification, a prescribed by Levitical codes; instead, they brought two birds. This child does not look like royalty.
Perhaps Simeon was expecting a wise priest to rise above the others, or maybe a powerful warrior to overthrow Rome and end the foreign occupation of Israel. But what did he see? A child who could not yet talk. A defenseless baby, dependent upon his mother to carry, clothe, and feed him. He does not yet, at least, look wise or mighty.
So what did Simeon see? Simeon saw the Messiah in an every day place, an every day moment, among every day parents bringing their child to the Temple. Simeon saw God, entering the world in the most ordinary and unassuming way, just as every human enters the world. Simeon saw God in the flesh—Emmanuel, God with us.
Not long after I started my ministry with you all at First Christian Church, I had my own Simeon-like moment, when I was struck by God-in-the-flesh. I walked into the office one morning and Karen, our office secretary, said to me, “You have to bless someone’s bicycle today.”
“Whose?” I asked.
“I don’t know. A guy just called and asked if a pastor would do something like that.”
I was feeling a little sassy that morning, so I said, “They didn’t teach that in seminary.”
“Well,” replied Karen, “You’ve got about 20 minutes to figure it out.”
And the next thing I knew, I was walking across the parking lot, Bible in hand, nervous and anxious about who I would meet and what would be expected of me. And there I found Marcus, a man who looked only 5-6 years older than me. We spoke briefly and he explained that he had lost his home and his family in a fire. He’d been living in shelters and finally decided to try to get a fresh start in North Carolina. He had made arrangements for a place to stay and was setting out that morning to ride his bicycle to what he hoped would be a new life. We read a Psalm together and said a prayer for his safety and for his bicycle. And just as we said goodbye, he asked if I had a Bible he could take on the road with him. I offered him the one in my hands and he wept.
As Marcus departed, I realized I had seen the face of Christ. A man on a bicycle—so ordinary. A request for a prayer—so typical in my line of work. The parking lot of this church—where I stand at least five days a week. An everyday person, an every day event, in an every day place. It was so normal that I almost missed it. And yet, there he was: Christ breaking into my world. Emmanuel. God with us.
Simeon saw a small baby in his mother’s arms. He saw “God with us” in one of the sweetest moments of human life—the joy of a new child, the excitement of something new, the innocence and purity that we can only associate with a life that has just begun. But Simeon also saw much more. His prophecy foretells of the life ahead: of the opposition that Jesus will encounter, of the heartbreak Mary will endure, of the effects that this person will have upon the lives of many. Simeon saw, even at that moment, what the Incarnation would mean: that a God who would become human and live among us meant that Emmanuel would experience all that human life offers, the joy of birth–yes–but also life–the hurt, conflict, and death that goes along with it. Simeon saw the child Messiah, but he also saw the rejected and the outcast man he would become.
It’s a difficult vision to grasp on to. As one scholar wrote, “Anyone who had happened along the streets of Bethlehem might have looked good-naturedly at the baby lying in Mary’s arms, but by no means would everybody have looked good-naturedly at the Son of man who afterward went out from Nazareth.” It’s so much easier, so much more pleasant, to look at what Simeon saw and see only the baby. To find God in our own lives in those moments that are so special they are obviously sacred—like when a child is born or dedicated, when candle light fills our sanctuary on Christmas Even, when we see the surprised look on the face of someone just emerged new from the baptismal waters. But Christianity asks us to also see the man that Simeon saw—to see Christ in those more difficult moments, the ones that happen everyday—to see him among those who suffer from rejection or sickness or loneliness. Among the Purple Madonnas and Marcus’s of our world. To know “God with us” is to see that God IS with us—working in our world, encountering us on the streets, accompanying us in joy and in pain—in people, places, and events so ordinary that, if we’re not careful, we might just walk right on by.
One time on Hollywood Boulevard I saw a young girl with a baby. It was a crisp winter morning & her hair shone dark purple in the sun. She was panhandling outside the Holiday Inn & the door clerk came out & told her to be on her way & I wondered if anyone would recognize the Christ child if they happened to meet.
Fortunately, for us, Luke’s Gospel records the moment that Simeon DID recognize the Christ child when he happened along his path. And in his delight Simeon sang a song, declaring that salvation had been prepared in the presence of all peoples—Jew and Gentile, 1st century and 21st century. May our eyes be opened to see as Simeon saw. Amen.
 Interpreter’s commentary.