Christmas might seem like an age ago now, but let’s take one last look at that nativity scene.
I wonder how you see the baby in the manger. Maybe like a luxury helicopter; nice for those who need it to make themselves feel good, but not for you. Or the helicopter in the museum; historically interesting, but frankly irrelevant nowadays. Or the Apache attack helicopter; a fundamentally unpleasant thing, a dangerous idea that calls you a sinner and says you’re not good enough when it has no right to. Or maybe you see the baby like the rescue helicopter; absolutely necessary, the only way to be reconciled with God and to have your sin wiped away. Maybe you see the birth of Jesus Christ in the same way an injured mountaineer might see the helicopter, the most welcome sight there could be.
Graduates of Sunday School will know the “right answer” – the rescue helicopter. There are countless times God rescues individuals and whole nations through the Old Testament. Rescue isn’t a new idea for God, He’s been at it for generations, patiently saving His people from themselves, and from each other.
Then, in the most mysterious and yet wonderful event in world history, God, enthroned in glory, adored by countless angels day and night, never needing or lacking anything, took on frail, vulnerable, delicate human flesh and was born in the animal shed behind a small house in a small town in a small nation.
I’m picking up the story later. Luke 2:21-24 tells us the new parents took Jesus to Jerusalem for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses. This ceremony meant presenting a baby to the Lord and the offering of a sacrifice.
In Exodus 13:2 – 14, God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. The Pharaoh’s refusal to listen to God led to a terrible consequence – the firstborn sons in Egypt were killed in one night. But God was rescuing again, and the Israelites’ sons were spared. From that day on, God claimed rights over the first born of each family. They could sacrifice an animal in place of their sons – a lamb, or a pair of doves if they were poor like Mary and Joseph. The point wasn’t that God needed the first born of every family, but that He wanted His people to remember the fact that He’d rescued them from slavery in Egypt.
So when Mary and Joseph come to the temple, they are conducting an act of remembrance, tapping into generations of history and proclaiming that their God is a rescuer. I think Luke records it here for this very reason; he wants us to see the links between Jesus and the rescuing God of the Old Testament.
We see more of that in Luke 2:25-38. We meet two people at the temple. They each prophecy about Jesus and speak of the nature of God’s rescue plan: Simeon and Anna.
This salvation is big: it’s not just for the Jews, but a “light for revelation to the gentiles”, too.
It’s divisive. Simeon prophesies that Jesus will cause the rising and falling of many, and that hearts will be revealed. Simeon knows that some will harden their hearts against what Jesus says, take offense to his claims that their attempts to be good enough before God are not good enough at all. They see Jesus a bit like the Apache helicopter I mentioned earlier. There are still plenty of people like that today.
It’s costly. The prophecy that Mary’s soul will be pierced is a reference to the fact that Mary will have to watch Jesus grow and leave home, put himself in daily danger to complete his mission, and ultimately be executed on Calvary in the most daring rescue mission of all – the once and for all price of sin is paid and anyone who believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life. God Himself tastes the sin He hates so much, becomes guilty of it so that we are declared not guilty. Now when God looks at us, he sees the perfect righteousness of Jesus. It’s wonderful every time you hear it isn’t it?
It’s exciting. Anna is a voice of joy. I picture her bustling around the crowds in the temple, making sure everyone knows that Jesus is there. She wants to tell anyone who will listen that this is a big day for everyone looking forward to the redemption of Israel.
So running through the whole passage is a theme of rescue. Israel is a mountaineer half way up an ice cliff with a broken leg, Simeon and Anna have recognised that the little yellow dot in the sky might just be the rescue helicopter they are desperately waiting for.
I think our response here is to learn from Simeon and Anna’s example. I see four things that they both do. If we want to properly respond to Jesus, I think we need to do the same.
Devotion. Simeon is described as devout. Part of this devotion must have been taking care of his personal purity, as he’s also known for being righteous. We know that he’s old – one sight of this baby and he’s ready to die – so this is a lengthy devotion. Are you serious about rooting sin out of your life in the long term? Anna is 84. She was married for seven years before her husband died. She has probably spent 60 years at the temple – worshipping, praying and fasting.
Expectation. Simeon was “waiting for the consolation of Israel”. He was so passionate about this that he tells God that his life can now finish in peace as he has seen the one thing he’d been waiting for. Meanwhile Anna’s exuberant response to seeing Jesus tells us that she had also been looking forward to this day with expectation and excitement. What are we expecting from God? Let’s raise our expectations, god can do more than we even imagine.
Recognition. Anna and Simeon both recognised Jesus. I imagine the temple was quite busy and that dedications of babies were probably not uncommon. But Anna and Simeon were on the lookout for what God was doing. Are we? Do we give God the credit He deserves when He answers prayer? In our small group, we keep a prayer book. On one side of the page is a list of the things we’re praying for, on the other, the ways God is moving. It’s a great way of remembering the small things we prayed for that God has come through on.
Declaration. Anna and Simeon have both recognised Jesus, but they didn’t just sit there with a nice warm glowing feeling that something special was happening. They both get up and shout about it. My brother and sister are grown-ups now. We have jobs and spouses and we talk about grown-up things like promotions at work and the wine regions we like. But on Christmas Eve we all stay in my parents’ house. On Christmas morning my sister woke us all up to excitedly tell us that Father Christmas had left presents outside our bedrooms. She won’t thank me much for telling that story, but it reminds me of Anna’s response to Jesus here. So how about us? Do we see evangelism as an unpleasant chore that we do with a sense of duty and slight embarrassment? I know I sometimes do. But come on – Jesus is the best news ever.
God’s outrageous rescue plan in the person of Jesus is not like a luxury helicopter that’s nice, but not for you. It’s not like the historic relic in a museum that isn’t relevant in the 21st century. It’s not violent and fearful like the attack helicopter. When God came to earth in the person of Jesus, He was on a rescue mission. Our response needs to be devotion, expectation, recognition and declaration.