As we conclude Advent and our exploration this week of how different people in the scripture's story waited on God, we finish with someone who may seem to be an unlikely candidate to be written about on Christmas Eve. But I do so because he is the first individual described by the gospel writers as someone who waited: an old man named Simeon.(1)
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. (Luke 2:25-26, NIV)
As with Zechariah, Luke is giving high praise to Simeon through this introduction. He tells us that Simeon was righteous, devout, and in the full passage, Luke mentions three times in three verses how the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon, revealed things to him, and guided him. I want to become the kind of person for whom those kinds of words describe me each year during Advent, and indeed for the rest of my life. What was waiting like for Simeon, and on this Christmas Eve, why does it matter to us?
As we said when we began this Advent, waiting isn't easy. It grates against us. Many times, waiting is not only inconvenient, but involves real pain. It was like that for Simeon––during his decades of waiting, his eyes had probably seen some very painful things. Luke doesn't put a number on Simeon's age, but we get the sense that he was old. Here are some of the things he might have seen as he waited for the Messiah:
About 80 years before Jesus’ birth, before the Romans were in power in Jerusalem, there had been a civil war and at its end the Hasmonean ruler, Alexander, crucified 800 Jews in Jerusalem for rebelling against him.
Then, around 20 years later, the Romans came with all of their brutality, and through them in another 20 years, Herod. Regardless of what Simeon’s exact age was when Luke introduced him to us, his eyes had surely seen plenty of suffering. For his entire life, his people had been oppressed and dominated by pagans, and he waited, and waited for the comfort of Israel.
Of course the suffering that predated him also never would have been far from Simeon's mind. Simeon’s people, God’s people, Israel, had been oppressed for almost six centuries by the time that we learn about Simeon's waiting.
And going back even farther, for much of their history as a people––even when they weren’t subject to foreign nations, on another level, they had never really lived up to their covenant with God. They had never been the light to the nations they were intended to be. They had never fully been the righteous and devout nation God called them to be. Simeon, however, was righteous and devout, and he waited. By the time Luke introduces him into the story, not just his own waiting, but the entire history of the waiting of his people would have been etched into the wrinkles on his face and into the eyes that were always looking for the coming of the Messiah.
Even though Simeon is something of an obscure character in the Bible, he's intriguing to me. He isn't one of the main characters in the story, but rather is someone off in the periphery waiting on God throughout a lifetime. Even though we have so little information about him, what Luke does tell us can give us some clues of how Simeon became so open to God through the course of his waiting through a lifetime.
First, Luke's description of him as righteous and devout surely meant that he had a heart inwardly open toward God, but in the ancient Jewish world of Luke and Simeon, it also would have referred to the exterior things he did. He kept the commandments. He participated in the community's rhythm of prayer, worship, fasting, and giving. In other words, he had a lifestyle of holy habits.
Luke clues us into one of those habits for Simeon. Simeon wasn't just a man who read his scriptures, he drank deeply from them. Through the words that Simeon speaks (which we'll see tomorrow), we see how the thoughts that he expressed were dripping with the scriptures he had absorbed over so many years. Luke points us toward that in this introduction by describing Simeon as one who "was waiting for the consolation [or comfort] of Israel." That's another reference to those first words of Isaiah's "Book of Comfort" we talked about last week with John the Baptist: "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God..." and then it goes on to describe the voice of the one calling in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord's coming.
Simeon had ingested the vision of the scriptures, particularly of Isaiah 40-55, to the point that it had given a framework for everything he was waiting for in his life. It gave context to all of the suffering that his eyes had seen, and it gave hope for those eyes to keep waking up and watching for Israel's true King to come at last.
Christmas Eve is as good a time as any to consider what it is that is giving shape to our lives the way that the scriptures gave shape to Simeon's. Perhaps our framework is a desire for success, or for comfort, or to be loved. Whatever it is, we will certainly be better prepared to welcome the King if we can identify it and make any necessary changes in light of all that his coming into the world means.
We also see that Simeon listened. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit communicated things to Simeon about the Messiah. Certainly one way that Simeon listened was by soaking his mind in the scriptures, as we just described. But I think he did it another way, too: he was probably quiet and listening on a whole lot of days when the Spirit wasn't saying anything to him about the Messiah, so that he would be sure and be attentive whenever the right time would come.
I've mentioned the importance of silence a few times throughout Advent, because I'm convinced we don't have enough of it in our lives. We've got to practice listening to God and sometimes––even many times––that's going to involve quieting ourselves and hearing nothing from God. If we don't practice that, we might not be paying any attention when God does want to say something. So, in light of your Christmas Eve today and your Christmas Day tomorrow, are there any ways in which it would be appropriate for you to be quiet with God as a way of practicing being attentive to him? (And if we aren't attentive to him on these holy days, do we really expect the remainder of our year to be substantially different?)
Simeon soaked his mind in the scriptures. Simeon listened quietly to God. And the third thing we can learn about his waiting is that he did those two things for a long time. Simeon didn't just wait on God through the four weeks of Advent. Simeon's Advent had been a lifetime.
May it be so for you and me too, so that we can let the church's call of Advent through the centuries incessantly ring throughout our souls:
Our King and Savior now draws near. Come, let us adore him.
A Prayer for the Day:
O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*
Readings for Christmas Eve*:
*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) Much of the content of today's post was influenced by the chapter titled "Simeon's Song" in Jack Levison's outstanding book, Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life (Brewster, Mass: Paraclete Press, 2012).