Sermon based on Luke 2:22-40 for the First Sunday after Christmas
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
At the time of the birth of Jesus, the Temple with its sacrifices and festivals was the centre of religious life for the Jews. The Temple was the location of God’s presence, and the place where forgiveness came through the sacrifices. Jesus’ presence in the Temple, even as an infant, marked a huge shift that was underway. This shift is prophesied and seen already in the Old Testament.
Before the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the tabernacle fulfilled this purpose. In addition to giving Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, God showed Moses a pattern for building the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a portable tent-like structure that served as the house of God throughout the Israelites’ travels in the wilderness. The tabernacle served as the centre of religious life and as the place where forgiveness came through prescribed sacrifices. At the dedication of the tabernacle, the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle and Moses was not able to enter it (Ex. 40:34-35). The Lord’s presence was visibly manifested through the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that led the Israelites through the Red Sea and through the wilderness. This cloud would cover the tabernacle when it was time to stay put, and would rise up and lead them when it was time to set out.
After the people of God had arrived in the Promised Land of Canaan, a more permanent structure was built to replace the tabernacle. King Solomon built the First Temple as directed by God (2 Sm. 7:13). At the dedication of the Temple, the priests could not stand to minister because the glory of the Lord filled it (1 Ki. 8:10-11). God once again manifested His glorious presence in His house.
But God gave Solomon a warning connected to the Temple. God said, “If you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And this house will become a heap of ruins. Everyone passing by it will be astonished and will hiss, and they will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ Then they will say, ‘Because they abandoned the Lord their God who brought their fathers out of the land of Egypt and laid hold on other gods and worshiped them and served them. Therefore the Lord has brought all this disaster on them.’” (1 Ki. 9:6-9)
Well, the people of Israel did turn away from obeying God’s Commandments and statutes. They committed abominations in the Temple (Ezek. 8) and followed the rules of the people around them instead of God’s rules (Ezek. 11:12), thinking that God could not see what they were doing (Ezek. 9:9). They turned away from God so the glorious presence of God departed from the Temple and from Jerusalem. Ezekiel saw and recorded for us that the glory of God left the house of God and the holy city (Ezek. 10:4, 18; 11:23). God then gave the people into the hand of the Babylonians and Assyrians and the Temple and the city were utterly destroyed and the people exiled.
When God brought His people back to their land and the Temple was rebuilt seventy years later, the glory of God did not fill this Second Temple as it had filled the tabernacle and the First Temple (Ezra 6). Things were not as they were before; a shift was underway. God did not dwell with His people as He had dwelt with them before. The Lord spoke through His prophet Haggai during the construction of the Second Temple saying, “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes? Yet now be strong… once more, in a little while… I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts… The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.’” (Haggai 2:1-9; cf. also Zech. 8-9).
Also the prophet Malachi writes, “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” (3:1; cf. also Ps. 24)
Here is the huge shift that was taking place. The Lord no longer dwelt in His Temple as He had. He no longer manifested His glory as He had earlier. Yet, there was the promise that the Lord will once again come into His Temple, and this latter glory will be greater than the first.
This is why Simeon came to the Temple in the Holy Spirit. This is why Anna was waiting in the Temple. They were waiting for the consolation of Israel; the redemption of God’s people. They were waiting for the Lord to suddenly come into His Temple as had been foretold.
When Joseph and Mary bring the infant Jesus to the Temple to offer sacrifice according to the Law, Simeon takes the infant Jesus up in his arms and says that he is now ready to die (vv. 26, 29). He is ready to die in peace because he has now seen the salvation of the Lord (v. 30). He has seen the Light of the world (v. 32). He has seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus (v. 32; cf. also 2 Cor. 4:6). The glory of the Lord had once again come into His Temple! The glory of the Lord that had departed because of the sin of the people had returned, and this latter glory is greater than the former.
But again, there is a shift taking place here. The Temple with its sacrifices serves no purpose after the death of Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews writes that if these Temple sacrifices could have taken away the sin of the people they would not have had to be offered continually (10:1-4, 11). These sacrifices were just a shadow of the sacrifice to come (Heb. 10:1). Jesus, the glory of God, came to offer His body as the final and ultimate sacrifice, once for all, perfecting us for all time (Heb. 10:10-14). Because of Jesus’ sacrificial death for us, God says, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more” (Heb. 10:17). Where there is forgiveness of sins and forgiveness of our lawless deeds, there is no more need for sacrifice (Heb. 10:18). The sacrifices of the Old Testament thus no longer serve any purpose, because the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross has paid once for all for all of our sins (Heb. 10:9), and our sins are remembered by God no more.
The Temple has once again been destroyed. About seventy years after the birth of Jesus, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans and has never been rebuilt since. The temple mount where both Temples had been built now holds a Muslim mosque built in their place. But there is no longer any need for the Temple. There is no longer any need for sacrifices. Jesus offered Himself up as a sacrifice so that our sins and lawless deeds will be remembered no more.
This is what Simeon and Anna waited for. They were waiting for the consolation and redemption of God’s people. Jesus came to give us consolation – the consolation of our sins forgiven and peace with God. Jesus came for our redemption – He redeemed us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. He took our punishment and made us free, and He has promised us eternal life so that we have no need to fear death.
In Jesus, God came to dwell with His people in a new way. Jesus came as the presence of the glory of God among men. Jesus came as the New Temple; the new place where God dwelt and was made manifest. Thus Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it” (Jn. 2:19). He was speaking of the temple of His body (Jn. 2:21). When He was put to death, He did exactly what He promised. He gloriously rose from the dead on the third day.
The Temple is no more, but the glory of God in Jesus is forever. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have the promise of being with Jesus for eternity in glory. Then we will be in God’s presence and He will dwell with us in all His glory. Because of this promise, we, like Simeon can also depart in peace, and look forward to the day we will see the glory of God in Jesus face to face. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.