By Paul Koch –
While I was serving Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Georgia, we invited a group to come and offer an objective critique of our congregation. Now I’ve never been one who opposes honest and open critique; I think it is one of the best ways to see our faults and improve ourselves. So this group was to come in and spend some time watching, listening and teaching. They were there to help us see missed opportunities and offer constructive criticism for better practices. Much of the advice was beneficial; we discussed better ways to make visitors feel welcome and how to be more proactive in the community and we even changed the entryway into the church to be more welcoming. All was going along just fine until they began to criticize the worship service itself.
Now again, I’m not one who is afraid of criticism, but when they began to discuss our liturgy and how we conducted worship I began to get a little twitchy. I listen to their critiques and suggestions for a while and then I just completely lost it. You see, they were operating with an assumption that made my blood boil. They assumed that since we were a traditional church with a traditional style of worship, then what we did was simply a matter of not knowing any better. They assumed that we were just ignorant of the new contemporary options available and it was about time that we got with the program.
To be honest, I don’t know the background in detail of all of our traditions, but I certainly know most of them. Our traditions are beautiful when we trust the source of them and so we trust where they are leading us, guiding us, and from what they are protecting us. In the church our traditions are the teachings and practices handed down to us by the multitude of saints that have gone before us. It’s not like we are bound to them as some sort of law, but they are beneficial. They prevent us from falling into old heresies. If they are good traditions they keep Christ at the center of our practice. Truly, not all traditions are good. When traditions are bad, they can be downright destructive. But when they are good, when they center us on the gift of Christ alone, then our traditions can be like a light in a dark room and a guide to something better.
Today we have a text that has found its way deep into the tradition of our church. The text is one of the three great songs found in the Gospels. We have Zacharias’ song, Mary’s song, and now in this text the song of Simeon. Simeon was a righteous and faithful man and a man who had received a promise from God. The Holy Spirit came to him and told him that he would not die until he had seen with his own eyes the long awaited Messiah of God. I’m sure Simoen was viewed by most as just some strange old guy, lovable sure, but they didn’t pay him much mind. Especially when he would speak about his hope and his promise, most just smiled and went about their business. But the day in our text was a day unlike any other for old Simeon. For on that morning Mary and Joseph brought their child to the temple and God fulfilled His Word.
Imagine him as the Spirit of God directs Simeon’s gaze to this young family entering the house of the Lord. He sees them walking in the midst of everyone else who have come to do what is required of the Law. He rises from his vantage point and presses his way through the crowd. Like a determined fish swimming against the current, this old man makes his way with surprising speed to that blessed family in the midst of all the pilgrims. As Simeon approaches, his eyes well up with tears for here in this little child, this baby carried in the arms of his mother, he sees the promises of God being fulfilled. He takes the Christ Child up in his arms, lifts his eyes toward heaven, and sings out, “Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” He makes a bold confession that this child in his arms is the salvation of God. This is the light of revelation for the Gentiles. This is the glory of the people of God.
What an incredible word. What a beautiful confession Simeon makes. He speaks of things that are far beyond what all those passing around them would see with their eyes. He is given to know by faith what they cannot see; here in this child is the salvation of the world. Here is the line drawn in the sand. Here is the one appointed for the fall and rising of many. God’s Messiah had come, and so he could now depart in true peace: the peace that comes from the promises of God’s word, the peace that is full of hope and assurance. Then our forefathers in the faith have taken this ancient song and placed it in our worship service for us to sing, right after we take communion. After we have received the body and blood of our Lord in with and under the bread and wine, we find ourselves singing just as Simeon did when he held our Lord in his arms.
Do you remember the first time you took communion? I sure do. It was in this church as a matter of fact. I had completed two years of confirmation training. I had studied and regurgitated parts of the catechism. I endured a public examination of my knowledge. Then early one Sunday morning and processed, here, into this sanctuary dressed in a white robe along with the rest of the class. It was a big deal. We knelt up here and received a blessing. We were given a little cross to hang on our walls at home and handed a hymnal and Bible. But then came the big moment: the first time we would receive Holy Communion. We knelt down together, with all the ceremony and reverence we could muster up, and into our mouths we finally received it! We received a paper thin waver that dissolved in our mouths; it was bread only in the technical sense that it was made of flour and water. Following close behind was a small sip of sweet wine.
It wasn’t as earth shattering as I had expected it to be. I returned to the pew a little confused and unsure of what I had just received. I didn’t feel all that different. Maybe I had done it wrong. Perhaps there was a delayed effect and I just needed to be patient. But after the whole congregation had received the gift that morning, then we began to sing. We stood up and I sang a piece of our liturgy: a piece of our tradition that I had sung thousands of times before, a piece that now meant something more. We sang a word that taught me something about what I had just received in, with, and under bread and wine. We sang the words of Simeon, “Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.”
We sang the song of one who sees the salvation of God. The words confessed in that song spoke of something beyond what we can see with our natural sight. In this simple bread and wine, we were eating and drinking the very gift of our salvation. The body broken for us and the blood shed for us; it was here for our forgiveness, for our hope, and for our assurance. The song of Simeon helps us to remember and rejoice in the promises of our Lord.
You know, I was delightfully surprised the first time I conducted a funeral service as a pastor. The traditions of our church directed me to take a stand beside the casket, near the end of the service. Then the whole congregation of saints joined me in speaking again this ancient song. Those who have gone before us, those who rest from their labors, they have departed in peace according to the Word of God. They died with the same hope and assurance that leads a young boy to receive communion for the first time, and with the same confidence that Simeon proclaims in the temple as he cradles our salvation in his arms.
His song is your song. It is the church’s song, and together we sing of a salvation that is ours even now.