A few years back I served as one of the assistants for a worship service that was part of our annual district pastor’s conference. It was a packed church, hardly any room left in the pews. I was sitting in the very first pew along with the other readers and those who would preside at the Lord’s Table. The service was what people probably call a “blended service.” That is, it attempted to blend both contemporary praise songs with the old hymns and liturgy of the Church. Which meant not only was there an incredibly talented and well-rehearsed band in front of us but off to the side there was also an organist. The first song that was sung was a contemporary one. I did not know the tune but picked it up easily as I followed along with the words, and it helped that the song leader was probably only 15 feet away from me. As I said, the band was very good, and the song was uplifting and seemed to pull everyone into the worship service.
The next song, however, was one I knew quite well. It was the old hymn: “Thy Strong Word.” The organ fired up and the band leader began to lead us once again, but it could not have been more different. The leaders voice was drowned out by the thunderous song of a congregation rising to sing behind me. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was not just that everyone knew the words, but they believed them, they sang them for themselves and for each other. They sang them from the core of their being. It was like what you might imagine an ancient army singing as it goes off into battle, bold and confident.
There is something exciting and invigorating about such signing of the Church. At the time, I remember remarking to a friend of mine how it was the difference between a musical offering given in good faith and the Churches song that has already been tried in the fires of life. There is something dependable and reassuring about old hymns, in many ways the older the better. Not that we cannot or should not have new hymnody for the Church. In fact, we should. But for me, some of my favorite hymns are ancient hymns. I find it comforting that the Church in one way or another has been singing these hymns for so many years. Through the good times and the bad, during prosperity and calamity, peace time and war, the Church has continued to sing. The texts of some of our hymns date back to the 3rd and 4th century. And then there are those pulled directly from the pages of Holy Scripture. Not just the Psalms, but other poetic and powerful utterances of the saints, like the famous song of Simeon.
Simeon is introduced to us in Luke’s gospel as a man who was waiting for the consolation of Israel. That is, he was waiting for the coming of salvation, the arrival of the promised Messiah who would bring forgiveness to the people of God. And the Holy Spirit was upon Simeon. He had been promised he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. In fact, it is the Holy Spirit who is directing the whole scene. The Spirit orchestrates it, so Simeon comes to the Temple at the exact moment Mary and Joseph arrive to make the appropriate sacrifices required for a first-born child. As they arrive, he meets them and blesses them and takes the child up in his arms and says, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your Word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation the Gentiles, and for glory your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
Those words have been preserved for us in our liturgy in a song that we call the Nunc Dimittis or simply The Song of Simeon. It is a bold song of hope. Simeon confesses he can now die, that death itself has no terror for him. Why? Because the Christ has come. He has seen Him. He has held the child in his own arms. This child born of Mary is the light of revelation for the world. He is the glory of the people of God, He is the arrival of salvation in human flesh. In the face of such a gift, such a savior, what concern is there for death? I am not saying it is not an enemy or is not terrible when it separates us from those we love. But death is not the end for those who have received this gift. Death itself will be done away with and life and salvation are the promise for those who are in Christ. So, Simeon can sing in full confidence and boldness for a peaceful departure.
I remember when I first arrived at Grace Lutheran Church to be the pastor. I was not here for long when one of the members of Grace died from an aneurysm. It is always a bit tricky to preach for the funeral of someone you did not really know. I never saw him in church. He was sick when I got here, and my only visit was at his death bed. Yet, those who would come to his funeral service knew him well. He was their brother in Christ. They had memories and stories to share. All I really knew was he had been a member for quite some time and, until he got sick, he faithfully attended. Which meant he had sung the songs of the Church and the song he sang perhaps more than any other was Simeon’s. The same boldness and confidence expressed by Simeon in the Temple was found on the lips of this brother in Christ over and again. That is not a small thing. He sang of a hope beyond my brief visit with him and beyond my shaky words at his funeral. It is a hope rooted in the promises of our Lord.
Now this song, as it is used in the life of the Church, is used very deliberately. That is, it is not just sung at a random time when we feel like hearing the words again. No, it is sung after the congregation has come together for Holy Communion. After we have come to the Table of the Lord, after we have received the body and the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of all our sins we sing, “Lord, now lettest though Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy Word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation…” This practice ties our receiving of the Sacrament to Simeon holding the Christ child in the Temple on that day. Our boldness, our confidence, our hope is the same and so we sing.
The assurance Simeon confessed when the Spirit led him to that glorious moment in the Temple is felt even now in your lives, for the Spirit of God continues to lead you to the source of hope. The Spirit of God turns you away from your own works, away from your own achievements and desires and leads you to the waters of Holy Baptism. There He unites you to Christ. There you are crucified with Him and buried into His death so you might have the promise of new life. The works of the long-awaited Messiah of God are therefore accounted to your record. His righteousness becomes your righteousness as He dies for your sins.
But the Spirit of God is not finished. He continues to lead, to call you and to enlighten your hearts and minds. He brings you to the Table of the Lord to receive His gifts in, with, and under the bread and wine. He brings you to confession as well, to the repentance of your sins so you might hear again the Good News, that salvation is yours in Christ alone. Forgiveness is yours in His works. Therefore, life is now yours in His promises. So, we sing. We sing boldly in the face of the grave. We sing loudly in defiance of doubt. And we sing together today, tomorrow, and for all eternity.