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December 31, 2023

Depart in Peace

Preacher: Rev. Jack Meehan Series: Lectionary Category: Biblical Scripture: Luke 2:22–40

The First Sunday after Christmas

December 31, 2023

Luke 2:22-40

 “Depart in Peace”

The presents have all been opened, special holiday foods prepared and enjoyed, and guests have likely returned home or will soon. From the world’s perspective, it looks like Christmas is done and over with as we prepare to welcome in the New Year. But in the church, we continue to keep the twelve days of Christmas, which will culminate with the feast of the Epiphany, Jesus’ revelation to the first Gentiles, which we will celebrate next Sunday in worship. As we continue to rejoice in the birth of Jesus, on this First Sunday after Christmas, we hear in the Gospel lesson for today about two of the eldest of God’s children, Simeon and Anna, and their blessed encounter with the Christ Child at the temple in Jerusalem. The opening words of Simeon’s song of thanksgving become the focus for preaching today, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word” (Luke 2:29), under the theme, “Depart in Peace.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we learn about the faith life of Jesus’ earthly parents, Mary and Joseph. They were observant and faithful members of the Jewish community, fully obedient to the Law of Moses. We know this because they traveled to the temple in Jerusalem to perform what was required by the Law of Moses. The tenth and final plague in Egypt was the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians, both man and beast (Exodus 12:1-32), after which Pharaoh at last allowed the Hebrews to leave Egypt. Soon after God had delivered his chosen people from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:33ff.), He then commanded that the firstborn of both man and beast among the Hebrews were to be his. Beasts were to be sacrificed or redeemed, and firstborn male children were to be set apart for service to the Lord. Soon afterward, though, the Lord declared that the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, should take the place of the firstborn and be specially dedicated to this service (Numbers 3:12ff.). While firstborn male children were no longer set aside for service to God, the principle was upheld that every firstborn really belonged to the Lord. A payment was required to redeem the child from this special service (Numbers 18:16), which was five shekels (about $2.50). The purpose of all this was to remind God’s people that they were dependent on him; that they belonged to him. The people were to remember what God had done for them, as well as providing instruction for the next generation. So when a youngster asked, “’What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem’” (Exodus 13:14-15). This was to be a perpetual memorial, a living witness, to how the Lord had delivered his people with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

Following childbirth, a new mother was considered ceremonially unclean according to the Law of Moses. The Law commanded that a woman be cleansed of her ceremonial uncleanness, which was a period of 40 days after delivering a male child (Leviticus 12:1-8). The church remembers this each year on February 2, exactly 40 days after Christmas, on the day called the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of Mary. From the offering which Mary and Joseph presented at the temple, we know that they came from very humble circumstances, which is to say, they were poor. The Law of Moses states: “If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean” (Leviticus 12:8). Today’s Gospel records that it wasn’t an expensive sheep that was brought, but “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24). In faithful obedience to what God had commanded, Mary and Joseph appear with Jesus in the temple to do all that was required of them, and having done so, they can depart in peace.

There is tremendous foreshadowing in this passage from Scripture: Jesus, as a firstborn Son, is redeemed from death according to the Law of Moses through his presentation in the temple, and yet he is born so that through his death he might save and redeem all people. The old sacrificial system gives way to a once-for-all sacrifice, as we are told in today’s Epistle lesson: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). That once-for-all sacrifice did not come about through the blood of sheep or goats, turtledoves or pigeons, but through the cleansing blood of Jesus himself, the very Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). There is nothing that you or I can add to what Jesus has done for us, as the Word of God makes clear: “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God… For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 8:12, 14). We, too, can now depart in peace, rejoicing that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all our sin (1 John 1:7b).

Here in Luke’s Gospel we are privileged to meet two of the eldest of God’s children, Simeon and Anna. Both are models of expectant and hopeful faith, even in great age. Simeon had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ, and by that same Spirit, he came into the temple at Jesus’ presentation. Taking up the Christ Child, he then uttered those blessed words: “Lord, now you let 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 to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). The salvation of the Lord is for all people, Jew and Gentile! The salvation of the Lord is for each and every one of us! Simeon’s prophetic words foretell what is to come in the life of this Child that he holds in his arms. So also with Anna. In her great age she devoted herself to worship with prayer and fasting. She also, like Simeon, gave thanks to God for allowing her the great privilege of seeing with her own eyes the salvation of the Lord fulfilled in this holy Child. Like the shepherds on that first Christmas night, Anna “began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Having seen with their own eyes, having touched with their own hands, the salvation of the Lord, Simeon and Anna can now depart in peace.

We, too, see with our own eyes and touch with our own hands the salvation of the Lord today. In the holy Supper of Christ’s true Body and Blood, we receive the assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, of God’s mercy and favor, of being united with the whole church on earth and in heaven. And being so blessed, we, too, depart in peace according to God’s own Word, now at Christmas and in the coming New Year. Amen.

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Feb 11

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Jan 7

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Star and Dove

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