Text: Luke 2:21-40 (Jesus presented at the Temple)
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
This line, taken from the anti-slavery anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was the last sentence of the last speech given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. almost 50 years ago. As I thought about today’s Gospel passage from Luke, I also thought of King’s famous speech from April 3, 1968.
Both Simeon in our reading and Martin Luther King Jr. had a vision of salvation; and this vision in and of itself seemed to heal them. Today, I put their visions side by side.
In the reading from Luke, an old man named Simeon is prompted by the Spirit to go to the Temple in Jerusalem right after the first Christmas. When he gets there, he meets the infant Jesus. Simeon picks Jesus up, cradles him in his arms, and claims that in this baby he has seen Israel’s Messiah and the world’s salvation. Having finally met the Messiah, Simeon says that he can now die in peace, which I think is a remarkable thing to say after seeing a baby.
The Messiah was to be the long-awaited King of Israel who would bring Israel back to the glory of its days under King David. And yet Simeon somehow can say that in the baby Jesus he has seen this King. And further, Jesus will not just to be the ruler of Israel, but will also be a light of revelation to the rest of the world.
While Simeon’s vision is healing, it also contains the shadow of the cross. Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph and then says to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Simeon’s blessing is one that comes with a cost!
In a nutshell, Simeon has laid out the entire Gospel. The good news says that all of us are blessed by the coming of the Christ, but that a sword will pierce our souls and that his coming will lead to the falling and rising of many. The falling is the cross and the rising is new life in Christ.
Somehow, in holding this newborn baby in his arms, Simeon experiences salvation in an instant. It involves dying to an old way of life, which can feel like a piercing sword. The good news is that after dying to our old way of life, we are free to rise to a new one, which is a life in which we are healed.
Simeon does not need to live another 30 years to see what the adult Jesus will do, to puzzle at his parables, or to experience Jesus’ death and resurrection. For Simeon, it has all happened in an instant when he sees the face of a baby.
Simeon’s epiphany is also ours. In the faces of one another we can see God and meet our own salvation. This is an epiphany that we can experience each time we look at one another with love.
But the salvation found in the face of Jesus can also disappoint. God has come in Jesus as a helpless baby. But even thirty years later, when Jesus has grown to be a charismatic teacher and healer with a large following, he is powerless in the face of the might of the Roman Empire. He is killed.
Nevertheless, the dream of a new king David refuses to die. Jesus promises to come a second time. The next time, he says he will come “in clouds and with great power and glory.” This is also the vision captured in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which looked at the Civil War in the United States 150 years ago through the lens of the Day of Judgement. At the Second Coming, Jesus will be carrying what the Hymn calls “a terrible swift sword.” Nevertheless, almost 2000 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are still waiting for this terrible and glorious event.
I prefer the epiphany of Simeon and Martin Luther King Jr., that salvation can happen long before Jesus’ terrible swift sword brings justice to the earth. It is not that I am opposed to justice. Rather, brief moments of healing teach us that we do not have to wait for the final vindication of God’s power. Healing is always here for us, graciously available in everyone we meet and love.
It might be easiest to see divinity in a baby. But we can also see the face of Christ in seniors, in mid-lifers, in youth, and in children. Simeon saw it, I see it, and you see it. At worship each week, we remind ourselves of this reality and we celebrate the divine Love that flames inside each of us.
And so, we read again the story of Simeon and Jesus in the Temple. It is about babies and salvation; piercing swords and crosses; a fearful old way of life and a trusting new way.
The same truths found in the story from Luke can also be seen in a modern-day Simeon — the African-American civil rights activist, Baptist minister, and cultural hero, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the spring of 1968, King was in Memphis Tennessee supporting a group of public works employees who were on strike. On the day before his murder, King delivered what became his final speech in the Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ.
It is called the “Mountaintop Speech” because King says that he has been to the top of the mountain and has seen the Promised Land. His vision is of a time without racism and of a world of peace and justice. In the face of many threats to his life, King realizes that he may not get to the Promised Land. But just as it was with Simeon, for Martin Luther King Jr., the vision is enough. In fighting for this vision and believing in it, he has been healed and freed.
So, I close with the end of King’s speech from that night 50 years ago: (9:31)
“I got into Memphis. And some began to talk about the threats that are out there. Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So, I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”