When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (As it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be called holy to the Lord.”) And they came to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, waiting for the comfort of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary according to the law, Simeon took him into his arms and praised God. He said,
Lord, you now dismiss your servant in peace, according to
your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared before the face of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your
Joseph and the child’s mother were amazed at the things that were spoken about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Listen carefully, this child is appointed for the falling and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Anna, a prophetess, was there. She was a daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old. She had lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, and then she was a widow of eighty-four years. She did not leave the temple complex, since she was worshipping with fasting and prayers night and day. Standing nearby at that very hour, she gave thanks to the Lord. She kept speaking about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had accomplished everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town, Nazareth. The child grew and became strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him.
Well over two decades ago, my brother-in-law told me about an aging man who received a visit from his pastor. The pastor, with concern for the spiritual condition of this parishioner, asked him: “Do you ever think about the hereafter?”
The man said: “Oh, yes. I think about the hereafter at least once a day.” The pastor felt assured, as he continued to listen to his parishioner’s answer. The man went on to say: “At least once a day, I’ll walk into a room to get something, and then I’ll ask myself, ‘Now what am I here after?’”
When my brother-in-law told me this joke, we had a pretty good laugh over it. But eight years ago, he needed to be thinking about “the hereafter” in a more serious way.
Even though he was about my age, his health had seriously deteriorated, and it was necessary for him to move into a nursing home. One day, my sister got a phone call and was told that he had died.
This was not a surprise. The pastor had been visiting him and had been comforting him with the promise of eternal life for those who repent of their sins and trust in Christ for forgiveness and salvation.
At this point in his life, he was indeed thinking about the hereafter. At the age of 52, with a conscience that was at peace with God through faith in Jesus, my brother-in-law – my brother in Christ – entered into the hereafter, and into the rest of his Redeemer and Lord.
But now I want to ask you: Do you ever think about the hereafter? This is not a set-up for another joke but is a serious question.
Are you ready to die? A lot of people think they are when they are really not. What about you?
Our culture has been systematically draining people of the natural fear of death that used to be a pretty much universal feature of the human psyche.
People have been indoctrinated in a practical kind of atheism, that may not overtly reject the existence of God; but that does reject the authority of God, the importance of serving and obeying God, and the need to be prepared to face the judgment of God.
In old Western films, when someone was about to be murdered, his assailant would often say, “Prepare to meet your maker,” or “Say your prayers.”
People used to think and speak in this way. Even criminals had a sense that there will be an accounting on the other side of death.
And when a judge, in a courtroom scene in one of those movies, would sentence a murderer to be “hanged by the neck until you are dead,” he would also say to him: “May God have mercy on your soul.”
Why would he say that? Why would God’s mercy be necessary for a criminal whose mortal life was coming to an end?
People today often have no context for understanding any of this. God – if he does exist – is presumed to be benevolent and indulgent. He’s not a threat to anyone in the afterlife.
The influence of Spiritualism, and the influence of Eastern religion and the New Age Movement, are both very strong. So, when someone dies, it is often believed that his spirit either migrates up into a higher spiritual plane; or transmigrates, through reincarnation, into another body.
Nothing threatening or scary will happen – just a new supernatural adventure.
And there is nothing particularly frightening about death, for those who, in public schools and state universities, have been brainwashed by the Darwinian ideology of naturalism – which asserts that there is no supernatural realm at all; and that when someone dies, he simply ceases to exist.
It is not a coincidence that an increase in the influence of these belief systems has been accompanied by an increase in the suicide rate – especially among young people.
These poor deluded souls have concluded that their lives in this world are filled with sadness and aimlessness. And they simply assume, either that their existence in the next world will be better; or that death will bring a welcome end to their pain, by causing them simply to cease to exist.
What the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches finds no point of contact with these belief systems: “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”
And there is no place in these popular conceptions of what happens after physical death, for the words of St. Paul – as recorded in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians – to make any sense:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
Of course, if people listened to the voice of their conscience – as people in previous generations used to do – things would be different. In describing the revealed Law of Moses, and also the moral law of God that is written on the hearts of all men, St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans:
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature, do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
And so I ask you again: Do you ever think about the hereafter? Are you ready to die?
In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, we heard the familiar yet moving story of the Prophet Simeon in Jerusalem. Luke tells us that:
“This man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the Law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said: ‘Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.’”
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word.”
Simeon was now ready to die. He was ready to die because God had made a promise to him concerning the coming of Jesus, and concerning the encounter he would have with Jesus; and because God had kept that promise.
Simeon was already a believer in God’s grace and forgiveness, according to the ways in which this grace and forgiveness were revealed in the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament. But Simeon had also received this special, personal promise from God.
And he was able to experience a special, personal blessing from God, through his taking of the holy Babe into his own arms. Simeon was prepared by God for his future death – and for everything that would come after death – through the connection that he was allowed to have with God’s Son, in God’s house.
In his person, Jesus was Simeon’s salvation from the power and guilt of sin; and from the fear of death and of divine punishment after death.
And Simeon knew that Jesus would be this also for many, many more people – as God’s law convicts, crushes, and slays; and as God’s saving gospel of redemption through his Son heals, restores, and enlivens. And so Simeon told Mary:
“Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against…, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
This baby was destined to live a perfect life in fulfillment of the commandments of the Law; to die as humanity’s substitute under the Law’s condemnation of humanity’s sin; and to rise again in victory over sin and death, so that a gospel of forgiveness and eternal life, through Christ, could be preached to humanity for as long as this world endures.
The Old Testament predicted all of this, and the New Testament announces the fulfillment of all of this.
Simeon – as an Old Testament believer who had now gotten a glimpse of the New Testament – was ready to die in peace, because he knew that through Christ, and the promise of Christ, he had been forgiven of all his sins; and that he had been justified, or declared “not guilty” in God’s tribunal, through the crediting of Christ’s righteousness to him by faith.
And Simeon knew in that wonderful moment what verdict would be pronounced upon him after death because he knew what verdict had already been pronounced upon him through his faith in Jesus. And for this reason, he would now die in peace, and without fear.
You, too, can be prepared for death – for a fearless and hopeful death – when God prepares you for your death, in the way he prepared Simeon for his death. You, too, can be ready to depart from this world in peace – when that time comes – as you believe what Simeon believed, and as you receive what Simeon received.
Now, in the New Testament era, the house of God where we encounter Christ is not a specific building in Jerusalem, but it is wherever the message of God’s forgiveness and salvation in Christ is proclaimed; and wherever the sacraments that Jesus left for his church are administered according to his institution.
And the way in which we take Christ to ourselves – and into our hearts – is through our hearing and believing of this gospel; through our daily return, in repentance and faith, to our baptism; and through our humble and devout reception of the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion.
In the temple, Simeon saw – in the ordinary-looking human baby in Mary’s arms – his salvation from divine judgment on account of his sins, and his salvation for an eternity in the presence of God. And so he was prepared for a peaceful and fearless death.
In our church, as God’s Word is proclaimed in ordinary human language, and as God’s Word is joined to ordinary earthly elements, we too can see what Simeon saw.
In the gospel of Christ crucified and risen again, as it comes to you in sermon and in sacrament, you can see your salvation from divine judgment on account of your sins; and you can see your salvation for an eternity in the presence of God. You can see Jesus, as you hear Jesus. And so you can also be prepared for a peaceful and fearless death.
There is indeed a direct connection – a direct connection – between the administration of the means of grace in public worship, and your ability to be ready for death and for the day of judgment. But if you neglect and despise these sacred things and these sacred gifts, you will not be ready – even if you may erroneously think you are.
The Epistle to the Hebrews paints for us a “verbal picture” of this connection; and also spells out for us why it is so important for us to be in the Lord’s house, and to partake of the means of grace within the Lord’s house, as we prepare for what comes after death. We read:
“Since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire.”
Indeed, God’s house needs to be a very familiar place for you, so that you can always know and experience what Simeon knew and experienced: God’s promise to you concerning Christ, and concerning his forgiveness of your sins; and, God’s blessing to you, of allowing you to receive Christ, and to hold onto Christ, so that you, without fear of divine punishment for your sins, can depart in peace.
Simeon’s song of faith and gratitude is a song that we often sing. We will sing it again today, immediately after we have touched Christ, and have been touched by Christ, in his Holy Supper. Let this song be your song of faith and gratitude.
Let this song, as you sing it, be your celebration of the clear conscience before God that his justification in Christ has given you. Let this song, as you sing it, be your testimony to the world, that by God’s acquittal you are prepared to die – and therefore that you are prepared to live, for as long as the Lord preserves you in this world, under his grace.
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”