Quarter: Jesus and the Reign of God
Unit 1: Jesus is Presented in the Temple
Sunday school lesson for the week of December 29, 2013
By Helen & Rev. Sam Rogers
Scripture: Luke 2:25-38
Background scripture: Luke 2:21-40
We need to read the entire scripture this week to fully understand the series of events involving Jesus and his parents. Luke, the Gentile physician, puts to rest the common misunderstanding that his gospel does not emphasize the Jewish roots of Jesus’ life. In just a few verses we have three of those traditions highlighted – circumcision, purification after childbirth, and presentation of first born.
Circumcision was done on the eighth day in the life of a Jewish boy. At the same time, the baby was also named. The one break with Jewish tradition in Luke was when he was named “Jesus” –the name given by the angel, not by Joseph! The father traditionally gave the name. Usually done in the home by a rabbi or priest, this rite fulfilled the injunction in Leviticus 12:3. (Sam’s glad that’s not in the minister’s job description today!) We can assume Jesus was circumcised in Bethlehem, but the rites of purification and presentation would take place in Jerusalem at the temple.
This temple, called the Second Temple – (Solomon’s having been destroyed in the Babylonian invasion) – was begun when the captives returned from the Babylonian captivity, and evolved across the years. When Herod the Great became Rome’s puppet king, he began a major building program, enlarging and beautifying the Temple in very impressive ways. A good Jewish friend of ours said, “Herod had an edifice complex!” Luke’s gospel begins (1:8-9) and ends (24:53) in the temple. The temple was the center of Jewish faith then, and even today Jews come to the familiar “wailing” or Western Retaining Wall. This mammoth structure is the last physical remnant of the Second Temple. To this temple, Mary and Joseph come to fulfill the requirements of the Law.
A woman could not enter the temple after childbirth without purification. She had to wait 40 days after the birth of a son and 80 days after the birth of a daughter! The Law required a lamb and a young pigeon or dove (Lev.12:6) to be sacrificed for two offerings – a burnt offering and a sin offering. (Please note italics!) Luke reveals the poverty of Mary and Joseph with the information they used the option given to the poor – two doves or two pigeons. (Lev. 12:8)
With purification complete, Mary could now enter the Temple proper. The Law required in Exodus 13:2 for every male to be consecrated to the Lord. In Numbers 18:16 a ceremony called “The Redemption of the First Born” was inaugurated. By the time of Jesus these two laws had been brought together and called the “Presentation.” Two thoughts: the redemption (Numbers 18:15-16) might have originated in ancient Israel as an alternative to child sacrifice which had been done by some ancient Hebrews! Also consider, He who was the Lamb of God came from such an impoverished family, they could not afford a lamb!
At this point the scripture for today begins by introducing Simeon. Luke uses an unusual phrase: “he had been waiting for the consolation of Israel.” The consolation reminds us of the opening words of “The Messiah” by Handel. The tenor lifts his voice saying, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, says your God.” This message from Isaiah 40 is not just for the People of God, but for all people. Isaiah reminds his readers the salvation promised is for Hebrew and Gentile alike.
So when Simeon sings, he who has waited patiently and righteously for the redemption of Israel is beholding both the glory of Israel and the light to the Gentiles in the face of the baby in his arms. Isn’t that a remarkable and poignant moment? An old man and a baby! Finally, Simeon is dismissed from his long task of waiting, for he has seen!
One of the major characteristics of Luke’s Gospel is the work of the Holy Spirit. From the announcements to Zechariah and to Mary, the Holy Spirit is the active agent in everything God is doing. Here with Simeon, three times in three verses we are told the Holy Spirit is responsible for Simeon’s patient waiting, his assurance he would see the Messiah, and even the timing of his visit to the Temple that day – all were prompted by the Holy Spirit.
After his song of praise, called “Nunc Dimittis” from the Latin, Simeon speaks to Mary about the work her child will do. As a parent, this message would be very disturbing. This child will cause division! Some will fall, some will rise and many will speak against what he says and what he does! Doesn’t sound very promising, does it? We want our children to “fit in,” to make no waves, and to be popular. The way of Jesus, as Simeon sees it, will win friends and influence many people – but not as the world would expect it! Moreover, he says to Mary that her heart will be pierced. Many a mother has had her heart pierced by the actions of a child, but not the way Mary will!
Simeon’s reaction to seeing the infant Messiah is based not on his seeing a beautiful baby but on his enduring hope in God’s faithfulness. Neither time nor circumstances had dimmed that hope. In every age, the passage of time and changing circumstances seem to negate the divine message of hope. Like Simeon, we must continue to trust and obey the One we call Savior and Lord!
With the wonderful offer of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus, we have a great choice – accept or refuse – and Simeon warns many will refuse even such a love. How Christians deal with that refusal is one of the crucial questions of the day. We see Jesus as Isaiah and Simeon did, as a light for all people, but what of those who insist “in walking in darkness?” Can we follow Him Whom they have rejected? Remember He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
There is one more person at the Temple who deserves our attention. She is old like Simeon. Luke says she lived there – night and day! She comes up to the Holy Family and praises God for the child that is the sign of the redemption. Lest we give too much credit to either of these old folk, remember for them redemption implied the restoration of Israel to former glory. The glory will be shown to the world, but the glory will emanate from a cross – not a throne.
Marveling at all that had been said about their child, Joseph and Mary return to Nazareth. They had done everything the Torah required, and so they return home to be the parents the baby needs until a later time when the child becomes a man. Then one day much later Mary, “who kept all these things pondering them in her heart,” will share the story with Luke, so Luke can share with us. Aren’t we glad she and he did?