Seeing Salvation

Christmas 2017 is behind us. But the full Christmas story did not end with the birth of Christ, nor the visit by the shepherds. The Magi, chronologically, came sometime within the following two years, but I don’t want to extend the season quite that much.

Let’s focus on something that happened just a week after Jesus was laid in the manger. Meet Simeon, my third favorite Biblical character. He got it right.

Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary brought him to the temple in Jerusalem to be presented according to their law.

At the same time, God spoke directly to this man Simeon. Old enough to be thinking of his own death, Simeon was true follower of God. He knew the history of his people and the teachings of the Old Testament. He knew about the descendent of Abraham, long ago promised to God’s people. Somehow, he calculated the time for this man, this redeemer, this messiah was close. He prayed that he would be alive long enough to see God’s provision for salvation.

And God answered, “Yes.”

Directed by God, Simeon went to the temple on the same day, at the same time Jesus parents carried him in. Can you imagine the surprise when this unknown man went directly to Joseph and Mary, took the baby from them into his own arms, and began praising God?

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).

Perhaps the most astonishing thing here is the setting. This happened in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. By this time the Jews were very ingrown and exclusive. The Messiah, whenever he might come, was supposed to be their political savior. He might rule over the entire world, but his blessings would be especially for Israel. An actual non-Jew, or Gentile, who entered the inner temple might well be subject to death. A Jew saying good things about gentiles might be thrown out or even stoned.

Simeon’s message was not his own. It had been God’s message from the beginning. It had been repeated throughout the Old Testament, but not given much credence. Now, in the form of this child, it had become reality. God wanted – wants – a relationship with all peoples. Simeon, this devout but unknown man, was the first to publically proclaim that message, which, today, we call missions.

Who do you love?

What might be the defining visible characteristic of one who follows Christ?

Interesting question, isn’t it? Many will automatically respond with faith, or having Jesus in your heart, or being faithful. But none of those, in itself, is a visible characteristic. All must be demonstrated by action.

Jesus and the writers of the New Testament recorded many characteristics of those who are today called Christians.  It seems to me that the single, most emphasized, characteristic mentioned over and over is . . . love.

Think about it.

Jesus used an Old Testament passage to teach about our obligation to love God, as in Mark 12:30. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

Jesus redefined the relationship among his followers when he said, in John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Sometimes that is not a very easy thing to do, but it’s not a choice, it’s a command.

As hard as that might be, love, according to Jesus, goes beyond the family of faith. While noting the command to love God is the greatest, Jesus said the second greatest is “love your neighbor as yourself.”

That raises the bar. But that’s not where it stops.

“I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).

In each of these examples, the Greek word for love is agapao. This is not a love of brotherly affection or emotional connection. Rather, agapao or agape love seeks the best for its object. This love is not based on feelings, but a determined act of the will, a deliberate joyful resolve to put the welfare of others above our own.

Isn’t this essentially what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13? “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

It seems to me that we might have forgotten that love is central to our Christian faith. Love for our God, love for our family of faith, love for those around us, and even love towards those we consider to be our enemies.

If Jesus said we are to love as he loved us, how then did he love? Looking at his interactions with others, we see that He willingly related with all kinds -- sinners, tax collectors, Pharisees, Sadducees, Romans, Samaritans, fisherman, women, children -- with no regard for society’s view of the respectable. Jesus loved these people and treated them out of that love.

No matter how we might feel about politics, race, religion, or the many other divisions in today's world, we must look past the issues to the people involved. We must love them and we must demonstrate that love in ways they can see, understand, and to which they can respond. Anything less is a deliberate rejection of the lordship of the God who “so loved the world that he gave his only son . . .”