Sunday after Christmas: Luke 2:22-40
“They brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” It doesn’t sound all that ominous, saying it like that. And even the citation from the law, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord,” sounds almost like a sweet deal, especially for a firstborn son like me. I get to be called “holy to the Lord,” which sounds nice.
But this citation from the law is from Exodus 13 (the text we just heard), which comes right after Exodus 12, Passover—in which the Lord passes over the blood-marked houses of his people, sparing their firstborn sons from the angel of death. This means that the firstborn of Israel are no longer their own. Their lives are not their own. They had been bought with a price of blood, and firstborn sons would forever after be the possession of God himself.
Jesus is a first born son, and so he is to be presented to the Lord. Actually, he is to be ‘redeemed’ by a lamb offered in his place, just like all the firstborn sons in Egypt, though St. Luke makes no mention of this happening for Jesus.
‘Redemption’ meant that the firstborn sons of the Old Covenant could live. They, like their father Isaac, would be spared; Abraham’s knife would be stopped, and a lamb would take their place. This was the merciful provision of God. It is not something he had to do; he chose to accept lambs instead of sons in his mercy. Other gods we hear of in the Bible were not so merciful.
It is no wonder that today in the Temple Simeon and Anna rejoice. They had waited for God’s mercy, for his salvation, and (unlike all the generations before them) they had lived to see it. A lamb could be a substitute, but it could never take away sin (Hebrews...). It could never be a light to the gentiles, or the glory of Israel. All the blood through all the years that had stained Jerusalem’s altar could not allow Simeon to depart in peace. But this firstborn Son of Mary could.
And it is very important that we get this right this Christmas. Mere lambs could not deal with sin; sin required a firstborn son to be offered, and offered he was. And the remarkable turn is that this Son is not only Mary’s firstborn Son. He is God’s firstborn Son. And it is only by following in the footsteps of Simeon and Anna, and receiving that Son, that sacrifice, that we will find heavenly peace.
It should be remarkable to us that God’s Old Testament people were so given to idolatry, that they constantly were lured away by other gods—gods far less merciful than their own, gods who did not provide for them a son, but instead demanded from them their sons.
This is important for us to notice. So often sin is simply seeking a sacrifice other than the one God himself has given. So rather than Jesus, we sacrifice ourselves. We might offer ourselves to our careers, or to our hobbies, trying to find fulfillment in those things and not in receiving Jesus (being forgiven and fulfilled and blessed by Jesus).
Or, rather than Jesus, we may sacrifice others. We might take it out on family and friends by blaming them for our sins. We might try to find peace in making excuses, justifying ourselves, instead of letting Jesus justify us. And we might even take it out on ourselves, lashing out at ourselves, berating ourselves, or harming ourselves. In all of this, we are ignoring the sacrifice of Jesus, his self-offering on the cross; we are refusing the firstborn son God offers for us.
In all of this, we are refusing to have a merciful God. We join old Israel in preferring false gods, forgetting that they will demand sacrifice. But today we are given a beautiful and gracious example in Simeon and Anna. And we are given the same unlikely opportunity they were given.
Today, as we join Simeon and Anna in God’s house, we have a sacrifice provided by God himself. If we, like Israel before us, prefer our own gods, we will always end up sacrificing ourselves.
That is exactly why we start each Sunday by checking our gods at the door. We confess our gods when we confess our sins—no excuses or self justification or blaming others—we give them to Jesus, and he kindly crushes them for us. He takes the sword of his word and hacks them to pieces. He pierces our hearts. But as we lift our hearts to the Lord in thanksgiving, he heals us, communes with us, makes us his people all over again, and gives us his sacrifice: his holy body and blood, the stuff of resurrection.
And he gives us one more thing: he gives us the life described by St. Paul in his epistle today. He clothes us in virtue: in compassionate hearts, kindness and humility, meekness and patience, in love—because we are nothing but given to, nothing but forgiven, nothing but loved, nothing but sacrificed for. Jesus has taken up residence within us, and the peace of Christ rules in our hearts.
And then, like Simeon before us, filled Christ, filled with his Holy Spirit, we burst into Spirit-inspired song. And we live our lives as one long song of thanksgiving to God, because we have been spared like Isaac—not for the sake of a ram or a lamb, but for the sake of the very Son of God, the firstborn of all creation, of brothers and sisters unnumbered, of the Church, of each one of you.
So even if you are the oldest in your family, like I am, you aren’t the true firstborn. Our elder brother Jesus has gone through everything first, sacrificed himself first and opened the gate of heaven first. And now, today, in his gospel, in his Supper, in his Church, at last he welcomes you.