The passage tells the story of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple for what we would call his ‘dedication’. There are two characters in the story, Simeon and Anna – unrelated in family terms, but connected by two elements: one, that they were both ‘waiting’ for something, and two, that they were both prophetic people.
We don’t know much about Simeon. Perhaps Luke knew more than he's said, that he didn’t deem relevant to the story – for example, might Simeon have been a Priest? What we do know, though, is that he was righteous and devout and the Holy Spirit was on him. We know the Holy Spirit had shown him he would not die before he had seen the Messiah. And we also know he sensed the Holy Spirit prompting him to go into the Temple on this particular day – propitiously, because that was the day Mary and Joseph brought Jesus for his dedication. Significantly, these three features in the story are all expressly credited to the Holy Spirit – He is all over this particular story!
The other thing we know about Simeon is that he was ‘waiting for the consolation of Israel’ – another way of saying ‘the coming of the Messiah’. And when Simeon sees the baby Jesus, and takes Jesus in his arms (perhaps suggesting he was a priest? – either way, that’s not seen by Luke as relevant to the story), Simeon realises this child is the Messiah. He prays and speaks prophetically over the child and the parents. Mary and Joseph are said to have been ‘amazed at the things that were being said’ about Jesus, although we don’t know what all those things were.
Then straight after this, Anna enters the story (Luke says it was ‘at that very moment’). Like Simeon, she too was waiting for the Messiah – characterized, equally poetically, as waiting for ‘the redemption of Jerusalem’. Like Simeon, she too was devout (‘she never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers’). And like Simeon, she immediately recognized that Jesus was the Messiah. From that time on, Luke says that Anna was sharing it with everyone she knew who was also waiting for the Messiah. At Anna’s great age, especially for someone in the first century – at least 84-years old, though the text is slightly unclear – she would not have lived to see Jesus’ ministry or resurrection. And it would be thirty plus years before any of those who first heard and believed that Messiah had come in this baby would see anything that evidenced it! More waiting …
No doubt these events and what was said by these prophetic people, were amongst the things that for many, many years thereafter Mary ‘pondered in her heart’ (Luke 2:19). At the time, though, they would really have added to the faith of Mary and Joseph – as timely prophetic words, carefully and sensitively delivered, will always do – encouraging the parents that they were indeed in the will of God in what was happening to them.
Jesus' parents would have to wait for many years to see the fulfilment - I wonder whether they had any more prophetic encouragements during that time? More waiting ... And Joseph almost certainly died before Jesus' ministry began.
We should always beware “reading into the silence” as interpreters of scripture (in other words, don’t ‘expound’ on the basis of what isn’t there, as if silence somehow proves something). And yet, one can’t help but reflect on those who concurrently to the events in this story were not waiting for something, or waiting for something different.
The Zealots, for example, the urban guerrillas or freedom fighters of their day, were looking for a Messiah who would be a great military leader and lead them into victory over the hated Roman occupiers. The Pharisees were looking for the common people to start to be more righteous – observing Torah (and their ‘traditions’) more fastidiously than they were presently doing, since they believed their unrighteousness was delaying the Messiah’s coming. Jesus’ criticism of the (middle class) Pharisees might be said to be that they were too zealous for the law and insufficiently zealous in their mercy and empathy for the challenges that the common people (the desperately poor) faced every day simply to survive. Herod, meanwhile, was looking to cling to power and would stop at nothing – including slaughtering babies and infants – to do so. He was always expecting a coup.
The Gentiles, meanwhile, had no reason to expect anything from the coming of a Jewish Messiah. At this point, the expansion of God’s people beyond the narrow ethnic boundary of the Jewish people had not begun, save in the heart and purposes of God. This had been well signalled by the prophets (see e.g. Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2:32, alluding to Isaiah 49:6) as part of God’s eschatological purposes, but curiously, the Israelite religion had never really been into evangelism. It’s part of human nature to be satisfied with what we’ve got and our own status as beloved by God and, concurrently, to want to keep it to ourselves so that others becoming included doesn’t spoil it – this is what often puts a ceiling on church growth. So let’s not be too self-righteous about any failings of the Jewish people in that regard.
However, the Christmas story tells us a lot about God’s purposes. He chose to include the shepherds – poor, despised, and untrustworthy … the common people. He chose to include eastern astrologers – ‘mystic megs’ – who weren’t even good Jews. Gentiles who were ‘spiritual’ but believed all the wrong things and were looking for God in all the wrong places (horoscopes and tea leaves!) – but note that he graciously gave them a message in the stars!
As well as those like Simeon and Anna who were expecting the Messiah, in the right way, he chose also to include people who weren’t expecting anything from the Messiah’s coming. Who didn’t expect to be included because they weren’t worthy (as the Pharisees kept telling them!). But, building on the initial role of witnesses given to the shepherds, it’s no accident that Jesus’ first sermon was a reflection on Isaiah 61 – reinforcing right from the outset that the gospel was ‘good news to the poor’.
So often in scripture, people expected something different from the Lord and were disappointed or deluded. They expected a certain kind of Messiah, for example. One that fitted a certain selection of OT proof-texts but ignored the ones that were less appealing, such as those concerning the Suffering Servant. Which is exactly what we ourselves so often do with scripture. But we cannot build a genuine and robust faith on a ‘Promise Box’ approach to selecting texts.
Jesus said of John the Baptist “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?’ What were you expecting, in other words? Perhaps Jesus asked that question with the same implication concerning himself – what were you expecting the Messiah to be like …?
It reminds me of the line from Star Wars when Princess Leah says to Luke Skywalker “Aren’t you a little short for an Imperial stormtrooper …?” Jesus was a little short of most of their expectations of a Messiah.
How often do we default towards making God in our image – what he must be or can’t be, what he must be like or can’t be like, what his main concerns must be or can’t be – rather than setting aside our presuppositions and just allowing him to be “I am who I am” and “I will be who I will be” (Exod. 3:14)?