john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Luke 2 - Presentation of Christ:
    Simeon, the Grumpy Old Man

    St Christopher Norris Green, 28/1/2007

    Malachi 3.1-5, Luke 2.22-40

    Do you know the programme Grumpy Old Men? Where a selection of well-known blokes get the chance to complain bitterly about all sorts of things which they dislike about modern life: Pop Idol, Tony Blair, mobile phones, Christmas and all sorts of other things get the grumpy treatment.

    Now these grumpy old men are all rich and famous people - which seems to prove the old saying that money won't buy you happiness. Which is quite comforting in a way, for those of us who don't have much. But we have our own grumpy old men in our lives too, don't we - the things they complain about on telly we hear people moan on about in our homes and workplaces and down the shops. I wonder if you have a grumpy old man in your life - I do, it's me, quite often.

    Now today I'd like to take a slightly different view of the story of the Presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple. I'd especially like us to look at Simeon, who was there to receive Jesus, and the words that he said as he held Mary's little baby in his arms. I want to suggest to you that I think Simeon was a grumpy old man.

    You may wonder why I say that. Because you recall that Simeon sang a song with the infant Jesus in his arms. Today we call this song the Nunc Dimittis - "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace." And the problem with it is that we tend to treat those words as a mug of Ovaltine, as a nightcap guaranteeing a good night's sleep. It's what we sing at evensong when the day's work's done, and at compline when it's time for bed. The familiar cadences are like gentle lullabies, easing us into dreamless slumber.

    Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you now dismiss your servant in peace.
    For my eyes have seen your salvation...

    Simeon is satisfied that all he has longed for is now fulfilled in the child in his arms. He's an old man. Now he can contentedly take his leave, in the sure knowledge that his saviour has come. As T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem A Song for Simeon, "My life is light, waiting for the death wind, Like a feather on the back of my hand".

    As we sing his words, we catch Simeon's mood, and our own worries begin to drain away. All's well, and we can safely rest.

    That's because, in his song Simeon was looking forward to "the consolation of Israel". The commentators tell us that this term was used to describe the messianic age, and that it takes up the cry by which Isaiah announced his message of hope to the exiles in Babylon: "Comfort, comfort, my people" (Isaiah 40.1).

    Simeon had craved that promised comfort. Now salvation is in sight, not only for his own people but for the Gentiles, too. Now he is holding the child messiah in his arms, at last, he can go to God with a serene heart:

    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.

    But if our impression of Simeon is of a contented figure with an unshakeably comforting message, then we've mistaken our man. We have sung his song too often and with too little regard to its setting. The Song of Simeon stops sounding like soothing mood-music if we return it to its context and take account of what he actually says about the child he is holding. His words to Mary paint a darker picture. They make him sound like a grumpy old man.

    The "consolation" which Israel expected would - so they thought - follow the path mapped by the prophet Isaiah. Theirs would be the destiny he had promised. Their deliverance would fulfil his vision. They, too, would rise in triumph from bitter servitude. For them, too, the wilderness would rejoice and the desert blossom. They, too, would exult over their oppressors, who would watch this mighty act of God in abject awe.

    But Simeon, the grumpy old man, wearied by a long life of waiting for the messiah to show up - Simeon foresees an altogether different fate for Israel - not a sunlit highway, but the valley of the shadow of death. The end may yet be glorious, but the path there will be a via dolorosa. The doom of Israel is presaged in this baby, born to be a crucified king. Simeon speaks of light and glory, but also of "the time of cords and scourges and lamentation".

    Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."

    The "many" in Israel means all of Israel. In the Bible "many" often means "all". Simeon's words anticipate what the child himself will one day say: "The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10.45). For Mary herself, there is little comfort in Simeon's words. The sword, thrust into her son's side, will pierce her heart, too.

    Simeon turns out to be a less reassuring figure than we have made him out to be, and the presentation in the Temple is an altogether more disturbing event than we had supposed. The thing is that he turns out to be a grumpy old man. But the redeeming thing about grumpy old men is - the often turn out to be speaking the truth.

    Simeon sought consolation in the coming messiah. But he was old enough and wise enough to see that there is pain beyond consoling, as Mary later found. Simeon's words of celebration are tempered by his grumpy words because they recognise the complicated truth about the baby he was holding - Jesus would bring consolation, but he would also bring division, pain, and for those who follow him a lot of difficulty all mixed in with the joy.

    In A Grief Observed C. S. Lewis wrote,

    Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand.

    Sometimes there aren't many consolations in religion. Just difficult decisions. And that's why this week some of the leaders of the Church have come across on TV and in the papers as grumpy old men. Complaining about laws which cut across their Christian consciences, threatening to not join in any more with government plans over gay adoption. And last week they were being grumpy about Celebrity Big Brother with all its bullying.

    Now we might disagree with the Archbishops' opinions on some things - and I'll happily give you my personal opinion on the gay adoption debate and on Big Brother's bullying later if you'd like. But we might perhaps see that what's happening today reinforces Simeon's words on that famous and fateful day when he held his longed-for messiah in his arms.

    He was consoled by the presence of Jesus, but he was wisely grumpy enough to know that it wouldn't all be plain sailing with this saviour. And we, who like Simeon are just ordinary people practising our faith in our own modest way, might be similarly consoled but similarly warned that we're following a saviour who causes some to rise - and some to fall; who is spoken of with great joy and celebration and is also fiercely spoken against. Who makes living the Christian life a great consolation and at the same time a great challenge.

    So my prayer for you, for me, for all of us who want to hold on to our saviour, today is that we might learn from Simeon, to be joyful enough to celebrate the presence of Christ with us, and to be grumpy enough to learn from Christ how to be wise in the difficult decisions of our lives.

    [1] The good theology in the middle of this sermon I owe entirely to John Pridmore's commentary in this week's Church Times. The clunky Grumpy Old Men metaphor, that's mine.