Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Advent Nunc Dimittis

2 Chronicles 6:1-2, 6:41– 7:3, Luke2:25-33
Advent 3 Midweek - December 14, 2016
Nunc Dimittis Servum Tuum
The reason Joseph and Mary came to the temple with baby Jesus was because she had just given birth to a baby boy.  God commanded that any son who is the firstborn child of his mother had to be consecrated to the Lord and redeemed with a sacrifice.  Even among the animals, any firstborn lamb or calf that was male had to be sacrificed.  Certain animals and human sons, which of course God did not accept as sacrifices, were not sacrificed.  Instead they were redeemed with a lamb.  This was not a weird and arbitrary commandment.  It was actually part of their celebration of the annual Passover.  God instituted the Passover.  You will recall that each household was to sacrifice a male lamb and then eat it roasted with bitter herbs.  This was in commemoration of that first Passover when the angel of death killed all the firstborn sons in Egypt, and spared the firstborn sons in those Hebrew homes whose doors were marked with the blood of the lambs they roasted.  This was the Passover.  Thus, from then on all firstborn sons were holy to the Lord and had to be redeemed by blood.  This consecration was to be done as soon as the mother who just gave birth was ceremonially clean.  So 40 days after Jesus was born, Mary went with her husband and son to the temple, first to receive her own purification and also to consecrate her little boy to the Lord.  And they did. 
Two things here are really interesting. 

First, the reason a woman was unclean after giving birth was because she had just given birth to a sinful human being.  But Mary had not!  She was not unclean at all.  Not only did she give birth to a holy child, but she remained a virgin all the while.  Yet she humbly submitted to the law of the Lord so as not to give offense. 
Second, the boy that she and Joseph brought to be consecrated to the Lord was already consecrated to the Lord – from all eternity.  Think of that!  He was the very firstborn Son of God from before all time.  In fact, it was for his sake that God commanded what he did about all males that open the womb.  He who had no beginning in heaven was chosen from eternity by his Father to make for himself a human beginning on earth by being born of a virgin.  He was so chosen and anointed in order to become the Lamb of God who would make atonement for the sins of all people.  He would be roasted by the wrath of God in the bitterness of human grief.  His blood would mark the doors of all whom God would save through faith. 
Luther expresses this beautifully in his Easter hymn:
Here the true Paschal Lamb we see,
Whom freely God presented;
He died on the accursed tree–
In fervent love was roasted.
See, His blood now marks our door;
Faith points to it, Death passes o’er,
And Satan cannot harm us.  Hallelujah!
Jesus was born to fulfill the Passover.  And so, in obedience to the law of the Lord, his believing parents brought the little Lord Jesus to be consecrated and redeemed with a sacrifice.  Mary and Joseph brought two turtledoves – one for herself, for her postpartum purification, and the other for her son in place of a lamb, which God permitted for the poor.  The irony is almost humorous.  Jesus himself was the Lamb to whom all other lambs had pointed.  They were far richer than they looked.  The sacrifices they submitted to and humbly rendered were commanded by God for the express purpose of preparing his people for the Christ child whom they had just brought into the temple.
Now, why the temple?  Why did they have to go to the temple?  And what is the significance of Jesus entering it?  Why couldn’t they just say a prayer wherever they were?  Because God said so.  The temple was where God promised to be.  The same glory cloud that followed the children of Israel out of Egypt after the Passover also contained itself in the Tabernacle built by Moses and later filled the temple that Solomon built, as we just heard from our first lesson.  The temple was nothing other than a more permanent tabernacle.  By filling it, God consecrated it and promised always to be present.  The glory cloud was the glorious and unapproachable presence of God.  The tabernacle and temple was where God commanded all the sacrifices to be made – in the presence of God – before the Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts as we sing about in the Sanctus.  It was where the priests served and the children of Israel were purified.  The smoke that filled the temple indicated that God accepted the service done in the temple. 
And here is the significance of Jesus entering the temple.  Already we see the glory of God containing himself in human flesh as a little baby.  He is the true temple.  And already we see that he dwelt in his mother’s womb for nine months, making her a true temple too.  But by entering the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus made known that he came to fulfill all the promises that God had ever made concerning the temple.  All sacrifices, all purifications, all prayers – all of these were offered in the tabernacle and the temple where the glory of God filled the place with smoke.  When Jesus entered the temple, it was not he who was consecrated therefore.  It was the temple that was consecrated by him.  He indicated that all the service of the temple was accepted by God for his sake alone, that is, through faith in Christ. 
See, Solomon’s temple was destroyed, you know.  It was destroyed when the Jews were carried into Babylonian captivity.  The Ark of the Covenant was carried away and never found again.  And when the temple was finally rebuilt years later, neither the Ark of the Covenant was placed within it nor did it ever fill with smoke like it did before.  This was the temple in Jesus’ day.  It had remained unconsecrated, unfilled, incomplete. 
But now enters the Lord.  He makes the temple glorious, because he is the very glory of God.  As the Bible says, “it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself … having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).  This same Lord God finally filled his temple, as the prophet wrote,
“The Desire of Nations shall come, and I will fill this temple with glory’ … ‘The glory of this latter temple shall be greater than the former’ … ‘And in this place I will give peace,’ says the Lord of hosts.”  (Haggai 2:7-9)
What a marvelous thing!  The temple to which Simeon came to bless the baby Lord Jesus had never yet been filled with the smoky cloud that indicated God’s presence.  But now it was.  As Simeon called him, the glory of his people Israel finally entered.  But he did not fill the temple in such a way as to drive out the priests and bring terror and fear like he had done before.  Instead, he came in humility, hidden in the form of a servant.  He came to fulfill his priestly duty.  He came to replace the temple with his own self, his own flesh and blood, as he later said, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will build it again.”  He came to do so by giving himself wholly to the demands of the law in our place and laying down his life to atone for our sins – both for his people Israel and for all nations.  He then rose from the dead in order to remain with his people forever.  He remains with us wherever forgiveness is preached in his name. 
St. John writes that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  That word for dwelt is literally tabernacled.  His presence among us today is the very same presence of the almighty God of old who struck fear into the hearts of Jew and Gentile alike.  His was a presence that could only be approached by priests with blood.  But now his presence brings peace to all who fear God, who approach him with broken and contrite hearts, seeking mercy and pardon for their sins for the sake of Jesus’ blood.   To inquire in the temple of God is nothing more, therefore, than to sit at Jesus’ feet learning his gospel. 
In days of old there was within the Holy of holies the Ark of the Covenant. The cover of the Ark with the angels on top was called the mercy seat.  On the mercy seat was where the blood was sprinkled by the High Priest once a year.  But the Ark was long missing.  Now it returned.  Rather, now he returned.  The word for mercy seat, where the blood was sprinkled, is the New Testament word for redemption.  Christ is our mercy seat.  He is our redemption.  Where he sheds his blood God’s peace is won.  Where he is God’s peace is found.  As within the Ark of the Covenant there were kept the stone tablets of the law, Aaron’s staff with miraculously budding leaves, and manna from heaven, so in Christ is the fulfillment of the law, the staff that guides us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and the very Bread come down from heaven that gives eternal life.  Jesus is truly the fulfillment of the temple and all that was in it. 
The service of the temple is no longer needed.  It has been forever destroyed.  But the true Temple rose from the dead.  Where he comes, our Redeemer, our Savior, he brings the peace of sins forgiven.  He opens himself and welcomes not only Jews who waited for him, but also Gentiles to whom he came as a Light to enlighten.  As the glory of God was hidden in the form of a servant – even a baby! – so this glorified servant hides himself in the lowly means of bread and wine.  As true priests of God, we are invited to eat the sacrifice.  The Old Testament priests would sprinkle the blood on the people and on the mercy seat and then eat the meat of the animal.  But we are invited not only to eat the very meat, that is, the very flesh of Christ, but also to do what no Old Testament priest could ever do.  We are invited to drink the blood of the New Testament.  By inviting us to do so, Jesus both welcomes us into the Holy of holies – the very presence of God – washing us pure and removing all our sin.  But he also makes us his own dwelling.  He tabernacles within us.  He makes us his own temple built with living stones. 
That is why we commune together.  As the body of Christ, and also as individuals, we are the temple of the living God.  As Simeon knew where peace with God was found, so do we.  And with him we confess it.  We depart in peace from the altar having embraced by faith and with our mouths the eternal God who became flesh to save us.  We do so no less than Simeon did when he held in his arms the very Glory of God in the highest.  And as we find peace with God through faith, so we find peace with each other through fervent love.  It is the same fervent love by which God gave his Son as our Savior and by which Jesus gave himself as our Substitute.  We depart in peace uncondemned by God, and so also forgiving each other as well. 
By his blood we are redeemed as sons of God and purified to stand in his presence.  We are not driven from his presence.  He remains with us.  And so remaining with us, and dwelling within us, we depart this place, and even this life, with the peace that is given to us in the Sacrament of the Altar.  Being fed with the body and blood of Jesus, the peace we have whereby we approach God in prayer and thanksgiving is the same peace we have to approach him in death and to leave this life in perfect confidence that sinless glory will follow.  All this we have through the forgiveness of sins.  Jesus gives us his body and blood as true heavenly food.  When we commune with him by eating and drinking, sorry for our sins and believing he took them away, we prepare ourselves to depart this world in peace.  May God comfort us frequently with this meal until we do.  Amen. 
And may this peace of God that surpasses all understanding also strengthen and preserve you steadfast unto eternal life.  Amen. 

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