There was a chap living in some flats who got upset every night because the man living above him dropped his shoes on the floor when he got ready for bed. Every night, the same thing happened. First, the noise from one shoe, then the noise from the other. Finally, the man downstairs had enough, so in very un-English way he went upstairs and asked his neighbour to stop it. The next night, as the man upstairs was getting ready for bed, he took off the first shoe, and without thinking, dropped it. Then he remembered. He was not supposed to do that. So he took the second shoe off carefully and put it down quietly. The chap downstairs heard the first shoe drop. He waited and waited and waited for the second shoe to drop, but it didn’t. Finally, he yelled, “For goodness sake, drop the other shoe!”
Have you ever waited for something? Waited for a really long time for something you were really excited; something you really wanted?
In April 2011 Prince Charles became the longest serving heir apparent in British history, having waited 59 years, 2 months, and 14 days. Prince Charles overtook the record set by his great-great grandfather king Edward VII; and that’s quite a record when you think the monarchy stretches back over 1,100 years.
Have you ever waited for something? Waited for a really long time for something you were really excited; something you really wanted? Have you ever waited so long and so hard for something that you almost missed it when it finally arrived? Perhaps the anticipation had led to impossible fantasies so that the real thing almost slipped under your radar. Or perhaps you waited for so long that your attention drifted just at the moment you needed to be alert.
Simeon was waiting to see the Messiah. We don’t know how long he had been waiting. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit promised it would happen before he died and we know he was an old man. His song sounds like the song of someone who had been waiting a long time: someone who had been filled with anticipation and is now filled with long-awaited joy as he takes the infant Jesus into his arms and knows him to be the one he has been waiting for.
It’s a little bit amazing to me that Simeon recognised the Messiah in the baby Jesus at all. He must have seen lots of babies, 40 days old, tiny and wrinkly, carried into the temple by insignificant but devout mothers and fathers. And was he even looking for the Messiah in a baby? Surely he was imagining something a little more exciting: a great teacher or a charismatic rebel. Surely he awoke many mornings more concerned about his aching joints than the long-awaited promise? It is, I think, a mark of true wisdom and discipline not to allow either your fantasies or your boredom to distract you from what God is actually doing.
I wonder how many of God’s promises we don’t see fulfilled simply because we aren’t paying attention or because we don’t have eyes and hearts, like Simeon’s, prepared to see God at work in unexpected places. Or maybe we don’t see it because we are more comfortable in the waiting than in uncertainty of what comes after?
There’s a story told that one stormy night an elderly couple entered the lobby of a small hotel and asked for a room. The clerk said they were full and they would probably find so were all the hotels in town. “But I can’t send a fine couple like you out in the rain. Would you be willing to sleep in my room?” The couple hesitated, but the clerk insisted.
The next morning when the man paid his bill, he said, “You’re the kind of man who should be managing the best hotel in the United States. Someday I’ll build you one.” The clerk smiled politely.
A few years later the clerk received a letter containing a ticket; the letter invited him to visit New York. When the clerk arrived, his host took him to the corner of 5th Avenue and 34th Street, where stood a magnificent new building. “That,” explained the man, “is the hotel I have built for you to manage.” The man was William Waldorf Astor, and the hotel was the original Waldorf-Astoria.
It has been said that God’s promises are the ones that you can’t break by leaning on them. When Simeon met the Messiah, that was God’s promise fulfilled.
There is an old tradition that today is the day that really ends the Christmas season. Many churches leave their nativity scene on display until today, I’ve even done that here sometimes. This is because today is about half-way between Christmas and Good Friday: half-way between Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ death. So today is kind of a pivot point for the year: the day when we turn from cradle to cross; birth to death.
And this is pivot is what Simeon’s story is all about. Holding the infant Messiah, Simeon knows his wait is over, God’s promise to him has been fulfilled. He praises God and sings of light and glory. And then Simeon turns to Mary and the tone changes:
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed to that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
I wonder if there wasn’t a part of Simeon that would have preferred just to keep waiting, to hold on to the sense of hopeful anticipation rather than the perhaps more complicated emotions after the arrival of the Messiah? I rather think it might have been a whole lot easier for him, but following Jesus is not just about Christmas, not just light and joy and celebration. Today, we let Simeon turn us in the direction of the cross, remembering that following Jesus is also about sacrifice and faithfulness in the face of suffering.
Perhaps this is why today is the day on which the ancient churches chose to bless candles for the coming year – candles as signs of the light of Christ in the world – we know we still have need of such signs to get us through the darkness ahead.
Today is also, not coincidentally, roughly half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox: it’s the point at which we begin to turn from the cold and dark of winter towards the promise of spring. Old wisdom tells us that the weather today predicts the season to come – the Americans call it Groundhog Day. The tradition is that today is the day when the end of winter is enough of a possibility that we can begin to anticipate spring. The saying goes like this:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
winter will have another flight,
but if it be dark with clouds and rain,
winter is gone, and will not come again.
So, on this day which a pivot in the life of Jesus, and a picot in the seasons, we turn not simply from cradle to cross but from cradle through cross to the empty tomb, already visible, albeit very dimly through the darkness still to come. Following Jesus is not just about Christmas; not just about Good Friday. Following Jesus is also about the hope and freedom of Easter.
Holding all of that together in one piece can be very difficult, but perhaps we don’t have to. The rhythm of the church year offers us seasons in which one or the other piece takes primacy in our worship, and our own lives offer us seasons in which one or the other takes primacy in our faith and in our experience. Sometimes our own lives and the church year will match up, and sometimes they don’t, in which case our worship serves as a valuable reminder that what we are living is not the whole of God’s story, because remembering that can be very difficult, indeed.
Simeon’s song begins with a declaration of the end of his work, perhaps even his life: “Lord, now let your servant go in peace”. His task has been fulfilled; he has born witness to the arrival of the infant Messiah, seen the salvation of the world. That season is over, a new season has begun.
I wonder how Simeon felt when he woke up the day after meeting Jesus and seeing the truth of what his future would hold? I wonder if he woke up thinking, ‘today might be the day!”, before he remembered that yesterday had been the day and that he would have to find something else to do today.
I imagine that Simeon lit a candle, in the quiet of that winter morning, and prayed that the light of the world would break through the darkness and reveal to him the continuation of God’s promise. Let that be our prayer, also, as we journey through the seasons of the year and of our lives.
God has not promised us sun without rain,
joy without sorrow,
peace without pain.
But God has promised strength for the day,
rest for the labour,
light for the way,
grace for the trials,
help from above,