“The Lord’s Christ, the Consolation of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem” Christmas 1, 2023

YouTube player

31. December 2023
Christmas 1
Luke 2:22-40

And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.

As we consider the lifespan and the number of days we have, many come up with a “bucket list.” There’s a dispute about the phrase’s origin and original meaning. But regardless, it’s understood as the list of things we’d like to do while we live and before we die. Especially for those with debilitating or terminal illnesses, there is a desire to accomplish something before the darkness when no one can work. They want to get the most out of their life before it’s too late. It’s not so much a desire to look forward to what is to come because how can one look forward to death? It’s a desire to look back when dying and be able to say of oneself, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt 25:23), or for others to eulogize you.

From maturity, we’re hard-wired to want to leave our mark on the world. We want to have something to show for the days, weeks, and years God has given us. It would be irresponsible to waste time. What if we squander everything, and all we have in the end is our final, gasping breaths? This contemplation leads people this time of year to consider the year past and the year to come, resolving to do more or better. There’s nothing particularly wrong with improvement, humanly speaking. Do well and care for your body, your life, your family, your church, your work, and your community. Aspire to greater things, build, mature, and grow.

What often drives this desire is a sense of responsibility to be good stewards with the time, talents, and treasures you’ve been blessed with. This deep sense of stewardship drives the so-called Protestant (or Puritan) work ethic. Our lives and everything in them are not our own but a gift of a generous, benevolent God. But the thought is that this gift comes with strings attached. (By the way, this makes it no longer a gift but a transaction and of the Law.) God expects you to use what He gives responsibly and fruitfully. So, according to the law of God, if you fail to love God with your whole heart, soul, strength, and mind and love your neighbor as you love yourself, you might not be judged worthy of eternity. We desperately want to be able to say, “It is enough,” especially in the hour of death.

This judgment-according-to-works drives how we think about all things religious. Each has a “bucket list” of sorts, sometimes informed by Scriptures or how one is raised, but usually arbitrary and self-appointed. You think about how much you read the Bible, how frequently you go to Divine Service, when you volunteer and serve in the congregation, or how much you contribute in terms of minimum/maximum. You want to ensure you have a full bucket and all the divine “to-do’s” are checked off for when your last day comes so that you have confidence for the final day. 

The Scripture gives us to think in these terms. In St. John’s Apocalypse, the Revelator records, “Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them.”” The third of the ecumenical creeds we confess, the Athanasian, ends this way, “At His coming, all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire. This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.”

There it is. You best work hard to do good, accomplishing everything on the Christian bucket list to be saved. But your ears have perked up at all this talk of work and accomplishment. Aren’t we saved by faith and not by works? Isn’t salvation a free gift of God? How can we end up talking about deeds and accounting? That’s confusing the Law and Gospel? After its length, this is probably the chief reason we don’t like confessing this creed (and a close third is that word, “catholic.”)

But the words proclaimed immediately prior by St. John are relevant, too: “Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” And in John’s vision, God plants and reaps the saints from the earth. Even their keeping of the commandments and faith in Jesus is a gift to them, not of works done. As we confess, God, the Holy Spirit, calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us. Christ’s Spirit works in us what we say and do. Our works are a fruit of faith, worked in us according to God’s pleasure. And even our “good” works done in the flesh must be atoned for in the blood of Jesus to be truly pleasing to God the Father.

You recall the memory verse from the Congregation at Prayer last week: “But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

Simeon and Anna are both described as just/righteous. To say it another way, they “Honor [their] parents and other authorities, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” They “help and support [their neighbor] in every physical need.” They “lead a chaste and decent life in what [they] say and do.” They “help [their neighbor] to improve and protect his possessions and income.” They “defend [their neighbor], speak well of him, and explain everything most kindly.” They “help and serve [their neighbor] in keeping his house, wife, workers, or animals and urging them to stay and do their duty.” 

And both Simeon and Anna are described as devout or devoted. To say it another way, they “hold [God’s Word] sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” They “call upon [God’s Name] in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.” And they “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” The Holy Spirit worked such love and faith in them so they would receive their consolation as Israel in the Lord’s Christ, Jesus. Works of faith aren’t on the bucket list to merit God’s favor. But God’s Word, heard, learned, prayed, and confessed is how the Lord Jesus reveals Himself to you for salvation.

As our works are worked in us according to God’s good pleasure, their accounting and measure are His. And Jesus tells us many times and in various ways that faith in Him is not a bucket list of things to do before you die or so that you, His servant, can die in peace. He calls “workers for His vineyard” at all hours of the day and finally gives all the same rewards purchased and won for them in the blood of Jesus. It is Christ Jesus crucified for the forgiveness of sins, which alone gives us the assurance and confidence to die in peace. 

The Lord’s Christ, the Consolation of Israel, and the redemption of Jerusalem, Jesus, comes to you today in Word and Supper. The Spirit is upon you that you would receive Him as He comes. You have not seen death before you have seen your Savior. One of our teachers remarked, “When we go to the Lord’s Supper, we go to our death. And when we go to our death, we go to the Lord’s Supper.” Your eyes have seen and will receive again your salvation in Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for you. This table is prepared for you in the presence of your enemies, before the face of all peoples. May Christ’s visitation today for you in Divine Service bring you the revelation of His grace and mercy and glory for you, His restored Israel. Amen. 

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin