What would it take for your hearers to depart in peace? I am not talking about exiting the worship service this Sunday. Neither do I have in mind finally leaving behind 2020. I am talking about departing from this life. I am talking about dying. Unless the Lord returns first, you and each of your hearers will depart; some sooner than we expect. We need to be ready. In this way, we need to become like Simeon. Having seen the Lord, he was ready to depart in peace. His song may be the perfect tune to lodge in the ears and hearts of your hearers on this first Sunday after Christmas.
The Sunday after Christmas is a unique day for worship, especially this year. If your congregation has returned to in-person worship, your hearers will have had the opportunity to worship on Thursday and Friday. Attendance will be even lower for this service. If you have NOT returned to in-person worship, this will be the third day of four when you encourage your hearers to worship in front of a screen. I remind you of the schedule to encourage you to consider how this sermon will be different from your preaching on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Which brings us back to the departing. You might envision your sermon two days after Christmas as a homiletical version of the ars moriendi for 21st century Christians.
The ars moriendi (art of dying) was a genre of devotional literature that arose during the fifteenth century. The Black Death had killed up to 60% of Europe’s population. People needed help getting ready to die. Robert Kolb notes that these works were, “…designed as tools for both parish priests and laypeople… that could be used, especially during a plague, to guide the dying to a spiritually satisfactory departure from life.” While it may seem a bit of a downer to focus on death two days after Jesus’ birth, the hallmark of Christian preaching is its brutal honesty. The appointed reading about Simeon presents an opportunity. Being honest about death, not only at funerals, is part of your calling to tell the truth.
While it may seem a bit of a downer to focus on death two days after Jesus’ birth, the hallmark of Christian preaching is its brutal honesty.
Kolb shows how Luther faced death head-on.
“Although we do not wish to call the life we have here a death,” said the reformer, “nevertheless, it is surely nothing else than a continuous journey toward death. Just as a person infected with a plague has already started to die when the infection has set in, so also because of sin and because of death, the punishment for sin, this life can no longer properly be called life after it has been infected by sin. Right from our mother’s womb we begin to die.”
It should not be hard to help your hearers take seriously the concept of death this year. All jokes about moving past 2020 aside, this year has been a global wake-up call about the fragility of life for all ages.
Speaking of age, we do not actually know how old Simeon was in the text. Most works of art picture him as an old man with a flowing white beard. This may come from an Eastern tradition that he was one of the translators of the Septuagint, which would make him really old. But the text does not actually say anything about his age. This year I find myself imagining Simeon much younger.
The intrusion of death into the lives of people of all ages highlights the singular and central significance of Jesus’ resurrection. Contrary to so many memes, our hope is NOT in getting to 2021. Even during Christmas, the good news is founded only on the empty tomb (1 Corinthians 15). This was how Luther prepared his hearers to die well. He proclaimed the promise of resurrection for all who, by faith and their baptism, are united to the crucified and risen Christ. It is your job (and joy) to proclaim this promise to your hearers. The One who has overcome death has shared His eternal life with you.
Even during Christmas, the good news is founded only on the empty tomb.
In this way, you are doing in your sermon what the Holy Spirit did for Simeon before his encounter with Jesus. “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). In your sermon you will be showing your hearers the Lord’s Christ. Seeing Him by faith, they will not see death eternally. Death, for them, will be a passage to life. Their departure, then, is not something to fear, but something to recognize and anticipate in peace. This is not an act of resignation, but thanksgiving and active service toward others.
As Simeon sang, you might lead your hearers in a song of defiant and hopeful confidence to close out a year characterized by death and despair. “Lord, now you are letting your servant[s] depart in peace, according to your word; for [our] eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared [for us] in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 2:22-40.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 2:22-40.
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 2:22-40.