“The Other Side of Christmas.” That is how I would title the sermon on the first Sunday after December 25. The reason: Christmas is a cultural behemoth. Not only does it mark the centuries, but it is also the hub of western society. School schedules, vacation allotment, family budgets, business bottom lines, church calendars—they all revolve around the social phenomenon we call Christmas.
But here we are again on the other side of a Christmas celebration. This inevitably involves a sense of let-down, even for preachers (Warning: Do not check the attendance numbers this coming Sunday). If Christmas is as significant as we say, it is worth reflecting with your hearers on what comes next. What is on the other side of Christmas?
Each of the appointed readings could help you find a fitting answer. If you choose to go with Luke, I would suggest picking up on Simeon’s song. Like Mary’s song before Christmas, Simeon gives us much to consider after Christmas. The following ideas could serve collectively as main points in a sermon or individually as possible directions for the entire sermon.
Simeon sings as a Spirit-filled servant. He has this in common with Mary (Luke 1:48) and with us. Like Simeon, we gather together for a continued celebration of Christmas this Sunday as servants of the Most High God, empowered by His Spirit for His praise. This servanthood is a blessing, but only because of the goodness of the One we serve (In Simeon’s song “Lord” is not Luke’s typical κύριος, but rather the less common δέσποτα, which seems to emphasize submission). Submitting to our gracious master is a joy, even when it is difficult.
Simeon sings about salvation for all. Recall John’s words in Luke 3:6 from a few weeks ago. With language from Isaiah 52:8, the Baptizer announces that all flesh would see the salvation of God. Simeon is one of the first to realize this prophecy as he takes the eight day old man-God in his arms. As remarkable as holding God must have been, however, Simeon could still only say these things by faith. Luke gives no indication that Jesus was glowing or that His halo, as depicted in so many nativity scenes, has lingered. Simeon saw the Lord’s salvation, but like us (and like Mary) he could only see it by faith. He lived by a promise even in the presence of Jesus. So do we.
Simeon sings of a peaceful dismissal. He does not ask to be dismissed. He simply names the dismissal he is experiencing in the moment (ἀπολύεις is a present indicative active). There are at least three ways this dismissal could be taken. (1) It could stand as a euphemism for death and point toward the end of Simeon’s life. This would fit naturally with verse 26. (2) It could refer to a peaceful discharge from faithful service. In this sense he was released from his prophetic mission with the arrival of the Savior. (3) It could be taken as a dismissal for peaceful service. This reading has the least amount of textual support. Even so, it has rich homiletical potential, especially if the preacher wants to make a connection to a liturgical version of Simeon’s song, the Nunc Dimittis. Many congregations sing this song after celebrating the Lord’s Supper. What kind of dismissal is this for them? While it is true they leave prepared to die, that usually does not happen (not immediately, at least). Instead, congregations are dismissed from the Lord’s Supper for service. They depart into a world which still needs to see the salvation of our God. The Church goes forth in the spirit of Simeon, singing the praises of God to the marvel and wonder of all who, by faith, hear and believe (Note Mary and Joseph’s reaction to his song in verse 33). This is a connection point between Simeon and Anna. They are faithful examples of what it looks like for Christians to live on the other side of Christmas. Through word and deed, we “speak of Him” (verse 38) to all who will listen.
There is one more part of Simeon’s message that warrants attention. He does not address this part to God, but to Mary. Simeon speaks of both consolation and crisis. While the salvation he sees and proclaims is a source of comfort for all who believe, Simeon also forewarns Mary of trouble. There will be rising and falling in Israel. There will be opposition, such that pierces Mary’s own soul. Hearts will be revealed and what is made known in human hearts is not always glad tidings. Simeon does not mention the cross explicitly, but it stands resolutely behind his cryptic postscript.
Does this undo the salvation he sees in this child? Of course not. The song of praise still stands. The Savior in his arms truly is a light to the nations and the glory of His people. Which is why the preacher must proclaim the promise of Christ as Savior to all who will hear. But through his message to Mary, Simeon previews how this salvation will ultimately involve suffering. He prepares her (and us) for the divisive effect this child will inevitably have in a creation that has rejected its master.
What is on the “other side of Christmas”? With Simeon, we rejoice in the privilege of being servants of the Most High God. With Simeon, by faith, we see the salvation of the Lord in the man, Jesus Christ. With Simeon, we are dismissed for peace-full service in a world that will oppose us because it opposed Him. But we stand firm amidst the suffering with Anna and Simeon and all who have gone before. We wait eagerly for the redemption of Jerusalem on the last day.
Concordia Theology: Various resources to help you preach Luke 2:22-40 from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.
Lectionary Podcast: Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN guides us through Luke 2:22-40.
The Nunc Dimmitis: An explanation of the Song of Simeon and its role in the liturgy from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
The Nunc Dimmitis: Salvation-For You: A devotional thought on the Song of Simeon from Higher Things.