We like to think of Jesus as standing out in a crowd, don’t we? We like to picture people making way for the infant Christ when he was brought to the temple, oohing and aahing at how cute he was, people congratulating Mary on bearing such a wonderful and splendid child. But Jesus didn’t stand out. He was ordinary. He was the child of peasant parents, a beggar child more than a royal child, wrapped in the humdrum cloths of parents without great means, carried in the arms of a mother like any other in the eyes of the masses who hurried about to fulfill their obligations. Jesus was in every way like us, unbelievably so, and there was no special notice, no special treatment, that is, except from a keen old man. At least we assume he was old. Regardless of his age, he was thoroughly unremarkable himself and maybe even a kook in the minds of those around him, with well-trained eyes of faith set firmly within his (perhaps) wrinkled and well-worn face.
Why was Jesus brought to the temple? Luke keeps it short and sweet: “The parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law.” Now be honest, if you were reading this on your own, perhaps for your evening devotion, would you stop at that? But if you didn’t, would you know what it meant? It might be what seems like a throwaway detail, but it is important.
Jesus’ parents were in the temple for two reasons. The first was the purification of Mary, the second was the presentation of Jesus as the firstborn. So what in the world was the purification of Mary, you might ask. Good question. The Mosaic Law stated that a woman was to be purified from her uncleanness forty days after bearing a son and eighty days after bearing a daughter. Mary was there in obedience to the law, and so was Jesus.
According to the Mosaic Law, the firstborn was to be presented to God at the temple. He had to be bought back. What’s that, right? We don’t think that way, of buying back our firstborn son, do we? But that was God’s law for the Old Testament believers. Their firstborn son had to be redeemed, even as through God’s Firstborn believers would be redeemed. This was an important reminder for God’s people. Our children are not our own, but even more, our children are born in need. They are sinful, from conception and from birth. And that is why we in the New Testament baptize them. And so it is important that Jesus was presented at the temple, as our substitute, as the one who was reckoned a sinner to declare us saints.
Am I blaspheming your Lord and God, our Jesus, by speaking of him as a sinner? Of course not. Far be it from me to blaspheme my only hope for heaven. Jesus was not himself sinful by nature or deed, but he was reckoned a sinner for us. St. Paul says it most clearly in 2 Corinthians 5:21. He writes, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Mary was not unclean for bearing the Son of God. He had not been conceived in the normal way. He had no original sin—no sin at all. He was the perfect, innocent, pure and holy Son of the Most High. And yet she was unclean, because he became unclean for us, that is, he became sin to make us the righteousness of God, in God’s sight in this life, and in every way and perfectly in heaven. And so when they came to the temple, Jesus died, that is, a sacrifice died in his place, even as he will die in our place, to buy him back, even as he will buy us back and redeem us.
Jesus didn’t stand out, and what was taking place didn’t stand out, except to Simeon, and, as Luke continues to tell us, to Anna, to simple people of faith, themselves unremarkable and likely lost in the crowd. All that made them noteworthy and worthy of mention in the Scriptures is one thing: they recognized and confessed the Christ. And in that way, they lived the life God willed for them and served the purpose that God prepared for them. Not much has changed: our chief task and purpose is to recognize and confess the Christ as well, and then to walk in the stations he has prepared for us.
Just as Jesus didn’t stand out, so we, his children, are often lost in the crowd, ordinary as ordinary can be. But we ought not be ashamed of that. We are his riches even when dressed in rags. He was a King who looked more like a beggar, and in him, we are beggars who are friends of the King. No matter what we might go without, we have the one thing that ought to satisfy, that always should be enough, that should leave no doubt about what God has done and has planned for us. We have Christ, wrapped in the Scriptures and in bread and wine. In him we have held and seen our salvation, just like Simeon. And with that, whether today or fifty years or more from now, we are ready to depart in peace. Our Lord has kept his promises. Our Lord will keep his promises. That is all we need to know to go confidently into a new year and, when he calls us, to life everlasting.