Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Faith and Doubt 7: Luke 2:22-40

Luke 2:22-38

22And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord") 24and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons." 25Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, 29"Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation 31that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel." 33And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed."

36And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

--->We're not even through chapter 2, but once again, we find Luke still dealing with the topics of faith and doubt. As I'm sure we all well know, Israel was waiting for the promised Messiah to come and deliver them, or free them—to this day, they're waiting for that same Messiah. At this point in their history, they had been enslaved, lost in the desert, enslaved again, had a few military victories, and had once again been taken over, this time by Rome—all of this happened over the course of five or six thousand years. The Jews, however, were still faithful that their redeemer, the one who had been prophesied of and promised, was still on his way, and they demonstrated their faithfulness and loyalty to God by obeying the Law of Moses. This, of course, is evident in verses 22-24, when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple for "the time of purification according to the Law of Moses."

Another faithful follower who went to the temple this particular day was an old priest named Simeon. Now, imagine this—Luke informs us that Simeon wouldn't see his death until the birth of the Messiah. Unfortunately, Luke doesn't inform us exactly how old Simeon is at this point in life, but he does let us know a few hints that we can use to infer his age: in verse 29, Simeon says, "Now you are letting your servant depart in peace," so we know his near his death (which, at this point, could've meant he anywhere between 70-100 years old (or older!), and in verse 25, Luke informs us that Simeon was a "righteous and devout" man, so we know he had been a priest for a long enough time that he had garnered the respect of Israel.

We can also infer from his exclamation in verse 29 that he had a long, long life and was ready for it to be over. His life had been filled with wars and violence, slavery and oppression, destitution and poverty. His friends and loved ones had more than likely passed away, and he lived a life of loneliness and longing, forever waiting for the Messiah to come and ease his pain. His grief is indicative of the way his entire nation felt for thousands of years. So one can only imagine the sweet, wonderful relief that swept over him when he took up the baby Messiah in his arms, and praised God.

From verses 36-38, Luke then tells his readers about another very old, faithful follower—a prophetess named Anna; from the information Luke shares about her age, we can guess that she's at least 90 years old. Much like Simeon, Anna had been waiting and longing for the Messiah's arrival her entire life. In her later years, she never even left the temple—she just stayed there, worshiping and fasting and praying day and night, every single day. This woman was hopelessly devoted to God's promise to His people and lived out her faith with reckless abandon. When Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple, she gave thanks to God, turned to the crowd of people "who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem," and informed all of them that the wait was finally over—that the Messiah had finally come.

Until I started reading Luke's gospel more critically, I had always wondered why Luke bothered mentioning Anna's life story, or even mentioning her at all! It seemed to me that just telling the story of Simeon was powerful and convincing enough for his readers, and that Anna's story was just overkill. It'd be like telling the story of one of Jesus' miracles, then telling the same exact story again from a different perspective a couple verses later. Not until I read this book with the training I received to read a book critically while an English major did I truly appreciate what Luke is doing here by telling her story—he's simply reinforcing something he had mentioned earlier with a practical, real-life example.

Let me explain.

As discussed in my last blog, Luke writes in 2:10 that the birth of Jesus was "good news of a great joy that will be for all the people." He revisits this sentiment in Simeon's exclamation in verses 30-32: "my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel." Telling the stories of both Simeon and Anna really goes to reaffirm these promises.

For one thing, Simeon and Anna are incredibly similar to one another; in fact, they're almost mirror images of one another: they're both very old Jews, for one thing, both of them being over the age (presumably) of at least 80; secondly, they're both very revered by their community as religious leaders/figures, Simeon being a priest and Anna being a prophetess; lastly, and most importantly, both of them have been waiting their entire lives for the Messiah's promised arrival.

The one difference between them? Simeon is a man, and Anna is a woman. As far as we can gather from Luke's description of them, their genders are the one quality they don't share. However, this one difference is the most important aspect of Luke's story, because it reaffirms that Jesus's birth and the salvation he came to bring was for "all peoples" (verse 31). Both man and woman celebrated his arrival, and, according to Simeon, both Jew and Gentile were to benefit from his arrival (verse 32).

I wonder if, at any point, Simeon and Anna struggled with doubt. I know Luke tells us that they both spent their entire lives waiting on the Messiah's arrival, which means they were faithful people all the way to the end; but I wonder if there was ever a moment, a day, or an even longer stretch of time in their long, long lives that they doubted God's promise. I wonder if they ever lost hope.

It's easy to lose hope, unfortunately. I've been in a predicament for the past year and a half where I've been legitimately starting to believe that I am completely and totally unemployable. I lost my job in January 2009 and have been searching high and low for work ever since. I took a couple part-time jobs last year and did a wee bit of substitute teaching, but nothing permanent (or at least nothing that I could see myself doing for an extended period of time). Last month, as I described in another blog that I write, I quit my job and moved to another town, believing that God was calling me here, and having faith that God would provide for me. I still believe that I'm supposed to be here, and I still have faith that God will open up doors for me, but I have to be honest—I've had my fair share of doubts over the month of June.

I'm still unemployed and very quickly running out of money. I have dealt with a tremendous amount of stress since living here. The trials I have been going through would make almost any person throw in the towel, move back home, and beg for their old jobs back (and, unfortunately, if things get any worse, that might be a possibility for me as well). If some of my friends saw what I've been going through, their advice would echo the advice that Job was given: "Curse God and die" (Job 2:9); they'd tell me to just throw in the towel and some of them would say, "See? I told you there's no God. Your faith is driving you to insanity."

Now, I don't mean to give away the ending, but at the end of Luke, Jesus dies. He is arrested, he is beaten, he is crucified, and he dies. When that happened, so many thousands of Jews hung their heads and said to each other, "Well, I guess he wasn't the Messiah after all." And say what you will about Jewish people being wrong for not accepting Jesus as Messiah, and say what you will about their initial loss of faith after Jesus's death, but the Jews still believe, 2,000 years later, Jehovah's promise that their Messiah is on his way! You can't convince me that in those 2,000 years, there weren't many devout Jews that had moments of doubt.

Look—doubt isn't all bad. In fact, it can be quite beneficial in some situations. There's a phrase I like to use to describe this kind of doubt: "healthy skepticism." I like to read the Bible with a healthy skepticism, I listen to people's stories with a healthy skepticism—it is a healthy skepticism that leads me to research the Bible even further, or to press further into God. It is a healthy skepticism that leads me to pray more, to trust God more, and to come to a better understanding of God.

What isn't healthy is a doubt that consumes your spirit and absolutely paralyzes you, a doubt that prevents you from trusting God and, ultimately, prevents you from having a healthy relationship with Him.

 Luke 2:39-40

39And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.

These last two verses seem to have very little meaning to them; they're just a continuation of Luke's narrative of Jesus's life: "First this happened, then this happened, then this happened..." However, this is not the way these two verses, however insignificant they seem, are meant to be read—verse 40 is filled to the brim with foreshadowing of Jesus's ministry. These two verses are the leaping point for Luke to tell the rest of Jesus's story.

Having obeyed the Mosaic law, Jesus' parents return with him to Nazareth. There, Jesus grows in strength and wisdom, receiving the favor of God. There he awaits the ministry that will fulfill what Mary, Zechariah, the angels, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna proclaimed. These were not empty proclamations, nor were they void prophecies.

God will fulfill his word and perform his plan. God will live up to His promise to the Jews and the Gentiles, to man and woman, to you and me.


  1. I liked what you said about having a healthy skepticism. And the last paragraph.

  2. I kind of wrote this with something you wrote on your blog once about the emergent church and how they're so into doubting God.