Preparing to Receive Christ: Looking for the Consolation of Israel
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking 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 should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel."
And his mother and father marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
"Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed."
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel.
Simeon and Anna
At the beginning of this text we meet an old man named Simeon and at the end of the text we meet an old woman named Anna.
According to verse 26, it had been revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah, the Lord's Christ. And so when Jesus was brought to the temple at eight days of age, Simeon was moved by the Spirit to come also. And he recognized the child and took him into his arms and blessed God.
According to verse 38, at that very hour Anna came near also and recognized the child and began to thank God and speak about the babe.
So here we have two old Jewish saints, representing as it were the very best of the old covenant which is now giving way to the new with the coming of the Messiah. And the question I have asked is, Why these two? Of all the Jews that might have been chosen to recognize the child-Messiah and take him into their arms and speak of his coming, why these?
I think Luke wants us to ask that question because he takes the time to tell us some of the qualities of these two people. Simeon is righteous and devout, with the Holy Spirit upon him (v. 25). Anna scarcely departs from the temple worshiping God with fasting and prayer night and day (v. 37). They are both very God-centered people.
But the thought that jumps off the page because of its similarity in verse 25 and verse 38 is that both were looking and hoping for God to do something for Israel. Verse 25: Simeon was righteous and devout, "looking for the consolation of Israel." Verse 38: Anna spoke of the child "to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem."
I assume that Anna herself was among those who were "looking for the redemption of Jerusalem." And I assume that the reason she spoke to those in particular who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem was that they were open to her testimony about the Christ. So it seems to me that Luke wants to emphasize by this repetition in verses 25 and 38 that what made Simeon and Anna especially fit to recognize and receive the Christ was their longing for God to break into history again to console and redeem his people by sending the Christ.
Looking for Consolation and Redemption in Christ
The question we have been asking in these four advent messages is: How is the heart prepared to receive Christ for who he really is? The answer I want to focus on today, and which I infer from this and other texts, is this:
God prepares a person to receive Christ by stirring up a longing for consolation and redemption that can come only from Christ.
In Relation to the First Coming
We can see in this text that this was true of his first coming—Simeon and Anna were longing for the consolation and redemption of God's people, and they were granted the privilege of recognizing and receiving the Christ into their arms.
In Relation to the Second Coming
And we can see the same truth in relation to Christ's SECOND coming to complete the redemption he began about 1,986 years ago. For example in Hebrews 9:28 it says, "So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him."
Paul said something very similar in 2 Timothy 4:8, "Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing."
And Peter turns it into a command: "Set your hope fully on the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:13).
So I think we can say that not only in relation to the first coming of Christ, but also in relation to the second coming, it's true that God prepares us to receive Christ by stirring up a longing for consolation and redemption that can come only from Christ. Simeon and Anna saw Christ and welcomed him because they were longing for his coming and his redemption. They knew that was Israel's only hope. The same is true for professing Christians today: we will welcome Christ at his coming if we love his appearing and eagerly await the consummation of his redemption.
In Relation to Conversion
But the main thing I want to emphasize this morning is that this is also true for the coming of Christ to individual hearts in what we call conversion. Let me state the truth again and then apply it to the receiving of Christ in conversion:
God prepares a person to receive Christ by stirring up a longing for consolation and redemption that can come only from Christ.
The story of Martin Luther's conversion illustrates the point. He had almost been struck with lightning and made a vow to God to become a monk. But as a monk he was utterly unable to find peace with God. He sought God in every way the church of that day taught him—in good works, in the merits of the saint, in the process of confession and absolution, in the ladder of mysticism. On top of all this, Staupitz, his superior, appointed him to the university to study and teach Bible.
Listen to the way Luther later described his breakthrough. How was he prepared to see and receive Christ for who he really is?
I greatly longed to understand Paul's Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, "the justice of God," because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know that he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that "the just shall live by his faith." Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.
In the monastery Luther had come to the end of himself. He had despaired of salvation. But by the grace of God he did not give up his longing and his hope. He directed his attention to the one place he hoped to find help—the Bible. He said, "I greatly longed to understand. " He said, "I had a great yearning" to know what it meant. And he said, "Night and day I pondered." In other words, God prepared Luther to see the true meaning of Christ and accept it by stirring up a deep and powerful longing in his heart for consolation and redemption that could only come from Christ.
The Source and Goal of Our Longings
And this is what God does again and again. He may be doing it for you in this advent season—graciously and tenderly frustrating you with life that is not centered on Christ, and filling you with longings and desires that can't find their satisfaction in what this world offers. Let me point you to the source and goal of those longings this morning and show you why it makes sense to set your heart on Christ this Christmas.
Jesus Is the Consolation of Israel
First, it makes sense because Christ is the consolation of Israel. The hope that Simeon had for consolation comes from Isaiah 40:1–2,
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, and her iniquity is pardoned.
The consolation Jesus brings in fulfillment of Simeon's hopes is the application of God's tenderness to a war-weary people. It is the application of God's pardon for a sin-sick and guilty people. When Jesus was born, the voice of God became flesh and dwelt among us. And what the voice said was, "Console, console my people."
The consolation that God's anger is past . . . the consolation that our heavenly Father has a tender affection for us in our weakness . . . the consolation that our sins are pardoned and "cast into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19)—this is the "consolation of Israel" that Simeon was looking for. And it is the consolation that you are looking for too, if you haven't found it yet in Christ.
Don't be kept away from this consolation this morning by saying, "I am not a part of Israel, so there is no reason to think that this consolation is for me." This would be a terrible misunderstanding. Luke wrote this book for Theolphilus, a Roman official and a non-Jew.
God made sure that we desperate Gentiles would not rule ourselves out of this consolation. Look at how Simeon blesses God in verses 29–32,
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation [i.e., consolation] which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.
God's consolation shines the light of Jesus Christ not only for the people Israel but also for the Gentiles. The point is that the blessing of God's consolation is now available to all who will receive it.
Longing for Consolation
Jesus Christ is the consolation of the Father's open arms to Jew and Gentile.
Jesus Christ is the consolation of the universal amnesty of God held out to the world of rebellious creatures.
Jesus Christ is the consolation of God as we look back on all sin and hate and anger and guilt and shame and doubt and failure.
Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah 49:13,
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has consoled his people, and will have compassion on his afflicted.
So it makes sense to set your heart on Christ this morning because if there is any deep longing in your heart for a consolation and comfort that this world cannot satisfy, it is because God is preparing you to recognize and receive his gift: Jesus Christ, the consolation of Israel. Don't seek it anywhere but in him.
Jesus Is the Redemption of Jerusalem
Secondly, it makes sense to set your heart on Christ because he is the "redemption of Jerusalem." Anna spoke of him (v. 38) to all "who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem."
It is almost as though Luke meant for us to see in the hope of Simeon and Anna the fulfillment of Isaiah 52:9.
Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem; for the Lord has consoled his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
In the coming of Christ the prophecy was fulfilled. The Lord has "consoled his people"—that's what Simeon was looking for; and the Lord has "redeemed Jerusalem"—that's what Anna was looking for.
Is There a Difference?
Consolation probably speaks to those longings for healing and restoration from all the past losses and miseries of life. In Isaiah the people had experienced judgment and exile with all its guilt and fear and loneliness and death. Consolation is when God comes to heal and restore and revive all that has been thrown away or lost.
Redemption probably speaks to our need to be delivered from powers that still hold us bondage. Redemption is a work of power to save from enemies that still threaten us.
You can see this if you look at the one other place in this gospel where the word redemption is used, namely, Luke, 1:68. John the Baptist's father, Zechariah, prophesies with these words,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed [literally: made redemption for] his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from all who hate us.
Zechariah declares that Christ has come to redeem. Then he speaks of redemption in terms of power. A "horn of salvation" (v. 69) means a powerful salvation, like the horn of a great bull. And verse 71 shows why such power will be needed: he will save us from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Longing for Victory
So the second reason that it makes sense to set your heart on Christ is that he will fulfill your longings for victory over the forces of evil in your life.
God owns and controls all things this morning. And there is nothing that he could give you for Christmas this year that would suit your needs and your longings better than the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem, restoration for past losses and liberation from future enemies, forgiveness and freedom, pardon and power, healing the past and sealing the future.
If there is a longing in your heart today for something that the world has not been able to satisfy, could it not be God's Christmas gift preparing you to see Christ as consolation and redemption, and to receive him for who he really is?
How Is the Heart Prepared to Receive Christ?
How then do these four advent messages fit together? How is the heart prepared to receive Christ for who he really is? It is very simple.
- The heart must become disenchanted with the praise of men. "For how can you believe who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from God?" (John 5:44; 7:17–18).
- The heart must become disenchanted with the sufficiency of money and things to satisfy the soul. "The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this and scoffed at him" (Luke 16:14).
- Then alongside this disenchantment with the praise of men and the power of money, there must come into the heart a longing for consolation and a redemption beyond what the world can give.
- And finally, there must be a revelation from God the Father, opening the eyes of the heart so that it cries out, like a man who stumbles onto an incredible treasure, "You are the Christ the Son of the living God, the consolation of my past, the redemption of my future. Now I see you. Now I receive you—for who you really are."
May this be the testimony of many even before we gather to worship the Christ on Wednesday night. Amen!