“Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
What do you think Simeon saw in baby Jesus that prompted such a response? What vision of salvation do you think he had in mind?
This is going to take some work on our part, because “salvation” is not a word that flows freely from Presbyterian lips.
Of course, for many Christians in this country and around the world, this isn’t the case. Salvation—more specifically, personal salvation—is the primary goal of Christianity. According to this popular understanding of Christianity, every person will one day be judged and sent for all eternity to one of two places: heaven for the righteous and hell for the wicked. But, as the story goes, each of us is so corrupt from birth that we all rightly deserve eternal punishment in hell. It is only the sacrificial death of Jesus that redeems us from this punishment, appeasing God’s righteous anger, making us right with God and therefore welcomed into heaven.
Let’s be honest: we don’t hear Presbyterians talking about this very much. Judging by what we choose to preach on Sunday mornings and how we typically talk about our faith, I’d say that this is not the operative theology of most Presbyterians. In fact, I’d say that many people sitting in the pews of Presbyterian churches on Sunday mornings have serious doubts about the old understanding of heaven and hell. While there may be much hope for some kind of heaven, we’re not so sure about hell anymore. While “sinners in the hands of an angry God” worked for our Reformed predecessors like Jonathan Edwards and those who attended his revivals during what is known as the Great Awakening of the 18th century, it doesn’t preach so well in progressive Presbyterian churches today. Our primary motivation doesn’t seem to be salvation from eternal damnation.
Yet we don’t really have a good articulation of an alternative understanding of salvation. In fact, we don’t typically use that word at all. Each year before we confirm our eighth grade youth, I meet with each of them individually and ask them a series of questions about faith. When I ask what salvation means to them, what I mostly get in return is blank stares or confusion. My hunch is that the same would happen if I were to quiz the adults of our congregation.
This is, I think, a major deficiency in contemporary mainline Protestantism, especially those churches that identify as progressive. I’m convinced that this is one reason (of many) for the dramatic decline in the membership of these churches over the past half century or so. To the average American—now a post-Christendom American who is no longer raised in a culture shaped by traditional Christianity—we don’t really have a compelling story, certainly nothing as seemingly urgent as the old threat of hell. There doesn’t seem to be much at stake in our gospel. At worst we offer nothing more than a generic feel-good spirituality of being nice to people. And it seems that often the best we can muster is a humanistic plea for social justice that really doesn’t have much to do with Jesus.
We need a better story to tell, a better gospel to share. We need to believe in our hearts that something important is at stake and we need to speak and act accordingly. I’m not saying that we need to go back to a simplistic and fundamentalist understanding of salvation as escape from the threat of hell. In fact, in today’s postmodern and increasingly disenchanted world, this story is becoming less and less compelling to more and more people. But the best response to fundamentalism is not silence; the best response to fundamentalism is a better story.
Holding baby Jesus in his arms, Simeon had a vision of salvation. In this six week old infant he sees God’s salvation. What did he see?
Both Simeon and Anna speak of the restoration or redemption of Israel. I don’t believe that they were thinking about personal salvation from hell through substitutionary atonement. I don’t believe that they looked at this baby and saw only that he would grow up to suffer a violent and brutal death that would somehow appease the anger of the God they were in the temple to praise. Even though Jesus’ parents were there to fulfill the remnants of an archaic and perhaps even savage practice of blood redemption, I don’t believe that this is the salvation that Simeon and Anna saw in baby Jesus.
Rather, I believe that they saw in this newborn baby the seeds of the most radical revolution the world has ever known. In this six week old child they saw the potential of the God-inspired transformation of the world as we know it.
They lived in a world in which the powerful few exercised dominion through oppression and violence. They lived in a world in which limited resources were not evenly distributed and shared. They lived in a world in which what we consider fundamental human rights were not granted to everyone as an equal child of God. They lived in a world in which the richness of their religious and cultural traditions were threatened by the dehumanizing assimilation of empire.
In six week old Jesus, they saw all of that coming to an end. They saw in him a challenge to the status quo that would shake the very foundations of the world they lived in—the world we still live in.
In a city in which young children are murdered through senseless gun violence, we need a vision of salvation. In a city in which impoverished young adults see no other way to improve their situation than through a life of crime, we need a vision of salvation. In a city in which thousands of people—men, women, and children—are without homes or food, we need a vision of salvation. In a city in which racial and economic divisions are as deep as ever, we need a vision of salvation.
There is much at stake in the gospel Jesus invites us to proclaim and live out. It’s much more than being nice for the sake of goodness. It’s recognizing that each person of this world, from the most powerful to the poorest, is created in the precious image of God. Simeon and Anna saw the face of God in a six week old baby, and so should we—every single time we look in the face of another.
It’s easy for us to become complacent in the comforts of our privileged lives. Without the threat of hell looming over our heads, it’s easy for us to think that all God really wants from us is to be happy and be nice to people. But the suffering of our sisters and brothers, a profound suffering that we all too easily ignore, ought to compel us out of complacency and into action.
Two thousand years after Mary and Joseph brought six week old Jesus to the temple, we’re still a long way from the salvation Simeon and Anna saw in that little baby. But if we lose sight of that salvation, either through complacency or lack of faithful imagination, everything that baby would grow to live and die for is for naught.
Old man Simeon prayed that God would let him go in peace now that he had seen salvation. We’re not there yet. We need to not only see a vision of God’s salvation of the world, we need to go out in faith to be a part of this radical transformation, the emergence of God’s kingdom.
“Now is the time!” says Jesus. “Now is the time!”
(This is an adapted excerpt from a sermon preached on Sunday, February 3, 2013.)