First Sunday after Christmas
Our text brings us forward, 40 days after the birth of the Son of God, 32 days after His circumcision and the day He was given the name Jesus, “for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) Now, Mary presents herself in the temple, having brought forth her firstborn, a son, and there she is met by a man named Simeon. He had taken Jesus into his arms and sang what we now use in the liturgy as the Nunc Dimittis.
Through Moses, God had given the Law, and the Law proscribes what Mary and Joseph were doing that day.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days. She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her customary impurity, and she shall continue in the blood of her purification sixty-six days. When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female. And if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons—one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’” (Leviticus 12)
Still, there’s more, especially regarding first-born sons. God lays claim to every first-born son because of the Passover. It is written,
[Moses said,] you shall set apart to the LORD all that open the womb...the males shall be the LORD’s. And it came to pass, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all males that open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem. (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15)
And so, in this moment in the life of Jesus, the law was being kept. Mary and Joseph presented their offering for the sacrifice in order to make atonement for her purification, two turtledoves or pigeons because they couldn’t afford the lamb. And Jesus perfectly kept the law, being redeemed back from the LORD—from Himself—by His mother and step-father.
This is the picture we are given, that even in His infancy, Jesus was perfectly obedient to His own law. And this, not for Himself. Being truly God, He did not need to keep the law in order to redeem Himself, yet even here, He redeems Himself from Himself for His mother and step-father, and for you, dear hearers.
It’s an interesting twist going on in today’s lesson. Mary and Joseph cannot afford a lamb for Mary’s atonement sacrifices, but she bears in her arms the very Lamb of God, which, in keeping with the law, they redeem from the LORD in order that He would be that very Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. In this, and in His circumcision (which we’ll celebrate in two days), Jesus exemplifies the life of perfect obedience to the Law of God that He will have as He grows and becomes strong in spirit, being filled with wisdom, and having the grace of God upon Him, and which He ultimately shows as He dies on the cross for the sins of the world, and winning for you, dear hearers, the forgiveness of all of your sins.
And that’s the point of it all. In much the same way as Mary and Joseph could not provide a lamb for her atonement sacrifice, there is nothing you can do or bring to win for yourself atonement. The weight of sin is too much for you to shoulder, no matter how broad they may be. You cannot die from the weight of your sin and rise again, having made atonement. You cannot perfectly keep the Law of God.
In fact, every attempt you make to keep the law and redeem yourself only furthers you down the road of sin. You are a sinner, steeped in sin, and are totally unable to free yourself out from under it.
But the shoulders of God are broad, so to speak. He is able to keep His own law perfectly. And, like I said, He did not need to do it for Himself, but He did it for you. We saw it in today’s lesson, and we hear it every time the forgiveness of your sins for Jesus’ sake is proclaimed to you. For in those times, you are pointed to the cross of Christ, upon which Jesus, the Son of God and this infant Son of Mary, was the sacrificial atonement Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. He was the perfectly obedient man we were supposed to be, to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (cf. Philippians 2:8)
What’s more, inasmuch as His death for sin becomes your death to sin, He gives you His perfect obedience, too. His life is applied to you just as His death and resurrection are applied to you. For His sake, the Father in heaven looks upon you and calls you His good and faithful servant; He calls you His son, co-heir with His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
How? Simply put, in the waters of Holy Baptism. There, at the font, you were washed clean—purified, you could say—according to the custom which Jesus Christ, our Lord, Himself gave to us. Water and the Word were poured over you, and you were given the gift of the Holy Spirit and faith, by which you trust solely in the perfect life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, to be your perfect life, death, and resurrection. And there, your sins were forgiven you.
Furthermore, as you grow and become strong in the spirit, you live out your baptismal life, by which you daily drown Old Adam in God-given contrition and receive Holy Absolution. There, as at first at the font, the Word is spoken into your ears, Jesus Himself applied to you, and you receive His merits won for you by His perfect obedience.
Then, as you are admitted to the Lord’s Altar, you receive Jesus’ own body and blood as bread and wine; you receive bread and wine and Jesus’ own body and blood. It’s the same flesh into which He was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. It’s the same blood which He first shed on the eighth day when He was circumcised and given the name Jesus. It’s the body and blood of your God, given to you to eat and to drink from the tree of the cross. Therefore, when you eat His body and drink His blood, you have His life in you, and you receive what He died on the cross to give you: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
It is fitting, therefore, that after you have eaten and drunk your God, you sing the song of Simeon. From the moments of your baptisms, through all the times you receive Holy Absolution, and especially when you have feasted at the Lord’s Table, your eyes have seen the salvation of the Lord. This is not something which you have worked out yourselves; you are not obedient of the Law of God, but Jesus Christ gives you His perfect obedience in His means of grace. On the contrary, this is something that God has worked out for you in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. You receive Jesus, and when you do, you receive the salvation of the Lord.
Therefore, look to the swaddling cloths. Look to the infant being circumcised. Look at the infant in the arms of Simeon. There is your God. This is the same God you received at your baptisms, the same God you receive in Holy Absolution, and the same God you receive in the Lord’s Supper. You have beheld the salvation of your God, because Jesus is here, in the flesh, and you are forgiven for all of your sins.