“The Firstborn Son Is Presented in the Temple” (Luke 2:22-40)

First Sunday after Christmas
December 27, 2009

“The Firstborn Son Is Presented in the Temple” (Luke 2:22-40)

There’s Christmas, and then there are the days after Christmas. What happened to baby Jesus in the days and weeks after his birth? Our text today is one the few places where we have an account of what happened during that time. It’s the story of the Presentation of Our Lord, forty days after his birth, the day when “The Firstborn Son Is Presented in the Temple.”

Actually, the first event after Christmas we read about from Jesus’ life is found in the one verse in between the Christmas Gospel and our text today. In Luke 2:21, we’re told that on the eighth day the baby boy was circumcised and given the name Jesus. This circumcision and naming presumably took place in Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born, a couple miles outside of Jerusalem. That was on the eighth day, in other words, one week after his birth.

Then in verse 22, the beginning of our text for today, we come to the next event Luke gives us in his infancy narrative. It’s the presentation of this firstborn son, on the fortieth day, at the temple in Jerusalem. That’s how these things were done for Jewish families. Two things, actually: After forty days, the mother was purified, that is, considered ready to reenter the temple grounds after being ritually unclean for the period after giving birth. And after forty days, in the case of a firstborn son, which is what Jesus was, that firstborn son was presented to the Lord, consecrated to the Lord, at the temple. The purification of the mother and the presentation of the firstborn son both took place on the fortieth day, just short of six weeks, after the child’s birth. And for the presentation of the firstborn, sacrifices were offered at the temple in Jerusalem.

That’s what’s going on here where we read: “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, [Mary and Joseph] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’”

Notice, by the way, the strong emphasis on the Law being fulfilled. That’s what Jesus came to do, isn’t it, and he starts doing it even from infancy. The circumcision on the eighth day, when Christ first shed his holy blood, and the presentation on the fortieth day, when Christ first entered the temple–right off the bat little Jesus is busy fulfilling the Law of the Lord in our place. That would continue and reach its climax some years later, at a cross, as we’ll hear a little later on. But Jesus sets out on this Law-fulfilling work right away, even in his infancy, in the circumcision and the presentation.

Now there’s an interesting history behind this practice of presenting the firstborn. It goes back to the Exodus and the plague of the death of the firstborn that the Lord sent upon Egypt. That was the tenth and culminating plague that led to the people of Israel being let go and set free from their bondage. All the firstborn in Egypt were struck down that night, save for the families of the Israelites, whose homes were marked with the blood of the lamb, and the angel of death passed over them. The lives of the firstborn of Israel were spared. Because of that, all the firstborn sons of Israel thereafter were to be set apart, holy, consecrated to the Lord’s service.

Now this law applied to all twelve tribes of Israel. The firstborn sons of all twelve tribes were to be set aside exclusively to the Lord’s service. However, there was a “substitute clause” provided along with the law. One of the tribes, the tribe of Levi, would serve as a kind of “designated hitter” for all of the other tribes. The Levites would “pinch-hit” for all those firstborn sons in the service of the Lord. The Levites were the “church worker” tribe, if you will. The men who worked at the tabernacle and later at the temple–the priests, most especially–all came from the tribe of Levi. But for the firstborn sons from all the other tribes to “get out of the draft,” so to speak, the parents would offer up a sacrifice at the temple as the price that released their sons from that obligation. That’s how the system worked, and that’s what Mary and Joseph are doing for this firstborn son, since they do not come from the tribe of Levi but from the tribe of Judah. Tribe of Judah, kings. Tribe of Levi, priests. Jesus is from the tribe of Judah, but he also is a firstborn son, which means he is consecrated to the Lord’s service when he is presented at the temple on the fortieth day.

But even though he is not from the tribe of Levi, and even though the sacrifice price is paid to get him out of priestly service, there is no “draft-dodging” for Jesus. He truly is holy, consecrated to the Lord, as no other son is, whether firstborn or Levite or whatever. Jesus is drafted into the Lord’s service from the get-go, and there’s no going AWOL. Jesus will carry out the greatest priestly service of all when he offers up his own life as the perfect sacrifice for all sin. His body and his blood are the offering, whole and holy and complete.

So when Jesus is presented at the temple, at forty days, as the firstborn son, this is a foreshadowing of his entire priestly service on our behalf. Years later, on Good Friday, Christ would shed his holy blood on the cross as the great once-and-for-all atoning sacrifice, fulfilling the Law in our stead, paying the price by which our lives are spared. Death passes over us because we are marked with the blood of this Lamb of God. All this is now underway when this firstborn son is presented at the temple.

And there are two aged saints there at the temple who recognize this. Their names are Simeon and Anna. They recognize in this baby Jesus the Savior who came to fulfill the prophecies the Lord had given to Israel. Not only is Jesus the great High Priest, greater than any from the tribe of Levi, he is also the great King from the tribe of Judah, the Messiah, the Christ. Simeon and Anna can see this. Oh, it wasn’t as though there was a halo shining around this particular baby’s head, to mark him out as the Messiah, but rather this fact was revealed to Simeon and Anna by a special work of the Holy Spirit. They see Jesus, and they recognize the Savior, the fulfillment of what they had been waiting for.

We first encounter Simeon: “Now 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. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And 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, he took him up in his arms and blessed God. . . .”

Notice what Simeon was waiting for. He was waiting for the “consolation of Israel.” “Consolation” is a word that means “comfort.” We think of that great prophecy from Isaiah 40: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” See, that’s the comfort, that’s the consolation, that Simeon was waiting for, looking for, longing for. The Lord had told him that he would not die before he saw the consolation come in the person of the Christ, the Messiah. And now, finally, he does see him, in that little baby being brought into the temple courts. Here is the long-awaited Christ!

Simeon takes the little baby in his arms and exclaims: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for 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.” This song of Simeon has come into the church’s liturgy as the canticle we call the Nunc Dimittis, “Now you let depart.” We sing it after Communion, because now, having encountered Christ up close and personal, now we are ready to depart, whether that means departing the service or even departing this life, because now we can depart in peace. Through the child Simeon held in his arms and beheld with his eyes, he saw the Lord’s salvation in the person of the Christ. Same with us when we receive Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament. That is why we are ready to depart in peace.

Simeon says that this Christ child is the salvation God has prepared “in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” All peoples, all nations, not just Israel, will benefit and be blessed by Christ’s coming. Even us Gentiles will come to see the light. But how will this glorious salvation and light come about? In darkness and pain. The shadow of the cross is present even at the presentation. Simeon says to Mary, the child’s mother: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Jesus will suffer great opposition in his ministry. He will be spoken against by scribe and Pharisee and chief priest and elder. They will conspire against him and have him put to death. And the death of her firstborn son will be like a sword piercing Mary’s soul, causing her great grief, as she stands there at the cross and sees her son dying.

But there would be no other way. This is the only way that salvation could come. It would take the death of God’s only-begotten Son come in the flesh, Mary’s firstborn son, to accomplish the job. Only his holy blood, only his priestly service of offering up the perfect sacrifice, would suffice. But it does suffice, it is enough, more than enough, to do the job for you and for all other sinners who need saving. You and I are saved from eternal death and condemnation. We are saved for life at peace with God and eternal life in heaven. This is the consolation of Israel that Simeon was waiting for and that he found in Jesus.

Which reminds me: There’s one other saint we want to meet before we go, and that is the old woman named Anna. It says that Anna was among those “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” “Redemption” means being set free, liberated. And so Anna sees her Redeemer, her liberator, in that little child. Yes, Jesus Christ is our Lord who has redeemed us lost and condemned persons, purchased and won us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. He did this redeeming by his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. And the redemption he won for us is an eternal place in his kingdom of blessedness. Like Anna of old, then, we too begin to give thanks to God and to speak of Christ to others.

Consolation and redemption, salvation and peace. These are the gifts Jesus brings with him when he enters the temple. He is the firstborn son, the infant priest, and the Christ. In the temple, here in this temple, we find the same Christ and so we receive his same gifts. In Christ we find our consolation and our redemption, our comfort and freedom. In Christ, we find our salvation and our peace, our eternal life and forgiveness. Here in the temple the firstborn son is presented for us, and so we can sing with Simeon, “Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”

Published in: on December 30, 2009 at 12:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
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