Last week my daughter and her fiancé were visiting for Christmas, and on the next day as they returned to Nashville, Tennessee where each of them lives, they stopped at one of the shopping centers on their way out of town, and he happened to get interviewed by one of the Milwaukee television stations in connection with all the gift returns that were already going on that first day after Christmas. The reason he and others got interviewed, obviously, is because in our American culture it is pretty common for people to return gifts that they receive, either back at the store or through the mail. I assume some of you here today have already also done that this week, either because something didn’t fit or you didn’t need it or you really just didn’t like it. Returning gifts is pretty common.
What would be pretty strange, however, would be to give back a gift that a person gave you to the person who gave you the gift. I suppose that could happen, but it’s hard for me to imagine too many instances where that would seem appropriate, because I would think it most likely would come across as insulting and end up hurting someone’s feelings, especially if they had sought long – and sacrificed much – in order get you the gift they thought was just perfect for you personally.
Yet, when Joseph and Mary brought their forty-day old firstborn son to the temple in Jerusalem, and, as was required by the Law of Moses, they offered either a pair of doves or two young pigeons as a sacrifice, they were actually giving back their Son to the giver, because back in the Old Testament book of Exodus, God’s law had said this: “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites, belongs to me…” So, God wanted his people at that time to do this. He wanted them to give back their firstborn sons to the Lord – and then to get them back from God by paying a price that showed how thankful they were for what the Lord had done for them. More about that in a few minutes… For now, let’s see why it’s so important to know that of these parents – Joseph and Mary – we can say they did not just give back any gift. They Gave Back THE GIFT! And, as I hope we’ll all be able to say as a result, “Thank God that they did.”
We can better understand all this and how that helps our Christmas celebration of this past week go on for days and for years and forever, as we look at the reactions of the two people who were in the temple on that day on which Joseph and Mary gave back their firstborn Son. As St. Luke records these words, it’s almost like a TV reporter is interviewing them to get their reactions to the gift of Christmas. The first person was a man named Simeon, who somehow had had it revealed to him by God the Holy Spirit himself that someday he would get to see the promised Messiah. We’re not told whether that had been a few days previous or a number of years previous, but can you imagine how he must have just been yearning for the arrival of a Christmas gift like that beyond compare – much, much more than we might wait for the Amazon package to be dropped off at our front door? Is today the day? Is tomorrow the day? Is the next day the day I get to see the Christ? It’s hard enough for us to wait patiently for a special gift or a special day; I can’t even imagine the anticipation Simeon experienced in looking forward to the day the world would never be the same.
What we can imagine – in fact, what we can know – is the reaction Simeon had when he could finally open the Christmas gift of all Christmas gifts, because, while holding Jesus in his arms, he spoke those words that the Christian church for centuries has sung as part of its liturgies, just as you and I have done many times, and as we will sing at the end of our service today: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before all people.” In that little baby was salvation for the entire world, because every single person who would believe in the work he had come to do would have what Simeon called “revelation.” Their eyes – our eyes — would be opened by God to see that in Jesus was the light of life, despite the darkness of our sin and how we so often act like we want to give back The Gift of Jesus back to God, because we don’t want him. And we would also have what Simeon called “glory.” We have every reason to give glory and praise to the Lord who has fulfilled the promise he had made to so many people for so many generations, with you and me being among the continuing generations that have received more and more promises from God in his Word that someday we will see the glory of Jesus when our eyes are opened to the revelation of heaven. That’s what allows us to live in peace now, because God is at peace with us through what the Christ Child did – and that is what allows us to live at peace with each other, because he is the world’s Prince of Peace.
But not everyone would believe that message then, just as is the case today. Simeon told Joseph and Mary that many would speak against this child, even to the point of killing him, causing, as Simeon said in prophecy in verse 35, a “sword to pierce Mary’s own soul,” which certainly happened some thirty years later, when the lowly mother of the Son of God beheld on the cross the pathetic, beaten, dying body of the Savior of the world. That’s The Gift’s gift to us!
The other person in the temple was, just like Simeon, a godly and devout child of God. Her name was Anna. Anna, too, had been waiting for the arrival of the Savior of the world in the same way all the believers of that time were waiting. We don’t know if she heard what Simeon had been saying, but either because she did hear it or because the Lord let her know about it in some other way, she went up to Joseph and Mary, who St. Luke tells us were marveling at what they had just heard Simeon say, and she gave thanks to God for the little baby in their arms. And the reason we can know she wasn’t just giving thanks that they had received a gift of a child, which truly is reason enough to give thanks to God, but that she was giving thanks for something way beyond that is because we’re told in verse 38 that she “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” We know that, back then, just as today, many people mistakenly looked for Jesus to be a ruler who would redeem or rescue them by taking care of all their earthly problems and earthly enemies and earthly examples of godlessness all around them. But Anna and the true believers, just like today, knew that the one who would provide for the redemption of Jerusalem was the one who had come to save his people not from all those things, but from their sins – from our sins – and in so doing would help us stay away from – or be able to endure — those bad things ourselves – and to look forward to the time when we will be away from them forever in the heavenly Jerusalem above. That is the redemption of Jerusalem that all of God’s people have always looked forward to – and always will. And that is the redemption of the world which the Redeemer of the world came to accomplish – and he did!
Verse 39 near the end of our Lesson is an interesting verse that really helps us get to the whole point of all this. Verse 39: “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.” As we mentioned at the beginning, giving back to God the gift of their firstborn son was part of what the law of the Lord required at that time, but there was something else the law required, which none of the Gospel writers specifically say Mary and Joseph did, but that was the payment of something else – a redemption price – the price of buying someone back from the Lord,since the word “redeem” means to “buy back.” That price was five shekels of silver – just a couple of ounces of silver.
That was not an extremely large amount of money, but that was a very large statement of faith. Do you remember why all this business with the firstborn son was so important to God before the sending of his one and only Son? It all started when God led the people of Israel out of Egypt, after they had been held in slavery there for four hundred years. God sent a horrifying plague on the all the firstborn children and animals of the Egyptians, but God spared the firstborn of all the Israelites, who in faith had smeared on their doorposts the blood of a lamb, so that the angel of death would “pass over” all those who, by believing what the Lord said, did what the Lord told them to do. And from that time on the Lord said that every firstborn son belonged to him, and that their parents could buy them back – could redeem them — by, in thankful love, paying the price of redemption.
In other words, Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World, was in that sense himself redeemed. He, who had no sin and who did not have to have any of these laws apply to him, because he had given them, fulfilled them – and he fulfilled them perfectly, so that he could truly be the Redeemer of the World, who paid the price so you and I could have the gift of the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of heaven. That gift you and I never have to give back. So, if you a TV reporter ever asks you what you’re returning for Christmas, you can say, “All I can give back is the gift of my unending thanks and praise.” That’s the gift our God is so happy to have us give back to him, because of THE GIFT we are so glad, in his amazing kindness, he gave to us. Hang on to that gift with all your might, brothers and sisters, and never let it go. Know that he will never it back from you. Amen.