First Sunday of Christmas B
Written for Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
There is a saying that goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and this is true. According to legend, the city of Rome was founded in 735 B.C.E., and it has existed for the last 2700 years. If you travel to Rome today, you’d see cranes and constructions workers still in the city, building and repairing buildings and infrastructure. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and in fact, is still being built millennia later.
Unless there’s something strange going on, I highly doubt that there’s anyone living there who was also alive when Rome was founded. What would it be like for one of those first villagers to be transported to the modern city of Rome. Would they recognize it? Would they have dreamed that the little town they built would grow into one of the most important cities in history?
Probably not. Those who built the city had to trust that their work would live on. They had to believe that the city would exist after they died. Even though they wouldn’t live to see the city 2700 years later, they still laid the foundations. It was worth it to them, even though they would never get to see the end of their work.
So it is with Simeon, or Holy Simeon, as he is sometimes known. We aren’t told in our story this morning how old Simeon is when Jesus’s parents bring him to the temple, but it is traditionally thought that he was an old man. God had promised him that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. He lived in that great in-between time, after Jesus was born, but before he began his ministry. If he was an old man, it is likely that he did not live very much longer after this story, and died before Jesus’s ministry began. He would get to see the very beginning of the Messiah’s work, but not the end.
In our day, this would be considered a horrible tragedy. “How awful!” we would say, “that he almost lived long enough to see God’s salvation fully realized! If only he had lived a little longer!” We like to see our work completed, so we can enjoy it. But not everything can be finished in our lifetime. We don’t always get to see the fruits of our labor.
There are generally two types of reaction to this revelation. One is to focus only on the here and now and our own self-satisfaction, laboring only for those things that we will get to see and enjoy. The only things that matter in life are the things we can enjoy right now. With no thought for the future, we can serve ourselves without consequence, because we won’t be around to experience them anyway. What happens after us is someone else’s problem. There is no need to take care of our planet, because it will last long enough for us. There’s no need to support schools, because we don’t have children in them. If it doesn’t directly benefit us, it’s not worth it.
The other is to realize and recognize that things develop over time, and to account for that. Parents build houses, hoping that they can pass them down to their kids. Cities expand their infrastructure to accommodate future population growth. Every action we take now has some sort of consequence for the future. The action may not directly benefit us, but it will benefit someone.
Simeon won’t get to see Jesus’s baptism. He won’t get to hear Jesus preach on the Mount or in the Plain. He won’t be present for Jesus’s trial. He won’t get to see Jesus go to cross and die. And he won’t get to hear the good news that Jesus is risen from the dead. Instead of despairing, though, Simeon rejoices. The saving work of God has begun at last. There is a lot left to do, but Simeon trusts that the work he won’t be alive to see will still continue. God’s salvation will come.
Christians have been living this reality for over 2000 years. Just as Simeon trusted that, after he died, the little baby Jesus would grow up and be the means through which God’s salvation would come to earth, so too do Christians trust that, after we die, Christ will come again. Or before we die, if we are lucky! God’s work started long, long before us, and if it doesn’t come sooner, it will continue after us. We dip into the moving stream of God’s story and exit again, but the stream still flows on.
The church is the same way. It has existed as long as Christianity has. And as long as there is life on earth, the church will continue. If you read religious news, you might be under the impression that the church is coming to an end. Church memberships are on the decline in the large Protestant churches. Less and less Americans are identifying as Christians. European churches are in trouble. Christendom, the idea that the church and Western society and culture are one and the same, is collapsing.
It is true that the church is changing. The church looked very different 50 years ago. But it looked very different 100 years ago, and 150 years ago, and 250 years ago, and 500 years ago. In each generation, Christians have built a church that would outlive them, for the Christians who came after them, and our church today is no different.
As Christians, we don’t have to fear that the church we have will only last as long as we do. We won’t kill the church. The Holy Spirit is much more resilient than we are, and has been doing this for a LOT longer than we have. The church will not live or die because of us. It will look different after us, but it always has, and it always will. It is bigger than us and our short lives.
Instead, we are free to ask—what church will we leave behind us when we leave? Do we build a church meant only for ourselves, that will continue in spite of us, instead of because of us? Or do we build a church that, like the city of Rome, existed before us, and will continue to be built after us, always changing, always different, but always there?
Simeon never got to see the salvation God promised—he caught a glimpse, and then he died. But salvation came anyway. This is the beginning of the Christmas season, when we get the same glimpse that Simeon got of God’s work in the world. That work continues in the church today, work to which we are called. We may get to see the fruits of our work. We may not. That doesn’t mean the work isn’t worthwhile.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was the church, and neither was the world. They were built by people working toward something they could not see, people who trusted that their work, no matter how small, was not in vain. The work of the church is not in vain. It never has been, and it never will be. This Christmas season, let yourself be a part of that work. The church of our children will thank you.