I've been reading a gift somebody got for me. It's a fascinating book called Medieval Views of the Cosmos. When I say it's fascinating, I mean mostly it's fascinating to me. For example, it points out that in the Middle Ages all educated people knew the world was round. Even Plato knew way back in ancient days the earth was spherical, and in the 1200s a friar named Roger Bacon talked about the curvature of the earth.
So why do we think they believed in a flat world in the Middle Ages? Well it turns out in the 1820s, an American writer, Washington Irving, wrote a biography of Christopher Columbus, and he made up this scene where there's a trial, and church leaders accuse Christopher Columbus of heresy for saying the world was round. Actually there never was such a trial. The church never taught the earth was flat, but the scene sounded so dramatic, artists started painting pictures of it, and eventually the idea just spread.
We tend to believe it easily because it flatters the egos to think we're way smarter than people who lived in ancient times, but that actually is not so. In fact, maps from the Middle Ages served quite a different purpose than maps would later on. The writers of the book talk about how travelers generally did not make use of maps in the Middle Ages, but they used the advice of local guides. Instead, medieval maps were used by scholars to interpret the Bible or understand the works of history. In other words, in those days when they used maps, they weren't trying so much to show the world as trying to show a worldview.
I love the first sentence of this book. "Once upon a time, the world had meaning." Now the truth is, maps are never wholly neutral. Like, we're used to maps where the United States and Europe are on the top of the world and Africa and South America are at the bottom, but that's just because most of the people who made the maps were from America and Europe.
There's also a funny map of what the rest of the United States looks like to people from California, where Florida is full of old people and New York is full of loud, obnoxious people, and so on. Now you can actually see a couple of these medieval maps along with the English translations that give you a sense for what they showed. A real interesting feature in a lot of these maps is that you'll notice the center of the map contains the city of Jerusalem, and there's actually a very important reason for this. It's not geographical.
It reflected the ancient belief of Israel that Jerusalem, and particularly the temple, was the heart of everything, was the holiest place on earth. Some religions have sacred buildings that are kind of an escape from the earth, but the temple was very, very different. It was a sign to the human race that the God who created the world wanted it back. It was a reminder that right now sin has messed up everything on earth. Every place on the map has been messed up by sin, including the place occupied by my body and yours, and we can't fix this sin problem, but this is our Father's world, and he has plans to reoccupy it. That's good news. He intends to evict sin and rule the earth in justice and love.
Waiting on God's plan
God plans to occupy Madison Avenue, Hollywood, the Silicon Valley, and the Ivy League. He established a plan to occupy Wall Street way before any human activist ever dreamed of it, and the temple is the focal point of everything because it was this little picture or signpost that God has established a toehold on the planet, a place where God dwells. Israel marveled at this, and they would say things like, "But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him." He is in his temple. He is dwelling here.
New Testament scholar N. T. Wright talks about it like this: Israel would think about heaven and earth not as two completely separate spheres, but that they actually overlap and interlock, and for Israel, that looked like this. There's heaven, the place where God dwells, and there's the earth, and the temple is where heaven and earth meet. God decided in this one tiny little place, people could get a glimpse of what it would be like for heaven to invade earth so that they could keep hope alive.
That's why Israelites loved the temple. That's why they revered it. That's why they were to come to the temple in Jerusalem three times every year, to remember that one day this whole earth will be as filled with the glory of God as the temple was when it shone so brightly with the cloud of God's glory that Moses could not even enter into it. That's the fate that is before our entire world, and in times past, people wanted the whole human race to remember that. That's why the temple was so central. That's why Jerusalem was at the center of the earth.
Now Jesus comes, and Jesus' relationship with the temple will be very, very important. It will get him killed, and it can change your life. It can change how you view your life, your world here and now. It can give you a new map of your reality. We're going to look today at the song of Simeon. We've been in this series The Songs of Christmas. Today is a fabulous song of Simeon, and it starts at the temple.
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord."), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: "a pair of doves or two young pigeons."
Now these may look like rituals to us, but they are really all about what happens when heaven invades earth. Circumcision was a picture of being in a covenant relationship with God, being given a name happened in the temple because it means I have an identity before God, being consecrated to the Lord means I've been given a purpose from God, and the offering of a sacrifice happened in the temple as a picture of being forgiven by God.
See, it's not accidental or coincidental that for many centuries acts like these took place in the temple because the temple is the place where heaven was invading earth, and when heaven invades earth, these amazing things happen. Sin gets forgiven; people get purified. Nobodies become somebodies; people get a name. Outcasts enter into a covenant relationship with God. Human lives are given divine purpose; they are commissioned. Israel loves this, and it is part of why they love the temple, but they're waiting for the day when God's occupy-the-earth plan begins to expand beyond the temple.
The real question in our waiting
So when Mary and Joseph are in the temple courts with their baby Jesus, they have done these things. They get approached by a man named Simeon. Luke says, "Simeon … was righteous and devout." He was committed to God. "It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ."
So what was Simeon doing with his life in the meantime? He was waiting. "He was waiting for the [hope] of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him." He didn't lead a movement. He didn't form a community, build a resume, or accomplish a bunch of great things. He watched. He prayed. He was doing something awesome that even he may not have understood. He was keeping hope alive.
It's as if Simeon was saying, "I believe God is doing something wonderful in this world, and I want to see it. I believe there is something tremendous going on, and God is the one behind it, and I want to watch it, and I would love somehow to participate in it, to be a part of it." That is waiting because it is God's kingdom, not ours. We are not in control, so we are all in the waiting business. We are to remain faithful and patient even when we do not have what we want yet.
Now I wanted to give you a picture of waiting you would never forget, so I actually brought an assistant along with me, and I'll tell you about him. Some of you have wanted to meet him. He is our dog, Baxter. He's a beautiful, strong, young, Presbyterian dog, and he was eager to help with this message. So "Baxter, come here. Come here. Now sit. Ah, that's a good boy."
Baxter is really good at waiting. This is Baxter's favorite snack. It's made up of ground chicken, pork, beef, and cat. He wants it right now, but he understands about waiting. "Baxter, lie down. Good boy. Now you're going to have to wait. You're going to have to wait, Bax. You're going to have to wait."
Now you're able to see. You all can see down here. It's right there, and he wants it so badly, but he's willing to wait. In fact, this is a great picture of how everybody should be doing a sermon. Just paying attention, waiting patiently, staying wide awake, knowing good things are going to come, and you have to ask yourself, "Do I have the character, the discipline, the patience of Baxter?"
"Baxter, you have done so well." The psalmist says, "I waited patiently for the LORD … " In this little parable, Baxter is kind of like the psalmist, and I'm kind of like the Lord. You have to wait, but then the day comes. "Baxter, go for it!" That's a fabulous dog, and I want you all to know, this is the first take. We did not even have to do two takes on this dog because he has learned how to wait.
So the big question is not Have I gotten everything I'm waiting for? I never will, not in this life, not in this world. Instead, the big question is: What kind of person am I becoming while I wait? Will I wait with patience and faithfulness? Will I wait on the Lord? I don't know what you're waiting for, but we're all waiting for something.
Maybe you're waiting for somebody to love, for a romantic relationship, or maybe you're waiting for clarity about your life's direction. Maybe you're waiting for a job to be able to support your family. Maybe you're waiting for a wandering child to come back home. Maybe you're waiting for your deep anxiety to go away. Maybe you're waiting for the economy to come back, your financial life to bounce back, or for love to heal a marriage that's broken and killing you. How long will you have to wait? I don't know. I know what matters is who I become while I'm waiting, that I wait with poise and patience and don't become bitter or selfish, and that I wait on the Lord.
The "Song of the Waiter"
Now we don't know how many months, years or decades Simeon waited. What if he had given up on his hope? What if he had just decided, "It's not worth waiting for, it's never going to happen, and I'm making a fool out of myself?" He would have missed the moment for which he was created. He didn't give up.
He kept waiting until one day Mary and Joseph are coming out of the temple with a baby, and he asked to see. Simeon took Jesus in his arms, and he knew. We are not told how he knew, but he knew, and this is the song of the waiter: Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
Then he hands the baby back to Mary and Joseph, and he blesses them. We're told, "The child's father and mother marveled at what was said about him." I'll bet they did. That's pretty heady stuff. It's such a poignant moment when somebody sees your child for the first time and comments. They hand this baby to a total stranger, and he starts to pray, "All right, God, you can take me home now. I can die happy now. I've seen this baby. Just a glimpse of these people's baby is what I have been waiting my whole life for."
You can just imagine Mary and Joseph and bursting with joy, and then Simeon says to Mary, "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."
"Okay, got to run. Take care now!" That's the last we ever see of Simeon. It's a strange song. This child is the hope of the world. He's what Simeon has been waiting for his whole life long, but he will be spoken against. In other words, some people will oppose him. Some people will resist him, and some still do, and great pain is coming to Mary. By the way, this is pointing to the day ultimately when Jesus would go to the cross, and his side would be pierced by a sword, and when his side is pierced by a sword, you know Mary remembered the words that were spoken so long ago when he was just her little baby. "A sword will pierce you also," and it did.
Now no sooner does Simeon walk away, and there's this beautiful, strange, haunting, amazing song from another character in this story. It's a woman named Anna. Simeon is most likely an old man. Anna had been married for seven years. Her husband died. The best reading of Luke's text is she lived another 84 years as a widow.
You'd think it'd be easy for her to be hopeless or bitter about having such a difficult life in that day, but we're told, "She never left the temple … " Notice the temple again. " … but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God …" She was still a waiter and a hoper. " … and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward … " Everybody else who's waiting. Everybody else who's hoping. "… to the redemption of Jerusalem." Anna too was part of the fellowship of those who wait.
Jesus—the fulfillment of our waiting
As Jesus grows up, there's this connection between him and the temple that runs very deep. The only time we see him as a boy, his parents have been to Jerusalem, and they leave, and he stays behind. After three days, they find him at the temple, and Mary says, "Son, why have you treated us like this?" Jesus says, "Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" At the temple. That's where heaven was invading earth. Somehow his work and the work of the temple are very closely connected.
Now there's something else you need to know about the temple in Jesus' day. It had fallen into the wrong hands. The temple wasn't just a place of worship; it was also the center of Jerusalem's banking system. For example, in that day, there weren't nearly the separations between religion and government and finance there is in our day. Back then, the temple was the place where the records of debts were kept by Rome, and they could use those records to claim your land if you were an Israelite and turn you into a peasant.
Of course, the Israelites hated that, and they hated that the temple was being used to give power over their financial well being to Rome. Sometimes rebels would seize control of the temple for a little while. The first thing they would do is burn the records of those debts in the temple because to them, it was almost like the temple had been completely turned upside down. It was almost like earth had invaded heaven, that the temple was being defiled.
Jesus began to say and do extraordinary things like, "I tell you that one greater than the temple is here." No human being, no rabbi ever said anything like that. Jesus said stuff like, "I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days." Now that's a really weird thing to say, and after the resurrection, his disciples understood he was really talking about himself. He was crucified and then resurrected in three days, but the language he used was, "Tear down the temple." This is staggering.
See, Jesus is talking and acting as if the whole idea of the temple was to point to him. He is talking as if everything the temple was a picture of was actually coming true now that he had arrived on earth. He is claiming that in his own person, in his life, in his teachings, in his little community, in his body, in his actions, finally, heaven was invading earth.
Remember, what happens when heaven invades earth? Sins get forgiven, outcasts get taken into a covenant relationship, nobodies become somebodies, the poor in spirit get blessed, people get identities, Simon gets renamed Peter, Saul gets renamed Paul, and human beings receive a divine mission. "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every nation." It's all happening now in him. Heaven is overlapping earth. Heaven is invading earth, and anybody who wants to get in on it can.
You can if you will confess your sins and repent of them and receive forgiveness because Jesus went to the cross, his body was pierced by a sword, and he died for our forgiveness. Make him the forgiver and leader of your life. Then heaven can invade earth right there in you and right there through you. Then, of course, you'll need a new map of the world. There has never been anybody like Jesus. See, when Mary and Joseph entered the temple, they thought they were entering the house of God, but it turns out they were taking God home with them. It turns out their home would be the house of God.
Around our house lately, we have been watching a television show called House Hunters International. I don't know how many of you have ever seen it, but my wife is filled with joy when it comes on. She just cries out, "House Hunters International!" It's always about people traveling around the world, who need to find a house, and they narrow it down to three options, and they eliminate two, and choose the best value because to live in a cool house is a big deal.
In one sense, the temple served as the house of God. One day, God went looking for a new house. He narrowed down his options. "Want the temple?" "Nope. It was always a temporary quarters." "Want a palace?" "Nope, that's for Herod. That's for Caesar. That's for a different kind of king." "Want a little peasant hut?" "Yes," says God. "That's just what I'm looking for. That's the house I want. I'll go live there. I'm breaking out of the temple."
God's work in our waiting
See, heaven was invading earth, and the temple was a picture of that, but only a picture, and now really, concretely, actually it was coming true with Jesus. Jesus is heaven invading earth, and he says that in a way that is unforgettable for anybody in his day, and that will change your life and my life right now in what we're doing together because, see, this invasion of earth by heaven doesn't stop with Jesus.
It happens in his life and his teachings. It happens on the cross and in the resurrection. It happens at Pentecost, and then people invite Jesus into their homes, into their lives, and heaven starts invading earth through regular people. Now heaven is invading earth not through the temple, not even just through Jesus, but through Jesus and his body.
Now Paul says, " … you yourselves are God's temple." Now you understand what that's about. Paul says, "For we are the temple of the living God." God wants heaven to invade earth through you. God wants his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven through you as he gives you the power of his Spirit with you.
God wants a new map of the world. He's taking it back. He's occupying Wall Street, Main Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, China, and everyplace, and you don't need money, degrees, status, looks, talents, connections, clout. In fact, to tell you the truth, those things probably get in the way about as much as they help. All you need is Jesus.
Jesus is heaven invading earth, and when you invite Jesus to make his home in you, when you volunteer somewhere to help a left-out child learn how to read because they matter to Jesus, when you seriously pray for somebody who is in spiritual turmoil, when you confess holding a grudge against somebody and you reconcile with them because Jesus says that's what we are to do and that's why he died on the cross, when you get an idea to be generous with your money and then you actually are generous with your money, when you take the time to look somebody in the eye and love them, when you have a hard conversation with somebody because they're stuck in sin and because you love them, when you just remember in the middle of the day to be grateful to be alive, when you use your spiritual gifts to build up the body of Christ, when you wait even though you don't have what you want yet with poise, patience, joyfulness, and unselfish love, you are the temple of God.
You are the portal where heaven is invading earth. If you keep doing that, like Simeon, like Anna, your whole long life, then you have a song worth singing.
You may have seen in the paper recently a guy by the name of Billy Graham, who just turned 93. It's kind of funny. I was talking to some folks recently, and for people of my age, my generation, who grew up in the church, Billy Graham is such a revered figure. A lot of younger people don't know how central he has been to the faith. There were so many kinds of mass televangelists who were parts of scandals. Billy Graham wasn't perfect, like nobody is, but there was a devotion to Christ, a level of accountability, and a commitment to the gospel that has really changed the spiritual trajectory of our nation in many ways.
He recently wrote a wonderful book called Nearing Home. He made a really interesting comment. He said, "Growing old has been the greatest surprise of my life. I was taught through my Christian life how to die. No one taught me how to grow old." He spent his whole life serving God. They just recently had a service at the Cove, which is where he lives now. Some of you will remember these names. Cliff Barrows used to direct the choir at Billy Graham crusades, and George Beverly Shea used to sing.
So they had this service. Cliff Barrows directed the choir. He's 88. George Beverly Shea sang. He is now 102 years old, and he still sings really well. Billy Graham's wife, Ruth, died a couple of years ago, and what she chose to have engraved on her gravestone had nothing to do with her remarkable achievements or accomplishments. It had to do with the fact that as long as we are alive, God will be working on us, and we wait.
She had been driving one day along a highway through a construction site, and there were miles of detours and cautionary signs and machinery and equipment. She finally came to the last one, and the final sign read, "End of construction. Thank you for your patience." That's what is written over Ruth Graham's grave. "End of construction. Thank you for your patience."
In this life we wait. Everybody here is under construction. Don't lose patience. Don't give up because it's all about Jesus, because in Jesus the invasion of earth by heaven has begun in earnest, and it will be carried through until God's occupying every moment and every inch, and you get to be a part, and your real song hasn't even started yet.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.