One of the most striking ironies of the gospel witness is that when Jesus appears on the scene, those who were best positioned to recognized him tragically did not. A recent Bible study with some of our young men this Fall revealed that when people recognized in Jesus the authority to teach, heal and cast out demons, he took the audacious leap of claiming authority over sin as well. We were struck by how offensive this all would have been to an observant Jew in that day and how appropriate their response was to his ‘misstep’ … unless of course he was telling the truth.
Isn’t that the difficulty for us all when it comes to recognizing what God is doing? We trust that our accumulated knowledge and experience will hone our ability to recognize and embrace truth when we see it. But in reality these very expectations often blind us instead. What does it take for us to recognize truth? A passage from the Gospel of Luke may offer some answers.
In Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus’ birth he includes a beautiful scene describing an encounter on the way to Jesus’ dedication in the temple. Following the Jewish requirements, Joseph and Mary brought along a pair of doves to offer as a thanks sacrifice. We are told that at the same time an elderly gentleman by the name of Simeon was led by the Spirit to go to the temple as well. Simeon had no apparent distinction or title save that he was known to be devout and guided by the Holy Spirit. Chancing upon one another in one of the outer courts, Simeon recognizes in this infant the fulfillment of God’s promised deliverance and breaks into a song of prophetic praise. Also in the temple that day was another aged saint – 105 year old Anna, a prophetess who had dedicated herself to prayer and service after the death of her husband. She too recognizes the baby for what he is and prophesies over him.
In this passage we see a number of the key themes Luke will be developing throughout his gospel. For example, underdogs (women, the poor and outcast) often take center stage and are sometimes quicker to perceive the Truth in Jesus than their educated and privileged contemporaries. Note in this regard that the blessing of two devout, elderly lay persons completely eclipses the expected dedication ceremony, of which we hear nothing at all. We also see the increasingly important role played by the Holy Spirit in directing and empowering these average followers of Christ (did you notice the lighting and the direction of Simeon’s gaze in the picture above?)
Both of these aspects of the story seem to be critical when we consider the issue of correct recognition. The people we expect to find in this aborted dedication story are the very people who should have but consistently did not recognize divinity in Jesus. Everyone was longing for the messiah – not just Simeon and Anna. But those who perceived him when he arrived did so not because of the right credentials but because of the right Spirit within them.
I am jealous of Simeon’s assurance. His is not the over confidence of so many spiritual gurus. He has absolutely nothing to gain. He wins no recognition. He won’t even live long enough to see what this prophetic fulfillment will mean. And yet he prays, “Now your servant may depart in peace.” Total confidence that the promise has been fulfilled in this most unlikely of persons. As Simeon exits stage left, I’m left to hope that when the next moment of recognition comes, I’ll be listening to the Spirit over the din of life experience and credential.