The Man Whose Ship Came In
I read for you from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, beginning to read at the twenty-fifth verse. “Now, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking 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 should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit, he came into the Temple. And when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for Him according to the custom of the Law, Simeon took Him up in his arms and blessed God, and said, ‘Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for my eyes have seen Thy salvation.’”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
At Christmas time, whenever we see a Nativity scene, we always see portrayed there the three wise men who came from the east. Of course, the Bible does not say anywhere that there were three. We have no evidence for that at all. Tradition assumes that there were three. You see, the Bible says that there were three separate kinds of gifts which were given to the infant Christ, and so we have assumed that therefore, there were three wise men. We do not even know their names. Well, there’s an old legend which say that their names were Caspar and Melchior and Balthazar, but we do not know for sure. We do not know precisely where they came from. We do not know how many there were. We do not know their names. Today, however, I want to talk with you about a man whom I think I would call the fourth wise man. Oh, he’s never going to be seen in any Nativity scene at Christmas time. As a matter of fact, his name is rarely even mentioned at Christmas time. But the fact of the matter is, he was a very wise man. And we do know his name. And we do know precisely what he did. His name is Simeon. He was the man who was waiting for his ship to come in.
You know that phrase, don’t you? “Waiting for his ship to come in.” That phrase originated in the fifth act of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, when Antonio was told that his ship had arrived and was bringing with it great profit. Now, understand, please, that in those days, it was common for the well-to-do people to invest in a ship, not in a stock market, but in a ship. And that ship would then go off on an extended journey into the world. And when the ship would return, it would come back laden with valuable goods which would then be sold at great profit to the investor. Now, that was a rather risky speculative investment. Because, you see, given the primitive state of shipping in those days, there was no communication, and it was impossible to know when a ship might, in fact, return. Not only that, but given the primitive state of shipping, there were no real assurances that the ship would return at all. As a matter of fact, many of them never did. And so the investor was left to wait with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation, to wait until the ship returns, then to experience the profit from an investment. Easy to see then – isn’t it? – why that phrase was taken and applied to all of those who are looking forward to the fulfillment of some great hope in life. Those people are always said to be waiting for their ship to come in.
That was true of Simeon. He was waiting for his ship to come in. He was looking forward to the time when God would come into the world. Now, the Bible tells us quite specifically here that Simeon was a righteous and devout man. That tells us a lot about him. Because, you see, in Scripture, a righteous man was a man who trusted God completely, so much so that other people could then trust that man. No only that, but Scripture tells us that a devout man was one whose relationship to God was built not simply upon obedience to Got but rather upon love for God.
So Simeon was righteous and devout. He was a man who passionately loved God. He was a man who completely trusted God. And the hope that lived in Simeon was a hope that believed the unshakeable confidence that knew that God’s promise would be fulfilled. And what was God’s promise? God’s promise to Simeon was that he, Simeon, would see the Messiah. And Simeon waited and he hoped. He was a man waiting for his ship to come in.
You know, I think that’s why I love Simeon. It’s such a shame that he is so rarely mentioned at Christmas. Because you see, Simeon, maybe above all the other characters in the Christmas drama, Simeon was a man of profound hope, hope built upon the promises of God. And because he hoped, he was also a man of commitment. He was ready to commit himself to God’s Messiah when he came. Hope and commitment, two things desperately needed in this world of ours.
And that’s why I think there are couple of things worth remembering about the story of Simeon.
I think it’s worth remembering first that Simeon hoped in a time when it wasn’t easy to hope.
Now, you know as well as I do that it’s easy to have hope when all is going right, when everything is well, when the days are sunny and bright. But that’s not the way it was for Simeon. How was it for him? Well, let me try this. I heard a story about a little boy who went to the grocery store. He walked up to the grocer, and he asked for a box of Tide, the detergent. Said he wanted a small box. And so the grocer went and got a box of Tide and gave it to him and he said, “This is the smallest box we’ve got.” And the little boy said, “That’s too big. I don’t need that much. But if that’s all you’ve got, if that’s the smallest you’ve got, then I’ll take it.” And the grocer said, “Well, what are you going to use it for?” And the little boy said, “Because I want to wash my cat.” And the grocer said, “Son, I’m not sure cats were meant to be washed in Tide.” And the little boy said, “Oh yes, they are. I saw it on TV. It said, ‘Tide gets the dirt out.'” Well, the grocer sold him the box. Couple of weeks later, the little boy was in the grocery store again, and the grocer walked up to him, and he said, “Son, how is your cat?” Little boy’s face fell, and he said, “The cat died.” And the grocer said, “I told you that Tide would get him.” And the little boy said, “It wasn’t the Tide. It was the spin dry that got him.”
Well, I don’t know of any other way to put it, except that when Simeon was living, the world was absolutely a spin, and the result was death everywhere.
First, there was the Roman problem. You see, the Roman armies led by a man named Crassus had invaded Palestine. They had occupied the territory. They had looted the treasures of the temple. It would be as if a foreign power came into the United States and stole away all of the treasures in our art museums and then took all of the gold in Fort Knox. It was a devastating blow to the people. And not only that, but in the course of the Roman occupation, 12,000 of the priests of Judaism were killed. The symbols of the faith for the people, and they were cut down. It was a time of national tragedy. And yet even in that tragedy, old Simeon kept on hoping.
And then there was the Herod problem. The Romans, after they had occupied Palestine, put Herod on the throne to rule the people. Now, Herod, the first thing he did was to kill 45 of the 71 elders who made up the counsel of the people. That’s the way he started out, and he went from bad to worse. He soon set up a secret police organization. They penetrated every corner of the land. They arrested and executed anyone they thought guilty of subversive activity. And Herod began to raise the taxes higher and higher and higher still. Remember, please, in those days, there was no such thing as a progressive tax. And so tax gathering in those days was most inequitable. And as a result of Herod’s terrible taxation, the rich were getting richer, and the poor were getting very much poorer, and that’s always an affront to God. And so the people of Palestine had two boots on their throats – the boots of the Roman conquerors and the boots of the evil King Herod.
And then there was the earthquake problem. Earthquakes are always serious, but this one was particularly disastrous. It struck in that region of Palestine, and 30,000 Jewish people died. Terrible calamity. And yet, in the midst of it, old Simeon kept on hoping.
And then came what may have been the cruelest blow of all. Herod by this time was deceased. He lived a debauched life, and he was paying the price for it. And people began to think that maybe he was a bit vulnerable. And so a coalition of the best, the brightest, the finest young men in the whole land came together, banded themselves together, and decided to lead a revolt against Herod in an attempt to break his killing grip upon the country. But the old king had just enough strength left to put down that revolt. And put it down he did with a vengeance. And afterwards, he ordered the systematic arrest and execution of every single one of the brightest, best, finest young men in the country.
Simeon had to watch while the cream of the oncoming generation was slaughtered by an evil king. And yet Simeon, old Simeon, he kept on hoping. When I think of Simeon, I think of a picture painted by Frederick Watts. It’s called Hope. It hangs in the Tate Gallery in London. It portrays a beautiful woman sitting and holding a stringed instruments. And every one of the strings is broken except one. And this beautiful lady is plucking that single string and leaning forward anxiously trying to hear the sound of the one string. That was Simeon. In the midst of a society that was literally collapsing all about him, Simeon was clinging to one string of hope that God would keep his promise, that God would come in His Messiah, and that he, Simeon, would see him. Simeon, ah, yes, a man waiting for his ship to come in.
But then I think it’s worth remembering secondly that Simeon’s hope was fulfilled.
His ship did come in. It happened just a few days after Christmas when Mary and Joseph, in obedience to the religious customs of the day, took their little infant Jesus, took him to the temple, there to present him to God as their first born child. And it was there that Simeon, this wise old man who had been hoping and hoping and who’d kept on hoping, it was there that Simeon walked up with a strange glint in his eye when he saw this little family. He walked over and he began to tell them of the promise which had been made to him by the Holy Spirit years before, how that he would not die, his eyelids would not close in death until those eyes looked at the Messiah.
And in that moment, Simeon reached out and took the baby from their arms and proceeded then to pray a prayer, one of the most beautiful prayers in all of Scripture. We call the “Nunc Dimittis.” Simeone said, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” Simeon was saying, “I no longer fear life, and I no longer fear death because my hope has been fulfilled. God is here. Christmas is. God has come to the world in this little child.”
Of course, God would come as a little child. I mean, a child is the most perfect symbol of hope, isn’t that right? It was Wordsworth who said, “A child more than any other gift which Heaven can give brings hope and forward-looking thoughts.” Yes, God would come as a child, would He not? I mean, that’s God’s way.
If you don’t believe it, I ask you to look at history. History proves it. God always comes as a child. Take, for example, the year 1809. That was a very dark year on this planet, a very bleak year indeed. Napoleon was marching from one bloody victory to another, and the shadow of the little dictator was falling across all of the European continent and even beyond. Statesmen everywhere were frightened. Nations were wracked with wars and rumors of wars. Poverty and hunger and plague ravaged societies. Hopelessness hung like a heavy pall over the lives of people. 1809 was a very bleak year, and there were people that year who were feeling hopeless about the future. And yet, in that year, God was at work, sending babies into the world as usual, but all what unusual babies they were that year.
In 1809, Cyrus McCormick was born on a farm in West Virginia. Later on, he would invent the Harvester and make it possible for the farmers on America’s Great Plains to begin to feed the hungry people of this world. In 1809, William Gladstone was born of Scottish parents. Later on, he would become the great driving force behind the British Empire, an empire which brought hope and decency and law and freedom to great portions of this earth. In 1809, Tennyson and Chopin and Mendelson were born, all of them. And later on, their poetry and their music would fill the world with such joy. And then, most important of all, in 1809, in a log cabin in Kentucky, a child was born whose parents named him Abraham Lincoln.
1809 was a very bleak year, and there were people giving up hope everywhere, but God was still at work, sending babies into the world who would later on help to diminish that sense of hopelessness. Yes, God would come as a child, wouldn’t He? I mean, that’s God’s way. And it’s worth remembering that Simeon’s hopes were fulfilled by the birth of a baby. It’s worth remembering that God sent His only Son into the world so that people might see Him, might see Him in the flesh and hear Him speak. Oh, I know, I know the message which Christ proclaimed has sometimes been drowned out by the raging storms of human greed and selfishness. I know sometimes the voice of Jesus Christ has been lost amidst the explosions of bombs and the cries of the wounded and the stench of the dying. I know all that. By the fact of the matter is that no man-made fires can quite consume, and no curtain made of iron or anything else can shut it out, and no human prejudice, however deeply ingrained, can silence it, for Jesus Christ is. Jesus Christ lives. Jesus Christ walks the road of this earth. His Holy Spirit is here. And His Holy Spirit is at hand.
See, it’s true. The greatest affirmations of the Christian faith are true. There is one God over all the earth. And there is one Kingdom of God that will outlast the very stars. And there is an eternity of God toward which we are all moving. And there is one Son of God born is Bethlehem’s manger who calls us to follow Him in our lives and to practice His teachings in our daily experience. Those are facts. They are the most important facts in all the world. And those facts demand that you and I make Jesus Christ the great burning center of our lives. No one ever said it better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote, “Jesus Christ is the center of the human existence. Jesus Christ is the center of nature. Jesus Christ is the center of history. Jesus Christ is the center of the universe. And it is upon our coming to grips with this Jesus that there depends life and death, salvation and damnation, for there is salvation in no one else.”
Simeon understood that. That’s why that day in the temple, he walked over, and he took that baby from the arms of Mary and Joseph, and held it fast. He embraced God’s Messiah. He took Him to his heart. And then he prayed, “Now, Lord, my eyes have seen Thy salvation.”
Christmas is for those who hope. So come to Christmas as Simeon did, as wise men have always come to Christmas. Come to Christmas this year hoping and believing that God will keep His promise. For remember that at the very moment when Simeon’s hopes were fulfilled, at that moment, hope for the whole world was born, hope for you and hope for me. Hope for this world in which we live. Hope in Jesus Christ. Hope. That, my beloved people, that is what Christmas is all about.
Let us pray. Merciful God, let us build our hope upon the great fact of Jesus Christ. And in the strength and power of that hope, let us live on, not only through this life, but on and on for all eternity in Him. Amen.