A Good Death

Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs 2/3/19

It is 92 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem.  Considering the 3000 feet of elevation change, most travelers need three days to complete the journey.  But after giving birth six weeks earlier, her body still swollen and fragile, mother Mary likely took twice as long.  With Joseph, she walked past the food carts selling hummus on flatbread, through the noisy open-air markets peddling their wares, and around the itinerants watering their camels.  Cradling the Christ child, she left her hometown to present her firstborn to the Lord. 

The rut in the road to the temple, taken daily for decades, was much shorter for Simeon.  Since God had assured him he would see the Messiah before his death, he had come to the steps of the sanctuary to wait and watch.  At 112 years old, Simeon had wondered thousands of time before if this would be the day?  Then, after all that time, a peasant family approached, meager offering in hand, the child in tow, and he knew.  Salvation had just arrived wearing diapers.  

Luke is the only writer that records this story in his Gospel.  While there’s Mary’s heroic effort to observe the Law of Moses, Joseph’s accompaniment through the complicated rituals and costly rites, and the allusions to Jesus’ final sacrifice on the cross, the author wants the reader to pay attention to old man Simeon first.

In his last days, what does Simeon have to teach us?  

Luke 2:22-40 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Congregational Responses:
He’s patient, enduring and steadfast.
He bypasses the priests and their elaborate systems, showing that lay people can have direct access to God.
He interrupts the ritual sacrifice, blesses Jesus himself, and defies a system that burdened the poor.

The nurses had rolled out all the machines and unhooked the oxygen.  The extended family, which had flown into Atlanta from all over the country, decided to take the elevator downstairs for lunch a break.  By the time the chaplain’s pager beeped, and I arrived, the hospital room was empty except for the patient.   He was lying on his back, eyes closed, breath shallow.  I pulled up a chair up to the bedside and noticed a Bible beside his pillow already open to the 4th Psalm.  So I started reading, “Answer me when I call, O God of my right! Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer… You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound…  for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.”  When my eyes returned to his face, he had died somewhere in between verses 1 through 8.  Sensing it was no longer just the two of us, I noticed the afternoon sun had filled the room with an angelic light, brighter than the sunrise and clearer than a dark starry night.  The air was thick, like all the love this man had ever shared returned to accompany him to the other side.   And there was a hovering presence above and below us that felt like we were being gathered in by eternity.  After a long time in overlapping realities, the family returned.  As they entered the room, I stood up to offer my condolences saying, “I’m so sorry, he just…”  They gently hushed me, smiled, and said, as best as I can remember, “He was a public-school teacher and adored his students.  He married his soul mate and delighted in his children.  He loved his life. Don’t be sorry, because he wasn’t.”       

Death, arguably, is our most dodged subject.  In the western world, we’ve even banished the word, instead preferring: he passed, she’s deceased, they expired.  Our avoidance is less about uncertainty over an afterlife or recoiling from the possible pain, and more about the terrifying prospect of thrashing on the table of regret, confronted with a clock that has run out and no more time to do what’s been left undone. 

Unlike the generations that would come after him, Simeon was a man who moved through the world with an enduring assurance.  Undistracted and singular in purpose, he assumed the promise would be fulfilled.  And when Jesus arrived on his daily route, the centenarian beheld the long-awaited glory of God in flesh and blood, cradled the infant in his arms and lifted his voice in celebration. His calling complete, he relaxed into the satisfaction of his last breath. 

What Simeon teaches us most is how to have a good death. 

In the days we have left, let us give ourselves over to a holy task big enough that our entire lives are required, believe in something enough to do it every day, and live so that when we die, our prayer of thanksgiving will be, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant(s) in peace…”