Transformed by the Spirit

We don’t talk about the Holy Spirit much. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that we’re not all that comfortable with the idea of the Holy Spirit. We think we have a pretty good understanding of what God the Creator is all about: creating the heavens and the earth, bringing us to life, along with all other creatures, giving the commandments, entering into a covenantal relationship with Israel, sending Jesus to earth. And we think we have a pretty good understanding of how Jesus fits into this picture: crucified and resurrected, forgives our sins, we are baptized into him. But I bet that most of us have a much harder time figuring out exactly who the Holy Spirit is, or what the Spirit does in this whole trinity thing. 

The Apostle’s Creed doesn’t help us out much: we go straight from “I believe in the Holy Spirit” to “the holy catholic church.” The Nicene Creed gives a little more insight: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.” We’ve got the one who gives life, and who gave the words to the prophets. But it all seems so long ago, doesn’t it? And the prophets were all special, weren’t they? Chosen by God? 

We mention the Holy Spirit in our motto here. It’s in our back entryway, on our bulletins, and we repeat it every Sunday morning: “With God as our source, the Son as our example, and the Spirit to guide our way, we serve.” But this is only one facet of the Spirit: the one who guides. What about the one who pushes? The one who inspires? The one who interprets? The one who transcends? The one who transforms? 

No, we don’t quite know what to make of the Spirit. Which is why we don’t always know what to make of Simeon. We tend to do one of two things with him. Sometimes, we lump him in with the Old Testament prophets, the special people, the ones chosen by God, and chalk up the involvement of the Spirit in his life to this special status he holds. Other times, we focus on the interaction he has with Jesus in the temple. After all, that’s the point, isn’t it? This is Jesus’ story, after all – the day Jesus was presented in the temple and Simeon prophesied about him.

But I think the Holy Spirit is the sleeper in this story. There are three direct mentions of the Spirit in this reading, in fact three direct mentions within three sentences. Listen: “There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon…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…”That’s a lot of Spirit for one person. But clearly, the Spirit is at work in him. After all, we know who this baby is; we know how the story ends. We know that when Simeon says that his eyes have seen the salvation that God has prepared in the presence of all the peoples, he’s right. We know who this Messiah is, what he has come to do. And clearly, Simeon does too. He believes that this baby he’s holding – this 40-day-old little boy – will grow up to be the light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to Israel. 

Those of you who have children, or who have ever held newborns, what did you know about those kiddos when they were a month old? Certainly not that much about who they would be as adults. Doesn’t this kind of lend itself to the theory that Simeon was someone special, blessed by God, set apart?

And to have the kind of faith Simeon had – to be led by the Spirit to believe that he would not die until he saw the Messiah, and then to be led by the Spirit to show up at the temple on that specific day, and then to be led by the Spirit to approach that specific family. That family that was so poor that they couldn’t even afford the usual purification offering,  a lamb and a bird, but instead had to purchase two birds. To be led by the Spirit to have his eyes opened to see a Messiah who was not the king that all Israel expected him to be. That is something special, indeed.

But I’m not so sure that Simeon was set apart by God, made special for the sole purpose of prophesying about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. He is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament; if he were there to prophesy about the identity of Jesus, you would expect him to show back up. You would expect someone, maybe one of the apostles or John the Baptist, to remember Simeon and make some connection between the adult Jesus and this little baby. But that never happens. I don’t think that the point is that he was a prophet to the community, foretelling the way God would work from outside the mainstream or the halls of power to bring about the salvation of the world. 

No, I think the point is that the Holy Spirit is at work, nudging us and prodding us, in ways we don’t expect. I think that Simeon is an example for us of what it means to be open to the working of the Spirit in our lives, to be a person of such deep and abiding faith that he couldn’t help but trust the working of the Spirit. The belief that he would live to see the Messiah. The sense that he had to show up in the temple that day. The feeling that he needed to approach that family. 

And his faith was deep and abiding! Luke tells us that he was devout, and was looking forward to the consolation of Israel, the call that God would issue to the Jews to be the light to the Gentiles, the comfort that God would offer to the world, embodied somehow in Israel. But he didn’t need to see it come to fruition. His faith in God was so deep and abiding that he didn’t need to see it happen – all he hoped for was to see was the promise of that consolation, that comfort, that call to the nations. All he hoped for was to see was the seed that would grow into the fulfillment of that promise – that 40-day-old promise that God made to the world. That was enough. He was ready. In his prayer of thanksgiving, he said, in effect, “I’m ready to die. I have lived to see what I hoped to see. I believe that this promise that I hold in my arms will be fulfilled.”

Decades before Jesus is crucified and resurrected, the Spirit leads Simeon to the truth of Jesus’ identity as the Christ, and his fate as the salvation of all the nations, a sign that some would believe and some would oppose – but who would cause the inner truth about many people to be revealed. It takes courage to offer a prophecy that foretells division and revelation, rather than unification and peace – the sort of courage that can only be found in the Spirit. 

But that’s a hard thing to do. When we see Simeon, he is at the end of his life. He has dealt with his doubts, his struggles, his questionings about the message the Spirit is sending him. Live to see the Messiah, but not the new kingdom the Messiah will usher in? What’s that all about? I’m sure, because he is human, Simeon had the same doubts and fears that the rest of us have when we hear the Spirit speaking to us.

Sometimes when the Spirit speaks us, calling us to transformation, to leadership, to prophecy, or whatever the Spirit calls each of us to, there is turmoil and uncertainty. Sometimes the Spirit speaks into the uncertainty. Martin Luther King Jr was a spiritual and social justice leader and prophet in a time of great upheaval and uncertainty in the country, a time of change, a time when racism was perhaps more obvious than it had been since the days of slavery. He may have felt the Spirit calling him out of a life of harmony within his congregation, and into a life that thrust him into the national spotlight, calling for resistance and change, calling for national healing and transformation – a life that eventually led to his assassination, much too young. 

And Greta Thunberg – we know less about her sense of call to the work she is doing, but this is certainly a time of upheaval in the world, as we wrestle with rising temperatures, dying species, and what all of that means for the creation we are meant to care for, as well as for our own lives. I believe the Spirit has been working in her as well, calling her out of a life of normal teenage concerns and onto the international stage, to advocate for change with a boldness that has made her a target, as well.

But when the Spirit speaks, it is not always a call to something of this magnitude. Think back over your own life. Have there been times when you were unsettled, uncertain, restless or worried about your own future, when someone spoke to you and planted an idea – perhaps something that seemed 180 degrees from the path you were contemplating – and that idea took root and began to grow? And then, as you began to have conversations with other people, you found this growing idea affirmed over and over to you? That is the Holy Spirit working, seeking to transform you, to equip you for the work to which you have been called.

Sometimes, the Holy Spirit speaks into our complacency, and it seems in the midst of the call that this causes turmoil and uncertainty. Have you ever, in the midst of a life that you were very happy with, felt a strong call to make a change? And then had that change reaffirmed over and over, conversation after conversation? This can cause uncertainty, even fear – but again, this is the Spirit speaking. The Holy Spirit doesn’t cause the fear or uncertainty; That is our own reaction, our own resistance to change. But if we can navigate through that, each and every time it happens, then I think that we find it easier each time to trust to the working of the Spirit in our lives, until we become like Simeon, open to transformation by the Spirit, fully trusting in and fully dependent on God.

Some time ago, I shared with you all the prayer that I learned in the midst of my own questioning and uncertainty: “Lord, give me the desire to do your will.” This is a prayer to allow the Spirit to work in my life, to help me through the uncertainty and turmoil that arises, into and through which the Spirit speaks, transforming me. My prayer for each of us is that the desire to do God’s will grows in us, transforming us, until we become like Simeon.

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