The dawn of a new year is a fascinating time to look at the Gospel story about Simeon.
You have seen those end-of-the-year cartoons that show a world-weary and exhausted Old Father Time handing off the baton to a fresh and naïve Baby New Year?
That seems to be what we have in this story. Simeon is decent man at the end of his days. He's seen about everything in his time. He is just trying to hang on until the Messiah gets here -- the fresh face on which all his hopes are pinned.
Simeon sees Jesus and recognizes him. "I have been waiting for you, Holy One of God. Here you are at last. Now I have seen it all. I can check out now with any regrets.
With that, his hopes and dreams are transferred from his shoulders onto the shoulders of this baby.
I've heard Simeon's words many times in my ministry, in many different ways -- from the lips of older people.
We spend so much effort on finding ways to increase the length of our stay on this earth. Yet a month seldom goes by that I don't talk to someone who is ready to get off the ride, who says, Lord, let now your servant depart in peace.
Sometimes those words are said with deep sadness. This is the cry of someone in constant pain or poor health, who is unable to see or hear or walk across a room without exhaustion. It is the cry of people who are lonely, miserable, or grief-stricken.
"I wish God would take me now," they say.
Sometimes Simeon's words are spoken by people who are jaded, who have seen it all, and for whom life holds no further interest. People for whom everything, from a gorgeous sunset to a fascinating new book evokes nothing more than a "been there, done that." People who ask in a cynical voice, "Why am I still here?
Sometimes I hear Simeon's words spoken with resignation. This is the sigh of those who have outlived their friends and closest family. They feel like useless relics of a bygone era who have nothing to contribute in this day and age.
When all these people say those words that Simeon said, it can be so heartbreaking that we all begin to question what God is doing in the world.
But there is another way to say those words. When Simeon said, "I've seen everything now," it was not the complaint of someone who feels he has outlived his life. It was a hymn of joyful praise and contentment.
Simeon's situation reminds me of the refrain of a popular U2 song. For decades he had lived a solid life, yet something was missing in his life. After all this time, he clung to life, singing, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for."
Then Jesus arrives, and Simeon sees what he has been looking for all these years.
When Simeon says, "Now I've seen everything; let your servant depart in peace," it is not with sadness or cynicism or resignation. He says these words with a sense of awe and peace, and gratefulness. Having witnessed the person of Jesus, he has seen all he needs to see in order to lay claim to salvation, to believe that God is the source of good in the world, and that the future is in God's hands.
Seeing that, Simeon can let go of all fears and disappointment and unfinished business. He can accept with joy and peace whatever comes his way.
One of the profound blessings of being a working preacher is the privilege of being with people near the end of their earthbound journey and hearing them speak those words just as Simeon said them.
They speak of how grateful they are for the time given to them, the people given to them to love and be loved by. Of how they have seen the light and salvation that God has prepared for them. In seeing that, they have seen everything they need to see, and so they are at peace.
Why talk so much about death at a time when we proclaim a new year, a new beginning?
Because in the transition from old year to new, we tend to get obsessed with the past and anxious about the future. We resemble those who speak with sadness, cynicism, or resignation rather than with joy and thanksgiving.
I came across a wise saying the other day. "Don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff."
Almost all of it is small stuff. Once we understand that we live in the light of Jesus, the rest is small stuff. Once we understand what Jesus is about, we've seen it all. The future is with God and God is good, and knowing that makes all the difference.
Each New Year brings many problems that need solving with care and compassion. Each brings disappointments and sorrows that will need comforting, and hurts that need healing.
But we don't need to wait until the end of life before we see all that really matters. To express our thanks and joy for all that God has done and will do, and to live the rest of the days secure in the knowledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
For our eyes have seen the salvation that God has prepared before the face of all people.