Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas, 2018

Berett Steffen

There are a good number of scholars who think that think that the number one problem with Christianity today is that we don’t give the Holy Spirit enough credit. They think that he’s pretty neglected in the church. After all, he’s one of the three persons of the Godhead, so we should give him at least equal treatment, but all we seem to hear about is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Father, Jesus, Jesus, Father…. Where’s the Holy Spirit’s time in the spotlight? Can’t he get a word in?

There’s a long history of people who think the Spirit’s been short-changed by the church, and who’ve resolved to do something about it. First on the list was a guy named Montanus in the 2nd century AD. This dude showed up in modern-day Turkey out of nowhere, with two prophetesses, one on each arm, and claimed that yes, Jesus was the incarnate Son of God, but he, the great Montanus, was the incarnate Holy Spirit, here to inaugurate heaven on earth and the final Age. Many Christians were interested in him, including some church fathers I could mention, but it didn’t take too long to figure out that he was a total fraud.

We also have Joachim of Fiore, an Italian, living in the 13th century. He believed that the Father had his time in the days of the Old Testament, the Son had his time in the New, but now, in order for the final Age of the Spirit to come, we had to get rid of all the pastors and become monks who lived under God’s universal love, whatever that means, apart from the stuffy old words of the Bible. That theory didn’t exactly take off, either.

Another guy, closer to our time, was Gotthold Lessing, an 18th century Enlightenment philosopher. He believed that, yes, there was an Age of the Father and an Age of the Son, but the Age of the Spirit was the Enlightenment era—the Age of the Spirit means no more religion, no more of this irrational blind faith, only pure rationality and human reason, operating on the basis of provable facts. And through human ability, the new heaven-on-earth would be ushered in, in the form of . . . college education. Well, everyone who’s been to college knows that it’s no heaven on earth.

One last person, much closer to our time: Adolf Hitler. For him, interestingly enough, there were also three ages: the age of the Father (the Holy Roman Empire), the age of the Son (the old German Empire), and now, finally, the 3rd age, the 3rd Reich, the Age of the Spirit. He believed that he was the spiritual leader of his holy people, and that he would be the one to bring about heaven on earth and the final judgment. We all know how that ended.

I think you get the picture. If there’s one common denominator among all human beings, it’s the desire to bring about heaven on earth, by any means necessary. There are many people I didn’t name that fit the bill: Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx with their communist utopia; Thomas Munzer, a contemporary of Luther’s, who believed that the church’s mission was to kill all ungodly people; the Jews and certain Christians, who believe that the State of Israel will bring about the end times; political parties, liberal and conservative, who know in their heart that their administration will fix all the problems, if only everyone could see it their way. The list is endless. Everybody is working toward peace on earth and spiritual freedom, but nobody seems to be looking in the right place.

Except for Simeon. In a gospel reading filled with prophets and prophecy, singing, sacrifice, worship, praise, blessing, and Old Testament fulfillment, strangely enough it was these simple words that struck me the most: “So he came by the Spirit into the temple.” Simeon looks for heaven on earth in exactly the right place, and not of his own volition but by the will of the Holy Spirit. Our reading tells us that the Spirit was upon him, that he’s been waiting for the Messiah—the one who would console Israel—and that he received a revelation that he wouldn’t see death before he’s seen Jesus in the flesh. And for Simeon, that moment has finally arrived. At just the right time, the Spirit drives him to the temple, he takes his infant Savior into his arms, and he says, “Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace.”

In a world filled with idols and ideals, where worldviews and visions of heaven collide in bloody conflict, where revelation and spiritual empowerment is the only goal, we find Simeon—who’s filled with the Holy Spirit, but has eyes only for the little baby in his arms. He’s not inaugurating a new Age, he’s not off overthrowing the clergy, he’s not performing philosophical exercises, not judging the world, creating a utopia, or writing a manifesto. He’s busy doing something far greater: he’s holding his salvation in his hands, and he’s at peace.

And so it is for you. Day after day we’re surrounded by politicians and wannabe spiritual leaders, all promising that if the power dynamic was shifted in their favor, we’d have heaven on earth. But the Holy Spirit can’t be bothered. He isn’t interested in these things. Instead, he’s led you here, to the church, the congregation of believers. Like Simeon, you’ve “come by the Spirit into the temple.” In this place you hear the words of the gospel, the light that brings the revelation that Christ has forgiven all your sins, and that he alone is the glory of his church. By virtue of your Baptism, the Holy Spirit rests on you just as it rested on Simeon, and just as it was revealed to him that he wouldn’t see death until he had seen the Christ, I can give you that same promise. Because you can see him every Sunday at his Supper, in the bread and wine, his body and blood, that you eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of your faith. At his Supper, we really do experience Heaven on EarthTM (shoutout to my boy Arty Just).

The Holy Spirit doesn’t need or want his time in the spotlight, because he’s the one operating the spotlight. His job isn’t to empower you, or to bring about dramatic world-change, but to lead you to Jesus. As the Small Catechism says, the Spirit calls, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. And on the last day, the Holy Spirit will breathe life back into us again, fill us up, and give us eternal life—but like Simeon we’ll have eyes only for Jesus, the one who will come on clouds descending. On that day we’ll see the salvation prepared for us face-to-face, the light of the Gentiles and the glory of Israel. And as faithful servants of the kingdom, we’ll finally depart from this sinful world to be with him forevermore in heavenly peace.

Amen.