Real satisfaction - Luke 2:21-40
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Around this time fifty two years ago, two men were within days of becoming heroes the world over. They were about to achieve the impossible, what man had wanted to do as long as he could remember. They were about to climb to the top of Mount Everest. And on 29th May, 1953, at 11.30am, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay finally achieved their dream, and they stood on the top of the world 29, 035 feet above sea level. It was something both men had been working towards for months, and which both men had dreamed about for years. It was their life time's achievement. For Hillary it meant a knighthood and world wide adulation. For Tenzing, the son of a yak herder, idolisation in his own country. But both men, in different ways, when they reached the top of the world, found that actually there was nothing there. Hillary said in a recent interview that though it was a huge achievement for him there has been far more to life than Everest. He has had to reassess his dreams having achieved his major one. And sadly for Tenzing, getting to the top was a huge disappointment. After that achievement he was never fully satisfied, and after declining into alcoholism, he sadly died in 1986. For both men, in different ways, their climb to the top of the world left them feeling there was nothing there, and that there must be something else. They just weren't satisfied.
Well over these last few weeks, we're been considering the beautiful attitudes that Jesus asks his followers to adopt at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. And we've seen that these attitudes are the way to true blessing. Adopt these attitudes and you will find true and lasting happiness and joy in God, says Jesus. And these are not attitudes we are to have in order to get into the kingdom of God. Rather they are the characteristics of those who claim to be in that kingdom, those who claim to be the followers of Jesus. And we've found that such attitudes are revolutionary in our world. They cut right against the grain of our culture. We're to be poor in spirit, humbly admitting our need for spiritual rescue. We're to be mournful of our desperate spiritual situation before God and come to him for mercy and grace. And we're to be meek, having that humble and gentle spirit which characterises our dealings with God and others.
But now Jesus takes his challenge on a step further. For the fourth beatitude which are looking at tonight goes to the very heart of our being and asks us what we are living for. For here Jesus questions our very soul. He questions our very goals and passion in life. And he asks us: "What are you living for? What really drives you on? What is your goal and very deepest desire." And how we answer that question is perhaps the most important question of all. For Jesus says: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. For they will be filled."
So what does Jesus mean? Well in Matthew's gospel righteousness means a godly life, a life which is pleasing to God. So Jesus is saying "blessed are those who hunger after holiness and godliness. Blessed are those whose goal in life is to become more like Christ." Now Jesus is not just speaking here of a vague wish to become more holy. He's not thinking of the person who says: "Yes, I wouldn't mind becoming more like Jesus. I know it's important and I guess I ought to do it." No, what Jesus is talking about here is a deep seated passion and drive to pursue the things of God. A wholehearted desire to get to know God better and live a life which is marked by likeness to him. It's a passion which is so desperate and keen that nothing else will satisfy. And Jesus' audience would have understood that when he talked about thirst and hunger. They knew what it was to be parched in the Palestinian midday sun, to live from hand to mouth in an agrarian society, where you eat what you grow. Now I doubt there are many of us here who have been so hungry or thirsty that our entire energy is spent in getting a drink of water or a mere mouthful of food. Some of us may have not eaten for 24 hours or more, but few will have known that aching hunger of not eating for days. Imagine going a whole week with no real food speak of- that's hunger. I've experienced heat of almost 50 degrees in a desert in North Africa riding on the back of a very grumpy camel, and I have never felt anything like it before or since, both the heat or the camel. But I didn't have to be thirsty for long because I had a bottle of water with me. But imagine walking through a desert not drinking for a whole day or more in blinding heat, your lips are dry and chapped, your mouth has no moisture in it. You will do anything to get some liquid down your throat. Well that is the thirst and hunger that Jesus is talking about here. It is a passionate thirst and hunger that will not stop until satisfied. It's a desperate longing that cries out for satisfaction. And it's a thirst for righteousness. Blessed is such a person, says Jesus, whose whole heart is so captivated by God that they long as a thirsty man in a desert to know God better and live for him. That's the passion that Jesus is talking about. That's the truly blessed man. And it's that person whose hunger and thirst will be satisfied. One Scottish preacher prayed: "Lord, make me just as holy as a pardoned sinner can be." And it was John Wesley who used to pray: "Lord, cure my intermittent piety and make me thoroughly Christian." That's what it means to hunger and thirst after righteousness.
And it's that challenge that Jesus is throwing down to us today. He's asking us if truly we hunger and thirst after God like that. Is the pursuit of holiness our very deepest passion, or is it something else? Because that is the only cure for our soul's aching longing. And if that is not our passion, then we'll find that when we get to the top of the particular mountain we're climbing, there is nothing there at all. For nothing else will satisfy our soul's aching longing like the knowledge of God and of an ever deepening love for him and growth in godliness. For like the psalmist, we ought to say from the very depths of our heart: "As the deer pants for water, so my soul longs for you."
And two people who exemplify that deep longing and hunger for the things of God are Simeon and Anna, who we find at the beginning of Luke's gospel. Now these opening chapters of Luke's gospel are all about Jesus, and Simeon and Anna are witnesses to the person of Jesus Christ, like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and angels before them. But Luke is always interested in real people, and through these two godly old saints, we can learn much about what it means to hunger and thirst after righteousness. So let's turn to Luke chapter 2 and we'll find three marks of the man or woman who is truly thirsty and hungry for God.
1) Total Confidence in God's Promises
2) Total Commitment to God's Saviour
3) Total Contentment in God's Presence
1) Total Confidence in God's Promises
And the first mark of the person who hungers and thirsts after righteousness is that they have total confidence in God's promises. Now these two godly saints, Simeon and Anna, had been waiting for something very special for a very long time. Have a look at verse 25 and see what Simeon had been waiting for. "Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ." Simeon had been waiting for something called the "consolation of Israel", and he'd been told by God that he would not die until he'd seen it. And it's most likely he'd been waiting a very long time. The implication is that he is an old man, because he wants to die as soon as he has seen the consolation of Israel. And then there's Anna. She too has been waiting. Verse 36: "There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to [or waiting for] the redemption of Jerusalem." So here is Anna and she is very old. Our versions say she was 84. But actually you could translate the sentence to say that she'd been a widow for 84 years. So if she'd got married in her teens, then had seven years of marriage and then another 84 years, she'd be well over a hundred by nown. And she'd been waiting all that time for what she calls in verse 38 the redemption of Israel. Both Simeon and Anna were waiters.
So what had they been waiting for? Well to understand that we need to go back 450 years in Jewish history to the last time God spoke to his people. It was through the prophet Malachi, and God had promised that he would come personally into the world, preceded by a messenger who would prepare the way for him. And when he came he would bring about salvation and judgement. And God would come in the form of the Messiah. That is the promised king. And for 450 years nothing had happened. For years and years and years, the people of God had been waiting for this promised rescuer who would bring judgement and salvation into the world, who would destroy God's enemies and liberate the people of God. And then we get to the days of Simeon and Anna, 450 years later, and God had said to Simeon that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ, that meant the Messiah. And we're told in verse 25 that Simeon had been waiting for the "consolation of Israel". It takes us back to another prophecy in Isaiah 40 where God promises to comfort his people. It's the same word in the Greek translation of the OT as is here in Luke's gospel. Simeon has been waiting for that comfort that God will bring to his people. So can you imagine the excitement in Simeon's soul when he heard that promise that he would actually witness this great coming? After all those years of silence, at last the promise was going to come true.
Now we're not told when God informed Simeon about this promise, but I doubt it would have been the day before. Simeon had to wait for the promise of God to be fulfilled. He had to trust the promises of God. So you can imagine that every day Simeon came into the Temple courts and scanned the vast crowds. Every parent and child that came into the Temple courts, he'd been wondering: "Lord, is this the one?" "Is that the one?" And it was the same for Anna. She been coming for perhaps 84 years. Can you imagine it? I tend to get impatient after about 84 seconds. But 84 years! Every day she been coming to the Temple to pray, and she too had been waiting. She was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. Again she too would have read the prophecies. She too was looking forward to the coming Messiah who would rescue or redeem the people of God. And we're not told she had a specific word from the Lord. She simply trusted the promises of God.
But then at last the great day comes. A young couple come into the Temple courts. They are from the north of the country, so perhaps are slightly overwhelmed by the large crowds in the big city. They are not well off because they will be offering a poor person's sacrifice of a pigeon instead of a lamb. And yet they were devout. Because they knew that the law said that on the birth of the firstborn son the parents should make this sacrifice to God and offer their child to God's service. And that's what they were doing. And in the sovereign providence of God, Mary and Joseph carrying their firstborn son Jesus, are in the Temple at exactly the point that Simeon and Anna are there.
And it is a wonderful moment to witness. Verse 27: "When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 'Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation.'" At last all that waiting is over. At last God's promises have been fulfilled. At last the hope of rescue has dawned. And it's all to be found in this tiny little baby cradled in Simeon's arms. If you've ever witnessed the joy of parents when they cradle their first born child in their arms, you'll know something of the joy of this scene. And yet it is even more significant than that. Because Simeon knows that this one is to be the Saviour of the world, the fulfilment of all the promises of God. And he's there in his arms as those frail eyes stare into the beautiful eyes of the Saviour.
Now what has all this got to do with hungering and thirsting after righteousness? Well because it shows us that such people have total confidence in the promises of God. They do not doubt that what God has said he will do, he will do. And they wait in eager expectation of the fulfilment of the promises. Now I guess Simeon would have had moments of weakness. Perhaps some days he thought to himself: "Is it really worth going to the Temple today? After all, yesterday I cuddled 56 babies and not one was the Messiah!" But Simeon was righteous and devout according to Luke in verse 25. Here was a man who trusted the promises of God, just as Anna did. And so in Jesus he recognises that all the promises are fulfilled, in verse 30: "For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." God's salvation has come. Jesus will be a light for the Gentiles and a glory for the people of Israel. In Jesus Christ God's plan of rescue has been fulfilled. And those who hunger and thirst for righteousness have total confidence in God's promises.
And we need to ask ourselves whether we have that confidence in the promises of God. Do you really believe God will do what he has said he will do? Let's take one promise of God to us that is yet to be fulfilled. It's the second coming of Christ. Like Simeon and Anna we too are waiting aren't we? In fact Paul uses the same word of Christians waiting for the coming of Christ as Luke uses of Simeon and Anna waiting for the first coming of Christ. It's just a different coming. Now do you genuinely believe that God's promises are going to be fulfilled? I mean it's been a very long time hasn't it? Even more than 450 years. And quite frankly the world is such a harsh place, so antagonistic to the gospel. Our efforts look so weak and pathetic! Don't you feel sometimes like giving up, like the whole Christian faith is just so feeble and hopeless? No-one in your place of work is even vaguely interested in your faith. In fact they think you're mad. And sharing the gospel with them seems a total waste of time. And you cry out to the Lord: "Lord are you really going to keep your promises? Are you really coming back? Will you truly do what you've said you will do? Will you save us? Will you judge the earth through your Son?" Don't you feel like that sometimes? But do you know the answer to that question? It's a resounding and absolute yes. It's as big a yes as was given to Simeon the day he held Jesus in his arms. In fact that first coming which proved hundreds of years worth of promises of God right, guarantees the next coming. And if God kept his promise the first time, he'll keep it again. Because he is just as faithful as he was all those years ago. God does not change. You can trust him. And those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are those who have total confidence in God's promises. Because they know and live out the truth that God is faithful to his promises.
2) Total Commitment to God's Saviour
But secondly, we find from Simeon and Anna that another mark of those who hunger and thirst after righteousness is that they have total commitment to God's saviour. Now if you can imagine that scene in the busy temple courts that day, you would have seen a picture of pure happiness. Two elderly people hunched round a babe and his parents. All filled with total joy and delight that at last the promises of God are being fulfilled. But just at the point when we think that God's plans will be brought into fulfilment without any trouble at all, then Simeon speaks in verse 34: "Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: 'This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.'" It really is not the moment, is it? Everyone's cooing around the baby, and then you get this totally crass remark from Simeon. It would be like that now familiar scene of a crowd of people gathering at the back of church around a pram with a cute little bundle in it, and then I come along and say to the mother: "Oh, what a beautiful baby girl!" And the mother replies, "Yes he's a lovely boy isn't he!" But then imagine if I go on to say: "Yes, and do you know what! I reckon that little rascal is going to be a right pain in the neck when he's a teenager and he'll drive you to an early grave!" Can you imagine anything so tactless and out of place. Surely it's a time for rejoicing. So why does Simeon ruin the moment? Why bring in suffering to the picture? Because that's what he's talking about isn't he? Jesus is a sign that will be spoken against and he'll cause the rising and falling of many in Israel. And he'll be a sword to Mary's soul too! Jesus is going to divide people. He's going to cause problems! Why mention it at this point? Because Simeon knows full well what kind of effect Jesus' ministry will have. He will divide people. Some will fall at his feet. Others will spit in his face. Some will be lifted up high through him, others he will bring low. And if you claim to follow this Saviour, says Simeon, you better be in the mood for some serious trouble. And for Mary in particular there will be the terrible pain of seeing her own son crucified on the cross.
You see the point is that if you align yourself with this sign, this Jesus, then you are in for a rough ride. But those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness are willing to put their necks on the line for this Jesus whatever the cost. Because they know that there is no other way to be satisfied, even if it means pain and suffering and death itself. They know that Jesus demands nothing less than total commitment. And they are willing to give it. And the only way you can have total commitment to God's Saviour is if you have total confidence in God's promises. Because you will not give yourself to anything unless you are sure it is worth it. Unless you can trust the God who is making the promises. And time and again when Christians are forced to put their necks on the line for their Saviour it's because they are already sure of God's promises and they are trusting them wholeheartedly.
Let me tell you about one man who had total confidence in God's promises and as a result had total commitment to God's Saviour. He was just an ordinary man, a man called Mr Haim, a humble Christian teacher who just happened to live in Cambodia in the 1970's during the very oppressive regime of the Khmer Rouge. Like many before and after him, he was arrested with his family for believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is how one writer describes his final few moments in this world. The place was grim indeed and bore many gruesome signs of a place of execution. A sickly smell of death hung in the air. Curious villagers foraging in the scrub nearby lingered, half hidden, watching the familiar routine as the family were ordered to dig a large grave for themselves. Then, consenting to Haim's request for a moment to prepare themselves for death, father, mother and children, hands linked, knelt together around the gaping pit. With loud cries to God, Haim began exhorting both the Khmer Rouge and all those looking on from afar to repent and believe the gospel. Then, in panic, one of Haim's young sons leapt to his feet, bolted into the surrounding bush and disappeared. Haim jumped up and with amazing coolness and authority prevailed upon the Khmer Rouge not to pursue the lad, but allow him to call the boy back. The knots of onlookers, peering around trees, the Khmer Rouge, and the stunned family still kneeling at the graveside, looked on in awe as Haim began calling his son, pleading with him to return and die together with his family. "What comparison, my son", he called out, "stealing a few more days of life in the wilderness, a fugitive, wretched and alone, to joining your family here momentarily around this grave but soon around the throne of God, free forever in Paradise?" After a few tense minutes the bushes parted, and the lad, weeping, walked slowly back to his place with the kneeling family. "Now we are ready to go," Haim told the Khmer Rouge. But by this time there was not a soldier standing there who [was willing to perform the final deed]. Ultimately, this had to be done by the Khmer Rouge commune chief, who had not witnessed these things. But few of those watching doubted that as each of these Christians' bodies fell silently into the earthen pit which the victims themselves had prepared, their souls soared heavenward to a place prepared by their Lord.
Well thankfully we live in a land where such demands are not made of us, at least not yet. And yet if we are to stand in such a demand, then our allegiance and commitment to Christ will be seen in little ways every day, every week. Resisting the tide at work, bearing the snide remarks, the peer pressure at school, the cold shoulder at uni. Standing confidently in the promises of God unmoved in our commitment to Christ, because we trust what God has said. Because we follow Jesus Christ, the sign who is spoken against, yet the one who is the salvation of the world. Will you do that this week? Because such costly commitment to God's Saviour is another mark of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
3) Total Contentment in God's Presence
But there is one final question that we need to ask. And that is how on earth can we do all this? How can we have total confidence in God's promises? How can we have total commitment to God's saviour. Well only if we have the third mark of the person who hungers and thirsts after righteousness. And that is total contentment in God's presence.
And that is precisely what Anna had in verse 37: "She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying." Here is a woman whose total delight is in God, whose sheer love for her Lord and Saviour drives her to spend time worshipping him and adoring him and praying to him. Here is a woman who knows what it is to be truly content, who knows the reality of the psalmist's words, "as the deer pants for water, so my soul longs after you." Because when you see the beauty and majesty of your Saviour and God, then why on earth would settle for second best? When you have tasted the luscious banquet of the heavenly feast, why would you want the meagre scraps that this world has to offer. Why be satisfied by a desire for material gain, for more power, for that total security and comfort. Because the trouble with pursing such goals is that they always leave you wanting more.
And time and again, when people get to the top of their particular mountain they find there is nothing there. Elvis Presley found that. He was worth millions throughout his musical career. His favourite car was a Limousine which had forty coats of paint encrusted with diamonds and fish scale. Inside the car were two gold telephones, a gold vanity case containing gold electric razor and clippers, a gold shoe buffer, a gold plated television, a gold plated record player and amplifier, and a fridge that was capable of making ice in 2 minutes. He had everything. But according to those who knew him best at the time of his death, what did it all mean to him? Nothing. It was all meaningless and empty. He'd got to the top of his particular mountain and found nothing there.
No, the only place where you and I will find true satisfaction is in Christ alone. And the place to foster that confidence in God's promises and that commitment to God's Saviour, is on your own with your Lord with your Bible open. It was the great Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne who said that what a man or woman is on theirs knees alone before God, that he is and no more. The plain fact is we cannot drift into holiness. You do not stumble into godliness. You cannot simply buy Christian contentment. It comes through a devotion to the Lord in prayer and through meditating on his word. Such contentment and delight in God that Anna had was something she pursued day by day, year by year. She hungered and thirsted after God and God filled so much that she just kept on wanting more and more. And it truly showed where her heart lay.
So will you resolve to make it your goal to pursue Christian contentment through spending time with your God? In our fast stream world it is very difficult. But it is vital if we are to be men and women who truly hunger and thirst after righteousness. Because this last mark is actually the key to it all. For total contentment in God's presence leads to a total confidence in God's promises which in turn leads to total commitment to God's Saviour. "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness. For they will be filled."
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