Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may dismiss your servant in peace! (Luke 2:29). These were the first words uttered by Simeon upon seeing the child Jesus. Recognizing the child as the Messiah that Simeon was promised to see before he was to die, Simeon breaks forth into a hymn. It is the third of three hymns that Luke uses in his Nativity narrative. We have seen Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46ff) and Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1:68ff). The shortest and the least-known of the hymns is this one by Simeon, known in the first words of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate as Nunc Dimittis (‘Now, dismiss me’). There are good thoughts here for a year-end reflection.
This is the only place where the character of Simeon is mentioned. He is introduced as righteous and devout. He received a revelation that he will see the Messiah (every pious Jew’s hope), before his life ends. He must have waited for the day with eagerness. Until one day in the Temple, amidst the daily ceremonies of dedication and circumcision of children, his eyes see Joseph and Mary and the child they have brought for dedication. Instantly, Simeon recognizes Him to be the long-promised Messiah. He carries the child in his arms and sings his hymn. This is the first in the inspired record of a verbal reaction to the Messiah in-person. Simeon’s song intones with a sense of mission accomplished. And he has a sense of peace as he addresses the Lord: you may now dismiss your servant in peace!
For a year-end reflection, the passage is rich with meaning and implication. We too have a mission to accomplish because of the coming of the Son of God.
A Mission Covering All Sinners
Simeon’s song brings together two groups of peoples that rarely combine with positive note – Israel and Gentiles. And even more rarely, Simeon mentions the Gentiles first: revelation to the Gentiles… and for the glory of your people, Israel. In Simeon’s mind, what makes this child in his arms unique is that the plan of God from eternity has come on earth, and it now covers the whole of humanity.
The coming of Christ makes the mission global. It is now for the whole world. Christian mission is for all humanity.
It has always been so in the plan of God. Even in the calling of Abraham, God made clear to Abraham, In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed (Geb 12:3). But over generations, the Israelites petrified this living hope into an exclusivism that translated into contempt for other nations – the Gentiles. Now the birth of Jesus would refresh the original plan of God. It is His intention to reach the whole of humanity through the Saviour, the Lord Jesus. Simeon calls this baby Salvation. That early, he establishes the basic truth that salvation is not an institution, not a set of works to accomplish. Salvation is in the Person of the Messiah – Jesus, the Son of God.
But this salvation is now offered to all humanity. Unfortunately, there are still groups of believers today who think that Israel (the Middle East nation) holds a special place in the plan of God that is above all other nations. We must reject that, and refresh the original intention that Israel was the means by which God will reach out to the nations of the world.
That challenges believers to look at their mission as part of God’s worldwide plan for His kingdom. No one will reach the whole of humanity. But each individual servant of Christ – by serving the kingdom in his piece of humanity (even a mother to her child) – will contribute to the worldwide coverage of the mission of Christ. This demands of believers a kingdom outlook – that which sees life in the light of the rule of Christ. Christ rules by virtue of His death and resurrection. Every believer must sense his mission to extend that rule whatever place of the world is allotted to him. That is when we are doing our mission. That is when we can have a sense of mission accomplished, and be able to say when done, Nunc Dimittis, dismiss your servant in peace.
Will our dismissal from the year 2021 be one of peace, God’s shalom, because we have done our mission for this year?
A Message Demanding a Response
In his address to Mary, Simeon prophesies: This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many. Some commentators see fall and rising as covering the same identity – people who will come to Jesus, and will first experience the fall in conviction before the rise of conversion. That is possible. But it is better to see this song as extending the contrast sustained in the first two other hymns of Mary’s Magnificat and Zechariah’s Benedictus.
What it does tell us is that Jesus remains a message that divides humanity based on response to Him. We stand against division of humanity based on racial identity or social status. But Jesus Himself asserts that there is an inevitable division based on response to Him and the gospel message. Peter divides humanity as honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe; etc. (1 Peter 2:7). Simeon describes the Child as One for a sign to be opposed. This is a word that Luke uses in Acts for contradicting the message (cf. Acts 13:45). Jesus remains the fall (of those who will oppose the message) and the rising (those who will believe in Him as Lord and Savior) of many. On which side are you as you conclude this year?
A Master Deciding the Discharge
This brings us back to Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis. It means ‘dismiss now.’ The original Greek has the sense of leaving the presence of another. The immediate application is dying and being discharged from our life on earth.
For someone like Simeon, the thought of dismissal from life is one that gives peace. That is because of his sense of mission accomplished. He acknowledges that the sovereign decision belongs to the Lord. He uses a different term for Lord than the usual. His word can be literally translated despot. To call someone’s rule as despotic is extremely negative in current usage. But that is not the sense in Simeon’s calling of his Lord. It simply acknowledges that it is the Lord to sovereignly decide.
That dismissal may be from this life. Like a soldier, it is possible to be discharged honorably or dishonorably. We could think of some who had been dismissed rather dishonorably from this life in 2021. One cannot think of the name Ravi Zacarias, without squirming at the mess his death had left behind. But others had given their mission a luster of honor when their dismissal came.
But let us not think yet of the dismissal of death from this life. Just think of the year that we are now to be dismissed from. Would it be honorable or dishonorable?
The Lord Jesus has come at birth; and by His death and resurrection, He is now ruling. His servants have mission to accomplish in their service. At the end of this year, can we say with Simeon, confident in shalom, Nunc Dimittis?