A sermon by Bob Smith
When I was growing up I never went to church more than a dozen times, and when I did it was to an Anglican Evensong service. The liturgy, much of which I now find quite beautiful and uplifting, I used to find intensely boring – except for one short passage known as the Nunc Dimittis: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people; to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.’
Even as a boy I found those words deeply moving and still do. They come from Luke’s account of how Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem and there met two elderly people who had waited all their lives to see what they saw that day. And the way they responded to it speaks deeply to the hearts of all of us as we reflect on the significance of our own senior years
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The first of the two elderly people was named Simeon, and it was he, who when he saw the baby Jesus, realised that his life was now complete, and uttered those wonderful words which has become one of the great hymns of the Church the Nunc Dimittis. He was one of those people in Israel known as ‘the Quiet in the Land.’ They shared the common belief that one day Israel’s destiny, as God’s chosen people, would be fulfilled in the world, but did not believe it would come about by violence or by the rising of a great military and political leader. They believed in a life of constant prayer and quiet watchfulness, waiting for God to fulfil his great purpose.
At some time during his life Simeon had received a revelation from the Holy Spirit that he would not die until with his own eyes he would see the Messiah. And there, in the Temple courts, having waited patiently for many years, he lived his greatest moment; in the baby Jesus he saw God’s anointed.
And then Mary and Joseph met an old woman named Anna. She was a prophetess, and like Simeon was also one of ‘the Quiet in the Land.’ Anna’s life had been touched by sadness. Her husband had died a mere seven years after her marriage and she had been a widow for about sixty years. But she hadn’t retreated into bitterness. She’d found a new life, one that found its meaning in the inner life of the spirit and was characterised by unquenchable hope and nurtured by prayer.
She too, when she saw the baby Jesus, knew that her life journey was now complete; she had seen with her own eyes the Saviour of the world, and she proclaimed this to all who would listen.
In these two old people we see what our senior years can be. Sadly, in modern Australia, apart from rare occasions like Anzac Day, the elderly are not accorded the sort of honour and respect that they would receive in other cultures. Our society has become so focused on the cult of youth that it has forgotten that great Biblical adage, that ‘Grey hair is a crown of splendour.’
It is all too common, even in the Church, to write off our senior members as useless and irrelevant, just at the time when in God’s view of life they may be receiving their deepest insights and living their greatest moments; not in physical achievement but in spiritual discernment. Thus it was for Simeon and Anna.
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Contrary to what many people think, our senior years can be the golden age of life –but only if we learn to make the transition well. The Christian psychiatrist Paul Tournier talks about this in his book The Seasons of Life. ‘True happiness,’ he says, ‘Is always linked with deep, inner harmony. It therefore always implies an acceptance of one’s age; the acceptance of no longer being a child when one has reached the age of adulthood, and the giving up of the goals of active life when one is advanced in years. This is the age of retirement, which for some men can be a meaningful experience, while for others it is a cruel trial.’
In Simeon and Anna we see how God’s purposes for our lives do not finish at sixty-five. They go on until our course has finished and, like Simeon, we can say, ‘Lord, now let your servant depart in peace…I’m ready to go.’ For now we have an understanding of life and eternity hidden from younger people, who, if they are wise, will want to learn it from us.
God doesn’t intend for us to retire from our spiritual journey of discovery. The Bible says we can ‘still bring forth fruit in old age.’ Even as Jesus kept the ‘best wine’ for the last at the wedding in Cana, so He seeks to gather the best of the fruit of the Spirit from the fully ripened harvest of our lives.
It was the poet Robert Browning who gave us that wonderful line: ‘the best is yet to be.’ Our God always has something more for us to do, and it may well be that despite our feeling that our powers are diminishing, despite our sense that we are a little tired and run down, God may yet have our best years and our best work ahead of us. But if we fail to see this, and think of our lives as reaching a peak somewhere in the middle years and then declining, we have missed God’s intention.
Henry Durbanville felt that way. In his book The Best Is Yet To Be he wrote, ‘I feel so sorry for folks who don’t like to grow old…I revel in my years. They enrich me…I would not exchange…the abiding rest of soul, the measure of wisdom I have gained from the sweet and bitter and perplexing experiences of life; nor the confirmed faith I now have in the…love of God, for all the bright and uncertain hopes and tumultuous joys of youth.’
And Robertson McQuilkin summed it up well when he wrote, ‘God planned the strength and beauty of youth to be physical. But the strength and beauty of age is spiritual. We gradually lose the strength and beauty that is temporary so that we’ll be sure to concentrate on the strength and beauty that is forever.’
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Simeon and Anna were among those in Israel who were known as ‘the Quiet in the Land;’ two elderly saints of God who believed that the best was yet to come and lived their lives waiting for it. For them, the supreme moment of their lives came right at the very end when they saw the promised Messiah. Everything else in their lives paled into insignificance in comparison. Now, they were ready to move on to that greater life compared with which this life is a mere shadow.
They were like the Apostle Paul, who said, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who long for his appearing.’
If you are struggling with a sense that life has now passed you by, remember that the Bible teaches us that life is not a destination but a journey; one that doesn’t end at physical death but goes on into Eternity; and you’ve hardly started.Remember too that there are phases on this journey; the conditions constantly change and the way we face them changes too. In the first twenty years we learn how to sail. In the second twenty years we face the challenge and the exhilaration of the freshening breezes. In the third twenty years we often find ourselves sailing smoothly in a well found vessel with a steady wind across our beam. But in the fourth twenty years we may find ourselves becalmed, seemingly going no-where, while our vessel gradually disintegrates. It’s all part of the journey.
But Billy Graham, reflecting on the process of growing old, pointed out that: ‘When Coca-Cola changed its one-hundred-year-old formula there was a public backlash and demands for the original, so within two short months the company was forced to return the beverage to grocery shelves under the name of Coca-Cola Classic. The conclusion was that the formula had stood the test of time. The trade-secret had trumped the new recipe, as proven by the millions of fans who did not want the “real thing” tampered with.
‘What does this have to do with growing old?Old is authentic. Old is genuine. Old is valuable. Some say old is even beautiful …. The older generation may have a hard time keeping up with the younger, but let’s remember that as long as we are still breathing, we are leading the way. The generations that follow are learning about growing old from us. The lessons we have learned from our successes and failures can help those following behind…and can mean the difference between leaving good memories in our place or simply being out of sight, out of mind.’
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For the people of God the closing years of life, though marked by physical deterioration and the feeling that we no longer belong, can still be the golden age. God gives us the whole of life to live and intends that we should live the whole of life; but that we should do so in a manner that is appropriate to each phase. Our senior years are difficult because they are the years of transition from a life of work to an eternal life whose glory is beyond our powers of understanding. Simeon and Anna remind us that these are the years when our greatest goal should be to grow in faith, hope and love – the only three things that we’ll take with us into the life to come.
The Book of Proverbs says: ‘Grey hair is a crown of splendour.’ And Isaiah wrote: ‘Even to your old age and grey hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you.’ So that like Simeon we can also say: ‘Lord, now let me depart in peace.’ I’m ready to go when you are.