Homily for First Sunday after Christmas
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Dear
brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, you know, I read an article
some three or so years ago, because the headline was just far-too attention-grabbing
not to read it, as they tend to be these days in our culture of clickbait. In any case, this
article has really stuck with me ever since. I don’t read too many articles, or pay much
attention to any modern media whatsoever, or, to be honest, to the news at all, for that
matter—and my life is immeasurably the better for it—but anyways, this one article, I
did take the time to read it and really remember it. So there was at that time a hot new
statistic out that suggested that Americans were the least happy they had been in over
fifty years. American happiness levels—whatever that means—had hit a record low.
The statisticians had proved it, right? And obviously, that caught my attention. I don’t
so much recall the headline verbatim, but it was something pithy along the lines of:
Americans now least happy and contented in over half a century. Something like that.
Now that article was published, I believe, back in early 2020. And I’m sure
y’all remember what else happened as 2020 went on – who could forget? – and what
else has happened from that point to the present as well. Suffice to say, I can’t
imagine we have yet rebounded from that supposed record low nearly four years ago.
I haven’t seen any newer statistics—I haven’t really looked either—but my guess is
we have continued to plummet when it comes to general nation-wide contentedness.
And I suspect that that nosedive into cheerlessness as a country has been a decades-
long affair; the research seems to suggest as much.
For example, according to another statistic I saw recently, the happiest year in
American history was actually 1957. Again, I have no clue how they gauge these
things, but evidently the beginning of Eisenhower’s second term, for whatever reason,
was a year for the history books. Maybe some of you were lucky enough to have been
around back then and can recall the good old days. Personally though, I have always
thought that the nostalgia for the 1950s was precisely that: overblown, exaggerated,
rose-colored nostalgia, a pining for a time that never truly existed, a longing for what
shows like Happy Days and Leave it to Beaver and movies like Grease represented
but might not have accurately portrayed in full. But clearly, there was something to
the 1950s, particularly 1957 apparently. And whatever that something was, it made
Americans happier and more fulfilled at that time; and regrettably, according to the
experts, whatever it was, we have clearly since lost it.
Of course, there is plenty of speculation about why Americans used to be
happier than they currently are. And those speculations are spread all across the
spectrum. Whatever your preconceived notions are, you can sure find a statistic to
back them up, that’s always an option. However, one speculation I ran across struck
me as especially believable. And that is this: some say that Americans were happier in
the 1950s because they more or less had a better handle on their expectations for life,
and most importantly, they were just better at prioritizing the things that really do
matter in life. In other words, Americans in the 50s were more content because they
realized that the happy life is usually a simple one, centered around family and friends
and one’s community, and yes, the church as well. To be fair, they could afford such a
simple life back when single-income families were a possibility. But I digress.
At any rate, I can believe that speculation. That specific theory strikes me as
reasonable enough. Because if there is one thing that is true about Americans today, it
is that there is no longer any limit to our unreasonable expectations for life and neither
is there a limit to our insatiable desire for distraction, for the very things that get in the
way of the simple life – of a life grounded in family, friends, faith and fellowship. We
have all the creature comforts in the world at our disposal. We are supposedly more
connected by technology than ever before, and even more than we ever could have
imagined in the science fiction of the 1950s. And yet, we are nevertheless seemingly
miserable. We are overindulged to the point of depression. In the sixty-six years that
have passed since 1957 our contentment levels have declined consistently, and as of
late, precipitously, even despite the undeniable fact that advancements in science and
technology and medicine and scholarship have been exponential. It is almost as if the
more we have, the more we have access to, the more we think we know, and the more
we have to look forward to—such as the new smart phone, the next season of our
favorite show, or whatever else—it is almost as if the more we have of all this, the
less happy we actually are. And frankly, dear faithful, that all sounds about right to
But what’s your point, pastor? What are you getting at with all this gloomy and
upsetting news about the unfortunate state of the union and the collective crash of our
dopamine and serotonin levels as a country? Well, friends, I mention all this today for
Firstly, because it is New Year’s Eve, that time of year where we are all looking
forward to a better tomorrow and are optimistically anticipating a brighter future; the
annual occasion for resolutions, renewal, and recommitments, and yes, for re-
prioritizations. So it seems like a good time to mention how much we’ve failed in that
department over the last half-century, according to those in the know, anyhow. But
also, I bring this up because of our Gospel reading this morning.
In the lesson read, we heard the story of our Lord’s circumcision on the eighth
day and then His presentation in the Temple in Jerusalem some weeks later in
fulfillment of the public rite of consecration to God and redemption of the first-born
son, a common thing for a Jewish family to do back in the first century. And in this
lesson, we hear some very familiar verses, the so-called Song of Simeon, or the Nunc
Dimittis, as it is entitled from the Latin in our liturgy, which we sing each Sunday
after our celebration of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. And what a song of pure
contentment. What an ideal song to hear today of all days, on New Year’s Eve, on the
cusp of tomorrow and the future, and in light of all the heavy news I just laid on you.
Because Simeon, he understood contentment. And Simeon, he was a man who had all
his priorities and expectations in proper order.
Admittedly though, as we are told in our reading, Simeon did have a little bit of
help in the whole sorting out of priority and expectation thing. St. Luke informs us
that Simeon, a righteous and devout man in his own right, did have the Holy Spirit
upon him – and that the Spirit had even revealed to Simeon at some point that he
would not taste death before witnessing salvation with his own two eyes.
Not surprisingly, such a holy message stirred Simeon’s heart and so he then went on
to the Temple to follow up on the Spirit’s promise, where thankfully and somewhat
serendipitously he one day found Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus. And there in the
Temple that day, Simeon, this elderly man, after so many years still eager for the
consolation of Israel, as St. Luke writes, Simeon took up salvation in his own arms;
when the child was presented in the Temple by His parents, the holy infant was rested
against the bosom of this presumable stranger, a kindly old righteous man named
Now St. Luke doesn’t mention this next part, but I cannot help but think that
Simeon’s eyes that day were filled with tears of sheer joy. I picture this grandfatherly
man embracing the little child, tears running down his life-worn and fully-bearded
face. And this inspirited man, according to Luke’s account, then gloriously sang with
the little God in his arms: “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; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of
thy people Israel.” As Simeon knew and acknowledged in song, the child he held in
his aged arms was not merely the consolation of the chosen Israel, but He was
moreover the redeemer of all mankind. The world’s deliverance, creation’s fortunate
fate, he held tight to his own chest. Simeon realized exactly Whom he was laying his
tired eyes upon. This child was God. And Simeon delighted in that magnificent
realization. The Holy Spirit’s promise for him was wholly fulfilled.
Of course, we Lutherans sing this song so often that perhaps we forget its
original context and its truest meaning. When we chant the Nunc Dimittis together at
the close of our service, those beginning words about “departing in peace,” we
probably take them to be a reference to how we Christians are now getting ready at
the end of our worship to leave this church and are going out into the world for the
coming week. We are departing here in peace, with Christ in our bodies and souls,
taking Him out yonder to be a light unto the world through our holy lives. “Let us now
depart from this church building in peace.” That’s the thought, I assume. That’s the
image in mind when most sing this hymn. And that is in part correct.
However, that is not exactly what Simeon meant by his original words. On the
contrary, Simeon very much meant that he was then, having beheld and even held the
Lord in his own arms, that he was then literally ready to die. He was saying that he
was ready to depart from this earthly life. The Holy Spirit had told him, this venerable
old man, that he would behold salvation before his death. Simeon clung to that
promise and hung around the Temple and indeed eventually beheld that very
salvation, and cherished Him in his arms. That’s all Simeon needed. That’s all he
expected, anticipated, or wanted. He was contented. And so, he was ready to leave
this world behind. He had seen what he was promised to see, what needed to see – he
witnessed what he had so hoped for: the consolation of God’s people in the form of
that small child. So Simeon was saying: “I’m ready to go now, God. Let Your servant
depart in peace – not only from this temple but from this earth, from this vale of tears.
I have seen Your salvation, so if You are ready to take me home, then I am ready to
be there.” And that, friends, is legitimate contentment. That is what it sounds like.
That is genuine happiness.
We have all likely had those moments in our lives, those tremendous moments
when we felt so happy, so contented, so perfect and at peace, that if life were to have
ended right then and there, it would have been okay. Those moments where
everything is altogether fine, even the reality of the end. And if you ask me, that is
true happiness: when you can let go of all the things you so desperately cling to –
when for a moment, you can place every last thing in God’s hands where it belongs,
because you are utterly satisfied in spirit, to the point of even accepting your own
inevitable death. A moment of peace that transcends the fear of death itself, that
drowns it out – that’s authentic peace. And that’s the kind of peaceful moment
Simeon experienced long ago. And the song he then sang remains a lesson for us now:
it a lesson about from whence true happiness and contentment come. And that is from
God. These come from God. Happiness, satisfaction, peace, contentment, fulfilment.
The things of the world will never ever bring us these. Science, technology, modern
medicine – these may extend our lives, they may make our lives easier and more
comfortable—and thanks be to God for it—but they don’t make our lives any better
on the deepest level. They can’t. Only God fills that hole in the depth of our soul.
Jesus Christ alone brings that kind of lasting fulfilment and imperishable joy.
So why are Americans less happy today? Well, because they have forgotten the
priorities they once had. We work far too much, we are on our phones way too much,
we are distracted too easily and entirely too much.
We ignore our families, we have become disconnected from our friends, we are
isolated and we so often don’t even have the guts to admit it to ourselves. But more
than anything else, in the past half-century or so, we as Americans have abandoned
God and His holy church. People were happier in 1957 because they went to church
week after week. That is the plain and simple and unavoidable truth. All the
psychotropic drugs and designer clothes and TikTok reels and sexualized media and
sums of money in the world will never get us any closer to contentment as a nation
than we once were when we put the church first and foremost in our lives. Period.
To be sure though, most of the supposed experts when it comes to these
statistics would never entertain that controversial reality – they would never consider
it as a possibility. It isn’t politically expedient to do so anymore. It isn’t fashionable in
our secularized society. However, we all know it’s true. This country has forsaken the
wisdom of St. Simeon. Which is why we are no longer content. And which is why we
have become a people so paralyzingly afraid of the topic of death, for instance. We
are thanatophobic, to use the technical term: we have a phobia of death, of even
speaking about it. We don’t want to die. We are so quick to avoid the issue even, it
unsettles us on such a primitive level. And that is because we are so painfully
unfulfilled and lacking in peace. We have lost all hope, because we have lost all touch
with the source of our consolation – we as Americans have removed Christ the Lord,
our peace incarnate, from our world of priorities. We’ve relegated Him in our culture
to an optional and extracurricular status.
And yeah, I get it: without Christ, death is terrifying. Without Him, the end is
petrifying. And so long as death terrifies and petrifies, a person will never be truly
content or happy for very long. It’s simply not possible.
But for all of us here, still in the church, for us Americans still trying our best
to prioritize our Lord, we don’t share that same fear. Or at least, we shouldn’t. St. Paul
says: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, then we are of all men the most
pitiable.” And yet that is not our sole hope, he declares, because Christ has indeed
risen from the dead and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
The last enemy to be defeated is death, and our Lord overcame that adversary on the
cross centuries ago. Death has no more sting, the grave, no victory. So we Christians
are allowed to be content. We’re privileged and permitted to be free of the fear of
death and meaninglessness. Take us now, Lord, or let us live for a little while longer.
Either way, we are pleased and fulfilled in You alone. Heavenly Father, you can let us
now depart in peace, or you can enable us serve You in this world for a bit more.
Either way, we live or we die in peace. Because we have Christ.
We have the consolation of His salvation. We have nothing to worry about.
Death has been put to death – it has been swallowed up in victory, as the Scripture
says. Whether here on earth or there in heaven, we are already made whole, we are
already made happy. We have Christ’s church. We have the priority of His Word and
His means of grace. We have everything we need to lead a happy and peaceful life
here in time or there in eternity. If only we cling to these things above all else.
If only we remember what the Nunc Dimittis, what Simeon’s Song really means. If
only we trust Simeon’s wisdom when it comes to priority. If only we let go of all the
petty and useless distractions and diversions, deflections and digressions of this sad,
sad culture of ours. If only…
It is New Year’s Eve, brothers and sisters. So make your resolutions. Look
forward to a better year. Entertain decently high expectations for your life – be an
optimist, by all means. We can at least hope, all of us, that inflation lessens in the
coming year, right? There is nothing wrong with looking forward to a better, easier
life down the pike. But just know that little material things won’t really make you
happy. Having an easier life, having more money, being in better shape, resting more,
lowering your cholesterol, quitting smoking, taking time to travel, reading the
classics, all those usual cliche resolutions: they are great and may well extend your
life and are no doubt healthy things to desire. Having said that though, none of those
achievements will make you truly happy in the end.
But concentrating on your family will. Focusing on your family will bring you
more fulfillment. The folks in 1957 understood that. Therefore, get off your phone and
try spending more time with the people you love, you know, those people who, after
all, make life worth living in the first place. But even above all that, the only thing that
will bring you permanent meaning and persistent contentment and happiness in life,
and in death, is your Lord, Jesus Christ.
And graciously, for your sake, He comes to you even this morning, this last day of
2023, to forgive you once more and refresh you for the next year of your earthly life,
and to fulfill you, to make you contented, to satisfy and gratify, nourish and
strengthen you for the new year – for whatever comes next – for whatever the tide
So receive your God in body and blood this morning with a right and worthy
heart. Prioritize this Sacrament, and this congregation here, and make a resolution
tonight to be here more frequently, to help out more regularly, to give more
generously and open-handedly in the next year. But most consequentially of all, when
you sing the Nunc Dimittis here shortly after the Eucharist, for the final time in 2023
– when you sing it, sing it like you mean it. Sing it like Simeon once sang it. Having
received your God as an infant child this Christmas season and soon having been
filled and satiated with the flesh of that same God, Christ incarnate, in the Holy
Supper, as you depart this place, sing to your God with thanksgiving and total trust –
singing like this: “If it should be your will, dear Lord, let Your servant now depart in
Your peace. For I have beheld Your salvation. I have held my own redemption in my
hands, He rested on my tongue and now rests in my body, in my heart and soul unto
life everlasting. And I am content. And I am happy. So all praise be to Your name
forever and ever.” Sing your thanksgiving and your song of trust like you mean it –
like Simeon once meant it. Be ready to depart in peace, dear flock. If, for now, only
just from this calendar year, be good and ready to depart it in the peace of Christ. In
the most holy name of our consolation, our precious salvation Himself, in the name of