First Sunday in Christmas

First Sunday in Christmas

Luke 2:22-40

Jesus Is Presented in the Temple
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

The Return to Nazareth
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

So imagine with me for a moment, we are celebrating the sacrament of baptism for an infant from the congregation, the whole ceremony gets unceremoniously interrupted by a couple of senior citizens who tottered up to the font, grabbed the baby, and started babbling wild-sounding predictions for who this child would grow up to be. How wide would our eyes get if they pick up little Jimmy and said, “Excuse me for disrupting your sacrament here, folks, but I just gotta tell you that this little guy will grow up to be president. Some will love him, others will hate him, and you’ll spend most of your years as parents worrying yourselves sick about his safety. OK, now I’ve said my piece and you can go back to baptizing the little fellow.” I think we’d all be startled in the church today—and possibly maybe even a little annoyed. I mean, it definitely has a Monty Python feeling to it doesn’t it?

Mary and Joseph were in the Temple to fulfill a religious ritual every bit as familiar to them and the others in the Temple that day as an infant baptism is to many Christians today. And, as far as rituals went, Mary and Joseph’s version was less glitzy than some because the best they could offer up to God was the poor person’s offering of a couple pigeons Joseph had managed to nail with his slingshot the day before.

If it were a baptism in a contemporary church setting, Jesus would not have been the child dressed in an expensive silk baptism gown that grandma had bought for just this occasion even as the little tyke’s uncle filmed the whole thing from the front pew with one of those amazingly expensive digital recorders. 

No, this would have been a ceremony by a quiet set of humble-looking, poorly attired parents who, by all outward appearances, would disappear from the Temple—and from the consciousness of everyone in the Temple—about as quickly and quietly as they had appeared there in the first place. Mary and Joseph would not have arrived at the Temple in some shiny new Lexus but in their rusted-out Ford Pinto that belched exhaust every time you started the engine.

And yet . . . things did not go as planned. The Holy Spirit had gone ahead of this modest family and had planted two people in the Temple courts that very day—two people who had somehow been told by God for years that they’d live to see just such a day as this one when Christ, the consolation of Israel, would show up. Who knows what Simeon and Anna had expected to see. Maybe they envisioned a day when a shining Alexander the Great-like figure would ride up to the Temple on a white stallion and take the place by storm. Maybe they envisioned a day when someone with the sculpted good looks of King David of old would stride through the Temple courts even as angels sang overhead and people fell at his feet below.

Whatever they thought they would see, what they actually saw when the Holy Spirit gave them a quickening of the heart was far, far quieter than all that. 

  • They saw a baby. 
  • They saw a poor family. 
  • They saw a mother and father who—despite what we as readers of Luke know in terms of everything that had been revealed to them about the special nature of this child—were quite simply blown away by the testimony of Simeon and Anna as to what was to come.

Mary and Joseph were not the people one might expect to be parents of the world’s greatest teacher and leader. Still, they are welcomed by two longtime dwellers of the temple, Simeon and Anna, and they leave with great blessing upon them.

But doesn’t there feel like something is missing from this story. What happened to the big presents? After all, it’s CHRISTMAS! Simeon and Anna are prophets and they clearly recognize and speak over Jesus’ great destiny. There is much praising and witnessing and blessing, but not a lot of sparkly bows and wrapping. What we do have present in this passage is great satisfaction. An emotion more powerful than happiness or excitement; we see several journeys come to completion, we see tasks finished, and we see destiny fulfilled.

  • The satisfaction in this passage comes to Simeon when he is able to see the face of God in the face of a marginalized child. Simeon is able to pray with and be a blessing to God in human form, at a time when God is humble and in need of care. His life is made complete by being able to offer that service. 
  • The satisfaction comes to Anna when she realizes that the Jerusalem she loves will experience redemption. The community she had just about given up hope on, seeing it descend into chaos, will be restored. Her spirit is at peace. 
  • Mary and Joseph are satisfied by completing the actions their faith calls them too. Their following of the demands of faith is where peace lies.
  • All are satisfied in this event.

Simeon sings a strange song. After seeing the child that signifies that God has kept God’s long standing promise to Israel, Simeon gives thanks… and then asks to die. Or not so much asks, but is ready. Having seen the salvation God has prepared for Israel and all the world, there is nothing left to fear. What comes will come. 

When we listen to Simeon’s song with care and realize his request, it feels strange to us in part because we so fear limitation, vulnerability and, above all, death. But Simeon reminds us that in the birth of the Christ child, Emmanuel, we have the promise that God is always with us. Through the ministry of the one this child will become, we see the pattern of God’s intention to love and care for all people. And through his death and resurrection, we discover the lengths to which God will go to tell us we are loved and are reminded that even death is no match for the life and love of God. When we immerse ourselves in this good news we, like Simeon, find that death holds no fear and we are more than sufficient to the challenges of the day.

All of our passages are once again an invitation – an invite to a renewed conviction that God is at work through small gestures, that the light shines on in the darkness, and that God’s promise of salvation enables us to face all things – all these things are so much easier heard and believed in community. While we are used to that community happening through our in-person gatherings, it can also be fostered through a phone call, note, recorded or live-streamed service, and prayer. Things are not as we want, not as they should be, and so many are struggling with challenges and loss that is hard to imagine. Yet Jesus was born to grant us courage and faith sufficient to the day, and we will get through this.

This passage is assigned in 2020 for the Sunday after Christmas, and it is the final Sunday in a year that has been hard on churches and pastors. Division has been rife over the pandemic, mask-wearing, racial reckonings, a political election. We are glad to see this year go and enter 2021 with both trepidation and the sincere hope it is going to be way better eventually. We exit 2020 with a sigh and a moan. We are tired. We would love to see something spectacular but we don’t expect it.

And so maybe the quiet trappings of Luke 2 give us hope. Maybe the understated nature of this little story fits the moment. A magnificent Messianic spectacle it is not. But there is something about this scene’s humble trappings, something about the picture of these ancient-looking people bearing witness to something no one else could see, something about the fact that it was precisely two little old people like this whom the Holy Spirit would raise up to bear that witness (and not someone from the Temple elite or the Roman leadership): there is just something about all this that speaks volumes about the ways of God and the fundamentally surprising nature of the gospel.

And as 2020 mercifully draws to its conclusion, maybe it’s a reminder that God is with us and is speaking to us and is delivering us even when the skies don’t split apart and we see some magnificent moving of God. Sometimes God speaks loudest through the quietest of incidents. And in that there should be more than a little hope.