Normally, I preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, and had every intention of doing so this time. People don’t always expect guest speakers to follow the lectionary, but I find it a great discipline, one which forces me to look at the scripture rather than sticking to stories or themes with which I’m comfortable. When I went to look up the week’s passages on the web site, however, I looked at the wrong date — a special mid-week observance rather than what were supposed to be the Sunday passages. By the time I realized my mistake, I’d already started working on the sermon, and — with Rev. Nan Zoller’s permission — I went ahead with it.
Feb. 3, 2013
Luke 2:22-40 (CEB)
22When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (23It’s written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord.”) 24They offered a sacrifice in keeping with what’s stated in the Law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
25A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law. 28Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said,
29“Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, 30 because my eyes have seen your salvation. 31You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. 32It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”
33His father and mother were amazed by what was said about him. 34Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”
36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. 37She was now an eighty-four-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshiped God with fasting and prayer night and day. 38She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39When Mary and Joseph had completed everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to their hometown, Nazareth in Galilee. 40The child grew up and became strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him.
Our Bible passage begins with Joseph, Mary and Jesus heading to Jerusalem, a trip of about six miles from Bethlehem.
There’s a reference to ritual cleansing – and many Bible versions refer to “their” ritual cleansing. That pronoun is a little bit of an evasion. The first reason for the family to go to Jerusalem was specifically for Mary to be ritually cleansed. Under Jewish law, childbirth made a woman ritually unclean – for 40 days if the child was a boy, and 80 days if the child was a girl. (This was, of course, a very patriarchal society, a society where men had a lot more value than women.) During that time, women couldn’t participate in any religious ceremonies or services.
At the end of the 40 days, or 80 days, the woman could bring an offering to the temple and go through a ritual to become clean again. The official requirement was a lamb for a burnt offering plus a pigeon for a sin offering, but that was somewhat expensive, and so the law said that two pigeons could be given if a lamb was not available. The fact that they had to bring two pigeons shows us that Joseph and Mary were people of modest means.
The Bible passage also says that Jesus was presented to the Lord at this time. This is a ceremony that was supposed to take place 31 days after birth or soon after, so if you were coming in from out of town it made sense to do it at about the same time as the mother’s ritual cleansing. According to the laws of Moses, first-born sons belonged to God. But you were allowed to make an offering, redeeming your son from this duty – in effect, buying your son back from God.
So the family had traveled to Jerusalem for this business. Neither ceremony would have been out of the ordinary – babies were born all the time, of course, which meant that women would need to go through the ritual cleansing.
And every family that had a son had a first-born son.
But somehow, the two people whom we meet in today’s story realized that this particular first-born son was out of the ordinary. We don’t know exactly how they came to figure this out, other than by divine inspiration. There was no star to be followed, no angel choir in the sky, singing. Nothing to indicate that this child was different from any other child.
It’s amazing to look at a little baby and wonder what the future will hold. Every baby is full of promise and potential. I’ve been on foreign mission trips before, and I’ve seen tiny little babies born into the most dire poverty. I wonder and I worry what will happen to them.
On my very first foreign trip, to rural Nicaragua in 2003, we were having some youth activities with our host church in a big open field and it started to rain on us. We all scrambled for someplace safe and dry. There was a tiny little child, barely able to walk, and I didn’t see an adult or an older sibling anywhere near him. His mother was probably across the street, in the church, where there was a worship service going on for the adults.
I picked him up and carried him with me, and I sat with him in my arms on the front porch of a tiny little store that was located right next door to the church. He fell asleep in my arms, and I wondered what his life was going to be like. Perhaps he would be a victim of the dire poverty I saw around me. Or perhaps he would turn out to be a hero, or a leader who would play a part in moving Nicaragua into the future. There was no way to tell.
Eventually, an older sister or neighbor who knew the child took him from me, and I never did figure out who his mother was, or what his name was, and I didn’t see him again that trip. He’d be about 11 or 12 now. I wonder how he’s doing.
Anyway, a baby is a little ball of potential, good or bad. Even a baby born into the best situation can turn out to be an evil or damaged adult. Even a baby born into the worst situation can rise above it and become someone special.
The people of Jerusalem in that day and time weren’t thinking about a baby as their salvation. They weren’t looking for potential; they were looking for immediate relief, sure that God would not allow them to suffer under the rule of Rome for much longer.
In the classic movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Indiana Jones knows that his arch-rival archaeologist, Belloq, is looking, with the assistance of the Nazis, for a lost chamber called the Well of Souls. But then, Indy and his friend Sallah realize that Belloq and the Nazis have used a wrong measurement in looking for that well.
“They’re digging in the wrong place!” Sallah exclaims.
Many people in Judaea in Jesus’ day and time lived in hope and anticipation of a Messiah. But, like Belloq, they were looking for the Messiah in the wrong place. They were looking, and longing, for a conquering hero, a violent revolutionary who would throw off the shackles of the hated Roman oppressors.
That’s typical of a lot of us. When we face problems, we look for God to come in and work in dramatic and instantaneous ways. We want God to operate on our schedule and according to our imaginations.
But some people are focused enough to recognize God even when God shows up in quiet and unexpected ways – perhaps, as a little baby being brought to the temple for a ceremony.
Simeon, we are told, was righteous and devout. We know that he “eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel,” and that “the Holy Spirit rested on him.” In fact, the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would definitely live to see the Messiah. And we’re told that the Spirit led him to visit the temple that day.
It’s always a challenge to recognize when the spirit is leading us. It’s a challenge to recognize the real voice of God. There have been people who convinced themselves they were being led by God to do terrible things. Sometimes, we hear our own voice and convince ourselves it’s the voice of God.
But Simeon was righteous and devout, and he was close enough to the Spirit to recognize the true voice of God. That requires humility – the ability to put ourselves aside and look for something larger. It requires stillness – the will to set aside distractions and focus on what’s really important. And it requires that we know God well enough to recognize God’s voice.
John Wesley said that we come to know God through scripture, tradition, reason and experience. All four are important; together, they are sometimes referred to as the Wesleyan quadrilateral.
We learn about God through the Bible, through the traditions passed down to us by the church, through our own reason and common sense, and through what we observe and experience of the world around us. Each serves as a check and balance on the others. Our human error and folly can take any one of those pillars and follow it to the wrong place.
If we only had the Bible, we’d still have slaves and we might still be following some of the laws of Moses.
If we only had reason, we’d be like militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who believe the only reality is what can be observed, measured and reproduced.
If we only had experience, we’d be led astray by any charlatan who could make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.
If we only had church tradition, we’d slip into empty rituals and recitations, without really thinking about what they mean.
But by combining scripture, tradition, reason and experience, we can find our way to a true understanding of who God is, and we can better learn to recognize God’s leading. Sometimes, we recognize that leading as it happens; sometimes, we only recognize it in hindsight.
Simeon knew God well enough to recognize the voice of the Spirit in his own life. That voice told him that the Messiah was going to arrive during his lifetime. And that voice put him in the right place, at the right time, to see that Messiah. Most important of all, that voice enabled Simeon to recognize the Messiah when there was nothing external to set the baby Jesus aside from any other child in the temple.
Simeon saw the baby and took him into his arms, praising God. He wasn’t afraid to talk about what the spirit had shown him.
“My eyes have seen your salvation,” said Simeon, speaking to God. Simeon recognized that God had prepared this moment not only to glorify the chosen people of Israel but also as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Simeon knew that Jesus’ ministry wouldn’t be a simple one of leading a military revolution, but something deeper. Simeon said the Messiah would be “the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel” and that he would be “a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”
Jesus’ revolution would be a revolution of the heart. Yes, it would change the world, much more dramatically and permanently than a military revolution could do, but it would change the world from the inside – by transforming hearts rather than by moving troops or national borders.
This prophetic word was all the more remarkable when we recognize that Simeon is saying it over a baby.
Simeon said he could die happy now, with his long life, and his lifelong dream, having been fulfilled.
But he knew that the baby’s young mother had decades ahead of her, and that her life would include heartbreak. He told Mary that it would be as if a sword had pierced her.
I had no idea, and still don’t, what would happen to the little boy whom I held on that porch in Nicaragua. But Simeon was blessed with a prophetic word, a word that was both exciting and troubling. Just as when the angel came to tell Mary about her pregnancy, Mary must have pondered these things in her heart, not quite sure what to make of them.
Simeon wasn’t the only prophet who recognized the baby in the temple courts and was excited to see him. Anna was an old woman, a widow. In Jesus’ time, widows and orphans were among the poorest and most unfortunate people, because they had no economic recourse. They had to rely completely on the charity of others.
Anna, after the death of her husband, had simply moved to the temple, and spent all her time there, presumably relying on others for food and drink.
Now, the temple was made up of different areas, or courts, which were referred to based on who was allowed to enter them. The outermost court was called the Court of the Gentiles because even Gentiles, people who weren’t Jewish, could go there. That didn’t mean that everyone in the Court of the Gentiles was a Gentile. It only meant that the Court of the Gentiles was as far as a Gentile could enter the temple.
The next court was called the Court of the Women, and that’s as far as women could go. Anna could not go into the Court of the Men. There were also areas that were restricted only to the Levites and the priests.
Anna was 84. Her husband had died after only seven years of marriage, so she had been a widow for many, many years. The passage says she “never left the temple area but worshiped God with fasting and prayer night and day.”
What a remarkable thing to say about someone! Anna did not feel sorry for herself in her situation, but managed to find joy even in her loneliness and poverty and powerlessness. That’s an incredible testimony to her relationship with God.
Anna approaches “at that very moment” – presumably meaning just as Simeon was making his pronouncement – and she, too, recognizes the baby as someone out of the ordinary.
Anna saw Jesus, but it didn’t stop there. Anna began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to “everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” She’s excited and she wants to share the news.
Presumably, she didn’t get many takers. If the majority of people had believed her, had believed that this little baby was the one true Messiah, they might not have allowed Mary and Joseph to return to Nazareth. If the majority of people had believed her, they might have wanted to protect the child or shower him with gifts. So it’s safe to assume that most people didn’t pay much attention to Anna. But that didn’t stop her. She had something on her heart which she had to share.
Now, I’ll be the first to say that it’s possible to be ham-handed, and even offensive, in the way we share the Gospel. There have been people who have shared the Gospel in ways that were more about disdain and self-righteousness than about love. There have been people that have tried to share the Gospel in clumsy ways, without trying to understand their audience. The Bible calls on us to be “as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.” We have to find creative ways to reach out to people without compromising the underlying message.
My pastor in Shelbyville talked last weekend about having been to Warmth in Winter, the United Methodist youth gathering in Murfreesboro. He noted that some of the music that was performed, and the way the teens reacted to it, was beyond his own experience or understanding of how one is supposed to behave in worship. But he also knew that it’s important, if you’re trying to reach a new generation, to do it in a new way.
But the problem with most of us isn’t that we’re sharing the Gospel in the wrong way. The much more common problem is that we aren’t sharing the Gospel at all. I am awful about sharing my faith with others one-on-one, and I think there are a lot of others in the same boat.
That’s a tragedy for the people who don’t hear the message, and it’s also an indictment of us for our lukewarm faith. Nothing about Anna was lukewarm. She saw the Messiah, and she had to stop and tell everyone she met about the Messiah.
Author Derek Penwell wrote about a new generation, and its indifference to religion, on the Huffington Post web site. He referred to them as the “nones,” N-O-N-E-S, because they would check “none” for their religious preference. Here’s what Penwell wrote: “Think about this for a minute, though: What if part of the reason the ‘Nones’ are so underwhelmed by organized religion isn’t because they don’t find Jesus interesting, but because it appears to them that Christians don’t find him sufficiently interesting enough to take seriously?” If people believe that we are lukewarm about our faith, they won’t be very excited about it either.
Simeon and Anna were prophets, with whom God shared a remarkable secret. But they didn’t just receive that news; they shared it.
Do we have a close enough relationship with God to hear God’s voice and get a glimpse of the Messiah? And when God shares the good news with us, are we excited enough about that privilege to want to share it with others?
God has sent us a Messiah, and God continues to send us help and redemption every day. But we must recognize it, and we must respond with gratitude, and the kind of infectious joy that Anna showed that day in the temple.