My dear friend Anna is starting her career as a pastor in Raleigh. Although we were friends in college, it seems we’ve become better friends the past few years over the internet. We have gchatted our hopes, fears,and confusions over race, gender, the gospel, relationships…She’s a dear and loyal friend who cares for me well and directs me to thought-provoking articles, books, and ideas. Hear (or “here,”) her words about how to carry Christmas with us all year long.
[Preached January 1, 2012. Raleigh, NC.]
Today, on this first Sunday after Christmas, we’ve reached the end of the dramatic first two chapters of Luke’s gospel where we’ve been making our liturgical home now for a couple of weeks. We’ve walked through the story of Jesus’ birth, gathering around the manger with the likes of wisemen and shepherds to catch a glimpse of the infant Savior. And though many of us are a little holiday-weary and probably ready to move on from Christmas and into the stories of Jesus’ ministry, our gospel writer won’t let us move on quite yet. Signaling in his own way that the story has really only just begun, Luke gives us one more opportunity to gather around the Christ-child in adoration, only this time there’s no barn. Listen now for the word of the Lord as it comes to us from Luke, chapter 2, verses 22 through 40.
22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”),24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25Now 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. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided 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, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
34Then 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 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36There 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, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At 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. 39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” Here ends our reading. Thanks be to God.
It had been a long, hot summer. Almost unbearably hot. It was that kind of summer when the heat hangs around you like Spanish moss hangs off of trees in Charleston, so thick you almost feel like you could get tangled in it, and when you can never seem to slake your thirst. The weatherman, much to my offense, had been as cheerful as ever as he had chirped over our car radio that we’d almost certainly hit 107 degrees by mid-afternoon. Our air conditioner had quit, so we had cracked the windows open. When we got there, the five of us drowsily peeled ourselves out of the car and rolled in like we always did, Len wiping the Jersey grime off of her glasses and Ted begrudgingly putting on a tie at the last minute. Once those among us who relied on caffeine as much as prayers to get through that summer had iced coffees in our hands, we poured ourselves into the tiny chaplain’s office to receive our lists for the day, and then we scattered to our various domains. I always started the same way – down the hall and to the left, through the Pediatric ER, then back again down the hall and into the elevator to make it to rounds in the ICU and then down the hall to another of my assigned areas, if the morning allowed for it.
On that particular morning, the elevator was slow in coming, and so when it finally did arrive, it filled quickly and to the brim with families and medical professionals. Once we were all inside and someone had punched those little light-up buttons for all of us, we heard a voice calling out. “Hold the elevator?!” So someone stuck their arm out against the automatic door, and as it recoiled, a vortex of a man with tousled hair and a crumpled plaid shirt bounded into the elevator with us. His tan satchel, strapped diagonally across his chest, was stuffed to the gills. In his right hand, he was carrying two Jacuzzi-sized coffees, and somehow, a bag of bagels. And in his left, an empty infant carseat.
Against all hospital elevator-riding etiquette, we made eye contact. And then he glanced down at my badge and I smiled at the carseat. “It’s a girl,” he said. “What wonderful news,” I offered in response. “When was she born?” “Very early yesterday morning,” he twinkled back at me, balancing the coffees against the wall now. “We’re taking her home today.” And then the words he had just spoken visibly dawned on him like the personal headline they truly were. “Wow,” he said. “We’re really doing this, chaplain. She’s actually here. All this waiting, and all this planning and anticipation, and she’s here.” He paused reflectively, and then with equal measure of joy and terror he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I can’t believe she’s ours. What are we supposed to do next?”
Perhaps it is the question that is on our minds in these days after Christmas, as we’ve hauled our trees to the curb and swept up the tinsel and the glitter they’ve left in their wake on the living room floor. Now what? And it had to have been on Joseph’s mind, and Mary’s, too, so many years ago. Now what? Now that the pageantry of Christmas had passed and day had dawned on his ramshackle birthplace, obscuring the twinkle of the brilliant Christmas star, and the singing of the angelic hosts was no longer ringing throughout the skies, now that those three foreign dignitaries – those wisemen – now that they have paid him homage and left their gold and their frankincense and their mhyrr in a sparkling pile at the foot of the manger to return to their homes by another way, now that the shepherds had taken to the fields again to reunite with their flocks, now that the manger had been returned to its ordinary use and the animals had quieted their braying adoration of the Christ-child, now, when the Angel Gabriel was nowhere in sight, when it was just the three of them – Mary, and Joseph, and the infant Jesus, and the signs of Christmas had all but disappeared, you have to believe that the exhausted holy family must have looked at each other and said, now what?
Gabriel hadn’t really given them much instruction about parenthood beyond what they were to name the child. And so, relying on the sturdy traditions of their faith to guide them, Mary and Joseph did what most pious, law-observing couples would have done in their day. They went to the Jerusalem temple to perform the ritual acts called for in the law of Moses after the birth of a child. They brought two small birds for sacrifice, in order to mark their son’s birth with a sign of their willing obedience to God as parents. And the child was named and circumcised – that is, marked as a precious member of God’s covenant community as so many had been before him. And Mary, who would have been ritually unclean after giving birth to her son, went to the temple to be purified as was called for in the law, so that she might rejoin the normal rhythms of worship and community and life with God along with her family. In other words, Mary and Joseph, after being swept up into months of miraculous disruption, went about the more ordinary business of faith.
But what they quickly came to find out, like my friend in the hospital elevator on that hot summer morning, was that the birth of their child had radically transformed the ordinary as they had known it. There would be no getting back to normal. Because of this child, theirs would be an altogether new normal. What Mary and Joseph learned that day in the temple was that the miracle of Christ’s birth wasn’t over. It was just beginning, and his new life brought with it hope and a future, not just for them, but for the whole of creation.
At least this was the message on the lips of the two excited strangers that met them in the temple. Can’t you just see it now? We’ve all been around when a new baby makes his or her social debut. Babies have an innocent, but strong power to command the attention and focus of almost any room. But rarely are they scooped up and claimed by strangers as their own, a sign of God’s favor specifically for them. But this is precisely what Simeon does when Mary and Joseph set foot inside that temple with Jesus in tow. Now, though Luke doesn’t explicitly call him one, we can be sure that Simeon was a prophet – you know, one of those people who have the gift of seeing God at work in the world, and helping others to see it, too. Simeon was a prophet who took one look at the face of the infant Jesus and saw the very face of God, right there with him, in the flesh. Immanuel. After a lifetime of waiting. After a lifetime of longing for the consolation of his people. And so scooping up the infant Lord from his mother’s arms, Simeon begins to sing loud praises to God. “Master,” he sings, “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 the glory to your people Israel.” And soon enough Simeon is joined by another prophet, the elderly widow Anna, who had known grief first-hand and who had spent her life hoping and longing to see the redemption of Israel. And these two elderly prophets, who while the drama of Christmas was unfolding around that manger in that far away place were in their own ordinary corners of the world waiting and hoping for the good news of great joy to reach them, together they begin to sing of God’s promised peace.
And, according to verse 33, Mary and Joseph were “amazed at what was being said about” their child.
Simeon and Anna. Two strangers. Two witnesses, who embody the hope of a whole people who had come before them, who sing about the trustworthy promises of God. Two prophets, whose words remind us a lot of those familiar words from the prophet Isaiah we hear during the season of Advent, words of comfort and hope originally addressed to a nation in exile. Isaiah writes to the exiles, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?…Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:28-31). Isaiah writes, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:19) And we hear Simeon echoing the theme, “Master, my eyes have seen your salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory to your people Israel. He’s really here. I can’t believe he’s ours.”
And that is, indeed, what he is. He is here, and he is ours. A light for revelation to the Gentiles, a light that the darkness cannot overcome. That was our Christmas proclamation a week ago: He is here! A light shining in the darkness. The revelation of God’s grace. Not in some twinkly, fictional dream world. But in this one, our very real world. Mary and Joseph’s world. Simeon and Anna’s world. Our world. The same world that the apostle Paul says “has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves…[who] groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23). Simeon and Anna proclaim that Christ has come to them, and if to them, then to us, too, and that, my friends, is the good news of Christmas that simply cannot be contained by December 25th, but is strong enough to carry us into a new year with hope.
By including the story of Simeon and Anna’s encounter with the Christ-child in the first two chapters of his gospel, it is almost as if Luke is taking his readers by the shoulders and begging us to open our eyes to this good news in our own time and place. “God is doing a new thing – do you not perceive it? God is a God who keeps promises, who remembers those who are longing for a vision of peace, who are searching for the possibility of a life that is stronger than death. God is a God who draws near to those in need of restoration, a God whose presence means that hope is ours, for grace has been born into this world, and when grace is loose in the world, things get shaken up. The proud fall and the lowly are lifted up. And the likes of Simeon and Anna, and you, and I, are all included in the story. And Luke asks us, “Do you not yet perceive it?” This is the mysterious proclamation of our faith – what happened then is happening now, in us. It is new, and it is old, and it is a mystery, but it is sturdy, trustworthy one.
So what now? It is the first day of 2012, a year that follows on the heels of one that in so many different ways revealed to us the radical fragility of hope. And I won’t stand up here and presume to say what this year will bring, but I do know one thing. We go into it holding the Christ-child, a vision of a world to come already here, beginning. And that makes all the difference. Amen.