Good morning, Friends!
Today’s Scripture reading is one most people aren’t too familiar with. The stories we’ve been listening to for the past month – the stories about the shepherds and angels, all the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the journey of the wise men – we know those pretty well. But today’s story takes us onto some unfamiliar ground.
First things first: Mary and Joseph were pious Jews. They were not Christians! It may be a little surprising to hear the parents of Jesus described that way, but they were devout, pious Jews. They believed in and they followed the Jewish law, the law of Moses.
So when their first child was born, they followed the Bible commandments to the letter. Their new son was circumcised, and given a Hebrew name, and taken to the Temple in Jerusalem, to be presented at the altar.
The idea back then was that the first of anything – your first crops, the first of your cattle, and your first child, especially if it was a son – first things were considered to belong to God.
Remember the story of Abraham offering his son Isaac, all the way back in Genesis? Same thing. So when Jesus was born, his parents took him to the Temple, to offer him back to God.
Of course, no Jews really sacrificed their children. The Law allowed them to make a substitute gift instead. The priest took the substitute gift, and handed you your kid back. But it symbolized everybody’s understanding that children are a gift from God, and so you always give something back.
Joseph and Mary weren’t wealthy enough to present the offering for prosperous people, which would have been a lamb. They could only afford the offering for poor people, which was a pair of doves. If you’re interested in Christmas trivia, in the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, that’s where the verse about “two turtle doves” comes from.
So Mary and Joseph go up to the Temple, intending to fulfill the commandments for first-time parents. And then they expected to go on home. That’s where today’s story starts.
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”, and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
Moved by the Spirit, Simeon went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
Coming up to them at that very moment, Anna gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
– Luke 2:21-40
These two people, Simeon and Anna, are otherwise unknown to us. They’re not famous. We only meet them this one time, and we never see them again.
But Simeon and Anna greeted the baby Jesus as if they had been waiting to see him all their lives. It must have really surprised Mary and Joseph. They probably thought they were all done with extraordinary events and could get down to some serious parenting.
And all of a sudden, down the steps come these two old geezers, holding their hands in the air and praising God, and prophesying, and rejoicing, and doing all this biblical stuff.
It would really scare you!
First Simeon comes along. He’s an old man, and it says that the Holy Spirit had told Simeon, that before he died, he would see the Messiah. Simeon lived with that promise, day in and day out.
At the start of each new year, Simeon would say to himself, “Maybe this year is when it will finally happen! My people have been waiting, for so many years now. Seems like forever. People tell me that God has forgotten us. It’ll never happen. The Lord will never come. But I know that I, personally, will be around when it happens. I will know the moment, when it comes. I will witness it. . .”
One of the other ways it describes Simeon is that it says, “He was looking forward to the consolation of Israel. . .”
That’s a very interesting phrase. He wasn’t looking backward, which is so easy for all of us to do as we get older. He was looking forward to a new day. He was looking beyond the temporary ups and downs. He was looking beyond the daily realities that faced him and his people.
He was looking forward to the consolation of Israel.
Isn’t that a strange and mysterious way to talk about the coming of Christ? “The consolation of Israel. . .”
It reminds me of the times when Jesus talked about the Holy Spirit as the Comforter. That’s one of the Holy Spirit’s other names, you know?
Here in Simeon’s prophecy, Christ is the Consoler. He’s the one who would heal the wounds of an entire nation. All the pain, all the brokenness, all the injustice and wrong and oppression. Not just the present, but all of the the accumulated pain and injustice and wrongdoing of the past – all this, Simeon was praying for. He looked forward to the day when all these things would be consoled and healed and made whole again.
And when Simeon saw the baby Jesus – who probably looked just like every other baby who came into the world – somehow, Simeon knew that the moment had come. And he lifted Jesus gently out of Mary’s arms, and he said, “Lord, you can take me home now. I’ve finally seen it, what you promised. A light for the people who didn’t know you, and glory for your people of Israel. . .”
Mary and Joseph were some kind of surprised. They just stood there, while this crazy old man blessed them and blessed their baby.
And then Simeon beckoned to Mary, and he said, “Pssst! You know – this little boy of yours has a destiny. Because of him, many people who are high up in Israel are going to be humbled. And many people who are humble in Israel, and going to be exalted. You know, some go up – and some go down?”
“And he is going to be a sign. He’s going to do signs, and he’s going to be a sign. He’s going to hang in there, like a great, big sign, that nobody is going to be able to miss.”
“And a lot of people are going to oppose him. And what is really going on, in people’s thoughts and in their hearts, is going to be revealed, because of him. Oh, yes, and Mary – when all this happens, a sword will pierce through your own heart, also. . .”
And then he handed the baby Jesus back to Mary.
While Mary was still recovering from the shock of what this old guy Simeon said, up comes another crazy old person named Anna. Anna is described as a prophet, which puts her into a very small class of women in the Bible who ever received that title. It puts her into the same category with famous women like Sarah, and Deborah, and Esther.
Anna was very old. Instead of spending her days watching soap operas and game shows, she spent her time praying. She lived right there at the Temple, and she only ate the simplest food, and she prayed, night and day.
And just like Simeon, she began to praise God as soon as she saw the baby Jesus. And just like Simeon, it uses a very mysterious and evocative phrase to describe her message. It says that Anna “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. . .”
What does that mean?
Those two phrases, “the consolation of Israel” and “the redemption of Jerusalem,” are really powerful.
To me, they stand for the healing of all the wounds of an entire people. And they stand for the restoration and for the healing of human society, of community.
All of the things which God’s people had to live with — the memory of their defeats, the lost hopes, the broken dreams, the exile, the occupation by invading armies, the injustice, the discrimination, the loss of homes, the tearing apart of families – all that is spoken to by the phrase, “the consolation of Israel”.
And the reality of day-to-day life in human society – the grasping, the cheating, the striving, all of the compromises, the people without homes, people without work, people who have no place to go and nothing to look forward to – all this, and so much more, is spoken to by the phrase, “the redemption of Jerusalem”.
What God is in the business of doing – always! – is consoling and redeeming, healing and restoring, making peace in the deepest and truest and most effective sense of the word. God is in the business of re-creating the world. God is saving the world, in the midst of all of its sin and brokenness and violence.
Anna and Simeon are, in a very real sense, the first Christians. Because they recognized that God was doing all this now, in the present moment.
And they identified the great work that God was doing, in a tiny little baby, held in the arms of two scared, young parents.
That’s the story. Now I’d like to see if we can apply it just a little bit.
Most of the time, we don’t think that things can change very much. We just reckon that the world “is what it is.” We put up with whatever we have to. We don’t expect God to do much of anything.
We convince ourselves that we don’t have the resources to make things different. We don’t have the people. We don’t have the education. We don’t have the energy.
We see ourselves and the people around us as being limited. We can’t break old habits. We can’t overcome our failures. We don’t have the right gifts. We might have addictions or physical or spiritual problems, or problems with our families. We just don’t think things can change or be different.
Today’s story is about looking forward, beyond the reality of the world that we live in. What would it be like, not to give up our history, not to forget the pain of our past, but to be healed and to be consoled in it?
What would it be like, to live, day to day, in the joyful hope and in the expectation that God will do this – and that we will see it?
What would it mean for us to know all about the violence and the ignorance, to know the warfare and the injustice, to know the full measure of the terror and the hopelessness that so many people in our world live with day to day – but also to be praying for all this to be redeemed?
What would it be like for us to pray, night and day, for all wrongs to be made right, for society to be set straight, for all people to be set free?
- How many of you are praying passionately, with all your heart, for things to change?
How many of you are praying, “Lord, please help my family! Please help us to get along! Please help my children, Lord! I want them to have a bright future! I want them to have hope! I want them to have opportunity! I want my children to have all of the faith of generations before them!”
- How many of you are praying, “Lord, I want this community and this nation to be so much better! I don’t know all the steps, Lord, but I want there to be peace in full measure for everyone! I want our leaders to be looking out for everyone. I want truth and justice in our whole society! I want your light to be in people’s hearts and minds, Lord! I want your peace to fill our broken communities!”
- How many of you are praying like that, night and day, like Simeon and Anna? How many of you hope and believe that things can change and get better?
It’s hard to believe in positive change right now. People are so set in their ways against each other. The gap between rich and poor is incredible. The political bitterness is being actively fed, every day, by people who profit from division.
It’s hard to believe that even God could make a difference, or that we could play any part in any of these things.
The take-home message in today’s Scripture is never to stop praying. The good news is that Christ is real, and that we can recognize the Savior in the smallest and least powerful person among us.
Take that home and think about it. Pray about it. God can find a way where we don’t see a way. God is near us, actively helping us. When we pray, God is praying, too. When we don’t know how to pray, the Holy Spirit prays for us, with sighs and groans and loving reassurance too deep for words.
Never stop praying. Never give up hope. Never lose your faith and trust in God.
That is the good news. God is very near us. If what you’re doing isn’t working or isn’t right, then turn back. Ask God for help. The time for doing better is always now.
And if it’s hard for you to believe all this, just think about how hard it was for Mary and Joseph – those two scared young parents. They didn’t know what was happening. But they listened, and they went home, and their son grew and was strong and became filled with God’s wisdom. That’s what it says.
And who did he become? You tell me.