Grace Presbyterian Church
December 27, 2020, Christmas 1B
Last week’s scriptures offered up a couple of examples, on that last Sunday of Advent, of two important figures – the king David and the priest Zechariah – who, in their own ways, failed to get it right when it came to waiting for the Lord. Their shortfalls – David trying to rush ahead into a thing God had not called him to do, Zechariah dismissing even the possibility of what God told him through Gabriel would happen – left only Mary, the young girl from the sticks in a more modern vernacular, as the example of waiting and being ready to respond with acceptance and affirmation to God’s wild and crazy plans for her.
Fortunately for those of us in the AARP crowd, today’s lesson from the gospel of Luke offers a pair of better examples of those who wait upon the Lord and are ready and able to do their part and play their role when their awaited appears, no matter how big a scene they cause.
The scene that plays out in this latter half of Luke 2, after all of the dramatic events of the Nativity, has the feel of a mid-credits or post-credits scene in some Hollywood blockbuster, particularly in superhero movies and other serialized films or television shows. The scene doesn’t necessarily alter the basic story, but it does suggest there might be new directions for the characters or new plot twists ahead, setting up the next movie or episode in the series. In this case, the words and actions of Simeon and Anna point towards, ultimately, the opposite end of Jesus’s earthly life, as well as much of what Jesus was to face over the course of his earthly ministry.
Mary and Joseph are doing what they are supposed to do according to Jewish law. It’s possible that Luke might be mixing up a couple of different rituals meant to be performed on a child, particularly a first-born son. Nonetheless, they are at the Temple to fulfill this law and custom, and frankly it should have been a fairly boring affair. It is worth noting that the offering that the parents brought to be sacrificed for the event, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” tells us something about the couple; that provision was in the law as an option for those who were not able to afford the preferred offering for the occasion, a young lamb. Jesus was not born into wealth, if we needed any reminder.
The first disruption of the routine came from Simeon, described as “a devout man” who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” We aren’t given a specific indication of how long he had been waiting for the fulfillment of this promise, with the Spirit “resting on him” as in verse 25,, but we are led to suppose it has been many years. The Spirit had prompted Simeon to come into the temple, and he didn’t wait upon seeing Joseph and Mary with the child Jesus. While today it would be a major incident if a stranger took a child right out of the arms of his mother, here Simeon doesn’t bolt and run with the baby; instead, he sings out an exclamation to God. You might recognize this text; it is commonly used at the conclusion of a Service of Witness to the Resurrection in PC(USA) churches and of memorial services in other denominations as well. You can see why. We have no idea what happens to Simeon after this moment, but it is not hard to imagine that if he died soon after this, he did so about as contentedly as possible. To be able to say, after all of the waiting, that “my eyes have seen your salvation” is a profound and overwhelming thing, and Simeon sings it out for all to hear and rejoice.
But Simeon doesn’t stop there. After his acclamation to God, he has things to say to the parents, and these words are a little less cheering. That first statement to Mary and Joseph catches the ear and eye with its seeming backwardness, doesn’t it? We tend to speak of the “rise and fall,” whether it be of the Roman Empire, the Third Reich, Civilizations or any number of other things. Here, though, Simeon invokes the reverse: “this child is destined to be the falling and rising of many in Israel…” and also “a sign that will be opposed so that the thoughts of many will be revealed.” At the minimum, Jesus was to be a turning point. His own earthly life would indeed play out as falling (in his execution at the hands of Rome) and his rising (in resurrection), and his ministry became more and more opposed over the course of his three years in public life. Most of his immediate followers would experience a similar trajectory as well. As if that weren’t enough, his final words to Mary leave no doubt that this life would know sorrow – “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Most likely Mary had no time to recover from those words before the second interruption arrived, in the form of a prophet named Anna. We are told that she was “of a great age,” and had lived many years beyond the death of her husband, and now waited and worshiped in the temple “night and day” (another reversal) awaiting … it isn’t exactly stated what. Simeon had barely spoken his last words before Anna took up her exclamation.
Their exclamations are presented differently. While both praise God, Simeon speaks to the parents (mostly Mary), while Anna begins to bear witness to all the others in the temple, and indeed to “all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” It’s a needful call and one that we future generations after Anna are encouraged to emulate. One might even be tempted to call Anna the first evangelist, even more than the women at the empty tomb.
This pattern reminds me of one of the elements of a pastor’s ordination. It’s been almost six years, so I don’t expect you to remember two of the climactic parts of an ordination service: the charge to the candidate and the charge to the congregation. One addresses the man or woman who is taking up not only a new job but a new vocation, indeed even a new life; the other speaks to the congregation about their opportunities and responsibilities in welcoming this new minister into their church. In this case Simeon addresses Jesus’s parents about what they are facing, and Anna is speaking to a congregation that doesn’t even know it’s a congregation, much less that they have any interest in this child being brought to the temple by these Galileans, one out of who knows how many children brought to the temple for this purpose in any given week. To be blunt, most passers-by probably wondered what this old woman was going on about.
The last verses give us only the tiniest of peeks into the childhood of Jesus. Luke will in the last portion of this chapter give us the only reliable story we have from Jesus’s pre-adult years, another story that takes place in the temple when Jesus is twelve. But for now we are left with the parents returning home with their child, minds and hearts overwhelmed by what they have heard from these two strangers, masters of the spiritual practice of waiting and being ready.
For the time of waiting, and for the Simeons and Annas who show us how, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #119, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; #148, Mary and Joseh Came to the Temple (sung to tune BUNESSAN); #134, Joy to the World