Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 28, 2008

2008.12.28 “An Image for a New Year”

 “An Image for a New Year”

Luke 2: 22 – 40

December 28th, 2008

“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus 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.

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.” – Luke 2: 22 – 40

Welcome to church on one of the most pivotal — some might even say disorienting — Sundays of the year.  This Sunday, the 1st Sunday after Christmas and the last Sunday of the calendar year, can be confusing in many ways.  Consider:

Depending upon the calendar, it can either be Christmas Day or closer to New Year’s, so we’re either thinking about how tired we are, or already beyond Christmas thinking about a new year.

On this Sunday, most of us are slightly dazed and confused. We’ve not slept enough, and likely eaten too much. After being up late Christmas Eve, my whole family passed out early on the evening of Christmas Day. I was jarred from sleep on Friday morning by the sound of a back-up alarm on a garbage truck, which reminded me that ours was overflowing and I had forgotten to put it out.  Life goes on.

And the weather?  Talk about extremes?  If we went by that, none of us would know where we are?

Typically, this is what we call a “low” Sunday, hopefully not descriptive of how we feel, but of typical attendance. I don’t think it’s a gauge of spiritual energy as much as people coming and going with the holidays.

It’s a time when we in the church remain out of sync with culture. During Advent, a time of watching and waiting, we’re holding off Christmas, while, out in the world, Christmas goes full blast. Now, until Epiphany, January 6th, we remain in Christmas mode, while for the culture, Christmas ended about noon on Thursday. That’s OK, it gives us a chance to catch up on Christmas carols in church.

So pivotal and disorienting is this Sunday, I have proposed to no one in particular that we ought to make it a Special Sunday, which we shall call Recuperation and Re-orientation Sunday, a Sunday to recover, catch our breath, look around, and see where we are.

The Gospel for this morning, helps us do that. On the church’s calendar, this is “Holy Family” Sunday, the day we get out the family photo album and review snapshots of Jesus, precious few that they are. This year, we linger in the Temple watching old Simeon and Anna hold the baby Jesus, and hear of a wonderful but also foreboding future.  The story provides us not only with a wonderful image, but also useful insights into our own lives, as we begin a new year.

        There are times in life, such as this time in the year, where the high and holy celebrations are over, and the next best thing to do is to do what needs to be done. 

        That’s what Joseph and Mary do, in the Gospel According to Luke.  Luke’s version is — for his own theological and evangelistic purposes — different than Matthew’s. The birth is over, the visit of the shepherds is past, there is no mysterious visit by visiting wise men, no murderous threats from Herod, no furtive flight into Egypt.  Instead, in demonstration that Jesus was in every way a Jewish child of the Law, on the eighth day after his birth, Joseph and Mary head to Jerusalem to present the child at the temple according to the Law of Moses. What the law actually prescribed, on such an occasion, was the sacrifice of a lamb. Due to their modest means, Joseph and Mary couldn’t afford a lamb, and go with the “optional” offering: “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 

        At this time of year, what needs to be done is different for each of us.  Often this takes the form of “New Year Resolutions”. Things like “Lose twenty pounds”, “Read more books, watch less TV”, “Clean out the garage,” “Visit with friends”, “Spend less and save more, etc.”

        But almost always, what really needs to be done is not something “exterior” to us, but “interior”, having to do with our spiritual life. For Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, what needed to be done was to be true to their tradition, which meant taking Jesus to Jerusalem for dedication.

        Someone once pointed out that Jesus was faithful to his tradition, even though in some ways it was a dead tradition.  After all, they were supposed to be waiting for the Messiah, but since Jesus was the Messiah, when he did come, they didn’t recognize him, and, in fact, rejected him. So if he was the Messiah, did he really need to fulfill all of that stuff?  Luke makes it clear that he did.

        Its times of the year like this that we remember that in the religious life, there are highs and lows.  There are the great feast days and celebrations, like Christmas and Easter, but more of the time, as we call it, is ordinary time, when the task is to religiously keep on putting one foot in front of the other.  So, I thank you for coming to church on a “low” Sunday.” That’s why, as your Pastor, I see no one Sunday as a “blowout”, but more like a steady diet, where week by week, we come to get picked up, dusted off, get fed, and sent back out.

It’s the same in our spiritual lives.  There are times in the spiritual life where prayers and devotions are alive and illuminating, even revelatory.  But there are also times — maybe even more of the time — where you say your prayers without being certain they’re heard, where you read your Bible without anything leaping off the page, where you attend worship even when you don’t feel like it, and not much appears to be happening.   It is not ritual for the sake of ritual, it is ritual for the sake of discipline. Fact is, it’s not important whether anything happens, whether any mountaintop experiences occur, any visions of light and illumination; what’s most important is that we do it. Because more of the time is ordinary time than special time, if you can’t keep going through ordinary time, it’s not going to be long before you won’t even be around for the special times.  Like Joseph and Mary and Jesus, there are times where the best thing and the right thing to do is to do what “has” to be done.

        As if to remind us that we are in this for the “long haul”, Luke then introduces us to the elderly and saintly Simeon and Anna.  Not only do they remind us of the importance of doing what has to be done, they remind us of the tradition of the “elders”, and teach us the importance of nurturing and rejoicing in whatever degree of promise we see, whenever, wherever, and however we see it.

        What’s interesting to me is that I have seen “Simeon and Annas” not only in congregations, but in temples and cathedrals all over the world. It’s easy to spot them: you go there, and there they are, praying, lighting candles, doing something that needs to be done.  If you go back the next day, you’ll see them then, too. Like Simeon and Anna, they are often older, and their faith has come to be their hope, and there they are, day after day.  We have our Simeon’s and Anna’s in this congregation: the faithful who keep the place going; thank God for them.

        When a young couple walks in with a baby, that gets their attention, just as it would, ours. You remember how last Sunday when baby Samuel played baby Jesus, how at the end, I couldn’t resist picking him up and holding him? (And you would have too, if you’d been close enough?) Well, that’s the way I picture Simeon and Anna, holding the Christ Child with a beaming smile, or perhaps tears running down their cheeks.

This is one of the things I love about the church, when it’s healthy: it’s intergenerational.  And I choose that word carefully.  Not multi-generational, meaning that all generations are present; but intergenerational, meaning all generations are active and involved, in worship, in learning, and in leadership. 

You of the older generations: one of the very best things you can do not only for the life of the church, but for the younger generations, is to befriend, encourage and nurture them.  You of the younger generations: one of the very best gifts of church is to befriend the older generations, that you might learn from their experience and wisdom. Not just to view each other across the generational divide in stereotypical terms, or pass like ships in the night, people who happen to worship at the same church.  How about this for a New Year’s resolution?

        For Simeon and Anna, it’s more than just a baby.  It’s a special child, in whom they see special promise. Promise, unfortunately, not only for blessing, but also for suffering. Not only for the Child, but for Joseph and Mary; indeed, for all who associate with him.  “This child is meant for the rising and fall of many, and a sword will pierce your own soul.” 

        Lauren Winner, writing about this text in the Christian Century, says:

“Remember the cross at Christmas?  Aren’t we supposed to think about the cross on Good Friday, and the manger, homely and sweet, today?  Actually, remembering the cross is part of the adult version of Christmas.  Let’s face it: Christmas is a time of great happiness, but it is also, for many of us, a time of great struggle. At Christmastime, some of us count up all the people we loved who have died, and we yearn for them.  Some of us feel hideously lonely, and our loneliness seems all the more glaring because it’s out of sync with the script of seasonal happiness we think we’re supposed to be following.  We are not alone in this suffering.”  (December 16, 2008, “Living by The Word,” The Christian Century.)

Perhaps what’s most significant about this story is not just that old Simeon and Anna see and hold not a baby, even a special baby, but that they hold in their arms the fulfillment of the promise for which they have been waiting.  And so Simeon, like Mary earlier, break into that song known in Latin as the “Nunc Dimittis”, often seen on the front of funeral bulletins: 

        ““Lord, now let your your servant depart 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.”

        It’s like saying, “OK, Lord, I’m ready to go, now you can take me.”  What would it take for us to be able to say that?

Writing on this passage a few years ago in the Christian Century, in an article entitled, “Holding Promise,” Lutheran Pastor John Stendahl wrote:

“But what has he seen, really? It’s just a little child in his arms, a powerless, speechless newcomer to the world. Whatever salvation this baby might work is still only a promise and a hope; whatever teaching he might offer will remain hidden for many years. Nothing has happened yet. Herod still sits on his throne and Caesar governs from afar. The world looks as it did before.

But Simeon stands there in grateful wonder. It is the future he holds in his hands. He has seen and touched it. He is satisfied. It is, as he said, enough . . . .” (December 4, 2002, “Living by The Word,” The Christian Century.)

Really, Simeon and Anna not so much people who belong to Gospel’s prehistory, as they are people like us, people who have seen something, but not its full unfolding, as any reading of the newspaper or watching of the news makes obvious.  We have our Scriptures. We have the Bread and the Cup. We have our moments, or memories of moments, when God is close. And we have these, though for the most part the world retains its accustomed form and, in the light of day, seems largely unsaved and unchanged.  Like Simeon and Anna, we may never see its realization.

        It’s like those of us who are parents, who have children briefly entrusted to our arms for blessing, and who will, we hope, live on after us, as mature and independent individuals. We pray that their lives will be marked by wisdom and courage and that they will make the world better. As we get older, life becomes increasingly more about them and less about us.  We may not be around to see the fulfillment, but we have seen the promise, and that is enough. 

        Really, it’s one of the hardest things we have to do, whether in church or in life: realize when our time is passing, and be able to let go and hand it over to a new and younger generation.

        For example, just before Barack Obama’s election and inauguration, we lost some elders, who I dearly wished could have lived to see it. Studs Turkel, author, historian, free spirit, who embodied Chicago. Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who died two days before he was elected.  Just three weeks, the famous folk singer and civil rights activist, Odetta, who had hoped to sing at Obama’s inauguration. 

        It is sad, but that’s the way life is. Someday, perhaps just as a dazzling new promise arrives on the horizon, it will be our time to exit. We of the older generations must be graceful enough to recognize when the time has come to let go, and, then, diligent to impart all the wisdom and experience we have can, hand it over and let it go. It’s not life; it’s also a part of our faith.

There is an often quoted and celebrated book of poems by Ann Weems, entitled, “Kneeling in Bethlehem.”   In it, she says:

It is not over, this birthing.

There are always newer skies

into which God can throw stars.

When we begin to think

that we can predict the Advent of God,

that we can box the Christ in a stable in Bethlehem,

that’s just the time that God will be born

in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.

Those who wait for God

watch with their hearts and not their eyes,

listening, always listening for angel words.

By the time we meet again, it will be 2009.  If you want an image for a New Year, here it is:  an old man and an old woman holding a little baby.  It is enough.


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