Preached Jan. 1 at First Baptist Church (Belleville, IL)
“O Hearken Ye Who Would Believe.” It’s a wonderful song, isn’t it? It’s joyful and encouraging and reminds us what this Christmas season is all about. It’s a plea for those who have waited—perhaps a long time – for the promises of the Lord. The time is here! Come and see what you have waited for. It is FINALLY here. That seems to be a common theme in our passage today. The believers – the waiters – are called to believe again and follow.
Mary and Joseph are bringing Jesus to the temple to complete Mary’s purification and present Jesus to the Lord – in doing so, they are following the Law of Moses. After all Mary and Joseph have gone through to get to this point, it might seem obvious to point them out as “those who believe,” but I don’t think belief is a one-time decision. Mary and Joseph come to the temple to reaffirm that they trust the God who has given them this child.
So they come with two turtledoves or two young pigeons, which our text tells us is the sacrifice stated in the law. We don’t know much about the sacrificial system today – we’ve long since considered it outdated. But this mention would signal something to the original hearers and readers of the text. This offering of two birds was a sign that the couple was poor. Leviticus chapter 12 spells out the process of a woman after childbirth – a process that Mary and Joseph are following. After a certain number of days, the new mother is to bring a lamb to the priest as a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove as a sin offering. If the couple cannot afford a lamb, they are permitted to bring two pigeons or turtledoves – one as a burnt offering and one as a sin offering.
Mary and Joseph – the earthly parents of God’s son – are poor. Choosing to bring the sacrifice at all may have been a hardship. But they believe, so they come and give as the law requires. “God brought us this far,” they think “– surely God will continue to provide.”
And then we meet Simeon – a man who has waited for years to see the Messiah. The Holy Spirit had revealed that he would see the Christ before dying. So he has waited and hoped – and if he is anything like me, he has experienced plenty of times when he wondered if he understood right: was that really God? If so, wouldn’t this have happened by now? But Simeon kept hoping, kept listening – and he didn’t miss it. Finally, after decades of waiting, the Spirit guides him to the temple. And so he is there when Mary and Joseph walk in carrying Jesus.
It’s a little like a movie ending, isn’t it? We watch as our hero –now an old man — receives what he has waited for all of his life. In this one moment, the pieces finally all fall together. He goes on a walk after breakfast and decides to step inside the temple, just in time to witness what he’s been waiting for.
When Simeon sees Jesus, he takes the child and praises God, but does so in a rather strange way. He begins by saying “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace” – in other words, “I’m now ready to die.” David Lose, Director of the Center for Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary wonders why the writer of Luke includes this request in his telling of the story. “Why would he move from the beauty and light and joy of the nativity straight to Simeon’s morbid request for death? And why must we focus on that request, and therefore on death, just a week after our own celebrations of Christmas.”
But Simeon doesn’t end there – and I’m not entirely sure it gets better. Simeon blesses the child by describing rather divisive events: “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. While this child will bring life, a lot of people will die in the proess. And he is a sign to be opposed? That’s hardly an encouraging word for parents who are just at the beginning of their journey. Jesus isn’t sleeping through the night yet, and Simeon is telling Mom and Dad that their child will have a lot of enemies.
Deep down, this is something they probably knew. The angel who visited Mary a year earlier said that this child would be given the throne of David. The Israelite people had been waiting for a Messiah who would overthrow the Roman rule and reestablish a kingdom – David’s kingdom. While we know that a worldly empire was not Jesus’s purpose, this is what was assumed: God will send a Messiah who will free us from foreign oppression and reestablish our government.
We only have to watch the news to realize that overthrowing a government is a violent business. It was only a few months ago that the people of Libya forced Muammar el-Qaddafi out of power. The six-month struggle was one of militias and fighting. Our own country was founded in the overturn of a government which came as the result of the Revolutionary War.
If this boy, this baby, was to have a throne, it would be the result of a dangerous mission. And while Jesus might have been a different sort of Messiah than the people expected, he did turn the world upside-down — and his message did lead to violence against him and his followers.
Mary and Joseph, of course, knew this. But I’m guessing they did their best to think of other things. We all wish good things for our children, want them to avoid pain. My mother routinely asks me if I’m sure I’m called to ministry – not because she doubts my calling. I think she knew I was called to ministry even before I was. She asks if I’m sure because she knows that ministry can be hard and painful. While she wants me to live out God’s will, she also wants to keep me safe.
My guess is that Mary and Joseph were praying “Lord, let this cup pass from him — but your will be done,” long before Jesus ever did.
After words like those, it seems redundant for Simeon to tell Mary that a a sword will piece her own soul, too. Of course, it would. A mother cannot watch her son in pain without feeling it all.
And just when Mary and Joseph thought the evens of the day were over, Anna steps in. Anna is in her 80s and has been a widow for a long time, since her husband died only 7 years after they were married. In a culture where a woman cannot really live on her own, Anna just decided to move into the temple. Anna had been praying and fasting night and day for somewhere around 60 years. Have you known people who prayed a lot? The people you turn to when you need someone to pray for you? Compared to Anna, they are just casual pray-ers. That’s ALL she does. And because she prays constantly, she recognizes Jesus and begins spreading the news to all who will listen – all of those who, like her and Simeon, had been waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
He’s finally here! After all this time, all this waiting. The Messiah shows up as the month-and-a-half-old son of a poor, young couple. Surprise!
At Christmas, we do our best to be joyous. We decorate and we buy presents and we bake cookies and we anticipate time with family and friends. But as much as we like to hope that everything is perfect, it rarely is. Many families lost loved ones and experienced the holiday while grieving. Others, perhaps, were kept from family celebrations due to jobs or distance or even illness. Christmas is a time of joy – but we learn from Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, that the joy of Christmas comes in the midst of pain and struggle. God doesn’t come to us only in perfection, but breaks into our pain. The Christ – Emmanuel, God with Us – entered the world as the son of a poor couple who were struggling to get by. He is announced in the temple by an old man who is ready to die. An old man who told us that even in the joy of Jesus’ birth lurked the reminder of the difficulty he would face in life.
If this Christmas season has been hard for you — if joy has been hard to find, you are not alone. God does not only abide with the perfect, but enters our lives in the midst of our hurting. On the first Christmas, joy and sorrow were held in tension.
One of my favorite hymns is “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The third verse of that hymn is “See, from his head, his hands, his feet / sorrow and love flow mingled down / Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, / or thorns compose so rich a crown.”
Our God is present in both the joy and the sorrow. That’s the wonder – that’s the surprise of Christmas: God came to us – and continues to come to us — in the places where we least expect it. Are you listening?