V4 – Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas – January 1, 2012

I hope this is my final draft. Well, I mean, is it ever really final?

Luke 2:22-40

Jesus Is Presented in the Temple

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him 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 turtle-doves 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 for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped 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.

The Return to Nazareth

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 favour of God was upon him.

The Story of Simeon and Anna

Let’s play a little word association. Let’s take a word, and see what comes to mind. How about “waiting”? What does “waiting” make us think about? Maybe sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting for an appointment, and time stretches… on… and… on… Maybe waiting to renew our license at the BMV, and it’s like they just called number 3, but we’re number 99. Sometimes waiting is all about something inevitable – not something we dream about, but we don’t really have a choice in it.

How about waiting on for fresh bread baking in the oven, or for apple pie with lots of cinnamon? We probably like that much better. It’s still a kind of waiting, but you’re hopeful about what’s coming. Many children know this kind of waiting at Christmas. It’s almost impossible to sleep with all those surprises waiting under the tree. But will we get what we wished for?

Now, how about waiting for a phone call when the kids or spouse head off on a trip and get to where they’re going? Seems like they should be there by now…. We wait for acceptance letters. We take job interviews. We watch elections. We have bloodwork done. Time drags on and we get tense, because we wish so hard for what we think will fix everything, fix our lives, and fix everyone around us. There’s a little bit of dread in this kind of waiting. What if we don’t get our wish?

Waiting can be hopeful, or it can be dreadful, but either way it’s unavoidable. What makes the difference? And it makes all the difference, doesn’t it?

Today’s Gospel is a story of waiting. Simeon and Anna have been waiting. We don’t know a lot about them, aside from their waiting. What was it like for them? Let’s imagine ourselves in this story. We’re Palestinian Jews. It helps to think about Jewish identity – exodus, captivity, exile, and rebuilding. This becomes our story. We’re living under Roman rule, but with a Jewish leader exercising control in the name of Rome. Herod. Except, he’s not even a full-blooded Jew. How insulting is that? And his family is brutal – so brutal that Rome replaces one of the sons with a Roman governor (someone very familiar – Pontius Pilate). These are rough times for us.

So now, we’ve got Simeon, a righteous man living in Jerusalem. He’s very good at following the Laws of Moses – that’s what righteous meant. We also have something else – the Holy Spirit resting on him, revealing to him that he would not die until he sees the Messiah. In the middle of our despair, we have this captivating promise that we just know waits for us, that will answer everything. But, we wait and wait. We will not die until we see it – who knows when that will be? It’s safe to say that Simeon has been waiting for a long time, and surely with some fear. Who? Where? Will we know it when we see it?

We also have Anna. Somehow it’s easy to miss her story. Anna is a prophet of great age. If we think about all the prophets, one thing that’s always the same is that they’re captivated by promises – fantastic visions of things to come. For scripture to call her a prophet, she must have experienced some captivating promises that she waited on. And, Anna has been a widow for a very long time. So, for her, it’s not just her story of being a Jew, but also her story of loss. She has been waiting on her own for so very long. Scripture tells us that she never left the temple, but worshiped there day and night, with fasting and prayer. This is so hard to conceive. How do we relate to it at all? What would drive someone to that kind of intense worship?

We really have a lot in common with both Simeon and Anna. In our toughest waiting, we know how it can feel for our wishes to sit in front of us, taunting us. Will this waiting go on forever? But good things happen to good people, right? So we try to be the nicest, best person we can be, and maybe score some karma points. Simeon was good at keeping rules, and his prayers were answered – it seems pretty straightforward. Maybe we go to church more, pray more, help out more. That will make God happy, right? Anna totally threw herself into her worship, and she saw the Messiah come at last – again, seems very straightforward. And we might just get through this trial of waiting, more or less in-tact, and feel gladder than anything. But then, there’s the next time, and the next time. Now, we could just lower our expectations, and skip the drama. But, that’s pretty hard to do, and what does that really leave us with, in the end? Lowering our expectations becomes a lifetime challenge that we just can’t seem to master, because those nagging wishes keep poking through.

Where do these wishes come from? What do they mean? A clue comes by way of Henri Nouwen, a well-known priest and writer. In The Spirituality of Waiting, he writes that waiting is open-ended, and hard for us because we tend to wait for something very concrete. We set our minds to what we think will answer our hopes, our wishes. Like a way of controlling our future. And so, our wishes tend to be connected with fears. Fear of the unknown, fear of danger, fear for our own survival, or fear for those we love. It seems like we’re stuck in an endless cycle between waiting for our wishes to come true, and getting through it all. And something about us is revealed in this process.  We fear our lack of control over the future. We try all kinds of ways to deal with it, but it doesn’t really make things any better. We fear that God has abandoned us. We find it hard to trust God, when our best efforts seem to fail us. And this seems to keep happening. Ultimately, our recurring, deep-seated fears show us that deep down, we are unable to trust God.

But, today’s Gospel shows us God’s answer to our lack of trust. Behold, Christ Jesus, presented to the world! Suddenly, unexpectedly, it’s the day, time, and place. But something seems a little off. We’re expecting Messiah, but receive a baby? How could Messiah be a baby? He’s not a king like David, or a high priest like Melchizedek. How did Simeon and Anna recognize that God answered their waiting? Think about Joseph and Mary, who were amazed at all of this. They don’t know what to make of it. Are Simeon and Anna just plain crazy? God had been faithful, in a totally unexpected and unforeseen way, and somehow Simeon and Anna knew it. And this baby would give his life on a cross, and be resurrected, to fufill the very law that Simeon has struggled to uphold his entire life. Jesus is like the unraveling of everything Simeon stands for. How could he possibly proclaim that his prayers had been answered?

It was all by their faith. By faith, Simeon and Anna have endured their long waiting. Through eyes shaped by faith, they recognized our Messiah. Simeon, with the Holy Spirit resting on him. Anna the prophet, filled with compelling visions. Their faith causes them to see what no one else sees. Simeon’s faith leads him to proclaim “my eyes have seen your salvation.” Salvation is a big word, but Simeon unpacks it for us. Salvation is the hope that God keeps his promises. Salvation is the knowledge of God’s faithfulness beyond anything we can imagine. Salvation is our life, here and now, when we can live free from our wishes and fears, to rest in faithful waiting on God, knowing that God keeps his promises in unexpected ways. Today, this salvation comes to us, through God’s Son, who has come before us and given his life for us, to free us from the law that would convict us for our inability to trust God. We can rejoice to hear the entire story – God has released us from our prison, under the law that compels us, but that we ourselves cannot fufill.

In our midst, we have this font of water. In our baptism, those waters were poured upon us, and we were marked with the cross of Christ, for life with the Holy Spirit. We we filled with the same faith that filled Simeon and Anna. God frees us to wait, and will open our eyes to see the answers to our waiting. We need not wish in fear, because God will bring us the answer we could neither expect nor anticipate nor wish for. Through faith we will see it, and proclaim it. God is our promise-keeper, and Simeon has seen our salvation. Each day, we die and rise with the Messiah that Simeon held in his arms. The Messiah that Anna proclaims as redemption, for them and for us.

And now, today, we dedicate ourselves to wait through faith. Soon we’ll dine at the Lord’s table with bread and wine, broken and poured out for us. As we prepare the table, together we will proclaim the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, until He comes in glory. A day that we cannot predict, like a thief in the night, and as unexpected as a baby Messiah. We share our waiting with Simeon and Anna, and with each other, living in the already but not yet, and we can confidently say “our eyes have seen your salvation.” This is good news. Amen.

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