December 31, 2017
Today’s scripture closes the loop on Luke’s birth narrative of Jesus. Last Sunday we came to the manger, and today we are in the Temple for the presentation of Jesus, and the purification of Mary. There is a unique encounter with Simeon and Anna, and then when all is said and done, Joseph and Mary and Jesus head for home. We don’t hear about Jesus again until he is 12.
So, what’s the big deal? This story could easily just be a wrap-up to the birth story – a transition piece to let us know how they got home - yet it leaves us with the question, “What Now?” But before we get to that, we should delve a little deeper into why this story made it into scripture, and why it matters to us today.
First, it matters because it demonstrates Mary and Joseph’s continued dedication to their faith. Luke wants there to be no doubt that Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews and did their part in fulfilling the requirements of Jewish law. Judaism revolved around following the law and its rituals. And praising God in all of life is essential to Judaism.
The rites of circumcision and naming marked the child’s acceptance into the covenant community, and gave the child an identity. And for Mary, who was considered “ceremonially unclean after childbirth”, the ritual of purification would again allow her to enter the Temple. After a prescribed time, she would offer a lamb, or, in her case, “a pair of turtledoves or 2 young pigeons” … reminding us that Jesus was born into a very financially humble family.
Simeon’s blessing relates Jesus’ birth to the promise in scripture for the salvation of Israel. But it also foresees the inclusion of Gentiles into this promise. Just as we were shown the inclusion of all in the visit of the magi last week, so Luke again tells us that no one is excluded from this open invitation. And that invitation still holds today.
When you think about it, it is rather amazing that Simeon recognized Jesus as the Messiah when he saw this child. After all, sometimes they all begin to look alike.
I recall only too well (over 20 years ago) when our daughter was swimming in a meet, and we rooted and cheered for the wrong swimmer because we didn’t recognize our own child! To be fair, our daughter didn’t usually swim as proficiently as she did that day, and with their matching suits and caps … well, “they all looked alike.”
Having come to the Temple for decades and decades to see the Messiah, how was it that Simeon was able to distinguish this one child from the hundreds or thousands he would have seen? The Holy Spirit rested on him. And adding to his certainty, the prophet Anna also recognized the very special nature of this child.
Not only does today’s reading affirm the special nature of Jesus, it also brings attention to the work of the Holy Spirit and the inclusion of women … something Luke does not want us to forget or overlook. The universal nature of the Gospel is absolute for Luke … just as it is for us today.
Today’s reading also foreshadows things to come … and it surely was not all “sunshine and roses.” But amidst it all, we are reminded again that God’s promises will prevail. God keeps God’s promises.
So, what is the “big finish” to today’s reading? There is none. Mary and Joseph and Jesus head for home. We know “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”
After the amazing proclamation in the Temple, once again declaring that this baby is the Messiah, they all go back to their everyday, humble life where they struggle to make ends meet. A humble life where Jesus learns the skill of a carpenter, and how to be a good Jew. There were good times, and bad times, but mostly just ordinary times.
And after decades and decades of waiting to see the Lord’s Messiah, Simeon may now be released in peace … but what has really changed?
Nothing … and yet everything.
God has kept God’s promise, and God continues to keep God’s promises. We just don’t know when or how.
Let us never confuse promises with bribes. There is absolutely nothing in Scripture which promises that things will go our way, if we but follow Jesus. That is what’s known as the “Prosperity Gospel” and it has nothing to do with scripture or the promises of God. In truth, following God’s lead often takes us down a rougher road than the one we were on before.
Simeon, Anna, Joseph, and certainly Mary can all testify to that. God allows us to be tried, tested, terrified, and even hurt. This is part and parcel of walking by faith. If we followed God simply to ensure easier lives, we would be selfish believers … looking out for our own best interest.
What today’s Scripture reminds us is that following God is often not easy. And, as Simeon, we must have patience. Let us all seek the faith and obedience of Mary and Joseph, and the patience of Simeon.
An astounding occurrence, such as the birth of the Christ-child, or his being revealed as the Messiah to Simeon, does not mean that everything is fine. But it sure is better. We have an assurance that God is here, that the Holy Spirit is active … and that we can trust God to fulfill all of God’s promises.
We, like Simeon, must wait with patience. And as I mentioned some weeks ago, we can “actively wait” … following God’s lead until all is revealed and reconciled. We have a part in these promises.
So … what now?
In another week, we’ll return to what the church calls “Ordinary Time.” After extraordinary happenings, Mary and Joseph returned home with their child to their most humble and ordinary life. And they continued to be faithful to God and trust in God’s goodness. So we, after this season of hope and celebration, return to our ordinary lives … and we shall live our “ordinary days” filled with hope and celebration and praise of a God who loves us and guides us ... if we but follow.
Tonight, we celebrate the end of the year 2017. Some of us are ready to say goodbye to this year and look forward to opening a new calendar, filled with fresh hopes and promises and resolutions. But the promises of God are not new … they are ongoing. And whether you consider 2017 to have been a “good year or a bad year”, it is the only 2017 you will ever have. The same is true for each day, for each minute.
So often we make grandiose resolutions for the New Year, and once we’ve broken them, we turn them aside. We don’t need to wait for a New Year to realign ourselves with God. We don’t need to wait at all.
This, right now, is the only time you will have this minute. And so, the challenge this week is to continually ask ourselves: “What now? What am I doing right now to follow God’s lead and make me a better disciple of Christ?”