Christmas 1B — December 28, 2014

The Real Wise Guys

Luke 2:22-40

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 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25Now 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. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided 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, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then 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 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36There 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, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At 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. 39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Many thanks to Pastor Donna and all of you terrific Community Church folks for allowing Emsworth U.P. Church to crash your after-Christmas gathering this morning.  I know that Pastor Donna appreciates the day off just as much as I will appreciate the day off next Sunday when our congregations join again to mark the celebration of Epiphany.  Christmas is not officially over until then, so I am not too late to wish you a very Merry Christmas.  Santa has come and gone, but Jesus’ birthday celebration continues for another week.  Thanks be to God!
And what a great day to be together, most particularly to witness the Sacrament of Holy Baptism with Mason and his family.  Thank you for the privilege of being here to celebrate the newest member of God’s family here at Community Church.
I do have to ask, however…did anyone notice if Mason’s parents brought in a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons – maybe the cages are somewhere in the back.  Jean, are the birds hiding around here somewhere?
Well, whether or not they brought in a sacrificial gift, Mason’s parents have walked a well-worn path this morning.  The path of faithful parents carrying the treasure of their hearts into a holy space and dedicating a treasured son or daughter to God.  Just like Mary and Joseph in our reading this morning.  I didn’t know there would be a baptism this when I picked this text.  But it is a fitting one, don’t you think?
After he is born on Christmas, we do not hear much about Jesus’ childhood in Scripture, unfortunately.  We receive just three tiny glimpses in the Gospel of Luke.  First, Jesus’ circumcision is briefly mentioned in the two verses before the ones we just read.  Then, in this passage, his parents travel with him to Jerusalem for the purification rites and presentation of the child in the temple 40 days later.   After today’s text, we don’t see Jesus again in Luke until more than a decade later when he stays behind in the temple, scaring his mother half to death.
But this text today is a curious thing, isn’t it?  After all the hoopla of Christmas, with angels and annunciations and all manner of holy visitors proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, Mary and Joseph still make the journey to fulfill all the religious requirements for a firstborn male.  You would think the Son of God and his family might be exempt, right?  You would think that Jesus would be holy enough all on his own to not need the affirmation of the temple.  A lot of people have wondered the same thing about Jesus’ baptism, too.  Why would someone like Jesus, who was born without sin, have to be dedicated or baptized at all?
Perhaps this detail from Luke is here to remind us that this fully divine Jesus was also born fully human, into a particular time and place, and into a particular community of faith represented by the temple.  Perhaps we need to remember that Jesus was not born unto himself, to be God all by himself, but into a family to be raised by particular parents surrounded by other people, friends and relatives.  Perhaps, despite the scant scriptural detail, we need to remember that like every human baby before or since, the fully human Jesus could not raise himself.  Luke reminds us that it will take a village of faith to raise God’s son.  It takes a community to remind us who we are, and to whom we belong.
And the first people of the village to recognize Jesus are Simeon and Anna.  And unlike all the people we heard about on Christmas Eve, Simeon and Anna recognize who Jesus is without any of the heavenly host helping them out.  There are no angels in this story.   Only the two stalwarts of the temple, both of them getting way up there in years, but both of them blessed with the eyes of the prophets.  Simeon and Anna are often left out of our Christmas story, and they do not show up in our manger scenes, but if you ask me…Simeon and Anna are the real wise guys in this season.
Simeon is a paragon of the community’s hope.  For years Simeon had been waiting and hoping for the consolation of Israel, for the assurance that God had not forgotten the people waiting in darkness to see a great light.  Simeon is all about the hope that doesn’t dim with age or experience, but seems to grow stronger and stronger with each passing year.
Anna is the paragon of the community’s faithfulness.  Despite widowhood and the struggles that most certainly entailed, Anna fasts and prays day and night, staying deeply in relationship with God.  Anna is all about faithfulness that digs in its heels and hangs on through every storm, no matter what.
Both of these characters are not only wise, but also true pivot points in the story of Jesus.  Simeon and Anna take us out of the anticipation of Advent, the giddiness of Christmas, and into the hard work of Epiphany.  The hard work in which we try to keep our eyes open for the Christ that is here, dwelling among us, full of grace and truth, even when the Christmas star has dimmed and moved on.
And as we leave Christmas Day, the first thing we see in Luke is this poignant encounter. — two exhausted young parents, in over their head, and two elderly people who have been waiting forever for this day.  In this moment, we see the family and the elders exchange gifts in honor of the baby in Mary’s arms.  Mary and Joseph receive the gift of knowing that despite the struggle of the last 40 days, they are not alone in facing the task before them.  They are surrounded by a community of faith who will help their child grow and become strong and be filled with wisdom.
And Simeon and Anna receive a glimpse of heaven.  Simeon and Anna see that God has kept God’s promise.  They have the wisdom to see both the glory of this miraculous birth and the challenges ahead for this very human family.  The elders understand the risks of God’s Incarnation, and the price that Mary will pay when her child of light is opposed by the darkness of the world. 
Both Simeon and Anna are old enough to know better, but they cannot help but rejoice in the redemption of the world represented by this family standing in the temple.  This family. Mary and Joseph. So ordinary.  So tired from the journey.  So poor.  So young.  So blown away by these elderly strangers blessing their struggling family. Yet Simeon and Anna see promise, even knowing that, like most things in life, no great joy comes without a cost. 
Thisis a moment that belongs on our Christmas cards.  Because, beloved community, Simeon and Anna’s job is also our job after the carols fade and the Christmas tree comes down, and the manger is tucked away in the storage room for another year.  This is why we were born. This is why our communities of faith exist.  This is why Emsworth U.P. Church and Community Presbyterian Church are called into being by God.  To lift up the poor and struggling, and help them to believe that they too are children or God.  Or even believe on their behalf when they cannot believe themselves that God’s promise is for them too. 
This is our task after the gifts have been returned and the last cookies have been eaten.  To share with one other where we see Jesus in our midst, even in astonishing places.  To honor those most vulnerable who still have something to teach us.  To be the safe place for the ones in whom God finds favor, despite all appearances to the contrary.  We are called to bless and be a blessing.  That’s our job.  That’s our job in Epiphany and moving into the new year.
As I thought about Mason’s baptism, I remembered that my oldest daughter, Rachel, was also baptized on the Sunday after Christmas in my home church in Uniontown, Pa.  It was the only Sunday that my family could all be gathered conveniently, and I remember it being a very hectic day, with a cranky baby, tired parents and scores of relatives trying to celebrate – something.  I’m not sure any of us at that moment knew exactly what we were doing.  We just knew it had to be done.
But I do remember some months later, stepping back into church life after a season away.  I knew, somewhere in my wandering heart, that our young family needed to connect to something larger than ourselves.   Not just to Jesus, but to a community of faith that demonstrated and taught and lived out the love of Jesus – the sort of community that had meant so much to me when I was growing up. 
All of us here have had the great joy of knowing many Simeons and Annas in our lives – people who have loved us and encouraged us and reminded us of who we are and to whom we belong. 
But as I look at this portrait of the infant Jesus and the elderly Simeon and Anna, I wonder also if we might see one more thing.  As I’ve read this text, I’ve been reminded that the late Vice President’s Hubert Humphrey once said, “…the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”  

Not to usurp the words of a man I admire greatly, but I wonder if we might also think of how we as Christians think about children in our communities and around the world.  How do we value children beyond our own?  Can we see each child as Simeon and Anna saw the Christ child?  A child of God?  A child of promise? Can we see each child born as gift?
I was reading an article last week that quoted a UNICEF report which said that as many 15 million young people are trapped in conflicts in the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Ukraine.  Throughout the world, 230 million children are living in regions destabilized by armed conflicts.  UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake said, “Children has been killed while studying in the classroom and while sleeping in their beds.  They have been orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, recruited, raped and even sold as slaves…never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such unspeakable brutality.”  In South Sudan, where I will be traveling in 2 weeks, 750,000 children have been displaced, and 320,000 are living as refugees.  UNICEF says that in South Sudan, more than 600 children have been killed, while 12,000 have been recruited or captured by armed groups.[1]
A physician in Boston who grew up in Pakistan, writing after the massacre of the Pakistani school children 2 weeks ago, said, “I was sitting in our Cardiac-Medical conference this morning, discussing cases of complex heart disease and contemplating the fact that we devote prodigious human and financial resources to saving the life of one child while others somehow see fit to kill children at random…The smallest coffins are the heaviest.”[2]
2014 was a terrible year for children.  Even close to home, in our own country.  Gun violence.  Exploitation.  Rape.  Abuse. 
Yet, maybe, even in the midst of the evil we cannot escape no matter how much we try, the only thing we have on this day is praise. Praise of our God whose power is known and experienced in the vulnerability of humanity. Whose love is felt in pain and loss. Whose hope knows no limits.
We desperately need Anna and Simeon this week. We need them to help us utter the praise of God that simultaneously responds to God’s presence and resists the presence of evil. We need them to model the reaction to the convergence of waiting that seems to never end and fulfillment beyond our wildest dreams.  We need them to give us the courage to trust in our God who is indeed present and powerful when the world in which we live suggests otherwise.
The late Presbyterian pastor and poet David Steele wrote about Simeon.  In it, he imagines Simeon going back and forth to the Temple every day in his final years, pronouncing that very same blessing over all the babies presented to him.  It’s meant to be funny, this image of Simeon, but then, suddenly, Steele turns and says this:
When I read the blessing
And thought about it,
I began to wish he was right,
About Simeon–and those babies.
And I began thinking about our babies.
And I wished someone,
Some Simeon,
Might hold my grandbabies high–
And yours–
The born ones and the not yet
Proclaiming to them
With great conviction,
“You are the saviors of the World!”
Meaning it so absolutely
Those young ‘uns would live it,
And love it,
And make it happen![3]
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[3] Presbyterian Outlook, April 17th, 2000, 12.