Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40
Mary and Joseph are law abiding Jews.
Simeon and Anna, too, exhibit faithfulness, obedience and dutifulness. The characters in this story all follow the rules God set before them. According to the Law of Moses, they present Jesus at the temple, their firstborn dedicated to the Lord, the prescribed sacrifice given. Simeon is righteous and devout. Anna never stops worshipping and fasting. (How is that even possible?) The narrative this first Sunday after Christmas could not get any churchier. And, let’s be honest, those gathered for worship the Sunday after Christmas are the Marys and Josephs, the Simeons and Annas of our congregations. The dutiful, faithful folks who show up every time the doors open and stay and clean up afterwards. So, admonishing everyone to do what God says — worship, tithe, etc. — well, that could be affirming or, alternately, could be less than revelatory or, even worse, self-congratulatory. Look at us, we’re here, we get to see Jesus! (I think I’ve preached that sermon.)
But what happens when we consider this text in light of those who aren’t praying, fasting, patiently waiting or always in the sanctuary, fellowship hall, church kitchen or Sunday school classrooms? What does this story have to do with them? Why should they care? What difference does Jesus’ presentation at the temple mean to all those getting ready to party into the New Year or hit the after Christmas sales or head to work at a job that has no regard for Sundays or the sacred? What about for those who went to their annual worship service on Christmas Eve last week with no intentions of returning until next year’s dimly lit and lovely service?
The key is in the text itself, because as churchy as this story seems to be, all that happens inside that temple is for the sake of those oblivious to it in the world. Note what Simeon says when he takes up Jesus in his arms and praises God: he has seen salvation, “prepared in the presences of all peoples, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.” Simeon, righteous and devout, understands that the Messiah has come for the unrighteous and the unclean, God’s people Israel as well as the Gentiles. Anna, in her old age, is less concerned with the state of her own soul than with the redemption of Jerusalem. She’s a prophet, after all, and prophets don’t work for themselves; they take their orders from God. Their fasting and praying, worshipping and praising all point away from themselves and toward the One who calls and sends.
No, this story doesn’t tell us to feel good about our dutifulness, commend us for showing up as instructed, nor admonish us to go get others to church or temple. This story proclaims, even at this earliest phase of Jesus’ life, that the Messiah has come for the sake of the world, the partygoers and service workers, the lapsed faithful and those who’ve never darkened the door of a designated holy place, the chosen people of Israel and the Gentiles who still stumble around in the darkness. We would do well to remember that Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna embrace a child who will not be held, not even by cross or grave. Jesus will soon cause his parents to worry when he tarries in the temple and gets left behind. Before long, a sword will pierce his mother’s soul because Jesus has come not to stay safely in any sanctuary but to venture out into the wilderness and then into a world that will have him killed.
Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna come to the temple to worship the God who both created and loves all that is seen and unseen. The salvation they behold became incarnate for all peoples. Their devout, dutiful righteousness that compels them to follow the Law of Moses enables them to see the Messiah and also know they cannot keep him to or for themselves. Do those of us sitting in the pews or standing in the chancel week after week, fasting and praying without ceasing understand this, too?
Every churchy thing we do should compel us out into the world God so loves, proclaiming that salvation, redemption, consolation has come and has come for everyone. We can’t expect those who neither know nor care about the Law of Moses (never mind the new commandment to love one another) to be at worship this week. We should, however, expect that our having been there changes us, how we see others, the decisions we make, the words we utter and the way we live and move and have our being. Do you think Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna were ever the same again? Then how can we leave an encounter with the living Lord shrugging our shoulders and saying, “meh”?
Sometimes I wonder if we expect anything at all when we go to worship. When we put our money in the plate or confess our sin or pass the peace or hear the Word read and proclaimed or the benediction pronounced, do we eagerly expect consolation? Redemption? An encounter with salvation? Do we imagine that what we do inside those spaces has an impact when we walk out the door? Do we have any idea that we have witnessed the light for the revelation of all nations? Annie Dillard’s quip about the need to wear crash helmets in worship is often quoted, but rarely heeded. (I wonder what would happen if the ushers did pass some out one Sunday?)
Truth be told, Simeon and Anne, and Mary and Joseph as well, went to temple many times with Jesus nowhere in sight. But they went anyway. They kept going. They were, as my Greek lexicon puts it, “looking forward to the fulfillment of expectation.” And darned if their expectations weren’t met. What if we went to worship this week, and next, and the next looking forward to the fulfillment of expectation: the expectation that God is doing a new thing, that Jesus has come to save, that we are united in Christ, that reconciliation is inevitable, that death and sin have been defeated, that the Holy Spirit speaks to and through us, that when we are gathered Jesus is in the midst of us no less than he was in the temple that day with Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna?
We might arrive with eagerness and leave with purpose, knowing that we can’t keep to ourselves all we’ve seen and heard, because salvation has come, a light to the Gentiles, glory for God’s people Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem and the world. All people — devout, depraved, righteous, sacrilegious, dutiful, derelict — need this Good News whether they know it or not. The time has come for us to share it.
- Why do you go to worship? What difference does fasting, praying, following God’s rule make for us? For others?
- What do you expect when you go to worship? What do you experience?
- Who are the Simeons and Annas you have known? How have they influenced you or your understanding of the faith?
- Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph and then speaks a haunting word to them. What does it mean to be blessed?
- This text is about faithful people’s response to meeting Jesus. Both Simeon and Anna praise God. How are we praising God in response to Jesus’ birth?
- If you are making New Year’s resolutions, how do they relate to your faith?
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