Sunday, January 1, 2012

"They Looked At a Baby, and They Saw Grace and Hope."

I'm indebted to a great degree this week to the writing of Kathryn Matthews Huey. My boss has a saying: "I'd rather copy genius than create mediocrity," and Rev. Huey's genius has been an ongoing source of guidance and inspiration when writing these sermons.

Kemper Crabb (who is an amazing musician, and is indirectly responsible for getting me my first job in broadcasting) pointed out that today isn't really the new year; for Christians the year actually began with Advent. Still, let's look to the new calendar year with an eye to sharing the great Good News of God's love and grace for all creation, and may God's best and brightest be yours.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Galatians 4:4-7
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”  So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

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 (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 turtledoves 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 seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped 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.
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 favor of God was upon him.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It was, really, just another day at the Temple, which is to say the courts were crowded with people coming and going, the air was thick with the acrid smoke of the sacrifices, and the stone walls seemed to amplify the cacophony of voices and animal bleats and priests singing psalms, until everything – the sights, the sounds, the smells, blended into a single, endless kaleidoscope of color and sound.

Little wonder, then, that we might have missed that couple carrying their newborn. There wasn’t anything unique about them, after all. The Law required that, forty days after bearing a male child – and twice that long following the birth of a girl – women were to present themselves for purification at the Temple. Even that day, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were but three among hundreds. The fact that Joseph carried two turtledoves, rather than leading a lamb, meant that they weren’t well off. So, all in all, nothing to make them stand out in that kaleidoscope.

Why, then, was Simeon there, on that day of all days? Why was he walking through the crowd, staring intently at every couple as they passed by? And look, even Anna was moving around, in a different area of the Court of Women than Simeon, yes, but with the same purpose of movement.

Everyone who had been to the Temple more than once knew about Anna. Years ago, she had been married, and she’d been a widow for far longer than most of the people at the temple that day had been alive. More than a few people couldn’t remember a time when Anna had not been standing or kneeling in one area or the other of the Temple court, praying and offering prophecies. She fasted and prayed constantly, in an attitude of mourning – not for the husband lost so many years ago, but mourning for Israel.

Our reading from Isaiah provides something of a backstory. Israel was no more, and Judea had been conquered. Solomon’s Temple had been burned to the ground, the best and brightest of the Jewish people had been carted off, exiled to Babylon, and much of Jerusalem lay in ruins.

More than six decades passed before Babylon was conquered by Cyrus the Great, and the Jewish people were allowed to return to their beloved Jerusalem.

I can imagine that the first group who topped the hill where they could at last see Jerusalem in the distance wanted to turn around and go back. There was no Temple shining in the sun, the walls of the city were breached, the gates burned, and far too many homes had been reduced to piles of rocks and dirt.

What kept them going was the promise of God, spoken through Isaiah: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.

“The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”

As Cyrus’ reign had given way to Roman rule, as rebellions had been squashed and armies had occupied, the Jewish people kept on going, waiting for the day when Isaiah’s words would be made a reality.

And Simeon, that guy darting around the crowd, looking intently at people’s faces as they passed, knew something that no one else knew. Oh, he had known for some time that the Messiah – the One who would finally bring the vindication of Jerusalem, the one who would establish the Kingdom of God – would come in his lifetime. He had probably told folks about this – after all, that’s the kind of great news you just can’t keep to yourself!

What Simeon knew, that no one else knew, was that today was the day he would finally lay eyes on that Messiah! That’s why he was in the temple that day, why he looked here and there.

And then – it was as if time stopped, and all the noise of the Temple faded away. There was Joseph, holding his turtledoves, and Mary beside him, holding an infant.

Who Mary and Joseph met in the Temple that day wasn’t just an old man and an old woman. Simeon and Anna were, in the words of Fred Craddock, “Israel in miniature, and Israel at its best: devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God's promises.”

Imagine being Simeon, and holding in your arms not just an infant – that’s a sensation that is amazing enough, in itself, a small bundle of life, a tiny package of potential, of promise for tomorrow – no, what you’re holding in your arms is this most wanted child, the hope of the ages, the yearning of your entire life.

In this moment, you realize that God didn't come down as a powerful emperor or a rich man. God came down as an infant, to elicit love, to nurture tenderness. Now, at last, your watch is over, your duty as a sentry is fulfilled, and you can depart in peace, knowing that God is with us.

For Anna, who comes up as Simeon is singing his praises to God, this child has been the central hope of her life, the focus of her heart: “God's blessing,” James Howell writes, “was not a continual smorgasbord of titanic experiences and shiny baubles. [For Anna,] God's blessing was just one thing, and it was eighty years coming.”

We don’t know what, if anything, Anna said to Mary and Joseph. But we know that this prophet set immediately about telling the Good News to all who would listen – at last, at long last, Messiah had come! Finally, God is with us!

But let’s not skip too quickly past what Simeon is singing – and make no mistake, his words are a hymn of praise. Already in this journey through Advent and into Christmas, we’ve heard songs of praise from Zechariah, John’s father, and from Mary herself. But these songs aren’t simply about the spiritual life. They don’t simply reflect how church should be, how worship should be done. John Dominick Crossan and Marcus Borg write that “These hymns proclaim and remind us that the God of the Bible is concerned about the whole of life….this language is about how the world should be.” The songs of Zechariah, Mary and Simeon recognize that Jesus “decisively reveals and incarnates the passion of God as disclosed in the Law and the Prophets – the promise and hope for a very different kind of world from the world of Pharaoh and Caesar, the world of domination and empire.”

Simeon and Anna looked upon the baby Jesus, yes, but they looked beyond the child and saw the Christ, the Promised One. Surely, neither of them could comprehend the mystery that Simeon held in his arms that day. But they allowed for the possibilities of God’s power to unfold in ways they could not imagine, but could only hope for. They looked at a baby, and they saw grace and hope. 

Like Simeon and Anna, we can speak out the good news, not just for ourselves, but for every one of God’s children. Like Simeon and Anna, we can see beyond what’s right before our eyes to the future unfolding of God's plan, to the promises of God being fulfilled here and now, and in the days ahead. We know something that Simeon and Anna couldn’t know, after all. We’ve seen what that baby Jesus became – a worker of miracles, a healer, one who brought worth and hope to the downtrodden and who put the powerful and oppressive in their place, who ultimately gave his very life to reconcile to God a world too far gone to care… and who rose from the grave a victorious King, not of a temporary, worldly empire where power is based on who has more money or influence than another, where control is maintained through force and coercion, but of the now-and-coming eternal Kingdom of God, where power and control are irrelevant, and where no one is less than another.

On this first morning of the New Year, we, like Simeon and Anna, have a message of grace and hope to proclaim. And what a need there is in this world for Good News! What a need there is for people to hear that, despite the unemployment rate and the stock market, despite the uncertainty in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula, above the cacophony of the Occupy Wall Street protests and the never-ending political campaigns, God is with us!

On this first morning of the New Year, we can say with boldness that, indeed, we have seen the salvation of the Lord! Through the indwelling Holy Spirit, we know and can proclaim to all the world, Emmanuel – God is with us!


  1. Amen, Jesus did come for all of God's Children!

    Ephesians 2:1-3 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and pwere by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

    Who are God's Children? Those who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation!

  2. Your point is taken, but remember that, according to (at least) John 3:16-17 and Romans 5:8, Christ came to save/redeem/restore ***everyone*** and ***everything***. Until Christ, God had a people, but no children. It is the finished work of Christ **alone** which (see the reading from Galatians above) allows we humans to be adopted into the Family of God.

    Without Christ, none of us would believe.