SERMON: Luke 2:22-40
I can remember, as a child, getting ready to go back to school after the Christmas holidays. I can tell you that, in spite of all the happy talk about seeing friends again, going back to school at the beginning of January was not one of our happy moments. We kids lived for summer vacation, and at this time of year it was hard to imagine that it would ever come. Summer vacation was so far away that we couldn't even allow ourselves to think about it. To begin thinking about summer vacation at the end of December was to risk going slowly, painfully, and stark-ragingly mad. To keep our sanity, we took one day at a time -- doing our homework -- taking tests -- tormenting girls -- kicking footballs. In the back of our minds, we knew that summer vacation would come if we just kept on keeping on, so that is what we did. We waited! And we hoped! Dimly, in our heart of hearts, we hoped for the lazy days of summer!
Our Gospel lesson today has a story of waiting like that. Simeon was an old man -- at least we are pretty sure that he was old. He was righteous and devout -- and the Holy Spirit had told him that he would not die until he saw the Messiah.
You wouldn't think that Simeon would be eager to see the Messiah. After all, he had been promised that he wouldn't die until he saw the Messiah. If he could avoid seeing the Messiah, perhaps he could live forever. But that isn't how Simeon felt. He had lived a long time. He knew that there is a time to live and a time to die. He was ready to go, but he wanted to leave his people in good hands. Before he let go, he wanted to know that the Messiah was poised to take over -- to assure the salvation of his people.
Our scripture also mentions Anna -- an eighty-four-year-old widow who never left the temple, but prayed there day and night.
Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple to present him to the Lord. Jesus was still a tiny baby, only a few days old. Joseph and Mary couldn't take Jesus very far into the temple, because women weren't allowed beyond the Court of Women. That area would have been crowded with people, including many young couples with their babies. It was a busy place -- the center of worship for a whole nation. With all those people, it would have been confusing -- noisy. If you were looking for the Messiah in such a place, how would you find him?
Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit guided Simeon to the temple that day. Simeon had waited for so long to see the Messiah. He must have wondered, in spite of the Spirit's promise, if he would live long enough to see the Messiah. Now, finally, the Spirit guided him to the temple at just the right time. I can imagine Simeon wondering if this was really real. He had waited so long -- and now the Spirit was leading him through the crowd. Could it be?
Simeon must have tried to imagine what this Messiah would look like. Handsome? Probably. Tall? Probably. A commanding presence? Surely! What would the Messiah be doing? Teaching? Praying? Recruiting disciples? The Spirit promised only that Simeon would see the Messiah -- not that he would actually meet him in person. He must have wondered it he would get to talk to the Messiah -- to receive the Messiah's blessing.
And then the Spirit stopped Simeon in front of a very ordinary-looking couple with a very ordinary-looking baby. It must have taken a moment for Simeon to get his bearings, because nobody had explained that the Messiah would be a brand-new baby. But then God was always full of surprises -- finding unlikely candidates to save the people. Who would you have chosen to go up against Goliath, the giant? Surely not some kid with a slingshot -- but that is who God chose -- and Simeon knew that story.
Then, after a moment's hesitance, Simeon must have realized that God had done it again! The Messiah had come, but not as expected. Nobody could know that this baby was the Messiah unless guided by the Spirit. But, once Simeon caught his breath, he took the baby 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."
As surprised as Simeon must have been at seeing the baby Messiah, he has a surprise for us as well. There in the temple, in the center of all things Jewish, Simeon praised God for preparing "a light for revelation to the Gentiles." Is that what the Messiah was to be -- a light for revelation to the Gentiles? People were expecting a Messiah who would help the Jews in the struggle against Gentiles! What was this business about "a light for revelation to the Gentiles"? Is this Jewish Messiah going to be everyone's Messiah?
And then Anna got into the act -- old Anna -- faithful Anna -- always-praying Anna -- always-in-the-temple Anna. She too began to praise God for this baby.
Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary were amazed at what Simeon and Anna had to say about Jesus. That surely was true, but this wasn't the first amazing thing that had happened to Mary and Joseph. Mary had been amazed when the angel appeared to her. Joseph had been amazed when the angel appeared to him. They had both been amazed when the shepherds had shown up at the stable. Now they were amazed that an old man and an old woman had picked their baby out of a crowd and had said such wonderful things about him.
But then, Luke tells us, after they had done what they came to do, Mary and Joseph returned to Galilee -- to their hometown. Luke doesn't tell us much about what happened there, except that Jesus grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God. It sounds like, after all the flurry of attention at Jesus' birth, they went back to ordinary lives in an ordinary place. It would be years before they experienced anything extraordinary again. They must have wondered if they had been dreaming. Had they really seen angels? Had Simeon and Anna actually picked Jesus out of the crowd? In the uneventful years to follow, they must have wondered if they had just imagined these things. It would be years before they saw the answer, and the answer would not look anything like what they had expected. But we know the rest of the story. We know that God was at work while Mary and Joseph waited.
Today, we need to hear the mystery behind this story of Joseph and Mary and Jesus and Simeon and Anna. It is hardly the usual story. It is quite unlike the television stories that present us daily with some sort of conflict that is easily resolved in thirty minutes -- with all the loose ends tied so neatly. This is a story of a man and woman, Simeon and Anna, who grew old looking for the salvation of the Lord, and who found that salvation only at the end of their lives. When Simeon prays, "Master now you are dismissing your servant in peace," he is really saying, "Now I can die in peace." He had seen the Messiah. He had not actually seen the Messiah save anyone, but he had seen the baby and had heard the Spirit's promise that this was the one. Now he could die in peace.
And then Mary and Joseph, whose lives were so quickly and thoroughly turned upside down by this unexpected baby, returned to Nazareth where, apparently, their lives went back to a normal pace.
Both these stories -- the story of Simeon and Anna and the story of Mary and Joseph -- are waiting stories. Both are surprise stories. In a sense, both are disappointing stories:
-- Neither Simeon nor Anna will live long enough to see Jesus begin his ministry as a young man
-- We hear so little about Joseph that we suspect that he died before Jesus began his ministry.
-- While Mary was blessed to be the mother of the Lord, you could hardly say that she lived an easy life.
These are hardly stories where the good guys win in the end -- unless we really, really, really see them through the eyes of faith.
We need to hear these stories, though, because they are our stories too. We, too, spend lots of time waiting for the Lord. We pray for all sorts of things and then wait for answers. "Oh, Lord, please...." Sometimes God answers our prayers immediately, but many times we find ourselves returning to Nazareth -- going back to the place where we have always been -- to the routine and ordinary rhythm of life -- wondering if our prayers have somehow bounced off the ceiling before ever reaching God.
A part of the problem is that we have come to expect so much so quickly. A psychologist, Kim Hall, in an interview several years ago, told about people walking through her door and wanting instant answers. She said:
"No one wants to wait for anything
and, for the most part, no one has to anymore."
She talked about Christians, who are different only in that Christians "expect God to make it so." She said:
"The problem is that, in this country,
you can have what you want when you want it most of the time....
People like the fact that they can buy a 50-foot tree
and instantly plant it in their yard."
"Why would anyone want to wait on relationships,
or wait on God."
(The Door, Sep-Oct, 1992)
Why indeed? I can't imagine why we would want to wait for anything, but I know that, very often, we must. Occasionally, we get exactly what we want when we want it, but more often we don't. Occasionally, a young person strikes it rich and gets a lifetime supply of money at age twenty. When that happens, she soon finds that the things that really count don't come so easily -- husband, children, friends -- something to get out of bed for in the morning.
But few of us strike it rich when we are twenty. For most of us, life involves lots of waiting -- lots of patience. We work hard to get through school, which seems to take forever. Then we get our first real job, and begin the long, slow process of establishing ourselves. Somewhere along the way, we get married and have children. If everything goes well, we make a little progress each year. But none of it is easy, and little of it is quick.
But just as God was at work in Nazareth, God is also at work in Mannington, Metz, Logansport, Rymer, Fairmont, or wherever you live.. Nothing special seemed to be happening in Nazareth -- just a little boy growing up -- something that happens everywhere all the time. But God was at work there, and God is at work here too!
I was also struck by the fact that both Simeon and Anna were delighted just to get a glimpse of the Messiah before they died. They didn't get to see the Messiah at work. They didn't get to see him save the people. They had only God's promise that everything would work out all right -- and they were such people of faith that they were happy with that. We would do well to be like Simeon and Anna. Jesus is God's promise that everything will work out all right, and we would have far fewer worries if we would believe that promise.
Too many people are waiting for God to do things for them rather than with them.
No matter how ordinary the day -- no matter how difficult the experience -- always remember that God loves you -- and is at work behind the scenes -- and is working to redeem your life. Never give up hope! Always believe! And then wait to see what wondrous things God will do.