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The Witness of Simeon and Ana

Sermon - 12/28/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 2:21-40

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

22 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 turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

25 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. 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,
31   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles
   and for glory to your people Israel.’

33 And 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.’

36 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 for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped 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.

39 When 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.

 

Christmas is over. All the gifts have been unwrapped, and I suspect a few exchanged. Families have returned home. Shepherds too, have returned to their flock. And the manger is empty.

But Mary & Joseph have not gone home. They have not even fled to Egypt as Matthew tells the story. They have gone to Jerusalem, to the temple. It is a very appropriate scripture for the Sunday after Christmas, don’t you think? I mean, who goes to church on this Sunday? (Fortunately, you do!) So many folk like to take the Sunday off and go other places. In fact, this being traditionally a “low” Sunday, I usually take it off.

But this year we have this little party for Elaine after the service. After all, someone puts in 16 years of their life in service to this congregation, I feel a bit of obligation. Like the golfer out on the course with his buddy when they see a funeral procession drive nearby and he stops, removes his hat, and bows his head as the procession moves past. His buddy says, “Eddy, I’ve never known you to pay such respect to someone!” Eddy replies, “It’s the least I could, after all, we were married for 40 years.” So Elaine, my hat is off to you! OK, did our thing for her, time to move on. No need to thank me Elaine for all the fuss J. (We’ll say a little more later.)

Back to our story. Mary & Joseph are there in the temple. Simeon is there, peeking under all of the baby blankets, or at least the blue ones, looking for the Messiah. And Ana is there. She hasn’t left. Spent most of her adult life there in the temple. And Jesus is there.

Mary and Joseph you see are very devout Jews, and Jesus is a very Jewish male child. According to custom the first-born male child was to be dedicated in the temple to remind them of the Passover, that event when the first-born male child was spared in Egypt. And so they come into the temple, the mother also to be purified.

It never evidently occurs to them that this child, divinely conceived, the Messiah of the nation and of the world, the Son of God, that this child does not need to go through all the ritual rigmaroles.

In Luke’s gospel, this is the first of 3 trips Jesus takes to the temple. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus comes only once, in the last week of his life. But in Luke he comes 3 times: first, here, at his circumcision. Second, when he was 12, engaged with the elders. Then finally, at the end of his ministry. The effect is to show that, even though Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee (which for the people of Jerusalem was as bad as Samaria—they were hardly even considered Jews up there in Galilee), even though Jesus begins his ministry there, his origin lies here in the temple.

In fact, Luke makes the temple the backdrop for his entire gospel story. The very first scene of Luke occurs in the temple. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is in the temple when he is told by a divine messenger that his barren wife is pregnant. And guess where the story ends? Chapter 24, verse 53, after the resurrection, after the appearances, after Jesus is gone and everyone is supposed to be fleeing, guess what the disciples do? They go to the temple to praise God for what has happened. The story begins in the temple and ends in the temple. The temple is throughout Luke’s story.

Why does Luke go to such effort to make the temple so central in his story? We know that Luke was writing largely for a gentile audience. We know that he was most likely writing after the temple was destroyed. Why then, is the temple so central in this story?

Some would say that it is for sheer political reasons. In the Roman world, Judaism was recognized as a legitimate religion, Christianity wasn’t. And that would cause all kinds of problems for them. So Luke just wants to show to the gentile crowd out there, that Christians are nothing new, just part of the same tradition of Judaism. No threat, especially not to Rome.

But surely more important than that, is that Luke is making a statement to his largely gentile audience. To understand the story, to understand what it means, you have to understand the context in which it occurs. And that takes us to the temple. Simeon and Ana just aren’t on some street corner looking for the Messiah, they are in the temple.

When we come into the temple, we are greeted by an aged couple: a teetering old man with a long grey beard, an old woman bent over with arthritis. Recall in the first scene we see old Zech and his barren wife there in the temple. It is as if Luke presents us with a sea of grey hair and wrinkled skin in the temple. Sound familiar? But this is not a negative image for Luke, not at all. Indeed, this is Israel at its best, full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit, obedient to God, constant in prayer and fasting, filled with hope in the promise of the Messiah to come, striving to see God in the face of a new-born child. This is Israel at its best. Age is not the symbol in Luke of a dying temple but of a faithful people.

And note the interplay here of the spirit and the law. Three times we are told that something happens in accordance with the law. Three times we are told that Simeon is filled with the spirit, he is guided by the spirit. Mary and Joseph are just fulfilling the law, they are doing what they are supposed to do according to the law. The spirit and the law come together for the good news to be proclaimed. Isn’t that different from the way we usually portray it? We usually play one against the other, grace vs. law, and law is bad and grace is good. But here they come together, work together. Mary and Joseph are following the custom of their faith and in that process of carrying through the rituals that define their Jewish identity, they discover the word of God in their midst, indeed, in the bosom of Mary.

Likewise, Simeon and Ana proclaim the good news to those who come seeking to fulfill the law. They come seeking redemption through the rituals of their faith. So think about rituals for a moment. In our society rituals are often looked down upon. They are old fashioned. They are irrelevant. They are meaningless. We tend to ignore them or trivialize them.

There is a great scene in the movie “Tin Cup”. Kevin Costner is teaching this young, attractive woman how to golf, showing her how to hold the club and how to stand and how to make the swing and goes through all the motions. Just at the right moment, he says, “And then you nod to the gods and make your swing…” Nod to the gods? Turns out it is a religious movie! Of course, for true golfers, golf is a religion. They understand that in golf so much of your destiny is in the hands of some higher power beyond your control. So you nod to the gods as a way to improve your shot.

You might call that superstition, and that is typical of the way we approach rituals, we trivialize them. Remember the “Rickies” that uniquely Eugene, off-beat group that appeared in the Eugene Celebration parade for several years? They thought it would be fun to do a little satire based on the movie “Pulp Fiction”—an awful movie to begin with—and dress up as popes for their entry called “Pope Fiction”. Unfortunately, the parade route that year when by St. Mary’s Catholic Church where the group did a little routine on the steps of the church. It was, of course, terribly offensive to most Catholics if not most people of faith. Poking fun at rituals held sacred by millions of people is often not funny at all.

Rituals, especially religious rituals, often get a bad rap. So I want to put in a positive word for rituals. We go through all kinds of rituals, from the mundane of our morning activity to singing the national anthem before ballgames. Our holidays are filled them, from the turkey on Thanksgiving—I am referring to what you eat, not the people who come—to the bowl games on Jan. 1 or Dec. 30 (go Ducks!). Our public ceremonies are filled with rituals: graduations, homecomings, weddings, funerals, inaugurations.

Rituals play an incredibly important role in our faith as well. Rituals celebrate and invoke the presence of God. Rituals teach the essence of our faith to our children. Rituals remind us of our heritage and our identity. Rituals acknowledged important events in our life and faith development. Rituals give expression to the sacredness, the mystery and the wonder of life. Rituals put us in touch with the presence of God in the ordinary, every day aspects of living.

Christmas time is a season rich in ritual. We had over 350 people for our two Christmas Eve services, with the larger of the two crowds attending the late service that ended just after midnight. My own daughter, who had major back surgery on December 19th and was released from the hospital at noon on Christmas Eve, insisted on coming to that service 11 hours after her release. Singing Silent Night in a circle by candlelight may be one of the most important rituals we do all year for many people, evidently for many we do not see at any other time of the year. It is a powerful ritual.

I had the opportunity to attend two Greek Orthodox services while in Greece this summer. Didn’t understand a word in either one and the rituals were totally foreign, but they did speak to me nevertheless. The reverence of the worshippers as they entered, bending down to kiss a treasured icon. The priest carrying a gold-leafed Bible, led by another priest with swinging incense, parading around the sanctuary as people reached out to touch the Holy Book. The bread and cup lifted high as words were chanted by the priest and answered by the congregation. A sweet mixture of fruit and nuts blessed by the priest and then shared with all in the fellowship time after the service.

I may have only picked up a fraction of the meaning these rituals have for the members of those congregations, but I worshipped with them just the same in the presence of the Divine. An Orthodox priest once told me in their tradition it doesn’t matter who is up front. The priest simply leads them through the ritual of the service and who that person is, is irrelevant to the service. What matters is that you are brought into that Holy presence. All of that ritual, the icons, the chanting and incense are there for the purpose of bringing them into that presence of God.

Here we have in Luke, the first public witness to the identity of Jesus and it comes without benefit of divine messengers and heavenly wonders from two senior citizens, righteous and devote in their faith. One of whom has spent her entire adult life in the temple.

Do you think rituals were important for these two? Do you think that rituals had any influence on their ability to discern the presence of God in the face of an infant? I do. I think it made all the difference.

We need people like Simeon and Ana. People who are full of wisdom and spirit. People who are able to see God in the face of a child. People who never lose hope, who are constantly seeking their salvation.

I would like to suggest 3 ways in which we can discover and strengthen that presence of God in our lives. There is nothing profound in this, it is very simple. Simple rituals.

1. Prayer. Ever think about prayer as a ritual? It is. Sometimes it has a structured format and very specific things we say like the Lord’s Prayer or a chant that we say over and over. Sometimes it can be free flowing, but it is a ritual. Our elders who take communion to our home bound often tell of an experience with an older member who seems to not to be fully present in this world until they begin the Lord’s Prayer and suddenly the person is with you, reciting those familiar words in unison. It can be a very holy moment.
Our Spiritual Directions Task Force offered a place and time during Advent to help us develop those holy moments through quiet meditation or walking the labyrinth. The turn out was not large but it was a start to an on-going effort to provide more opportunities for us to be a praying church as the basis of our spiritual lives.

The second ritual is worship. One of my pet peeves is the notion that my faith is just a matter between me and God. Bunch of baloney! Your faith is a communal faith. Christianity is a communal religion. It is between you and the people of God. God does not call us in isolation. God calls us to be part of the body of Christ. This is where we live out our faith.

If you make New Year’s resolutions, may I suggest that among them should be some kind of resolution about your presence in worship. I don’t care if it is here (well, maybe a little), but that it be somewhere. To be present in worship with someone else where 2 or 3, 200 or 300 gather, is one of the most important things you can do for yourself, your faith, for your congregation and for the body of Christ and all people of God.

Third, to look for ways to recognize the sacredness of life and give it a ritual. Be it nodding to the gods so to speak, but seriously, not as a superstitious ritual. Let it be an acknowledgement of the sacred among us, of the mystery of God and life. Be it lighting a candle, reciting a favorite verse of scripture, saying a simple prayer of gratitude—some way of giving it a ritual so that you heighten your awareness in the daily aspect of living in the presence of God among us.

I was so struck several years ago on our vacation to Vancouver Island by the Kowichen people, the tour we took there of their heritage center, and the sense of the spirit present among those native people. I asked our young guide how he learned his faith. Did he go to Sunday School classes, whatever you might call them? Did they have some formal education? He said no, there were no classes, he just learned it from his parents and elders. He told of his grandmother, remembering how his grandmother every morning when she awakened, that she would give thanks to the sun that the sun rose that morning.

Well what a silly thing to do! We all know that the sun is going to rise, it is going rise every morning. You don ‘t have to give thanks for it. But you do. Perhaps not that the sun rose, but that you rose to greet the new day. To give thanks to that, that wonder, that mystery of life and how that occurs over and over again. Such can be a very powerful ritual that can help put us in touch with the source of life and the divine mystery of the universe.

At the memorial service for Rabbi Myron Kinberg years ago, his daughter, 19 or 20 years of age, shared a wonderful story of one of her favorite images of her father. On the first day of school every year the rabbi would line up his children, take a jar of honey and place a drop of honey on their tongues as he would say to them, “May your learning be filled with the Word of God and may it be sweet to you.”

What a wonderful ritual of endowing on your children the importance of education and the Word of God that comes to us through it. His daughter shared for all of us gathered down at the Hult Center--must have been close to a thousand people--of how she looked forward to that blessing that she received from her father every year and what that meant to her in starting out the school year. It is perhaps not surprising that she went on to seminary and is now a rabbi herself, carrying on the family tradition.

May you find and acknowledge the presence of God in your life as did Ana and Simeon and may you find in the rituals of our faith, that divine presence strengthened in you. And may that presence be with you throughout the new year.

 


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