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Waiting for the Beginning

Sermon - 1/01/12
John Moore
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke:  2:22-40

Traditionally, over the centuries, the Sunday after Christmas Sunday has been called "Low Sunday". And it's unusual that both of our outstanding preachers are out of town today. One is herding Ducks in southern California, and I'm not sure where the other one is. But when that happens, rarely does it happen, but when it does, a search is put on for a low-down retired minister :), who can come and stand and try to deliver the sermon.

I'm going to read the text, it's from the gospel of Luke, beginning with verse 22, chapter 2:

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;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a 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.

May God bless our understanding of this reading from his holy word.

This is a long text, isn't it? I'm going to try and develop this text, so I want to warn you, it's going to be boring for awhile :) I've got to refer to a lot of scriptures -- can you stay with me? Can you give it a try?

I heard not too long ago about an EMT (emergency medical technician) who retired in a fairly small town. He was being honored, because he had been a local hero many times through the years. He was being interviewed at a local radio station. And of course the interviewer always asks "What's the case that sticks in your mind the most over the years?". He said one time on Sunday, an usher called him. He said we have a person in the pew that has stopped breathing. I've tried to find a pulse, and there is no pulse -- I think he's expired! Can you get over here?

Well, the interviewer said, that's quite a story. But he asked: what's so unusual about that in your line of work? And he said "Well, we carried out four before we found the one that expired" :)

Just to say, if you can't stay with me, that's alright :)

The setting for our text today is in the Temple in Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph were obligated to take their newborn son, Jesus, to the Temple for the dedication and purification that's required by the Jewish law. The Temple was a center of action for the Jewish faith, had been for centuries. Though it's the darkest time of year, we believe, when this took place, light was awaiting them.

Waiting for them was an old man named Simeon. Our text describes him as devout and righteous. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the promised Messiah. And Simeon came into the Temple, guided by the spirit (our text goes on to say), and when they brought Jesus in, he recognized him. He went right over and picked him up in his arms and that's when he made that wonderful proclamation that I just read:

"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 the glory to your people Israel".

You know, that really, when you stop to think about it, that includes everybody. This newborn was bringing in a new dispensation for everybody, and Simeon got to make the announcement. Wouldn't you have liked to have been there when this took place?

Mary and Joseph were amazed, the text says, their son, the instrument of salvation for Jews and Gentiles, grace for all? A new dispensation is being announced here. Promised fulfilled to Simeon. He sees it as a beginning.

And then Anna chimes in, this 84 year-old prophet, from one of the Northern tribes -- isn't that interesting? Down there in the Temple, praying day and night, but recognizing Jesus as the light for the future days.

Dr. Craddock remarked about these two old saints, he said these old saints are Israel in miniature -- and Israel at it's best. Devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the Temple, waiting, longing for the fulfillment of God's promises.

We have another New Testament reading that wasn't mentioned in the bulletin, but it's Paul's letter to the Galatians, chapter 4, verses 4 through 7:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ 7So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

And if there's a word that can cover all these announcements that are being made, both by Simeon and by Paul, it's the word "grace". For all included. I like the way Paul Tillich puts it (he was a theologian active way back in the last century when I was in school :) -- he insists grace comes as though a voice were saying "You are accepted by that which is greater than you. Do not seek for anything, do not perform anything, do not intend anything, simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that happens to us, we experience grace. Nothing is demanded. If this experience is yours, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition -- nothing -- but acceptance".

An old college professor said: "All is grace. Once that notion gets into your gizzard, life will never be the same again".

So let us pause for a moment, and let it shift into your gizzard. Accept it anew for this new year. You are accepted, you are loved by God. It's a great way to start a new year.

After this beautiful statement about light and salvation for all, the Messiah as a instrument of God, Simeon went on to put a rather dark shadow on what he had just said.

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary: "This child is destined for the falling and rising for 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".

Now why would he add that to a young mother, after that beautiful beginning? But he was laying out that there was a cross that was already beginning to leave a shadow at the very beginning. And yet when you stop to think about it, that's very much the way life is, isn't it? There's always, always, some hitch. Things just don't go the way everything is planned out.

I read about a Christmas play, a celebration of Jesus. They asked 3 young boys from the youth choir to be the three Kings. They practiced and practiced, and learned their lines, they were the only 3 that could really carry a tune in the youth choir (among the boys). It was meant to be a glorious conclusion to the pageant. They would come down the aisle singing (as we did earlier this morning -- "We Three Kings"), bearing their gifts.

But then disaster struck, and one of the three Kings was hit with the mumps. It was too late to find a replacement who could sing. The two remaining Kings and their harried Director frantically discussed what to do. There was always that voice in the background that says "Let's just cancel it". You know, there's always that voice there -- let's just let it go. If you haven't got everything perfect, all your props together, you can't go ahead with it.

The crowds were already gathering, the music was starting, the moment had arrived, and they were one King short. So what to do? It's an appropriate question, because it describes a predicament that most of us experience this first Sunday of the year, we don't ever have all our props in a row for a new beginning, do we? It's just kind of the human situation. Despite a lot of planning and hard work, few of us come to the new year with all our lives intact and all the props in place. Maybe quite literally for you, someone just isn't here that used to be. Well, what to do.

Although the scripture doesn't really tell us how many Kings there were, traditionally there were three. And the Director had another idea. He said, why don't we just have 2 Kings? Can you sing "We Two Kings of Orient Are"?. And with a smile, they accepted that challenge.

"We Two Kings of Orient Are". In a hospital room, someone is singing it. A soldier in Afghanistan is singing it. A coach who didn't win enough games is singing it. A person looking for work, or living on the streets, is singing it.

We don't have all the props in place, but we must go on, mustn't we? And that's what Simeon is trying to say, I think, with that shadow that he cast after that beautiful light-filled blessing. The Messiah was 6 weeks old, he saw the clouds would be there in time.

But the Prince of Peace, promised by Isaiah, had arrived. The world hadn't changed that much, Herod was still on the throne. There were plenty of reasons for fear still around. But Simeon was not talking about the short-term. He was seeing it all for the long-run. God will win this one, in the long-run.

Cheryl and I, when we lived in Oklahoma, had a next-door neighbor, he was a retired minister, and old guy named Harold Inns. His last several years, he was Administrator of the Oklahoma Christian Home. And for years and years, they had tried to put a nursing unit into what the home offered, but just couldn't get it off the ground. Harold retired, and had been retired for years, and we had moved next door. He kept talked about that, and finally someone got a hold of that, and they put in a nursing unit, and they asked Harold to go and dedicate it.

I wasn't at the dedication service, but I saw Harold when he got home, and he was grinning from ear-to-ear, and said "Now I know just how Simeon felt. I'm ready to go in peace" :)

Well, maybe we're all in that same boat today. You know how Simeon felt announcing what was in store for them in the future, through Jesus Christ. Drawing on the light that Simeon saw, now we can live in peace. It's January 1st, 2012. And we're all here. And together, we're beginning a new year.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.


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