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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Christmas 12/28

          Today’s gospel is a part of the infancy story of Jesus that doesn’t get heard a lot.  Part of it is familiar—when you hear, “Now Lord you let your servant go in peace,” you recognize the words as part of the liturgy, the post-communion canticle or the Nunc dimittis as it used to be called, but this lesson is only used once every three years the first Sunday after Christmas which, for a number of reasons, is traditionally a low Sunday following the big Christmas Eve attendance.

          Be that as it may, you are all here today so you get to hear this story that picks up where we left off on Christmas Eve with the presentation of Jesus in the temple and as we unpack this a little bit you’ll see that Luke includes this story for a number of reasons that relate to the themes and purposes of his overall gospel message.

          What Mary and Joseph were doing in this presentation was observing the law of the Lord as recorded in the book of Numbers.  According to this law, the first born male in any family was to be symbolically offered as a gift to God at the temple but then at the same time, the child could be redeemed or bought back for an offering of five shekels of silver.  That’s what Mary and Joseph were doing with Jesus although Luke misreports things a little bit in saying the price was a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.  That’s not worth getting hung up on though because Luke’s point here is to portray Mary and Joseph as obedient observers of Jewish law. 

Previously he had portrayed them as obedient observers of Roman law as, despite Mary’s pregnancy, they dutifully had gone to Bethlehem for the census which not everyone did.  Historical records show that this particular census provoked a rebellion against Roman rule in Judea, but Mary and Joseph and through them Jesus, were not involved; they obeyed the law.

          Remember now that this is being written 50 years or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  As he writes this infancy narrative Luke knows how the story plays out part of which is Jesus rejection by the Jewish leaders.  What’s happening here in this story of the presentation is that Luke is foreshadowing and contrasting that rejection with the acceptance, by Jesus and his family, of the rites and rituals of Judaism.  The leaders reject Jesus, but he doesn’t reject Judaism and Luke wants to make that point clear.

          A central piece of this story is Simeon’s, “Now Lord you let your servant go in peace,” oracle.  It’s an announcement of salvation for all people, a revelation to the Gentiles as well as the people of Israel.  What this does is to pick up on the universalism of Old Testament texts like today’s Isaiah passage where “The Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations,” and “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory.”  Luke, like Isaiah understands this story of salvation to be for everyone, for all peoples, a break with some Old Testament voices that have a much narrower vision of things, a caution to us concerning how narrow our vision of salvation might be. 

          Luke also foreshadows things to come with Simeon’s words to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.” He speaks to Mary about “a sword piercing her soul.”  Luke knows the rest of the story.  He knows that while some in Israel will accept Jesus, many will not.  So even for us who also know the rest of the story, in the midst of these 12 days, our Christmas joy is tempered somewhat by these words.  Discipleship and faith in Jesus doesn’t mean that all your troubles disappear; it does not make one immune to suffering, not even Mary.  Luke reminds us that the joy experienced at the birth of the Christ child can and must lead to the cross. 

          I’m not sure that it is part of Luke’s plan for telling the story or not, but I think it’s interesting that Simeon and Anna are both old people or at least we know Anna was old, 84 years old and it seems that we can infer that Simeon is an old man too.  They have little evidence to go on as they make their claims concerning this baby, but somehow they know that this is what they have been looking for, that life is now complete.

          I would present this as an example of the wisdom that comes with age.  We don’t know any more about Simeon and Anna than we get in this story, but maybe they had reached a point in life where they had figured out what was worth having and looking for.  This comes up sometimes in Bible study discussions—how our priorities change with age, that some of things you thought were so important when you were younger, the things you wanted, the things you thought you had to have—you find out they weren’t so important after all.  Your perspective changes.

          I sense that Simeon and Anna were at that point, perhaps having stripped away much of the clutter from their lives.  Some of you here today, you know exactly what I mean; some of us are still learning as I think this is a process.  We do live in a materialist, consumerist world where we are encouraged to buy and to have; Christmas for many becomes an exercise in consumer excess.  A few days after Christmas though, a few days before the start of a new calendar year is perhaps a good time to reflect on the appropriateness of all this.  Simeon and Anna invite us to think about priorities, and particularly where a relationship with God fits into our priorities. 

          For Simeon and Anna, their spiritual quest had become the highest priority.  It’s probably safe to say that that wasn’t always the case.  They had to have had hopes and dreams throughout life, some of which had probably been met, others left unfulfilled.  But in steering their way through life, managing the ups and downs, their hopes had become centered on the promises of God.  The wisdom of age revealed to them the identity of this baby brought to the temple for presentation.  Attending to their life of faith through the rituals and practices of the temple, the Holy Spirit provided them with the wisdom to know that this was what they were looking for.  The fulfillment of God’s promises was present and visible to them, but maybe only with the wisdom of age. 

          It does provide me with an opportunity to honor the older members.  Campus Ministry does a “stories of faith” thing every year where they have a conversation with someone, not just pastors, about their story of faith.  They invited me a couple of years ago and I was asked if there had been anything about being a pastor that surprised me as I got into it.  My answer to that was that I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy visiting and talking with old people.  It’s a privilege to know you and to hear your stories; I learn a lot, some of it about you and your history and the history of the area, but even more I learn about life (sometime even from the grumpy old men).

          I remember a few years ago Kathy’s son Rob had visited a church where they live in Maine but was a little discouraged because he said it was mostly old people.  I told him, “You know, you can learn a lot from those people; it might not be a bad thing,” but sometimes even to know that takes a little time, a little age.

          Today’s gospel ends with, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”  May all of us, young and old and in between, be filled with wisdom.  May the favor of God be upon us.                        
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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