Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Christmas 12/28/2014

Having celebrated Christmas just a few days ago, today can have a “My how you’ve grown” feel about it. I used to hate it when I was a kid and people who hadn’t seen me for a long time would say that. Now I do it, “You’re a lot bigger than the last time I saw you!” It’s like what’s the big surprise; that’s what kids do; they grow. Anyway, while today’s reading begins with Jesus still an infant, it ends with “The child grew and became strong.” My, how you’ve grown.

That’s not the main focus of this reading though. It’s set in the context of Jesus’ presentation in the temple, presentation being a Jewish custom in which the first male child in a family would be “presented” to the Lord in the temple and then symbolically bought back for an offering of five sheckels. As Luke tells it though, what was offered was not five sheckels but two young pigeons which was actually the offering a mother would make for her purification following birth. If you read this as an historical account then you have to say that Luke has his facts mixed up. My guess however, is that Luke is more concerned with the theological implications of what he writes than he is in accurately reporting these ancient Jewish customs. So let’s not worry about that for the moment and consider other things.

The first thing of note is the obedience of Jesus’ parents to the religious customs of the day and through their obedience, the obedience of Jesus himself is reflected. It’s not the first example of obedience though. In the familiar Christmas story they were also obedient to the census decreed by Quirinius but what gets lost in Luke’s telling, is that not everyone was obedient to that decree. The census referred to caused rebellion among some Jews and led to the rise of the group called the zealots who were out to overthrow Roman rule; but Jesus’ family was not part of that. They were obedient to Roman rule. Then, as the narrative continues with texts like today’s, they continue to be obedient to the rites and customs of Judaism, part of which involves the “presentation” of the child.

That is significant because by the time Luke wrote many years later those examples of obedience were a distant memory; the Jewish leadership had rejected Jesus by then and the political leaders, the Romans, saw his followers as, at worst a threat, at best just a nuisance. But Luke is careful to show that in his origins, Jesus and his family were not a threat to anyone, in particular he wants to show that even if Judaism had rejected Jesus, Jesus hadn’t rejected Judaism.

So that’s part of what Luke wants to get across here, but even that probably isn’t the main thrust. The center of this reading is the Song of Simeon, the familiar Nunc Dimittis from the liturgy, “Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace.” Simeon is portrayed as one who is “waiting for the consolation of Israel” which are words that echo verses from the prophet Isaiah. The song Simeon sings carries the Isaiah connection even further with words about salvation for all nations, words that are similar to those in today’s Isaiah reading and then subsequent verses in the song also echo other parts of Isaiah with words about all people seeing the glory of the Lord and verses that speak of a light for all nations coming into the world. Isaiah is definitely in the background here.

We sing this song of Simeon on most Sundays, we’ll do it today, and we probably don’t find it remarkable, but words about salvation for all peoples and for the nations and for the Gentiles was remarkable. The battle for the heart of Christianity was already going on at the time Luke wrote with questions about who was to be included; was it just Jews, the insiders? Or, were Gentiles, non-Jews welcome? Or, did outsiders first have to accept the customs of Judaism before they could be included? Luke’s answer to those questions, in the words of this song, is that this good news is for everyone. He pointedly breaks downs barriers that exclude.

Like I said, we sing this song every week and don’t find the words remarkable, but we should. The conflict about inclusion that existed at the time Luke wrote isn’t the same today, but conflicts about inclusion or exclusion, who’s in and who’s out based on one thing or another have been an ongoing feature of Christian history and theology ever since. The words of Simeon were remarkable back then, and they still are. As we sing them, we do well to hear them as remarkable and to think about any ways that we intentionally or unintentionally set up barriers that exclude others.

Simeon’s words don’t end there. As Simeon holds the child he does look into the future and sees salvation; but prophets are truth tellers and looking further, he also sees rejection. The good news about salvation for all people will not be received by all people. By the time he writes, Luke of course knows that this future is now; rejection was part of the reaction to Jesus and his followers.

Two thousand years later we know that it continues to happen. The good news is proclaimed, but many reject it or are indifferent to it and we wonder why and we wonder what to do about it. There are no easy answers to that question and maybe you wonder if that’s just the way it’s always been and that’s the way it always will be. Some things are out of our control, but what we can do is make sure that we don’t let ourselves be defined by those internal squabbles about inclusion and exclusion. The Christmas truth is about a savior for all people, a truth about grace upon grace; that’s what defines us. If that message is rejected, we can’t do much, except to keep proclaiming it.

The second part of Simeon’s oracle ends with “and a sword will pierce your own soul too,” with those words addressed to Mary. It’s not a real well known verse for most of us although more is made of it in the traditions that place more of an emphasis on Mary. The most frequent interpretation has to do with these words foreshadowing Mary at the foot of the cross witnessing the crucifixion. The trouble with that is that the only reference to Mary at the cross is in John not Luke so while that is a valid interpretation, it’s probably not the connection Luke was looking for.

In the text we heard last week on the Sunday before Christmas, Mary was portrayed as a model disciple, hearing and accepting and proclaiming the good news she heard from the angel. With her role as a disciple in mind, it seems more likely that these words reflect the fact that even the most faithful disciples will not be immune to conflict regarding Jesus. Even Mary could be torn between who she wanted Jesus to be and who Jesus had to be to as the Messiah. That kind of sword would pierce her soul and it continues to present a challenge to discipleship.

On this First Sunday of Christmas we still celebrate Jesus’ birth, but we also begin a move away from sentimentality and toward “My how you’ve grown.” The baby has to grow up and as Simeon saw, that would mean salvation for all people, but it wouldn’t come without rejection and conflict and that’s still the case. Rejection and conflict continue to be part of the reaction to Jesus.

On this First Sunday of Christmas we’re also reminded that just as the Holy Family returned to Nazareth having been obedient to the law of the Lord, following these days of celebration we too will return to the routine of our lives. Having heard the words of Simeon though, we know the promise of this child and we also know that as the favor of the Lord was with him, as we make our own return to life as usual, the favor of the Lord is with us as well.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

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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