Heading Back Home

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
December 31, 2017

Luke 2: 22-40 (CEB)
When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.(23It’s written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord.”) 24They offered a sacrifice in keeping with what’s stated in the Law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.

25A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.26The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law. 28Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said, 29“Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, 30because my eyes have seen your salvation. 31You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. 32It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”

33His father and mother were amazed by what was said about him. 34Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”

36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. 37She was now an 84-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. 38She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

39When Mary and Joseph had completed everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to their hometown, Nazareth in Galilee. 40The child grew up and became strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him.

Forty days after Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary took him to the Temple to present him to the Lord. We know Joseph to be a righteous man, and would expect nothing less than that he would follow the laws of the Jewish faith when it came to their newborn child. Mary and Joseph had already had Jesus circumcised in accordance with Jewish law. This is the next step, and the family visit to the Temple on that day actually served a dual purpose. First, Mary is bringing an offering for her right of purification. You see, according to Jewish custom, after giving birth, women were considered ritually unclean for a period of forty days, at which time they had to bring an offering to the Temple to be declared ritually clean by the priest. The second purpose of this visit to the Temple that we read about this morning relates to Jesus. Again, according to Jewish custom, the first-born male of every household belonged to God. It was expected that they would grow up, learn the ways of the priests and serve in God’s Temple. However, it was possible for parents to bring an offering to, in a sense, “buy back” the child so that he could grow up and continue the family trade, or inherit the family land, and so on. So that is the offering Mary and Joseph have come to make. The normal offering was a lamb, but there was a provision for the poor, and that is what Jesus’ earthly parents bring to the Temple, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

The irony of this whole scene should not be lost on us. First of all, as the mother of the Christ-child, divinely conceived, Mary would not have been ritually unclean. Similarly, there was no reason for Mary and Joseph to “buy back” their son, who was going to spend his whole life serving God anyway, and ultimately by giving his own life as a sacrificial offering…forget the turtledoves or pigeons. But this tells us a lot about the kind of people that Mary and Joseph were, people who loved and served God with whole-hearted devotion; just the sort of people to raise God’s very own son, and as they entered the Temple, they obviously made an impression.

You know, the Temple was an extremely busy place. There was only one; this isn’t like the Christian churches of the south with one on every corner. When it came to fulfilling many of the ritual obligations, all Jewish people were expected to go to the Temple. So all day everyday there were people in and out, hustling and bustling with their animal offerings in tow. There wouldn’t be any reason for a poor family with a tiny baby and a couple of small birds to stand out; they would have been one of many such families. But as Joseph and Mary make their way into the Temple with the baby Jesus, they immediately draw the attention of a man named Simeon and soon after that a woman named Anna.

All that we know of Simeon and Anna is contained in these few verses we heard earlier. We are told Anna is an 84-year-old prophetess, and we can assume that Simeon, too, is advanced in years. Anna, it seems, spends all her time around the Temple in fasting and prayer. Simeon was from Jerusalem, and though we don’t know his profession, it seems that he spent a fair amount of time around the Temple as well. We are told that “the Holy Spirit revealed to [Simeon] that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” With such a promise from God, I suspect Simeon must have made a point each day to head over to the Temple for a few hours to watch the people coming and going, eagerly wondering if this was the day he would see the promised Messiah.

Then one day, things seem a little different for Simeon. There is a certain electricity in the air. On this day, it is the Spirit that drives Simeon to the Temple and puts Anna on high alert. And then it happens, they see Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, and suddenly they know. Can you identify with Simeon and Anna? Is there anything you’ve ever longed-for or waited for? Something, which, you know, if you could just experience it, you would know peace once and for all? These are the sorts of things we actively pursue, are they not? Such desires occupy our hearts, our minds, our energies; they can be the source of both great sorrow and extreme joy. And it certainly must have been so for Simeon and Anna because we can see so clearly the amazing joy they both experienced at the sight of the baby Jesus. Together, Simeon and Anna connect the redemption of Israel to the person of Jesus Christ. This is everything that Israel has hoped for and longed for for generations. But the great news is that this salvation extends to all people, even gentiles!

As Simeon holds in his arms the baby Jesus, he says, “Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.” This song of praise on Simeon’s lips celebrates the light and salvation that has come for all people, Jew and Gentile alike. The wizened man looks into the face of this tiny child and he can see what is to come. He knows because it has long been foretold. And Simeon is so excited that he cries out, in essence, “Yes! Finally! Alleluia! This is what I have been waiting for! Now I can die in peace!” Simeon knows that he holds in his arms not just the fulfillment of the Spirit’s promise to him, but the fulfillment of all God’s promises to Israel. It is a sense that is confirmed by Anna as she too praises God and begins to tell everyone about the coming redemption!

As Mary and Joseph carried the baby Jesus into the Temple that day, both Simeon and Anna recognized who this baby was and all that he would be. They saw in Jesus how he was to save the world, and it is an ongoing process of falling, rising, and redemption. This isn’t only falling in death and being raised in new life, this is about how corrupt powers and systems fall, even as God’s kingdom rises. This is about redeeming not only individuals but the whole world. And what we have to realize is that this work that began in Jesus’ birth continues even today! So the question for us as we put yet another Christmas behind us is, how will we ally ourselves with the work of the Messiah in the coming year? Redemption means not only that we share the good news with those around us as Anna did, but it also means we engage in acts of justice and compassion toward our neighbor, those who need to be raised up! Like Simeon and Anna, we need to bear witness to God’s work of bringing deliverance to all who seek to be the people of God, but who are held captive by sin, death, fear, disease, and all forms of evil, injustice, and oppression. If there is anything for us to learn from the Christmas story, it is that there is a place for all of us—young and old, weak and strong, likely and unlikely—in Jesus’ story, and a role for all of us to play in his ongoing work.

A common question in our world today goes something like this, “Why does Christianity matter?” or “Why does faith in Christ matter?” These questions get asked because the world tells us that we can have all we need if we just work hard and follow the American dream. But as we have all learned, following the American dream is as disappointing as it is fulfilling. And that’s why Christianity matters. Because when everything else falls short, faith in Christ can still give us hope and purpose. When we are like Simeon, with nothing before us but death, we can still experience joy. A life without Christ is dark, it is restless, there is no peace. But if we can embrace the love that God has shown to us in Jesus Christ, it will turn our world upside-down. It will make life matter in all the best ways possible. Simeon and Anna knew that, they experienced it, and then they sang out in joy!

Have you welcomed the Christ-child into your heart this Christmas? Are you prepared to continue Christ’s work in the world today? Because here’s the thing: all that you long for in life, and everything you most need are here for you if you will only embrace this Christ and share his redeeming work. Make yourself at home. He is peace and joy, and light, and hope. He is forgiveness, and grace, and love. And what we celebrate at Christmas-time is that Christ is here. Let’s welcome him now.

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