God's Story, Our Story: First Sunday after Christmas

Preaching: Janelle Koolhaas
Text: Luke 2:22-40

22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

[This is the Word of the Lord.]

Joseph and Mary have been having quite a journey, eh? I wonder how long they stayed in Bethlehem, homeless and overwhelmed with adjusting to a newborn. I wonder if they went on as quickly as they could back to Jerusalem? Surely there could be a place for them to stay there.  I wonder if they stayed over for a while at Zechariah and Elizabeth’s, and met little baby John? I wonder if they wondered if they would ever be able to fit it and make a life for themselves back in their home town of Nazareth… would people ever look at them without whispering about whose father the baby was…

We find them in today’s reading at the Temple in Jerusalem, their 5 week old son swaddled and held close, with those funny pimples that all seem to get around a month old. Perhaps he was quite good at holding up his head by now. I wonder if he had yet changed his parent’s lives with his first smile?

He would change at least a few people’s lives that day, and not just in the way babies have a way of doing.

Today, for some reason, Simeon could not get it out of his heart that he must go to the Temple, that he had an appointment from God. I imagine him as an old and wise gentleman. I wonder if he had ever told anyone about the hope borne in him that he would see God’s Annointed One with his one eyes before he departed from the earth? I wonder what the stirring felt like that led him into the courts and fixed his eyes on the couple with the baby?

What a rush! What a startling joy that must have come over Simeon!  Oh! OH? Now? really?

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you may now dismiss[
c] your servant in peace.

30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel.”

How Simeon had longed and wondered if it were possible, for this moment to come. And here it had! It had! He could feel it in his gut—no one would have deliberately picked this man and woman and child out of a crowd… they came to present their child to the Lord…but look at them, poor souls, dressed like refugees, they couldn’t even afford a lamb… but Simeon was overcome by the stirring of God’s Spirit… and he just KNEW.

Anna had felt it too. The grip of knowing caught her all at once when she saw how Simeon gushed over the child and blessed him. She had stopped in her tracks and moved straight towards them; not leaving a chance that she would miss them before they departed back into the crowds that swarmed the Temple. How long had she waited for this? So many years. An eternity, it felt like. And suddenly now it all seemed to be happening so fast?!

I wonder if she spoke out something like this? (Psalm 118:24-27)

the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 The Lord has done it this very day;

25 Lord, save us!
    Lord, grant us success!

26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
    From the house of the Lord we bless you.
27 The Lord is God,
    and he has made his light shine on us.

What joy for two people who had waited and hoped for so long!

Throughout Advent, we focus on waiting. Longing. These are feelings and experiences wholly familiar to us, are they not?  We have leaned in to hear about how God prepares, and how we prepare, for the unfolding of God´s plans. And we have celebrated the birth of Christ, the fulfillment of so many longing hearts and hopeful prophetic words.  Today’s story brings us the surprise and delight of two people who had clung to God’s promise of the Savior. God prompts and leads and nudges us, and even so still there are times that when we throw our hands up and say “what? NOW?! OH!!”

Simeon prophesied that Mary would have her own burdens and struggles as she watched God carry out the plans he had for her son.  Her heart would be broken one day.  I wonder if every single day she imagined how his life would go.  How would her own life would go? Remember at the wedding at Cana, when she seemed to be nudging him to intervene in the humiliating wine debacle that was about to ensue for the host—and he assures her that she cannot hurry God’s will! J  On the other hand, I’m sure there were times when she felt it was all happening too fast, too much, and we know from Mark and Matthew’s gospels that she and her other sons tried to rein him in, wondering if he had lost his mind, perhaps begging him to tone it down.

And the night that she stood by the cross…surely that happened all too fast, and with excruciating slowness as she saw how the soldiers beat him and hung him there…what of her surprise and wonder when his friends said that Angels announced that he was alive, and that they had seen him too.  Could her heart take any more angel announcements of impossible things??

But God’s word assures us that God’s timing is neither slow, nor mistaken…God’s Story shows this too us, over and over.

On the other hand, when we talk about Our Story, not all of the pieces fit so clearly.  We recognize in the chapters of our own lives the ups and downs of our faith, the brokenness that is not so easy to explain, forgive, or turn from…

  • We uncover aches that no amount of theology will ever undo.  We may learn to endure, but we will never understand.
  • We uncover hairpin turns in the course of our dreams and families and careers… We admit we’ve had doubts about how we discerned, and if we made the right choice. How does one be sure of Gods’ will, anyway?
  • We can think of relationships that didn’t work out or didn’t last as long as we’d dreamed, children who did not follow the path we’d hoped for, and bodies that failed us and became frail or failing before we were ready.

Maybe all our talk about God’s Story/Our Story has made you bristle with discomfort or even anger. Maybe it has made you want to weep with hope worn thin.  Maybe it has left you cold, because it’s hard to feel that everything is so neatly connected as preachers want it to sound, especially in Advent.

When we read about Simeon and Anna, it’s tempting for us where we sit on this side of Advent and Christmas to imagine that this all played out in a marvelous way that just gave everything they had every hoped for or struggled through meaning, and thus made it worthwhile, like the closing scene of it’s a Wonderful Life.  I have always turned to these two figures as prime examples of experiencing the redemption of our waiting, and of hope fulfilled.

But that is far too over simplified.

Simeon saw a baby and was moved by God’s Spirit to declare that he was the Messiah, and there was that moment of joy that rings out and reverberates through the ages through God’s Word. But let’s look at the other reality—Simeon waited and prayed for a Messiah ALL OF HIS LIFE!  And as moving as the scene is, it was probably not what Simeon hoped for or imagined.  He would never live to see Jesus teach and hear his words of authority, see his miracles, or hear the inexplicable story of his resurrection—all of these things would come much later.  Though his prophetic words show that God’s Spirit was assuring him that this baby would be the Messiah—what of the consolation of Israel did he ever get to see with his own eyes?

Anna was a woman well acquainted with disappointment and unfulfilled hope.  She was married only a short few years before her husband died, and because she lived at the temple as a widow, my best guess is that any chance of being a mother also passed her by, and she never had a family of her own.  Just like Simeon, she was blessed with an out-of-this-world stirring of God’s Spirit within her when she encountered a poor couple with a newborn in the Temple—and Luke says she spent all the rest of her days telling others about the redemption of Israel… but honestly… that amounts to a lot more believing than seeing.  She clung tenaciously to a promise that she trusted because she MUST, and she was alert to the sign that God was unfolding his plans for this child… but let’s be real. She still died in land occupied by foreign forces, a vicious, monster of a king on the throne, and with redemption as something that only could be felt in the hearts of those who had faith to trust that God would not abandon them.

Neither of them could ever have known that their names would go down in Luke’s history and become integral and beloved figures in the story of the Messiah’s life. What would they have thought of THAT? Oh how I wonder what they would also want us to know about waiting and watching for something that God had sealed to their heart, and only for a split second passed before their eyes? I wonder, for all their faithfulness, what they would dare to tell us about doubts, about depression, and almost giving up?

 What I come to find from Anna and Simeon is that the only way to understand our own stories of brokenness , the only way to bear them at all--  … is to cling God’s Story that extends far before, and after… to trust in what God is doing that bigger and deeper and wider than any lifespan.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if your story doesn’t feel all resolved and redeemed, if you are trusting God and still waiting for him in many practical or profound ways… then, yes, your story belongs. Your story is valid. Your story fits right in.

God’s timing and God’s answers are at the heart of God’s Story… and we preachers thrive on telling the Biblical story in ways that point to all the certainties and clear signs. And there are so many of those for us to hold dear, to stake our lives on. But I want part of our closing reflections in Advent to include our day-to-day waiting and hurting, and gather those realities in as part of the whole big Picture… the whole big Story that God is still working through, working out, and redeeming in ways big and small, bold and visible… steady and slow-to-us— fast, and abrupt-to-us… but not to God.

Amen.

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For personal reflection:      

  • What do you need to entrust to God that you cannot bear by yourself?
  • How will you make room for the kind of listening that expects and trusts that God will reveal himself more and more?
  • Let us pray for the help of God’s Spirit to guide, strengthen, and comfort us as we wait on the Lord.
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