July 18, 2018

Christmas I: Sermon for an Odd Sunday

Presentation of Christ at the Temple. Giotto

Sermon Christmas I 2017
Sermon for an Odd Sunday

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 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

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. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided 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, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

‘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 glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then 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 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

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, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At 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.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

• Luke 2:22-40

• • •

The Lord be with you.

This, to me, has always been an odd Sunday on the church’s calendar. Because of our culture and the way we have come to celebrate the holidays, most of us are thinking, “Christmas is over!” We may be breathing a sigh of relief, we may have already taken down the tree and decorations, the family has gone home, the gifts have been put away and are being put to use, and this week, these days, this Sunday seems like an anticlimax to the big celebration that took place on one day after a long season of advertising, shopping, and preparing. What we had looked forward to for so long has come and gone, and is now past.

On the other hand, we are thinking about the future. On our calendar, tomorrow begins a new year. Tonight we’ll count down to midnight, raise our glasses, embrace our loved ones, and celebrate the possibilities that lay before us the next 365 days. “A new year has come!” Perhaps we’ve been pondering resolutions, working on our 2018 calendars, looking forward to particular events that we are planning during the months to come. A blank slate is before us, and a spirit of anticipation is in the air.

So we look back and in our cultural habits Christmas is past. We look forward because we find ourselves on the doorstep of a new year. And yet today, we have this Sunday that seems to lie between those two realities. On the church calendar it is the first Sunday in Christmastide. For the church, Christmas doesn’t end on Christmas day, it just begins then. The twelve days of Christmas carry on the celebration until Epiphany, January 6. So it’s still actually appropriate to say, “Merry Christmas!,” to sing Christmas carols, to keep our decorations up, and to celebrate the birth of Christ. Everybody knows that the day a baby is born is just the beginning of expressing our joy and enjoying the new little one among us. On the other hand, we are people of a particular culture as well, and we follow the same calendar as our neighbors. It’s New Year’s Eve! Time to close the door on 2017 and open the door to a brand new year.

I think our reading for today has a simple lesson we can take for an odd Sunday like this, when we feel in between Christmas and the new year.

In today’s text from Luke, it is now forty days after Jesus’ birth. After eight days, Mary and Joseph, who were faithful Jewish parents, had Jesus circumcised and named in accordance with the law. Now, thirty-two days later, we see his parents again performing their duty as they return to the Temple, this time in order to offer a sacrifice and to present their newborn baby, Jesus, to the Lord. There they meet two older saints, a man named Simeon and an woman named Anna. These strangers approach the holy family and make some profound statements about who Jesus is and what he came to do.

Most of the time, when reading this passage, we give our attention to these two people and what they say about Jesus. And, indeed, Luke wants us to hear their remarkable words. To them, Jesus was the fulfillment of all they had longed for and waited for. They recognized Jesus as the Messiah, the King promised to Israel, the One who would come from God and bring his people redemption. Their words here are the answer to the Advent hymn we sang each week, “O come, o come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”

But I want you to notice something much simpler and down-to-earth on this Sunday, as we look back on Christmas and forward to a new year in 2018. Observe with me that these encounters Mary and Joseph had with Simeon and Anna took place in the temple, their place of worship. Notice that Mary and Joseph had taken Jesus there, to fulfill their duties as faithful Jewish parents, according to God’s instructions. Note that Simeon apparently was a person who listened to scripture, who knew God’s promises well, who had been trying for many years to live his life according to God’s word. And notice that Anna, who had sadly lost a young husband, had devoted herself afterwards to serving God in a religious vocation.

Let me say it as simply as I can: these were people who practiced their faith. They were people who walked in this world with daily, ordinary faithfulness in response to God’s love and grace.

If I were to talk about this in terms of our lives today, I would say: these are people who made it a priority to go to church, to do their duties as pious people and parents. They maintained a religious life. They read their Bibles, they prayed, they worshiped with God’s people regularly. They sought to raise their children within the community of faith. They knew God had blessed them and made them God’s people, and so they responded by trying to do, as the last verse of our text says, “everything required by the law of the Lord.” They sought, by God’s help, to be faithful people, who made following his instructions and living with grateful devotion the pattern of their lives.

They were simple people. They are not known by having done great and spectacular things. In their own day they were not celebrities or people who were honored as leaders or movers and shakers. Just ordinary folks, fulfilling their ordinary duties with a spirit of reverence and thankfulness to God. They trusted God, they took their kids to church, they read their Bibles, they prayed, they served the Lord and their neighbors.

I realize that’s not a sexy message. It’s not some deep spiritual insight that will turn your world upside down and send chills of spiritual experience running up and down your back. Hearing it is probably more like being told to eat your vegetables than being given a big piece of pie a la mode.

That’s okay. I’m not here to give you a spiritual thrill ride. I’m here today to help us all learn to walk, to walk in Christ, to walk in the path of wisdom and love. And it all starts with a simple path: the straight-forward way of simple, daily faithfulness we see here in Mary and Joseph and Simeon and Anna.

Yesterday I officiated the funeral service of a man 97 years old. He died on Christmas Day. His wife had died just a couple of weeks earlier. They had lived and died in the same small town. He had taken over a business that has been in the family since 1888, providing a very important service for their community. His son now runs that business. This man and his wife had been married about 70 years, had family of children and grandchildren who were all at the funeral along with many neighbors and friends. Always went to church. Served in various capacities in his church and community. Started the Little League baseball program there. Founded the town’s annual parade. Served his country with honor in WWII. Took care of his family and neighbors.

In my funeral sermon, I said that one of my favorite movie characters is George Bailey, from It’s a Wonderful Life. Never did George Bailey achieve the big splash of fame and fortune he dreamed about. Instead, he remained in the little town of Bedford Falls and achieved something much better: contentment, joy, doing good and meaningful work that helps others, a loving family, lots of friends, a spirit of public service, enjoying the good things in life and trusting God and helping others through the hard times in life.

People like George Bailey and the friend I eulogized yesterday won’t get their names in the history books, but they are the bedrock upon which our lives, families, and communities are built.

As we look back on Christmas and forward to a new year, let’s take it a day at a time, and make each day a day of ordinary faithfulness. Let’s awaken every day, receiving it as a gift from God, thanking him for our salvation and all the blessings of life. Let’s walk each day as the prophets teach us:

“He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Amen.

Comments

  1. senecagriggs says:

    As we look back on Christmas and forward to a new year, let’s take it a day at a time, and make each day a day of ordinary faithfulness. Let’s awaken every day, receiving it as a gift from God, thanking him for our salvation and all the blessings of life. Let’s walk each day as the prophets teach us:
    “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
    Amen. [ Indeed ]

  2. Susan Dumbrell says:

    I am not being sentimental but…. These two passages , one from Luke and the other from Micah have held me in great stead for many years.

    The Micah verse was preach to us about 30 years ago by an aging and pious priest who wanted to share his faith with us that day.
    I have never forgotten him or his preaching that day even though he went to his Maker about 20 years ago.

    Considering the political one-up-man-ship that is supposedly ‘news’, these men who hold the fate of the world in their hands could not look to a more appropriate verse to model their lives on.
    (I know Kim is not a Christian)
    Pity that Trump does not have the Christian knowledge to look more objectively at his hasty judgements and twitters and consider them in the light of the Gospel.
    (Trump says he is a Christian)

    Let us now depart from the hurly burly of fake news and walk humbly with our God.
    Peace be with us all.

    Susan

  3. Susan Dumbrell says:

    Please try to catch the fireworks from Sydney Harbour at midnight, Sydney time.
    On line or on youtube later.
    Just watch. There are none better. It is the truth! Good weather is forecast.
    I will be watching you to make sure you watch. OK? Got that?
    I will set a written exam to know whether you did or did not watch. OK?
    Watch our fireworks, we do it so well. What more do you want?
    Have fun however you celebrate New Years.
    Happy New Year Imonkers !!

    Susan

    • john barry says:

      Susan, I went to Outback in your honor as I know it is authentic Aussie cooking I also enjoy authentic Chinese food from Panda Express. , Actually got a gift certificate, I wanted a trip to Australia but this is as close as I got. Well, it is the thought that counts.. I will look at the fireworks taped as you are speaking to me from the future. How is 2018, will it be a better year? If you are down under are we up yonder? I like Crocodile Dundee , part 1, Quincy Down Under, good movie, Blooming Onion and calling people mates. I have actually put shrimp on the barbie but still no trip gift. Another thing I like about Australia is your reporting from down under and your kind nature. Of course I am being silly but to be serious a fine sermon above to close out the year. As you live in the future hope you had a Happy New Year.

      Oh, I forgot the great “The Gods Must be Crazy” about the coke bottle if I remember correctly. Have to watch it again soon.

      • Brianthegrandad says:

        Gods must be crazy takes place down under, but down under in Africa, not Australia so Susan may not be familiar with it. I forget the name of the country it is set in. The names have all changed since I took geography. It was a South AfrIcan film, dubbed into English from Afrikaans.

        • Susan Dumbrell says:

          A quick ‘google’ mentions the movie being set in Botswana.
          I don’t know it.

        • john barry says:

          Brain the G.dad thanks ,I was going by memory, dangerous at my age, I think I saw it early 197o at a real movie theater. I forgot it was a Bushman, thought it was Australia, anyway , it was a great movie. Sorry Susan, but in my defense they both begin with A.

  4. Full moon,
    or maybe not —
    who can be sure?

  5. Ronald Avra says:

    Excellent sermon for this Sunday, Chaplain. Thank you very much. Having said that, I realize that I’m long overdue for a donation. Will try and rectify that with the next check.

  6. I never fail to take the simplest thing and layer it with complexity so forgive me but there is more to Simeon and Anna than meets the eye. They see through. They see what others don’t see. They are mystics in the truest sense. They were engaged in deep internal work for a long period of time in order to pick out the little family wandering into the temple that everyone else took for ordinary and recognize what no physical cues could offer; the extra ordinary. They were on a first name basis with the living God. There are a lot of people who loiter around the chapel who only see a family of three strolling by. I know that is apparent from the text but I just thought I’d make note that quietly working a trade, church related or otherwise, is a good foundation and a good place to work from to engage in the unseen work that requires everything of us but offers no worldly acclaim. Anna and Simeon were anonymous but for a brief moment on a single day but are superheroes in the spiritual economy.

  7. Our youth pastor gave a sermon on this exact scripture this morning, with a similar take on it. Fun to see it here at iMonk, too.

  8. CM – thank you, we opted to not attend our Lutheran church this AM; we just put 4 grown kids (2 plus their spouses) on planes back to their respective homes (Boston and DC ….we’re on the west coast)…and are in recovery/rest /catch up mode…this post was totally refreshing.

    I’ve so lived/believed this these last 10-12 years…which is why I like Matt B Redmond’s book: the god of the mundane. We live ordinary lives, we worship, we change diapers, go to work, love, wait….I won’t make a ‘splash’ on society, my community, but I can love my kids, break generational sin (yep, I did, and it was simply by God’s mercy), wash the feet of those who can’t see beyond themselve, and wait….

    I don’t take down Christmas decor until after the Christmas season-the 12 days of Christmas. Enjoying our tree, decor, the meaning , reflections, etc.

    We’re in HNY mode, welcome in the next year, but follow the church year. We turn over our calendars, we celebrate the past year and look forward to the next.

    Although I grew up in a home of Hal Lindsay and LaHaye….never bought it. I simply wait for Christ’s return on his His timetable-waiting for a new heaven and a new, redeemed earth – novel idea, eh?

    Waxing long aren’t I? Maybe it’s the wine…ringing in the new year a bit early here in Cali?

    I’m thinking 2018 should be a mellow year since the last 3 have been crazy with east coast weddings….maybe I can read more than a book a month? Recommendations?

    BTW…attending the Lutheran church 3 1/2 yrs has been such a blessing….and all our Christian friends hassle us?, but hey…we love it.