[I preached this message from Luke 2:22-40 at Community of the Savior, Rochester NY, on the first Sunday of Christmas, Dec. 31, 2017.]
In his daily blog a few weeks ago, Richard Rohr ago told of a four-year-old girl whose parents just welcomed a baby boy. She tells her parents, “I want to talk to my new baby brother alone.” They closed the door to baby’s bedroom, leaving it slightly ajar, and listened to hear what she might say to this little baby. They heard her clearly: “Quick, tell me who made you. Tell me where you came from. I’m beginning to forget!”
With all the passwords we try to memorize and have ready, we do tend to forget important things. (Since I have trouble remembering passwords, does that mean I remember to ponder the great matters?) Important matters like who we are and where we are from and who made us. This Christmas story tells us that the key to who we are is found in another. And how could that other come to us as a baby? Tis the stuff of this season, this season of wondering and pondering great and glorious mysteries.
Who could explain the impossible words an angel brings to an old man and then, six months later, to a young virgin woman? And who could explain how old Elizabeth is pregnant and then young Mary six months after her? And who could explain how the promised Messiah’s first bed would be an animals’ feeding trough? And who could explain that his first visitors would be humble shepherds with dirt perennially under their fingernails? And who could explain that sometime later a star would hang in the sky above Bethlehem—not just any star, but a star so luminous that it could lead mysterious star-gazing visitors from far to the east all the way to little Bethlehem? And who could explain that these mysterious visitors brought even more mysterious gifts for a toddler?
I dare not try to explain all this. No preacher dare try. If you hear of a preacher who tries to explain these matters, don’t listen to that preacher—he or she is seriously deluded. We simply tell the story. Over and over we tell it. Not because our hearers are dense, but because we need to tell over and over what we cannot explain. As we tell it and hear it, we get caught up in it—and finally we find ourselves in it.
In the 1980s my favorite TV show was Hill Street Blues, a police show with heart and grit. In one episode Capt. Furillo goes home for Christmas. As he greets his sister, my eyes grow wide. His sister is my cousin. Cathy was a fledgling actress, getting supporting roles in movies and TV, but never the star. And there she was, Capt. Furillo’s sister; my cousin. I went to middle and high school with her. I already liked the story line of Hill Street Blues, but seeing my cousin in that family drew me in at a deeper level. As we tell and hear this story of Jesus’ birth, we get caught up in it—and finally we find ourselves in it. We are in the Temple one day when two young parents walk in with their six-week old baby boy.
And now, between the first wave shepherds and the late arriving Magi, we have two other characters. Some say that Christmas is for children, but don’t use that line on these two. Simeon and Anna might beg to disagree. They were both old, very old. And they hung around the Temple all the time. Maybe old people do that more than young people. Some of us see Simeon and Anna and recognize first cousins, right there in the story.
Simeon sees the baby first. Who can explain this? The Spirit whispers to him that that baby is the one he has been waiting for so long. That baby, with the young mother and the silent father. As he looks more closely, they look to be of modest means, perhaps even poor. When they present their baby before the Lord, they do not offer the prescribed lamb, a costly sacrifice, but the hardship option of two common birds. That’s all right. There is nothing wrong with being poor, but now it is the baby that grabs his attention. This baby is not wearing a flowing white silk garment adorned with buttons of pearl, passed down through four generations. Simeon moves slowly toward them and reaches out to hold the baby. Did he ask permission? I didn’t hear that. But there he is cradling a baby. I hear Mary, “Please, sir, hold him carefully. Don’t drop him. He’s just six weeks old.”
And this old man breaks out into a song of praise: “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.” If I am making a movie of this, it is a grand musical, with beautiful solo voices and a great choir supporting them. And the set for the Temple would be spectacular. But the story is more simple, more humble, more authentic.
“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 that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’”
Have you ever said something you regretted as soon as the words left your lips? I have too many times to count. I wonder if Simeon is feeling that way as he says that a sword will pierce Mary’s tender heart. How can he know what that means? How can Mary know how her heart will be pierced one day in the distant future when…?
Anna is at least 84. We hear no words from her, but she is a prophet, which means she speaks the word of God. At seeing the baby Jesus, she praises God and tells everyone in sight about him. I don’t think she can be shut up, so full of praise is her heart in this moment. Somehow her old joints are dancing in the joy of this advent.
Here in the Temple we see the world. We see a humble young couple, not yet married mind you, and in their traveling clothes for they are far from Nazareth, bringing their newborn baby to be dedicated to God. And they are surrounded by two old people singing up a storm of praise to God. Here we have young and old, silent and noisy, female and male, some waiting expectantly and some not expecting any of this to be happening. This story envelopes the world and includes us, all of us.
Anna and Simeon. They seem to be the only ones in this story that didn’t have to travel. Mary and Joseph traveled nearly 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The shepherds came from their fields, though perhaps it was only a few hundred yards. The magi would travel hundreds of miles from the east. But Simeon and Anna? They were patiently waiting, perhaps just waiting to die in God’s Holy Temple. And the baby Jesus went to them. Jesus went to them. Yes, they journeyed, but their journey was measured in years instead of miles.
Just over a week ago the well-known sportscaster Dick Enberg died in his 80s. Being a sports fan, I long knew his voice and appreciated his skill. One obituary I read told that his family was gathering in Boston for Christmas, where his daughter lives. His wife flew out a few days earlier. Enberg had his airline reservations. When he didn’t arrive on time, his daughter called a neighbor to check on him. The neighbor found Enberg dead in his bed. Then, the obituary said, the neighbor saw that his bags were packed a few feet from the bed. His bags were packed for a long journey. Just like Anna and Simeon. Their bags were packed for a long journey, when a young couple brought a baby to the Temple. Are our bags packed for the next leg of our journey? It doesn’t matter what our age, there is another leg of the journey ahead for us. It is wise to have a bag packed.
One of my favorite of newer Christmas songs (which means anytime in the last four decades) is “Mary, Did You Know?” I love this couplet:
“Mary, did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God?” (Mark Lowry)
Simeon and Anna were waiting at the Temple one day. In walked a young couple with a baby. And Anna and Simeon kissed the face of God.