[This message was delivered on the First Sunday of Christmas, 12/27/20, at Perinton Presbyterian Church, based on Luke 2:22-40. It can also be viewed at the church’s channel on FaceBook.]
Just three words. They are perhaps the most dreaded words we read on a Christmas morning. They can ruin a child’s joy and make for a long day for parents. The three words: Some assembly required. I like the instructions Ikea, the Swedish furniture maker, uses: they have no words, but really good pictures showing just which screw goes in what piece of wood. Some assembly is required and they make it so I even can I do it.
Parenthood is not such a simple matter. Some assembly is required. We humans see ourselves at the pinnacle of the created order, as Genesis 1 affirms. Yet our offspring seem to be the most helpless of all. A baby giraffe is standing in about 30 minutes. Not the human baby. A puppy can be house-trained in four months or so. Not the human baby. Not the human baby. Most birds begin flying at two weeks. Not the human baby. There is some parental assembly required for every human baby.
There is something lean and neat about Mark’s Gospel. Jesus appears as a fully-grown person. He walks, talks, is an accomplished carpenter, and is potty trained when we meet him. His parents are hardly needed. We never meet Joseph in Mark. We read of Mary by name just once. That’s it.
Luke takes another tack, for which we are most grateful. Perhaps it was because Luke was a physician. Doctors back then were generalists. They cared for people at every stage of life and knew that babies were vulnerable. It was not assumed that all babies would make it to adulthood. Before we meet Jesus, we are introduced to Joseph and Mary, especially Mary. When we meet Jesus, he is a baby. Unable to walk, talk, feed himself, or—how shall I say it?—toilet himself. Whoever wrote the lyrics to “Away in a Manger,” gave us a great gift; I love that carol. Except for that one line that is pure heresy: “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Of course, he cried. Babies cry. I don’t think the straw in that manger was fine-tooth combed, all soft and snuggly.
Joseph and Mary are intent on doing the right thing, this intrepid young couple. Did anyone think to give Mary a copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting?” Thrust into circumstances unexpected and nearly unimaginable, they keep doing the right thing. In today’s passage in Luke 2, five times the law of the Lord is mentioned. Joseph and Mary do what is required of them by the law at every step in this perilous journey that will cover hundreds of miles, without a car, a bus, a train, or an airplane. The tradition carries them in their uncertainty. The faith passed down from generation to generation lights their rocky path. Tradition has such power. Tradition!
Jaroslav Pelikan, a 20th century theologian, said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” I’m also with that other theologian, Teyve the milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tradition carries us and helps us know who we are. I need tradition. Tradition!
There is a generation today in our land that is hesitant to embrace our Christian faith. This younger generation often finds the Church cold, harsh, and rigid. Traditionalism can become like that. The Church often seems more concerned with judgment than justice. More concerned with ritual than right living. More concerned with grading other people than graciously welcoming other people. More concerned with self-preservation than with self-giving. More concerned with its own monuments than with mercy. I believe that when the Church starts living more like Jesus, with grace and mercy, people now estranged from the Church will start coming back. And they will welcome tradition that isn’t cold, harsh, and rigid, but is warm, loving, and filled with grace and mercy. People want healthy tradition, not rigid traditionalism.
The adult Jesus honored tradition, except when it was cold, harsh, and rigid. Jesus always keeps the law of the Lord, but he always puts human need above ritual. He perfectly kept and keeps the two great commandments: to love God supremely and to love neighbor as one loves oneself. The religious leaders of that time had the hardest time with Jesus and gave him the hardest time, because he honored tradition without being cold, harsh, and rigid to human need. He put people above old precepts. He was not a traditionalist.
Joseph and Mary do everything required of them by the law of the Lord. They honor the tradition. In the temple two old people are waiting, seemingly stuck in Advent for who knows how long. Who said Christmas is for children? With their failing eyesight, they are sensitive to every movement around them. With their failing hearing, they hear things that most people miss. A young couple with a baby enter the temple. He is dressed like a carpenter. She is very young, a teenager. They aren’t regulars at the temple. They look like Galileans. They look tired, as if they have traveled far. But they are not downcast; they seem happy and proud with this little baby. They make an offering, as is done when bringing a baby in dedication. The Hebrew scriptures call for the offering of a lamb and a pigeon, but they bring two doves. There is a provision in the law for financial hardship, for the poor: two doves, such common birds. They are poor. And they are blessed.
Simeon steps out first. But not sprightly, at his advanced age. Perhaps he has had a knee replaced or two. He is shaky as he goes right to the baby, and, surprise, takes the baby into his arms. Mary is wondering, will he drop the baby? Joseph, be ready to catch our baby. Then the old man blesses the baby: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” But he isn’t finished. He is compelled to say something to this young mother: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” In his little book about Biblical people, “Peculiar Treasures,” Frederick Buechner says this about old Simeon at that moment: “He would rather have bitten off his tongue than have said it, but in that holy place, he felt he had no choice. Then he handed her back the baby. . . .” It is now for Mary and Joseph to keep on keeping the law of the Lord, their tradition, with this helpless little miracle baby entrusted to them.
A Nigerian woman who is a physician at a major American teaching hospital heard an outstanding lecture. She sought out the lecturer to thank him. He asked her name. She gave her Americanized name. He asked, “What’s your African name?” She gave it, several syllables long. “What does your name mean?” he asked. She said, “It means ‘Child who takes away the anger.’” He asked why that name was given her. She explained. Her parents, from different tribes, had been forbidden by their parents to marry. They were in love and married anyway. For several years, neither set of parents accepted them. Then her mother became pregnant and had a baby girl. I quote, “When my grandparents held me in their arms for the first time, the walls of hostility came down. I became the child that takes away the anger. That’s the name my mother and father gave me. And it pleased my grandparents.”
God sends a baby to bring the people together: Jew and Gentile, insider and outsider, women and men, old and young. Here is the temple this day, four people, two very old and two very young, are brought together by a baby. A baby named Jesus. A baby who takes away all that is wrong and brings people together. Yes, Christmas is for children. And for really old people. And everyone in between. The one who came among us as a baby holds all of us together.