Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Jesus Calls the First Disciples
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
My grandfather Arvin loved to fish. Some of my earliest memories are of fishing with him in the mountains in North Carolina. He liked to go to this one campground just outside of the Cherokee reservation and spend the weekend camping and fishing for trout. He’d also take me to the pond on my great-grandparents' property, one that my great grandfather kept stocked with fish, and show me how to bait my hook and cast. Sometimes I even managed to cast without getting my hook stuck in the trees. He’d show me how to carefully take the hook out of the fish’s mouth, being careful of the sharp parts of the fins, and let them go back in the water. He had so much fun showing me and the other grandkids this hobby of his. When you look through family photos of this era, one of the most common sights is a little kid, me or one of my sisters or cousins, proudly holding up a newly-caught fish.
I liked to snoop around in the tacklebox. He had one that he kept in the shed and more fishing gear in the toolbox in the back of his truck. I had to be so careful not to poke my finger on a stray hook or fish knife. There were so many bits and bobs in there: squishy bright yellow squiggles that looked like worms, little red things that were fake fish eggs, what seemed like hundreds of feet of fishing line. My favorites were the realistic lures, the small and vibrant fish, painted up to look as delicious as possible to bigger fish. Some even shimmered a little, like the live trout we caught up in the mountains.
With all the fishing poles and tackleboxes and toolboxes full of gear, I was never completely sure how much my grandfather used regularly... how much was necessary and how much was just fun. I suspect, because our family didn’t rely on the fish he caught as our primary food source or income, that a significant chunk of it was just for fun. But, learning how to fish taught me that you need some tools, at the very least a line, a hook, and some bait, and at least a little bit of a plan, if you want to catch something. As I read the story about how Jesus called his first disciples from the ranks of people who made their living fishing, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of tacklebox you need to fish for people.
Two key events precede the call story that is today’s scripture. First, after Jesus has been baptized, he spends 40 days in the wilderness discerning his next steps in life. Mark doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what happened, which is pretty common for Mark, a Gospel that is known for spare and abrupt storytelling. We just know that he was tempted by Satan and was with the wild beasts and was tended to by the angels. Also, John, who baptized Jesus, is arrested. This arrest appears to be what brings Jesus to Galilee. He has taken up preaching when John can’t. And, his message is similar but expanded. He is preaching the Good News. You might know the word in Greek, the Gospel. He is telling people that the time that they have been waiting for was fast approaching. God was drawing near. It was time to repent, that is re-orient yourself towards God, and make yourself ready for God’s reign.
The scholar Cynthia Briggs-Kittredge talks amount this moment where Jesus is preaching as a “crisis point.” I don’t think she is speaking about a particular cataclysmic-event kind of crisis. There’s not been a natural disaster or election. There is an on-going occupation of the land by Rome, but that has been happening for a while. But, it does feel like the pieces are finally in place for the next thing, hopefully the reign of God, to come. Time was full. Opportune. Maybe that’s why Simon and Andrew and James and John all went with Jesus so easily. They could feel the fullness of time. They were willing to completely change their lives, leave the tools they had been using on the lakeshore, and follow Jesus.
It’s not clear if Jesus was a stranger to these two sets of brothers or if they knew him before he called them. Scholar Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her book on Mark, argues that it’s likely they were at least familiar with John’s preaching before Jesus. They might have been prepared to pay attention for the one to come, who would be the one John told them about. Maybe they were ready. They just needed the call. And, Jesus provided it. Because, Jesus seems to know that he doesn’t need to do this alone. Dr. Thurston says he’s no lone ranger. Disciples, co-workers, will be necessary to his mission.
In his commentary on this passage, Dr. Osvaldo Veno talked about two different interpretations of “fishing for people” that he grew up hearing in Argentina. Both interpretations try to deal with the fact that the fishing Mark was talking about was not catch and release. Ideally, in the fishing the disciples did every day, they kept what they caught to eat or sell. Fish don’t last long out of water. If fishing is the metaphor for preaching the Gospel, how do we deal with the death of the fish? Dr. Veno explained that most of the time he heard the metaphor connected with another metaphor, that of dying to the world, and receiving new life in God. That message is clearly part of Jesus’ teaching later in Mark 8:35. Dr. Veno also heard the fishing angle explained in a way that sounded a little more like being a lifeguard than an angler. In many parts of the Bible, the sea represents a place of chaos full of entities that would be enemies of God. If you fish for people, you are rescuing them from the clutches of God’s enemies. You may have heard similar interpretations. They are pretty common.
Dr. Veno would like to suggest a third interpretation. The fishing metaphor is found in other parts of the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the prophetic books of Jeremiah, Amos, and Ezekiel. In Jeremiah, according to Dr. Melina Quivik, God will send someone to fish the people of Israel out of where they are and bring them back to the land that God gave them. In Amos 4:2 and Ezekiel 29:4, the fishing metaphor is being used to show God catching up cruel and powerful people and casting them out of the water.
Dr. Veno, following the work of another scholar named Ched Meyers, who I saw cited in multiple sources this week, argues that Jesus is using fishing like Jeremiah, Amos, and Ezekiel did. He is inviting his disciples into this work of casting down the mighty and the cruel and lifting up the lowly. The Gospel is about showing a different kind of order, that doesn’t rely on the cruelty of the powerful, who will be deposed, but, instead, gathering people into the realm of God. Dr. Veno says that “[Jesus’] purpose is to change the world in such a way that it will cease to be the hostile place it is, so that God’s reign can be established on earth.” The first step in changing the world... if we may return to that tacklebox metaphor I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon... the first tool in his tacklebox is the disciples, co-workers who understand the fruitfulness of the moment and follow him.
The literal fishing tools these men deployed were a little different than my grandfather’s non-professional gear. For one, they mostly fished with large nets that they would cast into the water, gathering as many fish as they could and hauling them into the boat or up to the lakeshore where they stood. Something I read in another commentary this week, one by Melinda Quivik, made me think about these nets. She said that the new future, nearer to God, is a gathering together of people. How lovely is it that the first disciples were people intimately familiar with scooping up, gathering in, harvesting. Their work with Jesus would mirror fishing in that way. On their best days, they would scoop up, gather in, and harvest alongside him. Their hard work is the first tool in Jesus’ Gospel Tacklebox.
As we read through Mark between now and Easter, we’ll see more of the tools in the tacklebox: healing, teaching, fellowship, and prayer. I’m glad we started here with the fishing, though. Every other tool we learn about will be in service to gathering people into God’s reign. Time is feeling pretty full these days, maybe in ways that the disciples would have recognized at the lakeshore. We should probably pay attention to how these disciples and Jesus begin the work of gathering. The gathering is our calling, too. It may be our time to leave the lakeshore and follow him into whatever the Good News in for this time and place. I hope we have our tackle boxes ready.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 The Inescapable God
O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.
Sometimes, when I read books in the Bible, they remind me of other books I’ve read or stories I’ve heard. As I was thinking about the Psalm, where the person singing the song feels known and loved by God all the time, I remember the children’s book The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. Who here has ever read that book? Do you remember what it’s about? Well, I’m going to read it right now to remind everyone:
Does anyone have any guesses about why I was reminded of this book when I read Psalm 139? Let’s talk about the momma bunny. Do you think she loves her baby bunny? Yes. How do you know? What does she do to show her love? She promises to be with the little bunny in all ways. Why do you think the little bunny wanted to run away? Isn’t nice that his mom said that he would always have a home with her? She would be his tree if he was a bird or the wind that would help him move if he was a sailboat. She would even do scary things with him, learning to walk a tight rope while he swung on the trapeze. I also like that, even though he thought he might need to run away, he realized that his mom loved him a lot and would make sure he was safe and always had a good place to be and that she would help him do hard things, he decided that he could stay. And, then they had a snack. That’s a good story!
Now, let’s remember what God is like in Psalm 139. I think Psalm 139 is like if Little Bunny wrong a song about God. The person in the Psalm says that God has search them and knows them. It’s like the Momma Bunny knows Little Bunny. God in this Psalm definitely knows the speaker well enough to become a fisherman if they’re a fish or a gardener if they’re a plant. God knows the speaker well enough to know where they might hide or be ready to follow them up a mountain. When the speaker gets to the end, God is still there, just like Momma Bunny at the end of the book, ready to give the little bunny a carrot.
There’s even a part of the Psalm that we didn’t read today that sounds a lot like the bunnies. Verses 7-12 say:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
There are a lot of good things in the parts of Psalm 139 that we read today. But, the thing I think is most important today, is to remember that God is always with us, even when we are mad enough to run away or feel like we need to hide. God made us. The scripture says, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” The speaker knows that every part of them is beloved by God and made by God. I hope that if you are feeling worried or scared or lonesome, you remember that part especially. God made you and you are wonderful. So, no need to run off or feel like you have to go away. You can stay with God and God will stay with you, just like Momma Bunny and Little Bunny. And that really is some good news.
Resources consulted while preparing this sermon:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
The book of Mark doesn’t begin with the story of a birth. Mark begins with a prophet, a messenger crying out and preparing a way in the wilderness. The prophet, John, called the Baptizer, is clearing a path for the Messiah into the world. And, he is doing that by calling people to repent, to turn around and turn away from the path they’ve been on. John also offered the Jewish ritual of baptism for “repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” a ritual to function as a sign that people had confessed and were prepared to live in a different way. John also spoke of one who would come after him. He said “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John said that the baptism he offered was limited, but the baptism offered by the one who would follow him was more, a baptism of the Holy Spirit. According to the writer of Mark, countless people traveled to the wilderness to be baptized at his hands.
It is no small thing to baptize someone. It is quite the responsibility to be invited to hold another person and submerge them fully into the water and, then, also be trusted to lift them back out, up to their feet and into the breathable air. It is an honor to be entrusted with someone’s child, to guide them safely to the font, to wet their heads and, comfort them if they are frightened by being suddenly wetter and colder than a few moments before. In seminary, my worship professor got a local church to let us practice baptizing people in their baptismal font during class one day. She knew that the act of holding someone safely in the water, helping them mark the powerful change in their lives that comes with baptism, is significant. One should not assume this responsibility without great care and at least a little practice.
It is also no small thing to choose to be baptized or to have your child baptized. Baptism is a significant commitment, both to God and to other people. When you asked to be baptized in our church or make baptismal promises for your kids who are very young, I ask you some intense questions. I ask these of new members, too, when they affirm their baptisms. Here are some of them if you haven’t heard them in a while:
When you are baptized, you are showing something about what you know to be true of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. And, you are saying that you are willing to living differently based on this knowledge, to turn away from how you have been living, towards the path Christ will create. That’s what John the Baptist was talking about when he said repent. Dr. Bonnie Bowman Thurston says in her commentary that repentance, the Greek word metanoia, means “a complete change of mind, a new direction of the will.” And, while we who follow Christ understand repentance a little differently than John, I think it’s safe to assume that the baptism he offered was no less profound. Perhaps that is why Jesus sought him out.
The first place we see Jesus in the book of Mark is in the hands of John, descending into the water. The description of his baptism is strikingly simple. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” It is interesting that, while all four Gospels indicate Jesus was baptized, only Mark actually says that John did it. All the rest avoid showing Jesus in the vulnerable position of being baptized by John. In Matthew, which was written after Mark, John initially doesn’t want to baptize Jesus. He says, “you should be baptizing me.” Jesus has to insist that he must. And, it still doesn’t say John baptized Jesus. It just says “Jesus had been baptized.” The book of Luke, also written after Mark, just says everybody who was there got baptized and so did Jesus. The Gospel of John leaves out the baptism completely! It just has John describing seeing a dove descending on Jesus. There was no water at all!
A scholar named Richard DeMaris explained why three of the four Gospels might hesitate to say clearly that Jesus was baptized by someone else. Some people read that baptism was intended to symbolize repentance from sins. If Jesus was baptized, that meant that Jesus had sin, an image of Jesus that many would find troubling. Also, to be baptized was to identify oneself as spiritually subordinate to the one doing the baptizing. And, as I have stated already, and some of you may remember feeling this yourselves, being baptized means putting oneself in a very physically vulnerable position, at the mercy of the one officiating the ritual act. Placing anyone, even John, in a more powerful role than Jesus would have simply been unacceptable to some people.
It is interesting that the Gospel of Mark does not seem to share these concerns. DeMaris, also has a theory about why. DeMaris says that it goes back to the power of ritual in community. Much of the time, joining a community involves a ritual of some kind. How someone participates in that ritual shows us how they will later behave in the community. This also shapes how members of the community interact with each other. While some people think that leaders can never show vulnerability, DeMaris argues that Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, is not one of them. He isn’t afraid of vulnerability, so he isn’t afraid to be baptized.
He also asks for his followers to be willing to make themselves vulnerable. In Mark chapter 9, when his disciples begin to argue over who was the greatest, Jesus tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In chapter 10, when James and John asked for seats of honor on either side of Jesus, he will say “whomever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whomever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” When his disciples want to know what it means to be a leader, Jesus says that you must be willing to give up a place of privilege, if you have one, in order to feel the presence of God. Jesus first set the example for this kind of servant leadership when he allowed himself to be baptized by John. His submission to John, and to God through John, was the place where Jesus began to show us how he would be the Messiah.
This week, a group which included white supremacists, neo-nazis, and fascists were allowed to overtake the US Capitol. Some carried equipment that made it clear they were planning for both a siege and to take hostages. Bombs were planted, but, thankfully, not triggered. They were incited to violence by politicians spouting disproven conspiracy theories. Someone lifted up a cross outside on the Capitol grounds, not to embarrass the fascists but as a sign to say that God approved of what they did. Someone else built gallows as for a lynching. Five people are dead as a result of the coup attempt. There were fewer arrests than you’d expect during a coup. That was a surprise, too.
I don’t remember my baptism. I was a baby. But, I do remember becoming a member of this church and I know that the promises that I made when I did so run counter to the violence incited and enacted on Wednesday. I saw no servants among those who rifled through desks and chanted for the execution of politicians with whom they disagreed. The question I have been asking myself this week is how I might respond out of the foundational promises I made in affirming my baptism. What does it mean, right now, to renounce the powers of evil, especially those on display in white supremacy and anti-Semitism? What does it mean, right now, to fight oppression when fascists area already using force against those who oppose them?
I think the first step is to say, very clearly, that the Kindom of God is not like fascists carrying a Confederate flag through the halls of the US Capitol. I am still working on the rest. I bet you are, too. I'm glad I don’t have to figure this out myself. We have God and each other and our neighbors of good faith. If you want to talk some more about how we respond to this moment, let’s stick around after church on zoom for bit to make some plans. Some will say that the most vital questions of baptisms are whether you got dunked in the water or sprinkled on your head. I think, in fact, the question is, how do we become servants more like Christ was? And, that’s a question best answered together.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
There is a lot of information going around about the failed coup attempted on January 6th. Here’s a helpful description of the events: https://www.npr.org/2021/01/06/954159148/pro-trump-extremists-storm-us-capitol-delay-election-certification
Here’s is the prayer vigil organized by the UCC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxmSPkuWu9o
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002)
The Pulpit Fiction Podcast: https://www.pulpitfiction.com/archive/2017/02/24/97-baptism-of-jesus-after-epiphany-1b
In reviewing my notes on this text, I found some great information from the scholar Richard DeMaris. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down where I found them and haven’t been able to figure it out easily by the time I preach on Sunday. It may be from the article “Possession, good and bad - ritual, effects and side-effects: the baptism of Jesus and Mark 1.9-11 from a cross-cultural perspective,” found in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Year: 2000, Volume: 23, Issue: 80, Pages: 3-30.
Jesus Is Presented in the Temple
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.
The Return to Nazareth
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 favour of God was upon him.
I can never remember all the gifts in the song about the 12 days of Christmas. You know the one. On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree. I can get to day 5 (five golden rings) and after that, I always lose track. I know there are geese a-laying and ladies dancing somewhere but, on any given day, I could not begin to tell you how many of them there are. Tasha might know them all now... she always studied up on Christmas song lyrics so she can win trivia games... but the lyrics to this song, with all the strange gifts, just don’t stick in my brain.
One of the gifts I always remember is the gift of the second day, the two turtle doves. Wasn’t it interesting to hear this gift come up in our scripture for the day. A professor named Shively Smith, in her commentary on this text, thinks that these turtle doves tell us a couple important things about Jesus’ family. One, the presence of the birds affirm that Jesus’ parents are devout Jewish people. And, two, the turtle doves show us that his parents were pretty poor. Dr. Smith explains it this way.
If we’ve been paying attention in Luke, it shouldn’t surprise us to see that Mary is devout. From the moment we meet her, Mary is responsive to the movement of God in her life. When angels show up, she understands that it is a gift from God. When she sings her own song praising God who lifts up the lowly, she places herself solidly within Jewish tradition, repeating themes of mercy and justice found in Hannah’s song, and Miriam’s song, and the Psalms. And, while she might have been surprised that she and her family would be called up to do something holy and redemptive with God, she knew that such actions were even possible because she knew the traditions of her people. She knew of Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham. She knew of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. She knew of Bathsheba and David. God could work through a family and God was now working through hers. She knows that God stands with the lowly, because she has heard the prophecies of Isaiah. Mary knew she could do this incredible thing because she knew her people’s stories.
But, all that happened before the baby's birth. After Jesus is born, we see the next step that his family will take to demonstrate their faith in God. As a symbol of their commitment to God, Mary and Joseph fulfill the ritual obligations of their people. They have their son circumcised and named according to what God said to name him. That happens just before today’s reading. Then, in today’s reading, they present him at the temple and offered a sacrifice in thanksgiving to God. According to Dr. Smith, the author of Luke is telling all of us this so that we can remember that Jesus is deeply situated in his religious tradition. All of Mary’s piety wasn’t just the excitement surround her pregnancy that would be forgotten once all of the hard work of raising a baby in the midst of a cruel empire began. Her faith, and Joseph’s faith, would shape all they do, including how they would introduce their baby to the world. The author of this Gospel wants us to know that Jesus was a child of devout parents who will grow into a devout man. This is foreshadowing. Their faith traditions would shape Jesus’ childhood and provide the contours of his adult ministry. He is a part of his community, not outside of it. His life has been crafted so as to point him towards God.
So, that is what the turtle doves show us about what Mary and Joseph believe. In accordance with the practices of their faith, when a first son is born, you go to the temple, present the child, and make a sacrifice in Thanksgiving. And, they are thankful for this child. The turtle doves also show us something about what Mary and Joseph have: which is not a lot of money. If you remember from other readings, people often brought animals for sacrifice at the temple. While every single person is expected to make a sacrifice, Jesus' people believed that God understood that not all people have the same resources. Because God is merciful, God would never ask someone who was very poor to give the same thing as God would expect a rich person to give.
Rituals were developed in a way to make them accessible to people to people with different levels of wealth. You wouldn’t be left out of the practices of your people because you couldn’t afford to participate. If you’re interested, you can find lists of sacrifices that were affordable for poorer people in chapter 5, 12, and 14 of the book of Leviticus. On these lists, you will find Mary and Joseph's offering, two turtle doves. They were devout. They would buy the most expensive sacrifice they could afford, which, as it turns out, was two birds set aside for those with the lowest income. How wonderful it was that they wouldn’t be excluded from the temple because they couldn’t afford the most expensive sacrifice. How wonderful it was that their tradition made space for the generosity and gratitude of even those who did not have much to share. I am so grateful for this example that reminds us that anyone can be generous, even if their gift is simple.
Why would it be so important to emphasize to the reader that Jesus was both rooted in his religious faith and also from simple means? Why even notice those two little birds? For Smith, this small detail helps us put something very important in perspective. In the book of Luke, Jesus will spend much of his time advocating for the poor. In a couple chapters, when he spells out his own mission statement, he will read out the words of the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." A couple chapters later, in the sermon on the plain, he will assert, like his own mother once did, that God takes special note of, and care for, the hungry, the poor and the excluded. He will go on to assert that a vital part of serving God is tending to the poor and that God's kindom will welcome most quickly those who need the most help.
Smith argues that Jesus speaks so passionately about serving the poor not because he is a powerful person helping people less powerful than himself. To quote Dr. Smith, "When Jesus is talking about the poor, he is talking about himself." We would do well, then, to remember that when God chose to raise up a savior, God did so from among the ranks of the impoverished. When God became incarnate, walking around in the flesh and the blood of humanity, it was in the flesh and blood of the poor. Dr. Smith argues that Jesus' own experience on the economic margins of his community gave him a helpful perspective on the work of building a kindom of love and justice with God. This reality completely upended what many people expected from the Messiah.
At the temple, Mary and Joseph encounter a prophet named Simeon. Now, many people assumed the Messiah would be a king or a military leader. Jesus was neither of those things, especially at this point in his life. He wasn’t even 10 days old. He was a baby from a very poor family. But, like the shepherds before him, Simeon sees greatness in this child. Simeon sees God in this child. He is so inspired that he sings about it. I don’t know the tune he sang, but the book of Luke shows us the words: “God, 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 the glory your people Israel.” This child is not a king or a military leader, but, Simeon sees salvation in him. Simeon can already tell that this child, rooted in his faith but also at the economic margins of his own community, will be able to draw people in towards God. This will be good news not just for their people, but for the whole world.
Simeon goes on to offer this family a blessing, but also a warning. Jesus will be opposed. As Dr. Karoline Lewis puts it, “The center never tolerates the truth from the de-centered. The privileged do whatever is necessary to silence anyone who might threaten their power.” Jesus, this child from the margins, will definitely threaten the powerful. But, God will still be with, and in, him. Just because he will be opposed does not mean that God will abandon him or his ministry.
A second prophet, Anna, also approaches this small family in today’s reading. She, too, will praise God for this child. What’s more, Scripture tells us that she will tell others the truth of what she saw in him. Long before there are disciples... before Jesus preaches a word... even before John the Baptist spells out the hypocrisy of the powerful down by the riverside... Anna preaches in the temple, telling her people about the baby and the redemption of Jerusalem. Surely this was a gift better than 5 golden rings or 4 calling birds or three French hens. To the world, from the margins, a gift from God through this child. That is a song worth remembering.
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.