Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
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 favour of God was upon him.
My Eyes Have Seen: Luke 2:22-40
What song do you just love hearing on Christmas? What song reminds you of the hopefulness of Christ's birth whenever you hear it? (The church took some time to share aloud songs that they love)... Those are all wonderful choices. Does anybody like "The Little Drummer Boy?" This year I learned about a game people play with that song. Have you heard about this game? It starts after Thanksgiving, when Christmas music begins to be piped into nearly every environment in which we spend our time. That one radio starts playing only Christmas music. The gas stations, grocery stores, and every department store start piping the music in, often in hopes that it will inspire us to get in the "Christmas spirit" by spending a little money in their shop. This is when you start playing the game. It goes like this: Whenever you hear The Little Drummer Boy, you're out. It's that simple. You can't just avoid the music in order to avoid the song. You go about your life like normal. You listen to the radio on the drive to work just like you usually would. You walk into the stores you need to walk into. You don't wait for your oil change with your headphones in, listening to your best-non-Little-Drummer-Boy Advent playlist. You listen whenever the music is played, and if the Little Drummer Boy gets played, you're out.
Now, I don't know why The Little Drummer Boy has been singled out this way among all the overplayed Christmas music that makes up the secular Christmas shopping season. There are far more irksome Christmas songs. This one is very sweet. It's about a poor kid who has learned about Jesus' birth and who Jesus will be. He can't bring him treasure like the Magi can. But, he can play a song for him, sharing his talents. The story is not actually from the Bible. But, it is a kind of storytelling that helps people insert themselves into the holy story, imagining themselves at the bedside of the Christ child. This kind of storytelling is important. And, the basic message is affirming: sharing of skills is a valid and gracious kind of gift. It's actually kind of a great Stewardship sermon. And, David Bowie and Bing Crosby once recorded a great version of it. It's worth listening to, even if it makes you lose a game that you didn't even know you were playing.
I learned something this week that helped me appreciate this The Little Drummer Boy even more during the Christmas season. That's right. We're finally in the Christmas season. All that buildup through December was Advent. Now, we are finally ready to celebrate Jesus' birth... at least until Epiphany, when the Magi will finally get here. I read a commentary this week that helped me make a connection between the poor boy in the song and Jesus' own family as described in the book of Luke. A professor named Shively Smith encourages readers to pay attention to the ways Jesus' own family is described at the time of his birth and in the weeks and months after.
Notice how they are shown to be pious Jews. Mary is responsive to the movement of God in her life. She understands her family to be fulfilling the prophecies of her people. She knows that God stands with the lowly and will use her family to lift up the downtrodden. All that happens before the baby's birth. After Jesus is born, his family remains devout. 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. They also presented him at the temple and offered a sacrifice in thanksgiving. According to 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. He is a child of devout parents who will grow into a devout man. His faith traditions are deeply embedded in him and guiding his whole ministry.
Smith pointed something else out that I'm not sure I'd read before. This is the part that helped me connect Jesus to the song. Dr. Smith thinks we need to pay attention to what kind of sacrifice Jesus' family make. If you remember from other readings, people often brought animals for sacrifice. While everyone is expected to make a sacrifice, Jesus' people believed that God understood that not all people have the same resources. If you were someone of limited means, you were not required to bring in the same sacrifices as someone who was quite wealthy. In fact, there are lists of appropriate sacrifices for poorer people to make in chapter 5, 12, and 14 of Leviticus. If you were to look at these lists, you would see Mary and Joseph's offering, two turtledoves. Yes, they brought the best they could afford, which was two birds set aside for those with the lowest income. It makes me think these young parents would have appreciated that drummer boy's song. They would have known what it was like to not have expensive gifts to bring, but to still feel called to show their thanks anyway. They could still be generous, even if their gift was simple. That sounds like a good stewardship sermon, too, come to think of it.
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? I mean, these details only take up a tiny portion of this passage of Scripture. The more important parts of the story come later, when Anna and Simeon offer prophecies about the child's future. Simeon's song is both lovely and important for setting our expectations for the rest of Jesus' life and his death. 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 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 poverty is merely a cause for him to champion. Smith said, "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. 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. The Messiah looks way more like a simple drummer boy than a mighty king. Now, imagine the difference that makes in this story. A prophet named Simeon sees a poor family with a very young child. Against all odds, Simeon sees greatness in this child. He sees God in this child. He is so inspired that he sings about it. He sees this little boy and knows that he has seen salvation.
Simeon is certain 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. And, it won't just be for his own religious community. It will be for the whole world. Simeon calls Jesus a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to the people of Israel. This is a broader call of Messiahship than most of their community imagine. In fact, not everyone is going to be excited about the ways that Jesus engages with people outside of his community. Nevertheless, even from the earliest days of his life, this appears to be what he will be called to do. Simeon offers this family a blessing, but also a warning. Jesus will be opposed. But, just because he's opposed that doesn't mean he's not right. Just know, he says to the boy's parents, that your son's calling will not always be welcome.
A second prophet comes up to this small family, Anna, and she, too, praised God for this child. She seems to become one of the earliest preachers in this book. It says that she spoke about the child to anyone who was concerned about the redemption of Israel. I wish I knew what she said. Did she tell them that the family was devout, but poor? Did she tell them that she could see a sparkle in the child's eye and determination in his mother's jaw? Did she warn them they all would be surprised to see from where God would draw up a teacher? Yes. Nazareth. No one would have expected it, but there is little about this child that is expected. Or could she even find the words to really explain what she felt, other than that the Messiah is here. God is with us, especially with those of us who need it most. Just wait until you see what God has in store. I kinda hope she sang... maybe a song about a little boy without much money but with a really big heart. I wonder if we would recognize the song.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing her sermon:
Shively Smith: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3526
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5035
Ruthanna B. Hooke, "First Sunday After Christmas," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
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.