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.
Luke 2:22-40 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 favor of God was upon him.
Happy sixth day of Christmas! I hope that you have received your six geese-a-laying and I hope your geese are not the mean agents of chaos that geese can be. It is a shame that commercialization has made people so stressed out about the several weeks before Christmas. When everything and everywhere is pushing you to buy more and more things, it is tempting to feel relieved with Christmas Day is over. Just throw away all the wrapping paper and toss the tree into the goat pen across the street. Be done with it all. I would like to invite you to not be done with Christmas yet. All the shopping madness has very little to do with Christ’s birth anyway. We are finally in the Christmas season now. How about we take the next two Sundays to sit with the story just a little longer.
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 days that follow. Today’s scripture happens eight days after Jesus’ birth. Notice how Jesus’ parents are shown to be pious Jews. We’ve already seen that Mary is responsive to the movement of God in her life. Once she said yes to being Jesus’ mother, she makes clear that 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. 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.
Dr. Smith also thinks we need to pay attention to what kind of sacrifice Jesus' family makes at the temple. You may remember from other Bible readings that people often brought animals for sacrifice, especially during important holidays and life events. 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 the same sacrifices as someone who was quite wealthy. In fact, there are lists of appropriate sacrifices for poorer people to make in Leviticus 5, 12, and 14. If you were to look at these lists, you would see Mary and Joseph's offering, two turtledoves. This is an offering set aside for those with the lowest income.
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 prophecy is both lovely and important for setting our expectations for the rest of Jesus' life and his death. We’re going to sing a setting of it later in worship. While we don’t have Anna’s full prophecy, we know that she, too, praised God for the child and spoke about him, preaching that he would have a part to play in the redemption of Jerusalem. Why even notice those two little birds that we’re told about early in the reading?
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 just a few chapters, an adult Jesus will spell out his own mission statement, reading aloud 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 few chapters after that, 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 kin-dom 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 kin-dom of love and justice with God.
Now, imagine the difference paying attention to these two little birds 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, deeply rooted in his family’s faith but also at the economic margins of his own community, will be able to draw people in towards God.
And, it is clear to Simeon that 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 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. She, too, praised God for this child. She will go and speak 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?
People had expectations about this Messiah and this child fell short of many of them. He wasn’t a king or a military leader. And yes, these two prophets could see God in him. Even though we don’t have Anna’s exact words recorded for us like we do Simeon’s, I imagine that when she spoke of the child she said, “God is with us, especially with those of us who need God’s presence the most.” How are you speaking about this child these days? That’s the question I am left with. How am I speaking of Jesus, born into a poor family, raised to deeply love the poor, and certain that God will care for those in the greatest need? May how I speak of Jesus help me follow him more closely, from these last days of Christmas and beyond.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Shively Smith: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3526
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.