Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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.
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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.