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.
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.
On Tuesdays, I usually pick out the title of my sermon. I pick something based on what catches my attention on that day. This is often the part of the scripture that I feel speaks to the present moment best. On this, our final Sunday of the Christmas season, when we are remembering the stories of Anna and Simeon, the prophets who offer a final confirmation for Jesus’ parents that the message they heard from God was true... that this child before their eyes was the answer to their nation’s prayers... Simeon’s song caught my attention. He was so moved by the sight of this child that he broke out in song! And, these days, it would be good to see something so powerful that we would be reminded of God’s power to keep promises. So, on Tuesday, I decided that my sermon would be called “My Eyes Have Seen.”
Then, I sat down to write my sermon. I went to look at the last time I preached on this text. And, I was very surprised by what I saw. Guess what I named the sermon the last time I preached on this text? I named it My Eyes Have Seen. Apparently, that phrase often catches my attention. Now, maybe it’s because I know that hymn, the one that says “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” (it was written by Julia Ward Howe who spent a lot of time just down the road in Gardiner). Or, maybe it’s because, at the turning of the year, I appreciate a story of someone witnessing something grand and divine, a fulfillment of something long hoped for. And, this story is about past promises’ current fulfilment leading to a loving and just future. I, personally, would like to see more of that.
In his commentary on Luke, Fred Craddock notes that “Luke’s Gospel begins and ends in the temple.” Today’s reading is the moment when Jesus is taken to the temple for the first time as an infant. And, we are reading about this moment because it is important. Both Craddock and a professor named Shively Smith encourage us to pay attention to how devout Jesus’ family is. We must remember that this great religious devotion is happening among common, poor people, not royalty. Mary is responsive to the movement of God in her life. 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. Dr. Smith points out something interesting about the animal that the family sacrifices. If you remember from other readings, the devout were instructed to bring animals to sacrifice. Importantly, 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 Leviticus 5, 12, and 14. If you were to look at these lists, you would see that one of the offerings is two turtledoves. This is an offering set aside for those who are the poorest. When the author of Luke shows us Mary and Joseph bringing turtledoves, they are showing us that God is doing what Mary said God would do, lift up the lowly and downtrodden. This child is a part of that lifting up.
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? For Smith, this small detail is a bit of foreshadowing. In the book of Luke, Jesus will spend much of his time advocating for the poor. In chapter 4, when, as an adult, 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.
In my preparations this week, I read a poem by Howard Thurman. It’s called “Christmas is Waiting to be Born.”
When refugees seek deliverance that never comes,
And the heart consumes itself, if it would live,
Where little children age before their time,
And life wears don the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed.
CHRISTMAS IS WAITING TO BE BORN:
In you, in me, in all mankind.
Thurman believes that God’s promise salvation is not most clearly seen in the halls of power or wealth. But, instead, in the places of strain and upheaval and need. 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. Now, imagine the difference that makes in this story. A prophet named Simeon sees a poor family with an infant just more than a week old. Against all odds, Simeon sees greatness in this child. He sees God in this child. He is so inspired that he sings about it.
Simeon calls Jesus a light for the whole world, “for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to the people of Israel.” It is important to realize that Simeon saw, in this child, not just a leader for his own people, but a gift for the whole world. This shouldn’t be taken as a justification for the idea that Jesus came to coerce people into faith. But, instead, this is a confirmation that the world is connected and that God cares for the world, and that God is invested in a mission for love and justice for all of creation.
Simeon also offers this family a blessing and a warning. “This child is destining 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.” A second prophet, Anna, then comes up to this small family. She, too, praises God for this child. She will go on to become one of the earliest preachers in Luke. It says that she spoke about the child to anyone who was concerned about the redemption of Israel. It is too bad that none of her sermons seem to have been preserved to this time, at least as far as we know. At least we have this account of her, praising God and preparing to tell everyone what she has seen.
In his commentary on the text, Fred Craddock says that “God is doing something new, but it is not really new, because hope is always joined to memory, and the new is God’s keeping an old promise.” I hope on this New Year’s Day, you will remember, with hope, these elders who greeted young Jesus with joy and wonder. I hope that memory inspires you to see Christ at work in this very present time and to be like Anna and share the story of God’s love and justice into the future.
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
Shively Smith: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3526
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5035
Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 2011)
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
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.