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Sermon for Sunday 27 December 2020

First Reading: Isaiah 61:10-62:3

10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.

1For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch. 2The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. 3You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Psalm 111

1Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. 2Great are the deeds of the Lord! they are studied by all who delight in them. 3His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures forever. 4He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and full of compassion. 5He gives food to those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. 6He has shown his people the power of his works in giving them the lands of the nations. 7The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; all his commandments are sure. 8They stand fast forever and ever, because they are done in truth and equity. 9He sent redemption to his people; he commanded his covenant forever; holy and awesome is his Name. 10The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding; his praise endures forever.

Second Reading: Galatians 4:4-7

4When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

Gospel: Luke 2:22-40

22When the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, {Joseph and Mary} brought {Jesus} up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, 29“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation 31that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” 36And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.

The Thoughts of our Hearts

You may recall from you Confirmation days that Luke wrote his gospel to a man we know little about, but Luke calls him by name.  Luke provides us with his name in his prologue as he addresses him as “most excellent Theophilus” (vs.1-4).  The gospel of Luke, unlike the other gospels, was written for a person, who tradition forwards, was high in the Roman government, possibly a high-ranking official in Antioch, and was written during a time of religious persecution, sometime around 60 AD.  Theophilus means loved of God, and it was the hope of Luke that this would be read by those outside the faith, so that they might learn that they had nothing to fear from the Christians.

The general belief was that Luke, himself a Gentile, wrote his gospel to be read mainly by other Gentiles.  With that being the case, when we read our gospel lesson for today, about Jesus’ first trip to the temple in Jerusalem with His parents, we have to wonder why Luke was so concerned with notions of the ritual laws of the Jews.  As a Gentile, Luke had no big stake in the Jewish law.  As contemporary of St. Paul, he knew that Paul often stressed that it wasn’t adherence to Jewish law that saved us from our sins, but our faith in Jesus Christ.  Yet from these verses we hear Luke mention five times, that the observances surrounding Jesus’ birth, were carried out according to the provisions of Mosaic law.  Luke leaves little doubt that Jesus was to be brought up in the strictest observance of the Jewish tradition.  So why this preoccupation with Jewish law?

One reason was that Luke hoped to demonstrate that Jesus didn’t operate outside the law as given by God, nor was He one who was ignorant of the laws of Israel.  On the contrary, here was born One who, from His earliest years, was steeped in the law.  Luke tells us in the last verse of our reading, that [Jesus] “was filled with wisdom.  And the favor of God was upon him” (vs. 40b). 

There were three observances that Mosaic law spelled out after the birth of a male child; the first was circumcision, which took place eight days after the child’s birth and at which time the child was given a name.  Then, in the case of a firstborn, there was the rite of redemption by the payment of a five-shekel offering.  Finally, after forty days, there was the purification of the mother, accomplished through the sacrifice of a lamb and a turtledove.  The exception to the final provision was that in the case of the poor, who couldn’t afford expensive livestock, an additional turtledove could be substituted for the lamb.  Thus, Luke paints for us a picture of devout Jewish parents who were faithful to all the provisions of the law.  

Still, we wonder why Luke was so concerned with Jewish law.  As I previously mentioned, Luke was not a Jew, but he did study, work, and travel with St. Paul and Paul’s words, in our Epistle reading for today, spell out another reason Luke took special care to point out Joseph and Mary’s strict observance to Jewish law.  In Galatians chapter 4 we read, “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (vss. 4b-5).  It was important for Luke to show that the gospel wasn’t just for the Hebrew people, but as Simeon declares in verses 30 and 31, “my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”  Jesus came to save all, Jews, and Gentiles alike.

And as we reflect further on the high level of obedience demonstrated by Joseph and Mary, and the words of a devout servant of God, we’re suddenly introduced to two exceptional figures: Simeon and Anna.  Both Simeon and Anna were people who were devoted to God and His Temple, and whose loyalty, far from making them satisfied, had fed a flame of expectancy for something more.  

As one person has written in commenting on this passage, “the piety of the Old Testament, properly understood, left men and women agog, for the coming of the gospel … reading and waiting … sitting on pins and needles.”  So, it’s no wonder that St. Luke, as did St. Paul, wanted to establish the fact that Jesus was born under the law.  It would make the news of his gospel that much more welcome — it would set Jesus’ ministry in high relief against the background of the law.  Keep all this in mind as we get back to the two faithful temple fixtures, we find in our reading. 

When reading this passage, Luke introduces us to two of God’s faithful, Simeon and Anna.  We don’t know a lot about Simeon, or Anna for that matter, but from what little we do know, we can imagine old Simeon, taking a trip to the temple each morning, regular as clockwork.  He had probably been doing so since his youth, for Luke records that he was both righteous and devout (vs. 25).  Simeon is now advanced in years, and in all the years of his faithfulness, he had never given up that daily walk to the temple.  (So much for our modern notion of retirement from church service!)  But as Luke also shares, Simeon had another motivation for his faithfulness, he had been assured by the Holy Spirit (vs.26), that even though his people had been awaiting a Messiah more than 1,000 years, he was to be allowed to see Him before he died.  Simeon was as hopeful of God’s promise as he was obedient to God’s laws.

Again, we can imagine that each day he would look hopefully into the faces of every young couple he saw.  But on this occasion, in the power of the Holy Spirit, Simeon was compelled to make the same trip he’d made hundreds of times.  He probably knew everyone at the temple since he was a daily visitor.  But this day was different.  The Holy Spirit must have revealed to him that this was going to be the day he’d been longing for.  As he took care of his daily duties in the outer courtyard, known as the courtyard of the women, perhaps he spoke for a few minutes with the prophetess Anna.

Anna, as we read, was an unusual woman.  Luke calls her a prophetess, from the little-known tribe of Asher.  As a prophetess, God had blessed her with deep religious understandings that even most of the Levite priests never attained.  But, because she was a woman, she was something of a novelty among the “regulars” at the temple.  She too was advanced in years: Luke tells us that after seven years of childless marriage, her husband died, and she never remarried.  

Even though her status as a widow placed her at an extreme disadvantage in ancient society, since she could neither own property nor manage her own affairs, she remained faithful to the Lord, much more faithful than most of the people of her time, and she lived to be a very ripe 84 by the time we’re introduced to her.  So, in the midst of Luke’s narrative of Joseph and Mary’s strict adherence to Mosaic law, we get introduced to these two unlikely old people, the prophetess Anna and Simeon going about their daily duties at the temple and hanging onto a promise, that Simeon would see the Messiah before he died.  And this was the day Simeon had longed to see.

As Simeon scanned the crowd, he lays eyes on a small peasant family coming in from up country in Nazareth.  It was obvious they were carrying their firstborn child, since the mother looked so young and there were no other children with them.  They were there to do their lawful duty and give an offering to the Lord for their son.  Simeon knew they were from an economically struggling family, since they brought no sheep, but just two little birds for the sacrifice.

It was probably Simeon who was the first to spot them.  Filled with the Holy Spirit Simeon approaches them, and he couldn’t take his eyes off their baby.  He had seen hundreds of repetitions of this scene in all his years as a faithful member of the temple.  People came practically every day to give thanks to God for children safely delivered, to offer sacrifice for sons and daughters, to take part in rites of purification for mothers, and there were lots of poor people in Israel, so there was nothing unusual about seeing people with very little means coming into the temple.  But this baby was different and special.  This baby had a certain look.

Suddenly, like the gasp of breath that one takes when jumping into near freezing water, it came to Simeon that this was the moment he’d been longing for.  This was the moment for which he had been waiting all his days; he was about to see years of patience fulfilled in a moment, during an encounter with an unpresuming couple of country people and their special baby boy.

With trembling hands, reaches out, filled with the undeniable sense that this was it.  “Now I can die in peace,” he said, probably scaring Mary half to death with his directness, “because I have finally seen the one who will save my people.”  When he looked back up from the baby’s half-focused eyes to Mary and Joseph, he must have caught them in open-mouthed wonder at what he had said, so he said to them, “This little baby will save the people, but it won’t all be peace and happiness, I’m afraid.

In fact, you, little mother, will find your heart broken before it’s all over, and other hearts will be broken as well.”  He said this, half wishing that he could get his mouth to stop talking, for he could see that they were not only troubled at his words, but a little terror stricken, also.  And before he handed the baby back to his parents, he said, “Your Son will reveal what really lies on the hearts of the people.  The thoughts of all our hearts will be no secret to him, for he will ferret them out.”  As soon as he had spoken, he must have realized that his heart, too, had become transparent in the presence of this baby.

With that, Joseph and Mary turned and ran smack into the old prophetess, Anna.  Not to be outdone by the unusual flow of words that came from the mouth of the normally quiet Simeon, Anna broke forth into a song of thanksgiving over the special baby that God had singled out that day.  There is no record of how the rest of the day went for the young parents, but we can be sure that when they got back on the road to Nazareth, they struggled to decern what all this could mean for them and their young child. 

It’s here, in Simeon’s brief words of Mary’s vulnerable heart, that someday it too would be pierced, that the shadow of the cross first falls over our story.  Recall that the gospels tell us that Mary was not only at the cross when Jesus was crucified, but she must have witnessed the soldier ramming the spear into His side to check and see that He was indeed dead.  But, for today, Jesus enters the temple grounds as a baby, unnoticed by the priests and officials who are busily going about their duties.  But this wouldn’t be the last time Jesus would be found in the Temple.

For example, 12 years from this time Jesus will be found in the Temple debating with the Religious leaders, and then some 18 or so years after that, we’ll read in Luke’s gospel that Jesus will enter this same temple with a whip in anger, driving out the animals and the money changers and brand it a den of robbers.  Thus, Luke was rightfully concerned about those who would say that Jesus had no respect for, or understanding of, the laws of His own people.  Jesus was raised according to the laws of His people: “He was born under the law to redeem those who were under the law.”  Jesus was born under the law to save “all the peoples.”  But more than that, Jesus can also see beneath the surface obedience of laws, into people’s hearts.  For us, this is a reminder that we can sometimes try to hide behind simple obedience to the law and self-righteousness.  But Jesus can see past our clumsy attempts, and see our dark secrets.  He sees into our hearts and knows our motivations.

Therefore, there is no room in the gospel for being overly sentimental about the baby Jesus whose birth we celebrated just two days ago.  Luke won’t let us get away with a narrow sentimental understanding of Jesus, even though he’s the only gospel writer to give us all the marvelously touching stories about angels serenading shepherds on a hilltop, and the baby born in a stable, resting in a manger instead of a bed.  But even though Luke paints a picture that we have all grown to love and cherish, he won’t allow sentimentality to overcome this one purpose of his whole proclamation.  He put forth an orderly account, to show Theophilus, the highly esteemed official of Caesar’s government and all others outside the faith, that the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t some mysterious hocus pocus to be purged from the realm, but a slice of real life, the most real life there has ever been, the one life that gives life.

Simeon foresaw that Jesus had been sent to Israel; and that the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed.  There is no question that in the ensuing days and years of Jesus’ life, many thoughts were revealed, both good and bad, to the disgrace of some, in order to cleanse and heal others.  The Old Testament prophet, Malachi, had predicted that many would not endure the day of His coming.  We will all be revealed for what we are.  It was Jesus’ ability to see and speak to the heart of the matter that was His undoing.

So, what was a Gentile convert doing writing about the laws of the Jews?  And why are we, reading about such seeming trivialities?  We’re doing this for the same reason that Luke was doing so — to remind ourselves that Jesus didn’t come to overthrow what passes for the existing order.  Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10).  Jesus came to show that the existing order is largely irrelevant to what really matters in the world, which is what goes on in the hearts and minds of people.  For those who follow Jesus, we can be sure that we will feel not a little undressed in His presence, His way is to know our hearts from the inside.  But those who follow Him also know that, for them, He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”


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