Sermon preached for the First Sunday after Christmas at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
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 turtledoves 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.”
Despite today’s holiday, it’s an odd time of year.
In the church, we’re still celebrating Christmas. We’re still singing carols and talking about baby Jesus. We still have our trees and poinsettias and manger scene. Go to Kroger, however, and the Christmas aisle has been completely switched out for Valentine’s Day.
Some of us have gone back to work or school already; others will return this week; still others–mostly the student types–get a few more weeks’ vacation.
Last night, we celebrated the big turning of the calendar from 2016 to 2017. Today we’ll be thinking about fresh starts and new beginnings–although in truth, nothing much has changed in the last 24 hours.
It’s an odd time of year, with some of us lingering over the Christmas holidays, and others striding ahead into 2017.
For those who are eager to get ahead–or perhaps just eager to leave 2016 behind, and there’s plenty of reasons to feel that way–sticking with the Christmas story may feel maddening. Can’t we put the nativity set away and move on?
Not yet. There’s still more story to tell, after the stable. Two stories actually–two quite different stories. Only two of our gospels tell the story of Christ’s birth, and the details are surprisingly divergent. This week, we’ll finish out the story the way Luke tells it, and next week, on Epiphany, we’ll follow Matthew’s version.
I think in Luke’s gospel, Mary and Joseph must also have felt the days right after Jesus’ birth to be an odd time. Luke talks about how Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, how Jesus was born in a stable, how he was heralded by angels and worshipped by shepherds. All strange and unusual and miraculous happenings. Luke gives very little sense of how Mary and Joseph felt about it all–how they handled being new parents to a God-child. But from the story, it seems they decided to stick to tradition, and move on with their lives as any other set of Jewish parents might.
Which meant, after 8 days, according to tradition, the infant was circumcised, and named Jesus. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before, but Luke is careful not to call the child Jesus before that moment in the story: he is simply “the child,” as in, “you will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” According to Hebrew tradition, a child would not be given a name before eight days, but on that eighth day, his parents name him Jesus, as the angel told them to do. The name–Yeshua in the original Hebrew–means “God saves.” Luke doesn’t say whether they’ve moved out of the stable by then, whether they’ve found room in Bethlehem or gone back to Nazareth or are somewhere else altogether. Luke is laser-focused on revealing to his reader who Jesus is. For those of us who know the story back to front, manger to cross and back again, we might want some more details, some more atmosphere. But Luke is only focused on one thing: proving that this Jesus is the one who brings God’s salvation. After all, Luke wrote his gospel for folks who didn’t believe that Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us. Luke wrote his gospel for folks who either never heard of him at all, or thought he was just another great teacher. And so Luke lays it on pretty thick, between angels and naming ceremonies and prophecies, to make it clear to even the densest listener, that Jesus is the one who comes to save God’s people.
We lose track of Mary and Joseph for a few weeks, but Luke picks the story back up when it comes time to head to Jerusalem for Mary’s final post-childbirth purification and the ritual presentation of the firstborn, a tradition dating all the way back to the story of the Passover. According to the Hebrew scriptures, this was supposed to take place around 40 days after a child was born. So Mary and Joseph make their way to Jerusalem, to the temple–Solomon’s temple, the hub of Jewish religious life. They went to Bethlehem to be counted by the Roman government, but now they come to Jerusalem to be known and marked by their own people. Following tradition, they offer a sacrifice, but Luke makes a point that what they sacrifice are a pair of doves. The temple took sacrifices on a sliding scale; an ox or lamb was preferred, but the poor could offer birds or even grain. All the young couple can afford are a pair of doves, but it allows them to participate in the tradition of their ancestors. However unconventional the birth of their child might have been, they are bringing him up with all the traditions they have inherited. He will have as normal a childhood as they can give him.
At least, that’s the goal. But they keep getting interrupted. Almost as soon as they arrive at the temple, an old man rushes to meet them. His name is Simeon, and he is righteous and devout, and perhaps even more impressive than that, he is full of hope. He believes that God is going to come to save Israel, and he refuses to be cynical or give in to any prevailing attitude of despair. He lives in hope that he will see God’s Messiah. And through the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, when he sees Jesus brought into the temple, he knows that his hopefulness has been rewarded. He takes the child in his arms, and I have to admit, I love this image, of the very old man, who has been so faithful and so hopeful for so long, and the very young baby, with his whole life ahead of him. I am also touched by the fact that Simeon, who knows–knows, though the wisdom of the Spirit, that this baby is God’s messiah–takes him in his arms and cradles him. There is no false propriety or pomp and circumstance. He takes God’s messiah to his heart and holds him close, because that is what you do with babies, even babies who are also God.
And then Simeon praises God for allowing him to see this child, this messiah, this salvation–and in this song he rejoices not only in God’s salvation for Israel–which is what he’s been hoping for his whole life, but that God will be a light to Israel and the Gentiles both. It is the smallest change in language, but a huge shift in perspective. Looking at the infant, Simeon realizes that God did not just come for the Jews of Israel, but for everyone. It is a theme Luke will return to again and again–that God’s love and mercy are for all, Gentiles and Jews alike. That God deems no one unworthy or beneath loving.
Here is a man who spent his entire life waiting for God to come save his people, to lift them out of insignificance and oppression, to restore them to their former glory and power. And yet when salvation finally comes, he sees that it will come to those who never bother to visit the temple, who would find childbirth purification rituals ridiculous, who would laugh at Simeon’s devout faith. He finds God’s salvation will come to those he has believed to be of less consequence to God, second-class citizens at best in God’s schema, those who are permanently unclean and don’t even care.
That would be miracle itself, I think. But Simeon responds to God’s miracle with one of his own: he rejoices in this discovery. It would make all the sense in the world for Simeon to be angry, or hurt, or jealous–to think that his faithfulness has been wasted if God’s plan was to save everyone, not just the most righteous of them all. It would be natural for Simeon to be afraid that if God was choosing the Gentiles, then maybe he was abandoning the Jews. We humans are so prone to think that if one group gets something–anything–than we must necessary get less of it. In some cases this is true: if you get a cookie, I do not get that cookie. But not in every case: my rights do not diminish yours. A parent loving one child does not mean they cannot love the other. God’s gift of grace in your life does not cut down on my own portion. Not everything is limited, and certainly not God’s love.
Simeon, spirit-wise as he is, knows this. He rejoices that God’s love will soon be felt and known by all, not just the covenant people of Israel. He does not whine or complain or ask to go back to the good old days when the Jews were the only ones who got special treatment. He rejoices that the messiah has come, a light of revelation to the gentiles, and the glory of God’s people Israel.
In almost the next breath, however, Simeon says something a little less gentle: he prophecies that Jesus will be a divisive figure; that by supporting or opposing him, the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. There will be those who love to speak of God’s love and faithfulness and mercy, but who will balk when it extends to anyone but themselves. They will say God loves, and in parentheses add “us most.” They will say God forgives, and in parentheses add “only us.” They will say God saves, and in parentheses add “us from you.” And when Jesus, in his teaching and healing of all people, Gentile soldiers and Syrophonecian women and Samaritans, proves that all those caveats about what God can and can’t do are just human pride and jealousy, those same people who talk a big game of love and mercy and salvation will rush to shout “Crucify him.”
But there will be others–others like Simeon–who rejoice to see God’s love shared and spread amongst all. Others who agree to follow Jesus wherever he may go, to whomever he may go. Others who recognize that sharing God’s love means, by God’s own miraculous math, having more of it in their hearts, not less. And these folks will feel the same peace Simeon felt, the peace of taking joy in God’s endless love, not worrying about whether or not there will be enough to go around.
Here, as Simeon holds the infant Jesus, he foreshadows Jesus’ whole mission: to be light and love to all, regardless of how they will respond, whether they will be grateful or angry that all people are their siblings in Christ.
That is our choice as well: are we angry that God loves that other person we do not care for? Or are we grateful that God chooses to include us in God’s love?
In a few moments we will sing O Holy Night. At first I thought that particular song’s moment might have passed; it is a bit odd to sing that this is the night of our dear savior’s birth at 10:30 in the morning on New Year’s. But I love this song because it has a bit of a bite to it; a bit more umph than some of our Christmas carols, especially in the original French. The song’s author, Placide Cappeau, was not particularly interested in religion. He was not a church goer, nobody’s pick for theologian of the year. But the local priest knew he had a gift for poetry, and asked him to write an anthem for the dedication of a renovated church organ.
Perhaps it was only Placide, an outsider, a metaphorical Gentile in the world, who could see so clearly God’s love for all.
Listen to a literal translation of his original lyrics:
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
The Redeemer has broken every bond:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
[Christ] sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.
2000 and 150 years later respectively, we still need the songs of Simeon and Placide, which call us to remember God’s love for all, and to be grateful for God’s love for us, rather than jealous of God’s love for others.
As we enter 2017, I pray that we might remember that God’s storehouse of blessings never goes out of stock; that God’s love never runs out; that God’s mercy is not interested in picking and choosing. When we are tempted, as we all are, to hoard our blessings for ourselves, or to proclaim others as unworthy of compassion or dignity, I pray we will remember that the child of Bethlehem came not to some but to all.
God’s love is limitless.
That’s all the miracle I need.