(a sermon for December 30, 2018, the 1st Sunday after Christmas; last in a series, based on Luke 2:22-40)
Sometimes the only thing you can do is sing.
An old friend of mine from my seminary days, a bright and bubbly older lady who went by the name of “Mickey,” used to tell the story of how one snowy winter morning in Maine she’d decided to go cross-country skiing along a beautiful wooded trail that she knew, one that stretched far from any nearby roads, houses or people. The idea, she said, was for some spiritual solitude, but as fate would have it somewhere deep in the woods Mickey fell off her skis and managed to fracture her ankle; so now not only was she injured and unable to make her way home, but also, ironically enough, she was totally alone!
Now, given that this was a time long before cel phones and with no other way of calling out for help out there deep in the Maine woods, most people might have panicked under those circumstances; but not Mickey! Surely, she reasoned, on this beautiful snowy morning someone else would be out skiing or snowshoeing and happen by, so she’d simply wait there in the snow until someone came by who could help her! And that’s what she did; however, as the hours began to pass and the snow accumulated all around her Mickey started to wonder, however fleetingly, when or if help would ever come!
So she started to sing.
Actually, she started by reciting psalms and other passages of scripture she’d known from childhood (“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” [Psalm 121:1-2] Actually kind of fitting when you think about it, she said afterward) And then, it was Christmas songs, followed by verses from all the old hymns and snippets from choir anthems that she’d sung at one time or another and had always remembered. And as that long day went on Mickey just kept on singing, singing everything and anything she knew how to sing and even a few songs she didn’t! She sang through her pain and she sang through her fear, and she even sang a bit through her doubt, but above all Mickey sang out of a faith-borne assuredness that the Lord was with her and that she would be alright! And when eventually, just as darkness had begun to descend, another pair of skiers did happen by so to bring her to safety, they asked how she was doing and Mickey simply smiled and replied in very typical Mickey fashion, “Oh, I’m fine… I hadn’t run out of songs yet!”
Sometimes, you see, the only thing you can do is sing… but when singing is an act of faith, that may well be enough!
In our text for this morning, Luke’s gospel tells us that at the time of Jesus’ birth there was “a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon,” and Luke makes a point of letting us know that this Simeon was a good man, “righteous and devout,” and as The Message puts it, living “in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel,” that is, waiting for the coming of the Lord’s Messiah. We’re also supposed to surmise from this passage that Simeon was quite old and that he had been, in fact, waiting just about all his life for this singular event to take place; but, you see, that was alright. For as Luke tells the story, “the Holy Spirit rested” on Simeon and that same Spirit had “shown him that he would see this Messiah of God before he died.” That’s it… no angel making an “annunciation,” as what was given unto Mary, nor even any heavenly rebuke as what happened to old Zechariah back at the temple; and as for that “heavenly host” that they’d heard about from a bunch of random shepherds? There was certainly none of that for Simeon; no miracles or signs or wonder, just simply and profoundly this continued assurance from a truly Holy Spirit that this thing was going to happen, it would happen in Simeon’s lifetime… and it was definitely going to be worth the wait. So keep the faith, Simeon… keep on singing and just wait for it.
So now it’s about 40 days after the child was born in the manger of Bethlehem; which means that Jesus was around a month and a half old and the time had come both for “their purification” (which actually had more to do with Mary than with Jesus, as it was required by every Jewish woman after childbirth) and for Mary and Joseph to come to the Temple and offer up a sacrifice (which because of their poverty, amounted to “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”), so to consecrate their child to the Lord. Understand this was a sacred ritual, a duty required and performed by all faithful Jews; and so you have to imagine, as David Lose puts it, that Mary and Joseph “must have been in a reverent, even solemn mood that day, the way many young parents in our congregations are when their first child is to baptized.” So also imagine, then, how started, even frightened Mary and Joseph might have been when in the midst of this quiet procession into the holy courts of the Temple, here comes “Simeon, old beyond years and beaming with ecstatic revelation, coming up to them to touch the child,” and then, as if that weren’t enough, he starts singing!
You see, on that day of days Simeon was guided by the Holy Spirit to go – go now (!) – to the Temple because there at long last he would see the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit’s promise and the consolation of Israel. And so, make no mistake, there’s absolutely no reluctance, hesitation or even any kind of appropriateness here on Simeon’s part; I mean, you don’t just run up to new parents and just pick up their baby, but here’s old Simeon fairly well running into the Temple and scooping up the baby Jesus away from Mary and Joseph, all so he can hold this child in his arms; and once Simeon’s seen that angelic little face, once he’s touched his little fingers, maybe counted his toes and then marveled how something so tiny and so delicate can be so… divine, that’s when Simeon’s song begins, a song of praise and thanksgiving for this child who was and is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
In Latin, it’s referred to as the Nunc Dimittis, which means “now send away,” and it’s actually used today both during services of holy communion and as a funeral liturgy, for not only is this song this incredible proclamation of God’s salvation prepared for all people, it’s also Simeon’s joyous affirmation that now that the Spirit’s lifelong assurances of a Messiah had come to fruition Simeon himself could die in peace. In other words, my waiting is over, your work is done, so as in the elegant words of the old King James Version of scripture, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
There are some, you know, who tend to read the words of Simeon’s song as something rather morbid; I mean, why would he even want to talk about death and dying at a time like this, when the light and life of Christmas, to borrow a line from Jean Shepherd here, is at its zenith and all is right with the world? But you see, Simeon knew that everything in his life had led up to this particular moment of this particular day, and that now that he’d literally seen and held God’s promise in his hands, “after touching and feeling the promise of life which God had granted to him through Christ…” (David Lose, again) then he could accept death “courageously and confidently in the light of God’s promised salvation.” He could let go now, because the promise had been fulfilled and it had most definitely been worth the wait.
Of course, it needs to be said there that Simeon’s song wasn’t entirely one of joy and praise. After he’d blessed this child and his parents, Simeon then looked to Mary, and as though to perhaps warn her of what was to come (?), he sings a second verse of his song, of how this child was to “be a sign that will be opposed,” – a “figure misunderstood and contradicted” – “so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” And, oh yes, Mary, by the way? “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
It turns out, you see, that there will be more to this story than merely a tale of angels and shepherds and Magi from the Far East bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This child, this baby whose is named Jesus, Emmanuel, Messiah, Christ the Lord… his story will continue; beginning with a baptism of repentance in the River Jordan through great acts of healing, miraculous signs, teachings that change lives and the world, and at the last a triumphal entry into Jerusalem that leads inescapably to the cross.
Even after the shepherds have gone back to their flock; even once the star overhead has faded to blend in with the rest of the night sky and the Magi have opted to go home another way; even after Mary and Joseph settle in to the business of raising an infant even as they’ve had to flee to Egypt as refugees, the story goes on. The baby Jesus, you see, grows up… and his journey, as well as ours, is just beginning.
You know, it’s always struck me as a bit odd that we inevitably end up viewing Christmas as an ending rather than really what it should be, a new beginning. I realize that this comes in large part because since before Halloween (!) this world has been wholly focused on the run-up to everything surrounding the Christmas holiday, and so once December 26 comes along even the most ardent of Christmas elves are apt to breathe a sigh of relief! And even here in the church, for over four weeks we’ve devoted ourselves to Advent waiting and watching for the coming of Christ; and so yes, I have to confess that there’s a palpable sense of conclusion in our finally arriving at the manger. In other words, we’ve come to worship, we’ve sung all our songs and now it’s time, like the shepherds and wise men before us, to return to life and the world and business as usual.
But I ask you, is that actually the case? Is Christmas truly over? Have we really run out of songs to sing?
Because despite whatever closure we have by our taking down decorations or switching to music other than the holiday variety (!), the fact our journey to Christmas has not so much ended as it is just beginning!
You might have noticed that our text this morning contains a bit of an epilogue to this story of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple and Simeon’s song of praise and glory. It seems that there in the Temple was also “a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.” Anna was an 84-year-old widow, and in fact pretty much lived at the temple, “worshipping night and day with her fastings and prayers,” [The Message] and we’re told that at the very same moment Simeon was offering up his tribute, Anna also showed up and “broke into an anthem” of her own, one of “praise to God,” and one that was apparently reprised again and again as she began “to speak about the child to all who were look for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
That’s the key, you know… that’s how Christmas becomes for us the starting place of our journey rather than its conclusion. It’s in our proclaiming the good news of his coming; it’s about telling the story of his holy birth, yes, but it’s also continuing to tell of his presence and ministry among us and of the price he paid for our redemption before God. It’s in the work of Christmas that we are called to do: in those powerful words of poet Howard Thurman:
“To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.”
Yes, to “make music in the heart!” Christmas is always about singing out our praises unto the Lord each and every day that we live and breathe; it’s about singing through our pain, and singing through our fear, and even at times singing through our doubt; but it’s ever and always singing out of that faith-borne and faith-full assuredness that the Lord is with us and that we will be alright!
Christmas is not over, beloved; in fact, it’s just getting started!
So let that journey of prayer and praising and service begin with us here and now… and let’s keep singing, because there are plenty of songs yet to sing!
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry