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Category Archives: Maine

The Conviction of Things Unseen

(a sermon for August 18, 2019, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16)

(Note:  An audio version of this message can be heard here)

It was a small moment, but I dare say that it was one of the more enlightening moments of my summer vacation.

We’d gone up to Mapleton that day visiting both the in-laws and our son and his wife who live nearby.  Zach and Jess’ house is literally out behind where my mother and father-in-law live, and within walking distance, so I’m on my way up there when this old, dilapidated and nearly rusted-out pickup truck drives up beside me, and this old, dilapidated and nearly rusted-out man leans out of the truck window, laughs out loud and says to me (and, by the way, it being church and all, I’m cleaning this up just a little bit), “It really stinks to get old, doesn’t it?”

Now, I don’t know this guy from Adam (!) but he seemed friendly enough, so I just laughed and said, “Oh yeah, it happens to every one of us sooner or later!”  To which he replied, “Well, good for you to be out here walking… you want to stave it off for as long as you possibly can!”  I’m still just laughing, and with my Maine accent kicking in I say, “Ayuh, I figured I’d best be kickin’ that can solidly down the road!” And then the man says this: “Well, you know what, nobody should be out here walking alone… tomorrow I’m coming out to look for you so we can walk together!”  And with that, he just smiles, gives me the official “Aroostook County Wave” and roars off down the road. And as I’m watching him go I’m still laughing, but I’m thinking, how old does this guy think I am?

I mean, granted, I wasn’t exactly at my Sunday best that morning… I’m on vacation, after all, so I’m in shorts and a t-shirt; my hair’s getting shaggy and I’m sure I was sporting some beard stubble, but come on!  I know I’m 60 years old, but did I really look that… that… dilapidated?  Maybe it was the way I was walking down the road; perhaps there was a bit more maturity in my step than I intended (after all, as has been pointed out to me, I may have two new hips, but the rest of my body is still 60)!  All I can say is that apparently I was not only headed to Zach’s house, but also quite literally to the end of the road… my road!   And so when I got back I could let everybody in the family know that it was now official, because the truth of the matter had been unquestionably confirmed for me while on the journey out there on the “old town road,”  so to speak:

I’m old.

Now, don’t misunderstand me here; I’m not headed for a rocking chair just yet!  But I do have to say that for me this chance encounter “on the way” did end up serving as something of a parable, and an apt metaphor for life itself:  simply put, that we’re all on this “walk of life,” aren’t we; taking the journey step by step, mile by mile, year by year, ever and always moving toward some kind of long-term vision for the future; raising a family, having grandchildren, getting ready for retirement, trying to live your life with some kind of integrity so that when you finally do leave this world behind, it’ll be a better place than when you found it.  That’s what we do, right; that’s what our journey, and the walking, is all about!

And yet, we also know how utterly unpredictable life can be, and how quickly things can change in ways that are often wonderful but sometimes… challenging (What’s that expression; I think it’s attributed to Woody Allen, of all people: “If you want to make God laugh,” he once wrote, “just tell him about your plans!”).  So often the hard reality of life is that plans change: there’s a bad medical diagnosis, the loss of a job, a shift in a relationship status — hey, maybe you discover that you’re not as young as you used to be (!) — but at the end of the day some of the things we envision get postponed, others change as we along and a few, well, don’t happen at all.  And as far as leaving the world a better place?  Well, when we look around as we do these days to see that world that keeps spinning recklessly out of control, we can’t help but wonder if that’s even possible.

And yet… and yet, we keep walking, don’t we?  We stay on the journey, we kick that can down the road, we keep on “keeping on,” continuing to go where we are determined to go and to do what we know is right, ever and always staying true to the path that’s been set before us even if at times we’re not all that sure where that pathway’s going to end up!  We walk in faith… because, as our text for this morning has so beautifully proclaimed, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Understand, friends, that this has nothing to do with wishful thinking, which is the expectation that by some miracle that which has never happened before in our lives will come to pass; nor is it even about optimism, per se, as optimism has to do with the strength and resilience of the human spirit and the confident belief that good will triumph, eventually and finally, no matter what.  And there’s certainly a place for that; but faith is different.  Faith, you see, is all about hope: a hope that is founded in God and which is made real and vindicated because of God’s faithfulness!  Lest you think I’m just talking in circles here, let me put it another way: in the words of Craig Barnes, “Faith isn’t something we get.  It’s something that gets us.  We don’t possess it.  We are possessed by it… faith is a grace from God – a grace that changes everything about your vision of life in this world.”  So faith, then, is the assurance of things hoped for, precisely because that assurance comes from God; it’s not simply our confidence in the triumph of good, it’s our understanding that this is how good triumphs, solely by God’s faithfulness unto us!  It’s how you and I keep walking the path set before us even when we’re not at all sure of what’s ahead; for faith, beloved, is “the conviction of things unseen.”

This 11th chapter of Hebrews, of which we read just a small portion this morning, is considered one of the greatest affirmations of faith that’s found in all of Holy Scripture, and moreover a celebration of the heroes of faith who had gone on before, from Abel to Noah to Abraham to Moses and beyond, all these people who spent their lives believing in this great hope that had its source in an ever faithful God.  But what’s interesting is that if you read just prior to where we picked up the reading this morning, in the 10th chapter, you read how Paul is urging the people to not “abandon that confidence” in their own Christian faith, saying to them, “you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.”  Understand, we’re not talking about a group of people who have turned away from God, but those who have kept on, and who likely have a long way yet to go on the journey.  So, says Paul, you need to know what faith truly is; hence this grand affirmation of faith in the chapter that follows.  Actually, there are two Greek words that are used in that regard:  first, there’s upostasis, which translates as “standing under,” and speaks to “a foundation of belief,” that comes from Jesus himself; in other words, Jesus is the very picture of the “bedrock of God’s identity,” “something basic, something solid, something firm” that “provides a place from which one can hope.” (Amy L.B. Peeler, NT Professor, Wheaton College) It is, as we read, the “assurance of things hoped for.”

The other word used is elegchos, the translation of which is a bit murkier, but is probably best referred to in English as “evidence” or even “proof” of what we have difficult comprehending; that is, in the words of The Message, “our handle on that which we can’t see.”  In other words, even if on this point on your journey you’re having some doubts (I don’t know, maybe some random passer-by has suggested you’re too old to keep walking!), don’t forget there are those who have gone before who continued to stand firmly upon God’s faithfulness, and you would not want to reject that evidence!  Case in point: Abraham, who demonstrated his faith by going to the place where God called him to go, sight unseen, and who continued to be faithful, though “this great obedience never really paid off” during his lifetime, living out his days “as in a foreign land, living in tents.”(Peeler)  And yet, over time and across generations that promise would come to fruition, and Abraham “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Likewise, the promise of descendants as many as the stars up in the heavens did not happen in exactly the way that neither Abraham most especially (!) Sarah were expecting; nonetheless, even though they were elderly and “as good as dead”Paul’s words, not mine, friends (!) – there was a child, the beginning of a great multitude of descendants.

The point is, it was by faith that Abraham and Sarah kept walking; they kept looking and moving forward, firm in the knowledge that God’s faithfulness and his sure and certain promise of a land and a home and a family.  They truly had a “conviction of things unseen,” and the question for you and me is whether we’re willing in our lives – and, might I add, in our care of the world and culture that surrounds us – to keep walking in faith despite all the disruptions that seek to keep us off track; looking forward to all signs of God’s faithfulness and love as we go.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” and just as it has been for countless generations of the faithful, what that means for us is that no matter how “round about” the journey has seemed to become for us, “we can depend on God to see us home… [because] the destination of the journey of faith is never in doubt.” (Mark Ramsey, “Today”)  We just have to keep walking.

I have shared with you before that one of my great heroes of the faith is the Rev. Dr. Fred McFeely Rogers, a Presbyterian minister better known, of course, to generations of children and families as “Mister Rogers” from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  I could tell you about a hundred different things I loved about the man, but here’s the latest, something I just learned this week: did you know that whenever Fred Rogers made a speech to one group or another, or when he was on television apart from the “neighborhood,” and even when he was amongst Hollywood celebrities and accepting an Emmy Award for his work in children’s television, “never failed to end his remarks, not with ‘thank you very much,’ or ‘have a good evening,’ but always by saying, ‘May God be with you.’”  And not, by the way, ‘God bless you,’ because “he knew that God had already blessed them, couldn’t help but bless them, would always seek to bless them.”  No… it was always “May God be with you,” because Mister Rogers’ fervent wish, and indeed, his prayer was that each one of those hearing his words would be aware that God was with them in their lives and along their journey.

As the old song goes, “the road is long with many a winding turn.” So it is with faith, beloved… to walk in the presence of the Lord, never looking back but always moving forward, can often be a daunting task indeed.  You know, one thing that old guy in the pickup truck had right was that nobody ought to be walking alone, and there should be someone to walk along with us when we go.  But the good news is that in faith, we’re never alone on the journey. To quote another Presbyterian Church leader, the Rev. Mark Ramsey from Atlanta, “[Faith] knows the challenges of life and the strife of the world.  But God renews faith daily.  Faith gives us a home.  It gives us a road to journey toward that home.”  And as we keep walking on the journey, “God’s hope is persistent and lasting.  It goes eye to eye with hardship and keeps on hoping.”

My prayer for each one of today is that we’ll have that assurance of all the things we hope for, the conviction of what we can’t see… and that awareness of God’s presence with you along every step of the way.

May God be with you, beloved…. May God be with you!

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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A Matter of Trust

(a sermon for February 17, 2019, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, based on  Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Luke 6:17-26)

The story goes that there were twelve members of the clergy together on a plane, all flying to a church conference in a distant city; and while in the air as sometimes happens the airplane encountered a large storm causing a great deal of turbulence during the flight.  That kind of thing is always a bit disconcerting, but the clergy were actually pretty good-natured about it; joking with their fellow passengers and the flight attendants that there was no reason to worry because, hey, there were twelve ministers on board this plane and, they hastened to add, represented a whole range of religious backgrounds; so just about every base was covered!   Well, everyone had a good laugh, eventually the turbulence subsided, and afterward one of the preachers jokingly asked the flight attendant if the pilot had been aware he’d had some “heavenly help” on board during that storm.   “Well,” said the flight attendant, “he said he was happy to have twelve ministers aboard, but given the choice, he would rather have four good engines!”

It’s true, you know; that for all the choices we have at our disposal at any given time, the only choice that really matters is the one that will save us; so where we choose to place our trust inevitably makes all difference!

It’s actually kind of interesting to note just how many decisions in our lives end up as “a matter of trust.” The teenager you’ll let come into your home and babysit your children when they’re young; the confidence you have in a doctor’s care, or in a lawyer’s advice; the accountant you hire to handle your investments or do your taxes:  I mean, you do your research, you get referrals, you even go online to sites like “Yelp” and “Angie’s List” to check out customer feedback (!): but in the end, it comes down to whether or not you’re going to trust that service, or company, or person with that which is of great importance in your life!

Moreover, what and in whom we trust says a great deal about us, doesn’t it: where our priorities lie and what we believe to be true about our lives and living; in many ways it’s how we discern the pathways we choose to follow in this life. There are just so many choices before us – sometimes we’re aware of those choices, other times they’re made without our even realizing it – but for each one of us, sooner or later, those choices come to bear on our lives in ways positive or negative.  Like I said before, ultimately the only choice that really matters is the one that will save us; so where – and in whom (!) – we place our trust makes all the difference!

And as the prophet Jeremiah says, “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.”

Those words from Jeremiah, from which our Old Testament reading this morning is drawn, date back to around 600 BC, a crucial moment in Israel’s history: around the time of the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people to Babylon. So these are words that speak directly to the lives of God’s people in that time; and make no mistake, they’re words of confrontation.  Jeremiah’s message to Israel from the Lord was clear even as it was disturbing: that they needed to fortify themselves by trusting wholly in God, rather than in man-made arrangements and self-styled security, lest in abandoning their faith they be left in ruin, both personally and as a nation.

Here was a nation you see, that had placed their trust in just about everything but God – in the midst of all this upheaval the kings of Judah had increasingly begun to place their allegiances in politics, prosperity and power plays rather than in following the pathway that God would have them lead – but now here was Jeremiah reminding them that “to trust in mere mortals and [to] make mere flesh their strength,” turning their hearts away from God in the process, was to be cursed, to end up no differently than “a shrub in the desert,” wasting away from the scorching sun and the lack of water.  Better to put your trust in something that will thrive in any situation, good or bad; best to put your trust in the Lord, who is like that tree that sends out its roots by the stream: as The Message translates it, “Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season.”

A withering shrub left to die a slow and inevitable death out in the desert, on the one hand, or a leafy-green tree bearing fruit in abundance through harvest after harvest: that’s your choice, says Jeremiah.  So the question becomes then, in whom will you trust?

It’s actually a pretty good question for you and me as well.

After all, isn’t it true that we also have a tendency to place our trust in our own strength, or our own possessions, or our own ego driven style of success and fulfillment for the sake of a good life?  Is it not true that all too often our dependence in this world leans more toward the politicians and power brokers than on our faith in the Lord? Even and especially when times are hard and hope is hard to imagine, there is this all-too human temptation to believe that our way out comes with wealth or power or social acceptance or even the people and parties we vote for!   It all sounds good, and there are plenty of media outlets, social and otherwise, that will gladly reinforce the notion; but trouble with such an attitude of life is that wealth is at best, temporary; power and politics are always fleeting; and social acceptance, well, let’s just put it this way:  if you’re the flavor of the month in February, that’s wonderful, but just remember come March there’s going to be another flavor everyone flocks to, and when that time comes you’re just as apt to be put to the back of the freezer!

Jeremiah’s words serve to remind us that these kinds of utterly human pursuits are ultimately shallow in nature, and can never give us the nourishment that we need; and this is to say nothing of the way that such things leave us vulnerable to the damaging winds of life and living.  Truly, anyone who’s been there knows that all the money and the power and prestige in the world can ever change the hurt that comes with grief or hatred or struggle. The truth of it is that we need more.  There is within each one of us a deep need that can only be filled by something that is at once beyond and deeply within ourselves, and that is and can only be God!  It is only when we wholly trust in God, only with our hearts firmly rooted in the holy that we grow and flourish like leafy, life-giving branches.  When we live with our trust placed in God and God alone, it’s then that we find our true blessing.

No doubt you noticed that our gospel reading this morning is Luke’s version of Jesus’ Beatitudes (which, by the way, is not considered here a “Sermon on the Mount,” but a sermon “on a level place,” with Jesus standing there amongst “a great multitude of people” surrounding him). And it’s there that Jesus gives to the people not only a series of blessings, but also a series of “woes.” (One commentator I read this week referred to these as the “woe-beattitudes!”) And those woes are in direct relationship to the blessings.  In other words, “Blessed are you who are poor (notice that’s it not “poor in Spirit” here, like in Matthew, but “poor”) for yours is the Kingdom of God.”  And a few verses later, it’s “but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”   Blessed are you who are hungry and who weep… but woe to you who are full, because you’re going to be hungry; and woe to you who laugh now, because before long, make no mistake, you’re going to be mourning and weeping.  And here’s something interesting: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.”  And what does it say later on?  “Woe to you when all speak well of you.”  So much for being Mr. or Ms. Popularity with hundreds of Facebook friends!

No doubt about it, this is one of those passages that fulfill that well-known prophecy that the gospel have a way not only of comforting the afflicted, but also, as they say, “afflicting the comfortable!”  Once again, in Jesus’ words we hear the same kind of radical reversals that Mary was singing about in the Magnificat; of how the lowly will be lifted up and powerful brought down from their thrones (Luke 1:52).  What’s being proclaimed is the coming of God’s Kingdom into the world; but in the process Jesus is also spelling out some of the very real things of this world that distract us from that kingdom and keep us from God; how placing our trust in the things of the world rather than in God in effect brings woe upon ourselves!

The question that each one of us needs to ask ourselves is this: when it comes down to the nitty-gritty in this life, in what and most importantly, in whom do we really trust?  What is it that we’ll bet our lives on?  Friends, bottom line is that if our trust is in ourselves, or in our money, or our possessions, or our wits and good looks, we’re on shaky ground.  Woe be unto us if we do that, because such things do crumble and blow away like so much scrub brush and tumbleweed.  But for those who place their trust in God, there’s blessing; for even when everything else in the world around us seems to fall away – when the money’s gone, when our ideas fail us, when our friends abandon or betray us, when it seems like we haven’t got anything left inside of us to carry on – we still have the presence, power, the peace and the nurturing care of an infinitely loving God.

Among my many small fascinations in this life is a tree that grows on a rock.

Seriously!  We’ve actually got one of these out in front of our family’s camp up in “the county;” an old yellow birch which has been clinging defiantly to a huge rock on the shore of the lake for longer than my lifetime, its long and gnarled roots wrapped all around it; and yet all the while growing and stretching its shady branches ever further over the water. Many was the time over the years growing up that I’ve marveled at that tree hanging at the angle it does, wondering how it can possibly defy gravity like that!  And even now it remains; still growing and dare I say, still thriving despite all the windswept mid-summer storms and intense winter “nor’easters” that have come at it over the years. Indeed, there have been other trees around our camp – bigger, straighter and seemingly stronger – that have fallen to the ground in that time; trees that were ultimately unable to stand firm against all that our New England weather can typically dish out.  However, come what may, this one precariously perched old tree just never seems to yield!

Of course, looks are often deceiving and upon closer examination you discover that the roots of this tree have over time reached around the rocks, pushed between and through cracks and crevices, and stretched into whatever soil it can find and eventually right into the spring fed mud of the lake itself!  That’s how, despite all outward appearances and seemingly impossible odds, this old birch tree has managed to stay strong, tall and leafy green summer after summer; long past the time when so many other trees have gone to mulch.

When our trust is in God and what God provides us we are indeed like that tree: ever clinging to the rocky ledges of life, yet ever and always surviving as our roots are drinking in the thirst-quenching glory of God’s living water.  As the song goes, when our trust and our care is in the Lord, we shall not be moved… but rest assured, we’ll also grow… we’ll grow tall and strong and lasting.

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.”

Blessed are those whose trust is the Lord!

Thanks be to God who makes us strong.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2019 in Epiphany, Faith, Jesus, Life, Maine, Old Testament, Sermon

 

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Simeon’s Song: Worth the Wait

(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?

Not yet.

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

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2018 in Christmas, Jesus, Maine, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series, Worship

 

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