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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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Pay It Forward

christthesaviormanger02(A sermon for December 29, 2013, the 1st Sunday after Christmas, based on Luke 2:22-40 and Colossians 3:12-17)

It’s interesting, you know, that nobody ever wrote a poem or a holiday song that begins with the words, “’Twas the day after Christmas!”

And that’s too bad; because in a way, these days that immediately follow Christmas are as atmospheric as what comes before, just in a different way!  For one thing, the house is quiet and folks are sleeping soundly; after all, children may still be rising early to play with their new Christmas toys, but at least it isn’t happening at four o’clock in the morning!  All the anticipation leading up to December 25 has given way to afterglow: stockings hang empty on the mantle; the dried up tree stands naked in the corner; all the brightly wrapped gifts that once were piled beneath it are now scattered about the house, the wrapping paper bagged up and out with the trash.  And while there might be a few post-holiday get-togethers yet to come, a few belated Christmas cards come in the mail, and some leftover turkey in the fridge, already there are clear signs that life is returning to normal, with all that’s left for this particular Christmas being the memories!

Still, if you’re like me, you’re asking, it doesn’t have to be over, does it?  After all, it’s only a few days after Christmas; there’s still some Christmas vacation left; and hey, on the Christian calendar, we’re less than halfway through the 12 days of Christmas! (Today’s the day for five gold rings, by the way; so you’d best get to Jared’s straightaway; just sayin’!)  So I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite ready to give up on the season just yet!  Surely there’s a little bit more spirit still to savor, a few more moments to linger at the manger before we have to move on: isn’t there a way for us to glean a little bit more meaning from this Christmas?

Well, I’m here this morning to tell you that I think that there is; but interestingly enough, it comes in leaving the manger behind!  And that’s because for you and I as Christians, Christmas is not the place where the journey ends, but in fact where it truly begins!

Admittedly, it’s easy to forget that; given that our thoughts during Christmas are so focused on what is often referred to as “the Holy Family” – Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child – along with the supporting cast of angels, shepherds and wise men!  That’s the story we tell on Christmas Eve; and traditionally, we end that story at the point in Matthew where the wise men have left their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and then choose to “go home by another way.”  Which is fine, except that the doesn’t actually end there; in fact, here is where is just gets going: with the angel the appearing to Joseph and telling him to flee with his family to Egypt; with Herod calling for all the young children in and around Bethlehem to be killed; a tragic piece of biblical history accurately referred to as “the slaughter of the innocents.”

Now, I realize that this is all pretty heavy stuff for Christmas Eve, but it does point up the fact of how much more there is of the nativity story than we usually like to think about.  And for Christmas to have real and lasting meaning, we need to acknowledge that; and go where the story inevitably goes.

The problem with this, of course, is that scripture only gives us scant information about events following Jesus’ birth; aside from his living in exile with Mary and Joseph in Egypt, and that wonderful story from Luke about Jesus being found by his parents in the temple, we actually know very little about Jesus as a young boy.  But we do, thanks to our gospel reading this morning, get a sense of what is to come for Jesus, as well as what awaits the world in which he was born; and this comes in the response to Jesus’ birth coming from two elderly denizens of the temple in Jerusalem.

The first is Simeon, an old man fervent in prayer and wholly nourished in the teachings of scripture; a man “righteous and devout” who had spent his life in the spiritual hope that God would yet deal gently with Israel by sending the long-awaited Messiah. Basically, Simeon’s story can be summed up in one verse; that he was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.”  At the time of his life when he might have been content to dwell altogether in the past, Simeon believed that the best was yet to be; and was confident that a new and brighter day for Israel and all of humanity was close at hand.

And so when he saw Mary and Joseph, who had brought the baby Jesus to Jerusalem “to do for him what was customary under the law,” that is, to have him “dedicated” as holy unto the Lord, Simeon immediately knew at long last that hope was fulfilled; and that this child was the Messiah, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God’s] people Israel.”  And this is what he says to Mary about it: “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 then this, no doubt looking square into the eyes wondering eyes of Mary as he says it, “and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

It’s a powerful and telling moment; at a point where most parents are consumed with immediate worries where their child is concerned, here’s old Simeon who knows exactly the destiny that awaits this child Jesus; and by extension, that of his parents; and who bluntly declares the joy of it as well as its inevitable heartbreak.

And then there’s Anna, an elderly woman in the temple; who, every day and every night for as long as anybody could remember had worshipped there with fasting and prayer.  When she encounters this “holy” family, she too immediately begins “to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel.”  Anna, you see, and Simeon along with her, were people with “a forward look,” people “in whom there burned a great hope.” According to a writer named William Quick, they were “persons on tiptoe, [with] the flame of freedom in their souls, the light of knowledge in their eyes, living in hope and expectation that a great day was coming when wrong would be righted… justice would be done, [and] God would reveal his arm and bring salvation to all mankind,” all of this because “the Word became flesh in a baby born in Bethlehem.”

So what we have here in this continuation of the story in Luke is an affirmation:  a proclamation, actually, that Christ is born; and that the Messiah has come!  That much is clear; but the real question here is, can we imagine what lay ahead?

In one sense, of course, we do know what’s ahead, because we know the gospel story; but think for a moment how full of promise and possibility was the future for Anna, for Simeon, or for that matter, for the shepherds and wise men and all of Israel; all because of the birth of this one, special baby!  For them, there was still this incredible story yet to unfold, and a journey to be shared with this child, who as Luke puts it would “[grow] and [become] strong, filled with wisdom;” with “the favor of God… upon him.” And it would be a journey that would inevitably lead to the cross.

That’s the thing, you see; the story of Christmas might start with the promise of light coming into darkness; it might come to its climax with a child born in a stable and angels singing songs in a starlit sky; but eventually it becomes this story of God’s own son bringing redemption and healing to the world; of the “poor having good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5), about the Kingdom of God bursting forth into life and living, and yes, about a night of betrayal and desertion leading to the greatest sacrifice of love that the world will ever know.  The point is that Christmas is about Jesus; but ultimately, it’s about following Jesus.  And if we’re going to follow Jesus, friends, then we’re going to have to go where Jesus goes; and do what Jesus does.

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie from a few years back, “Pay It Forward,” about this boy who has a plan to change the world: basically put, the plan was that each person should do three good deeds for other people, without any expectation of reward or repayment for that act.  The only requirement would be for those people who received the kindnesses should in turn do the same for others, thus “paying it forward.”  The film depicts in a very rich way how goodness and love grows exponentially when one responds to the blessings they’ve received by offering up blessings to others; and although I’m sure the filmmakers never intended to make the movie into a biblical parable, nonetheless it much describes the way we are called to continue Christmas into the new year and making its true meaning last in and through our lives and living.

And don’t misunderstand; whereas joy and singing and gifts and food and celebrations are never a bad thing any given season of the year, we’re not talking about “doing” Christmas over and over again as we do it every December, but rather embracing the Spirit of Christmas – and the ways of Christ – in our lives and living as our gift to one another and the world.  As Paul exhorts the Colossians in the Epistle reading this morning, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other… and above all, clothe yourselves with love,” and of course, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  Ultimately, beloved, the best way we can keep Christmas throughout the year is to model ourselves after the man that the baby Jesus grew to become; to “pay it forward” by seeking to embody what God himself came to earth to show us in love and righteousness.

You know, I have to say that as much as I love Christmas, I think I enjoy these days after Christmas almost as much.  For one thing, and I think you’ll understand, that for a pastor and family the pressure’s off a bit and at least one busy season is finally behind us.  And let me just say that Lisa and I have cherished the opportunity we’ve had to spend a few days this week with our family in the afterglow of Christmas!  But even more than this, I love this “Christmastide” because it really is an opportunity to renew ourselves for faith and action; how fitting it is that it comes in the last week of an old year and the very beginning of a new one; at a time there’s this palpable sense that all things are truly brand new and that the future is wide open, so that Christmas, true Christmas, can last throughout the year.

It is true what the poet Howard Thurman has written:

“When the songs of the angels is silent
When the star of the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are again tending their sheep
When the manger is darkened and still
The work of Christmas begins –
            To find the lost
            To heal the broken
            To feed the hungry
            To rebuild the nation
            To bring peace among people
            To befriend the lonely
            To release the prisoner
            To make music in the heart.”
 

May each one of us, beloved, do the work of Christmas today, paying it forward into the New Year and beyond.

And as we do, may our thanks be unto God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2013 in Christmas, Discipleship, Jesus, Scripture, Sermon

 

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