let Nothing you dismay
Sunday, December 31, 2017
Trinity United Church of Christ, Deerfield
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10; Luke 2:22-40
That was the last scene in Luke's story of the birth of Jesus. Luke divides the story into several acts – each act with dialogue, and a song. We are familiar with most of the scenes: the angel’s announcement to Mary, after which she sings. The birth of John, and his father's song. Then the shepherds are visited by angels, who sing, “Glory to God in the highest.” Then the birth itself, and all is quiet. Mary ponders all of this in her heart.
The last scene is our Gospel text for this morning, the concluding scene in Luke’s drama, the visit to the Temple. The final song belongs to Simeon. He sings, “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace.. for my eyes have seen your salvation.”
The holy family have come to Jerusalem to the Temple for a Jewish ritual. Mary and Joseph are devout people. They intend to raise their son in the faith. There are two old people there, Simeon and Anna. Luke says they were constantly in the Temple. In Jerusalem they are probably known as the odd couple, Simeon and Anna. You could always find them in the Temple.
Simeon is there because he is expecting the Messiah. In Malachi, it is prophesied that when the Messiah comes, he will come “suddenly to the Temple.” So every morning, old Simeon gets up and goes there. It also says that Simeon is righteous, old and righteous. Those are offered as impressive credentials for Simeon, which is important because, for Luke, Simeon is an expert witness.
So Simeon is standing at the entrance to the Temple, looking for the Messiah. He's been there for years, waiting, watching. He even checks out babies. He sees Mary, Joseph and the baby come up the steps, holds out his arms. “Let me see the baby.” Mary lets him. There is an instant of recognition. And Simeon sings, “Now, let your servant depart in peace.. for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Translation: “The Messiah has come. I can die now; the reason I've been holding on for so long has now come.”
Simeon is the expert witness. If anyone should know who the Messiah is, it’s Simeon. This is it, he announces. The Messiah is here.
Simeon’s song is called the Nunc Dimittis, after the first two words in the Latin text, the Vulgate. “Nunc dimittis” means “Now I can leave.” It's a song of thanksgiving to God for the gift of this child, “a light to the Gentiles, glory to the Jews.” Which means, this child is a savior for everyone.
After the song of thanksgiving, though, there is a prophecy of pain. Simeon announces, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many,” which means this child is going to be controversial. There's going to be division because of him. Then he turns to Mary, and says, “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” She herself is going to undergo pain because of this child.
Which is a harsh conclusion to the lovely story of the birth of Jesus. Already, Luke has sketched in the shadow of a cross beam. But, wait. There’s something more. Right after the warning of Mary's suffering, the very next verse, Anna is introduced. It says, “There was also a prophet, Anna.”
* * * *
Anna is the other half of that odd couple that was always at the Temple. Anna, who prays and fasts night and day, is identified as a prophet, so she too is an authority. Luke says also she was “of great age.” Another expert witness. And Anna agrees with Simeon. This baby is what we have been looking for. And, what's more, Anna told that to anybody who would listen: “This is the Messiah.” She is a corroborating witness.
But I think she’s also there for another reason. Luke is the gospel writer who pays most attention to women. He has women appear continuously in his writings, both in Luke and in Acts. He did this in an age in which to do so was controversial, even defiant of convention. For instance, Luke mentions widows at least eight times. Widows were dependent on other people's charity in that time, often poor and treated unjustly.
And here comes Anna, a widow. Luke is specific in describing that part of her life. She has been a widow for 84 years, which means she knew what suffering is.
Simeon has just said to Mary, “You will have a sword put through your soul.” And here comes Anna. It was said of the Messiah, in Isaiah, “He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (53:3). Mary, you will know that too. And here comes Anna. She can tell you all about that, also. She is a woman of sorrows, acquainted with grief.
When Simeon says, “This is the Messiah,” it means something. It’s an authority speaking. He’s a Messianic scholar. He knows all the Scripture texts. He knows who to look for, he knows where to look. He’s an expert.
Well, Anna is too. She is from the university of life, the school of hard knocks. She is among the company of sufferers in this world. She is, as we say nowadays, “a survivor.” So when Anna says, “This is the Messiah,” this is also authority speaking.
Luke wanted to make it perfectly clear that the Messiah had come. So he subpoenas authorities, because it wasn't all that clear. The days after Jesus was born, the world looked just the way it had the previous day. An alien army still occupied the land; Rome still ruled with an iron hand. Eruptions of violence kept happening. Taxes went up. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer. The sick didn’t get well. The problems that plagued the people before Christmas were there to greet them after Christmas.
So, somebody had to ask it. Are you sure this was it? Is this what we were really looking for? That’s why Luke brings in Simeon and Anna, expert witnesses to reassure us that in spite of the way it appears, this was it.
* * * *
It is an appropriate question on the first Sunday after Christmas, a poignant question to ask on New Year’s Eve. When we are still basking in the holiday spirit. And you haven’t gone back to work yet. (I’ve gone back to work, but you haven’t.)
Are we sure this was it? The fades. The world returns to its pre-Christmas state. Terrorist threats remain. An ugly political era continues. Your problems remain. And you will know some sorrow this year, some grief. The world will be the same.
Martin Marty has an apt illustration of our world. He went to see a dreary Irish play, full of heartbreak, in which there are four unmarried sisters, one of whom, near the end of the play, says this: “You work hard at your job. You try to keep the home together. You perform your duties as best you can, because you believe in responsibilities, and obligations, and good order. Then suddenly you realize that hair cracks are appearing everywhere, that control is slipping away, that the whole thing is so fragile it can’t be held together much longer. It's all about to collapse.”
“Hair cracks are appearing everywhere...” Things we have to live with: a world at war, threats abounding, economic priorities gone haywire. And, close to home, the beloved spouse now gone, a dreaded diagnosis, children who have wandered away – we wish we could change these things, but we aren’t able to. A job that is no longer exciting or fulfilling. And the world you grew up in and found meaning in is cracking. There are hair cracks everywhere. The whole thing seems so fragile now.
What this text says to us, so soon after Christmas, is that the Messiah has come to this world, to the world with hair cracks. This is it. The witnesses have testified. This is it. This really is. There will be no additional Messiahs. No one is going to come and solve your problems for you. So, if the world is going to get better, and if your life is going to get better, then you have to trust that the power to change things is already here, waiting for you.
Anna is telling everybody about it. Old Simeon, he has now departed in peace. But Anna is still here, announcing, “The Messiah has come.” Which means, the world doesn’t have to be perfect for me to know all the things that were promised: Peace, and joy, and reconciliation, forgiveness and new life. It means that my life can have a wholeness and purpose, even though there are cracks in it.
There’s a wonderful verse in today’s final hymn, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” It fits perfectly with this text. It could be written about Anna. It goes like this:
And you, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!
- With thanks to Martin Marty and Mark Trotter
For me, the intersection of faith and life is full of insight and surprise. Browse here for sermons and other meditations and musings.