Sermon Christmas I 2017
Sermon for an Odd Sunday
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 turtle-doves 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.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
• Luke 2:22-40
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The Lord be with you.
This, to me, has always been an odd Sunday on the church’s calendar. Because of our culture and the way we have come to celebrate the holidays, most of us are thinking, “Christmas is over!” We may be breathing a sigh of relief, we may have already taken down the tree and decorations, the family has gone home, the gifts have been put away and are being put to use, and this week, these days, this Sunday seems like an anticlimax to the big celebration that took place on one day after a long season of advertising, shopping, and preparing. What we had looked forward to for so long has come and gone, and is now past.
On the other hand, we are thinking about the future. On our calendar, tomorrow begins a new year. Tonight we’ll count down to midnight, raise our glasses, embrace our loved ones, and celebrate the possibilities that lay before us the next 365 days. “A new year has come!” Perhaps we’ve been pondering resolutions, working on our 2018 calendars, looking forward to particular events that we are planning during the months to come. A blank slate is before us, and a spirit of anticipation is in the air.
So we look back and in our cultural habits Christmas is past. We look forward because we find ourselves on the doorstep of a new year. And yet today, we have this Sunday that seems to lie between those two realities. On the church calendar it is the first Sunday in Christmastide. For the church, Christmas doesn’t end on Christmas day, it just begins then. The twelve days of Christmas carry on the celebration until Epiphany, January 6. So it’s still actually appropriate to say, “Merry Christmas!,” to sing Christmas carols, to keep our decorations up, and to celebrate the birth of Christ. Everybody knows that the day a baby is born is just the beginning of expressing our joy and enjoying the new little one among us. On the other hand, we are people of a particular culture as well, and we follow the same calendar as our neighbors. It’s New Year’s Eve! Time to close the door on 2017 and open the door to a brand new year.
I think our reading for today has a simple lesson we can take for an odd Sunday like this, when we feel in between Christmas and the new year.
In today’s text from Luke, it is now forty days after Jesus’ birth. After eight days, Mary and Joseph, who were faithful Jewish parents, had Jesus circumcised and named in accordance with the law. Now, thirty-two days later, we see his parents again performing their duty as they return to the Temple, this time in order to offer a sacrifice and to present their newborn baby, Jesus, to the Lord. There they meet two older saints, a man named Simeon and an woman named Anna. These strangers approach the holy family and make some profound statements about who Jesus is and what he came to do.
Most of the time, when reading this passage, we give our attention to these two people and what they say about Jesus. And, indeed, Luke wants us to hear their remarkable words. To them, Jesus was the fulfillment of all they had longed for and waited for. They recognized Jesus as the Messiah, the King promised to Israel, the One who would come from God and bring his people redemption. Their words here are the answer to the Advent hymn we sang each week, “O come, o come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”
But I want you to notice something much simpler and down-to-earth on this Sunday, as we look back on Christmas and forward to a new year in 2018. Observe with me that these encounters Mary and Joseph had with Simeon and Anna took place in the temple, their place of worship. Notice that Mary and Joseph had taken Jesus there, to fulfill their duties as faithful Jewish parents, according to God’s instructions. Note that Simeon apparently was a person who listened to scripture, who knew God’s promises well, who had been trying for many years to live his life according to God’s word. And notice that Anna, who had sadly lost a young husband, had devoted herself afterwards to serving God in a religious vocation.
Let me say it as simply as I can: these were people who practiced their faith. They were people who walked in this world with daily, ordinary faithfulness in response to God’s love and grace.
If I were to talk about this in terms of our lives today, I would say: these are people who made it a priority to go to church, to do their duties as pious people and parents. They maintained a religious life. They read their Bibles, they prayed, they worshiped with God’s people regularly. They sought to raise their children within the community of faith. They knew God had blessed them and made them God’s people, and so they responded by trying to do, as the last verse of our text says, “everything required by the law of the Lord.” They sought, by God’s help, to be faithful people, who made following his instructions and living with grateful devotion the pattern of their lives.
They were simple people. They are not known by having done great and spectacular things. In their own day they were not celebrities or people who were honored as leaders or movers and shakers. Just ordinary folks, fulfilling their ordinary duties with a spirit of reverence and thankfulness to God. They trusted God, they took their kids to church, they read their Bibles, they prayed, they served the Lord and their neighbors.
I realize that’s not a sexy message. It’s not some deep spiritual insight that will turn your world upside down and send chills of spiritual experience running up and down your back. Hearing it is probably more like being told to eat your vegetables than being given a big piece of pie a la mode.
That’s okay. I’m not here to give you a spiritual thrill ride. I’m here today to help us all learn to walk, to walk in Christ, to walk in the path of wisdom and love. And it all starts with a simple path: the straight-forward way of simple, daily faithfulness we see here in Mary and Joseph and Simeon and Anna.
Yesterday I officiated the funeral service of a man 97 years old. He died on Christmas Day. His wife had died just a couple of weeks earlier. They had lived and died in the same small town. He had taken over a business that has been in the family since 1888, providing a very important service for their community. His son now runs that business. This man and his wife had been married about 70 years, had family of children and grandchildren who were all at the funeral along with many neighbors and friends. Always went to church. Served in various capacities in his church and community. Started the Little League baseball program there. Founded the town’s annual parade. Served his country with honor in WWII. Took care of his family and neighbors.
In my funeral sermon, I said that one of my favorite movie characters is George Bailey, from It’s a Wonderful Life. Never did George Bailey achieve the big splash of fame and fortune he dreamed about. Instead, he remained in the little town of Bedford Falls and achieved something much better: contentment, joy, doing good and meaningful work that helps others, a loving family, lots of friends, a spirit of public service, enjoying the good things in life and trusting God and helping others through the hard times in life.
People like George Bailey and the friend I eulogized yesterday won’t get their names in the history books, but they are the bedrock upon which our lives, families, and communities are built.
As we look back on Christmas and forward to a new year, let’s take it a day at a time, and make each day a day of ordinary faithfulness. Let’s awaken every day, receiving it as a gift from God, thanking him for our salvation and all the blessings of life. Let’s walk each day as the prophets teach us:
“He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”