Sermon on Luke 2:22-40 for December 31, 2017, Christmas +1B
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.
So, it is New Year’s Eve. And you are in church.
You have a lot in common with the characters in the text we read from Luke. Joseph and Mary, with the baby Jesus in tow, as well as Simeon and Anna, are at Israel’s place of worship, the temple in Jerusalem, being faithful Jewish people.
You are here in church, which I take as an act of faithfulness. You closing out the year by gathering with the community of faith where we worship.
You have something else in common with these characters as well: for us it is the dawn of a new year. For them, it was the dawn of a new life. A baby was formally becoming a member of the community of faith in anticipation of a life of faithfulness to the covenant.
Just as we baptize, as the sign of the New Covenant, Israelite male children were circumcised as a sign of the covenant with Abraham and his descendants.
Death and Birth
Both circumcision and baptism are deeply meaningful, with multiple layers of significance, one of which is symbolic death. Circumcision is, in part, symbolic castration. It enacts an oath: “may my line of decent and my name cease if I am unfaithful to the covenant.”
In baptism, the sprinkling of water stands, in miniature, for a full submersion under water, which symbolizes going down into the grave. Coming out of the water is rising up to new life.
So too, in this text, we hear of death. At the birth of Jesus, the elderly Simeon, is now ready to die. In this story, he understands Jesus as the dawn of something new that God is doing, and so the old is ready to die. The story is reaching its climax.
On this New Year’s eve it is worth reflecting on that cycle that we all know about – so often, in order for something new to be born, something old must die. Death is followed by resurrection. So, looking back on 2017, or on all the years up to this point, what, in your life, may need to die so that something new may be born in 2018?
I was just visiting my brother and his wife for the Christmas holiday. There was snow and salt on the ground. Every time we came back inside we tracked it in. You had to take off your shoes near the door and put on indoor footwear.
Life is like that. As we live we pick up things, often unwittingly, like habits – habits of behavior or habits of thinking or feeling, that perhaps are unhelpful. We need a moment to sit down by the door, look at what has accumulated under our feet, and remove what we do not want to bring inside the place where we live.
Newness and Joy
For Simeon and Anna, this was an occasion of celebration and joy. To be able to let go of the past in anticipation of a better future is a liberation. So one of the goals Luke has in writing this story this way seems to be to do two things at once: show that Jesus and his project is deeply connected to the past, but at the same time is opening a door onto a new and different future.
There they all are, at the temple, doing exactly as the ancient law and ancient customs would have them do. At the same time, Simeon’s song of joy looks forward to something new.
New Testament scholars tell us that the gospels tell the story Jesus as the climax of the story of Israel. We see that here. The Christmas Carol says it perfectly, “O Little town of Bethlehem…The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
The Final Kingdom Age
There was another story of the climax of history being told when Luke wrote his gospel.
Rome had inherited from Greece the idea that world history was compromised of five ages, which were also five kingdoms. Starting with the Assyrians, four had already come and gone. But now, the fifth and final kingdom had come, the kingdom of Rome. An ancient Roman general and author, at the time of Jesus, wrote that the gods,
“exalted this great empire of Rome to the highest point yet reached on earth” to become “the empire of the world”
– Caius Velleius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History, (2.131) in Borg, Marcus J.; Crossan, John Dominic. The First Christmas (p. 59). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
So, the emperors of Rome became revered in the most exalted way. They were not merely ruling this final, climactic “empire of the world” in the name of the gods, but were seen as descendants of the gods themselves.
Emperor Octavian became known as Caesar Augustus – to be August is to be revered as divine. His titles included Divine, Son of God, God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. We can find them still, today, carved in stone on public Roman buildings and engraved in coins carried by everyone in that world.
As professors, Borg and Crossan say, “To use any of [these titles] of the newborn Jesus would be either low lampoon or high treason.” – The First Christmas (p. 63).
But those are the exact titles Luke uses for Jesus, and some of them show up here in Simeon’s song. Jesus will bring salvation to the world, as Caesar claimed to do. Simeon now has peace, which Caesar claimed to bring.
Apollo was the Roman god of light, as well as order, and the god who fathered Caesar Augustus, the same night in which his human father dreamed that the sun was rising from his wife’s womb – the light of the world had come. But Simeon says Jesus will be the light that comes to the nations.
In a fascinating way, the book of Daniel adopts the Graeco-Roman concept of the five kingdoms of world history. The fifth and final kingdom is unlike the four that precede it. They were all beasts, or monsters because they were empires built on violence and oppression.
But the fifth and final kingdom Daniel spoke of was given to a human who stood for the people of the kingdom of God. The final kingdom was a time of peace; peace brought about by justice and righteousness instead of violence and domination.
Two Kingdoms in Conflict
What we come to see is that Luke is telling the story of Jesus with just this kind of alternative in mind. There are two kingdoms in conflict.
There is the Empire of Rome in which peace and order come by violence and oppression, whose tyrants rule like little gods, or there is the true kingdom of God which comes by justice. It comes like a light, bringing true peace. It comes like the dawn of a new age.
Rome represents all empirical claims to make a world based on domination, oppression and violence. Rome stands for the quest to have order without justice and prosperity at the expense of human dignity; to have greatness without honor.
Expectations for a New Year
So, let us bring this back to our time. What are you expecting from this coming year? Most of us have lived long enough not to be naïve. We know that every year comes with challenges as well as with joys.
We can hear the words of Simeon to Mary, that even though redemption has come, a soul-piercing sword will come too, and recognize a profound truth in that combination.
There may be losses to face in the coming year. There may be pain. But God will be there in this coming year, at every moment.
This scene, of the celebration of something new and transformative coming into the world is what we believe at a deep level. We believe that God is present in every moment. God’s presence is that power – we call it the Spirit – at work, opening up new possibilities for the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Every moment can be a mindfully present participation with God in the hope and dream of a better world, we call “the kingdom of God”. Every moment can be a moment in the process of transformation as we consent to the Spirit.
That is what we can expect for this new year. So let it be a year of anticipation and joy – not naïve joy – but deep joy, knowing that whatever is to come, God will be there with us and for us, opening our hearts to his path of peace and justice.
It will be a year of living in the joy of the kingdom of true peace, and being channels of that peace, lights shining in the darkness.