Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 2:22-40:
Today’s passage from Luke, although little known or covered, is actually the conclusion to Luke’s birth narrative, but I am pretty sure that you cannot find figures of Simeon and Anna anywhere to add to your nativity display, even though these events probably take place much earlier than the visit of the magi as reported by Matthew, which may not have taken place for up to two years after Jesus’ birth. These are the sorts of problems we run into when we try and combine stories out of different gospels as if they all tell us the same thing. But the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are really two different stories, with two different meanings. Matthew begins emphasizing Jesus’ importance to gentiles, as represented by the Magi, but tells it through a decidedly Jewish lens, and Luke begins with Jesus’ importance to the Jews and emphasizing the righteousness and devoutness of Jesus’ parents and family.
After his brief introduction telling us why he is writing down his Gospel, Luke’s story begins in the Temple in Jerusalem with the announcement to Zechariah, a priest, that he and his wife Elizabeth are to have a son, who is John the Baptist, even though they are both advanced in years. The angel tells Zechariah that this child is in answer to his prayers, although it is not clear how long he, and presumably his wife, have been praying for a child. But, Zechariah does not believe the pronouncement made by the angel, does not believe that what he has been told will actually come true, his is struck mute until after John’s birth when he is filled with the spirit and given a prophecy typically referred to as the Benedictus. The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is then sort of mirrored and interspersed with the announcement to Mary, including Mary’s song, called the Magnificat, with a significant difference being that Mary believes what the angel tells her.
Then, of course we have the birth story, the announcement to the shepherds, which is also similar in construction to what has already taken place, and then today’s passage, which is preceded in verse 21 by the announcement that on the 8th day, according to Jewish law, the baby is circumcised and named Jesus, which means God’s saves, as the angel had decreed. I remind us all of this so that we can understand in greater detail what is going on in today’s passage, because not only is this the closing of Luke’s birth narrative, but it forms a book end with how the story begins.
We again find ourselves in the Temple, encountering an old man, who like Zechariah we are told is righteous and devout. Luke only applies the term righteous to four people in his Gospel, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Joseph of Arimathea, who provides the tomb for Jesus, four older people are those who we are told are righteous.
In the second century a tradition arises that Simeon is 112 years old at the time he encounters Jesus. There is no basis to this in scripture, but I think the purpose behind the tradition is to help illustrate his age. We are told that he has been looking forward to and praying for the consolation of Israel. This phrase harkens back to a passage from Isaiah which says, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Simeon is looking forward to the coming of the promised messiah, and he has been praying for it for a long time. But, let’s say that he is not in fact 112, but that instead he’s only 80, then he has already seen a lot in his life.
The best guess is that Jesus is born somewhere between 6 and 4 BCE. I know that our calendars are supposed to start at year 1 with Jesus’ birth, but is looking back to recreate a calendar starting at Jesus’ birth, the church missed one of the Roman emperors, which is excusable because there were a lot of them and they couldn’t exactly just go to Wikipedia to make sure they were all included. But we know that Herod the Great dies in the year 4 BCE, and so if Jesus was born during the reign of Herod, then the latest he could have been born was around 4, but most scholars believe it was earlier than that. But for argument and simplicities sake, let’s say that today’s passage takes place in the year 5 BCE.
58 years earlier, in 63 BCE, a 22-year-old Simeon would have witnessed the end of the last Israelite independence when the Romans took Palestine from the Hasmoneans, the last Jewish ruling family, which began the prayers for the consolation of Israel, to return Israel to Jewish rule, to throw off the foreign oppressors, which is what the messiah was supposed to do. For 58 years Simeon had been praying for just one thing. How many of us have prayed for one thing continuously for 58 years? Normally if we’ve prayed for something for a week, or a month, or at most a year and it hasn’t happened then we give up, or figure the answer is no, or maybe begin to believe that prayer doesn’t in fact work, but Simeon has been praying for the same thing for 58 years.
We are told that the Spirit told him that he would not die before he saw the Messiah, but again we don’t know when this was. Was it early on in his life or much later? Is it easier to pray for the same thing for 58 years knowing that it will happen, or is it easier to pray when you simply hope it will happen? I believe that it has to be easier to pray for something you simply hope for, because knowing that it will happen and yet year after year it doesn’t happen can lead to disappointment and disbelief. But Simeon keeps believing and keeps praying. He is the ideal of faith as represented for us in Hebrews 11 which says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And then finally Simeon gets to meet Jesus, but not before he shows his faith one more time.
Simeon woke up that morning, said his morning prayers, probably once again prayed for the consolation of Israel, and then the Spirit tells him that he needs to go to the Temple. Does he hesitate or think, “Really? Today? I don’t feel like going to the Temple today.” Getting to the Temple was a major exercise; it wasn’t just something you did just because. But Simeon doesn’t stay at home in bed, instead he listens to the Spirit and goes to the Temple, and when he does he encounters Jesus and his parents, who have come there for several purposes. The first is that according to Leviticus, a mother was considered ceremonially unclean for forty days following the birth of a male child, and for 80 days following a female child, so Mary is coming for purification. As part of that she is to make an offering.
One of the reasons we know that Mary and Joseph are poor is because of this offering. The offering called for in Leviticus 12 is for a lamb and a dove or pigeon, but if someone can’t afford a lamb then two doves or two pigeons can be offered instead, and this is what Mary and Joseph bring. In addition, as a reminder of the Exodus, the first born male is to be consecrated to God, and so they are also at the Temple to accomplish this task as well, and that is when Simeon encounters them, takes the child and then gives a blessing, a song, just like Mary and Zechariah, traditionally called the Nunc Dimittis. Normally this has been seen as Simeon basically saying, “Okay, I have seen the Messiah, I can die now,” but it need not be interpreted that way. It can also be interpreted as simply saying that Simeon is being dismissed from his post of watching, and can now move on to something else. That is, simply because he is an old man and has seen what was promised, does not mean that his life is over that he has nothing else to live for because he gets to live for God, which is what Anna has also been doing.
The translation we read this morning says that Anna was married for 7 years, and then lived as a widow until the age of 84. But, the Greek is not entirely clear here. It can also be translated that she lived for 84 years as a widow. Which if she was married at age 13, which would not have been unusual at all, and we even have records of girls being married as young as 8 or 9, but if she was married at 13, widowed at 20, and then lived as a widow for 84 years, she could potentially be 104. But, like with Simeon, I don’t think her actual age is truly important for understanding what is taking place, as we can safely say she was someone who was advanced in years. But there are some unusual factors with Anna.
The first is that she is named. Women being named in the Bible are not as unusual and some people would have us believe, but it is also not as prevalent as it probably should be, but having her named as a prophet certainly is unusual. She is not the only female prophet named in scripture, there are in fact 10, but this title gives her a position of prominence and importance in her proclamation. In addition, we are told that she is from the tribe of Asher, which was one of the Northern tribes which were destroyed by the Assyrians in 720 BCE, so her proclamation encompasses all of Israel, not just that of Judea. This is a savior for all of the tribes, including the lost ten tribes. We are also told that Anna is living in the Temple, a decidedly male sphere, spending all of her time in prayer, presumably, like Simeon, praying for the consolation of Israel, and when she spots the family she too begins praising God and telling everyone about who Jesus was, she simply cannot contain herself. Once she identifies Jesus, she has to tell everyone who is there who Jesus is.
Joseph and Mary go to the Temple because they are devout Jews who are following the law. Simeon is at the Temple because he has been bidden by the Spirit to be there, and Anna is at the Temple because she is always there as a prophet, an agent of God. But what strikes me every time I read or hear this story is not just the fact that Simeon and Anna identify Jesus, but do so in a way that is very different from anyone else. There is no angel telling them what has happened and where to go, nor is there any star guiding them on the way.
Simeon is guided to be in the Temple that day, but there is no indication that the Spirit guides him to Jesus. Anna is a prophet, and therefore someone who speaks for God, but there is no indication that God tells her who Jesus is. Instead it appears, at least to me, that they identify Jesus, his meaning and the role he is to play, all by themselves. They do not need special oracles or unnatural phenomenon to guide them to the child. They make the identification by themselves, and that marks them as different, and I can’t help but believe that the reason they are able to do this is because of the reasons that is emphasized about them, their age.
Scripture tells us that we should honor and respect the elders amongst us. One of the interpreted reasons is sort of self preservation. If I respect the elders today then I have established a pattern so that I will be respected when I am that age. But I think there is something more to that as well. The great actor Ossie Davis once said, “Age is that point of elevation form which it is easier to see who you are… age makes knowledge, tempers knowledge with experience and out of that comes the possibility of wisdom.” We are to respect those who are older because of the wisdom and the life experience they can bring to us. Simeon and Anna are old enough and wise enough to recognize the Christ child without having anyone else tell them who he is. They appear to be the only ones for whom that is true.
Later is Jesus’ life other identify Jesus as the messiah, but that is after they have heard or seen him miracles and teachings, after they have things to guide them to him, but all Anna and Simeon see is a baby in his parents arms and they know immediately who he is. And this is not just some quaint scene where Mary and Joseph were the only family around. The Temple was a huge complex, and there would have probably been thousands of people around, including maybe a hundred children or more, and yet they find and identify Jesus.
During one chapel service while I was in seminary, one of the doctoral students delivered a sermon on the grey haired church ladies with whom we would all work, and how important it was to cultivate them, use them and understand them, because without them, he said, no church could be successful. Our society values the young and the new, and wants to discard those things that are not, especially people, but we do so to our own peril because when we do so we lose a lot of collected wisdom that might keep us from going down the wrong path.
Now I know that for many of you I am preaching to the choir, because you are that group. But let me temper this just a bit, by noting that Simeon and Anna, the wise elders, identified God in a child, which is not often the way it happens in church. Often children are seen as distractions to what is going on. We want to have them around, as long as they are under control and not being loud. But Simeon and Anna see God in the baby, in the child, and there is great wisdom in that.
The church today is the last truly intergenerational organization we have left in society. It is just about the only place in this country where children and senior citizens who are non family members can and do interact with each other in meaningful ways. When done correctly it can be one of the greatest strengths the church offers. For families who are spread all over the country, children can become surrogate grandchildren, and elders can become surrogate grandparents. But when done incorrectly, when both parties are not honored and celebrated, then intergenerational discord can ensue in which arguments and dissensions are created in battles over what are viewed as scarce resources. Elders are not respected for the wisdom, experience and resources they make available to the church, and the young are not respected for the life, vitality and energy they can bring to the church.
But, when we all see God in each other, when we see Anna as a prophet, and Simeon as someone upon whom the Spirit rests, and we see God in the child, when we all respect and honor what we all bring to the table, then we begin to be Christ to each other and to the world and begin to live into the gospel message. The elders amongst us, and the elders that many of you are, have a lot to teach us by leading us and guiding us, and giving us your collective wisdom, but we must also all be willing to listen to the will of the Spirit and to recognize God in the child as well.
When we break bread together this morning let us remember that it is the family table, it is God’s table, a table in which the elders are respected and the table at which the young are welcomed. It is the table in which we, though many, become one for we all partake of the one loaf, the one loaf made possible for us in the person of Christ, who came to the world as an infant and who was recognized by Anna and Simeon as the consolation for Israel, as salvation for the world, as Jesus, God saves, as the messiah, as Emmanuel, God with us. May we be wise enough to do the same. Amen.