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What is your favourite Christmas memory? If you’re like me you maybe wouldn’t want to name one – it would be more of a top five list. Perhaps your favourite Christmas memory is time spent with family, an unexpected gift, or an unexpected visitor. Perhaps your most vivid memories are bittersweet – the first Christmas without a loved one, or being separated from family and friends.
Is there anything that binds these different memories together? Is there any sort of common thread that unites them? In looking at the story that we read from Luke 2 this morning, one writer combines the idea of hope and memory – he writes “God is always doing something new, but it is not really new, because hope is always joined to memory…” Let us look at this story about the birth of Jesus and see what God has to say about doing something new, memory, what this meant for Simeon and Ana, and what it might mean for us this Sunday after Christmas.
Throughout my time so far at Blythwood it’s been customary for me to preach the Sunday after Christmas. The last couple of years we’ve looked at the visit of the Magi together – the wise men from the east who were played so well by some of the smallest ones in our congregation here two weeks ago – some of them needing encouragement to walk up our centre aisle in their search for the baby Jesus. Of course it’s thought that Jesus was more likely a toddler by the time the wise men from the east came to visit. In our story today Jesus is still a tiny baby – 40 days old. Luke tells us that the couple head to Jerusalem to take part in two rites. The first was the purification ritual – a rite that was more Mary’s according to Leviticus 12. The second was presenting the child to the Lord, as Luke puts it “Every firstborn male shall be designated as Holy to the Lord.” This is from Exodus 13:1-2 – “The Lord said to Moses: Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals...” Now do you ever look at some of these laws and wonder was this just God being capricious? Not at all. Look at where this commandment comes – in the middle of the Israelites preparing for the first Passover. The Israelites were preparing for God to perform his saving act, his redeeming act in delivering them from slavery in Egypt. This call to dedicate the firstborn is a call, in other words, to remember what God has done. Hope is always joined to memory, and at the start of Jesus’ story – Jesus’ saving, redeeming story- Luke strongly evokes the memory of an earlier saving, redeeming story. Hope is always joined to memory.
Simeon and Ana
And then we are introduced to the first of our characters in the temple. Simeon. His name means “God has heard.” He was righteous and devout, we read, looking forward to the consolation of Israel. This is what he looked forward to, what he hoped for, along with Ana. When he looked around I’m sure he didn’t see very much to make him hopeful. The Romans told him that Augustus was his consolation. Public inscriptions referred to the emperor as the “saviour” of the “entire human race” who “fulfills and surpasses all prayers” and transforms the world with his “good news.” Simeon saw something different, however, when he looked around him. Rupen Das, who is with CBM and whom I met almost two years ago in Lebanon wrote about Ana and Simeon in this year’s Advent Reader. Here is what he wrote: “They had waited years in the midst of the brutality of the Roman occupation when hundreds had been crucified by the roadside for all to see, as various Jewish rebellions had tried to win freedom and failed. They had witnessed the gruelling poverty in which seventy percent of the Israelites lived. They had seen the callousness of the wealthy as they abused and cheated the poor of what they had left. It had seemed that God had been absent in all the years of waiting.”
We know what this feels like don’t we? Looking around at our lives, looking around at our world and it seeming like God is absent. Crying out with the Psalmist “Why O Lord do you stand for off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” If you’ve been around long enough you know this in your own life. We can look around and world and see hundreds of children killed and injured in Peshawar and wonder where God is.
In times like these we need memory. Hope is always joined to memory. Simeon and Ana lived in expectant hopefulness. As we’ve read Simeon was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel. Ana never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. She may have actually left sometimes – this may be hyperbole on Luke’s part to make the point that she did a lot of praying and fasting. Oftentimes praying and fasting – turning to God in expectant hope is the best thing we can do. The Holy Spirit rested on Simeon, Luke tells us. Hope is always joined to memory and I would say that Simeon and Ana represent Israel’s memory. Simeon and Ana represent Israel’s collective memory. Not for them the life of the zealot who took up arms against Rome, or the life of the “Sicarri” or “daggermen”, who targeted political leaders for death and then faded into the crowd. For Simeon and Ana it was a prayer-filled life of expectant hope, based on what God had done for Israel, and I’m sure what God had done in their own lives. I remember one morning teaching some of our kids here and they asked me how we’re supposed to know all this stuff about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the Bible isn’t just made up. I said to them “Because I know what God has done in my life. I’ve seen him do things in my life that I know couldn’t have come from me. I’ve seen him do the same thing in others. I’ve seen God effect reconciliation that I know could only have come from him. I’ve seen God doing what He’s promised to do…”
When we’re waiting in expectant hope, God tends to surprise us. When we ask the Holy Spirit to reveal where God is, what God is doing, I have no doubt that prayer will be answered, and the answer will oftentimes be surprising. On what looked like another ordinary day at the temple, Simeon is about to be surprised! Simeon knew about the promises God had made to Israel. He also knew about a promise that had made to him personally – that he wouldn’t see death until he saw the longed-for Messiah! It’s another ordinary day. There’s no reason to think that Simeon knew anything about what had happened with some shepherds over in Bethlehem six weeks earlier. We read “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…” We have this wonderful picture of this man holding this baby and saying these words:
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.”
Simeon remembered what God had spoken through the prophet Isaiah you see. We looked at some of these verses this past summer. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people will see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Is 40:5) “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations to open eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darknes.” (Is 42:6) “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant... I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Is 49:6) God has heard the cries of his people. God has heard the prayers of his people, and God has proven himself to be faithful to what he promised again and again. God’s promise is fulfilled not in the might of empire or insurrection, but in the person of this helpless baby. God’s glory is going to be shown in the life of this baby who is God with us. God pitching his tent among us. God is going to show what God’s glory is all about as this boy waxes strong, becomes a man of compassion, of mercy, of inclusion, of scandal. God’s glory is going to be shown in the act of love in the face of betrayal and injustice, in the words of forgiveness from the cross, in his death and resurrection providing the way that we might be called children of God, in his promise of the spirit that would fill us, guide us, transform us, give us hope.
Rising or Falling?
And the realization of this gift of God leaves us with a choice. What are we going to do with the fulfillment of the promise? The promise of reconciliation between God and humanity, between people. The promise of peace. The promise of a life lived the way it was meant to be lived, in loving communion with God and with neighbour. This child represents a choice. Simeon spells it out – “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed…” Don’t be shocked when people oppose Jesus and what he stood for. Don’t be shocked when much of the opposition comes from those who are religious leaders. That’s what happened in Luke. Jesus was rejected in his own town when he spoke of God’s love extending even to those outside the group who were God’s chosen. The lowly and outcast will be lifted up. Those who are dependent on their own view of the law – a view that ignores God’s promise that his salvation would be for all people – will stumble. Some will ask for a sign. When Jesus is tempted in Luke 4, the tempter will ask for signs – turn these stones into bread, thrown yourself off the temple – do something big. Jesus will denounce a crowd who asks him for a sign. The sign had already been made. This will be a sign to you, you will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Vulnerable, helpless, humble love. When Jesus’ cousin sends people to ask if he’s the one they were looking for Jesus will say look at the signs - the deaf hear, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. Blessed is the one who is about what I am about, in other words.
And this is the choice that’s before us. Let me speak to those who’ve never made the decision. The choice is before you now. “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace” says Simeon. There is an immediacy there. There is a peace there. We may look for peace in other areas of life. We may be looking for peace in what seems like the wrong places. The invitation to follow this one who was foretold as the Prince of Peace is before us. It’s before us every day. Coming to know God’s salvation and what it means is an every-day type of thing. It’s not something we’ll ever grasp this side of the mirror we see through darkly. Joseph and Mary were amazed to hear what was being said about the child. They didn’t fully get it. Not even after the angelic visitations and the Elizabeth’s child leaping in the womb when he heard Mary’s voice and the songs and the manger and the shepherds. They didn’t fully get it. They knew thought that God was keeping promises. The same way that Simeon and Ana knew. We read in v 38 of Ana “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.” All who were looking for the consolation of Israel. Looking forward to the consolation of Israel – it’s the same thing. God promising a new covenant – a loving agreement – God promising a filling by his Spirit – God promising to make Christ’s followers a light to the nations, oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord to display his glory – his mercy, his compassion, his forgiveness, his redeeming and reconciling love!
Hope and Memory
Hope is always joined to memory. Here’s the full quote – “God is doing something new, but it is not really new, because hope is always joined to memory, and the new is God keeping an old promise.” What promises of God do you need to cling to this Christmas? My peace I give you, I do not give as the world gives? I am with you always, even to the end of the age? Or maybe it’s a promise spoken by others – Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Hope is always joined to memory. Our ultimate hope is of course that one day God will make everything new. That hope is based on what God has done in human history. What God did through the nation of Israel. What God did in the person of his son. It’s also based on what God has done in our lives isn’t it? He has brought us peace. He has brought us joy. He has put his love in our hearts through his Spirit. I said earlier that Simeon and Ana represented Israel’s collective memory. How can we represent the collective memory of God’s people? Someone was saying to me recently that all these things happened so long ago, how do we keep them front and centre? We need to be the collective memory of the people of God my friends. We need to live God’s story. We need to live what God has done in us. We need to tell God’s story when the opportunities arise. We need to tell what God has done in us, for us, through us.
We need to represent hope joined to memory. When we have encountered Jesus we can say along with Simeon “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace.” We can go from this place and represent hope joined to memory – represent peace, represent joy, represent love. The people asked for a sign. I believe God calls us to be the sign, in all we do, all we say, when we have encountered the salvation that is found in Christ. Simeon and Anna didn’t know fully what the salvation that Jesus represented meant, what it would mean. Mary and Joseph didn’t either. They were amazed at what was being said about the little boy. They would be astonished 12 years later when the found him in the temple, going about his Father’s business. They were coming to understand what God’s salvation meant. They didn’t know what the future held but they were coming to understand what God’s salvation meant. I pray the same thing for us at Blythwood. We may not know what the future holds, but I pray that we’re coming to know and to understand the one who holds the future. I pray that we’re coming to an understanding of God’s salvation. One writer puts it this way, “Salvation begins when people discern instances of God’s faithfulness in their lives that become signs of a completion to come.” These Christmas memories that I mentioned earlier, aren’t they signs of God’s faithfulness? Spending time with people we love and who love us. Coming to a deeper understanding of who God is, what God has done and will do. Being surprised! The realization that God even worked in and through situations that caused us suffering. As a new year starts, may these memories be joined to hope for us. Hope that one day God will set all things right. Hope that in the meantime he calls and enables us to be his instruments to set things right. May this be true for us all.