People of the Promise
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We have just celebrated the fulfillment of a promise. One of the things Christmas is about is a promise fulfilled. I wonder what the word promise calls to mind for you. Perhaps it makes you think of people who have been true to their word. Perhaps it makes you think of people who haven’t kept promises, or promises that we ourselves haven’t kept. It’s the thing that makes trust hard for us so often, we’ve been burned and we have burned others when it comes to keeping promises. Perhaps it makes us think of a promising prospect – whether it’s a person or an opportunity or what have you. Of course, again, promising prospects can go either way. Perhaps it makes us think of God and the promises of God.
Where do we go to after Christmas? Where do we go from here? Usually, we say this after all the activities and hype have died down. This year not so much. Maybe that’s a good thing though. Maybe this quieter Christmas has given us a chance to ponder these things in our hearts. This is a chance for us to add a postscript to Christmas just as Luke adds a kind of postscript to the story, at least of Jesus as a baby. Christmas – Christ’s mass, Christ’s festival, Christ’s birth (and I have to say I like languages like Spanish or Greek that put the event front and centre in their description of the celebration) is about a promise fulfilled. Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at the story this morning.
One might have thought that after all the angels and the singing and the praising and talk of a saviour of the world that the next part of the story would be filled with more glory and power and going from triumph to triumph and strength and world domination and…. You get the picture. The kind of power which the world sees as power.
Christmas is about the fulfillment of a promise. The promise of God with us. The promise that in the person of this baby we would be brought back to God. In the person of this little baby, we would be enabled to live in communion with God – in co-union with God. Is it any wonder we talk about joy and sing about going and telling it on the mountain or wherever we happen to be, over the hills, everywhere. This is a very promising baby. The new life that is represented here in the person of this baby is the promise of new life, for all. How much do we need to hear that right now? New life in the midst of old life. New life in the midst of days that can sometimes seem indistinguishable and the phrase “same old same old” can take on a whole new meaning.
New life in the midst of old life. New life breaking into the midst of our old lives. Have you met Christ? Have you answered the call to “Come and see?” where Christ lives? If you haven’t you can this morning. If you have, then know that this promise of new life breaking into the midst of old life is not reserved solely for the first time we meet him or answer that call. The promise is in our every day. The invitation is in our every day.
And so Luke takes us back to the very ordinary everyday. The angels have disappeared. The shepherds have gone back to their fields. At eight days of age, the child is circumcised. The child is named Jesus, saviour, deliverer. Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem when the time came for the purification ritual, along with the firstborn dedication ritual (and we like that as Baptists don’t we – the classic baby dedication). Luke is actually putting together two rituals here but that’s ok (you can read about them in Lev 12 and Ex 13). They offer a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons because that is what families who didn’t have a lot of means did.
Then things get interesting. Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon – God has heard. We talked about the cry of the Psalmist earlier this month. Too long! Last week Pastor Abby preached about the Psalmist’s cry “Restore us O Lord”. It is not for nothing that this man’s name means “God has heard.” This man Simeon was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel. We’ve talked about how we wait well. Look at what Simeon is doing. Looking forward to deliverance. Head up. Alert. Praying. Looking forward to salvation. The Holy Spirit rested on him. What a wonderful image. The Holy Spirit rested on him.
I have to pause for a moment and talk about our senior saints. Our elders. We love them dearly, don’t we? The other elder in the scene is of course Anna. She was of a great age. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. Perhaps it takes us a while to get there, those of us who are younger. We’re all saints in Christ I know, but there’s something about our elders isn’t there? Their devotion. Their prayer lives. The Spirit of the Lord seems to rest on them in a different way. Simeon and Anna have been described like this: “These two aged saints are Israel in miniature, and Israel at its best: devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises.” May we be surrounded by such examples and thank God for them. I’m not saying that younger people aren’t or can’t be devout, obedient, constant in prayer, and led by the Spirit and all of those things, of course, I’m not. What we see here in the example of these two elders though, is something we should all take to heart. Their attention to God, their single-minded focus on God gave them the eyes to see God’s promise when it was fulfilled. Devotion, obedience, constancy in prayer, the Holy Spirit’s leading, being at home in the place of worship, longing, and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises will leave us open to seeing God’s promises all around us as they are occurring. In our every day. This is where we find them.
As on this day when we have this picture of Simeon holding this baby of such great promise. Someone has said, “God is doing something new, but it is not really new, because hope is always joined to memory, and the new is God’s keeping an old promise.” So we have continuity with what God has promised. What has God promised? The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is of old. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. God doing something new in keeping an old promise. Continuity and discontinuity.
Which is the tougher part of Simeon’s words here. We have this really beautiful scene of this tiny baby being held in the arms of Simeon who is praising God and listen again to the language “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.” How wonderful! Peace. Salvation prepared in the presence of all people for all people. Glory in making this deliverance known.
We can all go home and happily on our way having had a good Christmas!
Almost but not quite lost in this song of praise are Simeon’s words to Mary. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “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 – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Maybe it’s not quite time to go home just yet.
While there is continuity here, there is also discontinuity. There is rupture. With the coming of the light, shadows inevitably follow. There is a thread of pain and suffering being woven by Simeon in his words. A sword will pierce Mary’s soul in a uniquely painful and heart-wrenching way. More generally, rising or falling and inner thoughts being revealed. Inner thoughts being revealed can be a painful thing. The light of Christ can reveal things that we might rather have remained hidden. The coming of Christ lays bare an age-old choice – rising or falling. Life or death. Blessings or curses. The coming of Christ lays before us all the question of which way we choose. Rising or falling. Jesus represents the single most important movement in each and every one of our lives – the movement toward God or the movement away from God.
This may be why Rembrandt has a third figure in the painting, hovering on the fringes. Christmas is about the fulfillment of a promise, and the promise has been fulfilled in the birth and life and death and resurrection and ascension and promised return of this Messiah. What are we going to do about that? Embrace him or fade away into the shadows? Simeon and Anna have set the example here. They have claimed the promise.
We’re going to be talking about what it means to live in the promises of God early next year. We’re going to be talking about spiritual disciplines that will help us to see the promises of God as God enacts them in our every day. Practices like prayer, silence, and solitude, self-examination. Ways in which we prepare our hearts to know God’s promises.
This will be disruptive of course. It will change us. This is what repentance does. This is what conversion does and conversion is not a one and done proposition. I was reading something recently where the name of God was described as “the name of trouble (good trouble as John Lewis would have said), a disturbance. It solicits us and visits itself upon us, like an uninvited stranger knocking on our door.” Are we ready to invite the stranger in for the first time, or maybe in a whole new way? This is what the promises of God do. They shake us up. They shake us out of our comfortable habits, attitudes, assumptions. They shake us up in the best possible way.
I say best possible way because we find that living in the promises of God is rising. It is life itself. Where do we go from Christmas? What are the promises of God that you need to embrace right now? My peace I give you, I do not give as the world gives. I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be made complete. I am with you always, even to the end of the age. He will never leave you nor forsake you. Let us go as people who live in the promises of God. Looking forward. Alert. Looking around us. Praying. Embracing the one called Wonderful Counsellor, Everlasting God, the Mighty Father, the Prince of Peace. May the peace of the Christ child go with us as we follow the wonderful example of Simeon and Anna and embrace him. May this be true for us all. Amen