This Christmas season we have been focusing on the unexpected elements present in Luke’s account of the Christmas story. We started out with two unexpected children being announced to very surprised parents-to-be by the angel Gabriel. Zechariah and Elizabeth, long unable to have children, are told they will finally have that long awaited child, and that he will have the very special role of preparing the way for the Messiah. Then Mary, not even married yet, is told that she will have a child who will become great and will be king forever.
Last Sunday Debbie talked about the unexpected song which Mary sang in response to this disorienting news, a song of joy and hope, a song telling of God’s mighty acts and the upheaval of the status quo which is beginning.
On Christmas Eve we looked at the unexpected place and time of Mary’s going into labor, 70 miles from home to register in the census due to the decree of the emperor. We remembered that the stable in which she gave birth was a refuge, not a choice. We remembered that instead of being attended by delighted family members during childbirth she was surrounded by animals. The first visitors were shepherds, one of the low rungs of society, who had been honored with the angels’ announcement that night. Impractical baby gifts were brought by “wise men” from the East.
Today we come to one final surprise, when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple for a ritual of purification required in Judaism after childbirth. Two of the Centralites of their day were drawn to this family by the Spirit and had a very unexpected response of both identifying this child and prophesying about him.
Remember that Mary and Joseph were nobodies from Nazareth. Nobody knew them at the Temple in Jerusalem. When the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, also the daughter of a priest, brought their son John to the Temple it is easy to imagine lots of people knowing them and coming to congratulate them and oooh and ahh over the baby. But for Mary and Joseph it is totally unexpected, and they were amazed.
It is also important to note that Simeon and Anna did not hold important positions at the Temple or within Judaism. They are not mentioned before or after this in the Bible. Their qualifications are that they are devout and faithful individuals who spend their time in prayer at the Temple and are expecting something to happen. They are watching for God to act again in history. So when God does act, they are ready and able to see it and accept it and rejoice over it.
Well let’s back up and examine what goes on in this unexpected encounter at the Temple. I guess the place to start is with the unexpected normalcy of what Joseph and Mary are up to in this passage. They are doing what is expected of every Jewish couple of their day who have children. There is no sense that the miraculous experiences which surrounded their baby’s arrival made them think he or they should be treated any differently than anyone else. So they immediately started raising Jesus in the manner they were familiar with. They honored the traditions and rituals of their faith and their families. That meant they had Jesus circumcised and gave him his name after eight days. And it meant that after forty days they took him to the Temple in Jerusalem. There were two purposes to this visit given under Jewish law.
One reason would be to offer sacrifice for Mary’s purification following childbirth in accordance with Leviticus 12. The requirement was to bring a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove for this offering, but a woman who could not afford a lamb could bring two birds. Mary could not afford a lamb and brought two birds, an important reminder about the status of the family into which Jesus was born.
The second reason for coming to the Temple was for Mary and Joseph to present their son to the Lord. The Jewish understanding of stewardship in all things was that the firstfruits belong to God. The first portion of your crops, the first portion of your salary, the first born of animals and of people belong to God. The first born male child of each family was to be brought to the Temple and redeemed at a cost of five shekels.
What does it mean to redeem a child? Well, the Jewish model for dedication your first born son to the Lord was Hannah in the Old Testament. After praying to God for a child and promising to give him to the Lord, she had a son named Samuel. True to her word, she brought Samuel to the temple in Shiloh and gave him to the priest Eli to serve God all his life. This was an important example for the Hebrew people, and was the highest thing you could choose to do with your firstborn son. Not all can do that, though, and the Temple wouldn’t be able to accommodate all those children anyway, so a practice developed whereby you could “redeem” your first born son – make a monetary gift to God in place of leaving your son. Five shekels – the price of redemption. The idea of being redeemed at a price is important throughout the Scriptures, and the idea that God redeems his people from slavery and Christ redeemed our lives at a cost are central theological tenets for Christianity. I seriously doubt that Mary and Joseph had the money to redeem their firstborn, but things took a sudden and interesting turn when they reached the Temple.
Mary and Joseph were intercepted by two older people who knew what they wanted for Christmas and were eagerly watching for it. Simon was certain that he was not going to die until he had seen the Messiah, and when he saw Jesus he knew this was the one. He came over and took Jesus in his arms – can you imagine a total stranger doing this? – and praised God, declaring that he was now ready to die in peace because he had seen God’s promised salvation with his own eyes.
Then they encountered Anna – who was either 84 years old or had been a widow for 84 years, the text is a little unclear. She was a prophet and never left the Temple. She came over to the holy family and began praising God and talking about this child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph had brought their firstborn son to redeem him at the Temple and now this prophetess is telling everyone that their son is going to redeem Jerusalem!
I am sure that most of the people watchers at the Temple that day had their eye on the adults who came in – the rich and famous, the ones serving as fodder for the latest tabloids and rumor mills. They certainly were not expecting the biggest thing that happened would be a peasant couple bringing their baby in. But Simeon and Anna had their eyes wide open with the expectation of God doing a new thing and they were ready to see it. Jesus grew up to be this way, too. You may remember that around 33 years later Jesus came back to this same Temple with his disciples. In the midst of that architectural wonder with the rich and famous and the rituals and the commotion, Jesus pointed to a poor widow putting her last coin in the offering and told his disciples that she was the one to watch. Simeon and Anna pointed at this baby and said this is the one to watch.
Simeon and Anna were the epitome of faithful Judaism. They were constantly at the Temple praying, fasting, meditating on the Scriptures, hoping for and watching for the coming of the Messiah. They could have given up by now. They could have said it was time for younger folks to take on their roles and retired to their rocking chairs, but that was not in their nature. They were watchmen who defended the best of the old ways, but they were also vanguards who looked forward to the day when God would do a new thing unlike anything that had been seen before. They were watching and waiting, looking and listening, with all of their hearts, minds, and strength. My guess is that most who visited the Temple regarded them as being extreme, maybe even on the edge of lunacy.
Can you imagine the surprise and amazement that must have filled Mary and Joseph? Even after the appearance of the angels to them and the events surrounding the birth, I think it would still seem incredible. They were from Nazareth after all; they were nobodies in Jerusalem. They brought their child into the imposing, intimidating Temple for the routine rituals that every child necessitates and people they had never seen before somehow knew that their child was special.
Simeon and Anna were looking deep, not at the surface of things or of people. That is very significant for Luke, because Simeon and Anna represent the very best of the Jewish tradition of hoping and longing for God to act by sending his Messiah. When God did, they were ready and had their eyes wide open and were able to recognize him, unlike many of their people. Simeon and Anna speak to us of faithfulness, of devotion, or perseverance, of clinging to faith and hope even after a hundred years of hoping and being faithful with very little to show for it.
Most people were then and are now so set in our ways that our eyes cannot see or accept it if God does something new, something different, something we don’t expect. When we content ourselves with looking at the surface, the things we expect to be there, the assumptions we have about the way things are and the way God acts, we are in danger of missing out on all manner of truth which we must look more deeply to see.
As we enter a new year this week, let’s prepare ourselves to keep our eyes, ears, hearts and minds open to perceive God continuing to act in unexpected ways and through unexpected people.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
December 27, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church