If this story seems very familiar, I preached from it last year, and as one of the few texts which have to do with the childhood of Jesus it appears very regularly in all lectionaries. I plan to use a slightly different take on the passage this year as we continue to transition from the Old to New Testament in our journey with the Narrative Lectionary, and as we gather to worship on New Year’s Day, another significant transition from one year to the next. My theme is “Open to God’s Future.”
The fascinating thing about today’s story is that it starts out as if it is going to be all about old traditions, in the same way that Luke starts out with the barren woman theme with Elizabeth and Zechariah sounding like more of the same from the Old Testament before moving to the radically new and different story of Mary. In today’s story, Joseph and Mary are doing for their son the exact same thing that Jewish parents had done for their sons for hundreds of years. After eight days, in accordance with the law, they had Jesus circumcised and named him. Then they brought Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. The Jewish practice was that the first born son in every family should be dedicated to the Lord out of thanksgiving for being blessed with children. Hannah was the model for this, who actually gave her son Samuel to the priest to serve in the sanctuary. Presenting Jesus at the Temple was an ordinary event for a first-born son in a Jewish family.
Luke also tells us that this was the time for Mary’s purification. The 12th chapter of Leviticus says that a Jewish mother was considered “unclean” ceremonially for seven days after the birth of a child. She would then remain in ceremonial isolation for another thirty-three days, making a total of 40 days. So Mary has also come to the Temple to offer a sacrifice for her purification. Her offering is “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons,” which is listed in Leviticus as a sacrifice offered for purification by a mother who could not afford a lamb.
The Temple, circumcision, presenting the first born son to the Lord, rites of purification – you can’t get any more Jewish than that. Luke does not want us to miss the point. Jesus was fully human and fully Jewish. By the time Luke wrote his account down, the Gospel was being taken to the Gentiles; there had been dissensions among Jews about who Jesus was, and between Jews and Gentiles. The focus by that time was so much toward the Gentiles that Luke felt it was important to include stories from Jesus’ life that stressed the fact that he was thoroughly Jewish.
Even the encounter in the Temple seems at first like continuity with the Old Testament. Two members of the really old guard of Judaism come over to offer their blessings for this child. Your first instinct is to say, “Aw, ain’t that sweet.” But then you actually pay attention to their words, and you realize there’s more to it than that. Simeon and Anna have been totally focused on God, not on Temple politics and not on revolting against Rome. They are open to God’s future, not just expecting the same old same old.
In fact Simeon was there day after day in the Temple with a simple mission. He looked into every single face searching for a sign of recognition. He was confident that the Holy Spirit had told him he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, so he was watching intently. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus in, Simeon knew it immediately. I wonder if he was shocked that it was a baby? He took the child in his arms and praised God for allowing him to see his salvation with his own eyes before his death. He said that in addition to coming for Israel, this child would also be a light for revelation to the Gentiles. And he warns, “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 he also warned Mary specifically, “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
I suspect most of us tend to believe that the future God has in mind for us and for the world aligns nicely with what we would like our future and the world’s future to look like. It’s easy to be open to God’s future when that is the case. But when there are curve balls and reversals in that future it is much harder to accept, and many cannot accept it.
I remember my father saying that we think we would like to know what the new year holds in store for us but that if we knew all that we would experience in the coming year right now we probably couldn’t face it. One day at a time, one step at a time, being open to God’s future and the doors that will open and the doors that will close.
So what does it look like to live in such a way that you are open to God’s future? Simeon and Anna expectantly waiting and watching at the Temple. Mary’s acceptance of the angel’s invitation to become the mother of Jesus. Joseph’s acceptance of the explanation of Mary’s pregnancy and willingness to be the child’s father. The Magi making a long journey from the East to follow a star they believed would lead them to a new king. John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness about the coming One and the need to prepare. Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night to learn more in spite of his group’s rejection of Jesus. People bringing the sick and crippled and blind and deaf to Jesus in the hope that God’s future for them might be different.
And what does it look like to not be open to God’s future? King Herod is the most extreme example. Hearing from the Magi that a new king had been born that he knew nothing about led him to send soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all the male children. Not only was he not open to what God’s future might be, he was willing to act to prevent that future from happening. Then there are the religious authorities in Jerusalem. When the Magi came looking for the new king, Herod asked them where the Messiah was to be born and they told him Bethlehem. But they were not interested enough to go look for themselves and see if God was indeed beginning a new future. They were confident God’s future lined up with what they were doing. And throughout the life of Jesus they consistently rejected him, opposed him, tried to trap him, and ultimately delivered him to death. They slammed the door shut on God’s future.
And of course, Rome, the larger government to which Herod answered, was not open to any God’s future other than Caesar’s. Anything that disturbed the peace or smacked of rebellion was dealt with ruthlessly. For these reasons Rome played its part in trying to close the door on God’s future.
James wrote, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16)
Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (from Matthew 6:25-34) And in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus was hoping God’s future might line up a little more closely with what he would like to have happen, he said, “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” That act of submission and obedience is the absolute model for us as to what it means to be open to God’s future. Not my will, but thine be done.
This is a tough element of faith for us 21st century Americans who live under the illusion that we can control so much about our lives and about the world. We think we can bend situations or people or nations into shape to align with our vision of the future. But all it takes is a fire or a flood or a medical diagnosis or changing world alliances for all that to fly out the window.
As we begin a new year let’s not allow the thinking of the Herods and the Caesars and the Pharisees to determine our approach to the future. Instead, let’s adopt the open mindedness of the Magi, who were searching the skies for cosmic signs even if they didn’t fully understand them; let’s model the watchfulness and prayerfulness of Simeon and Anna; let’s learn from the gracious acceptance of their roles by Mary and Joseph, and the faithful manner in which they raised their son; and let’s follow Jesus into a future which God knows but we do not, with the knowledge that we will never walk alone.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
January 1, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church