The holy gospel according to Luke, the second chapter.
Glory to you, O Lord.
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. 27 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, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." 33 And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too."36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 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. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is the seventh day of Christmas. So, Merry Christmas! That’s right, it’s still Christmas. I know many of you have already put your Christmas decorations away. Your tree is down, the lights and the wreaths and the nativity sets are boxed up and back in their places in your attics and garages. And some of you are willing to openly admit that you are relieved the season is over with for another year.
That’s OK, too, because the things you are glad to be over with are only the trappings. They aren’t what Christmas is really about. They are just things we use to help us celebrate, but they aren’t the source of the celebration.
For the church, it’s still Christmas. You may have thought that the 12 days of Christmas started on December 13th and ended the 25, but that’s not how it works. The 12 days started on December 25 and go through until January 5th, the 12th night. Epiphany is the season that starts January 6th.
So, now that we know the days of Christmas, what about New Year’s Eve? After all, today is December 31st, the last day of 2017. Tomorrow is the day we start being forgetful and writing the wrong year on everything for a week or two.
Tonight is New Year’s Eve. In African American churches, it is traditional to have a worship service called “watch night” to usher in the New Year. This service started on New Year’s Eve in 1862, because Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect on New Year’s Day 1863. The African American community watched and prayed and rejoiced that they would be soon be free. Watch night, or “Freedom’s Eve” services have continued every year since.
It seems to me that it’s a good thing that we can continue to celebrate the joy of Christmas on New Year’s Eve. Maybe remembering the Christmas story will help us as we enter into 2018. For us, the story is a blessing for the new year.
Our gospel today is the wonderful story of two elderly prophets named Simeon and Anna. It’s a story about hope for the future, and that’s something we certainly need in 2018, for the church and for the world.
Luke tells us the story of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. This is his follow-up story to the Nativity scene. Mary and Joseph were observant Jews. They did what was required by the law.
It was also customary for the Jews to offer a sacrifice for the life of the first born son. You see, in the time of the Old Testament, other religions, not the Jewish religion, but other religions in the area, required parents to sacrifice their first born child in order to appease their gods. They believed their gods would then reward the parents with many healthy children.
The Jews did not do this. Instead, Numbers 18:16 says that the first born child is holy to the Lord, and the parents should sacrifice an animal instead. The sacrifice of the animal redeems the life of the child.
Animal sacrifice is very foreign to our way of thinking. We can’t imagine doing that, but it is important to understand a little about it, to make sense of this story. If you were able to afford it, you brought a sheep or a goat. If you were poor you brought a pair of turtledoves. Joseph and Mary were poor. They brought the turtledoves.
Observant Jews presented their first born sons to the Lord, thanking God and recognizing that the child was a gift from God. Mary and Joseph performed this ordinary Jewish ritual. As we remember in our offering prayer, God blesses ordinary things. On this day, God used Simeon and Anna to bless this ordinary ritual.
SImeon was a prophet. He was often found praying in the Temple. He lived his life under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the promised Messiah.
Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and he praised God. His prayer is the song that we use in worship sometimes, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace…” How wonderful for Simeon! Isn’t that what we all desire? To be able to say at the end of our lives here that we have seen the salvation of God?
Think about it. Simeon is saying he is ready to die. He recognizes that he is at the end of his life. Simeon isn’t saying that he, Simeon, has accomplished all that he wanted to do in life before he dies.
Wouldn’t it even be nice to even be able to say that we accomplished everything we set out to do in 2017? But, Simeon knows it isn’t about him. It isn’t about what he has done this past year, or even in his whole life.
No, Simeon is saying that he has seen what God is going to do, not just what God has done, not just what God is doing, but what God is going to do. Simeon’s message is a message of hope for the future. He knows the future is in God’s hands and that God is already in the process of saving the world.
His message is qualified though. Simeon blessed Mary and said, among other things, “your child is destined to be a sign that will be opposed.” He has lived in this world long enough to know that things are never perfect.
Humans always seem to mess things up. God’s blessings are perfect, but blessings interfere with the status quo, and that brings change, and people, especially powerful people don’t like God’s changes.
Simeon knows that being a part of God’s blessings in the world will bring opposition. Sometimes, we Christians get things backwards. Instead of realizing that blessings will bring opposition, we start looking for opposition to see blessings.
We find ways to oppose other people and antagonize them and we feel self-righteous doing it. We act like we are the only ones who know and do what is right. We try to justify ourselves and the result is self-serving.
What Simeon says is clear though. The blessing of Jesus in this world will not be welcomed by everyone. There will be opposition.
Mary would not have been shocked by this part of the message, though. The God she knew was the God who filled the hungry with good things, lifted up the lowly, and sent the proud and rich away empty. She knew that God was found with the people at the margins of society. She knew that the privileged would try to upset those who threatened their power. Mary knew that those who try to live out the blessings of Christmas will find opposition around the corner.
Mary knew this blessing from Simeon revealed the very heart of who God is. God is in the person of a poor baby who’s parents couldn’t afford a lamb and had to sacrifice 2 turtledoves.
Blessing and opposition are the heart of what it means to live Christmas in the new year. The African American churches celebrated watch night on New year’s eve 1862. Their blessing of freedom was met with opposition. The civil war lasted 3 more years and there are still those who oppose equal rights for all people in our society.
Blessings are met with opposition. But, opposition never has the last word. The baby that Simeon and Anna held in their arms that day gives us reason to keep praising God and celebrating.
No matter what the new year brings, God has come into this world. As Paul tells us in Galatians, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent the Son. You are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”
The fullness of time has come! Happy New Year. Amen.