Malachi 3:1-4+Psalm 84+Hebrews 2:14-18+Luke 2:22-40
It is the custom here at All Saints, somewhere on or around the Third Sunday of Advent, to have our children present the Christmas story, the pageant. It is certainly one of the highlights of the season, and it is one of the rare opportunities our young people have to proclaim the Good News in public worship. And yes, we should change that.
This morning, I invite you to imagine a slightly different Christmas pageant. I believe I told you at the time of our pageant in December that the traditional version that has both shepherds and Magi is a mash-up of the Luke and Matthew versions of the nativity. In case you hadn’t noticed, the gospels are not exact biographies of Jesus. If they were, they’d have a lot more in common with each other than the actually do.
So, we’re going to imagine a pageant following Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus which began at the beginning of this very 2nd chapter from which I just read our gospel for today. And you all know those words, “In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (2:1). And we go through the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and finding nowhere to stay, and Jesus being born amongst the animals, and the angels announcing this birth to the shepherds. After the shepherds go to see this thing the angel had told them, back to the flocks they go, glorifying God.
And that ends the Christmas Eve portion of the story.
The very next thing, according to Luke, is Jesus’s circumcision, which we celebrate on January 1 as the Feast of the Holy Name. That part takes up exactly one verse in Luke (2:21). If our pageant continues with this part, we need Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and a mohel, the Jewish man who performs the deed. And it is important to note here that this is Jesus’s naming day, and he’s named Jesus just as the angel Gabriel had told Mary when he made his grand announcement to her at the Annunciation. We are now at Day 8 in the life of Jesus.
Immediately following this, in Luke’s narrative, comes our story for today. Mary comes to bring an offering for her purification since, in Jewish law, anything that comes into contact with blood is considered unclean. (Please note that this does not mean sin or sinful; it’s a matter of ritual purity, cleanliness, and not sin.) First born sons were also presented to the priests with an offering to redeem them from the requirement that first-borns sons are dedicated to serve God, usually as priests. There is a ritual to “buy them out” of that requirement. And this is why we have our Holy Family going to the temple 40 days after Christmas.
If we continue imagining this as a pageant, Mary, Joseph, and their not-quite-six-week-old baby get up early in the morning and begin the 5 ½ mile walk from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, making their way through the crowded and narrow streets of the city to the massive temple of Herod the Great. They had certainly been to this city before for the required festivals, but they were not city people, and the sights and sounds were likely unsettling. They make their way to the place of the offering, giving not a lamb, which is required for those who could afford it, but two turtledoves or young pigeons. That was the poor folks offering. If anyone ever tries to tell you that Jesus earthly father was a craftsman, so they were probably middle class, just point out this text to them, okay? They were poor, so Jesus knows what it is to be poor, and he goes to the poor to proclaim the Good News.
But I digress.
Mary and Joseph have made their sacrifice, and I am sure that in the hustle and bustle, Mary is clutching the baby close to her when out of nowhere comes this guy Simeon and takes the baby and mutters some strange things about having seen salvation and a sword piercing Mary’s heart. And they would hardly have recovered from that when old Anna appears and starts telling anyone who will listen about the child.
After all of this is done, the three – Mary and Joseph and Jesus – keep heading north to Galilee, to Nazareth, where Jesus will grow up. Twelve years will pass before the next scene in our pageant, when Jesus returns to Jerusalem for Passover and ends up getting left behind, talking and debating with the rabbis in the temple.
Luke is the only one who gives us these vignettes of Jesus’s childhood, and whenever only one evangelist tells us something, we should sit up and take notice. Luke wants us to understand that this was a faithful Jewish family, following custom and law required of them, up to and including going to Jerusalem for the festivals. Jesus is also the answer to prophecy, and so we have old Simeon and Anna, just waiting in the temple for the day that the child will come. Simeon does not just announce that the prophecy has been fulfilled, he has another prophetic word for Mary and for us:
“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 a sword will pierce your own soul too” (2:34-35).
As a new mother, I can’t imagine these words were very comforting, even though, on the other side of all of this, we know them to be true.
This Song of Simeon, the words that the old prophet speaks in the temple, are some of the oldest liturgical words that we have. They’ve been said in evening services since at least the 4th century. In a little while the choir will sing these familiar words as they appear in the English prayer book from 1662:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according
to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Simeon and Anna have been waiting, waiting for this day. Waiting for years, watching and listening and praying. At long last that day has come, and I can’t help wondering: what am I waiting to die for? I know, many of us joke that we have had the best meal of our lives and can die happy, or, in Tim’s case, if his Cleveland Browns ever won a Super Bowl, he could probably die happy.
But Simeon has been waiting for this one thing and says he can depart in peace, he can die now, because the salvation he’s been waiting for has come. He has held in his arms what he was waiting to die for.
Back in my days as a hospice chaplain, I watched many people – most unresponsive or comatose or seemingly unaware of their surrounding – wait to die until the situation was what they wanted it to be: waiting for the child to arrive, waiting for everyone to leave the room, waiting for nightfall, waiting for sunrise. It could have been any number of circumstances.
But Simeon? He was waiting for the light, the light to enlighten the nations.
What, if anything, are you waiting to die for?
Our pageant is not ended. We continue to carry the Light of Christ into the world on this day and all days. My prayer is that we will look into the face of the babes and the moms and dads and childless, young and old, rich and poor, seeking the face of the One who is our hope and salvation.