Sermon for December 26th, 2021
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him 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”), 24 and 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.
Advent Encounters: Anna & Simeon
This week is the last sermon in our series on "Advent Encounters." Of course, technically we're not in the season of Advent anymore... today is the first Sunday of the Christmas season. But the sermon series has been about the simple, person-to-person human encounters surrounding the birth of Christ, and so there is one more encounter that I just couldn't leave out.
Our two principal characters today are Simeon and Anna. Simeon is a priest in the Jerusalem temple. Anna is a widow who lives at the temple and likely relies on the care generosity of those who come to the temple for her survival. We don't know exactly how old Simeon is, but we get the impression he has waited many years to see Jesus, and when he finally does, he is ready to die. There is an ancient tradition that holds that Simeon was actually two hundred years old, and had lived to miraculous old age in order for God to fulfill his promise in the right time. Anna, on the other hand, we are told has lived as a widow "to the age of eighty-four." But the Greek text is a little ambiguous here, so it's also possible that she has lived 84 years as a widow, which would make her considerably older than that. By all accounts, both Anna and Simeon qualify for the senior discount at the Jerusalem Village Inn.
I suspect that a few of you here today can identify with Anna and Simeon. But just in case you can't, I've compiled a list of the top ten signs you might be getting older:
10. Everything that works hurts, and what doesn't hurt doesn't work. 9. Your memory isn't as sharp as it used to be, and you often repeat yourself unnecessarily. 8. Your memory isn't as sharp as it used to be, and you often repeat yourself unnecessarily. 7. Your little black book only contains names ending in M.D. 6. You fall down and wonder what else you can do while you're down there. 5. Santa Claus starts looking younger and younger every year. 4. Your knees buckle and your belt won't. 3. Your back goes out more than you do. 2. You sink your teeth into a steak, and they stay there. 1. You finally know all the right answers, but nobody asks you the questions anymore.
Joking aside, this is not going to be a sermon about old age. Anna and Simeon are elderly, but they encounter Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, who are young. They all come together in the city of Jerusalem, where their faithfulness and obedience to God has led them to be, for a brief moment, a loving, supporting, community of faith for one another, and a testimony to God's work among diverse people. This sermon (and really, all of the sermons I've preached for the past several weeks), is about community: How we encounter each other in community, and through those encounters, we encounter God.
First let's take a look at this diverse little micro-community of five people: Anna, Simeon, Joseph, Mary & Jesus. We've already noted the diversity of age--old, young, very young. But there's also diversity of gender here, too: In a culture that tended to emphasize male protagonists and ignore female ones, not only do we have Joseph *and* Mary represented, but also Simeon *and* Anna.
Simeon and Anna also represent opposite ends of the social spectrum. As a priest, Simeon would have been the ultimate insider, part of the powerful, educated, elite. Anna, on the other hand, is a widow--and the fact that she lived at the temple indicates she was a widow with no family, no sons to take care of her. She was among the most weak and vulnerable class in Jewish society.
It's also no accident that they both appear in the story at the same time and place, and both acknowledge the child, Jesus, as the Messiah: In the Jewish legal system, two public witnesses were required to establish something (or someone) as legitimate.
The place where this micro-community comes together is significant, too. It is at the temple in Israel, and they come in order to fulfill the customary Jewish ritual of dedication of the first-born son. I think there's a lesson here for us, too: We come together as a community around our rituals and customs--baptism, Sunday worship, the Lord's Supper, weddings, funerals, and even potluck dinners. We come together in and around our place of worship, and there is value in this kind of community that is hard to find elsewhere.
For one thing, we (like the community in this story) are an inter-generational community. Together we span all ages and stages of life, and we all have something to offer to each other. Anna and Simeon are relieved and fulfilled in seeing the child who will cary on and complete the work they have dedicated their lives to. The children and the young members of this community offer the same hope for those here who are in the twilight of life--the promise that we will cherish and carry on all that they have built when they are gone.
Likewise, Anna and Simeon have valuable insight and perspective to offer to Mary and Joseph. Both Mary and Joseph have been told several times now that their son is the savior of the world--they have been told this by angels, shepherds and kings. And yet, it hasn't seemed to quite sink in yet. Judging by the very next story about young Jesus losing his parents in the temple, it still doesn't quite sink in for another few years. But I imagine that Mary and Joseph remember this encounter in their hearts, and at some point they reflect back on the words spoken to them by Anna and Simeon, and they begin to understand.
The wisdom of my parents and grandparents, the wisdom of my elders, doesn't always move me as quickly as they would have liked, but it usually stays and grows deep within me, sleeping and fermenting until the right time. As a relatively young pastor, I am especially grateful for inter-generational communities like this one. I suspect that when I am an old pastor (you know, like next year!), I'll be just as grateful, though likely for different reasons.
When I'm an old pastor, I will certainly need a hearing aid (I'm almost there now!). Did you hear the one about the old man who was telling his neighbor about the new hearing aid he just got. He said, "It cost me a fortune, but it was worth it. I can hear perfectly now!" The neighbor said, "Really? What kind is it?" The old man looked at his watch and said, "About ten thirty."
For Anna and Simeon, this is primarily an encounter with Jesus. For Mary and Joseph, it is primarily an encounter with Anna and Simeon. Either way, Jesus is present at the encounter, and when that happens, we respond in a variety of ways.
Some respond like Simeon, who took the child in his arms and praised God, saying, "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace." Simeon responds with gratitude, and embracing the moment.
Some, like Mary and Joseph, respond with awe and wonder. We read in verse 33 that "the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him."
And some respond like Anna, with contagious enthusiasm. We are told that "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."
They each have different responses, but no one leaves unchanged. How will you respond when you encounter Jesus in the face of another person? How will you be changed through the simple encounters of every day life, as we worship together, as we follow our rituals and our routines together?
I'd like to conclude with some words that are not my own, words that speak to our encounters and our communities. One philanthropist, one poet, and one preacher.
Albert Schweitzer (the philanthropist) once said that "in everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit."
Shel Silverstein (the poet) put it this way:
If we meet and I say, "Hi," That's salutation. If you ask me how I feel, That's consideration. If we stop and talk awhile, That's conversation. If we understand each other, That's communication. If we argue, scream and fight, That's altercation. If later we apologize, That's reconciliation. If we help each other home, That's cooperation. And all these ations added up Make civil-ization.
Finally, when he was all grown up, that child who was laid in the manger (the preacher) put it this way:
Very truly I tell you, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.
May all of your Christmas encounters change you, through the Spirit of Christ, may you be a force for changing the world.