December 30, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, January 1, 2017, at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA.
This is the first sermon of a new series that will go through Pentecost (June 4): “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d rather listen.
Who hears the Good News first?
Two elderly Israelites in the temple at Jerusalem, Simeon and Anna.
I wonder how many people noticed them? Luke tells us that Anna, for instance, never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day.
When someone’s always around, sometimes they just become part of the scenery. You know they’re there. But you stop seeing them. They’re like an old painting you’ve seen on your grandmother’s wall all your life. Familiar. You might wonder where they were if they stopped being there. But not special.
But Luke wants us to know that, in God’s eyes, Simeon and Anna were quite special. Last week, we heard angels singing to shepherds. A song that went: Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.
And now, Luke wants us to know that God’s favor rested on Simeon and Anna. These two faithful, elderly saints. Luke tells us that Simeon was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. Likewise, Anna was a prophet … who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. And even if nobody else saw them, God saw them. God heard them. And God favored them.
God favored Simeon and Anna by revealing the child who had come to save Israel and the world. And he did this because they waiting on God to act. They were watching and listening for Good News. They had put all their trust in God to come and save his people.
Think of the story Luke has told so far. How does the Good News of God’s salvation break into the world?
It begins with old Zechariah and his barren wife, Elizabeth. Like the first parents of Israel, Abraham and Sarah, God gives them a son—John—in their old age. We know that God is again on the move, taking the initiative to fulfill the promise he’d made to the whole world, when he told Abraham: all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you (Gen. 12.3).
The Good News moves to Elizabeth’s young cousin Mary. A plucky small-town girl. When God places his Son—Jesus—the Messiah of Israel, the salvation of the world, in her virgin womb. The name Jesus means, roughly, God saves.
Then it came to those shepherds the night Jesus was born. The Lord’s angel told them: Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. The One who, as Mary sang, would pull the powerful down from their thrones and lift up the lowly (Luke 1.52).
And now the Good News comes to Simeon and Anna. A pious old man and a widow-lady prophet. And maybe they’d been around for so long, they’d just become part of the backdrop of everyday life around the temple. But Luke wants us to know that God’s favor was with them. After all, the high priest was around the temple every day, too. But God didn’t reveal the Good News to him that day. Just those two old, dedicated saints.
And that gives us an important clue about how God’s salvation comes into the world. I mentioned last week how Luke made a point to treat Augustus Caesar, the most powerful man in the world, as just a footnote in the story. The Good News of God’s salvation doesn’t begin with the mighty, wealthy, and powerful. It begins among the poor, the forgotten, the powerless. The ones most in need of saving. Who will see God’s favor for what it is. Who will know that it was God who rescued them when they were powerless to save themselves.
Simeon and Anna
Luke says that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord; and for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses.
Exod. 13.12-13 said: you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb … Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem. So because Jesus was Mary’s firstborn son, he had to be set apart for God. This practice honored the night God rescued his people from Egypt. God protected all the firstborn sons of Israel, while the firstborn sons of Egypt died. So God claimed every firstborn son of Israel as his own. And every firstborn son had to be bought back from God—or redeemed. Even the Firstborn Son who came to redeem all of God’s sons and daughters.
Leviticus 12 said that a mother had to come to the temple after her son was born to be ritually purified. In the logic of Israel’s purity code, blood outside the body is unclean. And childbirth is a bloody affair.
Luke takes this opportunity to remind us that Jesus’ parents were poor folk. Lev. 12.8 says: if the mother cannot afford a sheep for her purification offering, she can bring two turtledoves or two pigeons. And Luke says that is what Jesus’ parents brought for their offering.
Probably no one would have taken any special notice of another poor family coming to the temple to dedicate their firstborn son to God and make the mother’s purification offering. That kind of thing probably happened multiple times a day. But we know that Simeon was different. Because, as Luke has told us, the Holy Spirit rested on him. That means Simeon was a prophet. Like Isaiah, who had said: The Lord God’s spirit is upon me (Isa. 61.1).
Simeon eagerly anticipated God’s salvation—God coming to rescue, redeem, and restore. And Luke tells us that God favored Simeon by showing him the salvation he’d anticipated for so long. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
Then Luke tells us how it was that old Simeon caught his glimpse of God’s salvation: Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. And that’s where Simeon noticed this poor family in the temple. He noticed the child they brought. He saw the holy in the insignificant. He saw what God was doing to bring salvation into the world.
There’s a lesson there, church. The child God showed Simeon would grow up to say: Seek and you will find (Luke 11.9). Simeon saw the salvation God was bringing into the world through Jesus because he was actively looking for it.
And then Simeon took Jesus in his arms. Think about that. Yanked baby Jesus right out of his mama’s arms! I’ve talked to a lot of mothers who’ve expressed that they don’t like strangers thinking they can just hold their babies. I bet a lot of you mothers here today would freak out if some strange old guy just ran up and grabbed your infant. And rightly so. But Mary seems to have rolled with it. Of course, strange things had been happening ever since the angel told her she was about to be in a family way, even though she was a virgin. Like those crusty old shepherds showing up the night Jesus was born to coo over him as he lay swaddled in a manger. Mary was learning that if you’re going to mother God’s Child, you had better be resilient.
And with this little baby boy in his arms—and I’m sure with tears of joy streaming down his cheeks—old Simeon sings:
Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word,
because my eyes have seen your salvation.
You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples.
It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and a glory for your people Israel.
Simeon has hungered after this very moment his whole life. And now he can go satisfied. Just as Mary had sung to her cousin Elizabeth: He has filled the hungry with good things (Luke 1.52). Simeon knows his life is now full, because he has seen God’s salvation in the person of this little baby boy.
We also heard Psalm 131 in our readings today. The psalm is attributed to David, but many scholars suspect it was actually written by a woman. After all, who is more likely to write: Like a baby content in its mother’s arms, my soul is a baby content? The warrior king or a mother who has actually fed children from her own breast? My money’s on the mother.
And, like a baby whose belly is full of her mother’s milk, Simeon is content to drift off into the sleep of the saints. Knowing he’ll awake in Father God’s presence.
Luke says at that very moment—while Simeon was singing praises to God over the baby he held in his arms—an 84-year-old widow named Anna approached. And Luke minces no words about this widow. Luke says plainly that Anna was a prophet.
Anna is just a Greekified version of Hannah. And that name takes us way back into the early days of Israel. In the days of the judges, God had miraculously placed a son in a woman named Hannah’s womb. Like Elizabeth and Mary. And when Hannah brought her son—Samuel, last of the judges— to dedicate him to God, she sang a prayer. And at the end of her song, she asked God to give strength to his king and raise high the strength of his anointed one (1 Sam. 2.10).
And now, at the temple in Jerusalem, God lets Hannah’s namesake see God’s answer to Hannah’s prayer: the Messiah, God’s anointed one. This baby boy, Jesus.
Luke has told us that being at God’s temple, worshiping and fasting and praying, was Anna’s daily routine. So we see Anna, like Simeon, was actively yearning after and looking for God’s salvation. And God showed her what she desired with all her heart. She saw old Simeon with little Jesus in his arms; telling Mary: This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel. And she knew that God had answered her prayers. God was coming to turn the world right-side up.
And so Luke tells us that Anna became the first evangelist, as from that moment on, she spoke about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. Anna was the first one to go out and share the Good News with her neighbors about God’s salvation through Jesus.
God’s favor was on Simeon and Anna. God welcomed them, and they teach us how to welcome God’s Son, and the salvation he brings into the world.
God’s saving welcome: open, deep, and wide
While Jesus was still growing in Mary’s womb, she celebrated God, who has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. She knew that God sending the life she nurtured inside her into the world to flip the script to favor folks like her. Her child was a sign declaring whose side God is on. That’s the Good News of God’s salvation! Simeon’s prophecy over baby Jesus echoed Mary’s song: This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel.
Already in Luke’s story of Jesus, we’ve seen God welcome:
An old priest and his barren wife.
A poor girl from a backwater town.
Some crusty shepherds.
Two elderly saints—one of them a widow.
God is already lifting up the lowly, and we’re not even out of the second chapter! As Luke’s story unfolds, God’s salvation will emerge from Jesus’s life, his words, his daily encounters. Jesus will just keep opening, deepening, widening God’s saving welcome.
To include the poor.
Those whose illnesses have cut them off from a full life, and even human contact.
Those whose minds have been taken over by demons.
Women, who weren’t given any voice in that culture. And some of the women Jesus welcomed to his table were rather questionable.
And most scandalous of all, Jesus welcomed the ones his neighbors hated the most. Tax collectors and Roman centurions. And it’s not as if the people just had a blind hatred. Tax collectors were traitors who got rich by fleecing their own people. And many Jews in Galilee probably personally knew someone—a friend or relative—who’d been crucified by the Romans.
But Jesus welcomed them. Healed them. Ate dinner with them. Assured them that God loved them just as much as he did. That his welcome was Father God’s welcome. That salvation had come to them.
Simeon had told Mary that Jesus would be a light for revelation; even to the Gentiles—those who’d always been outside God’s people, who hadn’t known God’s saving welcome. Through Jesus, even those who thought they were far away from God would see a light that welcomed them home.
But Simeon also warns Mary that God’s Good News will be met with resistance. Her son Jesus will also be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. The light that reveals God’s saving welcome to all who will come, also reveals the darkness in human hearts. Many in Israel will not welcome Jesus. Their reaction to Jesus will reveal that they’re without understanding, disloyal, without affection, and without mercy, to quote a line from Paul’s letter to the Romans. But many who’d been written off as Gentiles and sinners will find a wise, faithful, generous, and merciful God revealed in Jesus’ light. And as they are welcomed by Father God, they will also be made wise, faithful, generous, and merciful. That’s the Good News of God’s salvation.
And then Simeon tells Mary: a sword will pierce your innermost being too. A sword cuts, chops, slices, wounds. It’s a sign of division. Simeon wants her to know that her son will even be a source of conflict within her own soul. She will struggle to surrender this child she loves and birthed and fed at her breast to the will of Father God. Simeon spoke the words of the Holy Spirit to Mary—he was a true prophet. And his words have cast the shadow of the cross over the story already.
But we’ve a way to go before we arrive there. And that’s still not the end of the story.
And so today, let’s join with Zechariah and Elizabeth and John.
With Mary and Joseph.
With the Bethlehem shepherds.
And with Simeon and Anna.
Let’s join with them in welcoming Jesus, who is God’s salvation for Israel and all the nations and the creation itself. Let us welcome the child who brings the Good News of God’s salvation into the world.
Because, like Simeon, each of us can reach out for Jesus, and rejoice before God: my eyes have seen your salvation.
And God’s salvation is a wide-open welcome that reaches down into our depths.