Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sermon: "Simeon and Anna"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 28, 2014 – First Sunday After Christmas
Luke 2:22-40

“Simeon and Anna”

Simeon had seen a lot in his lifetime.
Any man of his advanced years would have.
He’d seen the city of Jerusalem change hands more times than he could count.  
Kings and Emperors came and went.
The Temple was looted and then reclaimed over and over again.
As a boy he heard stories from his grandfather who lived through the Maccabean revolt, and of course the stories of his people and their exile and exodus in and out of Egypt were permanently etched in his mind.  
When Simeon was a young man the Roman Republic took control of Jerusalem, the latest in a long line of oppressing empires and occupying armies to hold the Jewish people firmly under its thumb.
They called it the Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome – which simply meant they were not afraid to use force and violence to squash any movement or any person who threatened to upset the status quo or cause disorder in any way.

Simeon had little reason to believe that things would ever change for his people.
In his idealistic youth he had brazenly declared that liberation would come in his lifetime.
But he was now an old man.
And his aching back, his weakening eyesight, and his failing memory preoccupied his thoughts more than his people’s long-held belief that God would one day send a savior – a Messiah – to free them once and for all.

But that day in the Temple, as Simeon recited his prayers and chatted with his fellow elders about the weather and the rising costs of fruit in the market, he looked up to see a man and a young woman enter the Temple’s outer courtyard.  The young woman was carrying a baby.
And Simeon knew right there and then that this baby would change the world.

When we read Simeon’s story in the gospel of Luke we’re invited into that tender moment when this Temple elder took the infant Jesus into his arms. We can imagine this old man who was weak and fragile taking hold of this tiny infant who was also weak and fragile and cradling him in his arms…and in their shared fragility we’re introduced to the idea that God is acting in a new and unexpected way in the world.

Simeon looked into the infant’s eyes and said,
“Now I can die in peace, Jerusalem’s redeemer has come.”

But lest Luke’s readers think that the idealistic declaration of one old man is not enough to make this story noteworthy or believable, Luke then introduces us to Anna.

Anna, like Simeon, is advanced in her years.
Luke tells us that she’s 84-years-old, which was very old in a time when the life expectancy was only 40-50 years.
Anna is a prophet and she spends all of her waking hours in the Temple fasting and praying.
She too lays eyes on the infant Jesus and declares him to be the savior they have been waiting for.

Simeon and Anna are the pillars that hold up this story.
They represent humanity at its finest.
Male and female, devout and wise, righteous and prophetic. 
They are not afraid to see God acting in the world and stake their reputations and their lives on the declaration that the Messiah has come - not in the way the Temple leaders had expected him to – commanding an army or descending from the heavens – but rather he has come in the form of this tiny child that they now hold in their arms.

A declaration like this sounds irrational to many in our time, so you can imagine how it sounded in the context of first century Jewish Palestine.

No one expects a baby to be capable of doing much of anything, let alone change the world.
And for Simeon and Anna to take it even further and suggest that the power of God can be contained in such a small and vulnerable package, well you can see why people might shake their heads and scoff at such a ludicrous claim.

But who among us has held an infant and not thought the same thing?

Whether it’s our own child, a grandchild, a friend’s child, or a stranger’s child….
To look into those tiny trusting eyes, to feel five teeny fingers encircling one of our own, to feel both the weightlessness of this little being and the weightiness of our overwhelming need to protect and nurture this life that we literally hold in our hands.

How can we look at such pure love and pure trust embodied in one tiny package and not see God?

At the same time how can we not see the power and the potential that each tiny life holds?

What mother or father or grandparent has not held their offspring, or the offspring of their offspring, and thought,
“Who are you going to be?” 
“What wonderful things will you do with your life?”
“What amazing things will you see in your lifetime that I have never dreamed of seeing in mine?”

For grandparents in particular, these statements are tinged with both hope and sadness.     
As a grandparent, you imagine all the paths that your grandchild’s life will take knowing that you won’t be there to see it all.
You picture their high school graduation, their wedding day, the birth of their first child, and you hope they know that you will be there with them, in spirit, if not in body.

When Simeon held Jesus in his arms we can imagine that he thought something very similar.
He knew he would not live to see the change that this child would bring to the world.  Neither would Anna.
But still they rejoiced and told everyone within earshot that the one whom God had promised had finally come – the one who would set them free.  
They rejoiced as if they themselves been set free right there, and right then.

If we think about it, Simeon and Anna put a lot of trust in an outcome that they had no way of knowing would play out as they expected.
They put a lot of trust in Mary and Joseph to raise Jesus to be a caring and loving human being.
They put a lot of trust in the world to accept Jesus as the Messiah they believed him to be.
But ultimately, it was God who received all of their trust.
They trusted that God had played out all the potential scenarios and still took the risk to step into this world in human skin - to be closer to us, and to save us from ourselves.

In many ways, Anna and Simeon also placed their trust in us.
They trusted that we – the future generation of believers - would carry the light of their people forward.
If we can imagine them handing the infant Jesus to us and saying, “This is the light of the world, take good care of it, and carry it with you wherever you go.”

That’s a tremendous amount of responsibility.

I remember when my sister left her newborn in the care of my mother for the very first time. She and her husband were going out to dinner and this was the first time that they would entrust their child to the care of someone else.
It would only be for a few hours, but still, that first time is always the hardest.
When my sister arrived with the baby she handed my mother 3 pages of hand written instructions on how to care for the child with a suggested response to every possible scenario that might present itself.  
My mother had 10 children. She was way past the instructions phase.

But truthfully, no matter how many children or grandchildren we may have had a hand in raising, if someone handed us the light of God and told us to take good care of it, to nurture it, and help it to grow  – we might still need and want that instruction sheet.

Before Simeon handed Jesus back to Mary he gave her a bit of instruction of his own. He told her that her son would be responsible for the rise and the fall of many in their nation. He would be met with opposition.
And in the end a sword would pierce both their souls.

This is a warning that no parent wants to hear.
It’s one thing to hear that your child is destined to do great things;
it’s another to know what the cost will be ahead of time.

After hearing this dire prediction we might wonder if Mary felt the need to be more protective of her son - To discourage him from getting into discussions with the Temple elders and encourage him to spend more time doing carpentry with his father.

It would have been so understandable for her to take steps to keep her son safe – to keep him from moving out into the world and challenging people who could possibly do him a lot of harm.

But when Mary took Jesus into her arms, both as an infant and when he was taken down from the cross, she knew that he was not hers to hold onto.
He belonged to the world. Holding onto his light and keeping it for herself would have kept him from being who he was meant to be.

I like to think that every time Mary felt that conflicted tug that urged her to hold on to Jesus just a bit tighter, she heard the voices of Simeon and Anna in her head, blessing her, and reminding her of the great purpose that had been gifted to her and her son.

And as we in turn take the light of Christ into our own arms, nurturing it and sending it out into the world, so that it will be present now and for future generations, may we also hear the blessing and warning of Simeon and Anna in our heads.

Living out our faith as Jesus taught us to will bring us blessings in life but it also has the potential to pierce our souls.
Christianity – when lived out as it was intended to be – is challenging, discomforting, and dangerous at times. 
It compels us to re-examine and reconfigure systems of power, wealth, and control.
It compels to us re-examine and let go of our own personal prejudices, misconceptions, and fear.
It compels us to die to old ways of living, and to resurrect ourselves to a new way of being in the world.

When we take the light of Christ into our arms we are being entrusted with so much.
This tiny, fragile, and wriggling child, that looks so vulnerable and weak on its own, has the power to change the world when it’s taken in and nurtured in community.

Jesus is born on Christmas Day, not just on that first Christmas Day, but every Christmas Day since.
Every year we come upon that manger scene and every year we take this baby into our arms.
This baby who is filled with God’s love, compassion, and grace…
And like Simeon and Anna we look into his eyes and rejoice.
For God so loved the world…and trusted us to carry Christ into it.

Thanks be to God.

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