We are 8 days removed from the birth of the Messiah (well really 6 calendar days, but Luke has jumped ahead) and the holy family is on the move again. 8 days after the first Christmas, instead of heading home to baby-proof their home, to take down the tree, and to begin their new life as a family of three, the holy family must make a stop in Jerusalem. They must go to the Temple.
As some of you know from this past week, traveling in 2017 with a child or children is no picnic. Traveling with children requires bathroom breaks and food stops, all of this from the comfort of your Toyota Highlander (equipped with heated seats and a DVD player). Imagine for a moment having to make this trip on foot or at best with the donkey we carefully placed in the Nativity story. On a map traveling from Bethlehem to Jerusalem does not appear to be that far. Maybe an inch or inch and a half. According to Google Maps, the trip would take 28 minutes in your tricked out Highlander to travel the 9 KM. A hiker could make the trip, pushing themselves, in 2 hours. But throw in the wildcard infant and the fatigue of parenting for the first time, and we have a new ball game.
Presenting Jesus to the Temple, traveling there to be ritually purified, Mary and Joseph are showing their faithfulness to God. It would have been easy for them to opt to skip the Temple stop. Traveling home to Nazareth from Bethlehem would be at best a four-day hike, probably longer with a baby. But since giving birth, Mary and Jesus must go through the purification process prescribed in Leviticus 12.
“If a woman conceives and bears a male child, sheshall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. 3 On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4 Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.” – Leviticus 12 (NRSV)
Part of that purification would have included a sacrifice:
“She shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. 7 He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. 8 If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering” – Leviticus 12:6-8 (NRSV)
In bringing 2 turtledoves or pigeons, we learn that Mary’s lowly station has not changed. She along with Jesus and Jospeh did not have the means to purchase the less than a year old lamb. Yet, in their lowly station, they are still faithful.
After making their burnt offerings they meet Simeon, and then Anna.
Simeon and Anna both spent the better part of their lives waiting for the Messiah. We can say that all of Israel had been waiting on the Messiah’s arrival but Simeon and Anna were different. Simon, being told that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah returned to the Temple each day.
Waiting for the Messiah to be presented or to present himself in the Temple.
Anna on the other hand never left the Temple. She worshipped, prayed, and fasted in the Temple night and day.
Simeon and Anna were ordinary people. Simeon is described as “righteous and devout,” and Anna as a prophet, but neither of them described as priests. Neither of them held the title of Reverend in front of their name. Simeon and Anna were ordinary people faithfully waiting for God to move. They were faithfully waiting to behold the Messiah.
We spend four weeks every year waiting for to behold the Messiah in December. We pray prayers petitioning God to send the Christ child to us. We fast from portions of the Christmas season that those outside the church indulge in until December 25 when Jesus arrives in the manger. We wait, faithfully, until Christ is born and we have the opportunity to come and behold Him.
Waiting is not an easy task. Waiting four weeks, while it can seem like torture, is nothing compared to waiting a lifetime.
Simeon and Anna did not wait four weeks.
They did not wait four years.
Decade upon decade they faithfully waited.
When Simeon recognizes the Christ child and takes baby Jesus into his arms, Simeon does two things.
First, in taking the child from His mother, Simeon is acknowledging the holiness of this child. Remember what was written in Leviticus, Mary had not yet been purified. She had to wait 25 more days until she could be purified according to the law. According to the law she was unclean, and anything that came into contact with her would be considered unclean. By holding Jesus in her arms Jesus is now unclean as well and still Simeon takes the child. Simeon sees the holiness of the child, and in taking Jesus into his arms experiences that which can only be experienced after a lifetime of faithfulness. The law is being fulfilled and thus, Jesus’ holiness overshadows any uncleanliness of his mother.
Next, Simeon makes a proclamation:
“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.” Luke 2:29-32
Jesus is less than two weeks old, he still has the newborn baby smell, and Simeon is making a proclamation that will generations later be denied and then affirmed, shaping the ministry of the Church today.
Jesus, the Messiah, Immanuel, God with us is a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel. God did not send Jesus into the world for the priestly class or a specific segment of the population in a certain geographic location. In “he fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”
Gentiles, those outside Israel, had been excluded by the law. Israel had been living under the law of Moses and the law of the Roman Empire, as well as every other empire that had enslaved or held the yoke of oppression over them. And Now through Christ, both groups were being “adopted as children”of God.
No longer were those outside of Israel, those on the margins to be kept from the life of the faith community. No longer were those outside Israel to be kept apart from the family of God. Anna says that Christ will redeem Jerusalem as well. In this scene, between Simeon and Anna, the purpose of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection are established by two people who had faithfully awaited the arrival of the Messiah.
Two people by the way, who had discerned all of this without the fanfare of angelic choruses and stars in the sky. Through prayerful discernment, waiting, and fasting the identity of Christ along with His ministry was revealed by two of the most unlikely of people for the time.
We are saying goodbye to 2017 tonight. For some, you wanted 2017 gone months ago. For others 2017 was a year of milestones and benchmarks you will use for years and decades to come.
I wonder, what will 2018 leave us waiting for? Whether as individuals or as a faith community, how and where will we be like Simeon and Anna praying, discerning, and fasting as we wait for God to break through again into our lives? Into the life of this community?
WHERE WILL THE HOLY SPIRIT MOVE, REVEALING THE HOLY TO US?
WHERE WILL THE HOLY SPIRIT MOVE, TAKING THOSE WE DEEM UNCLEAN OR OUTSIDE OUR COMMUNITY AND PLACE THEM FRONT AND CENTER IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD?
WHERE WILL THE HOLY SPIRIT MOVE, DECLARING THAT IMMANUEL CAME SO THAT ALL MAY BEHOLD HIM, AND NOT JUST THE RELIGIOUS ELITE?
The ritual purification Jesus underwent was a foreshadowing of His ministry, death, and resurrection, all of which providing for a purification of the sins of the world, making us not slaves to the law but instead children of God and heirs to the inheritance of God. As we say goodbye to 2017 and hello to 2018, may Immanuel be revealed to all of us just as Simeon and Anna. May we wait for and be guided by the Holy Spirit.