Sunday, January 3, 2016

Pageant, Act II

Luke 2: 21-40
Pageant, Act I.  The Gospel writer of Luke pened a beautiful nativity story for us, didn’t he?  It’s calm in the hills of Bethlehem.  The shepherds who live in the hills are tending their flock.  They gaze at the same constellations that you and I gaze at today, Orion, the Pliedes, the morning star…………’s quiet….just the sounds of nature are heard as the sheep low and settle in for the evening. 

And then the Glory of the Lord comes to them and reveals the birth of a Savior.  Imagine God’s glory breaking the crisp, clean air of a tranquil and peaceful night…….. What a sight it must have been.  And in a manger, a feed box we find the infant Jesus surrounded by Mary and Joseph.  There are no riches, no midwives, no fanfare.  It’s a lowly birth that we return to year after year to remember and to recreate.  It is our story of hope and redemption.  For in every baby born God says yes to humanity.  Why it’s the story that kids tell and retell each year in their pageant finery.

But the story doesn’t end there, the author of Luke continues and pens perhaps the most poignent part of the story for us.

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
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 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

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. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 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, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
    which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 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 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

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, 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. 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.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Pageant, Act II.  As an observant Jewish mother, Mary brings her son Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem only eight days after his birth.  According to Jewish law it is a special time, a time for purification and a naming ceremony that designates their first born child as holy. 

But there are others in the temple that day as well who are also part of the Christmas story.  They are in fact an important part of the Christmas story, Of OUR story, but you wouldn’t know that you see unless you return after intermission to watch “Act II” of the pageant.  It doesn’t end when our children take off their shepherd suits and angel wings, and pack their halos away for another year. 

You know so often we think of Christmas as a season for children.  There is laughter and love in the birth of a child, and the lights and the cookies, and good Ole St. Nick speaks to a child’s heart that resides in all of us.  But we don’t have to be a child to have a part in the Christmas story.  We don’t have to recreate a child’s point of view to have a part in an incredible story of inclusion.  Today’s scripture shows us that there is a part for the aged and the wise in the pageant, a part those of us who have been around for a while and who are filled with wisdom.  We are included in this story of the divine.  

Luke often pairs males and females whose message is of equal importance to the passage.  The role of women in the Gospel of Luke, in spite of the male dominated world in which they lived, is intentional, and refreshing.   This is no accident!  Luke is a skilled writer.  

So we see this pairing again today in the narrative with Simeon and Anna.  They are everyday people, who have dedicated a major portion of their lives to God.  They were very faithful people their entire lives.  As prophets they don’t necessarily foretell the future like the psychic lady on the Boston Post Road, but through vigilant prayer and fasting they are able to speak for God, and be open to the revelation that God gave to them. 

They are elderly, they are respected, they are examples of pious living and they are full of wisdom and sage advice.  They are there after the stage has been struck… and the lights of the pageant have gone dark.  They are the faithful.  We will do well to listen to their message. 

They are chosen by God to tell the Gentiles, you and me, that the light, Christ Jesus has come.  This is what makes the story OURS you see…this is where we too are included in God’s plan of redemption. We too are now part of the covenant with God, that God is operative in human history, that God has reached down to this earth, to you and to me, to be an intimate part of our lives.  

Anna and Simeon understand just what the birth of Jesus means.  His divine identity is revealed in this epiphany to them.  Anna praises God and speaks about the child, and Simeon is now ready to die because he has held the child. They are ordinary people who respond in extraordinary ways to this incarnation.

The Song of Simeon is perhaps one of the most beautiful canticles in the Canon.  In the faith tradition that I grew up in, it is sung after communion every Sunday…it’s called the Nunc Dimittis in Latin.  “Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation: which Thou has prepared before the face of all people, a Light to lighten the Gentiles and the Glory of Thy people Israel.”  Now that Simeon has seen and cuddled Jesus, now that he has smelled the sweet scent of the holy infant’s head, and caressed the soft cheeks of the baby Savior, he praises God for the gift of the Christ Child.  We sang it after being fed at the communion table to recognize that our eyes had been opened through this sacrament of love and grace, forgiveness and hope.  We have tasted and have seen that God, really is good.  (Psalm 34:8.

For Simeon, he can leave this life, he can depart in peace…and in joy.  He has seen and held God’s salvation in Jesus.  He recognizes now that salvation is for all people, Gentiles included and that with this promise he can leave…..content.  He need nothing more.  Simeon can leave all worldliness behind because the Christ Child, Emmanuel is with him and Emmanuel, is with us.
3 days ago we left 2015 behind.  Were you ready? Was your heart and soul, mind and body in the right place to begin a new year?  Have you departed in peace this past year for this new one?  Will holding the Christ child give you enough strength for the journey into the unknown future ahead? 

It would be nice to say that all systems are go, and that we are ready to leave.  But in fact, there are SO many things that can keep us from moving on.  There are many situations and feelings that tether us to the past.  They are things that keep us stuck in one place and render us helpless to move on.   Is there some unfinished business that needs tending to?  Has a relationship soured but you continue to try because it is a comfortable place to be?  How can it be reconciled?
What is it that keeps you abandoned in the deeper hues of life?  How is it that you cannot just let things go?  Change is not easy – to modify one’s self or patterns is upsetting.  To give up the controlling aspect of our humanness is, for some, devastating.  I know that, I acknowledge that.  But the page of the calendar has turned, it hasn’t waited for us.  It’s time to begin again.

And we can, God is with us!   In this world… in our lives… as mundane and ordinary and troubled as our lives seem at times, God is and continues to be with us as we move and negotiate every turn.  In our coming and in our going…God is there with us…to guide us…to protect us…  You are not alone anymore, your eyes too have seen this salvation that Simeon croons. 

Yes, we can leave in peace, we can move from this place to the next with the love… and hope… and abiding promise of God that it is going to be ok, it really is.

A former chaplain supervisor of mine gave the following as a blessing upon our final gathering, I think of it often: “When we walk to the edge of all the light we have, and step into the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen: there will be something solid for us to stand on, or we will be taught to fly.”  Either way, all will be well.

Pay attention to the wisdom of Anna and Simeon.  Watch and wait and pray in the temple with them and become part of the second act.  Let Simeon’s Song…become your song.  Respond emphatically to the infant with hope and assurance.  “Lord lettest now your servant depart in peace”.  Let go and fly! A light for the Gentiles has been ignited, our hope has arrived.  Feel him, know him, caress him, cradle him in your heart for we are all now are part of the pageant to be celebrated year after year after year. 


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