December 31, 2017


Passage: Numbers 6:22-27

Today we’re celebrating both the Feast of the Holy Name and the Feast of the Presentation. The story that inspires these feasts is told in the single gospel reading we just heard. But in the official calendar of the church these are actually two separate feasts celebrated a month apart: on January 1 and February 2. And there’s a logical reason for this division that’s easily overlooked when we read the story: According to Old Testament law, baby boys are circumcised and named eight days after their birth (so eight days after Dec. 25 is January 1 – tomorrow). And also according to the law, the mother is supposed to make a sacrifice at the temple forty days after the birth (so forty days after Christmas is February 2).

But this year St. John’s chose to merge these two stories into our Sunday liturgy today as a way of including the whole narrative arc of Jesus’ birth and infanthood within the season of Christmas. These stories are told back-to-back in Luke’s gospel. It’s his way of rounding out the story of Jesus’ infancy before he emerges as an adult prepared for ministry. Next week we’ll get Matthew’s version of Jesus’ infancy. That’s the gospel writer who gives us the stories of the Magi who come bearing gifts and the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt.

So, let’s start with the feast of the Holy Name, where Jesus is named and circumcised. Luke actually gives us very little here. The occasion is recalled in just one terse sentence – basically, “Yep, they did it.”

Then immediately following is the much larger story of the Presentation. As Luke tells it, there are two purposes for the Presentation. The first is that the baby is being presented to God – in recognition of the Jewish tradition that the first-born son belongs to God in a distinctive way. The second purpose was for Mary to make a sacrifice of purification following child-birth. You see, for the forty days following the birth of a male child, a woman was ritually unclean. (I don’t want to get too side-tracked by this. It’s a religious concept without any obvious parallel in Christianity or modern sensibility.) But Luke’s point, both here and with the naming and circumcision, is that Jesus’ parents are devout, observant Jews. He’s being raised right.

And, it’s also worth noting (as an aside) that the appropriate sacrifice for purification in this circumstance is a lamb and a pigeon. But the law makes a concession that, if you can’t afford a lamb, then two pigeons will be good enough. And that’s the offering that Jesus’ parents make. It’s just a little tidbit of information about their social standing: they were modest, but faithful, working-class people.

But what’s truly noteworthy about this story is what happens once Mary and Joseph arrive at the temple. They were suddenly, and unexpectedly, greeted by these two old folks – a man and a woman, Simeon and Anna – who, through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, perceive just who this child is, and they begin to prophesy over him.

Simeon, Luke tells us, was righteous and devout. The Holy Spirt rested on him. And it says of him that he was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel,” that he was anticipating all the messianic prophecies concerning who the Christ would be and what his ministry would accomplish. But interestingly – unlike so many other messianic expectations that were thoroughly rooted in political hopes of overthrowing Rome and making Israel great again – in the canticle that Simeon sings, his consolation is both for Israel and for the Gentiles:

My eyes have seen your salvation, he says, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel (Luke 2:30-32).

He sees the fullness of God’s inclusive, redemptive intent. And yet – he’s no idealistic dreamer. He knows what people are like – that power and prejudice and self-righteousness (all the things that Jesus denounced!) – are things not easily forsaken. And so Simeon says to Mary that her baby is going to cause division,

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.

Now isn’t that final line ominous? – that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.

I don’t think he means that Jesus is going to become some kind of soothsayer telling people’s fortunes at the county fair. I think what Simeon means is that, when people encounter Jesus and his gospel, their true spirit will be revealed. Some of these “people of God” will turn out to be truly godly indeed. They will they see in Jesus that worship and servanthood go hand-in-hand, for how else do you honor God but to live like God in loving your neighbor? Some other very religious people, though, will turn out to be not so godly after all. They’re the ones who will take great offense at Jesus, being more interested in keeping the rules and keeping up appearances and keeping the undesirables away. And unfortunately, that kind of religion is always very popular and finds ways to entrench itself in society. It is much easier to be offended by those who differ from us – and to stir up a culture of offense – than it is to have the honesty and humility to become different yourself – that is, to become a more godlike, compassionate person.

And so it is that this baby Jesus will grow and proclaim a Kingdom that – though filled with compassion and self-sacrifice and peace – will, paradoxically, cause great division and violence.

In fact, the day will come when Jesus will return to this very temple complex, outraged and furious by the spectacle he encounters – of a religion and sacrificial system that has been reduced and overwhelmed by religious profiteers. He will fashion a whip and overturn the tables and denounce the entire system: My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers (Luke 19:45).

And those who love the system, who trust the institution more than the God for whose worship it exists, will take great offense and resort to the weapons true of their religion and spirit. And Jesus will be killed.

And so, as Simeon also predicted to his mother Mary, A sword will pierce your soul too. For as with any loving mother, it is impossible that her child would suffer without knowing that same violence deep within her own soul.

But long before that hideous day, Simeon and Anna – aged and faithful – behold the child Jesus, perceiving the substance of who he is, and they become for us and for all time, the True Israel, whose hearts are soft towards the nature of God and God’s kingdom. And with the child before them, and the hope he represents, they worship and delight and proclaim to all who will listen the salvation in their midst.

And though we in the church regard ourselves as Simeon and Anna’s heirs – as those who see in Christ the salvation of the world – their warning is no less a warning for our generation. For just like the Judaism of their day, so the church has become an institution in its own right:

  • an institution easily enamored of its own perceived rights and privilege within our culture
  • an institution prone to discrimination – of who is in and who is out
  • an institution easily distracted by the apparatus of its own survival

And let me be clear – as humans we will create institutions. And these institutions do create stability and a structure for community to gather and function together. So I don’t begrudge the institutional aspects of the church. However, their virtue only remains insomuch as they are helping us to become more like Jesus. Our worship, our building, our financial giving are truly holy if indeed their purpose and effect is to draw us more fully into the pattern of Christ.

And so as we enter this new year – as a church, and as the individuals who comprise the church – may our prayer continue to  be, “Lord, help us to become more like Jesus.”

So may the answer to that prayer be in us as it was in Simeon and Anna, that our faith would continue to be formed over the course of our lifetime – that our eyes would continue to be opened, that we may keep laying down all that is false in us and our beliefs, in order that we might become what is true.

Lord may it be that when our eyes behold the savior – in whatever unexpected ways he or she may come – that we would know what we are seeing and take no offense.

Rather, may we be filled with delight and, like Anna, begin to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.