Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
A Sight for Certain Eyes
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Luke 2:22-40
Some churches blessed with infants incorporate them into their Christmas celebrations. In a church in Missouri, a mother offered her 2-month-old son to play the role of baby Jesus for the live nativity scene on the church’s chancel. In the midst of the pageant, the baby turned red and grunted and fussed. His 3-year-old sister, dressed as an angel and looking stereotypically cherubic, abandoned the script. She fled down the center aisle, arms waving, shouting, “Momma, he’s pooping!”
You can read all the pregnancy and parenting books you want, but first-time parents are still surprised by the ways that a baby interrupts and disrupts and changes the household forever. Jesus was a real-live human baby with all the crying and poopy diapers and worry and sleep- deprivation that creates.
Jesus is about 40 days old when they make the trip to Jerusalem. Luke does not know anything about a flight to Egypt, so in his version of events, Mary and Joseph moved from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Have they been in Bethlehem for the last 40 days? Did they find better accommodations after everyone else left town after the census? If so, then it would have been a 6-mile journey to the temple in Jerusalem. Or, did they return to Nazareth as soon as Mary could travel? That would have meant 4-5 days of walking home with the baby Jesus. And if so, then they have now made a journey of several days walking from Nazareth to Jerusalem. In either scenario, this first month of parenting has not been what anyone would hope for. It has involved travel and hardship and worry, not to mention the physical work and recovery of labor and delivery.
They are in Jerusalem because they are faithful Jewish people and this is what faithful Jewish people do. The law required Mary’s purification after childbirth. If she had given birth to a girl, she would have stayed at home for 80 days and then done the ritual of purification, but the birth of a boy only required 40 days of isolation. I have no idea how the law handled giving birth away from home. Maybe they would have had to stay in Bethlehem for the 40 days. Anyway, the ritual involved a sacrifice and the fact that Mary offers two pigeons tells us that she and Joseph were too poor to offer a lamb.
The other reason they are in the temple is to present Jesus to God. The closest thing that we have to compare to this ritual is a baby dedication. My favorite part of a baby dedication is when I get to carry the baby around and let you enjoy him or her for a few minutes. My biggest concern is whether the baby will let me do that or whether they will realize that I am not one of their parents and protest by crying. Baby dedications are important times for the baby’s family. They provide an opportunity for the parents make statements about their hopes for the child and their commitments to raising the child within our faith. They let the faith community offer tangible and meaningful support for the child and family. Who doesn’t love a baby dedication?
But imagine – what if during a baby dedication here, an unknown old man, a stranger, reached out to take a 6-week- old baby from his mother? What might go through her mind? “Who is this man and why does he want my child? Will he drop him? Does he have a cold or something else contagious? Is he safe? Why does he think he can hold my child?”
Did Mary have thoughts like that? Did she willingly surrender Jesus to Simeon or did she keep holding on to him the whole time?
And then what if, instead of the careful, safe words of blessing and promise we usually offer, this stranger who burst into our baby dedication said what Simeon said? What if looking at our baby, the man said, “I can die in peace now because I have seen salvation” and then “A sword will pierce your heart” to the baby’s parents. Really? Can we even imagine that?
So I wonder how Mary and Joseph reacted. These are the same people who had encounters with angels a few months earlier. Maybe they are starting to think that this is their new normal. Maybe unexpected, even unwelcome, news from angels and strangers every so often is just going to be part of their lives from now on.
Or maybe they don’t see it that way. Maybe Simeon and Anna offer confirmation of the angel’s messages. And maybe confirmation from other human beings is helpful, even if the words that Simeon offers are not all good news.
How powerful it must have been to see this aged man, tenderly cradle the baby Jesus. Imagine him holding in his arms this most wanted child, the hope of the ages, the yearning of his entire life.
I wonder just how many people Mary and Joseph have confided in. Perhaps Mary told Elizabeth and Zechariah. They were in a unique position to understand. But seriously, how many people would have believed their story? It was probably easier just to keep it to themselves. So imagine what could it mean if these two strangers in another city, people who who have no earthly reason to know your situation, understand it without you having to say a word. Simeon and Anna offer Mary and Joseph the gift of believing them and believing in them. That would be quite a gift, wouldn’t it?
How many people have tried and succeeded in doing something unexpected on the strength of another person’s confidence in them? How many people have failed because they accepted another person’s lack of confidence? Anna and Simeon recognize Jesus for who he is, which confirms what Mary and Joseph believe, and perhaps gives them the confidence necessary to be his parents.
But how is it that Anna and Simeon recognize him? How are they so certain about what they see?
There doesn’t seem to be anything unusual about Mary and Joseph. The Temple is a huge place and there are probably plenty of other families there with the same purpose. Mary and Joseph don’t stand out. They don’t have haloes; Baby Jesus doesn’t glow in the dark. They are not rich or important. All of which leads me to believe that Anna and Simeon see what they do, not because of what is being looked at, but because of who is doing the looking.
Anna and Simeon are old people. They trust God and they have been trusting for a very long time. For as long as they can remember, Rome has occupied Israel and they have witnessed increasing corruption and collaboration between their religious leaders and the Romans. The systems and institutions they know and love are being destroyed from within, but still they trust. Anna’s life has surely not been what she had hoped, widowed after just seven years of marriage with no family to care for her in her old age. We know little of Simeon’s personal story, but we can imagine both of them with wrinkled faces, thinning hair, bent bodies.
They could choose to be bitter and sad and world-weary, but instead they trust and hope. Somehow, they are still ready and waiting for God to act.
The fruit of their long-term faith is that they recognize Jesus when he arrives. Sometimes we say “seeing is believing” but in the case of Simeon and Anna, “believing is seeing” seems more appropriate. Because they believe, they see the Messiah in an ordinary poor baby. Because they trust, the recognize God in their midst. They are certain, confident, about what they see and theirs are the particular eyes who perceive what they do because their faith has shaped their vision.
We often describe Advent as the season of waiting, but it is an arbitrary kind of waiting. Advent has a definite end. We know it will end on December 25. Anna and Simeon give us the image of steadfast waiting, in trust, without knowing how short or long our wait will last. Someone has said, “None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” Anna and Simeon are old, but not that old.
I wonder what it is about old people. The Bible seems to be full of stories of God calling old people. There’s Anna and Simeon and shortly before this in Luke’s gospel, we heard about Zechariah and Elizabeth. Reaching way back, we might remember Abraham and Sarah, called to set out for a foreign land when Abraham was 75. Moses was 80 when God sent him to deliver his people from Pharaoh. Older people are sometimes overlooked or under-appreciated in our culture, but stories like these suggest that we are never too old for God to use.
And then, on the other hand, there are stories of young people in the Bible. Next week, Jerrod is going to preach on Samuel who heard the voice of God at a very young age. We could remember David, who was anointed king when he was just the baby brother, the youngest of Jesse’s sons. Or even Mary herself, who was probably barely into adolescence when she accepted Gabriel’s message from God.
What are the ages of people God can call? It seems that God will use whomever God chooses, young or old, rich or poor. God will use those who welcome God’s unexpected surprise and those whose lives have been shaped by patient anticipation, and anyone in between.
In this new year, may we find ourselves among those whom God is using. Perhaps we might be useful by offering someone the gift of our trust, because we believe them and believe in them. Maybe we are the ones who can bless the next generation – inspiring others to take courage because of our confidence in them. Maybe we are the ones called to expectant waiting, to shape our lives in ways that will enable us to recognize God whenever and wherever God shows up, so that someday we may say with Simeon, “Let me now depart in peace, for I have seen your salvation.”