8 a.m. Worship Service
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 Jesus in his arms and praised God —Luke 2:27–28.
Christmas comes to an end tomorrow. Tomorrow. You knew that right? I hope you haven’t packed up your Christmas tree yet. This little gem of a gospel story that we just heard: it is the reason that tomorrow is the end of Christmas, because in some of our ancient Christian traditions, this text does, indeed, mark the end of the Christmas season.
Typically, yes, we end Christmas at Epiphany, celebrating the Magi, the wise men from the east, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus. But tomorrow, February 2, is a little Christian feast day called Candlemas, or “Presentation of the Lord” day. It is celebrated 40 days after Christmas and recognizes this scripture passage when, in the gospel of Luke, and only in the gospel of Luke, we see Mary and Jesus bringing Jesus to the temple for the required post-birth holy rituals.
See, on the one hand, Mary has to be made pure after childbirth, and this 40th day symbolically marks the time when she can be made fully reintegrated into society as a new mother. It would line up, for us, with a baby’s first doctor visit or a postpartum check in, but in Mary’s context, the purpose of the visit is not medical but spiritual.
On the other hand, this 40th day journey happens because baby Jesus needs to be presented at the temple to be redeemed. Yes, Jesus needs to be redeemed. It does seem odd, doesn’t it, to think of our redeemer, Jesus, needing to be redeemed. But, according to the religious order of things, all first born sons technically belonged to God, and instead of being required to give your first born son over to God as a sacrifice, you can opt to “redeem” your son by a monetary payment. Though, listening to this text closely, it is no accident here that Luke echoes redemption so early on in his telling of Jesus’ story.
Our narrator, Luke, is quite the story weaver, and he is setting you up to hear this story poetically, on multiple levels. If you are a first century Jew reading this story, you don’t miss this detail — pointing from Jesus’ birth all the way to his redeeming death and resurrection. Our Easter promises swing round to Christmas incarnations, and this text wraps us up in both Christmas and Easter; Christ as light and life, savior and redeemer.
After their trip to the temple, Mary and Joseph can join in the modern lament that “children are expensive.” Mary has had to pay for this postpartum purification ritual — paying two turtledoves instead of the more costly lamb, proof of her poverty. And then she pays again, 5 shekels this time, or about 50 bucks, to redeem her first born son. It has been quite the costly trip to the temple for these new parents.
But the temple story doesn’t end there. Simeon, a righteous and devout man, was walking through the temple just at the moment when Mary and Joseph were walking through the doors, having done what was customary under the law.
It was no accident, though, that Simeon comes across Mary and Joseph with their infant son Jesus. This is, if you can imagine it, a temple complex full of buildings and courtyards that is likely some 35 acres in total. Simeon didn’t just happen across them in the temple complex. Simeon was led there by the Holy Spirit.
Simeon, unknown to us except for in this passage, takes 40 day old baby Jesus into his arms and praises God. Borrowing poetry from the prophet Isaiah, Simeon sings a faithful hymn to God at this moment saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”
Mary and Joseph were amazed. Amazed, but not surprised or shocked. They were certainly not taken aback at this stranger, a just and prayerful man, yes, but a stranger nonetheless, taking their son into his arms.
Mary and Joseph have incrementally been getting used to odd things happening. Earlier that year, Mary had been visited by an angel, you know the story. The angel who visited her said she was going to conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and bear a son, Jesus, who would be the Son of the Most High God. Then, nine short months later, when Mary and her soon-to-be-but-not-yet husband were far from home, Mary gave birth to this child.
Soon, shepherds arrived, saying that angels had visited them, too. The angels had instructed these terrified shepherds to trust and follow, using a star as their guide. And, under that star, they would find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger. Terrified, they followed, and amazed, they found him. This child, the angel had said, would be a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. And there he was, with Mary and Joseph in the manger.
For Mary and Joseph, these surprises were no longer quite such a surprise. They were all part of a longer narrative that was bringing them to a new understanding about this child in their midst. Simeon didn’t surprise them by praising God for their child, but they were amazed — an utterly different kind of emotion.
I love these first two chapters of Luke; the surprises, the angels, the visits, the travel. It is from these early stories that my whole geography of the holy lands was first knit together; Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem all became familiar first, and then they got knit in with Judea, Galilee and the City of David. A map emerges.
Ken Jennings, jeopardy winner 10 years back, and a map enthusiast like myself, tells a charming story in his book Maphead about how enthralled he used to be with the color maps in the pew bibles at church — how the maps captured his attention. Each map with a journey, and each journey overlapping the Ancient Near East in different ways as the holy lands shifted power over the centuries from Assyrian to Babylonian to Persian to Greek and finally to Roman rule; all the while, God using the widest array of people to tell the story of salvation.
It is remarkable how much travel Jesus did, even in those first 40 infant days, to unveil the story of God’s salvation. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, named and dedicated in the temple in Jerusalem, and then, finally, at the end of today’s story, having finished everything required by the Law of the Lord, he was able to return for the first time to his home town of Nazareth.
The pew bibles should have a map in them for you to trace Jesus’ journey, but if they don’t I can guarantee you that any of our 5 and 6 graders who have been around here these last few weeks can draw you a simple map of the holy lands after having done so on a larger scale in preparation for their Bible Habitat exhibit in the coming weeks.
This infant travel narrative — Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Nazareth — is unique to the gospel of Luke. Mark foregoes or forgets Jesus’ infancy and childhood all together. John more poetically crafts the story of Jesus’ birth from before the beginning of creation, and so skips over the manger scenes, and Matthew, of course, gives us the wise men.
But it is Luke who gives us Mary’s Magnificat, and the Innkeeper and the Manger and the Shepherds. And it is Luke who gives us the Angel Gabriel who reminds us, along with Mary, that “nothing is impossible with God.”
It is with this in mind, that nothing is impossible with God, that Luke records the good news of Jesus Christ. Luke is taking extraordinary discretion when setting up this narrative account of Jesus. Luke is careful to bring us along, showing us, the reader, step by step, who Jesus is. Luke calls us towards God with this orderly account, giving us confidence to trust and know God. Luke shows us Christ, gives us multiple ways to notice Jesus as Christ, and calls us towards Christ, even here in these early infant travel narratives.
Here Jesus is seen, not in the private impromptu gathering of shepherds around a manger, but more publically, in the temple. Jesus is met first, by Simeon, with his robust hymn-like song of praise to God, and then, by Anna, an 84 year old prophet who approaches the holy family at that very same moment and notices Jesus. Recognizing him, she also praises God, telling everyone that he will redeem Jerusalem. On the very day when Jesus’ parents have just done this legal work of “redeeming” Jesus at the temple, Anna is here praising God and saying that Jesus will be the one, the one who will redeem Jerusalem.
Luke is showing us, layer upon layer, that Jesus is and will be the Savior, the Messiah.
Here at the temple, Luke is calling us to notice Mary and Joseph. They are doing the things that all parents do — like going to the temple with your infant on his 40th day — just as faithfully as they are doing the scary things that other parents didn’t have to do — like traveling as a young pregnant woman with the man you are about to marry — to his home town — a man who is not yet your husband, nor is he the father of the child you are expecting.
Mary and Joseph are faithful in these normal things that all parents do, as well as the extraordinary things. In the same way, Luke is calling us to see that the Holy Spirit is just as present in the early Angelic appearances to Mary and the Shepherds, as in this Holy Spirit-enabled encounter between Simeon, Anna and Jesus that day.
This story, short and unassuming as it is, is so compelling.
On the one hand, it is a reminder to us that we can faithfully live out our lives, both in the ordinary everyday expectations of life, and in the scary unknown. On the other hand, it is a reminder that the Holy Spirit is just as present with us in our heightened spiritual experiences, as in the seemingly random, but truly Holy Spirit-enabled unexpected encounters with kind strangers or new friends.
Additionally, I hear this text through the echo chamber of Children and Youth Ministry.
As churches across the country try to figure out what ministry will look like in the next 50 years, one of the constant questions is, of course, how to minister to children and youth in this constantly changing youth culture. Recently, academics out of Princeton Seminary on the East Coast have been claiming that parents are the key influencers to faith formation for young people. Parents must take the responsibility of nurturing faith in their families. Meanwhile and concurrently, academics at California’s Fuller Seminary on the West Coast alternatively claim that mentors and intergenerational relationships outside of the family are key influencers to faithfulness. The East Coast is claiming parents and home faith formation as key, and the West Coast is claiming that mentors and non-parent intergenerational relationships as key to building up the body of Christ from a young age.
I see today’s passage as a call to stand in-between these East Coast and West Coast philosophies. Maybe it is because we are here in Chicago, literally between the East and West coast, but nonetheless, I believe this passage is telling us to stand in-between. This passage tells me that parents must faithfully bring their children to sacred places where they can then build those key intergenerational relationships.
Why? Mary and Joseph bring their child to the temple, and there, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus encounters older adults, grandparent-aged caring adults who see, notice and call Jesus by name.
Yes, there are many parts to this story that are pointing to the uniqueness of Jesus as our Lord and Savior, but the basics of the encounter — two parents, bringing their child to a sacred place for a holy ritual, and through the Holy Spirit, encountering two deeply spiritual older adults who could care about and praise God for their child — that, that is what church is all about.
That is what we are called to do: to build our own faith by praising God, and to build up the faithfulness of the next generation by allowing them to see such faithfulness, and to praise God alongside us.
There are many gifts to this story, of course, and I will end with this one. In C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the White Witch had cursed all of Narnia so that it was, quote, “always winter and never Christmas.” I always hated that: “always winter and never Christmas.”
So, in my mind, on this snowy day, I can claim that, in fact, here in the midst of a February snowstorm, that it is both Christmas and winter, since, by celebrating the Presentation of the Lords day this February gives us an excuse to extend our Christmas celebrations just a little longer.
May this story be a blessing. May it connect you back to our highest of holy days, Christmas, reminding you that Christ is our light in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it, and connecting you forward to that Easter morning when Christ will be, to all the people, Savior, Redeemer and Lord.
In Jesus Christ, Amen.