By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 27, 2020
Luke 2:22–40 (ESV)
22 And 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 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, 29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” 36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.
Many in the church lament about the secularization of Christmas. I agree that often it seems that way. I want to remind us all that Christmas is more than a day; it is a season. Christmas begins on Christmas day and it extends through the New Year until Epiphany, which is January 6th. This season is often regarded as the twelve days of Christmas.
The Church has gotten out of the habit of remembering these twelve days, especially in America where much of our religious heritage stems from Puritan perspectives. And Quakers are not much better. Both traditions removed the celebration of Holy Days from observance and the richness of the holidays seems to be lost. It would almost come as a surprise to many of us that Christmas was not a recognized federal holiday until 1870. And it became important because of immigrants coming to America from the Netherlands. These immigrants brought from their homeland the story of Sinterklaas, which became the subject of the poem The Night Before Christmas, which was published in 1823. We lament that Christmas has become secularized but in America it has always been secular, because for so long we lost the grounding of the season.
We cram all the significance of the season into one day when the message is so great that the ancient Church used twelve days to tell and celebrate the story. And if you ask me, Christmas is too important to celebrate in one day. The theological reality of God coming to live among mankind, is too great to limit to a one day. Emmanuel, God with us is something that should be celebrated not just on December 25th, but all through the dark days of winter.
I have thought about this for the past few years. I have wondered listened to people express their concerns of keeping Christ in Christmas, when the history of our nation for so long actually had laws preventing the celebration of Christmas. I have thought about it, and the past few years I have made up my own tradition of reading or listening to the classic Dickinson novel A Christmas Carol, because I find that many that seek to keep Christ in Christmas approach the season not with joy but with the attitude of Scrooge saying Bah humbug. And I also have coupled the reading of the Classic novel with the reading of the gospel accounts and have contemplated the attitudes together. What is the spirit of Christmas?
One might say that this is a simple question, but I want us to really think about it. We might quickly respond by saying it is the celebration of the birth of Christ and we would not be wrong. But if we were to ask an additional question, why is that important? The answer usually tends to go toward Good Friday, we celebrate the birth of Christ because Christ died for our sins. Do not get me wrong, this is important because Christ did die for our sins, but there is so much more to the story. There is thirty-three years of life lived, and those years are not lived in vain.
Jesus was born! The creator of the universe was born as a human infant and lived to adulthood. God wrapped himself in humanity, he became human to live with us. Within a family, a community, a nation, and a culture. Jesus lived, and lives forever more.
Jesus has experiences just as we have. He has childhood memories and humorous stories to share around the table of celebration. Yet we so often limit the story to he was born, he grew up, and he died…oh and he rose again. We limit the story, and we limit the power of the story. Jesus lived, and we live.
Today’s passage is important to us because it expands the story. It shows us that Jesus lived within a family, a community, and a culture. He was born into a family just like every human child. He was born into a community and culture that had rituals and traditions surrounding the rearing of children.
Mary and Joseph go to the temple, to offer sacrifices for purification and to present him to the Lord, as required in the Law. The purification was not for Jesus, but for Mary. The law stated that a woman was unclean for forty days after giving birth and could not touch any holy object during that time. We might think that this is a bit derogatory, but I want us to think about it from a different perspective. I remember the early days of my sons lives. I remember how much sleep I missed and how many hours I spent pacing back and forth through the house trying to get an infant to sleep. Those forty days allowed the mother the time to focus only on the child. The law removed any requirement from her to observe any religious rite during the toughest days of an infant’s life. And when the mother’s body healed and adjusted then she could again participate in the community again. But that is only part of why they were going to the temple. The second aspect of this is law of the first born.
When the law was first given to Moses, the firstborn sons were dedicated to God. These dedicated children were to serve God as priest. But remember there was an entire tribe of Israel that was dedicated as priest, the Levites, so why did God require the firstborn sons? This tradition goes back to Exodus and the Passover. The last plague that God sent to Egypt was the death of the first born, and the blood on the doorframes of the houses of the Hebrew people protected their children from the wrath of God, but God still claimed them as his own. And Israel would have to redeem their child from service by offering of silver. The redeemed firstborn sons of Israel are then replaced by the children of the tribe of Levi in the priesthood.
This seemingly small portion of scripture gives us a great deal of information. It shows us the dedication and faith of the parents, and it shows the connection of Jesus to the very beginning of the story of Israel. But there is more to this passage. The family goes to the temple to offer these sacrifices. Sacrifices that not only show the dedication of the family, but also their social standing. The offering of two doves shows us that the holy family was not wealthy, but poor. Jesus lived in a family that struggled. Again, we need to know this. We need to know that Jesus’ family faced the same issues that we often face. There was scandal surrounding Jesus, to the point that Joseph considered divorcing Mary, and the fact that he did not divorce Mary not only cast some shame on Mary but also Joseph. And to make it all worse they had to go to the temple and offer doves instead of a lamb. Jesus was one of us. He was ordinary by worldly standards.
While the family was waiting to offer these ordinary and humble sacrifices, they are greeted by two people, two witnesses or prophets. I think this is interesting because so much of our end time theology speaks about two witnesses, and because we often neglect the fullness of Christmas, we might be missing the richness of this passage in the greater story. The first witness is a man by the name of Simeon. This man was a devout and righteous man. And scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit rested on him and revealed to him that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. I want us to just think about that for a moment. The Spirit of God revealed to him that he would see the Messiah, and this man had been living his entire life waiting for that day. I wonder how many times he had walked to the temple and sat in the courts looking for this to be fulfilled? How many people did he speak to, and how many times did he go home in despair? But that morning he goes to the temple, and he sees this young family enter the courts. He watches as Joseph goes through the coins in his purse attempting to make sure he has enough to redeem the child and purchase the doves for purification.
Imagine standing there, watching this family. This poor family from Galilee. The traders laugh at the accent they speak with, and the elites look down on them as they bypass the pens containing the lambs and move toward the cages holding the birds. You are told that you will see the Lord’s Messiah, the anticipated King and suddenly you are drawn to this ordinary family.
There is another person observing this family, a prophetess named Anna. This woman is an interesting character, we are told that she is the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher, and that she was married young and lived with her husband seven years and had been a widow since. We are not sure exactly how old she was because the translation could mean she had been a widow for eighty-four years or that she was eighty-four. Some scholars believe that she was one hundred and five years old. She is of the tribe of Asher. This is significant because Asher means happy. This tribe was considered happy, and wealthy because they settled in the most profitable parts of the promised lands. She is presumably from wealth yet she has only known tragedy. She devoted her life to prayer and fasting. She had spent her entire life praying at the temple, and people respected her because of her devotion. It is not common for a woman to bear the name prophet yet from the beginning of the Church that is what we know her as. She sees this family come into the courts and she begins to praise God.
Mary and Joseph are ordinary people. They struggle to even make the proper sacrifices, and we know this because of what is recorded. Yet these two witnesses see the hope where no one else does. Do we see God in the ordinary? Are we able to see the hand of God at work even through our struggles?
I mentioned that I have begun a tradition of reading or listening to the classic novel A Christmas Carol the past few years. In that story Scrooge struggles to see the point of Christmas merriment. He looks at the world and he see struggle. He sees only the need to make more money or fade into insignificance. It is only when he is visited by the three Christmas Spirits that he begins to understand the reality of the season. And it is only through the revelation of the spirits that he become human.
Simeon and Anna have waited many years for that moment. Everyday hundreds of thousands of people could be milling around the courts. Thousands of bodies moving around and yet these two witnesses saw through them all and directed their attention to one ordinary family with an ordinary child. This story should give us hope.
Imagine Simeon looking at all the people and questioning the revelations that the Spirit gave him. How could he possibly see the Messiah in such a multitude? Imagine the many years of Anna’s tragic life? Imagine going from the happy bliss of wealthy marriage to the tragic poverty of widowhood and spending eighty-four years praying for the redemption of Jerusalem. Eighty-four years of prayer, and we struggle with a few moments of silence.
Imagine how hopeless these two witnesses might have felt. Day after day, year after year waiting. Then all at once you are drawn to a struggling family. You wonder why? You expect a king, and your attention is drawn to a baby. And in an instant your heart is filled with hope and praise.
The Christmas season is about finding hope. It is seeing light in the darkness. It is about God using the unexpected to bring about something glorious. Shepherds in the fields, wise men from foreign lands, a poor virgin and a scandalized groom, a riches to rags widow, and a righteous man who claimed he would not die until he saw the Messiah. To look at this story from a worldly perspective, we would laugh. There is nothing here that would point to any world changing event, but God uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary. God uses our weaknesses and our struggles to his glory. Will we see the hope? Will we see the wonder? Will we see that of God in the ordinary?
Christmas is more than a day; it is a season. It is a season where we celebrate God doing great things through ordinary people. It is a season where we can look beyond our struggles and celebrate the hope in the future. Let us seek like Simeon and pray like Anna. Let us not give up hope and long for the glory of God. Let us look beyond the ordinary around us and see the extraordinary in God. Merry Christmas!