By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 17, 2021
John 1:43–51 (ESV)
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
We are currently in the season of Epiphany in the church calendar. I know that Friends do not traditionally follow the liturgical church year, but I do find it to be helpful in my personal spiritual life. I like to walk with Jesus and his disciples through Jesus’s life and ministry, and the church year helps me do that. There is something profound when the seasons all around us, at least in the northern hemisphere, speak to the conditions of our own hearts. During the darkest days of winter, we celebrate the birth of Christ the light of the world that overcomes the darkness. When spring comes, we celebrate Easter, just as the world begins to bloom, we are reminded of the resurrected and glorified life of Christ. But this is usually where the free or non-liturgical churches stop. We forget about the long and hot days of summer and how they speak of the trials within our spiritual life which is the longest season of the year also known as ordinary time. Its ordinary because that is where most of the work is done, in pre-industrial societies it was during the summer when the when crops were tended and animals were led out to graze. And in the church, it is during the summer where we are reminded of the long processes of living the disciplined life and expanding influence of the church.
But there are a couple of other seasons not yet mentioned, the transition season. During the fall we have the gradual decline of the weather meteorologically, and this is highlighted in the church calendar with the ending of the ordinary time and the beginning of advent. The despair and longing for the coming messiah. Then as the days first being to get longer we have the season of Lent where we prepare ourselves for new life. Those are the major seasons of the church, but there are a few others. Some that last only a short time like Pentecost, which is the season between spring and summer which reminds us of the emerging church as we begin to get back outside to enjoy the warmer weather. And then there is this season of Epiphany what do we make of it?
Epiphany is hard. It is the time just after the joy of Christmas. The beauty of the holiday has past, the winter is set in and we do not want to get out. We start the new year during the season of Christmas, and when the new year comes, we are filled with great ambition. We set goals for ourselves. Things like: “I’m going to eat healthier,” or “I am going to read through the bible this year,” or maybe “I am going to finally kick some bad habit that I have been struggling with.” We set these goal or resolutions and in just a few short weeks, we have already forgotten them. That is the struggle of this season. The season of Epiphany focuses on the time of Jesus’ life that we do not really know a great deal about. We have great stories surrounding the birth of Christ, but we do not get much after that until he is approximately thirty years old. We get a few glimpses into what went on, like Jesus going to the temple and staying there when his family leaves, and the presents that the Magi bring when he was around two years old. But what else is there? We do not know. Jesus obviously lived a full life; we just do not see it in the pages of scripture. But we know that Jesus was still Jesus during that time. He lived within a family and community. He worked and he grew. He learned and he participated in the teaching and encouragement of those within the community. We know this because it was during this time Jesus developed his lifestyle that became the rhythm of the life we see in the pages of scripture.
Epiphany is the season of discipleship and discipline. It is the season of learning and testing. It is the season where we begin to see who Jesus is as a man and as God with us. It is during this season where the word of God is revealed. Because that is what Epiphany means, it is revelation and insight. We get to know God with us during this season. We begin to see and hear what Jesus is about, and we begin to take that walk with him. It is during this season that our journey begins.
Our passage today is early in Jesus’s ministry. Really, we could say that it is before Jesus begins his ministry. In the verses prior to today’s passage, we have John the Baptist’s ministry and testimony of Jesus. And we have the first invitation to the disciples. It is interesting to read these passages because we get a glimpse of the humility of Jesus. John is out on the banks of the Jordan screaming for Israel to repent and Jesus just walks by minding his own business and the screaming preacher stops talking for a moment and says almost in a hush, behold the lamb of God. And as Jesus is walking, he finds a couple of John’s disciples tagging along behind him. He walks and looks back and there they are. He walks some more and looks back again and they are still there. He finally asks them what they want, and they have this amazingly profound answer, “Rabbi where are you staying?”
At this point in time, Jesus, as far as anyone knew, was just an ordinary construction worker. He had not yet begun his ministry. He was just a man that was working with his relatives as a skilled craftsman as he had done for the past seventeen years. John called him the lamb of God, and these two guys just decided to follow him because if this man could silence John, he must be impressive.
But the invitation is interesting. He does not preach to them. He does not give them some formula to become his student. There is not an application processes, where they must meet certain requirements. They want to know where he is staying and Jesus simply tells them, “come and see.”
The next day, Jesus does not go back down to the Jordan where John is at, instead he travels north into Galilee. While he walks, he meets a man named Philip. We do not know how long they walked and talked with each other. We only know that Philip was from the same town as Andrew and Peter. And that Andrew and Peter had spoken with Jesus the previous night. What we do know is Philip, according to John’s gospel, was the first to be officially called to become Jesus’s disciple. Andrew and Peter were invited to come and you will see, but during the conversation that Philip had with Jesus, Jesus invited Philip to, “Follow me.”
Maybe Philip was just walking to the same village that Jesus was going to visit and just happened to be on the same path. We do not really know. But the conversation that they had inspired Philip to such a degree that once Jesus got to the place he was heading, Philip left for a brief amount of time to find his friend Nathanael. And He excitedly approached his friend and said, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
Nathanael was just minding his own business when his friend come to him. If we look at his response, we can almost sense that he might be a bit annoyed with his friend for bothering him. You would think that with the news that was just given would have excited him, but Nathanael is skeptical. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I like his response. I am like that. If you know me well you know that I do not get overly excited about very much. I need to see, observe, and study things for a bit before I begin to get excited. At times this makes people upset. They think that I do not take them seriously or that I do not recognize the seriousness of the situation. I am engaged, I just want to keep my eyes open to see what else is happening.
Nathanael seems skeptical but he is being rational. Nazareth did not really have the best reputation. It was not a center of culture. It was an area that was known for its narrowminded views on things. The people of Nazareth were rural, common, and simple. It was not a place that scholars emerged from, but it had its fair share of ideological rebels that seemed to stir up trouble. When Nathanael says, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He is being practical. He wonders if his friend is getting caught up in some conspiracy theory. Philip understands his friend’s skepticism and does not argue or engage in a debate. He simply replies, “come and see.”
I like this. It shows us something remarkable. Philip told his friend the exciting thing happening, but his friend was not buying it. His friend even tried to pick a fight with him, yet Philip did not argue. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from Philip in this age of social media. All the debates we seem to find ourselves entering on Facebook and twitter are not changing the minds of those we are talking to; it is just giving more fuel to their preconceived ideas. And are driving wedges in the relationships we have with them. For me personally, there are some friends and family members do not even want to talk to because everything I say will start another round of misunderstanding and pointless debate. Philip does not enter a debate. He does not add fuel to Nathanael’s prejudice, he simply offers an invitation to come and see for himself.
When I read this, it seems as if Philip’s response surprises Nathanael. It was not exactly the response he expected. It was obviously out of character for his friend. It intrigued him, so he followed his friend to meet Jesus.
Jesus sees them coming, and he greets Nathanael. “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” I have always thought his is an interesting greeting. And as I sat praying this week over this passage, that sentence is where my mind rested. I thought about the wording and the history of Israel.
Israel is more than the name of a nation; it is a name of a person. It was the name given to the son of Isaac, Jacob, the prior to Jacob’s reunion with his brother Esau. It is important to remember this story because Jacob’s name has meaning like most names in scripture. Jacob means to follow, or to be behind but also to supplant, circumvent, assail, or overreach. In scripture Jacob lived out his name. He became known as a schemer and a trickster. He found a way to convince his brother to transfer the greater inheritance to him, and to get his father’s blessing. He also devised a scheme to increase his wealth while he lived with his uncle. But over the years all his schemes weighed on him. And when he approached the land of his brother, he was convinced that his brother would try to kill him. Jacob struggled with this in his mind, and one night, after he had sent his family into the land before him and he was alone on the border, he was visited by a stranger. For some reason Jacob wrestled and fought with this stranger though the entire night until the next morning. And at the end of this struggle, he came to the realization that he was struggling with God, and God gave him a new name. He was no longer Jacob, but Israel. And this new name means wrestles with God.
This story is seen in the greeting Jesus makes to Nathanael. Behold an Israelite indeed. This alludes to where Nathanael is spiritually. He is struggling, wrestling, not taking things at face value but looking deeper, he is seeking the truth. And like Jacob, he has a desire to put his previous life behind him yet does not really know how to move forward. Jesus reveals himself to Nathanael by revealing Nathanael himself.
The invitation that Jesus gives to each of us is like these first disciples. Jesus asks us each to come and see, and to follow. For some of us we simply listen and respond, and for others we the process takes a bit more time, and we must see it before we believe. This is the Epiphany. God will reveal himself to us in the way that we need when we need it. It shows us how we should approach life with each other, and how we should encourage those around us. It is not about having all the right words, but it is reflecting Jesus in our lives. I want us to think about this as we enter this time of open worship.
There is a natural response to share the gospel we know with other, but how are we doing it? We are urged and even commanded to go to Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth making disciples yet how are we doing that? Jesus shows us how. He shows us from the very beginning of his ministry. Build relationships and show a different way to live. Stop debating and listen, stop arguing and have a conversation. Everyone we know is struggling in some way, and Jesus I here with us in that struggle, and Jesus is speaking and offering healing for our condition if we are willing to simply come and see.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 10, 2021
Mark 1:4–11 (ESV)
4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Genesis 1:1–5 (ESV)
1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
This past week I have been in shock to be honest. I have listened, watch, and read things that I once thought I would never see in my lifetime. What are we doing? I have watched this slowly take hold in our nation and even within our community over the past ten years. I have watched as our friends have divided themselves and forgotten what is important. It makes me ask a question what is important? What is important right now?
This is the one thing that has been coursing through my mind. What is important? The past year has been one of the hardest years I have ever personally face. I have gone to school to learn how to be a pastor. I have had training, I have had lessons, I have learned, and have listened. Yet with all this training nothing prepared me for the year we faced. I have served as a pastor for seventeen years, and ten of those years have been here. I have had to learn to balance life as bi-vocational pastor. I have read books that try to say that this is a bright future for the church, yet the experience I have felt during those years has been struggle. For seventeen years I have worked, encouraged, and prayed. In those years, the church has recognized something that I did not. They saw that I loved the church to such a degree that the church asked me to serve as the elder of the north east area, and later as an elder at large. I am sitting in that seat and I ask this question. I sit as one of the leaders of the Friends Church of Mid America Yearly Meeting and I am questioning why we are even here. I question because I see so many people I have loved and respected divide.
Some of my friends across the country asked how we were going to approach this week. Some had a clear path, and others were like me in a state of shock. I told them that I was going to speak about the baptism of Jesus, others said that they were going to speak on Genesis, and while I sat down to study and pray. I found a void. I felt as if the very voice of God was silent when the world around me was screaming.
The world screams and where is God?
This caused me to stop. It caused me to question a great deal. It scares me because where are we looking for God? Are we looking for him in the kingdom courts? Are we looking for him in the pews of religious organizations? Where is God?
This seems to be the story of human existence. There is struggle. There are questions. There are people wondering around trying to find a path. John the Baptist can be seen in a similar situation.
John lived in a family and religious system that should have provided him with all the answers. Israel rebuilt the temple and had worshipped in that temple for hundreds of years. They should have been hearing the voice of God through the various priests and sacrifices, yet where is John in all of this? He was not in the temple courts but in the wilderness. He was wondering around trying to find a path.
John was wondering through the wilderness. And as he wonders he preaches. He preaches a message that is unique and contrary to his contemporaries. He does not direct people to the temple. He does not direct them to the mountain in Samaria that served as the holy place of the northern tribes. Instead, he directs them to water.
This week I have found myself drawn to the water of this story. I have meditated on the water. Thought about it as I shower and as I heat it on the stove to cook a meal. I have thought about it as I fill a cup after a long day at work. There is something about water.
There is something cleansing and refreshing about water. When we have a stressful day one of the things, we long for is a bath or a shower, those moments in the water seem to wash away the tension for a moment allowing us to relax just enough. And it is water that seeps from our eyes as we mourn or incur an injury and those tears seem to carry just a bit of the pain away from our hearts and after a while, we can catch our breath and face another day. There is something powerful and symbolic about the water, and as a man that grew up on a farm, I know water is life.
John cries out in the wilderness and people come to hear what he has to say. He cries out to them to repent or to turn from the life they have been living and to walk a different direction. And he marks that change in water. Why water?
This is where the creation story comes into play. “In the beginning,” the writer of Genesis says, “God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” How often do we think of this first chapter of scripture and consider what is being said? The earth was without form and void, and the Spirit hovered over face or the surface of the waters. There was nothing, there was emptiness and a void. There was darkness that enveloped the surface of the deep. Listen to the words. Listen to how dreadful they sound: without form, void, darkness, deep.
These are words of despair, words of hopelessness. They are words devoid of life. Words of fear. And the Spirit hovers right there over all of that. The Spirit hovers over the waters. The Spirit hovers over that expanse of fear and chaos. God is there amid the darkness. God is there in the void. God hovers over the face of the water. And God speaks.
God’s first words are spoken over the waters. And at that moment everything changes. There was light the instant the words were uttered. And that light was good. God separated the light from the darkness and called the light day and the darkness night. And there was evening or darkness and there was morning, the first day.
This first story excites my mind and my spirit. I have a scientific background and even though much of my education tried to tell me that God was not in creation this story excites me. It excites me because all the elements of life scientifically and philosophically are present in this story. For life to begin we need water and light. The ancients in their primitive storytelling speak of things science still tries to understand. Life emerges from the waters because of light. With a simple utterance of a phrase God begins to bring forth something meaningful out of something without purpose. Out of nothing God creates.
God hovers over the formless void, and John wanders in the wilderness. God speaks while hovering over the waters, and John directs those that listen to his cries to the waters.
I contemplated these things this week. I prayed as I heard the news this week. I sat sick to my stomach as I listened to reports and videos. And I was nearly moved to tears as I listen to people speak, not out of pride or hope, I was moved to tears out of despair. I listen to people make claims with words that are completely negated by their actions. And I wonder where is God in all of this?
Storms are raging all around us and darkness is engulfing us. We have become unhinged and unanchored. We are celebrating what should drive us to tears. And I again urge us to shut off the news, turn off the radios, and refocus our attention on what is most important. Where is God?
John did not find God in the glimmering temple courts, but in the wilderness. He did not find God in the hustle and bustle of the city. He did not find God in the seat of the empire. He found what he sought in the wilderness. Out in the margin of society where the chaos was quieted. He left the life he knew. He left the culture and society that promised him greatness. He left so he could find hope. He turned away from all that he knew and he sought a path the world around him had forgotten and he walked.
He walked to the banks of the Jordan, and he cried out. We often look at this as being he began to preach boldly. He yelled his message at the top of his lungs, but what if we look at it from a different perspective. What if we consider the possibility that John just might have been a broken man? What if we consider the possibility that John saw the corruption in is culture, the injustice within his society, and he walked out into the wilderness in despair? What if John was out there thinking that all hope was gone? Maybe John once embraced his role, maybe he plunged himself headlong into his religious studies full of righteous energy. Maybe he spent thirty years preparing to become a high priest to usher in the coming king like everyone thought. Only to find that the temple he served sold their soul to the empire and greed? And with each passing year he died a bit more until he could take it no more and he ran? Maybe he looked at his country and saw nothing but a formless void and darkness. Maybe he went out into the wilderness thinking he was a failure and all was lost.
And he walked out in the wilderness and it was in the wilderness that he finally began to see the truth. It is not about power. It is not about influence. It is not about having the ear of the governing bodies. But it is encouraging the person right next to you that is the most important thing to do. He went out into the wilderness crying and then in the wilderness he gained his voice.
Repent, turn around and go the other direction. Take a different path and return to God. The world is giving us formless chaos. The directions they are giving just lead to more darkness and despair. Ever step we take in the world just leads to more heartache and more pain, and the only end in sight is fear, anger, war, and death. Repent. Turn around, go the other direction, take a different path. Stop running after the things of this world and return to what really matters. Return home.
The crossing of the Jordan was the sign of entering the promised land. The hope of Israel where they would be God’s people and He would be their God. They would be a light to the world, a nation where God would rule, and each person would follow what was right in their heart. The hope was that God would be in the center of their hearts, and that God would direct them. And that is what John was encouraging them to return to. Each person living their lives with one another, encouraging, and helping each other for mutual profit.
John boldly cried on the banks of the Jordan, and people listened. He boldly told them that God was hovering over the void of their lives and over the water was willing to create something new. But he also knew that he was a broken man speaking to broken people. He could dunk them beneath the water until everyone’s fingers were wrinkled like prunes, and as hard as they would try, they would eventually go back to the ways they once had known. He knew that he could not bring life out of the void, so he told them that there would be another. He fully recognized his role, and he became the prophet that was foretold.
And in those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water the heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended on him like a dove and a voice came from heaven. The Spirit hovered again over the waters, and God spoke. And life emerged from the formless void and hope was once again enlightened the darkness.
Where is God in this darkness that envelopes our world? Where is God in the despair we might feel in this moment? God is right where He has always been, hovering over the void. He is hovering within the very things that we fear, he is hovering within the darkness we seem to find ourselves in. He is with us in the brokenness. He is enduring our pain with us. And he is speaking over the water to bring life out of nothing, and restoration to our dehydrated lives. He is speaking in the wilderness crying out to us to repent, to return, to refocus not on the things of the world but on the things of God. He is encouraging us to stop worrying about what is happening thousands of miles away and instead encourage the person next to you, because that person might be trapped in the void, in the darkness needing the light.
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!