A WORD FROM THE WISE
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
December 28, 2014; 1st Sunday of Christmas, 2014, Year B
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Luke 2:22-40
“For my eyes have seen your salvation…a light for revelation
to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
There’s always a bit of a letdown in these days after Christmas. All that pressure — the preparations, the presents, the people coming together from across the miles! It focuses like a laser beam on one day out of the year. When it’s over, it’s over.
There’s still a good deal of commercial activity going on, of course, down at the mall: the returns, the gift-card redemptions, the bargain-basement prices on cards and wrapping paper. But that’s just clean-up. The big national, secular holiday is over. There’s something forlorn about this last gasp of Christmas shopping.
Which is just the opposite of the way the church looks at it. From now until Epiphany, January 6th, we are in the bright and joyous season of Christmas, that only began on Christmas Eve. But just try to sell that in a culture that believes the Christmas season lasts from Halloween to Christmas Day! After that, Christmas winks out like the lights of an unplugged Christmas tree (or, so most people think).
The story that comes up in the lectionary for today — the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple — may seem a bit like post-Christmas clean-up. The high drama out on the hillside — shepherds, angels and all the rest — is behind us. It’s time for Mary and Joseph to move on.
In time — as Matthew tells it — an angel will warn them about a threat to their newborn’s life and they will flee to Egypt. But for now, their task is presenting their new baby in the Temple. There, he receives a special blessing. His mother, Mary, also goes through the right of purification — obligatory for Jewish women after childbirth.
Mary and Joseph bring with them a couple of small birds — turtledoves or pigeons — for the sacrifice. That little detail tells a lot about who Mary and Joseph are. The ordinary sacrificial offering for this purpose was a lamb and a pigeon, but there was a special provision for those like these two, who barely have two shekels to rub together. They were permitted to substitute another bird for the lamb.
No doubt, as Mary and Joseph walk into the Temple courts, they appear utterly unremarkable. Just another raggedy, working-class couple, doing the right thing by their baby, according to the Law of Moses. If Mary and Joseph harbor any delusions of grandeur on account of the shepherds and the angels, they don’t show it.
They end up in the center of a little brouhaha, all the same. Two elderly worshipers, regulars at the Temple, have something to say to the holy family. One of these two pious elders is named Simeon; the other is a widow by the name of Anna.
Some years back, Simeon heard the voice of God, the Holy Spirit, speaking to him. “You will not taste death,” the Spirit told him, “until you have seen the Messiah with your own eyes.” Simeon’s been looking for the Messiah ever since.
When Simeon gets to the Temple that day he sees no powerful orator, no victorious general: just a tradesman from the north country and his young wife. She’s cradling a baby in her arms.
Who can say how Simeon knows this child to be the one? But he does. Luke simply tells us he was “led by the Spirit.” Did his heart burn within him as looked upon the baby? Did he have a sixth sense — some weird ability to discern halos, as in some Renaissance painting?
Simeon speaks, then, some words of prophecy. We’ll come back to them in a minute. But first, to the other venerable witness: Anna.
We know even less about Anna than we do about Simeon. All Luke tells us is that she’s a widow, and well up in her eighties. She comes to the Temple each day to pray, and stays well into the night.
We don’t have a daily worship tradition, but in the Roman Catholic church you still do see a few Annas at daily mass. Their hair is snowy white, their clothing simple and ordinary. As they kneel in prayer, their hands — resting on the back of the pew in front of them — are in constant motion, clicking their rosary beads. Their lips move wordlessly as they recite the ancient prayers that have become second nature to them.
Anna sits there in the outer court of the Temple, in her accustomed spot: eyes closed, lips pursed, intoning over and over the words of the psalms. There are worshipers who come regularly to the Temple precincts, but none is more regular than Anna. She has become a familiar sight to those who pass her by: a deeply pious woman who keeps to herself, but who radiates such holiness that her face seems to glow with divine peace.
On this particular day, Anna suddenly stops, mid-prayer. Her eyes flash open. She looks up. Her head turns, as though she has no control of it — as though someone else has gently placed hands on her temples and directed her gaze. Her eyes rest on that oh-so-young mother and her newborn baby.
Anna’s a contemplative, a woman of few words, but this day finds her unusually verbal. She gets up and scurries from person to person, leaning on her walking-stick, urging them not to miss seeing this very special child. He is the one, she announces — with breathless excitement — the one who will redeem Jerusalem!
So, there you have it. Two exceptionally pious and holy individuals. Simeon and Anna would be unknown to us, were it not for this singular incident in Luke’s Gospel.
Why does Luke include this story? Surely the testimony of the angels is far more impressive than anything these two elderly witnesses have to say! What could they possibly add?
I think what they add is the human dimension. I think we can see in them more of the sort of faith you and I hope to have, at our very best.
The angels already know who Jesus is. They’ve known it from the beginning of time. But Simeon and Anna can only wait — not knowing who it is, exactly, they’re waiting for. They can only believe that, one day, they will see the Messiah. Then, their longings will be justified, their hopes fulfilled.
Let’s back up now and unpack what the patriarch Simeon says about the baby Jesus.
The first thing he says to God, in prayer, is “my eyes have seen your salvation.” A remarkable statement, far-reaching in its implications. Israel has seen many noteworthy religious figures in past times: prophets, priests, kings. But this child is different. This child is all three. And he will not only lead the people to salvation. This child is their salvation.
Next, Simeon says God has prepared this salvation “in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” This sort of claim isn’t entirely new. Isaiah said much the same thing, centuries before, about the Messiah who is to come. Still, Simeon’s blunt language is startling: this helpless babe in arms is going to change the world.
But then the old man’s prophecy grows dark: “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…” All is not going to be sweetness and light. This baby will bring salvation to the earth, but he will also bring about division between people. Just as Mary’s earlier song, the Magnificat, speaks of the mighty being cast down from their thrones and the lowly exalted, so too this child with leave a heavy footprint on the world (Luke 1:46-55).
Then, Simeon gets very personal. He speaks directly to Mary — perhaps in a whisper, perhaps out loud, we have no way of knowing. He says: “…and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Can he somehow know what is to come? Can he envision that scene, more than thirty years in the future, when Jesus will hang bleeding on the cross, and will say to Mary, as he does in John’s Gospel, “Woman, here is your son,” and then to his good friend John, “Here is your mother”? (John 19:26) Mary’s bereavement at the foot of the cross could well be described as being pierced by a sword, as she beholds that dreadful scene no parent should ever have to witness. Simeon somehow knows Mary’s life as a mother will be one of indescribable joy, but also gut-wrenching pain.
Not exactly the sort of thing you write inside a congratulations-on-your-new-baby card. But Simeon pulls no punches. With the frank speech typical of the very old, he tells it like it is. He doesn’t want this sweet young woman to be unprepared when her life turns unexpectedly tragic. “Soak it all in,” he’s saying to her, “all of it: the bad as well as the good. For you can hardly expect to have the full experience of being human — especially a mother — without knowing heartache as well as joy.”
It’s a common thing, these days — especially for those getting on in years — to look into the future and see nothing but gloom and doom. (That’s not what Simeon’s doing, by the way; in the last analysis, in his song salvation clearly triumphs over divisions between people — and even the sword that will pierce Mary’s soul.) But for others of us who are north of middle age, it can be all too easy to play the ain’t-it-awful game.
You’ve heard the complaints that begin, “This younger generation…” This younger generation spends all their time staring into cell phones. This younger generation doesn’t know how to hold down a job. This younger generation wears their pants too low. This younger generation doesn’t know the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork. This younger generation doesn’t appreciate all the hard work we put in, to get them to where they are today.
It’s kind of refreshing, actually, to see Simeon looking into the eyes of the baby Jesus, praising God and saying, “My eyes have seen your salvation!” One of the greatest gifts the older generation can offer to the young, in just the same way, is the gift of hope.
But it’s a rare gift — because, for whatever reason, a lot of us tend to get grumpy in our old age. (And you who are younger, you’ll have to fight that tendency, too, someday!) We grieve for times past, despair of the present and look with trepidation on the days to come. Not all of those fears and trepidations have much of a basis in reality.
There was a remarkable essay published in the online magazine, Salon.com, this past week. It’s called “The World Is Not Falling Apart.” It’s a careful statistical study of the common perception that the world is becoming a more dangerous place.
[Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, “The World Is Not Falling Apart,” Slate.com, 12/22/2014.
One person who said exactly that, about a year ago, was Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He testified before a Senate committee that the world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.”
There’s only one problem with his testimony. He’s absolutely, indisputably wrong. Yes, there’s such a thing as global warming. Yes, there’s such a thing as terrorism. Yes, gun violence is on the upswing. Yes, there are deadly diseases like Ebola.
But just compare all those scattered observations to these two facts — and these are statistically-documented. Fact #1: A greater percentage of the world’s population is living in peace today than at any time in recorded history. Fact #2: A greater percentage of the human race will die of old age, in their beds, than at any time in recorded history.
So, how do we explain these two conflicting viewpoints: the one that there are all sorts of new and unprecedented threats to human safety; and the other, that peace is more widespread than ever and that people, on the average, can expect to live much longer?
We reconcile them by examining where we get those dire predictions of how bad things are. The source of much of this information is the news media. With hundreds of cable channels on TV — many of them delivering news 24/7 — and a virtually unlimited source of news stories on the internet (even on the smartphones we carry around with us) — you and I have more opportunity than ever before to hear how bad things are.
What the news media rarely reports is how good things are. The reason for that is simple. Fear attracts viewers, those viewers see advertising and that’s how the media companies make their money. It’s like that notorious TV news teaser: “There’s something in your refrigerator that could kill you. More at 11.” And so, you anxiously tune in at 11, and you see not only that story (about a minor problem that’s pretty unlikely to happen to you), but also a host of other sound bites about riots, epidemics, identity theft and terrorist threats. You go to bed worried and anxious, and you wake up feeling the same way. Yet, most of us never stop to consider that nearly all the crises we hear about on the news affect a relatively small number of people — and that we’re making great progress, as a nation, in preventing with many of them. What the media does very, very well is to hold a magnifying glass up to the bad-news stories. In our minds, they end up looking a lot bigger than they really are.
Here’s how Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack describe it, in the essay I just mentioned:
We need to be mindful of orders of magnitude. Some categories of violence, like rampage shootings and terrorist attacks, are riveting dramas but (outside war zones) kill relatively small numbers of people. Every day ordinary homicides claim one and a half times as many Americans as the number who died in the Sandy Hook massacre. And…, in most years bee stings, deer collisions, ignition of nightwear, and other mundane accidents kill more Americans than terrorist attacks.
If a building catches on fire, you can bet the live TV cameras will be right there. Yet, you’ll never hear on a TV news channel that the increased use of smoke alarms makes it less likely that people will die in fires. That’s because the news has a bias towards reporting things that happen, rather than things that don’t happen. And so, the media is slowly winning its campaign to make fearful pessimists of us all.
I’m not trying to be a pollyanna, here. I have no desire to minimize the suffering some people go through in our world, nor do I think we ought to let up on our efforts to prevent suffering in the future. I’m just saying we need to keep such news in perspective. And we ought to go out of our way to celebrate the victories that do take place, just as much as we warn one another to be careful of the threats.
Can you imagine how the biblical story would be different had Simeon and Anna focused on the bad things that were happening all around them? No one could dispute it: there was disease, famine, banditry and slavery. Life expectancy was short. The Roman overlords were stepping up their oppression of the Jewish people. There was no shortage of bad things to commiserate about. Yet, when these two wise elders of Israel catch a glimpse of the baby Jesus in his mother’s arms, they both intuitively zero in on the tremendous potential for good present in this child — who is the son of God.
It’s all in how we look at it, my friends. If Christmas teaches us anything, it’s that there’s more potential in the birth of a baby than in any threat — real or imagined — that we could even dream up. And when that baby is the son of God, the powers of death and disorder flee in disarray.
Listen well to the word from Simeon and Anna: it’s a word from the truly wise.
Copyright © 2014 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.