St Johns, Johnsonville and Holy Trinity, Ohariu
3 February 2013
Liturgically, we seem to be in a time machine. We had Jesus as a baby, then as a twelve year old in the temple, then his baptism when he was about thirty – and now we go backwards to when he was forty days old, as his parents perform two customary rites.
Every religion has its rituals surrounding birth. What Luke describes here are two customary Jewish rites. A month after his birth, Jesus is presented in the temple. Being the firstborn male, Mary and Joseph consecrate him to God in thanksgiving for God’s protection of Israel’s firstborn in Egypt. But Mary also needed to undergo purification, as a woman who had given birth was considered ritually unclean, which meant she couldn’t participate in the full life of the worshipping community. Luke tells us all this in a very matter of fact way. He’s showing us a family that’s devout and faithful to their God. But then the tenor of the story changes.
As the family walks through the temple courtyard, they encounter two old people: Simeon and Anna. We don’t much about them, except that they represent the expectant and faithful ones within Israel who remained loyal to the hope of a Messiah – faithful and waiting for God to act – waiting through the persecutions, disappointments and longings of the ages.
Imagine the scene… These two elderly people see a small baby being carried through the courtyard. As they worshipped at the temple, it was a scene they would have encountered many times. And glancing across to see this one, there was nothing to write home about. Just a small newborn wrapped up and being held by a parent. But then, something extraordinary happens. As Anna and Simeon look they somehow know that this is God’s Chosen One – the One whom they had waited and hoped for all these years. They knew that this was the child that would make sense of all their hopes and longings. They didn’t know how. They just knew.
After they managed to catch their breath, Anna praised God and talked about what she had seen to the people about her. And as Simeon held the baby in his arms he sang a song. It was a song of utter contentment – of hopes fulfilled, yearnings satisfied, dreams come true. His hands were tired as he held the child, but they trembled with a joy that he had never known in all his long life. He sang his song from the deepest part of his heart:
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
In this small baby, the child of a poor working class couple, Simeon and Anna saw God at work. The first thing that strikes me about this story is how these two saw God at work in such an unlikely bundle. And that’s a hope I have – for you and for me: to have the eyes and faith that Simeon and Anna had – to have the eyes and faith to recognise God at work in unlikely people and places; in the small and seemingly insignificant things; to see God working in the world around us, and the faith to proclaim it. I wonder… what do we need to do as a parish to cultivate the eyes of Simeon and Anna – to see God at work in the Mall, as much as here in this place?
What they saw in this small child was big. It wasn’t just for them – not just for their people, but also for all peoples. God’s salvation is now out in the open for everyone to see, God’s light, not just for the Jews, but for everyone. Is that not how it is meant to be for us? As a parish we don’t exist for ourselves. Recall that quote from Archbishop William Temple in the sermon last Sunday: ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members’. We are here to reach out to others, to share with them what we ourselves have received and delight in.
In Anna and Simeon, we also see what it means to wait with faith and hope and expectation. Over the years, they must have prayed countless prayers, hoped countless hopes, and suffered as many disappointments. Now, their dream is realised. Now they could die in peace. What we see is a story faithful serving and waiting – trusting in God’s promises – never giving up, but keeping on hoping, keeping on looking forward to what God can do. We have the ‘Annas’ and ‘Simeons’ in our midst – the quiet faithful ones who pray and care and look for the fulfilment of God’s promises. They remind us never to loose sight of what can be. They’re living signs of hope and faith to those of us who are too busy and too impatient, or perhaps have simply given up and settled for second best. Perhaps you’re like me and hate having to wait. But we need to keep in mind that God is still at work, still preparing the gift to fit our needs and preparing us for the gift. We need to pray, not just for the gift, but also for patience to wait for God’s unveiling. I wonder if it’s like that for you – for us as a parish?
Anna and Simeon remind us that through the disappointments and hard years, when hopes collapse, plans go awry, people we trust let us down, when we fail ourselves, God remains faithful – that it doesn’t all depend on us – that through it all, as we allow God to be present in all, something new and creative is brought to birth. With God’s hand touching our lives we can be sure that the best is yet to be, and the years need not stifle our hope. Though we’re also reminded, that with the joy of seeing God’s hand at work, there’s also the promise of pain, disappointment, and sorrow – that there’s a cost to following Christ. Blessing the family, Simeon prophesies that anyone who turns on light creates shadows. To share in God’s work, to be that light to the world (which is what our baptism calls us to be) can bring about conflict and challenge and rejection.
For now, we see two old people in the company of a small baby. This child, like all children, is the living symbol of hope, of a new start and new life, of a future full of possibilities, of life-filled potential. Looking backwards, the child is the fulfilment of God’s promises. Looking forwards, he is the hope of the world, a light in the darkness. So may it be for us. So may it be for this community in which we live.