Simeon and Anna didn’t see the newborn Jesus right after his birth, but they saw him a few weeks later. And they recognized the wonderful promise wrapped up in this one tiny life.
A Christmas Garland
A Sermon on : Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 2:21-38; and Luke 4:16-21
When Jesus was about six weeks old, Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, according to the law of Moses. Two of Jerusalem’s oldest citizens were there that day, Simeon and Anna. These two prayerful souls were longing for the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem. For that day and time they were quite old, and that means they had survived much. Luke tells us that Anna was well acquainted with the ashes of grief. She had been widowed at a very young age and had lived into her eighties without her husband at her side. And this was at a time when widows almost always had to struggle with poverty.
The pain of the community was on their minds as well as on everyone else’s. The tax decree from Caesar Augustus that had forced Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem when she was in the last stages of pregnancy was only the latest episode in a long history of oppression. For six centuries one empire after the other had dominated all the peoples of Palestine, to the ends of the known world. The Romans were the current oppressors, and they had followed the Greeks, who had followed the Persians, who had followed the Babylonians, who had followed the Assyrians. In every generation one empire or another was extracting money and resources from the peoples they had conquered, including the people of Galilee, Samaria and Judea.
Simeon and Anna had heard the promise of Isaiah 61 many times. They knew by heart the story of how the Babylonians had reduced Jerusalem to ashes and marched their ancestors off into captivity in Babylon. They also remembered how many years later God had brought a remnant of the people home and enabled them to rebuild Jerusalem and rebuild their lives. God kept the promise of Isaiah 61 then. God’s people needed God to keep that promise now.
As Simeon and Anna waited for God to take action again, I am sure that the words of Isaiah 61 found their way into their prayers: Yes, Lord. Send us your anointed. Send us the one who will bring good news to the oppressed and bind up the brokenhearted and proclaim freedom to the captives and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Yes, Lord. Send us the one who will comfort all who mourn, the one who will take away the ashes of grief and give us a garland instead. Send us the one who will bless us with gladness instead of mourning, and incite praise in us instead of despair. Lord, send us your anointed.
As we survey all the pain around us and within, we find ourselves waiting and praying right along with Simeon and Anna. Yes, Lord. Come, long-expected Jesus. Come Immanuel. Bind up our broken hearts and broken hearts everywhere. Come, Lord Jesus, and comfort all who mourn. Take away the ashes of grief and place a beautiful garland in their hands.
Day after day Simeon and Anna waited and prayed. One day God’s Spirit guided Simeon to the Temple, and Anna was already there. She stayed there maintaining a prayer vigil day and night. On this day, in came a young couple with an infant, a sight Simeon and Anna had seen many times. Every day families with newborns came to worship as the law prescribed. This particular family was obviously one of modest means. They could not afford a lamb for a sacrifice, so they brought two turtledoves.
When Simeon and Anna laid eyes on this child, they suddenly knew. This was the one they had been waiting for. Here was the joy of every longing heart. Here was God’s future in a tiny package. I can imagine Simeon’s arms trembling a little as he reached to take Jesus into his arms. Perhaps tears sprang to his eyes. “It is enough now,” he prayerfully exclaimed as he held Jesus close. “Master, I can die in peace now, because I have seen your salvation, light to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel.”
It was much the same with Anna. When she saw this baby, she began to praise God and to tell people about him. All she needed was one brief glimpse. She shared the news of his arrival with all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
How amazing is that? After all, it would be thirty years before Jesus would begin to preach; thirty years before he would stand in the synagogue in Nazareth to read from Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, and release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set people free from oppression and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Thirty years until he would say, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The cross and resurrection, the crown of Jesus’ ministry, lay thirty-three years in the future. Of all the people who recognized that this baby was the anointed one, of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and wise men and Simeon and Anna who recognized God in action in this baby, only Mary, that we know of, was still alive and present that day in the synagogue at Nazareth, and at the cross and resurrection, and at the birth of the church. Simeon and Anna were long gone by that time. And yet it was consoling to them just to glimpse Jesus as a tiny infant who didn’t yet know what was going on. They were comforted just to see the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise. It was enough just to see the dawn of the new thing God was doing, to see and touch salvation in its infant form.
God handed Simeon and Anna a beautiful flower garland, but the flower was still in the bud. Drawing on scriptures from Isaiah and Song of Solomon, some of our Advent and Christmas hymns speak of Jesus as a flower, a rose. “Love the rose is on the way,” says one, while another says, “Lo, how rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung. Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as people of old have sung. It came a flowret bright. A bright little flower, when half-spent was the night.”
What Simeon held in his hands and what Simeon and Anna both beheld with their eyes was a beautiful bud, containing a beautiful promise. One day it would be in full bloom. For now, a small glimpse of the promised future was enough.
The culture around us dreams not so much of a white Christmas, but of a big, busy, bright and beautiful Christmas. Christmas done in a big way, big on celebration. But a little rosebud-sized Christmas is all that many struggling folks can manage, especially when tears are never far away from their eyes. And it is enough. Simeon and Anna show us the way to have that kind of Christmas. They stationed themselves in prayerful waiting, and we can join them.
As a family of faith, we can station ourselves together close to God’s word, close to the precious Bible promises of the one who binds up the brokenhearted and comforts those who mourn. We can station ourselves close to one another as Christ’s body.
I can’t help thinking of one of the very first stories I ever told here at Morton, one of my most favorite stories about what faithful friends gathering near to one another can mean. It’s one picture of how a church should operate.
There was once a seminary professor and his wife who were most tenderly devoted to one another. They had been through a lot together. They had escaped one of the world wars in Europe and immigrated to the United States where he was able to continue teaching.
Then the professor’s wife died. He was inconsolable. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t go on walks. He was in a terrible dark night of the soul, paralyzed with grief. The seminary president and three other friends went to visit him, and he confessed, “I can’t pray any more. In fact, I’m not even sure I believe in God any more.”
Nobody broke the silence. Nobody rushed in to try to reassure, or try snap him out of it, as in “You don’t mean that. Of course you believe.” No, they just sat in silence for a while. Then the seminary president said, “Then we will believe for you. We will pray for you.”
In the weeks ahead the group of friends prayed daily for their friend whose heart was crushed, and whose faith felt so frail. They asked God to care for their friend and restore his faith, and they went to visit him regularly.
Many months went by. But then one day when they were gathered in the professor’s living room, he smiled, and he took the floor. He said, “It is no longer necessary for you to pray for me. Today I would like you to pray with me.” (Based on Stories for the Journey by William R. White.)
The story doesn’t say this happened literally on Christmas day, but spiritually, it most certainly was Christmas. It most certainly was a Christmas experience, when this man who had been hurt so deeply realized that he no longer held ashes in his hands, but instead a flower garland. And the infant Jesus was born in him again. God was rebuilding his life, just as God had rebuilt Jerusalem so many centuries before.
O come, O come Immanuel is very much our prayer. Come, Lord, Jesus. Preach good news to the poor and the unemployed and the underemployed and all who are struggling in any way. Preach release to all who are stuck somewhere, all who are held captive, all who are oppressed. Preach recovery of sight to the blind, recovery of vision, where vision has died. Come, Lord, Jesus. Bind up the brokenhearted. Comfort all who mourn. Console your people. Take away the ashes and give them a garland. Come, Lord Jesus, and turn despair into praise.
Until tears have been wiped away and we can see more clearly. Until we hold the bud of promise in our hands and see it begin to open. Until we see the good news in its tiniest, infant form, and take him in our arms, and hold him close.
Then we will say, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing.” Joy to the world.