Sunday, January 29, 2017

Now Presenting...

Good morning, brothers and sisters! Here we are again. After meandering off to the first chapter of Jeremiah for a few weeks, we're back to where we were before: the Gospels. And specifically, the Gospel of Luke, which if you remember is how we closed last year and opened this one. As we journeyed through Christmas, you'll remember, we talked about God's glory, his 'gravity,' and how that's what's missing from our world: a genuine centeredness on God. But we'd long since fallen away from his orbit and closed our eyes to his beauty. So he sent his beautiful Son to this out-of-control earth, to reveal his glory under the veil of human flesh, to show us what a truly God-centered and God-immersed human life looks like, and to make it possible for us. We have a foot in the door of a new creation, courtesy of grace – and that really is good news worth telling.

And then we began to journey further through Luke's account of the earliest earthly days of this Son of God – how he received a name on the eighth day, the day he was circumcised, the day he submitted to the Law on our account. And we learned about how our flesh, fallen and mortal since Adam, is so vulnerable, but we trust in it and build a lifestyle around trying to overcome its limits with its own means. And God instituted the covenant of circumcision with Abraham to enlist Israel in a fight against that kind of lifestyle of 'flesh' – it was to teach Israel that the only way forward was to trust God to make his power perfect in their weakness, for God to bring life out of death. And so on the eighth day, still in Bethlehem, baby Jesus was circumcised to join our fight, to give us his victory, to shed his blood, to circumcise our hearts.

And now here we are, looking forward to Candlemas – a day coming up this week, also known as the Feast of the Purification of Mary or as the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord. Candlemas is the fortieth day after Christmas, so it's the day we commemorate the events of the story Luke shared with us this morning in his Gospel, as he learned of them from Mary herself. And Mary told Luke this special story about the day of purification. Under the Law of Moses, after a child was born, the mother would be mildly ritually unclean for a certain amount of time, and then when the time was up, she would take the child to the priests and make an offering – it was a way to recognize the incredible power of bringing new life into the world. The offering was supposed to be a year-old lamb, but the poor could offer a pair of pigeons, which is exactly what Mary and Joseph do.

Luke has a special heart for the poor and downtrodden. But his main goal is to highlight the lawfulness of Jesus, to emphasize that those who imitate him will be respectful and valuable citizens. And so just like Luke portrayed Joseph as obeying the Roman law about the census, here Luke stresses how the infant Jesus and his family were obedient to the Jewish law. I mean, in this short story, there are five references to what the Law says and to them following it. Joseph and Mary are hardly lackadaisical about it: they are happy to follow the Law to the letter, to please God (Luke 2:22-24).

And so they travel to Jerusalem – it's a six-mile walk – carrying Jesus and a couple pigeons. And when they get there, they climb their way to the temple courts, hoping to look for one of the priests milling about. But just then, onto the scene pops another main character of Luke and Acts, someone who's already made his appearance several times already: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is just everywhere in this story! And this time, the Holy Spirit has been at work on a local man named Simeon. Simeon lived in Jerusalem, and by now he's an old man; he's been waiting all his life for the Messiah to come, and the Holy Spirit had shown him that Simeon – unlike generations before him – would definitely live to see the Messiah with his own eyes. And now the Holy Spirit is prodding Simeon to venture over to the temple... at just the right time (Luke 2:25-27).

This Simeon is an interesting character. Some Christians throughout the years have called him “St. Simeon the Prophet” – because, make no mistake, that's what he is. Other Christians have actually called him “Simeon the God-Receiver,” because he cradles God Incarnate in his arms. And some scholars have suggested that maybe, just maybe, this devout Jew named Simeon in Jerusalem is the same person as Shimon ben Hillel, the president of the Sanhedrin – and father of Paul's rabbinic mentor Gamaliel. It sure would be fitting. But in this story, both Simeon and an elderly prophetess named Anna, the daughter of Phanuel – which is a name meaning 'face of God' – recognize the baby Jesus for who he is (cf. Luke 2:36-38). And Luke wants us to know how righteous and devout both of them were. The pious cream of the Jewish crop, unlike a later generation of Pharisees, were actually eager to see Jesus as the Messiah.

But put yourself for a moment in Simeon's shoes, a few days before this story. Imagine living in those days, the days of the Roman occupation of Israel, the days when God has seemed largely silent – not entirely, but largely – for centuries. For decades and decades, you've wanted one thing: for God to answer your prayers. And what you've been praying for is the same thing – for God to reveal himself, for God to send the Messiah, for God to set his redemption plan into action. And maybe Simeon was still a young man when the Holy Spirit first clued him in that he'd live to see that day. Man, can you imagine how excited Simeon was? To know that generations over centuries had been looking forward to this, and it would definitely happen in his lifetime? To know that all the suffering – not just under Rome, not just in the shame of his people, but suffering under the regime of sin and death – was going to be changed forever, and he would himself get to meet the man who'd make it happen?

And the years pass. Simeon grows up, has a family, raises them. His wife passes away – he'd really hoped that she would get to share that exciting moment with him. And then more years pass. Simeon wrestles with doubts – he wonders if maybe he misheard, if maybe he made the whole thing up. But still he clings to faith. And then more years pass. Decade after decade. He prays every day. And now he's in his eighties or nineties, at least. Maybe his health isn't what it used to be. Maybe breathing doesn't come so easily. Maybe he's starting to forget things here and there – little things around the house, you know? Maybe he has aches and pains in all sorts of places and feels like he's coming apart. And he looks back on the years and says, “I've had a good life. I really can't complain. I'd like to get some rest and call it a day now... but I'm still waiting.” And maybe the exciting promise was almost starting to feel like a curse – a curse to keep living beyond what his worn-out body could bear.

Decades before, when young Simeon first heard that word from the Spirit, he was so excited. But Simeon never imagined it would take God so long to answer. Simeon expected a timelier response to his prayers. But God made him wait... and wait... and wait... and wait. Simeon waited beyond his life expectancy! And there must have been times he felt like giving up. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt like Simeon? Praying and praying for something to happen, and it just seems like you and God have clocks that aren't even close to synchronized? Have you ever felt like you've been waiting around for God to do something, and you aren't sure you can handle the wait any more? Have you ever been tempted to give up hope? I have – and I'm sure I'll grow to identify more and more with Simeon as the years roll on.

Just remember one thing, when the wait seems weightier than you can carry: Simeon learned firsthand, in God's time, that “wait” is not God-speak for “no.” The Spirit did not lie to Simeon. Simeon's prayers were not for nothing. They did not crash and splinter against the underside of the cloud-speckled firmament. They did not vanish into thin air. They reached the ear of God, who set his time and gave a promise – a promise he fulfilled. God did not make Simeon wait forever. It may have felt like it to Simeon some days, but it wasn't forever. God made good on his word, in answer to Simeon's prayers. And he will for us, too. God may tell us “wait.” But “wait” is not God-speak for “no.”

Simeon learned that firsthand. The Spirit prompted him: “Hey, today would be a fine day to go to the temple.” And so he goes. And as he strides into the temple courts, he sees this couple. That's not unusual – every day he sees plenty of couples carrying month-old baby boys, two-month-old baby girls, here with sheep or pigeons in tow. Happens all the time, all day, every day. Keeps the priests plenty busy. The temple is a bustling place. As Simeon looks around, his eyes alight on this one couple and the baby they hold – and the Spirit whispers to him. “There he is.” Simeon totters over as fast as he can, intercepting Joseph and Mary perhaps before they reach a priest. And Simeon gently takes this Jesus in his trembling arms. And so Simeon holds the Messiah, sees him with his own eyes – and now, says Simeon, he can die in peace (Luke 2:28-29). “Wait” was not God-speak for “no.” And on that day, “wait” became God-speak for “now.”

Through the Spirit, Simeon sang a song of praise – we'll get to that in a few minutes. But first, I'm fascinated by what he tells Mary next. He amazes and blesses them, of course, but then he offers a prophecy to Mary (Luke 2:33-34). He says to her, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed – and a sword will pierce through your own soul, also – so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). That's such an important prophecy. And it sounds awfully cryptic.

First, notice the word Simeon uses for Jesus. He will be a 'sign.' It's the same word that the Gospel-writers use for the miracles Jesus performs: they're 'signs.' Jesus himself is a sign. His whole earthly life is a sign. Jesus will be a walking miracle, a living pointer to God. And because he'll be God's presence on earth, because he's the true temple even now as he visits the temple, Jesus will be a sign that God's kingdom is opening for business at last.

God the Father has appointed Jesus to make all the difference. His being here, his activity among us, will make all the difference. Because Jesus – the unexpected working of God – will expose what's really in us. Jesus will unmask every hypocrite, and he'll reveal the real devotion or the real faithlessness inside each of us – whether we really carry faith, hope, and love in our hearts. For so many years, the prophets criticized the people, for the impressive religious bigwigs were empty on the inside (or some of them, at least). And we know from the Gospels that Jesus unmasked them as whitewashed tombs – clean and pretty on the outside, but inwardly filthy like being full of the stinking bones of the dead. That's what was in their heart.

Jesus brings these things to light. There's no pretending around Jesus. When Jesus comes near, all the masks come off. Everything outward – all the posturing of the prominent, all the ordinary lowliness of the seemingly average – becomes see-through at last. Around Jesus, there's no prospect for pretend piety – the truth of who you are will be brought out. Nor, around Jesus, is there the risk of lingering false shame – the truth will be brought out. The real person, the person of the heart, will be exposed.

That's an incredibly disruptive thing. Our lives, like their lives then, are built around conventions. We say what we don't mean, and we don't say what we do mean. We go through certain agreed-upon motions. We look on outward appearances. A nice church person of the upper-middle class, socially active – well, that must be an example to follow. A struggling divorced mom of three, barely making ends meet – well, if only she could be more like that other guy. But when Jesus comes around, maybe he exposes the prideful self-satisfaction of that guy's heart and the sincere desperation for God in hers. Or vice versa. When Jesus comes around, he disrupts all the outward markers we use to classify and categorize the social world around us. He remakes the social hierarchy, reconstitutes it based on the heart, the inward deliberations of the heart.

For some people, Simeon says, that will result in their “falling.” Luke uses the same word here that Matthew uses when ending the Sermon on the Mount. Remember that story of the house built on sand, and the wind and rain come, and the house crashes to rubble? For some people, what Jesus exposes in their hearts will result in that. But for other people, Jesus' disrupting will result in their “rising,” their resurrection from their deadened lives and the plight of their position, when they grab his hand and let him pull them up.

Jesus changes everything. Naturally, those whose exposure is less than pretty, those whose downward tumble is less than pleasant, aren't going to be thrilled by the presence of Jesus. Jesus is a threat. And so it's no surprise that he's “a sign that is opposed,” spoken against – and worse. And Simeon warns Mary that a sword would pierce through her own soul, also. The word Luke's using for 'sword' here – it does not mean a butter knife, that's for sure. Of the seven times this word shows up in the New Testament, the other six are all in Revelation. This is not a delicate kind of sword. It's the kind you'd see William Wallace swinging in Braveheart as he bellows about freedom. This is a nasty, heavy broadsword, like a Highland claymore. And for people like Mary who love this Jesus, loving him means having grief pangs skewer your soul like a broadsword. If you've ever felt emotional pain like that, Mary can relate. That's the cost of Jesus changing everything. And to this day, Jesus is disrupting things. Jesus is exposing hearts. What, I wonder, will he reveal about ours? If we offer our hearts to him, to shed his light on them, will we like what we see? More importantly, will he like what he sees?

But back to Simeon. Here he stands, in the temple courts – but the baby in his arms is the very presence that lit up the Holy of Holies. This here is the Messiah. This here is the consolation of Israel. This here is the living presence of the redemption of Jerusalem. This here is light and salvation. This is Jesus. And both Simeon and Anna proclaim it. Here, in this moment, as the Lord is presented to the Lord, Jesus goes public. That's what Simeon is saying: “Lord, you are now letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).

Think about that. What Simeon sees with his own eyes is not God's salvation prepared in secret. Jesus is not God's salvation off in a corner. Jesus is not God's salvation under wraps. Jesus is light and salvation prepared “in the presence of all peoples.” Jesus is God's salvation made public. And Jesus is God's salvation presented to the public. Jesus is God's salvation for Israel – he's their consolation, he's their redemption, he's the light that brings them glory. And just the same, Jesus is God's salvation for every other nation, every people that once was far from God and dead in sin – Jesus is their light of revelation. That's what Jesus is all about, revealing. He reveals our hearts to us, but more than that, he reveals God's heart to those who never knew God at all. And God's heart is salvation, a loving and heroic feat of costly rescue, to the uttermost degree for those at the uttermost remove from him – as we all once were, and as some of our neighbors yet are.

That day at the temple, Jesus Christ was presented to us – offered by Joseph and Mary to God, and offered by God back to all humanity, to us, to be our salvation. Jesus was presented in our presence. But now the question is, will we seek to be present where he is? Will we return again and again to the temple, the fellowship of the saints, to meet him here? Will we go forth, led by the Spirit as Simeon was, to be present with him on mission throughout the week?

Jesus Christ went public for us, public as the Messiah, public as God's light and salvation. But now the question is, will we go public for him? Will we receive him and celebrate him as publicly as he was acclaimed Messiah, as publicly as he became salvation for us? All those questions – those are our questions to answer. Luke doesn't write down what each of us will do. Luke's shared his story. The response is between us, God, and each other. May we, like Anna, go forth from God's house to “give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who are waiting” for God's redemptive power to work in their lives, also (Luke 2:38). May we now present Jesus Christ, the long-awaited salvation of God; and may we, the church, ever present him to our world and to each other. Hallelujah. Amen.

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