Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 31, 2017
Luke 2:22-40 Commentary
It’s amazing how much detail Luke gives us. If Luke were a movie, it would have been directed by Cecil B. DeMille with a cast of thousands and long, lingering scenes on most every situation imaginable. The Gospel of Mark by comparison is like a PowerPoint presentation where the presenter goes way too fast through the slides. Mark gives no birth narrative but just plunks first John the Baptist and then Jesus in front of our eyes, dropping both from out of a clear blue sky. Then before you can even get a good look at this Jesus, he’s been whisked to the wilderness, spends a little time with the wild angels, and then, before you know it, he’s out and about preaching in Capernaum.
Not so in Luke!
If you look at an English translation of everything in Mark’s gospel from its first verse to Jesus’ first sermon, you will find a total of about 250 words. But Luke devotes just over 3,500 words to everything that led up to Jesus’ first sermon, fully 2,500 of which comprise Luke 1 and 2 alone. Luke’s first two chapters provide 10 times more detail than Mark gives us for the comparable time period. Apparently once Luke set out to draw together “an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1) he meant business!
And so in this lection for the Sunday after Christmas we find the intriguing story about old Simeon and Anna in the Temple on the day when Jesus was formally dedicated to God according to the custom of the Law. But you have to wonder why Luke deemed this worthy of inclusion in his gospel. After all, we’ve already had not one but two visits by no less stellar a figure than the archangel Gabriel himself. By the time Gabriel is finished talking to first Zechariah and then—even more significantly and expansively—to Mary herself, we as readers already have a pretty good clue that this Jesus who had been born was a divinely sent figure who was Christ and Savior and Lord.
And in case we were too dense to miss noticing this obvious revelation in Luke 1, the first part of Luke 2 whops us upside the head with not one angel but an entire sky-full of angels singing so loudly and so gloriously as to stupefy those unwitting shepherds who became privy to the jubilation of heaven over the birth of that child in the manger.
So after all that drama, to see a couple of stooped figures in the Temple marveling over the now 40-day-old Jesus seems downright anticlimactic in terms of drama and downright unnecessary in terms of establishing the heavenly credentials of Mary’s little boy. To again invoke the movie metaphor: if the film’s director needed to cut a scene to shorten up a movie that was already a bit too long, this is certainly one of the scenes that could end up on the cutting room floor, and no one would miss it.
And yet . . . Luke did not cut it but lovingly preserved it, and if you believe that this happened not because of something like a film director’s whimsy as to what to include in his movie but rather under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then you’re left to ponder in your heart – along with Mary – what these things all mean. Like Mary and Joseph themselves, so we as readers did not anticipate the occurrence of such things at the Temple that day. As I once said to my congregation, we’d all be startled in the church today – and possibly not a little perplexed and annoyed – if, while celebrating the sacrament of baptism for an infant from the congregation, the whole ceremony got unceremoniously interrupted by a couple of senior citizens who tottered up to the font, grabbed the baby, and started babbling wild-sounding predictions for who this child would grow up to be.
Surely our eyes would widen if a doddering older member of the congregation picked up little Jimmy Jones and said, “Excuse me for disrupting your sacrament here, folks, but I just gotta tell you that this little guy will grow up to be president. Some will love him, others will hate him, and you’ll spend most of your years as parents worrying yourselves sick about his safety. OK, now I’ve said my piece and you can go back to baptizing the little fellow.” What in the world would such a spectacle portend or mean!?
Mary and Joseph were in the Temple to fulfill a religious ritual every bit as familiar to them and the others in the Temple that day as an infant baptism is to many Christians today. What’s more, as such rituals went, Mary and Joseph’s version was less glitzy than some because the best they could offer up to God was the poor person’s offering of a couple pigeons Joseph had managed to nail with his slingshot the day before.
If it were a baptism in a contemporary church setting, Jesus would not have been the child dressed in an expensive silk baptism gown that grandma had bought at Saks Fifth Avenue for just this occasion even as the tyke’s uncle filmed the whole thing from the front pew with one of those amazingly expensive digital recorders that could instantly convert to Blu-Ray. No, this would have been a ceremony by a quiet set of humble-looking, poorly attired parents who, by all outward appearances, would disappear from the Temple – and from the consciousness of everyone in the Temple – about as quickly and quietly as they had appeared there in the first place. Mary and Joseph would not have arrived at the Temple in some shiny new Lexus but in their rusted-out Ford Pinto that belched exhaust every time you started the engine.
And yet . . . things did not go as planned. The Holy Spirit of God had gone ahead of this modest family and had planted two people in the Temple courts that very day – two people who had somehow been told by God for years that they’d live to see just such a day as this one when the Christ of God, the consolation of Israel, would show up. Who knows what Simeon and Anna had expected to see. Maybe they envisioned a day when a shining Alexander the Great-like figure would ride up to the Temple on a white stallion and take the place by storm. Maybe they envisioned a day when someone with the sculpted good looks of King David of old would stride through the Temple courts even as angels sang overhead and people fell at his feet below.
Whatever they thought they would see, what they actually saw when the Holy Spirit gave them a quickening of the heart was far, far quieter than all that. They saw a baby. They saw a poor family. They saw a mother and father who—despite what we as readers of Luke know in terms of everything that had been revealed to them about the special nature of this child—were quite simply blown away by the testimony of Simeon and Anna as to what was to come.
This passage is assigned in 2017 for the Sunday after Christmas which also happens to be the last day of the year. It is an anticlimactic Sunday (so much so that a good many folks who crowded in for Christmas Day services won’t roll out of bed for this last Sunday of the year). It’s all anticlimactic.
Like this passage. A magnificent Messianic spectacle it is not. But there is something about this scene’s humble trappings, something about the picture of these ancient-looking people bearing witness to something no one else could see, something about the fact that it was precisely two little old people like this whom the Holy Spirit would raise up to bear that witness (and not someone from the Temple elite or the Roman leadership): there is just something about all this that speaks volumes about the ways of God and the fundamentally surprising nature of the one true gospel.
In The Lectionary Commentary contributor Stephen Farris notes that Simeon’s line about having now seen God’s “salvation” may have been a play on Jesus’ name, which means “God Saves” and is the Greek version of the Hebrew “Joshua.” Also, note the role played here by the word “peace.” This conjures up images of shalom in the Old Testament sense and was also the concluding line of Zechariah’s well-known canticle from the end of Luke 1. The Messiah would be the one to lead all of God’s people into the paths of shalom/peace. Simeon can now die in peace because he has beheld the one who would bring God’s final and lasting peace.
Notice another hook for Luke’s gospel. Here in chapter 2 we see Anna as looking for the redemption of Jerusalem and so of bringing joy to others who shared that longing. Now fast-forward to Luke 24 and the Road to Emmaus where the disciples heartbreakingly tell Jesus (whom they have not yet recognized) that they had HOPED Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. The tension of the whole gospel is set up here. Is Jesus the One? Can one who comes in so lowly a form (and who ultimately shatters everyone’s fondest hopes by dying on a cross) really manage to pull off redemption?
From Frederick Buechner’s character sketch of Simeon in Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 156-157.
Jesus was still in diapers when his parents brought him to the Temple in Jerusalem as the custom was, and that’s when old Simeon spotted him. Years before, he been told he wouldn’t die till he’d seen the Messiah with his own two eyes, and time was running out. When the moment finally came, one look through his cataract lenses was all it took. He asked if it would be all right to hold the baby in his arms, and they told him to go ahead but be careful not to drop it. ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation’ he said, the baby playing with the fringes of his beard. The parents were pleased as punch, so he blessed them too for good measure. Then something about the mother stopped him, and his expression changed. What he saw in her face was a long way off, but it was there so plainly he couldn’t pretend. ‘A sword will pierce through your soul,’ he said. He would rather have bitten off his own tongue than said it, but in that holy place he felt he had no choice. Then he handed her back the baby and departed in something less than the perfect peace he’d dreamed of all the long years of his waiting.”
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