Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 31, 2023
Luke 2:22-40 Commentary
We have a number of characters in this story. There’s the rather passive Jesus, who is brought to the Jerusalem for a dedication by Mary and Joseph. Then there’s Simeon and Anna, seemingly fixtures of the temple community. What links all of these characters is one trait: piety.
Specifically, each participant’s piety is borne from their faith in promises or messages that they have heard from God in the past. This isn’t a works-piety that is trying to prove worthiness or be acceptable to God or others. Instead, it is a hope-piety, a trust-piety, a partnering-in-faith-piety.
We’ve already heard this month about Mary hearing God’s promise about the baby Jesus. What we see her and Joseph doing here is partnering with that message in the way they know how: dedicating Jesus to the Lord as part of Mary’s purification sacrifice (Lev 12.1-8; Num 8.16-17). They’ve already shown themselves faithful in naming the baby what the angel declared, and now they continue the dedication process.
Simeon received special gift from the Holy Spirit: knowledge that he would not die until he had seen with his own eyes the promised Messiah. While Simeon waited for the word’s fulfillment, he lived a pious life of action and contemplation. Simeon is described as having the Holy Spirit rest upon him even before the Spirit is promised to all of God’s faithful-in-waiting by Jesus; that’s quite something to consider! Living in faith and faithfulness, Simeon was led by the Spirit to the temple as Jesus’s little family makes their way there as well. Simeon’s reward for listening to God the Spirit was God’s promise fulfilled. And because Simeon is so in tune with the Spirit of God, Simeon senses the scope of this fulfillment—from its greatest accomplishment to its great cost.
Holding a helpless baby Jesus, just forty or so days old, Simeon looks the child in the eyes and celebrates the end of his own ministry as he sees the one the infant will have. By God’s preparation, Jesus will be for all people—not just the Israelites but also the Gentiles (notice how Simeon lists them first!). But it will come at a cost for many. It will bring down the impious who will find Jesus’s challenge to true piety and faith too challenging to their own aims, Jesus will reveal unholy motivations, and his love and loving him will lead to pain and suffering for those close to him—especially Mary. Simeon’s words ring like prophecy, describing promise and hope, grace and truth, but also woe and warning.
It is very likely that Simeon’s words were affirmed by another prophet present at the temple, Anna. As the Gospel writer is apt to do, Luke balances a male leader with a female one, underscoring the upside-down equality of God’s kingdom. Anna has also lived a life of faithful piety in partnership with God’s calling, as seen in her life’s circumstances and choice to worship, fast, pray, and teach people about God’s will for the world. She too sees in Jesus the truth: he is the redemption of God’s people, symbolized by the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem represented the covenant between God and his people, a shared place of presence. Jesus is the redemption of the covenant itself.
In fact, the covenant hovers in the background throughout this passage. The fact that Jesus is Mary and Joseph’s first born and thus needs to be dedicated as holy to the Lord, is rooted directly in the work of redemption that God did for the Israelites at Passover. Mary’s purification was part of the Levitical law of the covenant. Simeon and Anna’s hopes and expectations were for and from the God of the covenant. And Simeon’s message about Jesus describes God’s covenantal purposes.
Then there’s the closing sentence about Anna’s audience. Anna was proclaiming the good word about Jesus and praising God “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” She wanted the covenant people to know that their covenantal God heard them and was providing. Though hymn writer Phillip Brooks wrote the line about Jesus in Bethlehem, it could have just as easily applied to this moment: in this baby, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” (O Little Town of Bethlehem, stanza 1)
A detail easy to miss concerns Mary and Joseph’s own status. According to the regulations set out in Leviticus 12.1-8, Mary and Joseph offer the sacrifice of those who cannot afford a lamb: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are poor.
The pain and suffering that Mary will feel has captured the imagination of many an artist. From Michelangelo’s sculpture Pieta (c. 1501) to this curated collection from The Visual Commentary on Scripture, we see both Mary’s love and her awareness; a sword truly has pierced her own heart. Photographer Jon Henry’s recent project, “Stranger Fruit: American Pietàs,” lets us into a knowing mother’s perspective in our own contemporary time.
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