Sermon by Seminary Graduate Matt Johnson

Beloved children of God, Grace and peace to you from God who mothers us, sustains us and redeems us.

Merry eighth day of Christmas to you! As we begin a new calendar year, we continue the liturgical one with a few more days of Christmas. So, if like me, you don’t like to see this season of warmth and giving end, you’re in luck this morning.

I’ve had the privilege and luxury of spending more than a month dwelling with today’s text. As I celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas with family, it was impossible not to think about Simeon and Anna as I watched my nieces interact with their parents, uncles and aunts, grandparents, and especially with their 93 and 100-year-old great-grandmothers. The promise and wisdom present in those interactions was a beautiful thing to take in. Stories and family lore were shared. Wisdom was passed on. There was joy and laughter. And in the midst of it all, there was much blessing going on.

In some ways, our celebrations were very similar to the scene in today’s reading, but those connections just aren’t enough to explain the depth of meaning Luke packs into this amazing little vignette. As I came back to the text again and again, and as I started to dig more deeply into it, each encounter began to yield new surprises, and before long, I was reminded of a Christmas tree surrounded by lovingly wrapped presents just waiting to be opened.

Before we tear into these gifts, let’s get to know the folks they’re from just a little better. First, there’s Simeon. We’re told he “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel” and that “the Holy Spirit rested on him.” We also know that the Spirit has revealed to him that he will live to see the promised Messiah.

Then, there’s Anna. Three things are made very clear about her. First, she is a prophet. Second, she is a widow “of a great age.” Our text says she’s 84, but when you dig into the Greek, it’s possible that she’s lived 84 years since her husband died. Taking into account her 7 years of marriage likely at age 14, she could be 105 years old – a great age, indeed! Third, she worships in the temple “with prayer and fasting night and day.”

These folks remind me of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John we met earlier in Luke’s gospel… They represent the wisdom of age and devotion to God. They also happen to be a couple of old folks who aren’t living in the past but ones who have a clear vision for the future – a future they see as a very bright one.

Now, it’s time to take a look at the gifts these cool grandparent types have to offer.

The first one is from Simeon. It’s a song – one that started long before Simeon and will be sung for ages to come. He borrows words from Isaiah and reminds us of God’s promise to bring salvation and light to all people – a promise now fulfilled through this infant cradled in his arms. You can hear the theme “blessed to be a blessing” echoing through his song. As he continues, he shifts to a minor key. This light and salvation will not come without conflict; some will reject this gift, looking for something more convenient or self-serving.

Here’s the second gift from both Simeon and Anna. It’s an atlas – you know, one of those books with lots of maps in it. It looks like we’re in for a little geography lesson. The first map we look at shows how Israel was once divided amongst the twelve tribes. There at the southern border is the tribe of Simeon – our friend’s namesake. And at the northern border, there’s Asher – the tribe Anna’s family is from. Jesus’ light is for all people from north to south, from east to west – a light for revelation to the Gentiles, the people who live beyond our borders. This Jesus is going to push us beyond our comfort zones.

Our next gift is from Anna. It’s a subscription to Ancestry.com. She’s taken the liberty of doing some of the work for us, and she’s excited to share some family history. She starts by telling us that her name comes from Hannah, Samuel’s mother. She reminds us that Samuel was dedicated to God just like Jesus, that he was a great judge and prophet way back when.

She’s really excited about the next part. She grabs the atlas again and points to a name on the map. See that place? That’s Penuel. Remember the story about Jacob wrestling with God? That’s where it happened. That’s where God gave Jacob a new name – Israel. That’s where the name of our people comes from. Now she starts to tear up just a bit. This next part is special. That’s also my dad’s name, she says, Phanuel. He’s named for the place where this all began. Today, as I looked down into the eyes of Jesus, as I held him in my arms, I thought of my dad. Do you know what Phanuel means? Face of God. Today, Simeon and I held God incarnate, the long-awaited Messiah, in our arms. Today, we saw God’s face.

We’ve got another gift to open. (Actually, it’s the one we opened with the children a little while ago) This one’s from God, and it’s an empty box. The possibilities and explanations are limitless. Remember how God was thought to live in the holy of holies – the inner sanctum of the temple? Well, while almost no one was watching, God slipped into human skin and said No! No, I won’t be limited by four walls, by-laws, or by human thinking. I and my love are far too big for that. So, here in this story, we encounter God, not in that hallowed inner sanctum, but out in the Court of the Gentiles, where anyone with the appropriate degree of reverence was welcome, out where God can be a light of revelation for all people.

All too often, I’m afraid I attempt to put God in a box of my own choosing. I suspect that’s true for each of us. I want to believe that God thinks like I do. I want to know God will meet me where it’s most convenient for me – where I expect him, rather than where I might be challenged by him.

It’s so easy, for example, to think of church as something that happens on Sunday morning – a place and time where we go to encounter God because that’s where God is. Yes, we worship here. Yes, we share our lives and our stories here. Yes, we receive the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus here. Yes, here we are re-knit together into one body with each other, with Simeon, Anna, Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and all the saints. To be sure, what happens here is very important.

But, when we least expect to encounter God, and where we least expect to encounter God is exactly where God slips out of our little boxes and surprises us. It’s out there – outside of this box we sometimes call church – that God reminds us that we are made in God’s image and not the other way around.

Each of the gifts we’ve unwrapped this morning points to the same thing. We’ve heard it from the angels. We’ve heard it from the shepherds. We’ve heard it from the prophets. This Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate this and every Christmas is the Son of God – the long-awaited Messiah. Along with Anna and Simeon, we’ve held Jesus in our arms, and we’ve seen the face of God. Along with them, we’ve seen the promise that the future holds, and we know that promise will be kept by God, who is faithful.

Come to the table. Come and be fed. Come discover what God gives so freely. Come and be re-knit with your kindred into the body of Christ. Then, depart in peace. Go and be surprised, challenged, and delighted as you encounter God in your interactions with others. Let Jesus reveal to you what God has always had in mind for you and for all people.

Merry Christmas!