Sermon manuscript for Sabbath, December 31, 2017
OT: Isaiah 40:1-5
NT: Luke 2:25-38
There was an old priest in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was just and devout, a genuinely good man and intensely spiritual.
His whole life he had lived with a lively anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. He carried in himself the longing and expectation of his people. For a thousand years his people had been hoping for the break of dawn, the launch of a new day.
The day when swords would be regarded as mere raw material for better things.
Lions and lambs would happily pasture together.
Courts would become trustworthy instruments of righteous judgment.
Money would be an instrument of peace.
Righteousness would be the very air people breathed.
Democrats and Republicans would bow together in devotion to goodness and beauty.
Illness would be cured.
Disability would be converted into magical new strengths and skills.
Depression and bi-polar disorder would be transformed into dazzling powers of sensitivity and creativity.
Addictions would morph into sweet, healthy hungers and achievements.
For a thousand years Simeon’s people had tasted the hard edge of reality and had cultivated the sweet taste of the Messianic vision. For much of his life Simeon had participated in this communal longing and hope. Then at some point in his hours of prayer and contemplation, a heavenly voice had assured him he was going to experience it in his life time. “You are going to see it,” the Voice said. “You will live to see the face of the Messiah.”
It was reason enough to get up out of bed on bad mornings. It kept him going when grief and calamity weighed heavy. As he got older, his mind wandered more and more frequently to the promise. Was it for real? Would he really see the Messiah?
Then came the divine nudge. Go to the temple. Today. Now. And Simeon went.
There in the temple he spotted Joseph and Mary and Jesus. Jesus’ parents had brought their baby to be circumcised and dedicated to God. Approaching the family, the old priest took Jesus in his arms and lifting his face toward heaven, said,
“Take me, God. I’m ready to go. I am rich enough, now, for an entire life time. You have kept your promise. I have seen the dawn of the day which will brighten the face of all humanity
A shining sun for the Gentiles,
A gleaming splendor for your people Israel.
For the old priest, this brief encounter in the temple was the crowning experience of his entire life. And we—the church, the people sometimes called Christians, the people shaped by the Gospel—we hear the words of Simeon and say, “Amen. Yes, it is so. Messiah is born. Dawn has begun infiltrating the dark.
The old man was not loony. He was not oblivious to facts. In his words to the parents of Jesus he mentioned the heartbreaking fall of many. He warned Mary that her own soul would be pierced, as in stabbed, sliced, lacerated. Between this sweet moment in the temple, between this first glimmer of dawn, and the final extinction of darkness and evil, there was a long stretch. Simeon knew it and spoke of it. But he refused to allow the facts of evil and pain to obscure the glory of the counter truth. There was a hint of light on the eastern horizon and it portended the approach of noon day sun.
It is the same with us. We have just spent a season of celebration of the birth of Jesus. Joy to the world. Peace. Love. The beginning of the inexorable triumph of goodness. All this glory resident in the baby born in a manger 2000 years ago.
Now we look toward the new year. Our moment in the temple with Baby Jesus is over and we are back in the real world. There may be the glimmer of dawn on the eastern horizon, but here in our neighborhood the world is still haunted by darkness.
A few weeks ago, Pastor Mika asked me, “How ya doing?” It wasn’t a formality. He was probing. So I told him the truth. “Terrible.”
“Anything I can do to help?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “Not unless you can fix the universe.”
Maybe it’s just because we are in the dark months, with short days and skies heavy with dark clouds, but I have been feeling the weight we carry as a congregation. We have sons and daughters who are breaking our hearts. They have such rich potential. We can see their skills, their abilities, their capabilities, if only . . . If only they could find a way out of their addiction. If only they could escape the seductive allure of some ideology, some theology, some sparkly attraction that is short-circuiting their glorious potential. We hope until hope seems utterly fanciful and cruelly deceptive. But how can we not hope when it’s our kids?
We watch our parents decline. It’s never pretty. Sometimes it seems just plain cruel, like God or the universe is toying with our loved one like a cat toys with a mouse.
Right now, some of us are dealing with weird, mysterious disabilities and ailments. Moms and dads are exhausted with the care and exhausted with the search for answers, for diagnoses, for treatments, for cures.
Some of us have close connections with far away places where the cry of human need is even sharper than it is here in our favored place, places where human need shrieks and moans. Bombs and starvation, economic collapse with all the misery in every other area of life that goes along with it.
The sword pierces our own souls. Also.
This is true. It is factual.
It is against this backdrop that we come to church and rehearse the words of the old priest. With him we declare,
We have seen the dawn of the day which will brighten the face of all humanity
A shining sun for all nations.
The Christmas holiday may be past, but we will not forget the birth. We will not relinquish our faith that in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth the entire cosmos has been altered. Dawn is creeping up the eastern sky. As people of the light we have seen and bear witness. We bear witness to this glorious truth even when our souls are pierced. Maybe especially when our souls are pierced.
This is the grand central conviction of our worship.
Tuesday of this week I visited with someone who is engaged in an intense spiritual search. At some point we talked about devotional practices and as we talked I understood more clearly than ever the difference between prayer on the one hand and meditation and worship on the other. Both are important, but they are not the same.
When I described my meditation practice, my friend responded by talking about the twin elements of prayer—petition or asking—and thanksgiving. But neither of those are accurately describe what I was talking about.
I used my favorite food to illustrate.
When Karin went to Europe a few years ago to travel around with our daughter, our friend Gerry begged her to bring him some chocolate. He is allergic to chocolate produced in the US, but he can eat European chocolate. Hence his petition.
Karin brought home some good chocolate for Gerry. Gerry thanked her.
Both the asking and the thanking were entirely appropriate—even necessary. But if all Gerry did was ask and thank, he would be a deeply impoverished man. Imagine, he’s holding some of Europe’s finest chocolate and he’s talking. He goes on and on and on about how grateful he is. Gerry likes to talk, but I know there is something Gerry likes even more than talking. And that is chocolate. So at some point in his long thanksgiving, I tell him. “Gerry, quit talking and eat your chocolate!”
This is what we do in meditation and worship. We taste the delicious promise of God. We savor the conviction that day has dawned. Darkness is doomed. God will triumph. Love will win. In worship and meditation we enjoy the day, we bask in the favor and promise of God.
As we enter the New Year, I encourage us to make time regularly, daily if at all possible, to savor the truth spoken by the old priest in the temple 2000 years ago. The birth of Jesus is the beginning of the triumphant march of goodness. The values Jesus lived and taught will some day displace grasping individualism. Some day power will be used only for good. God guarantees it. Let this conviction permeate our entire being. Let it sound louder in our souls than the clamor and rancor so common around us.
Every week let’s celebrate afresh the truth that Christmas is the beginning of the world God is building. Christmas is the dawn of the world that holds our hearts and orders our lives.