Wednesday, December 31, 2014

First Sunday after Christmas Day

Sermon by the Rev'd Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate of St. Andrew's Church
Luke 2: 22-40

Simeon and Anna are not usually thought of as part of the Christmas story, but I think when you look at Luke’s gospel, you’d have to say that Luke thinks they are, and I’m going to take the author’s word for it! Let’s look and see how Luke uses them to complete his explanation of the significance of the Christmas story.

In Luke 2 v 20, the Shepherds go back from Bethlehem to their flocks praising God, but Luke goes on to describe how Mary and Joseph did all the things that any Jewish parents would have done for any Jewish first-born boy. In v 21 he tells us that Jesus was circumcised when He was 8 days old, and this would have been done in Bethlehem. If the traditional dating is correct, the wise men did not arrive in Bethlehem till 12 days after Jesus was born, so Mary and Joseph were still in Bethlehem then, and in fact they had to stay there, because the law required a forty day quarantine before Mary could go out in public. According to Leviticus 12, which is the ‘Law of Moses’ referred to in the first verse of our reading from Luke this morning, a new mother was considered unclean, because of the blood involved in child-birth, for forty days after giving birth. This was not because childbirth was considered a sin, but because blood was so sacred, so connected with life itself, that any shedding of it, even in a natural and God-given event like childbirth, was a consequence of sin that needed to be atoned for. That childbirth would be attended by pain and suffering instead of being a gentle and easy thing was the first thing God said to Eve after her disobedience. So Mary’s first public appearance after the birth of Jesus would be for the ceremony of purification that ended that forty day period. Incidentally, all this was to the people of the time quite well-known and normal, so the unknown Bethlehem innkeeper deserves some appreciation; when he realised he had a woman about to give birth on his hands, he knew first that it was going to be a mess and second that it meant she was stuck on his property for forty days, 74 days if she had a girl, so even the offer of the stable at the back of the inn was very generous!

But eventually the new family set out for Jerusalem, which was on their way back to their home in Nazareth, for the formal end of the quarantine, which meant a sacrifice. The prescribed sacrifice was that of a lamb and a turtle-dove, although if the family was too poor to afford a lamb, the Old Testament said they could sacrifice two doves instead, and in v 24 Luke (without mentioning that it’s the option for the poor) tells us that that’s what Mary and Joseph did. So we know that Mary was not exaggerating when she said, after the angel had told her that the baby she was going to bear would be the Messiah, that God had blessed her despite her ‘humble estate’.

You’ll notice that Luke talks about the time coming for their purification, rather than her purification. This is puzzling, because the Old Testament doesn’t say that the husband or the baby needed the purifying sacrifice. It was only the mother’s blood that was shed. I think Luke is reminding the reader of the broader meaning of sacrifice, in which all human beings are sinners in need of the reconciliation with God that the sacrifices symbolised. Mary needed purification because of the blood of childbirth, but both she and Joseph needed purification in a deeper sense because they were sinful human beings, and it’s as well to remember that this is Jesus’s first contact with the rĂ´le of sacrifice in restoring mankind to God, for which He was eventually to give His own blood.

The purification was not the only ceremony that was required in the case of Jesus. When Luke says in v 22 they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord he is talking about the fact that for the first-born male, the Old Testament had a special provision, described in Exodus 13, just after the Jews had escaped from slavery in Egypt. The quote in v 23 is from that passage in Exodus. You’ll remember that their escape was made possible by the death of the first-born of every family in Egypt that didn’t have the blood of the lamb painted on the doorpost; the Jews had painted that blood, and so the angel of death ‘passed over’ them. But, God said as He led them towards the Red Sea and freedom, your first-born are also Mine: all first-born male animals you will sacrifice to me, and your first-born sons you must either give me or redeem by substituting something else in their place. The first-born was significant because it made possible the continuation of the family, and was given to God at least partly to express their faith that the family was in God’s hands, and was part of the plan God had made for the salvation of the human race. The first-born was chosen for the sake of the whole family, just as the people of Israel were God’s chosen people for the sake of the whole of humanity. All Israel is holy to the Lord, the first fruits of his harvest, says the prophet Jeremiah. Five shekels of silver was the amount to be given to redeem a first-born son. Luke doesn’t mention the payment, perhaps because he thinks it wasn’t really necessary in Jesus’s case, since He was the Lord’s in such a unique way. Luke didn’t want anything to obscure the importance of the moment when the one destined to shed His own blood for the sins of the whole world was first brought into the sacrificial system. But Mary and Joseph did not yet have this understanding, and doubtless paid the silver to redeem their first-born. A symbol of what is to come, and an amazing moment in itself: the Redeemer of the world, Himself redeemed according to the law!

Christ’s redeeming work is also fore-shadowed by the words of Simeon and Anna at these ceremonies, and Luke tells us about each of them in turn. In v 25 he tells us that Simeon was looking for ‘the consolation of Israel.’ This was a standard phrase for the coming of the Messiah, and it’s clear that the promised Messiah was much on Simeon’s heart. Even two thousand years ago there were many Jews who had grown tired of waiting for the Messiah; he had been prophesied 800 years earlier, but had still not come. Simeon was one of those who still eagerly expected God’s promise to be kept, and v 26 says that God had promised him that he would see the Messiah with his own eyes before he died. So Simeon, guided by the spirit, went into the Temple, and was sitting there when Mary and Joseph came in carrying the baby.

At that point, v 28 tells us, Simeon immediately recognized Who this baby was. He took the baby in his arms and began to thank God that he, Simeon, had indeed seen the promised Messiah. His words are recorded in v 29: Lord, now I can go in peace, as you promised. I’ve seen with my own eyes the salvation which you have prepared. This is often taken as a reference to Simeon’s death: now I can die content. But that’s only because of v 26, It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. The language is also that of a duty done; Lord, you’re setting me free. I’ve been on watch all this time, now I’m free to go. It could as easily mean that Simeon was free to live in peace as to die in peace, and what’s important to Simeon is that peace has arrived, peace with God, peace with man, peace with life.

Simeon has more to say. Verse 34, This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed. The word translated ‘rising’ is the word usually translated as ‘resurrection’—it occurs 42 times in the New Testament, and refers to resurrection from the dead in all but one of the other passages. There seems nothing else that it can mean here than this child is set for the fall and resurrection of many; ‘fall’ in that He will call all mankind to repent for the forgiveness of sin, and ‘resurrection’ in that He will bring about victory over death, the consequences of sin, for all those who believe in Him. Simeon is seeing in the distance the results of the Messiah’s coming in these words. He sees also the hatred of Jesus that will be the reaction of some of those who hear about Him: He is a sign that will be opposed. Prophetic words, that are fulfilled on the morning of Good Friday when the crowds are chanting ‘crucify Him, crucify Him,’ and which continue to be fulfilled to this day whenever people dismiss the gospel as impossible or irrelevant.

Finally, Anna: she comes into the picture in v 36, where she is described as an elderly prophetess. We need to put that description in perspective: the Jews of that day believed that prophecy had ceased with Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets. They didn’t believe that God had sent any more prophets since. So it is either Luke himself, or more probably the earliest Christians, who recognised Anna as a prophet. A Christian prophet is one who speaks publicly the truth in God’s word about Jesus Christ. Mary and Zechariah and Simeon had all spoken the truth about Jesus in words drawn almost verbatim from the Old Testament, but Anna is the first to do so publicly. Verse 38 tells us that she came into the Temple at the very moment that Simeon was speaking, and she too gave thanks to God, as Simeon had; but she did more: she  began to… speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Anna was the first Christian preacher, the first evangelist, and one of the great heroes of the Christian faith.

Luke was a careful writer. It is no accident that in beginning his book about Jesus and His followers with the story of Jesus’s birth, he includes all the major themes that will recur throughout the book: not only Who Jesus is, but how men and women are to take the truth about Who He is into the world. It is the completion of the Christmas story, because it makes clear why Christmas is worth celebrating: it is truly the saviour of the world who was born in that stable. Let those with faith in Him not only worship Him, but make sure the whole world knows He came to offer eternal life and peace to the whole world.

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