Sermon based on Luke 2: 22-40.
Christmas is an interesting time for reading scripture. The reason being that for many people across the US, Christmas is the time when we reaffirm but one image --- the Jesus of Luke 2, an innocent little baby. What is not to like?
What do I mean? Well, as many of us know, in the United States, even though we see little evidence of that in worship, Jesus is incredibly popular like the image of Jesus as a newborn. But it is also true that no two people have the same image. This was most recently pointed out in American Jesus, by Stephen Prothero. He observed that Jesus in the US is a man “nobody hates.” People may dislike the followers --- but Jesus is a good guy like the innocent baby Jesus of Luke 2. Perhaps that is why Christmas is popular.
It is well known that Americans are producers and consumers of images of Jesus where Jesus functions as a common cultural coin. That is clear if we travel outside of the United States and look in. In the US, as Prothero points out, we have a history of continually making Jesus to resemble current American hero-types. Over the years, we have repacked Jesus, separating him from the creeds, from the Scriptures and even from Christianity itself. That is the basis for the claim that the religion about Jesus and the religion of Jesus are very different things.
To back up his point, Prothero points to American history where we have created Jesus the “Enlightened Sage” for example. This was the Jesus Thomas Jefferson proposed. When he was president, Jefferson spent a few evenings scissoring out of the gospels all the references to miracles and Jesus’ divinity, ending up with a slim volume he called The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.
Another Jesus we have in our history is the “Sweet Savior,” a product of the religious revival of the 19th and early 20th centuries. During that era, the style of preaching changed from dissertations to storytelling, and the life of Jesus became larger-than-life. The call of these preachers was to an intimate walk with this Jesus --- so intimate, that Jesus is a friend whom we could come to know and hang out with but died for you.
Another version of Jesus in our history in the US is the “Manly Redeemer,” a muscular reaction to the girly-man Sweet Savior. We see this played out in the creation of the YMCA and YWCA; exercise and be like Jesus. The most recent incarnation of the American Jesus is as a “Superstar.” Jesus is an upbeat guy who offers an experiential high that is better than drugs, including being the subject of the rock musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell.
Additionally, for those of us in the Southwest, we have the image of “Jesus” as “the buen hijo/the good son.” Jesus is seen in the context of his mother, father and family. Since family is the major source of one’s identity and protection in the Latino culture, Jesus is consequently pictured with “respecto” living with “familia.”
Why bring this all up on this the last Sunday of Christmas on the edge of a new year. Primarily, because of the gospel that I will get into in just a moment, but I was also recently reminded of our propensity to get stuck into images of Jesus and the impact on our faith life by Richard Rohr. In his recent email newsletter, he shared the following, “The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But transformation more often happens not when something new begins but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart --- disruption and chaos --- invites the soul to listen at a deeper level. It invites and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place because the old place is not working anymore.”
As Christians when we feel the pain of something old falling apart, it invites us to listen and enter more deeply into God. In other words, no wonder many churches receive many visitors on Christmas with the image of a newborn Jesus. When we are experiencing change, we would rather stay with that image of an innocent newborn, when what we cherish feels like it is “falling apart” and the disruption and chaos that follows. Unfortunately, however remaining there with a newborn is not seeing the invitation to listen and be open to faith transformation.
For course, one place to listen is in scripture where in careful reading not only does the word steady the boat but opens our hearts and faith. One place to see that is in today’s reading where Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus are at the temple. As we know from other places, Joseph and Mary are presented as religiously devout. Here that continues with Joseph taking Mary and the baby Jesus to the Temple for “their purification,” although, strictly speaking, the purification ritual was for Mary only. The “purification” of a new mother occurred some 40 days after the birth of a male child, and some 80 days after the birth of a female child. Jesus, however, the first-born male did not need to be “purified.” All Jesus needed was to be dedicated to the Lord, which could be had for the price of five shekels.
It is at this moment however where the trio encounter Simeon and Anna. Simeon, we are told is a devout lay person who has been looking “forward to the consolation of Israel” --- the Messiah. Anna is identified as prophetess. Neither is a priest. When Simeon sees Jesus, he takes the baby in his arms, and praises God, for Simeon knows that the one he is holding is the One he has been expecting. Anna words are less well detailed other than she began “to speak about the child.”
Within this short vignette however we get some important pieces of new information about Jesus. One piece to note is the fact that Luke has a lot of elderly people in his infancy narrative. First, there was Zechariah and Elizabeth. Now, there is Simeon and Anna. Why all these old people? Well, because as we know, the elderly are a repository of tradition and story. From that angle, Elizabeth represents Hannah, from the OT, the mother of the prophet Samuel. And Zechariah of course, represents the clueless priests, also part of the tradition. Simeon represents Israel's long wait for the Messiah. Anna represents not only the prophetic tradition, but also its capacity for renewal and ability to do, as Isaiah said, “a new thing.”
Now the other piece to note is that given that Jesus was still an infant, days old, a skeptic overhearing Simeon and Anna might have thought they were inventing a messiah to fit their own images. But the subsequent life, ministry and death of Jesus proved Simeon and Anna right. Although Jesus is a newborn, we already see that seeds of how Jesus would completely change the vision of who the Messiah was understood to be. Many in that time and place thought the messiah, the promised one from God would be arriving with sword and winnowing fork in hand.
Neither Simeon or Anna relied on their own hunches about this baby being the promised Messiah. Rather there were two critical things. First, when the gospel writer Luke tells us that Simeon and Anna were “looking forward…,” Luke is saying that these two were steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. The term “the consolation of Israel” derives from references in the book of Isaiah to God comforting the people by redeeming them.” So both were basing their pronouncement about Jesus on scripture, yet, this leads to the second point, Luke tells us that both were being guided by the Holy Spirit.
Those two sources of understanding --- the outward one of Scripture and the inward one of God’s inspiration --- still stand today as means to help us change toward transformation, “not when something new begins but when something old falls apart.” So obviously, if we are going to take a razor to the gospels as Jefferson did, or if we are going to buy the latest incarnation of footsteps in the sand of sweet Jesus carrying us when we can’t make it, we are not necessarily on the path of transformation. In today’s gospel, Simeon and Anna are seeing not simply a newborn, but transformation.
We likewise, are challenged to listen to who Jesus is --- in scripture itself. And in short, the gospels, if we look at them in total, affirm Simeon and Anna: Jesus is the one, who, after he was baptized, lived up to his baptism every day by the way he honored and obeyed the heavenly Father. Jesus is the one who proclaimed the good news of God, preaching repentance and announcing that the kingdom of God had begun. Jesus is the one who was so filled with compassion that though it sometimes seemed to get in the way of his ministry, he still took time and energy to heal the sick. Jesus was the one who embodied the very authority of God, and whose life embroidered the deeds of God on the fabric of human experience. This was so evident that people who heard him commented on it. Jesus was the one who did not shun bad company, but who called them to a place in the kingdom. Jesus is the one who repeatedly withdrew to pray. Jesus is the one in whom his contemporaries recognized had a special connection with God --- a recognition that led Peter to call him “the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus is the one who went to the cross, understanding that in doing so, he was being obedient to the will of God, and was doing something profound for humanity. Jesus is the one who arose victorious over death.
Those are the things that scripture tells us directly. We may not understand the implications of all that we can say about Jesus from scripture, but those things are enough to help us frame as we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and to the guide us through the changes we experience.
What might that mean for us --- satisfied with the image of Jesus we have?
Mark Twain once said, “It ain't the parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me; it is the parts that I do understand.” As we begin a new calendar year, we might adapt that line of thought to say, “It ain't the missing parts of Jesus' story that bother me; it is the parts that aren't missing!” Transformation, as Richard Rohr reminded us, “happens when the old falls apart.” In fact, it is necessary for our spiritual growth. Simeon held the child in his arms and saw the salvation of Israel. Anna, responded out of praise and spoke about the child. In both Anna and Simeon, we see the seeds of the future. The old image of the messiah was beginning to fall apart.
Therefore, what painfully needs to be let go for us, and where are we listening to be transformed, so that we can give praise? Are we ready to let go of the image of an innocent baby Jesus?
What will the year ahead be like? We can't know in advance, but we can imagine already how Jesus will be with us in our ongoing story and transformation. Amen.