Isaiah 63:7-9 and Luke 2:22-33. Preached at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ on December 26, 2010 by the Rev. Michael W. Caine
You can call me, Simeon. I guess, that’d be Simon in modern day America. Not all that popular a name even in that form (though your pastor’s younger son is named Simon). But that’s ok. With my calling as a prophet, I’m sort of used to being different.
I want to tell you this morning about my encounter with Jesus. Or at least what I can explain of it. Even all these years later, some of it is still are to put into words. Or to say I completely understand. I’m best about sharing what it has come to mean for me. And– I am a prophet after all– I’m going to be bold and suggest also what it might come to mean for you too.
When I first met him, he was just a baby, 8 days old. His parents brought him to the Temple. As Luke recorded the story, I was one of the first people to recognize that baby for whom he really was.
Anna and I spent a lot of time around the Temple. We had for years. A group of us who would hang around there. People sometimes wondered why we were there so much of the time. I can’t speak for everyone else. But for me, you might say I felt close to God there.
I bet it’s the same at your church too. Some folks just feel better when they’re close, know what’s going on, stay involved, keep near the many things happening in God’s name. (Others stick around, I think, because they just don’t have any place else to go, and there’s a blessing in that too, I imagine.)
At the Temple, I used to think and pray and work and wait for what had been promised to us as the people of God.
Ever since I was a kid, I have had this feeling I was waiting on God. At first, I couldn’t explain it. But as I grew up, grew into my calling, I became more and more clear, sure, that not only was I supposed to… I think you all say, “tell it like it is” for God. I’ve also grown more and more excited, maybe expectant would be a better way to explain it. Like I’m just waiting to see what God has in store for me, for us, my people, our world… Does it make sense, what I’m talking about? That feeling that you are on the verge of some discovery or revelation, but already you know enough to expect that you are still going to be surprised. A friend of mine say, as he gets older, he gets more interested, to find out where his life is going to end up!
I’ll admit, it’s been a long wait– I was really ancient for my time before it finally happened. But I just kept living my life as best I could, staying open, waiting to see, hoping.
And then one ordinary day, there it was, right before my eyes. This humble couple, Northerners, working people, like so many in those days, displaced by the census and taxes, the latest Roman imperial offense… There they came into the Temple with their newborn. I later learned he’d been born just a day’s travel south of Jerusalem in Bethlehem.
There was, of course, nothing special about parents of a newborn turning up in the Temple. It happens every day. Our religious custom has every male child circumcised on the eighth day. That’s when the child is given his name. In this case, the boy’s name was Jesus, the Aramaic form of the ancient Hebrew, Joshua, which means “Deliverer.”
At the same time, the parents’ legal obligation includes bringing a sacrifice to the Temple. Joseph and Mary, like most other poor folk, were probably relying on gifts given to them at the baby’s birth to meet this requirement, a pigeon and two turtledoves.
I know, this sounds sort of strange to you all, but for our people, the sacrifice at this time, it’s our way of recognizing the life given us in a new child is not ours, but God’s. We sacrifice as a dedication, giving back of our child AND our parenting to God.
As I said, there’s parents coming into the Temple with newborns every day. But when I saw them enter, something struck me. How do you explain such things, put them into words?
It’s easier to say what it wasn’t. They were respectful as they drew close to the holy of holies, but it wasn’t their piety. They were proud and protective parents, but it wasn’t the way they carried the child.
It’s funny for a prophet, but I can’t say exactly what it was. But I knew it right away. No doubt. This was the One. This ordinary looking little baby boy was somehow special. No, every baby is special, even sacred. But this one was unique.
Words still fail me. Obviously!
I asked to see him. His mother looked somewhat askance at me. Not quite sure. Some unknown old man in the Temple. I reassured her, “I’d just like to bless him.” She nodded approval. And sort of turned the infant towards me that I might see him face to face. That’s when Joseph took the baby gently from her arms and handed him into mine.
And I spoke, and a prayer came out. It was my voice, but it wasn’t me speaking. Instead, words just flowed. It was my voice sure enough, but I never really though about what it was that I had to say. Rather, those words were it given to me. Prophecy. Through me. From beyond me.
Am I making any sense? Have you ever experienced anything like this?
I found myself promising that this child would be a blessing to people. That he’d come to be a standard, a new understanding by which humankind would see what it means to be human and of God.
Strange and surprising, wasn’t it? Like life. Like God. Strange. Surprising.
I’m old enough no longer to worry about not understanding God. Divine thoughts are even mostly beyond a prophet. Divine ways are beyond us humans. But, gracefully, we can still somehow be touched and turned by God.
So much has happened since Mary and Joseph presented that precious child. It’s hard to even remember what I knew then and what. Some of it only became clear in the time since then. But that’s life too, a sort of on-going revelation.
For me, Jesus has come to mean that God can take us further that we can ever imagine or dream. Walking with God is not about what we want or expect.
I’ll been surprising to me, even hard sometimes– how Jesus showed that God’s promise is reaching beyond my people alone. For generations, we’d understood ourselves to have a role, as God’s people, chosen, leaders, showing the way for everyone to go. But God in Jesus began to call others to leadership too. It was troubling at first (and, to be honest, upsetting again, on and off, over the years). But in time I began to appreciate the wonder of such a message.
God was no longer just the glory of our people. Instead. God’s love was a revelation to all people. It could include, touch, call, transform everyone– most startlingly, those with whom we were estranged, counted our enemies, easily dismissed as unworthy. A world without divisions because God’s love knows no bounds! It’s still a standard that religion needs to strive for.
Maybe even more unsettling, as I began to grow in Christ, was that this child, this Jesus was not just another prophet. Not just a voice for God. Instead, he was leading us to a new understanding of God and of ourselves.
And his Way was to do so just by being with us, living with us, loving us as we are, suffering alongside us and for us, even if that meant being rejected and hurt by this world. His Way isn’t so much triumphal, at least in a worldly sense. Instead, it was about being faithful, whole, holy in a way God means for us…in the face of how we and the world are so far off the mark.
I foresaw this in my warning to Mary: she too would have to endure great pain, like a very sword piercing her heart. But I didn’t fully understood the meaning of my words at first. Still, it makes me shudder, remembering that young mother adoringly presenting that child in the Temple, and then all that she had to go through.
And it still surprises me that God would take away the power of the powers of this world, even death, by allying Godself in Jesus with the pain and suffering of humans everywhere. I guess that’s why he was born into tough times way back then. Trouble was with him from the beginning: with the census, homelessness in Bethlehem, Herod, the slaughter of all the babies, their fleeing as refugees to Egypt…
We always expected that God would show up in a great reversal, arriving like a conquering army in a show of world vindication. But instead, God came softly, silently– as the smallest, most vulnerable baby, in a back corner of the empire, one cold, dark night, when times were bad and no one hardly noticed.
Thinking back over our Scriptures, how could it have been otherwise? I marvel that we were surprised.
Our God has been the God of slaves, the God of exodus, the God of the wilderness. A God of the oppressed over against the oppressors. A God of the poor and the sick, the lame and the blind, the mistreated and the imprisoned. All of the people who have been overlooked, discounted, discarded and used. God’s poor people– a holy crew of the socially, spiritually, emotionally disenfranchised, the ones this child came to minister to, to make God’s life among, to assure of God’s love and solidarity, to justify, if you will, with God’s welcome.
And here come a poor carpenter and his young wife, so far from family and their lives in Nazareth, clutching their newborn, born in a stable, getting by on the edges of a society, being exploited be a foreign empire, only hoping to keep their heads low, and stay out of trouble. Here they come into the Temple, clutching on to life.
And here comes Jesus, some wandering itinerant preacher, a dusty upstart, from the North, with no education or standing, no real place to call his home. Eventually surrendered, turned over really, by his friends to the hands of those scared worldly powers who’d been after him from the beginning.
Yet, through this child become a man a sign was being spoken, the table’s turned… through this appearance in the flesh of God’s own comfort and love for the poor… These are the things perhaps I, we only began to imagine, see through a glass darkly as the years unfolded, after that first appearance in the Temple.
But I am now convinced, more than ever, with the passage of time, as old years close and new ones come into being, that what I experienced in Jerusalem so long ago, that first day I saw him, is what all of us have been waiting for.
We often think it’s something else we need. Some goal of our own achieving. Security. Respect. Renown. A family. A house. All good things. But, when we get them, when we arrive at the spot we for so long desperately, well, longed for, it, they turn out not to be the completion or fulfillment of life we expected.
But in this child grown into a man, there is offered some greater destiny, a fuller grace. Consolation that you are already loved through and through as you are. That your sins and your shortcomings are forgiven. That your future is assured. In giving our lives to this Messiah, we receive an assurance that in all our problems, our illnesses, our sorrows, there is already God who knows all these and us too. A God who is with us. God who will never leave us alone.
I looked into the eyes of that little bitty baby that day. I can still see his gaze up at me. And I was overwhelmed with the promise. God is faithful, and here in this child was the maturing of all those years of waiting. God’s unfolding promise.
This morning, as I look into your eyes, I know some of this still sounds strange. And wonderful. And incomprehensible. That the surprise is not yet finished.
At some point, my friends, you will also discover that God’s promise is meant for you. That this child, born in Bethlehem, is for you. Is your savior. You will see him gazing with love into your eyes.
At some point, today or tomorrow or in this year coming, you will begin to see that his life and his teaching, that his miracles and his works, even his crucifixion and death were not just a failure or hope abandoned.
No, instead, all together, as part of Him, they are your salvation: how God has reached out and touched you, in love and acceptance. But even more so also… how God shares with you this strange and wonderful power, grace, for all that you can become.
I pray for you, prophesy for you:
There will be a moment to come, times to come, when you in turn look into the eyes of a child, or the eyes of another person, any person, most likely a surprising person, and face to face, you will know. You will feel, be flooded with God’s hope and love.
But it will not stop there. You will run over with your expression of it all. Overflow. In your own words… well, at least these words will come out in your voice. Without thinking them. Through you. From beyond you.
When it will happen I cannot see. At some special event. One of life’s highpoints. Or at some time of great sadness. In the midst of some terribly problematic situation when someone has done something terribly wrong. Or, perhaps, on just the most ordinary day.
And all of a sudden you too will find yourself there, as I was. Completely there, as God’s own prophet, waiting to say, saying words that no one else can say.
What words, what promise will you offer? How will you, yourself an ordinary child of God, let another child of God know that he or she is so loved, loved by God in ways they can’t even begin to imagine, but in ways that make all the difference in the world.
How can any of us promise another human being that God will be with them in every sorrow and disappointment, through all the struggles and disillusion of life?
The words will be yours, as they were mine. But it is God “God’s self” that is speaking and acting and working through us in those most sacred moments. God who goes with us wherever we are will shape your words and make them say what it is that the other needs to hear.
I, Simeon, am neither single nor unique. Only Jesus can make that claim. But God used me in all my humanness nonetheless. Just as God can use you. Wants to use you. Needs to use you as a prophet in this world, in your life. The prophet of another, better Way.
Beloved, your opportunity to serve is as certain as God’s love for you, God’s love for all people everywhere. When will you look into another’s eyes like that, and bless the other? What are you waiting for? Amen.