Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas, December 31, 2017 - Luke 2:22-40
Jesus is the focus of all things dealing with purity. I’m not talking about the culture we have created where purity of life and soul trumps all things. Where we all better be good boys and girls. I’m not talking about Santa. Christ is where our purity of life and soul reside. Where it begins and ends. So much so that he has stepped into the very things we find to make ourselves pure for God so that he might show you who he is for you.
Mary and Joseph, being good parents, follow through with what the law said you had to do after childbirth, especially the first child. The law said - You’re dirty until then. Sorry ladies. They walk into the temple and present their child to God, their firstborn son. Do you see something beautiful in just these few verses? God supplanting this law of purification by having his only-begotten Son be the one presented back to him. Dating from the time when the first born of the Israelites were saved from the final plague in Egypt through the blood painted on the lintels of the doors that inaugurated the Passover. The passing over of the curse. In recompense, the Lord says, all first-born children are mine. Only to have now God’s only-begotten Son consecrated to him. He, that is God, being prepared to take the place of his people in order to adopt sons and daughters. Having the sacrifices presented to show that he is willing to fulfill all of the law.
The funny thing is that we spend all our life playing with so many of our own purity laws. Jumping through hoops. Expectations of reciprocity. It can be something simple. If I say hi, you say, hi; If your wife says I love you, gentlemen, the expectation is…; If you speed, and they catch you? A ticket. Drink and drive? God forbid.
Law. Everywhere. There are always expectations of following the law. There is truth in consequences for things we do or don’t do. We develop notions of what is right and what is wrong. Basic decorum. Due order. Am I right?
As a child, when you wronged your sibling, your parents would say – say sorry. You would say…sorry. They would say “NO! MEAN IT!”
It’s where we get the notion of civilization from. It’s how we put into practice our own assumptions of how someone should behave.
As Lutherans we have a phrase given to us that we should use - the law always accuses. It comes from the Defense of the Augsburg Confession. The law never is satisfied. It never gets enough. The idea of welcoming the stranger, but what if we miss one. The idea of loving your neighbor, but what happens when we ask the same question Jesus was asked? Who is my neighbor? A Samaritan? A Muslim? A Conservative Republican? We always are guaranteed of missing something. Missing someone.
Missing becomes this circle, this cycle, but there is the return. The need for confession of sin. For forgiveness. The cycle of being washed and then tumble dried, only needing to be stain treated and washed again. It gets dirty, needs washing. We fall, we need to be picked up. Like a lemon car, we fix the brakes only to discover the starter goes bad. We fix, the starter and the fuel injection system fails. We do well at telling the truth, but hold hatred for our neighbor. We love our neighbor but really love his house to the point of coveting. We see someone doing a job, being a parent for instance, and think at one point, “I could do better.” This is the life of the law, all around us.
Now enter another part of the story. Another character. Simeon. Called a devout and righteous man. One who has spent his entire life, possibly a very long life, awaiting the consolation of Israel it says. Consolation being comfort received after a loss. Comfort received after losing any possible way of comforting ourselves, and Simeon is given the opportunity to see Jesus.
It says of this man that the Holy Spirit was upon him. That he had received this revelation – You will not die before you see the Messiah. Moved by the Spirit to enter the Temple and suddenly…there he is. Jesus doing a normal thing. Something done for him by his parents, fulfilling the law, and there is Simeon to see it. To see the very beginning of the Messiah’s work. Quite possibly he was reminded of what his parents had done for him. Do you remember your parents bringing you to the temple, Simeon? Do you remember the rituals? The prayers? The necessity?
Then the response: Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. Words the church used to sing at the end of each service. Seeing the promises of God fulfilled; of this clothing of righteousness that is coming from God; this Jesus, your Jesus, has arrived. This Jesus in the flesh now fulfilling for Simeon and us the need we have that the law can’t fix. Dismissed in peace because what the law makes us think is that we are at war with God - we need to follow his laws and appease him. Instead, be dismissed in peace.
Then the big words - For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” Why would one who is devout and righteous be needing to see salvation? Longing for it? Amazed by it? Seeing it in the face of a baby? Waiting for something to come that he needs. That the nations need. That we need.
Amazing isn’t it? You probably never have seen that before. A devout man. A good man. Seeking salvation. The same goes for Anna here. A prophet of the Lord. A preacher. Proclaiming to everyone what or who she saw of this redemption for Israel. The devout. The good. The religious. Still in need of something else. Something more than the law. Something more than love God and love your neighbor.
Philip Melanchthon, when he wrote the Defense for the Augsburg Confession, goes on to tell us that the law always accuses because we are never able to be truly cleansed. We see the dirt and know we need a bath, or we don’t see it and refuse to ever be clean. But the work of the Spirit, as it did for Simeon, draws us to Christ. Brings us to faith by trusting that fulfilling the law does not save us or make us righteous. Otherwise we focus on our behavior and those of others instead of this Jesus who was born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law.
Once the Spirit overwhelms us, captures us, our love is moved from how well we are doing at being Christians, to a love for God based on his mercy. On receiving what we cannot gain. Consolation, comfort after loss, as Simeon was waiting for. We then are moved to love for others more than we have before, because we have been loved more than we have thought before.
I was asked once, by someone who is not a member of this parish, “Carleton, what is your vision of your church?” I think, like the idiot I can be sometimes, I said something like – more members, more people attending, big programs, amazing worship, blah blah blah blah blah! Then I was reminded of this portion of the Gospel story. Simeon and Anna. Devout and righteous, yet yearning for the kingdom. If I could answer that man again, this would be my answer – I want a church full of Simeon’s and Anna’s. A church full of devout and righteous, yet those who thirst for Jesus. Who thirst to see the salvation of God, the consolation of Israel, the life that is Jesus, coming to a dead people. Dead in sin but made alive through Christ.
What are you waiting for? Whom are you looking for? Are you even waiting? In Advent we wait. At Christmas we see it fulfilled, but we always make Jesus something other than what he is – your consolation; your hope; your salvation; your light; your glory. Your righteousness exists in that Christ has become that for you. Redeeming us from all our burdens. All the things we think we need to do for him, he now has done for us. How might you respond apart from love for his mercy, his grace, his love for you. Merry Christmas. Thanks be to God. Amen.