New Beginnings

New Beginnings

Sunday, December 31
First Sunday after Christmas

Focus Theme:
New Beginnings

Focus Prayer:
Ever-faithful God, through prophets and angels you promised to raise up a holy child who would establish a household of peace and justice. Open our hearts to receive your Son, that we may open our doors to welcome all people as sisters and brothers, and establish your household in our time. Amen.

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

Focus Reading
Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons."

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
   according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel."

And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealedóand a sword will pierce your own soul too."

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Focus Questions:

1. How important are religious rituals and commitments in your life?

2. How would you define the word "blessing"?

3. How often do we hear that politics have no place in church? What do we mean by that?

4. How would it transform our relationships, our churches, our families, our nation, the world if we saw the potential in each person as a gift of God who has a role in the unfolding of God's promises in our midst?

5. What is God's dream for the world? What is your place in that dream?

Reflection:
by Kate Matthews

The shepherds, the angels and the heavenly hosts are all gone now, and Joseph and Mary have a baby to raise. As devout Jews, they took him first for circumcision and naming and now, after the appropriate time has passed, they've come to the temple in Jerusalem for Mary's purification and Jesus' presentation as a firstborn male to be consecrated to God.

Jerusalem and the temple are significant throughout Luke's Gospel, and it's important to Luke that Jesus is seen as one who was raised in faithful observance of Jewish law. He makes that point in today's reading; in fact, while Luke uses the word "law" nine times in his Gospel, five of them are found in this passage.

Living in full obedience

Jesus was raised in full obedience to the Law of Moses, within a religious tradition that praises and honors God in all of life, when you rise up and when you lie down, in your going out and your coming in, in the way you dress and what you eat, R. Alan Culpepper notes. Fred Craddock has observed, "Later in life Jesus would be in tension with some interpreters of his tradition, but his position would not be that of an outsider."

Culpepper has observed that this ceremony of presentation expresses Mary and Joseph's "deepest awarenesses and commitments." They "saw God at work in events they had experienced. They lived within a covenant community and they sought to fulfill vows they had made as well as to introduce their son into that covenant community."

Devout and observant

This Holy Family, then, is devout and observant. And they are poor, so their offering is simple, just two turtledoves instead of a lamb. But they also offer, or present, their child, Jesus, who would later be called a "lamb." In the temple, at least in the outer court where women were allowed, they encounter two old saints who represent, in Fred Craddock's words, "Israel in miniature, and Israel at its best: devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God's promises."

Anna and Simeon embody what have been called "the wonders of waiting," an art lost to us today in an age when we are told that instant gratification is our right (while we give up or lose, alas, the rights that are indeed ours to cherish). Deep down, though, we have a sense of "waiting" as a spiritual practice, as well as listening, and rest, and even breathing itself. I suspect Anna and Simeon understood all of these things.

Their covenant community

In any case, it is to this covenant community that Mary and Joseph introduce Jesus. Perhaps Mary's first amazement was that Simeon addressed her at all, since it was unusual for men to talk with women they didn't know, especially in public. (Won't this be exactly the sort of thing that will get Jesus into trouble one day?) Luke tells us that Simeon has been assured by the Holy Spirit that he won't die until he sees the Messiah, so he clearly has some power backing him up.

Sure enough, when the big moment arrives, Simeon has the insight, the gift of recognizing what he has been waiting for all along. What he holds may be "just" a baby, but in him he sees the salvation of God, glory for the people of Israel and light for the gentiles, not just long ago but today, not just for himself and his people, but for all people, all the children of God.

The hope of the ages

James C. Howell writes evocatively of this scene: "How lovely, how tender, the way aged Simeon, the frailties of his years draped over him, cradles the infant Jesus in his arms. Imagine holding in your arms this most wanted child, the hope of the ages, the yearning of your entire life." Ironically, God didn't come down as a powerful emperor or a rich man, Howell notes: "God came down, not to thrash evildoers or crush the Romans, but as an infant, to elicit love, to nurture tenderness."

Like Mary and Zechariah before him, Simeon breaks into a beautiful song, praising God and asking to be released now from his duty as watchman--"like Habakkuk before him," William Herzog writes, "standing at his post, keeping watch and waiting for the Lord"; he asks to be released from his waiting for the "consolation of Israel," for he has beheld it before his very eyes. He can now die in peace, a peace that Stephen Farris describes as "wholeness or 'shalom.'"

Seeing beyond

A recent president was said to have had a problem with "the vision thing"; of course, he didn't mean eyesight but something more, something deeper and much more powerful. I once had a conversation about "the vision thing" with a colleague who had lost his eyesight many years before. We talked about this reading, about the ability of Simeon to see more than a baby in his arms, to see within and beyond this baby to God's hand at work in the world.

My colleague said that his own inability to see with his eyes is sometimes a gift because it enables him not to be distracted by things that might keep him from seeing "to the heart of things." Whenever he would say that something was "gorgeous," I would wonder how he knew that, but he explained that his heart sees what his eyes cannot. He says that he has the ability to see the beauty of creation--instead of ugliness--because he can only see with his heart, his soul, and his mind.

Most of all, he tries to see to the heart of each person he encounters, so the things that matter to the world matter very little to him. He looks, instead, within the person, to the Christ within. He believes that we're each called to see--to behold--the promise of God's grace and the Christ in one another, which helps us to understand better Jesus' teachings about things like loving our enemies and having the reign of God within us.

Perceiving the Word of God

As it turns out, scholars note that Luke often uses "sight" in his Gospel as a metaphor for perceiving the Word of God, for "getting it" when it comes to faith. So this Simeon is a good example for us of someone who sees with his heart and soul and mind; it's as if he stood there and felt the presence of God's promise about to be fulfilled. He was open, as we should be, to what is yet to come.

Of course, Simeon also "sees" beyond the beautiful baby to a shadow side, to the opposition that Jesus will experience, a division that will cut like a sword through the heart of Mary. Fred Craddock says this beautifully: "Jesus will bring truth to light and in so doing throw all who come in contact with him into a crisis of decision. In that decision, rising and falling, life and death, result. Jesus precipitates the centrally important movement of one's life, toward or away from God."

And James Howell draws an important if subtle distinction between the way the world sees things, and the way of the gospel: "Notice the order," he writes. "In the world, it's rise and fall. The rise and fall of the Third Reich, the rise and fall of the business tycoon, the rise and fall of a movie star. But with Jesus it's fall and rise...We fall, and from that lowest point, we rise"--and there's a powerful message in that one line, isn't there?

Keeping an old promise

Anna, too, has the gift of seeing, of recognizing God's hand at work doing not so much a new thing but keeping an old promise in a new day. We may not get to hear her words directly but we hear that she went around praising God and telling everyone all about the great thing God was doing in their midst, the great thing she had waited for so faithfully. (It's interesting that Simeon addresses the couple, but Anna goes out and spreads the good news, even at her age.)

Even as she's "ready to move offstage," Fred Craddock says, she knows that the new thing God is doing "is not really new, because hope is always joined to memory, and the new is God keeping an old promise." However, like Simeon, Anna understands what a blessing is, and it has been the central hope of her life, the focus of her heart: "God's blessing," James Howell writes, "was not a continual smorgasbord of titanic experiences and shiny baubles. God's blessing was just one thing, and it was eighty years coming."

Where do we find ourselves in waiting?

What do you think about this vision thing, this thing of seeing within and beyond, of seeing with our hearts and souls and minds? Think for a moment about our hope for God's reign to be experienced right here, in our midst, all around us, about our deepest longing when we are poor, or oppressed and marginalized, excluded and pushed around, when we're sick and suffering, when we're depressed and downcast, when our hearts are grieving or weary and we think we can't go on, not one more mile, maybe not one more step, and then, in a moment, we are lifted up, strengthened, healed, loved, accepted, chosen. This can happen in the most amazing ways.

I remember a story on TV several Christmases ago about a young boy who had been diagnosed with cancer and was given a grant by the Make-a-Wish Foundation to make his wish come true. He decided instead to see a different vision of what he could do with his time and energy and this monetary gift, and decided to create a foundation himself to give toys to other children who had cancer. When other people heard about it, they sent lots of donations. And there he was, on the TV screen, taking the toys, carrying good news and comfort and healing, to young, hurting people whose pain he understood and whose needs he saw with a vision far greater than most.

The future unfolding

Like Simeon and Anna, like this young boy, we can speak out the good news, not just for ourselves, but for every one of God's children. Like Simeon and Anna, we can see beyond what's right before our eyes to the future unfolding of God's plan, to the promises of God being fulfilled here and now, and in the days ahead. They looked at a baby, and saw grace and hope.

While we've been inspired and blessed by the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon, they are about more than what happens in church, during our religious observances. Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan devote a chapter of their excellent book, The First Christmas, to these songs about the fulfillment of our hope: "These hymns proclaim and remind us that the God of the Bible is concerned about the whole of lifeÖ.this language is about how the world should be."

Jesus reveals God's dream for the world

We often hear that politics have no place in church: what do we mean by that? For Crossan/Borg, these hymns from the Bible "combine what we often separate, namely, religion and politics, spirituality and a passion for this world," and they recognize that Jesus "decisively reveals and incarnates the passion of God as disclosed in the Law and the Prophets--the promise and hope for a very different kind of world from the world of Pharaoh and Caesar, the world of domination and empire." Whether we are Simeon and Anna long ago, or the people of God today, we recognize with our hearts "the one who reveals God's dream for this world."

What would it mean for the United Church of Christ to recognize the newborn baby as "the one who reveals God's dream for this world"? Perhaps we see only the baby right now, and we need to be able to dream of what is yet to come. Think about our children's children, the ones who will someday come the doors of our churches, long after we have gone to rest in the arms of God.

We are their ancestors, and they are our heirs. Those heirs of ours will look back and hear the story of how we, in these days long ago, dreamed of them and built up this great church to be a place of warm and open welcome, a place of justice and love, a place where we all move over and make room for every single person, a place that can be a home where we sincerely tell each new person, "We've been waiting for you."

New directions can be frightening

These are uncertain, even scary times, here on the brink of a new year. Alas, the practice of extravagant hospitality offends the religious sensibilities of many people, but sometimes, as that same colleague once told me, the church finds that it must be faithful in new directions even if those directions are painful and terrifying (consider, for example, the Protestant Reformation--that must have been pretty scary, too, at least for some folks).

Yes, maybe there are those who are scratching their heads at us, and questioning what we are doing and where we are going. But these are hopeful times, too, because we have glimpsed the promises of God unfolding before our eyes, and we're looking beyond the uncertainties and the fears and the criticisms; we're setting off on this journey with our eyes and our souls and our hearts and our minds fixed on Jesus and on the very example he set for us in his own life, when he welcomed all of God's children, and healed them, and fed them, and called them to follow him.

Seeing the potential

Simeon looked beyond the child Jesus as a baby, and saw the Christ, the Promised One. Wouldn't it be lovely if we each of us could see the Christ in one another, and in every single person we meet? Wouldn't it transform our relationships, our churches, our families, our nation, the world if we could see the potential in each person as a gift of God who has a role in the unfolding of God's promises and plan in our midst?

Perhaps a baby resembles that unfolding of God's promises because we have no idea what will happen in the future, what and who a baby will grow up to be. The narrator of Marilynne Robinson's deeply moving book, Gilead, reflects on what it means for one person to bless another. The elderly pastor in the book, the narrator, says the reality of blessing is that it "doesn't enhance sacredness but acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time." Simeon, holding the baby Jesus that day in the temple, surely did not comprehend the mystery in his arms. But he allowed for the possibilities of God's power to unfold in ways he could not imagine but only hope for.

A child as the bearer of God's peace

On a personal note, about ancestors and heirs: All of my life, each time a baby is baptized, I can hear my mother telling me that her mother (I carry both their names) always kissed the head of a newly baptized infant, and so my mother in her turn always did the same. My mother has been gone six years now, and right up to the last day of my time in ministry, on that final Sunday when I baptized three children, I would remember her, when parents would bring their beloved child to introduce him or her to their covenant community.

Like Simeon and Anna long ago, we acknowledge the reality beyond our eyes even as we behold the beauty and the mystery of a new child, a new person, a bearer of God's peace and hope for the world. If they sang God's praises so long ago, how can we do otherwise on each bright and hope-filled morning?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired last year after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine."

Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, 20th century
"There is no less holiness at this time - as you are reading this - than there was on the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the 30th year, in the 4th month, on the 5th day of the month as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Cheban, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of god. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree at the end of your street than there was under Buddhaís bo treeÖ. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in trees."

Lailah Gifty Akita, 21st century
"Each new day on earth is a sacred moment."

Oswald Chambers, 20th century
"One of the greatest strains in life is the strain of waiting for God."

Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
"None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm."

Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century
"Purity of heart is to will one thing."
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