A sermon based on Luke 2:22-40.
When the angel appear to the shepherds in the middle of the night it declares to them “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” it all sounds great. Who doesn’t want good news of great joy for all people?
The shepherds rush to Bethlehem and find the baby all wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger… and they are indeed overjoyed. They are so happy they tell anyone who will listen about what the angels told them about the child before returning to their sheep, still singing praises to God.
I wonder, how many times in your life have you felt like that?
So full of joy that you had to tell everyone all about it?
I wonder what caused such joy?
And how long the joy took to fade a bit as life returned to normal?
Or how long it took you realise that people are happy for you but that the joy isn’t theirs?
One of the good bits about the days between Christmas and New Year is that the TV schedule is different, not that most of us even watch what’s on the TV at the time. It’s all apps and on demand now.
It turns out there are loads of brilliant kids animations on. If you haven’t seen the amazing adaptations of the Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler books like The Snail and the Whale and The Gruffalo then you’re really missing a treat.
The other day Avril had gone out and I made a coffee and turned on the TV, probably to watch whatever sport was in. Instead I found myself watching the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out. I’ve seen it before but it was at a part I didn’t really remember. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Inside Out is an absolutely brilliant story of what goes on inside the head of Riley, an 11 year old girl. Inside her head is a command centre where Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger struggle to work out how to react to what’s happening to Riley when she moves from Minnesota to San Francisco.
Joy is in charge and she just wants Riley to be happy all the time. Everything goes wrong when Joy and Sadness get lost and have to journey through Riley’s mind, through her imagination, memory banks and her subconscious. Joy eventually realises that Riley needs Sadness too… and that some of what Joy thought were purely happy memories were actually tinged with sadness. And we all know that sometimes the moments of greatest joy come after a sadness. “Joy comes in the morning”.
I think we all recognise that. There are times when we have moments of great joy but those are often moments when something changes, when we realise that things will never be the same again.
That’s what’s going on just a few days after Jesus’ birth when Mary and Joseph make the short journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to present Jesus at the Temple and offer a sacrifice… of two turtle doves. Luke seems very keen to tell us that Mary and Joseph have fulfilled all the requirements. Jesus has been circumcised, as required. As their firstborn son he must now be taken to the temple along with Mary to take part in a ritual of purification that happens after birth. Remember, there are very strong religious ideas around blood at this time and so anything that happened where bleeding would occur needs a ritual of purification afterwards and this has nothing to do with sin or anything like that. It’s a health and hygiene thing.
At the Temple Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus meet two people we almost never talk about as part of the Christmas story, Anna and Simeon.
We read that Simeon was righteous and devout. He was 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.
I wonder what it was like to live with that promise? You will see the Messiah before you die. It’s been a long, long wait. There must have been times where Simeon was discouraged. Times where he doubted the promise. Times where he lost hope.
Prompted by the Holy Spirit Simeon goes to the Temple when Mary and Joseph are there… and taking the baby Jesus in his arms he starts praising God in words that have been used by the church across the centuries…
‘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.’
It’s known as the Nunc Demittis and it has become a part of the night prayers of the church, which are sometimes called compline. It’s a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. I can go in peace because I have seen the promise of God fulfilled. This ancient hymn of praise also makes an appearance in the traditional funeral liturgies, a time where we give thanks for someone’s life but also a time where we are sad because they have died.
Just look at what Simeon tells Mary and Joseph in the midst of his joy… “‘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 revealed. And he tells Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too.’”
Jesus is the Messiah. This baby is the one the prophets told of. He is the one Simeon has waited patiently for. Jesus is the source of great joy, the prince of peace, if we want him to be… but there will be some people who aren’t going to like what’s coming and they will do everything they can to oppose Jesus and all he stands for.
Jesus will bring change. Transformation. Jesus will remind the world of God’s priorities. Just look at what Mary sings when she discovers she will become pregnant:
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
There are some people with much to loose and those people almost never let their power and position and wealth go without a fight.
I imagine that Mary must have known this. The magnificat, the song she sings, isn’t a song Mary makes up. It’s Hannah’s song from hundreds of years before. It’s the song that Hannah sings in praise of God when she finds out she is pregnant with Samuel, the boy who would become the High Priest, the boy would take over from the line of Eli, the boy who would anoint David as Israel’s great king… ending the line of Saul. Samuel is the priest who would usher in the greatest changes in Israel’s history. And there were many powerful people who didn’t like it.
There was also a cost for Hannah. Her prayer for a son was answered. Her joy was so great that people thought she was drunk! But her son, her only son, the son she had wished for with all her heart, would be left at the Temple to live a life dedicated to God.
Simeon isn’t the only one who has been waiting, waiting for a long, long time. Anna was a prophet who has spent every day in the Temple waiting. She, like Simeon, was very old. She had spent all of her time there in the Temple and as soon as the Holy child appeared she knew. Anna’s response was to do what prophets do… she started to tell everyone who the child was to everyone who was looking for change.
Their wait is over. Their joy is complete and Simeon is content. Anna and Simeon have found what they were looking for.
I wonder if that’s how it is with us? Christmas has come. The Christ-child has been born. And that’s enough. It’s enough to know that light has come. Enough to know that hope is present. Time to put away the tinsel and get back to normal.
But perhaps we shouldn’t. Perhaps we should take at least a couple of weeks to celebrate the great joy that comes with the birth of Jesus but as part of our celebrations we should consider the implications… and consider what our response will be, even in the face of the opposition the Gospel provokes.
Howard Thurman, wrote
I will light candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy, despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage where fear is ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens.
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.
I wonder, now you have met the child… what candles will you light?
What message will you spread?
What transformation will you bring?
What light will you bring to the darkness?