A crazy christmas paradox (sermon 1.3.16)

by susan on January 4, 2016

Anna and Simeon

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 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25Now 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. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided 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, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then 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 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36There 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 seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At 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. 39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
-Luke 2:22-40, NRSV

What has blown your mind lately?
What has made you stop and think “hmmm, that can’t be right…it just doesn’t add up”?

Maybe it’s been balancing your bank account after holiday spending:
how is there anything left?!
Maybe it’s been the crazy Christmas weather we experienced this year:
this sure doesn’t feel like December.

Often what makes sense and what we expect gets turned upside down. We call it paradox. It has stopped me in my tracks more times than I can count.

One of the first times I remember things not squaring up in a big way was when I was 18 years old [i suppose i should be thankful it took that long!]. Having prayed for months about finding the right college, I arrived on the campus of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama certain this was the beginning of something wonderful. All signs pointed in that direction.

Well, the next few months would prove to be painfully difficult. Other than making good grades and a few new friends, everything I attempted went wrong.

I’m not sure why [and if you know me, you are wondering why], but I decided to rush for a particular sorority and didn’t get chosen. I auditioned for the college choir and didn’t get a spot. I had a vocal teacher who was so tough she made me cry on numerous occasions and a roommate who started to drive me crazy.

It was a rough beginning. It was nothing like what I imagined it would be.

Alone and miles from home, I was forced to do some deep thinking. I remember walking across campus one afternoon and having a series of epiphanies. I remember feeling as though suddenly I was not alone in my struggle and as though someone was physically walking beside me. I had a rush of insights about life & faith & what it means to be human. I felt energized. I felt joy.

These moments when everything I wanted seemed out of reach were somehow leading me toward an encounter with God that I hadn’t known before.

How could that be?
How could the experience of profound disappointment
open the way for a deeper joy & a deeper connection to God?

This was the beginning of a shift for me that would only deepen and widen over time. My faith, which had largely been a system of dos and don’ts and formulas for getting where I wanted to go began to fall away.

Something new began to take it’s place – a faith that required me to pay attention.

We have all experienced epiphanies like these and we all get to choose how we respond. Unexpected experiences like these also fill the gospel according to Luke. Luke, in fact seems to delight in surprising us with the unlikely details surrounding the Savior’s birth. What we expect is not what we get.

From the beginning, he assembles a cast of characters who are more like the “the least likely to succeed” than the “whose who of Israeli society”: the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are old & have not children yet; the virgin Mary is young, engaged & learns she is pregnant; and, shepherds, some of the poorest, most marginalized people in society are the Messiah’s first visitors.

This is no setting for an uprising.
It’s more like a recipe for disaster.
It’s everything we try relentlessly to avoid:
poverty. old age. a scandal.

Luke is clear, though. It’s not the circumstances that determine the outcome. It’s the response that matters most.

It’s purification day in today’s scripture reading and Mary & Joseph are the first to show up. They have traveled miles to get there and they arrive at the temple in Jerusalem ready to fulfill the Mosaic law, ready to do what is required of them. They are required to bring sacrifices – a lamb if they are well off or two turtle doves if they are lower class citizens.

They show up with their smaller sacrifice and as they are going through the religious rituals, the cast of characters gets no more exciting with the entrance of two obscure senior citizens. Simeon is an old man who is ready to die and Anna is an old woman who has lost everything.

Simeon responds first. He is a priest and his response is two-fold. His introductory words are somewhat less uplifting than we might have hoped. Instead of saying “yes, here’s the king of kings, I can live forever!”…he says, “here’s the promised one, I can die now.” It had been predicted that he would not die before seeing the savior and apparently he is ready to move on.

He also reacts with a blessing. At least that’s what Luke calls it:

“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 a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Talk about a backward blessing. His parents will have their hearts broken. Not exactly the news they are hoping for on baby dedication day. Through this king, many will fall and yet they will also rise (and notice that contrary to most empires, the falling comes first). What kind of blessing is this?

Simeon’s response is to show up, to prepare for his death and to deliver a blessing. Anna shows up with a different response. Anna is a prophet (something noteworthy for a woman) who since being widowed after a brief marriage, has been showing up in the temple praying and fasting. She’s 84 now. She’s been doing this for a while!

Anna’s response is to worship. What must have felt like a meaningless life at times positioned her here for this extraordinary moment. Thankfully, she was paying attention.

This is a crazy way to confirm the birth of a king, isn’t it? It’s not at all what we expect. It makes me wonder. Maybe Luke is not just teaching us what we can expect from Jesus, but about what we can expect from the way of life he will invite us into.

This way of life will be about showing up, and not just in the moments where things are coming together. This way of life is about showing up in moments that seem ordinary, and in moments that may even be painfully disappointing.

This has been a strange Christmas in many ways. Not only has it been a record-breaking warm one, it has involved hopeful anticipation mixed with several pieces of bad news. Part of the bad news was learning that a close friend of our daughter has cancer. It was such unexpected, untimely news (as if there’s ever a good time!). So, two days before Christmas we found ourselves gathered with about 50 others making origami cranes to decorate a tree that would surprise her family on Christmas morning. The cranes each had words of blessing written on them.

Her mom posted this snowman image on Christmas day with these words:


I can’t help but be struck by the irony of this picture my friend posted today. It is remarkably symbolic of the paradoxical nature of life that has become even more apparent to me during this advent season. How can a snowman be made of sand? How can a Christmas with limited presents from me be “the best Christmas ever!”? How can my strong and healthy daughter have cancer? How can I feel the warmth and love of so many while bearing the heavy burden of caring for a sick child? How can the suffering of one person have a ripple effect on the lives of so many? How could a King be born in a stable?

To simply sit with these questions seems best.
I’m finally beginning to understand.
Praise God.

Epiphanies abound and often involve pain and disappointment. Our response matters.

What will we do when things don’t add up? When life throws us a curve ball? When what makes sense turns out to be nothing like what we experience? Will we check out? Or will we show up like Mary & Joseph, Simeon & Anna to see what this unexpected moment in time has for us?

I pray we will show up and make the most of every moment.

[The detailed image above of Simeon and Anna recognizing the Savior is from a larger work by the 14th century artist Lorenzetti Ambrogio. You can see the complete work here.]

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