December 28, 2014

On Simeon and Anna

Passage: Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:22-40
Service Type:

Please Note: Regrettably, there is no audio available for this sermon.

25 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.
36 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, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.

I participated recently in a focus group of ministry colleagues. We talked about the challenges of preaching and the desire of congregations that our preaching be relevant. One colleague commented that people in his congregation said they wanted to hear more about news headlines of the day. The problem is that the news headlines change daily—and if you have online news the headlines can change several times over the course of a day. Unless you prepare the sermon Sunday morning, being current with headlines can be problematic.

The more I thought about it the more is struck me that the agenda of news organizations shapes this phenomenon of ever changing headline. If the headline of today isn’t different from yesterday it sort of takes the “new” out of “news”. Thus, the attention span for a story is short; we need to move on to something else “new.” But that isn’t all that is driving the news. News organizations have an agenda, a narrative about life, that is being advanced and individual stories are told insofar as they advance that narrative. That is why they all begin to sound the same; similar things are noted; the same spin shapes the telling. The people in the stories told are beside the point—their story is told if it advances the narrative of the news agency. Once told their purpose is served so we need to move on to the next one. This has prompted one prominent social commentator to refer to the media as the “drive-by” media.

1. I wonder if we have done this with Christmas. Christmas is over. It has served our purposes and it’s time to move on. We raised money for good causes, the family got together, messages asking for increased civility were delivered, cards of good wishes sent and delivered, music sung, pageants held—but it’s over. So what’s next? Besides, I don’t think I can keep up the frenzy and focus. Maybe we are just tired.

When I read Luke’s gospel I don’t get the impression that he though the birth event was more important than any other part of the childhood story of Jesus. I have no sense that he spoke the words, “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night,” with greater excitement and wonder than, “Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon,” or “There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.” Clearly the narrative that God is writing in the life of Jesus has a very different driving agenda than that of our world. The importance of the life of Jesus isn’t over once we have been to the manger.

The God who incarnates himself in Jesus of Nazareth isn’t a “drive-by” God. His agenda is love; a self-forgetful self-giving for our sakes. This One who oversaw Mary’s conception and Joseph’s commitment to being a father hasn’t lost his attention because the baby was born as if bigger and better things now demand his attention. No. Further, he knows the promise he made to Simeon that he would see the Messiah; he knows his servant Anna who is devoted to keeping hope of Messiah alive in Israel cheering on those who “were looking for the redemption of Israel.” God hangs-in with people. His attention isn’t garnered by the one or two big events of our life that suits his agenda. People and their redemption is his agenda.

God’s attention to his people isn’t deflected because others are shouting, “No, look over here.” So too every believer knows herself accompanied by our Lord in all the ebb and flow of life. It tells you and me that no event in our lives is beyond nor beneath the scope of God’s care and concern.

2. Someone once quipped, “Every family has one weird relative. If you don’t know who it is, then it’s probably you.” Do the descriptions of Simeon and Anna place them in just such a category for us? Simeon was righteous and devout, always ready to talk about God’s promise of Messiah and he had this spiritual aura about him. And Anna. Anna was way over the top; She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.

Humans are fickle when it comes to believing the witnesses to himself that God puts forward. On the one hand we find the righteous ones a little weird for us and seemingly not grounded in the “realities” of life. By the way when Luke says that Anna “never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day” he doesn’t mean she never went home. She lives akin to something like our modern monastic life. Ok, so the righteous ones are a little strident for us. We should also note that God put the same witness into the mouths of some shepherds a short time before this temple visit. Every one despised shepherds. They weren’t permitted to come into the temple. If we want someone acquainted with “hard living” then the shepherds are there just for us. (And of course there are witness all along that spectrum bookended by such extremity.)

Jesus pointed our something similar when speaking of how people refused the witness of both John the Baptist and himself. ‘To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the market-place and calling to one another,
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.”
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:31-34)

Shepherds, Simeon, and Anna, the point of their witness is the same. They point us to the child. Simeon took “the child in his arms and praised God” and Anna “began to praise God and speak about the child. Imagine Simeon holding the child unable to contain his joy blessing God “for my eyes have seen you salvation.” Simeon’s song about the child is drenched with phrases from Isaiah’s prophesy. And when Anna sees the child she sees the long hoped for redemption of Israel. They are speaking the same language; salvation and redemption are synonyms for the same hope.

Luke makes it clear that it was no mistake that they were both in the temple that day. Simeon was “guided by the Holy Spirit”. Anna is guided by her devotion to God—it is the same Spirit who calls them both each in the uniqueness of who they are. We know this in our own awakening to faith; what seemed a chance meeting was God putting us the place to hear his address. How do they recognize the child? We aren’t told how it was that God made this known to them but as in all encounters with God they know themselves addressed by God and understand the meaning of the address.

Simeon says “my eyes have seen your salvation.” Now, to be sure Simeon sees Jesus with his physical sight. But it is the sight of “faith” that tells him who the child is. Recall what the risen Jesus said to Thomas after he showed Thomas his hands and side, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” How it is that any believer comes to know Jesus? It is by faith—encounter with him, faith being a kind of knowing—that he makes himself known.

Note with me that God meets Simeon and Anna in the particulars of their lives. While this is indeed a special moment for both of them, it is part of a long journey the have been travelling of faith in God. The believer’s faith experience is the same today. Jesus makes himself known in the particulars of our own lives. There are special moments of clarity along the way. Also note that Simeon’s and Anna’s witness helped to bolster the faith of Mary and Joseph. Your witness will be such for others around you.

Like Simeon and Anna, by faith we have seen the Lord’s salvation. We have many things that discourage but seeing God’s salvation by faith prepares us for death and for whatever will come in life. It bring release from excessive anxiety; we tend to think that by excessive organization and safety procedures and healthy eating we can manage a pleasant existence—until illness intrudes or some disaster. If we have seen his salvation we are ready for anything; ready not in the sense of emergency preparedness but in that sense that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

When Simeon said “now you are dismissing your servant in peace”; did he mean that at last he had peace in his heart, peace of mind? No doubt he meant that too, but that wasn’t what he meant primarily when he cried, “Peace! At last!” You see, Simeon was an Israelite. In the Hebrew language “peace” is a synonym for “salvation”. “Peace” means God’s definitive reversal of the distortion, disfigurement and distress which curse the world on account of sin and evil.

Years later, in the course of his earthly ministry, Jesus healed a menorrhagic woman. When he had identified her in the crowd he said, “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace.” He meant, “Through your faith in me God’s salvation has become effective in you; now you step ahead in the reality of your salvation; you walk in it; you live out of it for the rest of your life.”

The praise Simeon offered God at the beholding of this child is known in Christian faith as Simeon’s song. Simeon understood that his earthly life was close to its end but this did not prevent him from singing.

On November 18, 1995, the Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman came out on stage at New York's Lincoln Center. Getting on stage is no small matter for Perlman. Stricken with polio as a child, Perlman wears braces on both legs and walks with two crutches. To see him come across the stage is a sight you don't forget. He moves painfully, but with dignity, until he gets to his chair. He sits down slowly, lays his crutches aside, undoes the clasps on his braces, tucks one foot back and stretches the other forward. Then he reaches down, picks up his violin, notches it under his chin, nods to the maestro, and begins to play.

On this particular occasion, however, something went wrong. Just as he finished the first stanza, a string on Perlman's violin broke. You could hear it snap, going off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant or what Perlman had to do. People who were there that night later said: "We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches, and limp his way off stage…or else wait for someone to bring him another [string or violin]."

But Perlman didn't. Instead, he paused for a moment, closed his eyes, and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra recommenced, and he joined them where he'd left off. He played with a passion, power, and purity like the audience had never heard before. Of course, all of them knew that it was impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. But that night, that player refused to know that. "You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head," someone said. "At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them they had never made before."

The author who recounts this story closes it like this: "When [Perlman] finished, there was an awesome silence in the room." And then, suddenly, the audience exploded to its feet. "We were all … screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done." Perlman "smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then said, not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone: 'You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.'"

Like Simeon and Anna, by faith we have seen the Lord’s salvation. Like Simeon and Anna we have a song of hope to sing—the hope that is ours in this child. May our music ever be of Him!