December 31, 2017

They Brought Him Up to Jerusalem to Present Him to the Lord

Passage: Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:21-40
Service Type:

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

A visiting minister was attending a men’s breakfast in Ontario farm county. He asked one of the impressive older farmers in attendance to say grace that morning. After all were seated, the older farmer began------“Lord, I hate buttermilk.”
The minister opened one eye and wondered to himself where this was going. Then the farmer loudly proclaimed, “Lord, I hate lard.” Now the minister was overly worried. However without missing a beat, the farmer prayed on, “And Lord, you know I don’t care much for raw white flour.” Just as the minister was ready to stop proceedings, the farmer continued,
“But Lord, when you mix ‘em all together and bake ‘em up, I do love fresh biscuits. So Lord, when things come up we don’t like, when life gets hard, when we just don’t understand what you are sayin' to us, we just need to relax and wait ‘till You are done mixin’, and probably it will be somethin' even better than biscuits. Amen.”

1. At Christmas the church reflects on what are called the birth narratives in the gospels; today the story of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus at the temple. In our retelling of familiar story it is easy to overlook the things Mary and Joseph don’t like and find hard to understand. Our pictures of the holy family are of Mary looking adoringly at the Christ child and Joseph looking with wonder on them both. And I am sure that they loved the baby. But there are things that are hard to deal with and, at the very least, difficult to understand; things that make it hard to relax and trust God “till God was done mixing.”

Consider Mary. A young woman soon to be married with her hopes and dreams for life in front of her. The Angel Gabriel comes calling one day and tells her of how she will bear a Son—“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy.” She is fully aware of the awkward place this puts her in. She knows she will never be able to tell this story to anyone and have them believer her—except a very few, like her cousin Elizabeth. How will she tell Joseph? And soon everyone can see and tongues are wagging. I doubt she liked the sneers and isolation and fear that Joseph would divorce her and she would be on her own with the child.

Similarly Joseph. He was torn apart by what appears to him as Mary’s unfaithfulness. His dreams for family shattered. Even if Mary told him would he believe her? And then an angel appears to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” He has to be questioning what he just heard. If he follows through and takes Mary and names Jesus—naming the child meant to adopt the baby as his own son—he knows what everyone will think. Either he is a doormat for a wayward wife or the child is his. He can feel the glare as people look at him.

And then think about how this could either cement or put a big crack in their relationship as husband and wife. We can imagine them swapping angel stories and marvel that the messiah would be born into the world—right now with them. Imagine how this changed everything for them especially in how they saw their married life unfolding. How would they raise this child—would he have special needs they couldn’t manage? We know that lots of lesser things bring strains in marriage relationship.

We also know from the story details that Mary and Joseph are poor. When they make the ritual sacrifice for cleansing following childbirth at the Temple they offered the option God’s law provided for the poor—“a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” In addition to being poor they also lived in an occupied land enforced by the ever present Roman army. Neither their poverty nor powerlessness were things they liked. There are things Mary and Joseph don’t like and much that they don’t understand; things that could make them wonder what God is up to.

Christmas seems to highlight the things we don’t like. The expectations for happy Christmas gathering makes empty places at the table painful; rifts in families glare brightly; frustration increases with illness that we had hoped would abate. And hard on the heels of Christmas is New Year. Today we are on the cusp of a brand new year. 2018. Maybe this will be the year that things will finally come together. We resolve that the things we don’t like will go away by taking up new discipline or making strategic change.

Mary and Joseph show us the way. Luke—and Matthew in his account—want us to see that they obeyed God in what they knew to do. Yes, they carried out Angel instruction and named the baby Jesus and made a home for him. But Luke wants us to note the faithfulness of these two to the law of God. The law prescribed that their male child be circumcised, a ritual cleansing for the mother following childbirth, and that they dedicate their firstborn son to God. Mary and Joseph have come to the temple in obedience to God—doing what they knew to do. It is here in the course of doing what they knew to do that God confirms and reveals more to them through Simeon and Anna.

Joseph and Mary exemplify what, centuries later, King George VI of England will say through the poem he read in his Christmas address in 1939—a poem given him by his 13 year-old daughter the future Queen Elizabeth.
“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year.
Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.
And he replied, 'Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.'
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

This is what Mary and Joseph do. They put their hand into the hand of God. In many respects your gathering together to worship today is an instance of doing this very thing. You know that our Lord calls us into fellowship with himself and sustains us with the gospel. Gathering to hear gospel read and preached is part of doing what you know to do. Prayer, engaging in study of God’s word, fellowship with other believers—these things sustain in the midst of the unlikeable thing and the hard to understand.

2. The story also shows us that it is the midst of doing what we know to do that assurance or that special word of hope is heard or experienced. Just as a car can be steered only when it is moving so we can be guided when we are already moving in the direction we know to do. Or to use another analogy you have to be in the school to hear the announcement about the special change in itinerary; we hear when we are in the place of hearing.

I can imagine a moment when Joseph and Mary look at each other and ask, “Are we nuts?” They are the only two in their whole world who know the details of this story and they may wonder if they are living an illusion. Think about how isolating the knowledge they have renders them. They are also far from family support of Nazareth because of the census levied by the Romans. Imagine them meeting a new neighbour in Bethlehem. Introductions must have been a little awkward. “Hi, I’m Joseph and this is my wife Mary and this is … ; do I say “our son,” Joseph wonders?

According to the customs laid out in the law (Leviticus 12:1-8), Jesus would be about a month-and-a-half old when they come to the temple that day. Isolated from family and by the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy Mary and Joseph feel very much alone. Maybe uncertain about how all of this will unfold for them. Reflect on how young they were—or at least Mary. She is a teenager and Joseph maybe in his early twenties. Not a great deal of life experience between them. The temple is a huge complex and, like walking into a church or other gathering where you don’t know anybody, you are hesitant; maybe uncertain hoping signs will be posted so you know where to go and what to do.

Picture this moment, a hesitant young couple with their new-born son. They have purchased their two young pigeons and everyone knows they are poor, nobodies that most would hardly give the time of day. And then Simeon spots them and the Holy Spirit whispers in his spirit, he’s the One! He rushes over and begs Mary to take the boy in his arms. Simeon then utters this wonderful praise to God about Jesus—“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.”

The words of the angels now come flooding back into the minds of Mary and Joseph. “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:32) “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) Isn’t this a wonder-filled moment of confirmation for Joseph and Mary? Others recognize the identity of their son without a word being said to them by Mary or Joseph. Surely they have the joy of knowing that God saw them coming to the temple that day. Not unlike when we came to church carrying a personal burden only we knew about and had the experience that something in the sermon was just for me.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, 84 year-old Anna, whom everyone acknowledges as a prophet, spots the baby and begins to speak about the child to all those who, like her, are looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. This is our redeemer! These are the devout folk who love God all now gathering around rejoicing about this child who is here among them. In addition, there is something else the gospel writer wants his listeners to know that is not lost on Mary and Joseph either. In older testament law two witnesses were required to testify to the truth of something. (Deuteronomy 19:15) Anna is the second witness verifying the significance of this child. God abides by the standards he sets for his people and confirms for Mary and Joseph that they are doing what God is calling from them in making a home for this child.

As believers when we reflect on our experience of faith—of God’s encounter with us—we know the many times Jesus has confirmed his presence in our lives, in worship, in text of scripture, in answered prayer, in sermon story. And even today as we reflect on God’s work in the lives of Mary and Joseph through the witness of Simeon and Anna, God confirms the same to us.

3. I want to come back for a moment to the words of praise to God by Simeon as he holds the child Jesus. Here in the birth story of Jesus a word is spoken that address one of the most difficult moments we will face in life.

I can remember it like it was yesterday. My brothers and I had gathered in that hospital room around our father’s now lifeless body. We had spoken of our gratefulness that any suffering our father had endured was now over. We talked of the peace of knowing he was safe in our Lord’s keeping. A few anecdotes were shared. Plans for what had to be done next were exchanged. It was now time to pray and, of course, the son who is the minister was expected to know what read and pray.

And this the text of scripture I read. It is known by its Latin title as Nunc Dimittis (now dismiss). It is sung as one of the two canticles in every even song service in Anglican cathedral services and as a canticle in the Vespers service of the Catholic Church. It is the text I always read with the dying. It is the text in many church prayer books that is commended for such occasion. It is the text I commend that you read in that moment with dying loved one. Underline it in your Bible; Luke 2:29-32.

“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.”

Luke tells us that it had been revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. We too are in Simeon’s place. With the eyes of faith we too had seen God’s salvation. Having seen the Lord we are ready for our departure.

We have only touched on a few things that can be discerned from that day when Jesus is dedicated at the temple. There is much else to be reflected upon in God’s affirmation to Mary and Joseph and Simeon and Anna that Jesus is our salvation. Take for instance Simeon’s prophetic word about the child’s destiny “to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed;” with respect to response to this child it is either “yes” or “no.” (But we will save that for other occasion.)

… they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. Amen.