Let it be new
Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Scripture: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40
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Voice One Glory to God and peace on earth. Christ the Savior is born and all the world rejoices–shepherds and sheep, Mary and Joseph, a multitude of angels, the little town of Bethlehem and a manger. While most of our society rushes toward 2018 with plans for a new year, Biblical people, like us, linger in the celebration of Jesus' birth. Sometimes it's only after the rush of festivities that we wonder whether the birth of Jesus matters in the way our theology claims.
According to Luke, Jesus was born far from his parents' original home in Galilee. Joseph obeyed the Roman decree. Due to the required census Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth in Galilee in the north down to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. And after that most holy and wonderful night, Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day, probably there in Bethlehem in whatever home his parents were staying. Circumcision was a home-based ritual–keeping God's law as a family. You see, Jesus was born Jewish, to young Jewish parents doing their very best to keep God's law, even as their circumstances were somewhat out of order.
And then Mary and Joseph brought their child to Jerusalem, their nation's capital city. They bring the baby to the Temple. The story contrasts the humble birth among the animals and the cosmic announcement by angel messengers, between the private home-based ritual of circumcision and the public offering made in the Temple for a first-born son, between the Roman registration in ancestral towns and the offering to God to designate a child as holy. From the humble to to the cosmic, from the private to the public, from imperial law to God's law, Jesus matters. So if you want to receive Jesus this Christmas season as the one who matters in your life, you can begin anywhere, but Jesus affects everything–your public life and private life, your relationship to government and your relationship to God, the ordinary and the cosmic.
The Faith and Life of the Elders
When the little family enters the Temple, there is no mention of priests or Sadducees. The Temple elite are conspicuously absent. This offering by the young parents is more than an affirmation of obedience to Jewish law. Here we see Jesus as a new revelation for an older, wiser generation, people who can see through the current corruption in their Temple and spot the One who makes a difference in every way.
Simeon and Anna, each in their own way, see the new light and new life of the Christ, the Messiah, in this little baby boy. Simeon and Anna model mature faith and faithfulness in a host of ways. These elders are seeking God's future–for themselves and their people. They are connected to younger generations. Simeon and Anna are engaged in their faith community even when Jews of their day were facing internal and external crises. Simeon and Anna are persistent in spiritual disciplines. These two old folks speak prophetically. They offer straight-talk about hardships and opposition, while supplying encouragement and confidence to the next generation.
Voice Two When I am an old man I want to be like Simeon–still seeking, still straining forward for the sake of our community, our country, our people. This man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.
If I become old, I want to be like Simeon, deeply religious. I know that we don't all love that world 'religious', but it comes from the Latin–religare— which means to bind. With my heart and mind and strength I want to be bound to the God of compassion who saves us in the most surprising ways. If I am bound to God, I will be free, like Simeon: free to live and to die in God's time. Free to embrace the new life God offers, even if it means turning the world around.
Voice Three When I am an old woman I want to be like Anna the prophet. She began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When I am old–whether I'm single or married–I want to be like Anna, engaged in the faith community. I want to be unafraid to speak the truth about what matters most to me and to the community. I want to speak for Christ and connect our faith to the the needs of our city, our community, our world.
Voice One A lot of us just spent time with multiple generations of family and friends. Some of us are anticipating more holiday gatherings in the days ahead. Depending upon your relatives you may identify with Anne Lamott's characterization. She writes: "This family business can be so stressful–difficult damaged people showing up to spend time with other difficult damaged people, time that might be better used elsewhere–yet out of that, some accidental closeness, laughter, some pieced-together joy." (Anne Lamott, Some Assembly Required p. 67)
There is nothing accidental about how the Gospel of Luke came together. It's a very carefully crafted story of Jesus' birth and life and death and resurrection life. In this part of the story the Holy Spirit arranges an accidental meeting between the true elders of Jerusalem and Jesus' young parents. They seem to bump into each other in the Temple, just out of sight of the powers that be. Now Mary and Joseph after their damaged reputation, difficult journey to Bethlehem, and mini-pilgrimage to Jerusalem, may have preferred to be anonymous as they brought their offering. But Simeon sees something that hasn't been directly stated before in the story. Simeon sees that Jesus will matter not only for Jews, but also for Gentiles. And Anna as a prophet confirms this revelation from God.
Voice Two When I am old, I want to be like Simeon. I want to embrace the new things that God is doing among us and recognize the ways God is blessing every nation, every people, every community. When I am old I want to be like Simeon and see that the destiny of the people I love and cherish most is bound up in the destiny of the people with whom I have the least in common.
Voice Three When I am old, I want to be like Anna. I want to be living out my vocation in all my interactions. I want to have integrity, so that who I'm called to be and what I'm called to do all comes together as part of sharing God's good news.
Voice One In the beginning of Luke it is clear that the research for this Gospel story depended on cooperation from previous generations of believers. Today our lives of faith rest on the faith of previous generations. When I think of previous generations of Christians I'm flooded with gratitude for those who have gone before–those who wrote the hymns that help me pray and those who sang those hymns so often that I know the words by heart.
Even though they are not my relatives by blood, I'm grateful for Mennonite believers who made a witness in this Shenandoah Valley for peace, for Christian education, for ethical business, for global and local mission, for family farms, for church community, for welcoming refugees, for service to neighbors, for Jesus Christ. I'm grateful for the people who first wrote down these oral stories of God sending Jesus as Messiah for all people regardless of race or class or gender or religion or sexual orientation or disability or age or nationality or whatever else we might construct to divide ourselves from each other or put obstacles between us and God. I'm grateful for an inclusive gospel of good news of great joy for all people that Jesus as Savior is born among humankind.
The Gospel writer was also deeply indebted to elders who had modeled the faith, and previous generations who had remembered the stories and the very words of Jesus. At the same time, whoever wrote this Gospel–it's an anonymous work–was also wanting to be like Simeon and Anna, fully present to Christ in the moment and influencing many future generations.
Voice Two When I am an elder I want to speak honestly about the hardships that can come when one is committed to God's revelation in the world. A sword will pierce your own soul too. I want to be honest and trustworthy.
Voice Three When I am an elder I want to know the accidental closeness and pieced-together joy of life in the family of believers. I want to laugh and dance and sing. I want to be both old and new.
Voice One I'm learning the Gospel of Luke by heart. I don't know whether I'll be able to do it. And from the perspective of trying to learn the whole story, it's easy to see this episode in the Jerusalem Temple as a minor detour–a culturally offensive dip into weird rituals of sacrifice and a charming nod to the elders. But it might be more. It might be that Jesus matters to young and old, from generation to generation. What the Bible says about Simeon and Anna is different, but they are both described as praising God. It might be that Jesus is the ultimate reason to praise God.
Voice Two When I am old, I want to be like Anna. I want to be known for faithful worship and prayer. So if we grow old, then let us become faithful elders, trusted by the next generation, supporting their lives, testifying wisely about the risks of faith, sharing the Spirit of Christ. Let us praise God together.
Voice Three When I am old I want to be like Simeon–living toward a peaceful death. I want to have my eyes opened again and again according to God's word in Jesus. Let us praise God together.
Voice Two When we are old, let's be like Simeon and Anna–praising God for the ordinary miracles of new life and for the signs of a transformed world. Voice Three When we are old let's become like Simeon and Anna–those trusted to remember the promises of God even in the bleak times and not let our praise fall silent.
Voice One As Community Mennonite Church, we are still young, but we are maturing. As we become older, let us be like Simeon, guided by the Spirit to cradle Jesus–not for ourselves alone, but for the wider world. As we age, let us be like Anna, speaking about Jesus for the sake of our city and community. Let us become spiritual elders in the community, whose praise is not empty, but grounded in the truth of Jesus Christ.
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