Sunday, December 28, 2014

First Sunday after Christmas

Luke 2
25 And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, 28 he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:
29 “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation
31 Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
32 A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”
33 And Joseph and His mother[h] marveled at those things which were spoken of Him.

You wait all month long, and the special day passes in a heartbeat.
You spend days wrapping those presents, and the sound of tearing paper lasts about a minute.
You spend the whole day preparing the meal, and fifteen minutes later it’s gone.
The needles are falling off the tree, the chocolate is disappearing from the coffee table and somehow reappearing on the bathroom scale.
Family and friends have packed and left, kids are off pondering what to do with gift cards and the novelty of this years gadgets is already wearing off.

But take heart: we’ll do it all again next year. The trick is to write down the things you vow to do differently, because a year is a long time to remember to put out two gravy boats instead of one. And if you are really keen to keep the magic going, buy Christmas items on sale this week and store them until next year. Except chocolate, because serving year-old chocolate is just not cool.

So the emotional path looks something like this: waiting, waiting, excitement, some relief, maybe a hint of disappointment, fatigue, and hopefully some contentment. It’s always a mixed bag, this season, since anticipation is rarely met with complete fulfillment.

That is, unless you are Simeon and Anna. St. Luke’s coda to the nativity of Jesus takes us to the Temple where where we meet two people famous for waiting. They spend their days in the Temple in prayer, waiting for the ‘consolation of Israel’ and the ‘redemption of Jerusalem.’

And they are not disappointed. Simeon meets the child and shares his canticle: a witness to the salvation of the Lord, the one who shall be a light to the nations and glory to the people of Israel. And Anna speaks of a redeemer, returning Jerusalem to God, the answer to her prayers.

And through it all, Mary and Joseph marvel and ponder, returning home to await the next chapter in this unfolding story of promise that was announced to them and now they begin to see. Really, it’s the confirmation these parents need: angel visitations and the dreams have given way to prophetic voices that verify everything they have learned so far.

Still, there is more to the message of Anna and Simeon than simply the confirmation of previous promises. They have a program, and a set of goals, that they set before us with the words ‘consolation of Israel’ and the ‘redemption of Jerusalem.’ They are waiting for something very specific, and the implications will take us all the way to end of this story.

If Anna and Simeon were quizzed on signs and inspiration, they would very likely point to Isaiah 52. There, we find the same promise and more-or-less the same words:

Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has consoled his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. (v.9)

The context is the return from exile, the belief that judgment has passed and restoration has begun. God is leading the people back to Zion, where they will be comforted and redeemed in the sight of the nations. But amid all this talk of consolation and redemption, another note is sounded, another prophecy, From the end of Isaiah 52:

“Look, my servant will succeed!
He will be elevated, lifted high, and greatly exalted—
14 (just as many were horrified by the sight of you)
he was so disfigured he no longer looked like a man;
15 his form was so marred he no longer looked human—
so now he will startle many nations.
Kings will be shocked by his exaltation,
for they will witness something unannounced to them,
and they will understand something they had not heard about.

This, of course, leads us into Isaiah 53 and the suffering servant:

He was despised and rejected[a] by all;
a man of sorrows,[b] and acquainted with grief;[c]
and as one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Already the ‘consolation of Israel’ and the ‘redemption of Jerusalem’ is more than simply a joyous return from exile—it is something more—something that will require sacrifice and a willingness to endure hardship at the hands of the very people this servant has come to redeem.

And already the joy is mixing with sorrow, something Simeon also notes when we says to Mary and Joseph, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Ironically, this feeling is not limited to parents of the Messiah, or even parents. Everyone who takes joy in the arrival of a child is confronted by the bittersweet nature of life on earth. Even as we look forward with joy to all that a child will see and do, experience and enjoy, we also know that every child will feel pain, know loss, and be confronted by the vicissitudes of human living.

And we know this because this is our own experience, our own struggle with promise and pain, expectation and loss. We become, in effect, exiles from ourselves, and through it all God promises return, saying ‘sing together, through the ruin that is your lives, for the LORD has consoled us, and redeemed us.’

In the very same way, we mark the end of the year. It is always a mixture of thankfulness and regret, the passing of the year: the milestones, the gifts, the many ways we were blessed, mixed—of course—with the challenges and setbacks we faced, and the losses we endured. Yet through it all we hear: ‘sing together, through the ruin that is your lives, for the LORD has consoled us, and redeemed us.’

We will pass an entire year of faith and fulfillment in the next four months. Jesus will call his disciples, feed the five thousand, preach the kingdom, heal the sick, love sinners, and upset the ancient status quo. We will try him and find him guilty for all that we regret about the human way, and he will translate this from cross to consolation, from redemption in Jerusalem to the salvation of all.

And through it all we will pray for others and ourselves that we might experience the LORD’s consolation and redemption, and end to exile and the birth of hope, now and always, amen.


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