2017 January Issue
Are We Ready For The Christ?
I am a person of great optimism. I enter all the contests which I receive in the mail, the ones with a one out of ten million chance of winning. If you have noticed, the more you enter these contests, the more you receive. I received a call recently, and I thought I had finally won. It came from a woman in New York who identified herself as an employee of Dynasty Enterprises. She gave me her office telephone number in case I wanted to verify. She also gave me an identification number, DYN09. She said to me, "You have been selected to receive one of our very special prizes." She listed five prizes, and then said that I would receive another call. All I had to do was repeat the identification number, and I would win one of the prizes. The prizes included a Mazda Miada sports car and five thousand dollars cash. Then she said, all you have to do is tell the person who calls your ID number, AND, purchase five hundred dollars worth of our pen and pencil sets. I knew that my bubble had burst!
This incident did not diminish the hope I have of winning something, someday. Hope is important, and our Gospel text is a text of hope. Simeon and Anna are people of hope. They have the hope for the consolation of Israel. They are hoping for the fulfillment of the promise of the Christ, a promise which had come to the Jews through the prophets.
They both see it. Simeon is led to the Temple in Jerusalem by the Holy Spirit to witness the Christ. It is as if the spirit has a grasp on Simeon's life like nothing we have probably experienced. It is almost an obsession with Simeon. The Spirit tells him he will see the Christ in his lifetime, and that becomes a driving mission in his life. He is a devout person. He is led to the Temple at exactly the time when Mary and Joseph bring their son.
Mary and Joseph are present for a couple of Jewish rites. First, a purification rite for Mary, Jesus' mother. Some forty days following a birth, Jewish women present themselves for the rite of purification. Secondly, they are at the Temple because Jesus is their first born son, and they are to dedicate him to God. It is not by accident that Mary and Joseph are at the Temple the same time as Simeon. The Holy Spirit has drawn each of them to this moment.
As Simeon approaches Mary, Joseph and Jesus, he knows this is the Christ of God. Simeon gives his blessing, saying this is God's salvation. He reaches out his arms as Mary and Joseph are going into the Temple and asks to hold the baby.
Try to put yourself in the place of Mary and Joseph. Here are new parents, and a man whom they have never seen, comes up to them and asks to hold the child. How would you respond? How do you think Mary and Joseph felt? They are intrigued with Simeon's words. The scripture reports "the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him" (Luke 2:33 NRSV). They may be amazed that anyone would know the story which had been told them by the angels and the shepherds. They might also be amazed because they still do not fully comprehend. But the scripture says they are "amazed." And Simeon, the man who has been looking for the consolation of Israel, sees his hope fulfilled and says in prayer, "now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation..." (Luke 2:29 NRSV).
This does not necessarily mean that Simeon is expecting death. The Greek translation is more like a master freeing a slave. So Simeon feels free as he sees God's salvation in the baby Jesus. The Christ child becomes a liberator, and Simeon's hope is fulfilled.
As Mary and Joseph continue toward the Temple, they meet Anna. Anna is identified as a prophet, the daughter of Phanuel, which means the face of God. She is also identified as a member of the tribe of Asher, one of the lesser Jewish tribes. One of the main themes of the Gospel of Luke is the uplifting of the downtrodden. Anna represents the downtrodden.
Anna has been a widow for a number of years. The NRSV says she has been a widow to the age of eighty four, but the more accurate translation may be that she has been a widow for eighty four years. She is closer to one hundred and five years of age.
Anna is a very devout person, demonstrating her faith by praying and fasting in the Temple every day. As Mary and Joseph approach, Anna immediately recognizes Jesus as the Christ. As Simeon, she gives thanks to God, for her hope has also been fulfilled.
Looking for the Christ is not new. Prophets for many generations have foretold the coming of the Christ. In fact, Jews today continue to wait for the consolation of Israel. But Simeon and Anna know the significance of this particular moment, and they know the significance of the Christ child.
What Luke is doing is painting a rather stark contrast in character studies. I am not suggesting there is a difference between Simeon and Anna. I think what Luke is doing is providing a contrast between Simeon and Anna on the one hand, and Mary and Joseph on the other. Verse thirty five is clear that Mary and Joseph are not sure what Simeon is talking about. It says they are "amazed at what was being said about him" (Luke 2:33 NRSV). We who know the story find little basis for amazement by the parents. The angels visit Mary before Jesus is born to tell her his story. Following the birth in Bethlehem, the shepherds share with Mary and Joseph their story of the angels visiting them. She should know the significance of her child.
Mary and Joseph are devout Jews, too. They also have been looking for the consolation of Israel. But, what is it they are looking for? I think a case can be made that Mary never fully understands what Jesus, her son, is all about.
Let us look at some examples. First, if an angel visits to say you are to be a parent, would you not be elated? Most people would feel euphoria if told they are to be a mother, or a father. The interesting thing is that when the angels come to Mary, they say to her, "Greetings, favored one!...The Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28 NRSV). And Mary's response is one of fear. She is "much perplexed..." (Luke 1:29 NRSV). She runs immediately to her kinfolk Elizabeth, whom the angels say would also be with child. As Luke recalls the shepherds' visit to the Bethlehem stable with their story of the angels' visit, Mary "pondered" this in her heart (Luke 2:19 NRSV). One could conclude that Mary did not understand what was happening. She is confused.
Now comes the story of Simeon and Anna. As Simeon approaches Mary and Joseph and talks about the importance of this child whom they bring to the Temple for dedication, Mary and Joseph are "amazed." They marvel at what is being said. In other words, they do not understand.
Later, when Jesus turns twelve, we are told of a story of his return to the Temple in Jerusalem. He enters the Temple to pray and study the scriptures. Meanwhile, his family and friends have returned home. It is later when his family discovers Jesus is not with them. So Mary and Joseph return to Jerusalem to find Jesus. After several days, they find him in the Temple, and they are angry. Mary approaches Jesus by asking why he would hurt them so? Remember Jesus' response? "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house" (Luke 2:49 NRSV)?
It seems Mary is confused about the divine nature of this child, but she is not alone. In the Gospel of Luke, directly following the temptation story, Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth. In the synagogue, he steps up to read from the scriptures. As he reads from the prophet Isaiah, "...He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free....Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:18, 21 NRSV). The response in Nazareth is interesting. "Is not this Joseph's son" (Luke 4:22 NRSV)? Who is he to be saying these things?
So, for Mary and Joseph and many others it seems difficult to see Jesus as God's son, as a divine person, as the consolation of Israel, as the Christ. The disciples also have difficulty understanding what Jesus is about.
Early in Jesus' ministry, we find Jesus and the disciples on a lake during a storm. Jesus falls asleep but is awakened by screams from the disciples. He calms the waters. The disciples reportedly say "Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him" (Luke 8:25 NRSV)? The disciples, too, have trouble understanding the true nature of Jesus.
Several places in the gospels is found passion predictions from Jesus. There are six passion predictions in Luke and at the conclusion of each is an indication the disciples do not understand.
Finally, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before Jesus dies on the cross, the disciples sleep. The disciples simply are not ready for what they get.
Luke contrasts Mary with Simeon and Anna. Mary, on the one hand, seems confused as to who Jesus really is and maybe even in her own role in this plan of God. Simeon and Anna, on the other hand, are clearly expecting something, and they find what they have been expecting. The Christ is here. The consolation of Israel has arrived, and we can touch it. Jesus is, in fact, God's Christ.
Luke's question to us is, "Are we ready for the Christ?" Are we like Simeon and Anna who see in Jesus God's gift for us as the point of decision for all of our lives? Are we ready to experience Jesus as our salvation and liberator? Or, are we more like Mary, seemingly awe struck about the whole experience? She sees Jesus as a gift of God, as you might see your own child. But Mary may be having difficulty seeing him as the Christ. She, after all, gave birth to "her" son.
Sometimes it is difficult for us to detect God's activity in our lives. Simeon and Anna are very ready for God's activity. They know what the Holy Spirit is calling them toward. They understand it when the time comes. Mary, on the other hand, has trouble with it.
It is similar to the experience of golfer Ben Hogan. At the 1947 Masters Championships in Augusta, Georgia, Hogan is playing a round with Claude Harmon. Harmon has gained honors coming into the twelfth hole.
Harmon tees it up, and his shot takes one bounce and goes in the hole for a hole-in-one on the par three. The crowd erupts with excitement. No one has ever before shot a hole-in-one on the twelfth hole during the Masters tournament. Everyone is excited, except Ben Hogan. Hogan stands to the side, never smiling, never looking at Harmon, and never offering a congratulatory sign. Hogan tees it up. His shot is straight and true, landing only a few feet from the hole. All the way to the green, the two golfers say nothing to each other. The crowd continues to buzz with excitement. Hogan looks straight ahead. On the green, Hogan takes only one putt to hole out. The two leave for the thirteenth tee. Hogan finally turns to Harmon and says, "Claude, do you realize this is the first two I've ever had on this hole."
Ben Hogan is oblivious to everything. We are often like this when it comes to God's revelation. Hogan is only doing what he knows to do best. Nothing is going to distract him from doing the best he can. There is nothing wrong with that, except he misses all the excitement of the event of a hole-in-one.
We receive, it seems, what we expect to receive in life. As we become older, we learn what to expect. Sometimes, God just does not operate within the limitations of our experience.
The Jews, at the time of Jesus' birth, are looking for a political messiah. Mary is looking for a son.
What kind of a Christ do we expect? Are we like the devout people Simeon and Anna, willing to be open to the revelation of God in our lives? Are we willing to accept it?
There is a familiar story about how surprising life can be. The story is about a frog who jumps into a bucket which is about half full of cream. The frog is curious, but once in the bucket, he could not get out. The frog swims desperately one way and then another trying to find a way out of the bucket. Finally, the frog is so tired, he seems resigned to the fact that he will never escape. Just at that moment, the cream turns to butter and the frog jumps to safety.
Sometimes, life surprises us in the same way. Our text helps us examine our own expectations of God's activity and to answer the question, are we ready for Christ in our lives?
The story of Simeon and Anna confronts us with several questions. First, "Do we want to develop a life of discipline?" Simeon and Anna are both disciplined. Simeon is open to the Holy Spirit and open to the promise that he will see the Christ in his lifetime. Anna, a devout person who remains unmarried following her husband's death, spends her time in the Temple courtyard meditating. These two people can teach us much. Their hopes are fulfilled, hopes which are fostered through a relationship with God in their discipline of faith.
Our own disciplined life leads us to a spiritual hope similar to that of Simeon and Anna. Hope is a relational quality. Psychologist Eric Erickson talks about how small children learn to be hopeful people. He says it comes through their ability to trust the adults in their lives. As the adults show children that their future is safe and secure, then children learn to have hope in the future. We, too, find hope in relationships. Why is it any different in our relationship with God? If we are to find hope in our spiritual future, we must build a relationship with God through the disciplines of prayer, meditation, and scripture reading. If we are to be ready for the Christ, discipline is important.
Secondly, are we ready to accept the responsibility of knowing that Christ is the center of our salvation? That is what Simeon learned. The Holy Spirit drives him to the Temple, and he is able to touch God's salvation. We call ourselves Christians of the cross. But, we are more like people of Armageddon, looking to the future. We are eschatological people. Our hope is in something which is to come. Our lives are often filled with so much pain that we must look elsewhere. We are searching for a hope beyond the muddle of our lives. We are Christians who look ahead and not at the present reality of what Christ can do for us today.
Our culture is no different than what Christ is born into. He is born at a time when Jews live in poverty and oppression from the Roman Empire. They live in a time of moral decadence. They are looking for a political saviour.
We, too, live daily with hunger, murder and violence as a way of life. We live with countless homeless and with AIDS. We also live in moral decay. We ask the same kinds of questions which the people of Jesus' time must have been asking. But what each generation fails to ask is `What is our own responsibility?"
We can understand the context in which Simeon acts. He walks up to Mary and Joseph and asks for the baby Jesus, saying, "now you are dismissing your servant in peace,...for my eyes have seen your salvation,..." (Luke 2:29-30 NRSV). Christ comes to transform the present. Simeon feels freed to live in the present, once he experiences God's salvation in Christ. How does Christ make us feel?
The final question of the text is, "Are we really willing to accept the consequences?" Simeon warns even Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,..." (Luke 2:34 NRSV)..."and a sword will pierce your own soul, too" (Luke 2:35 NRSV). If we are truly ready for the Christ we must be ready for the consequences. Unlike Simeon, Anna, and Mary, modern day readers know the whole story, from the birth through the death and resurrection of Christ. We know what the consequences are. Simeon and Mary do not. But are we ready to live with those consequences, to live as Christ lived, trying to transform the reality in which we live?
In his book, Theology of Hope, Jurgen Moltmann says Christianity is a religion of hope. It is a futuristic religion. It is also one which is revolutionary because it revolutionizes and transforms the present. Moltmann says "Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it." "Peace with God," says Moltmann, "means conflict with the world...."1 If we, in fact, are ready for Christ, we also have to be ready for the consequences.
The coming of Christ is a point of decision for all of us. Simeon and Anna realized that it is not just for the Jews. The whole world finds in this moment of salvation a time of decision. What better image do we have than the old man, Simeon, holding the little baby Jesus. The old and the new, representing the beginning, and not the end. Simeon and Anna are both ready for what is to come. Are we, too, ready for Christ to be in our lives?
Dan L. Flanagan Norfolk United Methodist Parish Norfolk, NE
1. Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), p. 21.