2017 February Issue
Sermon Ideas For Luke 2:22-40 Part 1
It is the last Sunday in the year. Christmas is over. The so very familiar story has been re-told once more, that tale of shepherds and angels, a stable and a young boy-child. Luke barely pauses before launching into a second story, but we seldom listen to its message. The details about Simeon and Anna are only vaguely known by congregations, even though it, too, has all the features of a classic narrative. It uses a familiar opening ("And when the time came..."); it carefully introduces the characters of a righteous man and a prophetic woman, giving details about the setting and circumstances which caused their worlds to intersect with that special child of destiny. Words are spoken of grave import and faithful devotion. Rituals are followed according to ancient laws before at last the Nazarene family leaves the region of Jerusalem and returns home.
If we have neglected this passage, it is prudent to ask ourselves why, especially if we humbly find the answer located in some degree of personal discomfort with this story's explicit Jewishness. The faith of Jesus is intrinsically bound up with the Hebrew rituals of circumcision and purification, of sacrificed pigeons, of temple priests and a long-awaited promised salvation. Too often we move from the Christmas stable-scene to contemporary Christianity. Luke will not allow us to forget that the path of universal salvation passes through the hallowed chambers of the Jerusalem temple.
We do not meet many old people in the New Testament. The Old Testament had its fair share of ancient patriarchs and matriarchs, from Adam to Methusaleh, wrinkled Sarah giving birth and laughing, old King David trying to stay warm beside Abishag. Apart from the occasional elderly character in the parables of Jesus, the only older people in the New Testament we get to know reasonably well are introduced in the first two chapters of Luke: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna. The latter pair are especially ancient, with Simeon unable to die until his eyes see the consolation of Israel and Anna clinging to life while approaching the century mark.
It was primarily for the elderly that the fifth commandment was given. At its heart, the command to honor our father and mother is a prohibition against driving away or abandoning those who are too old to work or considered by some to be economically worthless. To show honor to them is to prize them highly, respecting their years of experience and gathered wisdom. Given that the biblical world was a predominantly oral culture, elders were to be respected as keepers of the religious traditions and heritage of the greater society. Also, through their devoutness, the characters of Simeon and Anna demonstrate their value in the eyes of God, regardless of what the culture around them might profess.
This passage is steeped in messianic language and expectations. The original term "Mashiah" simply means "anointed one" and was primarily used in reference to the priests or prophets dedicated to the Lord's service. With the establishment of the monarchy, the term was also applied to the king. As the historical drama of the chosen people took them through times of captivity, destruction, and exile, the idea of a Messiah expanded from references to present troubles to promises for the future. A time of great redemption would come, in which God would miraculously intervene in the affairs of the nations, bringing about the restoration of Jerusalem, the conversion of the Gentiles, and the resurrection of the dead. This period would be both one of redemption and of judgment, hence the contrasting message given by Simeon.
Dr. Raphael Patai has pointed out that the Talmudic term describing the events which precede the coming of the Redeemer is iqvot haMashiah, or literally, "the footprints of the Messiah." This is significant because the coming of the Messiah is the only event in history which, although to the Jewish people it has not yet come to pass, has left its footprints in advance in the souls of a chosen people, who are thereby shaped and sustained by it. Recognizing this dynamic in the Jewish people in general, and Simeon in particular, is necessary in order to appreciate the analogous "Messianic footprints" that proceed through our Christian understanding of history past and history yet-to-come. What we anticipate for the future is based on what we remember from the past; what we hope will be revealed in God's Kingdom is based on what we have been told about God and God's divine rule by those who have gone before us. The incarnation can be seen as the "footprints" leading to the ultimate redemption of all life, sustaining and shaping us now as it guides us onward.
There is much in this story that can be isolated, examined and explored in a sermon: what it means to be inspired by the Holy Spirit; the cycle of life and death, as an old man welcomes his passing while holding aloft an infant representing the coming age; the theme of universal salvation, or at least of God's plan which is prepared for all people; the sword which is able to pierce souls and hearts; the vocal quality of piety, seen in the spoken prophesies of Simeon and the thankful praises of Anna. But once the allotted sermon time has been reached, may we have the wisdom to wrap up our messages as neatly as Luke concludes this story. May we also be able to acknowledge for ourselves and our congregations how the favor of God is upon us as well.
Randall K. Bush
Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts, p. xv.