2017 February Issue
Sermon Ideas For Luke 2:22-40 Part 2
We don't tarry with Christmas. All the weeks of preparation and expectancy have passed. By Christmas Eve the world is ready to get on with "After Christmas Sales." To the market place, to the lords and dwarves of commerce, the day itself is an inconvenience. To families and individuals the day can be a terrible emotional strain. Too many old patterns and hurts get surfaced. The sensitive pastor knows this already.
As we begin to take down the ornaments, put away the presents, and return to the time being, this Sunday is an occasion to reflect back upon where we have been in the last year, in the past few weeks, in the last few days. This is not Camelot we have seen. We have celebrated the encounter of the holy with the profane. We have celebrated with joy that God did become man, in the flesh, if you will. We have given thanks for the gift of a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ—no longer slaves (douloi), but now sons and daughters. Christmas and Epiphany help us remember who we are.
John Westerhoff, Christian educator and story teller, relishes the story of the orphaned baby lion raised by a herd of gazelles. He grazes and migrates with them; he learns all the ways of gazelles and seems content. He can even make gazelle sounds. One day a horrible roar is heard; the herd flees in desperate fear. Oblivious, the lion cub keeps grazing. With mane flying, a full grown lion bounds up before him, ready to swipe him away with a paw. "Who are you?" demands the lion. "A gazelle," replies the cub. Cuffing him on the ear, the lion drags him to the water hole. As he looks into the reflection of both of them, the cub says, "But you're like me." "Exactly," says the lion as he leads him away. Westerhoff notes that at that moment the cub knows who he is and whose he is. Christmas helps us remember who we are and whose we are.
More than that Epiphany entrusts us with a role as missionaries who are charged with making known to the world the one made manifest to the world. The text, Luke 2:22-40, includes the ancient hymn, the Nunc Dimittis. More than that, it is the story of Simeon, who at his life's end has a part to play in the divine drama. He testifies he sees in Jesus the consolation of Israel; now he can die in peace. Given our prevailing attitudes about the elderly, we may be tempted to dismiss him as a silly old man in his dotage. However, Simeon has a role as he receives the young Jesus and the parent's sacrifice of purification. No one is so old or so young, no one is so insignificant that there is not a part for them to take in God's plan. (Here is an opportunity for the preacher to comment or to develop the conflicting value placed on the young, old, or unimportant—God's versus the world's.) We are all called to be saints and witnesses to Christ. Because of whose we are, it is incidental who we are.
The late Professor A.T. Mollegen spoke of three kinds of saints who are typified in the three saints' days celebrated just after Christmas. It is not by chance that immediately after the Nativity the Church across the ages has us reflect on death, martyrdom, and witness. "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel," Simeon tells Mary, "And a sword will pierce through your own soul." Strange, troubling words he relates. Mollegen identifies three classes of martyrs or witness as the calls Stephen, John, and the Innocents whom Herod slaughtered. "Stephen is martyr in will and deed. John is a martyr in will, but not in deed. While the Holy Innocents are martyrs in deed but not yet in will."1 Together with Simeon, all Christians are encompassed. The preacher has an opportunity to affirm that, no matter who we are, we have a role to play in Christ's work of redemption and salvation.
Not every one is called upon to pour out his life's blood for the sake of the gospel. As with Stephen, the first martyr, there are countless saints who have followed in his train, even into our own time. The blood of martyrs has always been the seed of Church growth. Russia shows the resurgence of piety and faith as churches long empty are again filling. We get rumors of a strong underground faith in China. By the same token, the witness of John exiled to Patmos incorporates all those who pay a price for their faith. Here is an opportunity to address the struggle of contending with social pressures from family, job, and community. It is so easy to go along. For the average Christian, there is a second level of concern: the self-righteous martyr whose "witness" offends rather than wins others to Christ. The luxury of choosing one's battles is not always possible, but clarity of goal is important. If a key description for Stephen is "forgiving," a key descriptor of John is "compassionate."
What can be said about the Holy Innocents? Mollegen notes their deaths expose the inexplicable link between sin and human suffering. Africa, Bosnia and the Middle East are a tragic testimony to the capacity of mankind to inflict wanton cruelty upon the innocent. The frequently mis-quoted Pauline passage, "In everything God works for good with those who love him," (Rom 8:28) will not serve to explain away the travesty. We are too quick to state God wills what he only allows through his gift of freedom. When we explain away tragedy, we short circuit the message of grace and we cheapen the gift of divine love. We really erase the significance of the cross. Here again the preacher has an opportunity to invite his hearers to struggle with tough issues in what would otherwise be the post-Christmas let down. The preacher is reminded there is a sin of silence as well as of commission. It applies to each of us in our respective roles as witnesses. In this holy season, our eyes have seen God's salvation prepared for all people. There was a role for Simeon; there are roles for each of us.
Louis C. Fischer, III
1. Howard A. Johnson, Editor., Preaching the Christian Year (New York:Charles Scribner's Sons, 1957), p. 45. Library of Congress # 57-12061.