2017 February Issue
Sermon Briefs: Luke 2:22-40
Beginning his sermon on this text, Charles Kingsley1 made a comment which many of us who preach the lectionary identify with at some time or other: "I do not pretend to understand these words. I preach on them because the Church has appointed them for this day...."
This day may be a good day to center the sermon around the children of the church family. Kingsley focused his sermon on Jesus' childhood. He used the image of stumbling, saying that people have stumbled over Jesus as a real human child. People stumbled over the manger and over the carpenter's shop. Kingsley denounced the false gospels which contain "strange and fanciful stories" about Jesus' childhood. He also spoke against the pictures of Jesus as a child in children's Sunday School books. Kingsley urged his congregation to believe only what the Bible tells us, which is very little. He reminded the children of the congregation that they could take comfort from the fact that Jesus, who was once a little child, understands their weakness.
In her sermon preached during Advent, Romanticism, Reality, and the Christmas Child,2 Elizabeth Achtemeier combines this passage with Isaiah 11:1-9. Our tendency to romanticize Christmas begins in Advent, she says. In her usual Achtemeier way with words, she paints a picture of "romantic wistfulness" based on Isaiah's words. The final symbol of Christmas romanticism, says Achtemeier, is the hope, wonder and love connected with the birth of a little child.
Then Achtemeier redirects her focus. The Scriptures were not trying to be romantic when they seized on the figure of the child. She presents a verbal parade of the Bible's children, and shows that a child in the Bible can be an occasion for judgment or for salvation.
Achtemeier illustrates her point that children may be an occasion for judgment by describing what has happened to children in American society. This section of the sermon leaves us saying, "Yes!" The sermon was preached in 1978, and our minds leap quickly to the way the problems with children and youth have increased since then. The child in our society has become the symbol of judgment on our culture and also on us, she says.
Thus the birth of the Christmas child is not an event that should send us into unrealistic romanticism. Achtemeier says that we stumble over the Christmas child when we make the mistake of thinking we have no lasting responsibility toward him, and like doting grandparents, return to business as usual. A second mistake is to believe that we are immune to judgment, or that we can win God's approval on our own. The words of Simeon, "this child is set for the fall and rising of many," were written for us, too, says Achtemeier. To be realistic about Christmas means to be honest about ourselves, to repent and to allow Christ to transform us. Christmas is as real as the newborn baby, as real as the evil in our lives and God's forgiveness, as real as the Cross and Easter morning.
Mark Trotter's sermon on this text entitled Let Nothing You Dismay,3 is an excellent illustration of preaching the entire passage.
In a beautiful narrative tone, Trotter takes us through the story, helping us to see what the characters are doing there. Mary and Joseph are there because they are simple religious folks, and taking their firstborn to the Temple was just what you did. They didn't question it. They believed it.
Trotter describes Simeon and Anna as Jerusalem's "odd couple." You could always find them there.
Simeon is there at the Temple because he is an expert witness. He has been looking for the Messiah for years. Malachi had prophesied that the Messiah would come "suddenly to the Temple." So Simeon waited and watched, checking out everyone who came to the Temple. If anyone would recognize the Messiah, it would be Simeon. Mary must have been afraid that such an elderly man might drop the baby. Simeon takes the baby, looks into his face, and sings the nunc dimittis. Trotter translates for his listeners. Simeon says, "Now I can leave."
Simeon's song is followed by a prophesy that the child will bring pain. We don't know what his words to Mary mean, but we do know that she will have pain. Simeon delivers his news and departs.
That is why Anna is there. She is an authority, and expert witness in a different way than Simeon. Simeon is a Messianic scholar. He knows the texts backwards and forward. Anna is an expert from the university of life. A survivor. As a widow for 84 years, she is a woman of sorrows and acquainted with grief. She is there for Mary.
Luke needed witnesses to make it perfectly clear that the Messiah had come. The day after Jesus was born, people then still had problems. The world had not changed. Just like the glow fades for us. Just like our world returns to its pre-Christmas state so quickly once Christmas is over.
Using an illustration from Martin Marty, Trotter speaks to the problems we face when the world returns to its pre-Christmas state. It is not the big problems, but the little hair cracks that are occurring everywhere in our daily lives. The text says to us that the Messiah has come to the world with hair cracks. If the world is going to get better, we must trust that the power to change things is already here, waiting for us.
Anna is there after Simeon has departed, telling everyone about it. Anna, says Trotter, is the Church. To announce that the Messiah has come means that the world does not have to be perfect for us to know the things that were promised. Our lives can have wholeness, even though there are cracks in them.
Janice W. Hearn
1. George W. Forell, The Christian Year: Sermons of the Fathers, vol. 1 (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964), pp. 83-86. 2. Elizabeth Achtemeier, "Romanticism, Reality, and the Christmas Child," James W. Cox, Ed., The Twentieth Century Pulpit, Volume II (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981), pp. 11-19. 3. Sermon preached at First United Methodist Church, San Diego, CA, February 26, 1993.