2017 February Issue
Preaching: Luke 2:22-40
A sermon might stress the fundamental continuity between Judaism and Christianity. This emphasis is suggested by the fact that Jesus is circumcised after eight days, and his parents follow the purification patterns of Leviticus 12. Jesus is born into a Jewish world. His parents are faithful, practicing Jewish people. Luke interprets the significance of Jesus in Jewish terms.
Jesus is very much in continuity with Jewish tradition and with Judaism. Later, when he critiques Jewish people and practices, he does not reject Judaism as such. He speaks, instead, much like one of the classical prophets, charging that some Jewish people do not live up to the best of the Jewish tradition. In Acts, Luke criticizes Jewish people and institutions not because they are Jewish, but because certain of them do not acknowledge the validity of the gentile mission. Judaism's standing before God is not in question.
In only a few years (relatively speaking) the church emerged as a largely gentile community. It lost touch not only with Judaism but with its own Jewish roots. It developed its own rituals, its own practices, and its own distinctive theological claims. However, as this text reminds us, the essence of the faith of the church has remained very close to the essence of the faith of Judaism. Christianity and Judaism are not the same religion, but they share significant commonalities at their core.
This discovery is important to today's community for several reasons. (1) If the essence of Christianity is derived from the essence of Judaism, Christian understanding of our own faith is deepened when we attend to the holy roots from which the holy branches have grown. Toward this end, pastors ought to preach more often on texts, themes, ideas, and images from the First Testament. Without a working knowledge of the First Testament, much of today's text is meaningless. (2) It can help heal the bitterness that has too often plagued Jewish-Christian relationships, and the violence that has too often been meted out to Jews by well-meaning but ill-informed Christians. (3) The healing of the rift between Judaism and Christianity can serve as a paradigm of the international reconciliation that needs to take place among all peoples to help our world become a place of shalom.
Another sermon might draw on the fact that both a man (Simeon) and a woman (Anna) function as prophets in this passage. Throughout Luke-Acts, the author makes it clear that the Holy Spirit can use either men or women (or, as in this case, both) to interpret the divine presence and purposes, and to act as leaders in the religious community. In this passage, Simeon speaks a prophetic word only to the immediate family (and to the reader, of course). Anna, on the other hand, becomes one of the first preachers of the gospel as she speaks "to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem."
Beginning with Anna (or Mary, or Elizabeth), the preacher might trace women in various positions of leadership in the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. From the raising of the widow's child at Nain to the mutual ministry of Priscilla and Aquilla, in Luke's mind, the subservient role assigned to women in the curse of Genesis 3:14-19 is now being reversed. This development is a part of the divine renewal of the world, the universal restoration of all things (Acts 3:21) that is now underway through Jesus, and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Another sermon might focus on Luke's use of Simeon. Luke uses Simeon (who is described as a model Jewish elder: righteous, devout, looking for the completion of God's promises to Israel, full of the Holy Spirit) to confirm the identity of Jesus, and, consequently, the mission of the church. Because of who he is, Simeon can speak a word that Jewish readers would recognize as an imprimatur, an authentication, of the story of Jesus.
The preacher might create a sermon by telling the stories of several modern day Simeons, people whose testimony helps validate the Christian story. Can the preacher tell the story of someone(s) in the congregation (or in the world of the congregation), or some community, whose life story witnesses to the salvation that God has "prepared in the presence of all peoples," or who has been illuminated by the light that is revelation for the gentiles?
Simeon reminds the readers that the message of renewal and salvation is not always welcomed. Some who witness to the divine will for the world sometimes bring the witnesses into conflict with persons and groups who are not receptive to the witness. While the many will be raised to new life as they greet the salvation that comes through Jesus and the church, others will oppose it because they do not recognize that it is from God. And some of the witnesses themselves will be hurt. A sword will pierce Mary's soul. Stephen will be martyred. Peter and his companions will be jailed. Paul will be imprisoned. Simeon here provides a word of pastoral orientation to the readers and witnesses: be prepared for possible conflict when you testify to the universal restoration. Some people like things the way they are and will act violently to keep them so.
Children growing up today are beset by manifold problems, e.g., broken homes, drugs, inadequate role models, schools that struggle to provide them with fundamental education, media that feeds them shallow visions of life, loss of values. In this light, v. 40 suggests a sermon that helps the congregation reflect on ways it can help its children (and children beyond itself) mature. As a lovely line from the hymn "Once in David's Royal City" says, "Jesus is our childhood's pattern." What can the church do to help its children (and children from its neighborhood) move toward childhoods modeled in that pattern?
Ronald J. Allen