2017 February Issue
Sermon Ideas For Commentary: Luke 2:22-40 Part 4
For many pastors there is little doubt that the Sunday after Christmas Day tends to be a "low attendance day" for worship. This year, after the crescendo of a Friday evening candle-light Christmas Eve service, this trend will no doubt prevail. Many pastors, in fact, use this Sunday as a day to get away for holiday celebrations with their own families. Pastors do this because although Christmas is one of the church's most sacred days, it is also a time to celebrate with family. Despite the inclinations of a culture such as ours, the lectionary makers provide us one of the most beautiful and inspiring stories of the many Luke tells. On this Sabbath the Lucan text gratifies those preachers who stay home to preach.
The homiletic text, Luke 2:22-40, contributes probably too much rich material to address in one sermon. However, I have divided the text into five legitimate parts and identified each part as one of five acts. Included are potential themes about which to preach.
Act I: Luke 2:22-24
This section of Luke's story immediately follows Jesus' circumcision. Luke emphasizes in today's text that Mary and Joseph are observant Jews who follow the ritual Hebrew law. For Luke, Jerusalem is the focus of God's activity on behalf of God's people (see Lk 2:41; 4:9; 9:31, 51; 13:33-34; 24:47; Acts 1:8). Because of Jerusalem's importance for the story of faith, Luke cites the holy city three times in this lectionary passage. The presentation of the child, the sacrifices, and their purification each signal the faithfulness "to the law of Moses" and "what is stated in the law of the Lord." It is the Jewish tradition that thoroughly grounded Jesus' family in faith. One preaching formula might remind modern congregations that tradition shapes people. If an individual or a church abandons its tradition, then that community surrenders its formative identity. Jesus' life is unique and miraculous, but Jesus also originates from a particular place, a particular time, and a particular community. Jesus' legacy as a human being started squarely within his own community's tradition.
Act II: Luke 2:25-32
When the holy family comes to Jerusalem to fulfill the ritual law, Luke relates that they encounter the righteous and devout Simeon upon whom the Holy Spirit rests. The Spirit reveals to Simeon that before he dies he will see Israel's Messiah. In the temple Simeon took Jesus in his arms, and he sings one of the several songs in Luke's Gospel (see Lk 1:46-50, 68-79). Simeon addresses his song to God, and it bears the traditional Latin name "Nunc Dimittis." The song is a blessing for one who has faithfully waited for "the consolation of Israel." Many church hymnals include this blessing as a congregational act of praise.
A preaching theme of fulfilled hope springs forth from the text. Preachers may employ from this part of the text Simeon's diligent and faithful persistence. Twentieth century congregations can experience the theme of unwavering waiting in expectation for the fulfillment of God's promise.
Act III: Luke 2:33-35
After Simeon's bold act of blessing, amazement captures Jesus' parents. As Luke tells the story, however, Jesus' parents will not be the only individuals that Jesus' actions and words will amaze (see Lk 2:47; 4:22, 36; 9:43; 11:14, 38). Simeon's words also do not supply strictly unqualified joy. These words also foreshadow circumstances that would later prove world changing. Preachers might use the image of a baby's birth to suggest both the promise and destiny that each new birth represents. I once used the illustration of seeing Lee Harvey Oswald's baptismal certificate to suggest that every birth represents both positive and negative potentialities. Jesus' birth implies hope for Israel but at a price higher than anyone present in the temple might imagine—except perhaps Simeon.
Act IV: Luke 2:36-38
Luke here introduces a new character. Anna is an elderly woman who, like Simeon, waits attentively for God's revelation. "Fasting and prayer night and day" characterize Anna's waiting. In this animated text, a reader might easily overlook Anna. However, this is a passage that elevates Anna as one who understands faith for the "long-haul." Luke pictures her as an archetype of resilience and tenacity. She may remind the reader of Jesus' parable of the "Unjust Judge" or the "Importunate Widow" (Lk 18:1-8). Anna's authority, quite different from Simeon's, is a product of a willingness to trust God—no matter how long that trust takes to materialize. Preachers could focus on the capacity it takes to wait in faith for God and the gracious compensation of such waiting.
Act V: Luke 2:39-40
These two verses close this pericope and the infancy narratives we find in Luke. The story which follows introduces Jesus as a twelve year old again in the temple (Lk 2:41-52). This time he is listening and asking questions of the learned Jewish teachers. Our lesson finishes with Mary and Joseph's return to Galilee. There they raise the child that will literally change world history. Luke reminds readers that in Nazareth Jesus "grew and became strong, filled with wisdom." Jesus is at least a product of a Jewish family and its culture.
Luke, however, also wants the readers to remember that during Jesus' formative years that "the favor of God was upon him." The savior of the world begins his preparation for ministry influenced both by earthly parents and a heavenly Parent. As the incarnation of God, Jesus stands as a bridge between divinity and humanity. Preachers may use Jesus' first years to elaborate the essential teachings that prepare Jesus for the ministry that will follow. Using subtle strokes, Luke proposes that the nurturing of this remarkable child, the focus of two chapters, take place in the home of two devoted parents. Luke may even suggest that this place of nurture is simply the sanctuary of a common Jewish home. From the ordinary home of Joseph and Mary originates our extraordinary Messiah.