2017 February Issue
Sermon Ideas For Luke 2:22-40 Part 4
We are preparing to preach on a difficult day: February 29. The congregations may be sparse, and we and our hearers alike may be tired from recent gatherings of family and friends, pageants, and special services. We may be tempted to forego spending energy on reflecting theologically on this lesson, taking Auden's words as our own. "Well, so that is that…There are enough left-overs to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week—not that we have much appetite…."1 Yet the Gospel lesson itself will not let us shrink from it. We have come to that for which we prepared during the weeks of Advent.
During Advent we encountered, in John the Baptizer and Mary, figures of the church standing in anticipation of the fulfillment of God's promises. This week we are joined by Simeon and Anna, and with them arrive in the time of fulfillment. Certainly, our time is still in the tension of memory and hope. We still live between Jesus' first and final comings, yet time has already ripened (Gal 4:4), and the fulfillment has already begun. Reality has already been altered in a fundamental way. We may say that we have seen our salvation (Lk 2:30).
We say this with no little audacity, though, because the alteration of reality that has come with the small one is not obvious to all. Indeed, in our lesson he is greeted with images laden with tension, even conflict. The one who brings and in fact is the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem (Lk 2:25,38), who will bring light for revelation and glory (v.32), will reveal thoughts and be opposed (v.34), and is destined for the falling as well as the rising of many among God's people (v.34). For Mary, who in placing herself in God's service is the exemplar of the church's faith, the altered reality will mean the piercing of her soul (v.35). It is indeed an unsettling beginning. "[A]lready the mind begins to be vaguely aware of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now be very far off."2
What does this mean for the community of faith with Simeon and Anna to greet a salvation that is welcomed and opposed? We profit from exploring the poles of the tension. Simeon speaks of falling before he does of rising (Lk 2:34). The first pole to consider is one of opposition and judgment. Karl Barth has pointed out that in the coming of Christ, God has taken a specific stance toward the world and all of its people.3 The problem, for the world, is that neutrality is not an option. This new reality makes the same claim upon all. In our culture with its heritage of liberal democracy, religion is best tolerated when it is a personal—meaning private—matter. This salvation as God's salvation, however, has been prepared in the sight of, and is for all peoples. Note that Simeon does not say, "I have seen my salvation." When we say with Simeon that we have seen the salvation of God, we speak not of personal piety or intellect or opinion, but about the cosmos and its God.4
Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder worked to spell out the consequences for faith communities. In part, Yoder noted, it means that the life of faith communities, the catholic church, should exemplify alternate possibilities that exist for life, here and now, apart from those to which the world confines itself. Communities of faith have the task not to ask whether the message of this salvation is for all humankind, nor to translate it into the world's terms, but to live it so that it may be perceived to be good news.5 Some will perceive it as such and accept it, not just for private faith, but as an offer to all of society; some will not. Some may reject it violently. The day after we preach these lessons, many will remember Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
The second pole speaks to the attitude the church is to take in face of this possibility of radical rejection. This pole is trust. We are helped by keeping in mind the liturgical context in which we most regularly find Simeon's song, the Nunc Dimittis. Since the fifth century CE, the Nunc Dimittis has been part of Compline, the final prayer office of the day in Christian communities. The rhythm of daily prayer sanctifies time, taking the moments of each day to stand for realities of faith. Compline draws the connection between entrusting ourselves to God in the night's sleep and what will be our final act of this trust at our death. In a Trappist community in which I have made retreat, the final words of Compline are, "May the all powerful Lord grant us a restful night, and a peaceful death."
Simeon was ready to depart in the assurance of God's salvation (Lk 2:29-30). He had seen the light of revelation and salvation with his own eyes and held it in his own arms. Only a few days after preaching this lesson, we will enter a new millennium. We do not know what it will hold. We do know, secular time aside, that in greeting the mystery of God with us, we have arrived at the beginning that will lead us to our end. We too may depart, taking Auden's words as our own. "[B]ecause of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender…Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace."6
Philip E. Thompson
1. W.H. Auden, Collected Longer Poems (New York: Random House, 1969), p. 195.
2. Ibid., p. 195.
3. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, trans. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975), pp. 154-55.
4. See John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), pp. 24-35.
6. Auden, pp. 183-84.