2017 February Issue
Sermon Briefs: Luke 2:22-40 Part 2
William H. Willimon has provided a wonderful gift to the preacher in particular and, more generally, the church. Reading With Deeper Eyes: The Love Of Literature And The Life Of Faith1 is one of his more recent books published by Upper Room Books. Here Willimon examines ten different works of literature, from classics as The Odyssey and Crime and Punishment to recent works as In the Beauty of the Lilies and Saint Maybe, through the eyes of the Christian faith. By retelling and interpreting each of these works from a distinctively Christian vantage point, Willimon helps the reader to encounter the claims of the Gospel in fresh and imaginative ways.
In his reflections on Anne Tyler's, Saint Maybe, Willimon expresses his conviction that this may well be one of our century's greatest novels about the church. It is the story of Ian, a nineteen-year-old boy, who has come to a crossroads in his life. Ian feels that he may be responsible for the apparent suicide of his brother, Danny, and Danny's wife. In his confusion and grief, Ian wanders into the storefront "Church of the Second Chance," attracted by the voices of the small congregation in worship. What he seeks is easy forgiveness, forgiveness without cost. Rather, he is instructed by the pastor that he must assume responsibility for his actions; comments Ian made in anger that may have resulted in the suicides. Only in concrete, practical reparation, argues the pastor, will Ian discover the wholeness of forgiveness that he seeks. "What then?" asks Ian; "What must I do?" The pastor tells Ian directly to "see to those children." Here is Ian's crossroads. He is single, a student in college, with all the anticipation and hope for the future of a young person. He cannot continue into the future he has fashioned for himself and raise his brother's children. Yet, accepting responsibility for the children may be the only redemption available to Ian. Ian eventually does exactly as the pastor has advised, dropping out of school and becoming a cabinetmaker so he can raise the children. At this crossroads, Ian chooses responsibility and commitment over selfish ambitions. What he discovers is a joy, a quality of life that is deeply meaningful, as he watches the children grow and mature. At the novel's end, his difficult, oldest adopted daughter proclaims Ian "a saint…maybe."
In his sermon, Temple Crossing,2 Richard L. Eslinger fashions an advent message tightly focused on the sermon's first sentence, "Things happen at intersections." Eslinger observes that people and events come together and then split apart. They converge, forming the intersection, and at "ground zero" they diverge, heading off in different directions. Intersections—we take them for granted, says Eslinger. Though we use intersections everyday, to get from one place to another, there are times when God is at the crossing, when our path intersects with the Divine.
Such a convergence with God occurs in our Advent lection this morning. In the temple there is the holy family, Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child, moving along one trajectory through the crowd's noise and bustle. They are there to make their offering required of the law of Moses. Along another trajectory is Simeon—the one for whom scripture promises, "would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah" (v. 26). The Holy Spirit had revealed to old Simeon that it was time: the fullness of time for his hopes to be fulfilled. Guided by the Spirit, there in the temple court, the two courses converge—there is a meeting at this intersection, very much of God.
Here, at this temple crossing, Simeon takes up the child in the crook of his arms, cradles him, praising God saying, "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace" (v. 9). Eslinger asks, at this intersection, can you feel the weight of the tension? Old Simeon, the tug of the past, prayerfully waiting for God to complete things so he can be dismissed from his service. This is the tension of Advent, the tug of the past and the power of the future, intersecting.
Eslinger's sermon creatively offers various glimpses of life as they intersect with God. At each intersection God's people are pressed for a decision and offered two ways into the future. One—the way of the unjust—is the course of the world. This is the choice that is self-centered, resentful, playing it safe, indifferent to the needs of the poor. The other path—the way of the just—invites hearts that are open to the possibilities of life in the power of the Kingdom: life that is marked by compassion and servanthood. This is the path taken by Ian in the novel, Saint Maybe. We cannot remain at ground zero at such intersections, observes Eslinger. A decision needs to be made. Perhaps such intersections are a time for prayer.
Breaking Through the Ritual,3 is Thomas G. Long's sermon on this text. Prepared as a New Year's Eve sermon, Long reflects on the various rituals we have developed to bring in the new year. For some, the birth of the New Year means a party with friends. For others, New Year's Eve is spent watching a football game or seeing the ball drop from the building in New York City or staying up until midnight and kissing the one we love. We all have our rituals. Yet, all of these rituals are about one thing: the passing of time.
In this text we encounter persons involved in some kind of ritual regarding the passing of time. Mary and Joseph bring the child Jesus to the Temple for the rites of purification and dedication. The rituals marked the end of the time of uncleanliness after the birth of a child and the presentation of the firstborn to the Lord. Simeon has his own ritual: looking for the consolation of Israel; praying the same ritual prayer, "Let my eyes see thy salvation, O Lord." Anna, too, is looking for the redemption of Israel, and she also has her rituals: fasting and prayer, night and day, at the Temple. Everyone seems to have their own rituals as they wait the promises of God.
No one around these people would have expected much from these rituals, says Long. Every year thousands of young parents did what Mary and Joseph were doing, and there were countless nostalgic old Jews like Simeon and Anna fasting and praying and hoping against hope for the renewal of Israel. Yet into these routine rituals came an unexpected grace. At the center of them, suddenly, was Jesus, the Lord of all time. It is this one who appears in the midst of these rituals and gathers the future into his saving grace. It is the same Jesus that appears in the midst of our own rituals today that moves us beyond "passing time" to discover that God has now drawn near.
In his new work, Preaching the New Millennium,4 John Killinger suggest that the amazing surge of spirituality in the last couple of decades may have something to do with our disappointments in the old millennium and our unconscious feeling of hope as a new one approaches. Here in this text are several opportunities, as suggested by the above sermons, for calling God's people who wait on the edge of the new millennium to reclaim their baptismal identity and discover that true life is found not in the promises of the world but in taking the Kingdom path and experiencing the presence of the risen Christ in every moment of life.
1. William H. Willimon, Reading With Deeper Eyes: The Love of Literature And The Life Of Faith (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998).
2. Richard L. Eslinger, "Temple Crossing," The Library of Distinctive Sermons (Sisters, Oregon: Multnoman Publishers, 1997), pp. 51-54.
3. Thomas G. Long, "Breaking Through the Ritual," The Ministers Manual For 1990 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), pp. 214-215.
4. John Killinger, Preaching the New Millennium (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999).