2017 February Issue
Preaching: Luke 2:22-40 Part 2
A sermon could focus on Jesus Christ and the church as good news for gentiles. In vv. 29-32, the prophet Simeon articulates an important dimension of the purpose of Jesus and the church: to carry the news of salvation to gentiles, and in so doing, to honor the historic mission of Israel.
In Luke-Acts, salvation refers to the recognition that God is restoring the world to its original purposes through Jesus Christ, and joining in the movement towards restoration. (On the motif of restoration, see Preaching the Lesson for February 19, 1999). Restoration includes the reunion of the Jewish and the gentile peoples, as noted in Preaching the Lesson for February 12, 1999. This restoration and reunion will be Israel's glory (v. 32) because God blessed Israel so that, through Israel, "all the families of the earth [i.e., gentiles] shall be blessed" (Gen 12:3).
The sermon could describe the life of gentiles who live apart from the knowledge of God. Gentiles worship idols, thereby demonstrating a false sense of ultimate reality. They practice injustice. They pervert God's purposes for human community. As Acts 4:25 says, the gentiles rage and imagine vain things. The preacher could help the church recollect ways in which our world manifests gentile qualities.
However, through Jesus Christ, gentiles can repent, and turn towards the God of Israel. Thereby, we gain a true sense of ultimate reality. We learn justice. We become a part of a community (the church) that embodies the divine restoration. We receive peace (shalom). The preacher can also help us see how these qualities calm our raging.
Another theme nestled in this passage could lead to a sermon that would bring a sobering thought into the Christmas season. Simeon declares that Jesus causes suffering among those who are closest to him (Lk 1:34-35). This theme is persistent in Luke-Acts: the restoration of the world through Jesus Christ provokes a negative reaction among some people outside the Jesus movement (for example: 4:28-30; 9:23-27; 12:4-12, 49-56; 21:12-24; 22:47-23:49; Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42; 6:8-8:1). By placing this theme in the birth narrative, Luke assures the later Christian community that conflict is inherent between the new world and the old.
If the congregation is suffering because of its witness to the coming of a new world, the text is a comfort. God initiated this manifestation through Jesus Christ and continues it through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit empowers us even in the jaws of difficulty. The preacher can help the congregation identify sources of encouragement and empowerment for the congregation.
If the church is not in conflict with the surrounding culture, the preacher may lead the community to consider whether it is sufficiently announcing and modeling the restoration. In this case, the church is called to acts of witness that are as bold as the ones pictured in the Book of Acts. What does the congregation need to do to demonstrate Christian identity and values?
Luke 2:25-38 suggests another sermon on the relationship of women and men in leadership in the Christian community. Luke often mentions women and men in leadership roles, or brings together male and female images around a common theme (for example, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, the parables of the lost sheep (male shepherd) and lost coin (female housekeeper), the parables of the widow (and the unjust judge) and the Pharisee (and the tax collector), the Spirit and prophecy falling on sons and daughters, slave women and slave men, Aquila and Priscilla as joint teachers of Christian faith. Simeon and Anna jointly interpret the significance of Jesus Christ for the Lukan reader.
This motif is important because it recollects the divine intention to restore relationships in the world to the pattern that existed before the fall (see Preaching the Lesson for February 12, 1999). For Luke, women and men are partners in leadership in the Christian community, thereby exercising the kind of dominion envisioned by Genesis 1:26-27. The preacher can help the community inventory the degree to which this principle is lived out in the ministerial staff, in the leadership of the boards and committees, among the teachers, in the attitudes and assumptions of the congregation as a whole. If the community manifests a Simeon-in-partnership-with-Anna approach to leadership, the preacher can reinforce this tendency and point to its benefits. If the community continues to manifest limited roles for women in leadership, the preacher can help the congregation discover theological roots and images that can help plant the community and begin to move towards a witness to the restored world through the partnership of women and men in leadership.
Another sermon is brought to the surface by the thorough Jewishness of this text. Jesus is circumcised. The parents come to the temple to carry out rites of purification. They sacrifice. In the earliest years of the church, we should not speak of it as Christianity (as if the church were a distinct religion) but as Christian Judaism. For the church was a sect within Judaism. Luke envisions the Christian witness as an extension of Judaism. When gentiles come to know, love, and serve the God of Israel through Jesus Christ and the church, they are de-paganized, and they are modestly Judaized.
However, for most of the last 2,000 years the church and Judaism have existed in parallel worlds. When they did intersect, Christians often harassed Jewish communities, the nadir being the Holocaust. Only in the last generation has a dialogue begun among a few Jewish and Christian leaders, synagogues, and churches that seeks rapprochement.
The preacher could use the Jewish materials in today's text as a starting point for a sermon on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. In addition to recounting the sordid history of this relationship through much of the past, the preacher could point to Luke-Acts as containing resources that can help us reconstruct the relationship between church and synagogue as one that witnesses to the restoration of human community.
Ronald J. Allen