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It has been over twenty years, but I remember very clearly what it was like after the birth of our firstborn. Everything that led up to it had been frantic and chaotic as is often the case. For the birth, we had to rush to a hospital that was about two hour drive away. And then there was all of the stress and strain and frustration of dealing with the labour and birth, things that were completely unknown to us. And then came the struggles and the worries about feeding. It was all just so disorienting. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was wonderful and it was joyful, but you just have this sense of your entire world being turned upside down.
And so, what did we first-time parents crave once things began to settle down after all that? We craved some sort of return to routine and normalcy. We wanted to establish regular feedings, baths and bedtime routines. And we wanted to make sure that our child got everything that she was supposed to get in our culture. We wanted to make sure that our child’s first Christmas was just perfect. We insisted on that photograph with Santa Claus even if she was totally not into it. We wanted to make sure that our child had all of the right children’s books and children’s toys of the day. And of course, we had to take those monthly pictures to show how our child was growing. I mean, those were the kinds of things that parents did twenty years ago. I realize that the priorities might change in different eras of time, but that desire to make sure that your child gets all of the normal things that every child gets seems to be there for a lot of first-time parents.
And I suspect that this has been true for human parents since the dawn of time. I suspect that it was true for Mary and Joseph. After all of the chaos and disruption of traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the midst of a census, after all of the frantic worrying when they discovered that, when the time came for his birth, they had no place to lay their child and they had to resort to putting him in a feeding trough, after the strange visit from the shepherds who babbled how about visitations from singing angels, I suspect that they were looking for some way to establish some normalcy for their firstborn child.
And, in fact, that appears to be a central focus to our reading this morning from the Gospel of Luke. In this passage, we are told that Mary and Joseph took their son up to the temple in Jerusalem, just a short journey from where they had been staying in Bethlehem. And the obvious question is why. Why did Mary and Joseph do that at that time? And actually, that’s a question I really don’t need to ask, do I? Because Luke doesn’t just tell us once why they did this. I counted; he tells us five times why they did it. Five times in one pretty short passage.
He says that they did it, and I quote, in order to act, “according to the law of Moses,” that it was what was “written in the law of the Lord,” that the sacrifice was “according to what is stated in the law of the Lord,” that they brought the child because it was “customary under the law,” and that, when they were done, “they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord.” Hmm, do you suppose that what they were doing had anything to do with fulfilling the requirements of the law?
Now let me tell you something about reading the scriptures. When, in the Bible, something gets repeated even just once, that is significant. You can be sure that biblical authors are trying to draw your attention to something when they repeat themselves. So I can tell you for certain that it is not by accident that Luke tells us five times that they were there because it was required of them in the law.
So the question is why does Luke want us to notice that? What point is he trying to get across? I suspect he is trying to tell us a few things. For one thing, he doesn’t want us to miss the fact that Jesus was raised as a Jew just like any other Jew of his time and place. It is possible that, by the time this Gospel was written, a number of Christians had started to forget that. He wanted his readers to understand that the foundation of their faith in the Old Testament scriptures should never be forgotten.
He was also trying to make the point that the Apostle Paul makes in our reading from his letter to the Galatians, that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law.” Jesus had to know what it was to live under the law in order to offer liberty that can in some way transcend the law.
But I also get the sense from this story of poor Mary and Joseph, both still reeling from all that they have experienced over the last little while, looking to find some sense of normalcy in their life by just engaging in the normal cultural practices of their people and making sure they do them right. It feels like a very human parenting moment to me. And I’m sure that they were really just looking forward to blending in, to the anonymity of the crowd at the temple – to just be like any other parents who had come to do what was required under the law and then to just be on their way.
And so, can you imagine what they must have felt when, all of a sudden, a crazy old man just started walking towards them and calling out to them. His name was Simeon, but they didn’t know that. He was old, so old that he literally expected that he might just drop dead at any minute. But he had been waiting for something and, somehow, he had had a vision or heard a voice or dreamed a dream that told him that if he got up and went into the temple on this day, he would see what he’d been waiting for all this time. Like I said, a crazy old man. And it’s hard to imagine that Mary and Joseph thought anything but that had he just walked up and took the child out of Mary’s arms.
It doesn’t say that he asked for permission to take the child, just that he took him. Did you notice that? You can bet that Jesus’ parents did. And as he stood there holding the infant, can you imagine how Mary hovered around and maybe tried to tell him how to support the baby’s head and be careful not to startle the boy? And then Simeon looked down at the child and essentially said, “Okay I am ready to die right now.” I can’t imagine that set their hearts at ease! I’ll bet Joseph asked himself if he shouldn’t demand that this nutcase put down his baby this instant!
And while all this was going on, another person came running up – a woman who, if it is possible, looked even more ancient than the man. She at least didn’t try to grab the baby but she, oddly, didn’t even speak to the parents. She just took one look at the boy and turned around to speak to everyone else who had come to the temple that day to tell them that the boy, this tiny little child, would bring about the redemption of Israel. Any thought that Mary and Joseph may have had of a retreat into normalcy and anonymity was going to be a lot harder than they had imagined.
So, does all of this have anything to say to us where we are right now? I think we all have moments in our lives when we, like young parents after all the excitement of the birth, crave a little bit of routine and a little bit of normalcy. That is natural. I think it is something that we’re all craving a fair bit right now. After celebrating a most unusual Christmas, after enduring so many months of unusual life, I think we would all like to find a way to get back to some sense of routine. And I do believe that God graciously does offer us times like that in our lives because God knows that we need them.
But the story of Mary and Joseph in the temple teaches us that there are times when God wants to guide us into a new way. The two people who come up to Mary and Joseph in the temple represent two ways in which God prompts us into new directions. Simeon, we are told did not usually hang around the temple, but he had been specially prompted by the Spirit to go there because God had something to show him. So Simeon represents the leadership of the Spirit.
I truly believe that God’s Spirit does have ways of doing that to us. God’s Spirit acts within us, ever prompting us to step out into new directions and to take new risks. I know we often don’t want to hear that voice speaking within us, we would like to play it safe and just go with what we know. But Simeon teaches us that great wonders and glory are to be found by listening to that disrupting voice within.
Anna, the old woman, is different. She is no stranger to the temple, in fact she basically lives there. She has done so ever since her husband died after seven years of marriage and she has been a widow for a very long time. But her presence there has had a very important purpose because she is a prophet. And that means something very particular. For centuries, the prophets in Israel have been those people who sat near to the institutional authorities – near to the kings and governors and priests – and who confronted those authorities to challenge them when they were wrong and to correct them.
So Anna may have spent her days in the temple, but I can almost guarantee to you and that she was not loved by the priests or other temple authorities. She was there to goad them and to speak the inconvenient word of the Lord. As a prophet, Anna was also different from Simeon in that she was not only dependent on that inner voice of the Spirit, but also on the traditions and laws that demanded that the people act better and especially that they take care of the most vulnerable among them.
Like I say, a lot of people are very uncomfortable around prophets like Anna. And it is precisely because they do not allow us to do what Mary and Joseph were trying to do – just get on with the routine of life and not think about the bigger questions that need to be addressed. But God sends us Annas. God challenges us with big ideas like, “the redemption of Jerusalem,” that Anna spoke to all the people about. This is not because God is angry at us, but rather because God loves us so much that God wants us to be the best that we can be, both as individuals and as a society together. So God will send us prophets to call us to work for these grand ideas.
I know that we are all like Mary and Joseph today. We would like to put aside the disturbing wonders of the times in which we live and just go back to ordinary life. But God will continue to speak to you through the Spirit and prompt you to step out and to risk.
I would counsel you to listen to that voice of the Spirit. You may have already heard it, but you have tried to suppress it and tamp it down. Give that voice a chance. And, while you’re at it, open your heart to listen to the Annas who are speaking in the world today and who are challenging us to address some of the injustices and systemic problems of our society because redemption is still needed for our city.
You might think that it is a bother and annoyance that God would ask these things of us, just like Mary and Joseph found Simeon and Anna to be a bother and annoyance, but it is actually a great privilege to receive such messages and to be given the opportunity to be part of the incredible things that I promise you God is actually doing in our world today.