Never Too Late
A meditation on Luke 2: 22 – 40
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop December 31, 2017 Grace Presbyterian Church
It has the feel of a scene we have witnessed many times here in our own sanctuary. A child has been born, and the much anticipated day of baptism arrives. Everyone’s attention – from strangers to family members – rests on the baby. There is a comfort in the hope that new life brings. It is impossible not to smile.
It has the feel of a scene in which we have participated. The baby is passed around from one set of loving arms to the next, each person blessed by the vulnerability of the child. Each person a little nervous that the child might cry, each hoping for the gift of a smile, the glimpse of a dimple.
Jesus was a mere 40 days old, when his young, sleep-deprived parents brought him to the temple to be dedicated, according to the Jewish custom. As their first born male, he would be dedicated to God, and Mary would receive her ritual cleansing. So they came, with their two turtledoves, since they could not afford a lamb, but what happened that day was anything but what they expected.
This is Luke’s story, and Luke tells the story of Jesus’ life in a way unlike the other gospel writers. Luke includes more women in the narrative. Luke is concerned about the poor and oppressed. Luke worries about the outsider. He makes this readily apparent with the inclusion of those filthy shepherds. What parent in their right mind would want them around the cradle? Our Parent God…Our Parent God would want them to be the first ones to hold the baby. Luke relishes this radical inclusion.
Luke gifts us with this wonderful story of how Jesus rocked the world without saying a word. Just his very presence. Fred Strickert, in “The Gospel of Inclusion”, writes: “This is a story about the inclusive gospel in an exclusive world. The critical concerns of our modern world are all treated: race, class, gender, and age. The old distinctions are broken down by the new reality present in a 40 day-old baby named Jesus.” [i]
Race. Class. Gender. Age. All the old distinctions broken down by a baby who can’t speak a word! What does Strickert mean by this?
Let’s start with race. A Jewish couple brings their Jewish baby to be dedicated at the Temple according to the requirements of their faith. Without even asking permission, or assuring them that he has washed his hands, Simeon takes the baby into his arms, and begins to preach:
“You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”
Do you get what a huge declaration this is? Simeon is standing in the Jewish temple and proclaiming that this unknown baby is the salvation for ALL peoples. He is a glory for the Jews (that’s radical enough!), but he is also a light for the Gentiles. It’s surprising that Simeon wasn’t run out of the Temple for these words. Surely someone other than Mary and Joseph heard him. Did they just ignore him? Did they dismiss him? After all he’s old. He doesn’t know what he is saying…perhaps he has dementia.
This is life affirming language to the readers of Luke’s Gospel. With these brief words, Simeon has dismantled the temple system, with all of its limitations and restrictions, and declared that Gentiles will always be welcome in God’s realm. To give you an idea of how radical this is, listen to the wording of the signage that had been posted around the temple: No foreigner is to enter within the balustrade and embankment around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.
Simeon blasts those signs off the wall with his message! He has some new wording to suggest: All are welcome in the House of the Lord!
Class. Well, where is the priest in this story? Have you ever wondered that? Here is a young family that has come to dedicate their first born male child to God, but where is the priest? Instead of a priest, we have a pair of elderly lay people who offer their blessings over this child, and the world which he inhabits. Anna is given more descriptors than Simeon. She is a prophet (although that may well be a title given to her by Luke rather than how she was understood in her day), a widow, an individual who spends her days worshiping and serving the Temple. Regardless of their faithfulness, they don’t hold any power or authority within the religious heirarchy.
Luke gives us their names – rather rare as the gospel narratives go – and he tells their stories of dedicating this child to God. As this day unfolded, there must have been an encounter with a priest at some point. Mary must have received the cleansing ritual, the child must have been dedicated, the gift of turtledoves or pigeons offered to God. But none of that is the story that Luke tells. He tells us about two elderly prophets, at least one of whom is destitute, and of their participation in the celebration of God’s inbreaking into the world. God continues to draw the circle wide, continues to bring the excluded into the circle.
Gender. Though Luke often gives us mixed messages with regard to women, we must be thankful that he includes more of them than any other Gospel writer. He gives more of them voices. He partners stories of men and women. Zachariah’s story and Mary’s story. The shepherd searching for the one lost sheep and the woman searching for the one lost coin. He is very intentional with his pairings and he does the same thing here. He doesn’t just give us Simeon, with his powerful proclamation; he gives us both Simeon’s preaching and Anna’s evangelizing. She went on “to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” The walls of exclusion continue to crumble.
Age. Here are two elderly individuals who have been waiting for God’s promise to be fulfilled. How many people dismissed them? How many shook their heads, and said, “Bless their hearts.” How many priests thought they were foolish to believe that God’s messiah would be seen by ordinary people? Yet they were faithful. And to those who had dismissed these two as senile or silly, Simeon’s words were either a shock or a confirmation of senility. Not only did he declare Jesus to be light, glory and salvation, but he also added these frightening words:
“This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts [i.e. dark thoughts] of many will be revealed.”
Which causes us to flash forward to hear words of Jesus as Luke records:
“I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze! I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division. From now on, a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three. Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12: 51 – 53)
Simeon celebrated the joy of God’s universal welcome and salvation, while also acknowledging the uncomfortable reality that most of us prefer to live in a world were some are “in” and some are “out.” The “inner thoughts would be revealed” and continue to be revealed as Jesus’ light shines into the dark corners of our world, of our hearts. Christ’s truth does divide us because it is such a difficult truth in which to live. His path is such a sacrificial path to walk.
Truly all we can do is take one step at a time and hope and pray that we are walking in the way of the Prince of Peace. Sometimes that will cause us to take a stand that makes others uncomfortable or even offends. (I am well aware that simply being a female pastor is offensive to some…) What happens if we can push through these issues that threaten to divide us? What happens if we can push through and find a way to live together in Christ’s peace, a peace that includes rather than exclude? A peace that relieves the oppressed, feeds the hungry and honors the elderly?
Simeon warned us about these divisions. Jesus warned us, too. But let us hold on with hope, and let us hold on to this simple story. Two wise and daring prophets. Two blurry eyed parents. One infant child. Miraculous words spoken. Here’s a story to begin our year. Here is a story of hope and caution and wisdom. What might this year bring if we carry this deceivingly simple story with us in the days, the weeks and months ahead? How might this story change the course of our year?
[i] Strickert, Fred, The Presentation of Jesus: The Gospel of Inclusion. Luke 2:22-40. Currents in Theology and Mission, Wartburg College, February 1, 1995