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Feast of the Presentation, The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs Luke 2:22-40, 2 February 2020
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus, which we celebrate today, is based on Luke’s account of Jesus’ parents doing what good, faithful Jewish parents did for their firstborn sons: They brought him to the Temple for the ritual of the Redemption of the Firstborn. Since the first male child of a Jewish family, according to Torah, was to be “designated as holy”, that is, predestined to serve as a priest, the family would “redeem” him, or effectively buy him back from that duty.
So Mary and Joseph made the 64-mile journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem to fulfill their religious obligation.
Did they have any idea what awaited them in the Temple?
Because the Spirit was at work in Jerusalem. She came to an old man, righteous and devout, whose entire life had been devoted to waiting for the coming Messiah—“looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” Biblical storyteller Richard Swanson writes that the Greek for “looking forward” here is better translated as “receiving forward”—not merely anticipation, but a metaphorically leaning, stretching; reaching out, as if to grasp a future that has been desperately yearned for and is now just at his fingertips. This, Simeon’s waiting, says Swanson, “…carries the metaphoric hint of being stretched tight, stretched even to the breaking point, like a string on a guitar, tightened and tightened and tightened yet some more, until finally it is about to snap.”
It is into this waiting, reaching, stretching that the Spirit comes.
What did Simeon expect to see when the Spirit urged him toward the Temple? If he knew his Isaiah, and we can safely assume that he did, he would have expected a male child: “Unto us a child is born…a son is given…and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Was Simeon surprised, then, to see a poor couple, dusty and tired from their journey, carrying a six-week-old bundle and a paltry two doves for the ritual sacrifice? The parents of the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, unable to afford a lamb for an offering—what must have gone through his head?
Apparently only love. Only joy. Only confirmation of fulfillment of a life of waiting. Only the desire to reach out and carefully take the baby in old arms that had been empty for so long.
Because he had given his life to waiting for this child.
“Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior… “I have kept watch. Now I can die in peace.”
Both Simeon and Anna knew something about waiting. They may not always have waited patiently, but they did wait faithfully.
We have heard a lot this past Advent about waiting—about knowing that the act of waiting hopefully is part of making the future Dream of God a reality in the present. So, how we wait is to wait in hope. But what is the cost of what we wait for? That is the question that Simeon and Anna prompt us to ponder.
Waiting can be complicated. On the one hand there is the relatively straightforward wait against clock and calendar, waiting for noon lunchtime or graduation day in May or June. These are set objectives—clear and finite. But there is also the indefinite side of waiting, when what we are waiting for isn’t marked by alerts on our computers and mobile devices. This kind of waiting affects the way in which we wait, and what it requires of us. Test results. Healing. Justice. The other shoe to drop. We wait with dread, anticipation, anxiety, hope—and it requires our energy, our focus, our time, our sweat, and sometimes even our safety.
Waiting costs. And depending on what we are waiting for, the cost will vary.
So be careful what you wait for.
Did Anna know the cost of what she waited for? It isn’t clear. Yes, she was a prophet, but the role of prophets is not always to predict the future but to speak truth to power. Anna’s joyful news about the redemption of Jerusalem, spoken excitedly to everyone in the Temple, was a triumphant declaration to all with ears to hear that change was coming, thanks be to God.
But she was eighty-four years old. Her waiting would not see Jesus arrested, tortured, condemned and crucified. How might her triumph be tempered had she known what would come before his ultimate victory? Waiting is complicated—would she be prepared for the cost of discipleship?
Simeon doesn’t speak to the crowd like Anna does. He speaks more intimately to the little family in front of him. To Mary he confides that a sword will pierce her soul, a prophecy that is short on detail and laden with dreadful portent. He also speaks of the falling and rising of many in Israel—notice he doesn’t say rising and falling. Rising and falling is what happens to principalities and powers. Falling and rising is what happens to co-creators of the Dream of God—to those who know the cost of what they await.
Is it any wonder that Mary and Joseph were amazed at this encounter? Even with all that had happened in the life of this little family from the beginning, this would rank as momentous news. Yet this is the first time in the Gospels where Mary has been directly told that the future of the child now cradled in Simeon’s arms would bring her pain–that bearing the Promised One of God would cost her dearly.
And yet she bore his words as Mary always did—taking and pondering these things in her heart as she and Joseph completed their mitzvah and made the long trip back to Nazareth, where they would continue doing what parents do—raising their child to become strong and filled with wisdom, yet from the moment of their encounter with Simeon waiting for the life of their precious son to unfold, come what may.
Be careful what you wait for. What are we waiting for? And what will it ask of us? An answer, and the Good News, lies in Simeon’s outstretched arms. The baby. There is something about babies.
We’re suckers for them. We are virtually guaranteed to turn into sentimental puddles in the presence of an infant, and if you don’t believe me, just wait until Louis Clifton Schoch’s baptism next week.
We are hard-wired to fall in love with babies. It’s one of the ways that nature has equipped us to keep the species going. Think of the transformation that takes place: When we make a commitment to a child either by birth, adoption, or baptism, we willingly give away a large measure of our independence. We accept a call to give our lives to these helpless creatures—to nurture, cherish and protect them. And no matter how old they grow we will be forever imprinted with the image of them as creatures fresh from God.
So is it any surprise that God would come to us in an incarnation that elicits this response? Yes, Isaiah declared that the child would be named Mighty God, Everlasting Father. But, as Simeon discovered, this Messiah defies all expectation of grandeur and power. Instead this Incarnation—God With Us–challenges us to dig deep to the spark that lights us all—love. He calls forth from us the hard-wired willingness to pay the cost of what we await; to dedicate ourselves to the nurturing and protection of the beloved children of God.
Our celebration of the Presentation acts as a reminder of something we are prone to forget; that the cost of what we await in the Messiah, past, present, and future, is the extension of our protective, nurturing, compassionate love to all of the vulnerable—the easily forgotten victims of poverty, injustice, war, complacency and complicity. The cost of what we await is our discipleship—proclaiming the Good News not only with our lips but in our lives by giving up our selves to God’s service for the healing of this world.
What is the cost of what we wait for? Only, as with Simeon and Anna, our entire lives.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Nowhere in the Bible does God say that God wants only half of our heart. God calls for all of it.
And God is waiting. Amen.