First Sunday after Christmas

December 31, 2017


And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

And his father and his mother marvelled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favour of God was upon him. (Luke 2:22-40 ESV)

Christmas is a family time – possibly when the family goes to the movies. Just imagine for a moment that you are the chief film censor, what rating would you give a film that portrayed the accounts of Christmas as told by Matthew and Luke?

Now before you give a rating, just pause for a moment and think about the Christmas story – Matthew talks about Joseph not believing Mary, then believing her, then Herod and the visitors from the east, then the escape into Egypt, then Herod’s rage and the slaughter of babies and toddlers, and then the return but north – up to Nazareth – and away from trouble; Luke talks about Gabriel visiting Mary and the news of a virgin birth, John the Baptist in utero jumping for joy, a census, a birth and a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger, angels talking to shepherds and shepherds checking it out, then there’s circumcision and naming and the blessing of Jesus by two strangers Simeon and Anna, then off to Nazareth. It’s a film with all this – is it a story for children? Should it be given a G or 12 or 15 or 18 rating? How much of Christmas can the audience take? How much should they take?
And it gets worse. Look at the church calendar and its festivals at this time. Are you aware for example that 26 December commemorates St Stephen, the first martyr, 28 December is the day remembering the Holy Innocents (those slaughtered by Herod)?

And maybe you’re just a little uneasy – why is he going on about all this? Look, if I’d brought a friend today, I’m not sure your talking about the full Christmas including the gorier side of things is very user friendly – we want to invite people to Ascension / Redeemer not scare them away.

Our sensitivities are on edge, our haggles are raised because we are people who live in our western world that has largely – and it is a good thing that this has happened – don’t get me wrong at all! – separated the
connection between birth and death. It is bad taste to link the two things for these two things draw us into grief and tragedy where we really don’t want to go. All grief is hard but the grief for the lost future is a heavy one indeed.
So what is Simeon on about? As a stranger he comes up to new parents and takes hold of their bundle of joy and praises God – and we can imagine that Mary and Joseph’s chests’ swell with pride – this child is the fulfilment of God’s promise, salvation to both Israel and even the Gentiles – but then there’s the chat – and we can imagine it’s when Simeon hands the baby back to Mary (it’s not in the text so it’s a guess) – it’s not all going to be smooth sailing – this little one’s going to cause people to fall and rise (death and something after death – it’s early days what does this exactly mean?), he’s going to get opposition, and people will be seen for what they are (maybe for the first time, they’ll see themselves) – and a sword – not a little dagger, not the pin prick aches of growing up or adolescence that strike at a Mum – but a whopping big sword is going to pierce your … soul – how deep can it go? – and maybe the parents are a little worried, Joseph scowling, Mary concerned. What is this old man on about?!

And then this old lady – Anna – a lady who’s always in the temple – everybody knows her and she comes up and starts giving thanks to God and pointing this child out to others – see, look, Jerusalem’s redemption is starting to happen – it’s tied up with this child – and this is well and good – liberation from bondage is – but what’s the price, the payment, the currency by which freedom comes about? What are the details? Will someone give us details about this child? Both Simeon and Anna have alluded to the very thing you don’t tell young parents – any parents! – about their child – your kid is going to die!

The paradox of Christianity is encountered from the very beginning of this child’s life – God among us not as superman or superboy but as an ordinary child with no superpowers – born not in a palace but in poverty – no world media fanfares and paparazzi but angelic songs and smelly shepherds who can’t really be trusted – born to die it seems not as an accident of history but as a rescue – a victory – a liberation – defeating the powers that ruin life – sin in all its permutations, Satan in all his guises, and death in all its aspects. God is doing something here but it’s hidden under the opposite of what it appears to be – and this is how God chooses to operate – for even this story for us is only really seen through the lens of the cross and by the light of an empty tomb.

God so often offends our sense of what is right, what is supposed to be spiritual, our sense of our own importance, our place in the scheme of things. This happens when we encounter this child – whether a baby, a man, a corpse, or Lord of all, or through words of absolution, water, bread and wine – because this Jesus dies and lives so that you and I may die and live. The issue is that our death happens before we die!

And that is not user-friendly news for people today (or ever). Death to sin, repentance, struggle with / work out / fight our temptations, challenge our pride – not in order to cast us down into the depths of anything but to free us so that we may live – I can’t stress this too much – Christianity’s paradox continues – bound to Christ, a follower of Christ, a disciple of Christ – all phrases that suggest bondage, limitations, curtailment, containment – means, in reality, freedom – to live without fear in the freedom of forgiveness and to see in each day ways of living life to the fullest – loving, laughing, caring, crying, helping, supporting.

Christian living is not easy street – it wasn’t for Mary and Joseph, it wasn’t for Jesus – but it is living that draws us into life not away from it because God is with us. Any reflection on the incarnation will take us into areas that both challenge and comfort us. Simeon and Anna were right – death surrounds this little one – and as we kneel at the altar and receive him we acknowledge both his death and his Lordship over us – and our death and life with him.
What rating did you give Christmas? From the manger to the cross to the altar and font and book it should be the same – a new rating – the FY rating – FOR YOU.

Bible References

  • Luke 2:22 - 40