WORDS OF HOPE AND COMFORT
Luke 2: 21-32
Christmas through the ages has been a mixture—perhaps we’ll call it a tapestry—of religious, cultural, and historical information. Religiously there are some who say that Christmas is not complete without the messages and music we offer in December, particularly Christmas Eve. Each year, they say, we need to hear “In the beginning, was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; full of grace and truth.” Each year, they say, we need to hear “And in that region there were shepherds in the field, keep watch over their flocks by night. And lo, an angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown round about them, and they were sore afraid.” What other time of the year do we hear so much about shepherds; about angels; or about people being “sore afraid?” Yet the words are music to our ears. It is Christmas, and it is hardly Christmas without it. Historically you might have Christmas traditions in your family that have stayed the same for years; or, as time marches on, perhaps old traditions could not be kept in the same way, so new traditions or practices have taken their place. Where you spend Christmas, or Christmas Eve, or Christmas week might have changed. Your beliefs around Christmas might have transformed as you’ve aged. As a child, your focus might have been more on Santa than on the birth of the Savior Jesus. But as you’ve grown, and certainly if you’ve claimed Christ as Lord, your appreciation and devotion to God may have grown deeper. Culturally many people in our country, decades ago, used to go to the woods or to a tree farm to find a real tree to cut down and bring to their home. In rural areas they still do that! In the 1960s, as pointed out in the 1965 cartoon “A Charlie Brown Christmas, there was a phase when big shiny aluminum Christmas trees were put up, usually with mono-colored balls and a rotating color wheel! After that there were poor artificial green trees, and now there are some excellent examples of artificial trees. But a real tree, like this one; well, nothing replaces the fresh scent. Can you smell it still in here? I can.
Some things have stayed the same for our family at Christmas, and some things have changed, just like with you I’d imagine! This year our family bought more things online than ever before. Movies opened again to great crowds on Christmas week. This year’s blockbuster was the new “Star Wars” movie. And there are still gifts that are especially sought after: electronics, toys, or games. Traditions, religious practices, and cultural changes are still affecting our lives.
Years ago Mary and Joseph followed traditions and religious practices too. Tradition dictated that the husband in those days be suitably older than the wife; they were older so they could provide for a family, and help make decisions in their first century world; women were younger because the years for child-bearing were shorter and the threat of death or illness was great. So Joseph was certainly older than young Mary. We hear each year about their trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but only if you are here the Sunday after Christmas, like today, do you hear about some very early religious traditions that faithful Holy family observed. According to Luke, at the end of eight days, Mary’s child was named and circumcised. Not on the seventh day; not on the ninth day or on the second day as happens so often today. It was the eighth day according to Leviticus 12:2. A rabbi handled the procedure and it was a day of rejoicing and honoring God! Like our infant baptisms, it was a time when the naming of the child was officially and religiously announced, a time when God was honored and parents were given instructions. Those are glad times, and ritual times. A little bit of ritual is comforting after so many life-changing plans when a baby is born! And to have a baby born in the first century by means of the Holy Spirit! Well, that was earth-shaking news! My classmate at Princeton Seminary, Dr. Craig Barnes, is now the President of that Seminary. He once wrote: “Some of us, I know, have a hard time understanding the Virgin Birth, but according to the [Bible], no one had a harder time with it than Joseph and Mary, This was not what they had planned.” [THE LIVING PULPIT, Volume 4, No. 4, p. 20.]
So as with others who have had a baby, their world was turned upside down! Mary was shuttled away to Elizabeth’s house for much of her pregnancy, and Joseph had to cope with the news in his heart, and with his family and friends. At last Joseph decided to stay with Mary in her condition and be a father to her child. But then, when Mary was in her last month, a decree went out from Caesar August that all the world should be taxed. It meant that Joseph, of the house and lineage of David, would have to travel to Bethlehem. Since Mary was expecting her child soon, he did not want to be away from her. So, as difficult as they trip would be, he decided to take Mary with him. They arrived in Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown, as Mary goes into labor. The town is jammed with other travelers. Likely, family members already had taken in family members who had come for the census. And it was late. So Mary gave birth not in a hospital, not with a midwife in a house, but in a stable with Joseph and animals. After his amazing birth, they had visitors, as most new parents do. But shepherds? And angels? Perhaps the next day they might they have been able to stay with relatives in Bethlehem for a few days. After all, on the eighth day, the baby was to be circumcised, an event when family would be with them! Ritual; it would have provided some comfort after months of upheaval! Then, according to Leviticus 12:2-6, Mary would have waited 33 days before their next journey. She, Joseph, and Jesus would have traveled to the Temple for her certification of purification. She would have stepped into the water pool called a Mikva, then presented herself to a priest, along with two turtle doves (instead of a lamb because of their poverty.) One turtledove was as a burnt offering, the other as a sin offering, according to Leviticus 12. That was not unusual. It was ritual, something expected. Tidings of comfort and joy. But then, the unexpected happened. A man named Simeon apparently stayed near the Temple in these, his last years of life. He was clinging to the hope that God would give him a sign about what he called “the consolation of Israel,” the new way God was offering salvation. The Western Wall of the Temple, even today, is filled with such focused and fervent men. They can be intimidating. So as this young couple made their way to the center of Jerusalem, it could have been unnerving to encounter this man. Luke says, “when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do what the custom of the law required” they met Simeon. They were just following a custom; a tradition; a requirement: but a predictable one. And then the unpredictable happens: a man wanted to hold their baby; an old man! But then, he says something strange (prophets often say strange things!) He looks up to Heaven and says to God: “Lord now let your servant depart in peace (translation: Lord, I am ready to move from this life now) for my eyes have seen your salvation, even as a light to the Gentiles AND for the glory of your people Israel.” I don’t know if Mary and Joseph knew the gravity of those words, but we know! Jesus would be the world’s salvation; first offered to the people of Israel, but also, and most importantly, to the Gentiles! That meant to the whole world! Jesus was called the Heaven-sent salvation for the world! Simeon was not hearing the teachings of a grown Jesus; he was not standing at the cross; he was holding a month old baby saying those things! What an amazing—and accurate—prediction. Tradition and ritual just got trumped by God, and by an unexpected prophet.
I suspect that everything in December did not go as you had planned. There might have been a death, or an illness. Or perhaps there was a birth, or some other good news! But looking toward December back in October, you might not have predicted some of the events that actually transpired. Now, with the gift of 20/20 hindsight, you can look back, and reflect, and see.
God can take your life, both the rituals and the interruptions, and use them to his glory, and for your wellbeing! It takes trust in our surprising and loving God. Even on the cusp of a new year, God can see what you and I can’t. And God will go with you into the New Year: before you, beside you, above you. In the expected and unexpected events ahead, trust that God is with you, with everlasting arms to catch you, to guide you, and with words of encouragement to lift you up. Lift up your hearts: God has chosen to live with us.
Let us pray: With extraordinary events, O God, you entered the world of mortals; you still want to be with us, and we are humbled. When we are overwhelmed, calm us. And when we are filled with comfort and joy, rejoice with us! Thank you for such gifts at Christmas, and always. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 27, 2015
Blessing for the New Year:
Now depart in peace according to all you have seen and heard today; your ears have heard the news of your salvation, and not just to you, but to all who will hear it and accept it! May God bless and keep you today, in the days ahead, and into the New Year. Amen.