Sermon - 1st January 2012
Christmas 1 - From Old Traditions to New Revelations
Scripture - Luke 2:22-40
For a good Jewish family, there were certain responsibilities placed upon them from deep within their scriptural Books of the Law when their first-born son came into the world.
In the book Exodus (13:1-2):
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Dedicate all the first born males to me, for every first born male Israelite and every first born male animal belongs to me’.”
So, based on this command in the Law of Moses, the first born son of every Jewish household had to be presented at the Temple within forty days of his birth. In earlier pagan times, this child would probably have been sacrificed to the tribal God as a blood offering; but the Hebrew Law had adapted this custom into a ritual whereby the parents could offer five shekels in order to redeem, or buy back, the child from God, to whom his life was owed.
The book Leviticus (5:7) further refined this redemption payment into an animal sacrifice at the Temple to the value of two turtle-doves or two young pigeons.
This is the background to why Joseph, Mary and Jesus were in the Temple making the customary sacrifice when Jesus was still barely a month old; but it gives Luke the perfect setting in which to introduce a new revelation. One characteristic of Luke’s gospel is how he initially places us deep within a long-standing Jewish tradition, but then opens up a new insight which leads from that tradition into a Christian interpretation of the event.
Nowhere speaks of tradition more than the Temple in Jerusalem. As the dwelling-place of God, harking back to the earliest scriptural beliefs of the Jewish nation and culture, the Temple was the beating heart of the historic faith into which Jesus was born and within which Mary and Joseph had been brought up.
And when Luke’s story takes us to the Temple, he introduces us to two of the most traditional servants of that faith that you could hope to meet. Simeon the Priest and Anna the Prophetess have given their lives to the service of God through their service to the Temple. And by suggesting that, because of their age, they are probably close to the end of their lives, Luke reinforces the idea that these two represent the unchanging dedication and devotion of lives given over to God. Judging by their backgrounds, we would expect to find total orthodoxy of belief in these two.
And this is where Luke springs his surprise, because this is the setting in which the truth about Jesus being the long-awaited Messiah is divinely revealed to the devoutly traditional priest and the rather eccentric prophetess who hoped to see a new salvation in their lifetimes, but always wondered whether they would survive to see it.
Luke expects us to notice and recognise the outcome of the encounter between long-held tradition and new revelation. It is only the start of an extended theme which Luke will pursue throughout his gospel, but this beautifully gentle cameo scene in the Temple actually begins a process of renewal and reformation from within the heart of Judaism.
One thing we can notice about Anna and Simeon is that they stood firmly within their tradition, but they faced forwards and looked to the promise of the future. I can imagine that they will have known the shortcomings of their faith; they will certainly have felt the effects of living under Roman occupation and will have been aware of the corruption and power struggles which were endemic to the highest offices in the Temple hierarchy. They will have seen much, heard even more, and the wisdom of their advanced years would have taught them how to make sense the world around them. But Luke is careful to point out that they carried with them a belief in God’s promise of salvation for the people of Israel, coupled with the gift of light to the whole world - Jew and gentile alike: promises which Simeon recognises as being fulfilled by the arrival of a first-born son brought to the Temple in line with ancient tradition.
For us, today, maybe it helps to spend time thinking about the traditions in which we find ourselves bound up, how we use our wisdom to keep those traditions in a truthful perspective, and how confident we feel that we are facing forwards and are ready to grasp the movement of God’s spirit in our own lives.
We are right in the middle of that time of year when family, cultural and faith traditions can make their strongest claims on our lives; but it’s also a time when a turning point in our calendar and the motion of our seasons encourage us to think about fresh starts, new resolutions, new life coming from the warming of the earth as we cross the solstice and move slowly towards longer daylight hours and the first hints of spring. In the space of just a few days at the end of December we are pulled to look backwards to our customs and traditions and the memories and relationships that inhabit them, and then drawn to look forwards to life and living and new relationships and encounters still to come.
Maybe our challenge is to recognise that, if we take Simeon and Anna as our model, God calls us always to be looking forwards. We are certainly called to be faithful servants of our faith, even with all its shortcomings; but our lives as disciples of Jesus mean that we are to expect new revelations of God’s love within us, around us and alongside us, and be ready to embrace the changes they bring. The message of Jesus, which Luke was just beginning to shape and interpret at this early stage in his gospel, is a message of powerful forward momentum which shapes our lives until we, like Simeon, have fulfilled our calling and are allowed to depart in peace.
So, while we are at this turning point in our calendar, and while we are making plans for the new year in so many different aspects of our lives, perhaps we might let Simeon and Anna guide our thinking about our faith, about the promises which God holds out to each of us, and then align ourselves to face forwards, to work with the flow of God’s spiritual gifts in our lives, in our church, and in our communities, and so fulfil our calling.