Sermon - 28th December 2014
Jesus Among Us
Scripture - Luke 2:21-40
Behold the traditional nativity scene – the baby Jesus in the manger in the stable with his parents, Mary and Joseph, and the animals, the shepherds and the Wise Men and the Angel.
The medieval German theologian Martin Luther wrote, “God became small for us in Christ. He showed us his heart, so our hearts might be won.”
Infants wield a kind of power; strong men become gentle when handed a baby; those with deep, loud voices adopt a falsetto and coo to the infant. God came to us as an infant to elicit love and to nurture tenderness.
Many of us, when we were children, will have taken part in nativity plays at primary school or at church, which will have ended on the stage in a scene very much like this one. Times are changing and many schools no longer stick to the traditional Christmas story.
We may smile wryly when we hear that in a recent survey conducted by the Metro newspaper among children out Christmas shopping with their families. Many said that Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer was one of the animals in the stable at Bethlehem; half of 5 to 12-year-olds thought that 25 December is Father Christmas’ birthday; and one-third of children thought that Jesus was born at the South Pole.
For years, Christians have been concerned about the increasing commercialisation of Christmas and the gulf between the real meaning of Christmas – the birth of Jesus – and the shopping frenzy and media portrayal of what we should or ought to feel and do at this time of year.
Nevertheless, Christmas is over for this year, and in a few days, we will be putting away the cards, the tree and the decorations; and for many, thoughts of God and Jesus will return to the attic, stuck in the moment of the nativity scene. Even for us Christians, who attend church regularly, it is easy to skip the rest of Jesus’ childhood, and jump from Bethlehem’s stable to Jesus’ ministry as an adult.
St Luke’s Gospel goes out of its way and narrates three accounts from Jesus’ young life, the first two of which we heard read to us today.
The Holy Family clearly did not stay locked forever in that nativity scene pose. Matthew’s Gospel tells of fleeing for their lives, when Herod ordered the killing of all male children under 2 in Bethlehem; and Luke’s Gospel narrates the Jewish rituals surrounding the birth of a child.
The first is the Naming of Jesus. Even today, it is Jewish tradition that male children are named and circumcised on the 8th day of life. St Luke records this in one verse. The name by which we call our Saviour, Jesus, comes to us through Greek and Latin; however, His Aramaic name is Yeshua Bar Yussef (Jesus, Son of Joseph). The name Yeshua itself means “YHWH [God] is salvation”.
The second ritual for the Holy Family is the Presentation in the Temple. This will have taken place 33 days after the naming and circumcision or on the 40th day after Jesus’ birth. You can read more about Jewish birth rituals in Chapter 12 of Leviticus.
Having given birth in Bethlehem, to make the journey to Jerusalem was a short one for Mary and Joseph. Bethlehem lies about 5km South of Jerusalem, so it is a distance which can comfortably be done in about 2 hours on foot.
And here, we learn more about Jesus’ earthly parents. The Jewish law required a sacrifice of year-old lamb, but made provision for the poor to offer an alternative sacrifice of two pigeons. When we consider, as we often do, Jesus’ teaching, particularly concerning the poor, we need to remember that Jesus’ own family upbringing was a poor one. He knows what it is like to be poor and to have little. His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, made the sacrifice prescribed for a poor family, the two pigeons.
Names are important: they identify who we are, but our names also speak of our reputation. In Old Testament times, God was un-named. When Moses asked God at his encounter with the Burning Bush, God’s answer regarding His name was to answer with a verb: I AM who I AM. Jews, even today, do not speak the name of God: they substitute it with a different title, Adonai (meaning Lord). Even when writing God in English, Jews write it is as “G-d”.
With the coming of Jesus, naming God is no longer shrouded in mystery or tradition. God became human, in Jesus, in Yeshua, and He carries the name that means Salvation, and He has a name by which we can call Him. Sadly, for many in the English-speaking world nowadays, Jesus’ name is more frequently used as an expletive.
So let us now turn to the words spoken over Jesus at the Temple by the two elderly prophets, Simeon and Anna (or Hannah). St Luke points out to the reader the devout nature of both Simeon and Anna, and the fact that they had been waiting their whole lives for this moment.
Children wait impatiently for Christmas: the build-up to Christmas with letters to Santa, the parties and the Nativity plays, and the countdown with the advent calendars – but, finally, the Big Day arrives! We have become, as people, increasingly impatient and find waiting difficult. We fill the times in our lives when we are forced to wait with other activities. Our smart phones and personal music devices or reading devices like the Kindle help us pass the time as we wait for the bus, tram or train, or for people to arrive. Simply to sit and wait, without feeling the need to fill the time with something else, is a skill which many of us have lot.
Simeon was a man who clearly had a close relationship with God through the Holy Spirit: he had been waiting his whole life for this moment, an encounter which may have lasted just a few minutes. Simeon’s words, recorded in Luke’s Gospel, have been immortalised not only in the Biblical text, but as a song used through the centuries in the church for night-time prayer, called in Latin “nunc dimittis”. I am sure the whole experience of hearing these words was for the young Mary and Joseph somewhat mind-blowing.
Simeon’s words continue and talk of the “destruction and salvation of many”. This phrase is translated in other versions as the “fall and rise of many”. Hang on, that sounds familiar – “the fall and rise”. Oh, perhaps it is not so familiar as we might think! Many of will have heard of the history book called “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire”. There was a TV series called “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. Political commentators will often talk about the ‘rise and fall’ of a certain politician.
But in Simeon’s words, it is the other way around. The fall comes before the rise. And so, it was for Jesus himself. He, too, fell in His betrayal and execution, before rising again in the Resurrection.
The Gospel writer goes on and speaks about Jesus being a sign from God, a sign which will be denounced. This happened with Jesus’ betrayal and mock trial and execution, but it is something which echoes through history, as many have sought to twist and silence God’s salvation story in Jesus.
Take a current example. The recently released film, Exodus, is a re-telling of the Exodus story, God through Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery. This film has been banned in some countries because of its wild historical inaccuracies. In the film, the Jews are enslaved to build the pyramids, and it is an earthquake –not a miracle – which causes the Red Sea to become dry.
Simeon ends his prophecy by talking directly to Mary – “and sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart”. We cannot imagine what it must have been like for her, Jesus’ mother. The things she was being told, that she, a simple peasant woman, was the mother of God’s own son. She will surely have been amazed at her son, as He began his ministry; and in the final weeks and days of His ministry, she will have been in so much pain to see him betrayed, ridiculed and executed. And three days later, there would have been no-one more glad when He rose again.
For historical cultural reasons, women are not given central stage in much of the books of the Bible, but here in Luke’s Gospel, Mary is very much at the heart of the nativity story. Two other women are given key roles: Elizabeth, her cousin, mother of John the Baptist, and Anna, the prophetess.
While Simeon’s words are words of blessing to Mary and Joseph, with words of prophecy spoken to Mary, whereas the words Anna spoke were “to all who were waiting to set Jerusalem free”. Her exact words are not recorded, but the Gospel writer makes two things very clear: that she was a very devout woman, and that she recognised Jesus for who He is.
The reading ends by telling us that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth, having completed their religious obligations in keeping with the Jewish law. That journey of about 110km would have taken them 3 or 4 days on foot.
So what does this text have to say to us as LGB or T Christians?
Firstly, it reminds us that names are important. We have a name which we can call God, the name of Jesus. Our names are also important. Many of us lives our lives with the names given to us by our parents. Transgendered people have the privilege of choosing a name for themselves as part of their transition. Our names are bound up with our gender and sexual identity, our personalities, our reputation and our faith. Let our names be a blessing to those who hear them.
Secondly, Simeon’s words remind us that God is with us in our falls, but in our rises, and that rises follow falls, not the other way around. Two weeks ago, an inquest into the death of a lesbian teenager from Didsbury revealed her struggle with her identity before God, her family and her church, and fear of rejection was an element in her taking her own life. Sadly, many of us here will have experienced rejection from the Church, family or friends because of our gender or sexual identities, and that rejection from the church goes a long way to explain why our church is more empty than full. Neither the Bible nor Jesus promise that these will not happen, but their message of love is that these things should not happen. As LGBT Christians who have found love and acceptance here in our church, may God grant us the strength and the courage to speak out that others may hear and be welcomed here.
Finally, let us learn from Simeon and Anna. They had waited their whole lives to see Jesus. For many of us, in our life-times, rights as LGBT people have changed completely, from being illegal some 50 years ago, to the point where governments around the globe have legalised gay marriage. This has taken much patience, persistence and prayer. Anna spoke of how she was waiting for God to set Jerusalem free. LGBT people are often justifiably very distrusting of Christians because of what has been said and done in Jesus’ name. For Anna, when she met Jesus, her time of waiting was over, and she spoke about Him. We, too, have met Jesus; our time of waiting is over; and like her, we should speak of the One who will set us free. Amen.