First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Jane Florence
December 31, 2017
Scripture: Luke 2:22-40
Sermon: “Looking Forward”
Mary and Joseph make their way to the temple. It was a big day for them. Their first-born son was to be dedicated to God’s service in ritual repeated for centuries. Mary wished they could afford the proper sacrifice – the lamb offered by those who could afford it – but in their status, the two turtledoves would substitute. They entered the temple with others waiting to offer sacrifices and others in prayer, and still others coming and going. As the new parents stood waiting their turn, Mary patted Jesus still marveling at the tiny infant. She looked around the room. She saw the scribes and prophets who gathered there daily. Anna and Simeon were the oldest; they had been in the temple since Mary was a child. Their ancient skin looked translucent even from across the room; they were like fixtures in the temple those two. Were they really there 24/7? Did they ever go home? Mary realized she must have been staring at them for they both looked up from their prayers straight at her. She looked down quickly as one caught in a social blunder.
Mary felt Joseph nudge her forward; the priest was ready for them. When she looked up, the old pair had stood from their prayers, and were making their way to the priest also. Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Anna and Simeon, and the priest all converged as one at the place of dedication. Mary held Jesus out to the priest, but it was the old prophet who took him from her arms not the priest. Simeon looked down at the child and back at Mary and back down at the child and back to Anna; there were tears gathering in his eyes, and his lips were moving silently. He held the child up high and praised God; he drew the child up close to his face once more. A smile broke across his face, and his laughter filled the room. His old face beamed as he spoke of hope and glory and light for ALL peoples. The old man then kissed Jesus on the forehead and looked back at Mary, “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many. He will be a sign that will be opposed.” The old man’s face grew solemn and new tears filled his eyes; looking at Mary he said, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Then Anna held out her hands as if to say, ‘enough from you, old man. It’s my turn,’ and the old man prophet handed the old woman prophet the child. She held Jesus as one who has held many babies. In strength and assurance, she praised God for this child of hope. She spoke of her people and their long suffering; and she rejoiced that this one would lead them. Anna said he would show them the way to peace; God had not forsaken Jerusalem. Here was the proof! Praise God!
The rituals were accomplished, and the child was returned to Mary. Mary and Joseph looked at one another in confused bewilderment, amazed at what had just happened. They made their way out of the temple and prepared for their journey home, but neither could understand what the old prophets meant. Mary kept staring down at her baby boy- tiny fingernails, soft sweet skin. She touched his palm, and his fist curled around her finger. As any young parent, she could only wonder what lie in her baby’s future, but the words of the old prophets stayed with her.
None of us know the future. All we can do is wonder. We wonder what 2018 will hold for us. We wonder how life with change this year. We wonder in awe and hope or in our unknowing, we can panic, stress – our wonder can turn to worry. In our wonder of the uncertain future, we can turn to the past to replay conversations and decisions and wonder what would have happened in 2017 if only….
If only we had taken that other job… if only we had seen a doctor earlier… if only we had called or said this, or not said that…if only we knew then what we know now…
If only Mary had said no to God’s invitation to incubate Emmanuel… if only Simeon had given up on that fanciful longing for a Messiah and Anna a lifetime of prayers… if only Joseph had divorced his pregnant girlfriend… if only the shepherds had kept their heads downward watching their sheep- not staring at the sky. The ‘if only’ changes the story. The if only’s keep us stuck in the past- reviving old mistakes – reviewing missed opportunities or missed disasters.
Ours is not a faith of regrets – worries of the past – or living backwards. Ours is a faith of assurance of a future – remembering the past, but always moving forward in grace and assurance.
Soon in the gospel story, Jesus’ cousin bursts onto the scene . John the Baptizer, a wild man of the wilderness, shouts “repent” as the refrain of our faith. Repent means go forward – not backward – but it means go forward differently. Turn your life around (not repeating the past); turn and live in a new direction. That’s what we ponder on this night. As the last hours of this year slip away, that’s what we think of the new year ahead. How will we go forward into greater growth and awareness of god’s presence? How will we live differently in 2018? How will we sing Simeon’s song this year?
Simeon’s song sings out a doxology, a song of thanksgiving. It is a song of hope and promise- a song of claiming God’s presence. He sings a song that the way to wholeness and salvation is not without cost. It bears a crisis of decision every day. He sings a song acknowledging the pain of their journey, but proclaiming that ultimately all will be well.
Simeon sings that Jesus grew in wisdom, and in grace guided by God’s Spirit, 2018 will be a year of hope and promise, God’s presence and deliverance. That means it will also be a year of challenge and hard decisions. We journey with Anna and Simeon and Mary and Joseph and Jesus and Luke, and God’s Spirit journeys with us to lead us into new life and new year of wisdom and grace.
Thanks be to God.