After Christmas Morning
Here’s a confession for you: As far as I can tell, I actually haven’t preached on this text, this story of Simeon and Anna meeting the baby Jesus, a text that appears in the lectionary once every three years, since before I was a pastor. I preached on it last in 2002, when I was a guest preacher at my childhood church, filling in for the pastor on the Sunday after Christmas. It’s not that I don’t like this passage of scripture. It’s just that it always appears on the first Sunday after Christmas day, and even though I might be in worship on the Sunday after Christmas with my congregation, I hardly ever preach. Instead, I usually do hymn stories about Christmas carols, or read several Christmas poems, or something else that requires a little less preparation on my part, a little gift to myself after making it through however many Christmas Eve services I’ve had during the week. Honestly, I also kind of consider it a gift to my congregation - a Sunday of worship without a sermon - because the Sunday after Christmas Day tends to be a little lighter in attendance - people are traveling and tired - and I figure those who do show up the Sunday after Christmas get the treat of indulging in extra carol-singing without taxing their minds on listening to a sermon. (No such luck for you today, friends!)
But I also think that there’s a very real sense, as soon as December 25th draws to a close, that Christmas is “over,” and I think many people are just fine with that idea. People seem ready to move on as soon as all the presents are opened. They’re ready to clean up the decorations and straighten up the house and pack everything away and start to try to figure out just how many pounds they gained in eating Christmas cookies and looking forward to trying New Year’s resolutions one more time, and this year, especially, I think people are really really ready to leave calendar year 2020 in the past, and flip to 2021 and the hope of better things to come. And I get that - I can relate to some of those feelings. Can you?
But aside from the fact that the liturgical season of Christmas only begins on December 25th, and ends on January 5th, the day before Epiphany, that December 25th-January 5th are the true twelve days of Christmas - aside from that, I’m more interested in the fact that it seems like we put so much energy in getting to our destination - destination Christmas - carefully planning and preparing, waiting and longing all throughout Advent - that we forget to think about what happens when we arrive. What happens when we’ve made it to Christmas Day, and we celebrate Jesus being born into our hearts and lives and world once again. We’re here! Now what? It make me think about my journey to ordination - my call to ministry story, and all the years it took from first thinking God was calling me to be a pastor to actually being ordained in The United Methodist Church. It took about 9 years, start to finish. And getting through all those steps to be ordained was my focus for so long. It was special journey in my life, meaningful and challenging, and I did it! But somewhere along the way, I forgot to think about what would happen when I arrived at my “destination” of ordination. I believe God’s call on our lives is always ongoing - it doesn’t end. But I had been treating my ordination like an ending in my mind, instead of the beginning of whatever God had been preparing me for.
I wonder - have we been doing the same thing with Christmas and Jesus? We spent a lot of time getting ready for Jesus to arrive as the Christ Child once again - and now he’s here! Glory to God! But I wonder if we’re not so fixed on the excitement of having reached the “destination” of Christmas that we forget to pay attention to the Christ-child who is here, among us. I wonder if we’re not ready already to check “done” on our to do list next to “Christmas 2020,” without figuring out what it means now that Jesus isn’t just coming, but arrived. And so I’m glad we have this opportunity today to explore the story of Simeon and Anna. After all, the text we read from today is still part of the birth story of Jesus, taking place just a short period after Jesus’ birth, taking place, actually, before the Magi are thought to have visited the by-then-toddler Jesus.
This text, known as the Presentation of Jesus, is thought to take place 40 days after Jesus’ birth. In accordance with the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem to be presented and to offer a sacrifice to God in thanksgiving. Luke lets us know that Mary and Joseph are poor - something we can conclude by the sacrifice he says they bring - turtledoves or pigeons. In Jerusalem, they meet Simeon and Anna. Simeon, we’re told, had learned by the Holy Spirit that he would see the promised Messiah before he died. And the Spirit guides him to the temple when Jesus’ parents bring him for presentation, revealing Jesus to be the one he’s waited for. For Simeon, Jesus is the end of his waiting, but the beginning of God’s plan of salvation. In Jesus, Simeon says, we have a light not just for Israel, but for all people. Simeon tells Mary that Jesus will bring about the falling and rising of many in Israel. Jesus will reveal the inner thoughts of people’s hearts. And Jesus will bring Mary soul-piercing grief. I wonder how Mary and Joseph processed his words? I’m sure they thought back on them years later, as Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection unfolded. We read, too, of Anna - she’s called a prophet. She’s an elderly widow, and she stays at the temple, worshiping, fasting, and praying. When she sees Jesus, she praises God. She tells everyone about him, especially those who are longing for the redemption of God’s people - because that’s what she sees in Jesus: God’s redemption. Finally, Luke tells us, the Holy Family returns home to Nazareth. And Jesus, we read, grows strong, is filled with wisdom, and has God’s favor - God’s grace and love - resting upon him.
We hear how Simeon and Anna react when they finally meet the longed-for Jesus. For them, it is a destination reached, absolutely. But it is also a beginning, a turning point. God is here in the flesh - and that’s not the conclusion - that’s the launching point for God’s plan of redemption, for bringing people back into right relationship with God and one another, for enacting God’s vision of love and justice for the world. It’s the beginning for Jesus, who will grow in strength, wisdom, and love, preparing to pour out his whole life for us, that we might understand God’s commitment to being in relationship with each one of us.
How about for us, friends? Now that we’ve finally seen Jesus, what do we have to say to him? What have you been longing to say to Jesus? What have you been waiting to tell him? And what will you do because he’s here? And how will you make sure that Jesus’ birth isn’t just a completed task that you’ve checked off your list, but the life-changing, world-changing event it really is? The Christ Child is here! What will we do because of God-with-us?
As I reflect on Simeon and Anna meeting Jesus, I’ve been thinking about what I have to say to Jesus this Christmas:
Jesus, I am so thankful you are here, because it feels like we need you now more than ever.
Jesus, this year has been so challenging in so many ways. But in you, there is such hope for the future. Help me to live into the life of discipleship you’ll model for us.
Welcome, Jesus, our true peace. Help me to be a messenger of peace.
Jesus, I think you arrive to set us right in our relationship with God and one another. Sometimes I’m more interested in being set right with God, but not so much with other people. Help me. And sometimes, I’m interested in being set right with God, but only if it is easy. Help me.
Jesus, I think you change our world. And sometimes I want that. But sometimes I want everything to just stay the same too. Help me take risks, by your side.
Jesus, even in the act of your birth, you were breaking down barriers, smashing expectations, and speaking truth to power. Help me be less afraid of speaking up and speaking out in your name.
Friends, Christmas Day 2020 may already be behind us. But a child has been born to us, to the world. We’ve been expecting this Christ-child - and now this child, Jesus, the Christ, is looking expectantly back at us. What will we say? What will we do? For our eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation, and glory for your people. Thanks be to God. Amen.