First Sunday of Christmas 31 December 2017
(Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Galatians 4:4-7 Luke 2:22-40)
“I Beg to Differ!”
I am excited this morning because this is such an important text for Luke’s entire Gospel and the Books of Acts, and, quite honestly, I do not get to preach on this text very often. But having said that, I will begin by saying with a great sense of caution that I think Luke has this section of his Gospel all disordered and jumbled together. Gospel writer Luke has several traditions and themes that he desperately wants to work into his Gospel from the very beginning. He’s done it in this section of the second chapter, but it seems almost like a hodgepodge.
So I want to begin by naming and giving some explanation to the themes we just heard. If we don’t get this part, we will miss the deeper meaning when we get to Simeon and Anna.
The “Requirements” of the Law. We hear five times in 18 verses where Luke explains that things are done “according to the law of Moses.” It is really important for Luke to make sure the reader knows that Jesus is well-connected to his Jewish roots, and for us to know that this family is faithful to the Torah.
But then, in Chapter Two, Luke confuses us by mixing together three very distinct rituals—circumcision, purification, and presentation. To the unsuspecting reader, it might sound as if these three are all basically the same.
Lucky for me, Luke mentions circumcision in verse 21, and although it is all connected, since we began our reading of this text with verse 22, I don’t have to deal with circumcision today.
Luke does seem to blend together Purification and Presentation. A word about each.
Purification was required of a woman following the birth of a child. The Law required that the mother …”shall bring to the priest of the temple a lamb in its first year as a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtledove” [Leviticus 12:2-4, 6].
Only the mother was required for purification, but in verse 22, Luke uses the plural “their” (the time came for”their” purification), so Luke adds confusion by seeming to be imprecise and inaccurate in his understanding of the Law. There can be many explanations for this inaccuracy, but I think the one that makes most sense to me is simply that Luke needed the entire family in the temple to link them to the traditions he wanted to tell about Simeon and Anna, which is the real point of this text. So Luke has all of them there for Mary’s purification.
When it comes to presenting a child, the Torah had specific requirements for parental duties following the birth of all children, but especially firstborn sons. That goes back to the Passover, (in Egypt, when the angel of death “passed over” the homes of the Hebrews so their firstborn children were not killed). Since that time, God now has a claim on the firstborn [Exodus 13:1-2].
The claim is this: “The first child coming from a woman will be offered back to God” [Numbers 18:15-16]. This really is what is taking place in this Gospel text. It’s not the purification of the mother, as Luke infers in verse 22. It’s the presenting of the child, the offering back to God in the temple of the firstborn son.
Finally, we get to Simeon and Anna. These two mysterious and elderly folks have two important functions for Luke: 1) to embody the “hopes of Israel” and, 2) to anticipate the story soon to unfold through this child.
Anna, in her old age and with her deep piety recognizes Jesus for who He is. Simeon is a little more complex. He provides the first hint of the dark side of the story, but he, too, has been waiting patiently, and in his joyful embrace of the child and glorious song of acceptance we hear a hope-filled message for all who follow after them.
So what might these texts be saying to us today, about Jesus and about us?
I think it is all about faithful living.
That’s why Luke is so fanatical on making sure we see Mary and Joseph as faithful Jews. That is why both Anna and Simeon are models of faithful behavior: waiting with patience and trust and embracing the Good News. They have been devotedly living in the midst of many years of darkness, and now salvation has come—light and glory is come for all people!
When I pray Simeon’s song of praise, I am reminded of a proverb that comes in the form of a question. It goes like this: “What did the candle say to the darkness?” Answer: “I beg to differ!”
That is the simple testimony of Simeon and Anna, standing on the promise of a coming Messiah, after so many years of waiting without losing faith, and finally holding this tiny child.
For us. . . on the brink of a New Year, when it can be so easy to be overcome by darkness; as persons of faith, our answer is simply: I beg to differ! I beg to differ with all those who think the world is falling apart. I beg to differ with all those who believe the world is going to Hades in a hand basket. I beg to differ with all those who tell you that the devil has taken over the universe. I beg to differ with all those “doom and gloom” Darth Vader Christians, all those miserable “woe is me” dreary death eaters who badger us with the belief that life will only get worse in 2018.
Today, I invite you to take a long loving look at Anna and Simeon one more time from today’s Gospel, and realize how they waited an awfully long time, yet never lost faith. I then invite you to hold that Child tenderly in your arms as did Simeon and give praise to God.
Christmas is the celebration of Light come into the world in the person of Jesus. Christmas invites us to live faithfully into another New Year.
So, to those who believe that the darkness is stronger than the Light; to those who believe the light is going out; to those who wish us to believe that nothing good can be accomplished, my answer and yours is simple and clear: “I beg to differ!” Amen.