“PREPARING THE BEGINNING”
a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
December 31, 2023
Luke 2: 22 - 40 NRSV
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word,30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,32 a light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.
Here we are! Standing on the cusp of another year. But before I jump into my 37 commandments for your New Year Resolutions – that’s next week – [ can’t wait, can ya!? ]. I want to pause to consider how we might prepare to begin the New Year. Not to forget Christmas altogether, I want to take this story and hopefully share how it can guide our preparing to begin the next year.
You came here because you are the hearty, serious, faithful types. All those lightweight “C-n-E” Christians have stayed home today. You want to do deep digging into Scripture and meaning and all that stuff, right? Sure! So today I am going to start where I always start by asking a couple of questions of the text. What was it trying to tell the first readers and hearers? What were their concerns? How does that relate to us today? That’s my goal every Sunday and also today. Let me know how I did, if you are still awake when I finish.
Remember the biggest challenge the first followers of Jesus had to face was Jesus was crucified by the Romans as a threat, a “seditionist.” The religious leaders considered him to be either a nutcase or a blasphemer. So they had to answer the question, how can this man be considered the Messiah, the Savior, or anything good at all? The whole point of the Gospels is to answer that question. Two of the writers tell portions of a birth story. Stories of angels, and prophetic announcements was a way of saying this Jesus was a blessing from God from the beginning. He was not some self-appointed “god” who tried to hoodwink the masses.
Today’s passage continues to connect Jesus to his Jewish roots. It shows a faithful family bringing their first-born son to the Temple in Jerusalem. He was to be dedicated to YHWH. Their sacrifice of the small birds was a sign that they were a poor family who could only afford the meagerest of offerings. While there they encounter two strangers. The strangers word act as prophecy. They tell us important truths about this Jesus. First, a good and faithful man proclaims Jesus to be the promised Messiah. So, from the very first Jesus was set apart as unique, special. The second “witness” an old and faithful woman, confirms the testimony of the first. These “witnesses” speak to the blessing the child was to be, as well as the decisions his presence would force. Their words also foreshadow that those who loved him would suffer as they witnessed his suffering.
All that is nice history, if a bit of a short version. I want to take this episode and try to suggest how it models a way for us to “prepare to begin” a New Year. In doing so I hope it also is faithful to the fact that Christmas really isn’t done. You, being the deep-thinking, faithful types, know that we have it backwards. Christmas is supposed to start on December 25 and go to January 7, which we call “Epiphany.” You already know what that means so I won’t demean you by defining it. Our cultural habit of starting Christmas somewhere shortly after Labor Day and ending as fast as we can after the big meal on Christmas Day was not the original plan.
But let me get on to my point. There are three suggestions this passage makes to me about the way to prepare to begin the New Year. The first you are already doing. You showed up today. Like Mary and Joseph you did the right religious thing. You didn’t sleep in or set your clock for Easter or anything else. Mary and Joseph, having traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the head tax census, have now traveled to the Holy City, to Jerusalem, the Temple, to dedicate Jesus to God.
Here’s what you are doing by being here. You are saying your life is dedicated to faith, to God as you understand and experience God. Starting with that in your life is really the perfect way to prepare for the next thing in life. We should always start with what should be the most important reality in our life: God. I celebrate you for being so faithful and for basing your life around worshiping and honoring God with your time, and your hearts, and all that that takes.
I would offer what you also already know. When you settle what’s first in your life everything else becomes a little easier to decide. A lot of people today, living with no real relationship with God, are having a hard time ordering their lives, setting valid priorities. That’s not to say everyone who stayed home today is a bad person or has no faith or anything other than to say, “Congratulations. You have put first things first.” Now, what else does the story of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus going to Jerusalem tell us?
The story introduces Simeon, a wise, old, faithful man. His words have always echoed throughout Christian history: “Now, let your servant depart in peace, O Lord, I have seen with my own eyes, the promise of salvation you have made fulfilled.” We can argue about what “salvation” might mean but I believe it is not an either/or reality. To me it is promise of God that we as individuals are God’s beloved and nothing can keep God from loving us. At the same time I believe deeply that God intends for human society – and indeed creation as a whole - to be saved as well. Salvation in this sense means to turn from injustice and causing others to suffer, and to make it possible for all people to live assured of their God-given rights, free to build lives of love and compassion and treating each other justly and rightly.
So I invite you to prepare to begin this next year by reflecting on how you can live in a way that includes both parts of this. How do you live as a person loved by God, and how do you do whatever you can to be sure others also can live in a world, in a nation, in a state, in a community that gives everyone that right and that opportunity? Most of us just want to go about our own business and hope others will just leave us alone. This temptation comes because it is hard to create a community, let alone a nation or a world where all people are treated justly and rightly. But the promise of Simeon is that this is God’s intention for all the world. Perhaps I can simplify this and suggest as we prepare to begin can we ask ourselves as people of faith this question: will we commit to the purpose of living not just for ourselves, but for others? It is a worthwhile question to think about as we stand on the border of an outgoing year and an incoming one.
The second question the passage of Scripture invites me to consider with you is this: As Simeon blessed Jesus, and also his parents, how have you been blessed and how have you been a blessing? You can think about this for just this past holiday, or for the year, or for your whole life. Your choice. Who was a blessing to you these past few days, this past year, your whole past? The more you can remember the better. I invite you to make a list. I didn’t give out cards this time. Use your phone, write on the bulletin, you are creative, I trust if it matters you will do it. How have you been blessed? What are some ways you have been a blessing to others? I hope you have long lists!
The third question is harder perhaps. Simeon gives a warning that things will not always be a blessing for Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus. So my question for us to think about as we prepare to begin another New Year is this: the coming year will have challenges, perhaps even suffering, how do we want to respond? The list of possible challenges or suffering could be endless. It is an election year. The people who want to make us crazy about this are hard at work. Will we let them make us crazy or feel helpless or lost, or will our faith in a God bigger than all the craziness help us decide how to respond? There may be personal crises. Illness, a loved one dies [ heaven forbid, of course! ], but there it is. Financial difficulties, more tourists than ever clogging the roads, you know really important things to worry about. If we take some time now to think about and maybe even write down two or three important thoughts to help us face these things it may help us be prepared to begin a New Year.
Here’s my three: First, you are loved by God, absolutely, unconditionally, without question and no one and no circumstance can deny this or take it away from you. Second, you have an important part in God’s purpose for the world. Small as you may feel, you were created by God to make a positive difference right where you are. Simeon and Anna were just little people in the story of God’s actions in the world. But they did their part. Will you do yours? Third: God will be with you in the challenges or crises that tomorrow will bring. Will you let God’s love and presence give you everything you need to face it all?
Advent was intended to prepare us for Christmas. It gave us four promises from God: Hope, peace, joy, and love. Those things are there for you and for me when we face life’s crises. I pray you will not forget that as you prepare to begin one more time. AMEN.