Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalms 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40 December 20, 2020 – 1st SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
“My eyes have seen your salvation!” What an interesting and ironic scripture the lectionary gives us this first Sunday after Christmas this year.
Have we seen God’s salvation among us this year? It is not what a lot of people would have written about if their English teacher had asked them to come in the next day with 500 words on what salvation looks like.
But we have seen what we have seen and we come once again to a new calendar…a new year…a new understanding of life on earth...and this is our new understanding of salvation this year.
Standing outside in the snow at the Marina Bay pavilion last Thursday with a great bonfire going and thirty-some of us gathering around it – wearing masks and socially distancing ourselves – singing and sharing stories and prayers and traditional Christmas scriptures…it was a new kind of Christmas…but an old one, too.
To be singing together again was a gift from Christmases past. The words and the music reached back hundreds of years…to times that knew plagues and quarantines but did not know what to do about them or have any idea where they came from.
It was God’s judgment on humanity, they said. I have heard that said about this year, too. But if it as true now as it was then, we still have time to work out our salvation.
Simeon had been coming to the Temple for many years and the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah. That was his belief. He was present every day at the Temple, watching and waiting.
A man named Hall Drake Diteman hosted a Bible study at his house in
Billings for 30 years…every Tuesday at 5:00. When I was invited to join, Hall had been doing this every Tuesday for 20 years. I got in on the last 10.
I was the young guy in the room back then, and I would still be that today. Most of those gathered were over 80 and at least one of them was 90.
Hall had the coffee on and the door open. His friends and fellow students were civil engineers, subdivision developers, doctors, hoteliers and criminal defense attorneys, all of them locally famous…except me.
The format was simple. We read a chapter out of the Bible and these mature men with a lifetime of worldwide experience, creating order out of chaos, would reflect on it.
The stories were fascinating and these men had been reading through the Bible this way for 20 years by the time I got there.
The thing that struck me was that they weren’t bragging with any of their stories. They were simply trying to figure out what they all meant.
At the end of their lives, the mystery still called them to wonder and wait for an answer to the questions of “Why?” and “What?” and “Who?”.
This is something like what Simeon and Anna are doing at the Temple, but they aren’t doing it every Tuesday afternoon at 5:00. They were looking every day for the sign they knew was promised to them and their people in the scriptures.
It had been a long wait for them…but it had been a longer wait for Israel. There was an answer coming, but when would it appear?…How would they recognize it when it stood before them?
Mary and Joseph are minor characters in our reading this morning. They were simply doing what the scriptures compelled them to do. On the eighth day after the child was born, they were to present the child, a firstborn son, to be dedicated to the Lord.
This reminded God’s chosen people of the great work the Lord had delivered them from Egypt, two thousand years before…when God had struck down every firstborn in Egypt…but spared those who were born in houses where the family had painted the doorposts and lintel of their house with the blood of the Passover lamb.
As a sign of their recognition of this work, God decreed that they were to dedicate their own firstborns that had been spared by the God that had freed them as passed over every house in Egypt that night.
This narrative is also reminiscent of the birth of the priest Samuel, the one who anointed the first two kings of Israel… both Saul and David. His mother Hannah could not conceive so she went to the temple at Shiloh and promised that if she could bear a son for her husband, Elkinah, she would give him to the Lord.
She conceived and gave Samuel to the priest at Shiloh, Eli. At a young age, Samuel would evidence a great understanding of the scriptures. He hear God’s voice when God called to him… changing the course of history for Israel and for all people.
So this ritual of dedication we read of today is firmly established in Jewish law and in the history of Israel. The child could be redeemed…bought back …with an offering to the priest of a lamb…or if the parents could not afford a lamb…two turtledoves or pigeons.
So from this story we see that Jesus is born into a devout family of modest means. His parents’ offering is of turtledoves or pigeons…not a lamb. But a funny thing happens to them at the Temple.
Simeon and Anna, await them…two ancient souls who have dedicated their lives to watching for the Promised One. They both recognize this child as the Son of Man…not only because his parents fulfill the requirements of the law but because of something they see in him…or in his family.
We can be sure that their praise is not mere flattery to the parents…because they have been waiting so long…and because this is obviously an obscure family without any substantial wealth to thank them for their world-shaking prophecy about their firstborn…who had so recently arrived in the midst of such a mix of signs.
Let us admit that Simeon and Hannah may have suffered some criticism for their faithfulness. Israel had been waiting since the days of Isaiah…500 years…for the Messiah. Here they were…day after day…expecting to see him any day now.
But their patience was justified this day…by grace through faith. Their patience gave them a chance to see… both…the law and the prophets fulfilled. They celebrated that day at the sight of God’s goodness and their faith was renewed…as John the Baptist would renew the faith of Israel some years later.
We also see that like Samuel, this child …also dedicated to the Lord… would grow in understanding and wisdom… like no one who had come before him.
My friend Hall shared many stories during our afternoon talks together, but there was one that – as Mark Twain might have said – rhymes with the narrative the scriptures give us this morning..
Hall had been to Yale for divinity school, but that did not turn out to be his calling. We were the beneficiaries of this deep yearning in him, though.
He went to acting school with Marlon Brando, but that wasn’t it either. But he was the inspiration and creating force for the Billings Studio Theatre that offers local live theatre on the Rocky Mountain College campus today.
But he was also a very gifted painter… and he would come to make a name for himself that would allow him to charge $10,000 for each of his paintings.
But there was one painting that hung in his living room that was not for sale. It was a reproduction of a Dutch landscape by a man named Hobbema. The original hung in the Louvre.
Hall told us that you had to audition to get permission to set up your easel and try to copy anything there. Then, when you were done, a jury of artists would review it. If it wasn’t good enough, they kept it...you never got it back.
Hall’s reproduction had obviously been good enough because…well, here it was. But along the way, all had not been sunshine and roses.
While he was set up in the Louvre working on his reproduction some American tourists happened by. They assumed Hall was French and did not understand English.
So they felt free to express their horror at the amateurishness of his efforts. It was awful. How could they let someone like this in the Louvre? On and on they went.
After they had gone Hall took a break and had a chat with himself about whether this was his calling. He had just started his work and he was laying base layers, but the comments still had their sting…maybe like some of the scoffing that Simeon and Anna had to take. Maybe like some of he scoffing we are called to take…for our faithfulness.
Finally, he decided that if he was going to be a painter he was going to have to put up with criticism, He returned to his work and finished it.
After he had finished he came back to see if he was going to get to take his work with him. The jury was meeting then and they told him to go on up.
When he got to the room and told them who he was and that the Hobbema was his effort, the jurors stood up and applauded him. It was, they said, the finest reproduction any of them had ever seen.
Doing a little research on Hobbema after Hall told us that story, I found the same painting on the cover of the inaugural issue of a short-lived magazine by the name of Fine Arts.
I ordered three of them and gave two of them to Hall. He set one of them on the table below his reproduction…It showed without a doubt that he had absolutely nailed the original.
We are now in a time of watching and waiting. No matter what we do…or anyone does…there is bound to be criticism. We have been in the business of reinventing church for the last nine months, laying base layers on the reproduction we are trying to faithfully create…and it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses.
We seek first to do no harm and then to do good…then, finally, to stay in love with God.
This was Hannah’s prayer before she conceived Samuel. This was Mary’s prayer that we contemplated last week – the Magnificat – when she rejoiced that her soul magnified the Lord…with a heart full of sheer gratitude.
We have made progress in painting our reproduction of the original we all carry in our hearts…and after our outdoor Christmas eve service last Thursday it is obvious that it will be a great day for all of us and for our church when we can gather and sing together in this room on Sundays.
There are things we can do to shorten the wait. We have talked about that many times already and I thank you all for your good obedience to the advice we have been getting from local public health officials…there…and before then…and since.
We still have some painting to do. Some waiting and watching lies ahead of us before we will see that day.
In the meantime, we have learned many things about sharing the Word that we had not understood before. We are still learning all we can to do reach people in a personal way with our technology and new ideas come into view every week…and by calling our friends with a voice they know and being together in the sharing and the listening of the Nativity.
The important things in the meantime …as we said before…are to do no harm…to do good…and to stay in love with God.
I have seen that you are still in love with God. I thank you all for all you have done in this once in a century …maybe…year… as we seek to share the holy story…and to serve the one that Simeon and Anna were watching for…and fully expect…one day…to see him face to face ourselves.
God bless you for your faithfulness and the many ways you have sacrificed to keep the lights on…in our church… and to share that light…with our community…and with all the world.
The best is yet to be. We will see the Lord’s salvation for all people.
O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us … through me…this day? Amen.