Crows Nest Uniting Church
Christmas 1 • 28 Dec 2014


Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40


Rev. Chris Udy



This first Sunday after Christmas
is always in ‘liminal’ space.
It hides in the shadow
between the bright lights of Christmas
and the fireworks of New Year’s Eve,
and it’s easily overlooked
as just a momentary quiet pause –
a chance to catch your breath
before the party takes off again.
But as with all ‘liminal’ spaces –
all thresholds, all riparian zones,
all boundaries
between one aspect of life and another,
there’s something holy about this time,
and as with every time we cross a boundary,
it’s good to be paying attention as we go.
 
The first of January always has
an air of significance about it.
We come to a horizon,
to a point where the world we’re looking at today
is not the same as the world was yesterday.
For some the changing year is an invitation
into freedoms and opportunities
they’ve been straining to begin.
For some who found this last 12 months
a year of struggle or sadness,
the new year seems to give a fresh start,
a chance to leave yesterday’s troubles behind
and begin again.
For some who are growing weary or lonely
a new year can be far too empty a canvas,
and it takes effort and discipline
to transfer the old year’s regular events
into a new diary.
Almost all of us would recognise
that the boundaries are artificial;
there’s nothing essentially different
about New Year’s Day -
but mentally and emotionally
we sense a milestone passing,
and for many that involves a call
to spend some time in reflection.
 
What will be new and significant
about next year for you?
What do you hope to see or do?
What do you want to achieve -
or leave behind?
Do you have a friendship you want to make -
or one that needs repair?
Do you have a gift or a skill
you’d like to train or enhance?
What do you want to have happened
before the bridge lights up at the end of 2015?
What would you like to avoid,
and what would you welcome?
 
Today’s gospel reading has been called
the perfect image for a new year.
An old man is holding a baby,
thanking God that in this child
the justice and redemption he’s been yearning for
has finally arrived.
It’s an highly symbolic image:
The old man has seen something
that gives him hope and peace;
he’s being released
from the kind of fear and resentment
we see in those for whom the world
has become an alien place,
where the values they have lived by
are being forgotten -
and because he’s seen a future he can believe in,
this old man becomes a source
of affirmation and blessing:
“Lord, now let your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared
in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
 
This is a prayer many people use
at the end of every day -
and for those who’ve been to evensong
in cathedrals around the world,
these are the words the choir sings
as night begins to fall.
They’re beautiful, powerful words -
not only because they were first said
by Simeon as he held Jesus in his arms,
but because they represent an attitude -
a way of seeing life;
a way of looking at people -
that turns us away from bitterness and regret
and turns us towards peace and hope.
 
Jesus was just a baby.
If, as Luke says,
Mary and Joseph
were taking him to the temple
as part of the ritual of purification,
then Jesus was just 40 days old -
and it wasn’t as if his family
were making a grand impression:
the Law said the normal sacrifice for a firstborn son
should be a lamb -
but it looks like Joseph and Mary
could only afford two pigeons -
so Simeon hadn’t been attracted to them
as a powerful, wealthy family;
he wasn’t offering his blessing to a child
who was likely to succeed.
So the motivation had to be something within Simeon -
Luke says he was guided by the Spirit -
and the response in Simeon’s spirit was deep enough,
and generous enough,
for him to see hope and promise
in a baby, otherwise strange to him,
whose family had little more to offer their child
than their example and character,
and their love.
 
For some of us, life is changing too quickly,
and there are people we love
and wisdom that we treasure
that don’t seem to have a place
in the world that’s coming.
Some of us recognise
that our days of influence and power are almost over -
we know that, even if we once thought
we could bend the world to our will,
that’s true no longer -
so Simeon reminds us
that fading into insignificance
and letting regret and resentment define us
isn’t the way of God’s Spirit,
and from him -
and also from Anna,
who arrives on the scene
as Simeon gives his blessing
and obviously shares that generous Spirit  -
from Simeon and Anna we discover
that we can grow - at any age -
to be people who give blessings;
people who look at a new generation
and choose to see that, in them,
God has planted our hope
for justice and redemption.
 
An old man is holding a baby,
thanking God that in this child
the justice and redemption he’s been yearning for
has finally arrived.
 
Our image for the new year
is not only of the old man,
but also the child.
Jesus is in Simeon’s arms.
 
Jesus doesn’t arrive in life
self-sufficient and disconnected.
He was born to Mary and Joseph;
he was their first-born son -
and he was born into Jewish family -
that’s why Joseph and Mary
brought him to the temple
and offered the sacrifice the Law required.
 
Every child born has a history.
Every generation has a culture.
Whatever vision we have for life
comes from standing on giants’ shoulders -
or in Jesus’ case and in this reading,
resting in Simeon’s arms.
We might sometimes want a new year,
or a new generation,
to begin entirely fresh and new -
but it doesn’t take long
for last year’s issues,
and another generation’s burdens and illness
to find their way across our boundaries.
Life isn’t neatly divided up
into years and weeks and days
with definite hours for work and rest and family.
Identity doesn’t fit into a schedule;
energy and problems from one part of life
find their way across into all the others.
So Jesus isn’t just a newborn baby,
ready to create his world from scratch -
even before he was born he had a purpose -
Simeon calls it a destiny -
and it includes both falling and rising,
opposition from those
whose hold on power he will challenge,
and the revelation
of ‘the inner thoughts of many’, Simeon says -
hearts that would be laid bare
by what Jesus would do
and who he was -
revealing hopes and dreams and darker shadows.
 
Every one of us is born to a purpose -
but that doesn’t mean we have a script
we’re doomed to play.
We make real choices.
We have real freedom,
We exercise real responsibility,
and we really are accountable,
both to those who live beside us
and also to God.
I’m not sure about you,
but I find no meaning or comfort or appeal
in the idea that salvation is predestined,
or that God has written down our fate
even before we were born.
That’s not the way life feels to me,
and if the universe is programmed
for every moment from the big bang to the final whimper,
I can’t see very much point
in any kind of effort or enterprise
where the end has already been decided.
 
But that’s not what we see when we read the Bible.
In the Bible people make choices -
and they live with the consequences.
They bring their creativity,
their courage and compassion,
first to bring order out of chaos,
then to make a family
and build community.
They learn from each other as they go;
they do what they can
to repair damage they cause or find,
and what they pass on from year to year,
from one generation to another
is always incomplete - always work in progress.
 
Simeon passes on his faith and hope.
Jesus is born to a purpose.
He will choose and make a life
of such love and grace
that its light will still be challenging shadows
and illuminating hopes and dreams
two thousand years later -
but his life will also be a struggle,
and too short.
 
Our image of the new year
is of an old man and a baby -
but Jesus and Simeon
aren’t the only people in the reading.
We’ve already mentioned Anna,
whose short marriage and long years of widowhood
are probably a reminder
that, after David and Solomon,
Israel’s rulers had been more a cause of grief
than a source of blessing.
She welcomes Jesus as a promise of redemption,
the hope for restoration in Jerusalem.
 
And almost forgotten,
standing almost out of focus
in the scene in the temple
are Mary and Joseph.
Luke says Simeon blesses them,
but it’s a strange sort of blessing.
Almost as a throw-away line
at the end of his comments about destiny,
Simeon says to Mary:
“and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
 
There’s nothing Mary can do
about what he tells her.
It isn’t a threat or a warning
about something she can avoid,
it’s just a statement of fact.
Jesus, her son, will make his choices
and live his life
and fulfil his purpose -
and something of his character and achievements
will reflect on her.
He will grow wise and strong, Luke says,
in the home that Mary and Joseph provide for him
and in the examples they give him
for life and faith -
and then he will carry something of Mary -
something of her very being, her soul -
out into the world and into danger.
For some reason
Joseph fades from the story here -
but Mary stays connected;
she’s still there
on the day that Jesus dies,
and she’s there again
to witness resurrection.
 
We can make choices about our own lives.
We can be creative,
and compassionate, and courageous,
we can do all that anyone could reasonably expect,
and those we love will still carry something of us
out into the world and into danger.
This coming year will bring sadness and grief
to all of us at some time -
it’s the shadow to the wonder and joy we feel
when we fall in love.
We might want to try and protect ourselves
by choosing not to care -
but for most of us it’s too late,
we’re already there -
and how grey and dismal our days would be
if we had no-one to be creative for,
if we had no-one to learn from,
if we had no family or community.
 
Simeon tells Mary
that her child will bring her pain -
and perhaps there were moments
when Mary wanted to keep him in her control,
fastened to her side
to protect both him and herself from any sorrow -
but clearly those moments didn’t last,
and just a few years later
Jesus would come back here to the temple
and begin to pursue his purpose in the world.
There must also have been moments
when Mary would have liked to turn away;
when she might have wanted to pretend
that he wasn’t her child -
either out of embarrassment
or to avoid the brutal heartbreak
of what she was seeing.
But she didn’t.
She stayed connected -
and her connection took her
through that piercing anguish to resurrection.
 
We have a new year to find our way into.
Part of it will be built
on everything that’s gone before:
we are people with a story -
we have history and culture,
and where we go this year
means beginning from where we are now.
Part of it will involve us letting go -
choosing to be people who give blessings,
being generous to another generation.
Part of it will call for creativity -
making choices
to bring order out of chaos,
to build up family and community,
to follow our calling and purpose.
And part of it will simply be
choosing to stay connected
even to those who will carry
something of our souls
out into the world, and into danger.
 
There are no guarantees for health or safety;
there is no insurance
that can protect us from harm;
God won’t promise us wealth
or secure our power -
but if we stay connected
both to God and to each other;
if we offer blessings where we can
and live with creativity and compassion,
we will find our way through every kind of shadow
to the promises of God
in redemption and resurrection.