May Hope, Joy, Peace & Love be with you this morning, and throughout the week. The Lectionary makes a transition now, as we move into Year B of the three-year rotation of scripture; the Gospel changes from Matthew to Luke. The Gospel of Luke is a literary masterpiece. This narrative declares that the life and ministry of Jesus is the fulfillment of the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms. Luke states that the Kingdom of God is not an abstract ideal, nor merely a heavenly future, but rather that Jesus brings God’s Rule & Will to life here on earth. The gospel begins with stories about John the Baptist, followed by Mary’s awesome soliloquy, The Magnificat. Then in Chapter 2 we have the classic Christmas Eve passage, which many people recall from the Peanuts’ Christmas Pageant, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be enrolled…” Luke points out the Jewish foundation for the ministry of Jesus, and intentionally integrates the gospel message to the Gentiles.
In today’s scripture, Luke is showing that Jesus grew up in a Jewish home, with parents who followed the Jewish Law. Luke writes that Jesus was circumcised, as all Jewish boys were when they were eight days old, and then 40 days after his birth, Mary & Joseph took him to the Temple in Jerusalem, for the purification ritual for the parents. Mothers of boys went to the Temple for their sacrifice & purification after 40 days, and mothers of girls went after 80 days. It had been over a month since the shepherds had come, and Mary & Joseph probably didn’t expect any more strange announcements about their baby, they were just following the commands in the Torah about the purification of women after they have had a baby. They could either sacrifice a lamb and a dove, or, if they could not afford that, two doves or two pigeons. This would probably take them about a week, to hike 60 miles down to Jerusalem, and 60 miles back home, less than two months after going down to Bethlehem for the taxation registration when Jesus was born. Looking around the sanctuary this morning, I suspect some of our members may be travelling, or maybe they couldn’t handle the commute this morning! OK, without the three-day commute perhaps it still sounds a Little bit like our experience of going to church, just an ordinary trip to go to a religious place for a religious ritual, but suddenly, everything changes! Instead of the focus being on the sacrifice and purification, the focus is on the baby himself. Instead of hearing that the sacrifice was done correctly, and everything is fine, Mary encounters two elderly people, Simeon and the prophet Anna who see in the poor infant, Our Savior. While a religious ritual always seems to be about repeating a set of words & actions in exactly the same way, our participation may result in a fresh awareness of God’s Love, or God being an intimate part of our lives. For Mary, the encounter with Simeon must have been unsettling and somewhat traumatic. Simeon was led by the Holy Spirit to come to the Temple that day, and then he took the infant in his arms, praised God and said this baby is to bring salvation, to fulfill Israel’s calling to be a light to the gentiles, and that salvation will reach to the end of the earth. Then Simeon gives a blessing to Mary & Joseph, saying that Jesus is destined for both Judgment and Hope in Israel, because of the opposition Jesus will evoke. God’s purpose will uncover people’s inner thoughts, provoking much suffering for many people, including Mary.
This new awareness of God’s Presence and the implications of what the ministry of Jesus will create was a mixed blessing, to say the least. Probably would have been more polite to just say, ”What a cute baby; here’s a new outfit & some toys for the little guy!” I think we are often in the same position as Mary was in. Religious observances should make us feel better, more peaceful, content, and glowing with joy. But it is awkward & uncomfortable when we realize that God is calling us to work for peace and justice. We may wish we could tell God to send us back to the Garden of Eden, only not to give us Free Will to mess up God’s Plan. Yet, we do understand that religious practices are not merely to help us escape from the problems of the world, but to equip us to be able to go into the world and confront sin in its many forms. Mary & Joseph may have assumed that they were fulfilling their obligation by purchasing the doves for the sacrifice, much like we may be tempted to believe that contributing our tithes & offerings to the church fulfills our obligations to bringing God’s Kingdom to light in our world. Yet we know that God is with us 24/7, and God wants us to live our faith all day, every day. We are each given the opportunity to participate anew in the birthing of God’s Kingdom, which requires a financial commitment as we are able, and also our physical participation in extending Grace to a world in pain.
So, how did Mary & Joseph feel on the hike back to Nazareth?
All Luke tells us is that Jesus grew, became strong, was filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him. I think that sounds like good news for us; Jesus was sent by God in human form to experience real life, just like we deal with opportunities and challenges today. We still may be surprised by God’s Presence, either within formal religious practices, or in our ordinary lives. We also have the opportunity to grow, both physically & spiritually. We try to create a healthy balance of work & worship, recreation & productivity, relaxation and prophetic witness for the growth of God’s Kingdom in our congregation & community. This week is when folks in our culture make New Year’s Resolutions, a time to reflect on the past year and identify where we want to try to improve our lives in the future. We usually make these goals with a sincere desire to improve our lives, even though we know that most “other people” don’t have a very good record on following-through with their goals or predicting success. Memberships in health clubs at this time of year result in crowded locker rooms for a month or two, and most people probably achieve at least some short-term success, so, even on a small level, it is a healthy practice to start the New Year with a plan for self-improvement. Sometimes, we may even surprise ourselves, and find the strength, stamina & self-control to follow-through on our desire to grow in wisdom & maturity, and improve our physical health as well.
We also take stock of the past year and identify hopes for our congregation in the year ahead. Not just by writing annual reports for the Boards and other groups who are preparing for our Annual Meeting, but for each of us as members of this congregation. We may resolve to share some of the creative ideas we’ve had for starting a new activity or program for youth or adults, or we may decide to volunteer to help make our current programs more vibrant. One way we can listen for how God is speaking to us is to reflect about what surprising, unexpected things happened over the past year. Maybe last New Year’s Eve you didn’t expect that you’d volunteer to preach this past summer, or that you’d enjoy hearing from the diverse spiritual perspectives of the members of our congregation. Maybe you have recognized a need this year, and by sharing ideas with another person, you may be led to help us grow as a congregation in wisdom and energy. My point is, instead of getting trapped in a cycle of hopelessness and despair, when we take stock of what happened last year, we can open our minds to recognize new opportunities for the year ahead. Of course it is always a struggle to see the Kingdom of God emerging in our midst when we feel like we are using all our energy just to get through today. This is why we need to consistently recharge our spiritual batteries by worship, by reading Psalm 148, by praying for God to open our eyes to how we may participate in our future.
Recognizing that we have survived disappointments, shocking tragedies, and even mundane challenges over the past year, we know that God has been with us during the hard times. This gives us the energy to reach out to help others who are dealing with problems in their lives, as well as to face the future with courage, faith, and hope. Recognizing that we have also received blessings beyond our expectations in the past also helps us face the future with the anticipation of working together to bring God’s Kingdom of peace, love, justice, and joy into our lives.
May it be so. Amen.