The First to Notice
Formatted for presentation
Our family just watched the new Star Wars last week and I have noticed that Star Wars has become quite a cultural phenomenon. It was 9:45 in the morning, a couple of weeks after it came out, and the theatre was still relatively full. A lot of people tell me that one or all of the Star Wars movies are their favorite movies of all time. I remember when Star Wars came out on VHS tape and I finally got to see it for the first time, as a little kid, and I thought it was amazing. It was a story about normal people standing up to evil, to injustice, and to oppression, with the hope that comes only from doing the right thing. They knew that empire was in control and they were not. And it felt like no one was ready to stand and fight against the empire until a brother and sister duo (who didn’t know that they were brother and sister), and a loveable smuggler and his hairy friend, decided to take the Empire head on.
The first Star Wars ends awesome too. Do you remember the end of the first Star Wars? It is a presentation scene. Han Solo, Luke, and Chewbacca process into the princess’s court and there is celebration and rejoicing because the empire has been defeated and life will never be the same.There is happy music and lots of smiling. It ends perfectly. We get a sense that good will always win.
This passage in Luke that we heard read is also a presentation scene. We see baby Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem and he is presented with a sacrifice, a sign that his parents are doing everything that they can to bring him up right. They know that God has claimed this child. They knew that God has anointed them as carers and protectors of the savior of the world, but I can’t imagine that they always felt so hopeful. It was something internal to them and they probably didn’t always feel so confident in their call.
But this internal sign becomes external when, as they arrive at the Temple and they get this Star Wars: A New Hope type of victory scene. We can imagine ‘pomp and circumstance’ music as they walk into the Temple court and Simeon goes crazy. This old man…. He had received a special sense from God that he would see the Messiah before he died. And here was the Messiah, right in front of his face. It doesn’t matter to him that it is just a baby… he has seen the Messiah, so he prays loudly, he prays publicly. He prays a prayer of thanksgiving to God for keeping his promises.
This is like that triumphal entry we always hear about on Palm Sunday. This Jesus arriving on palm branches. This hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. This is a celebration. This is party… this is joy. Simeon knows that everything has changed because of this baby. And he shouts for joy. He even shouts for joy that now he can die a happy man. Because this baby changed everything.
And, it wasn’t just Simeon who noticed. How cool would it be to have someone else recognize what you know as a parent to Jesus? You know that he is the savior. You know that you saw an angel who told you everything that you needed to know. You know it all, but there’s no one to share in your joy. Then Simeon happens. Imagine how happy he would make you. And, then, as if Simeon weren’t enough, Ana, a widow, and a prophetess, also saw exactly who this boy was. She, like Simeon, shared what she knew and proclaimed his place as the Messiah, the savior. How cool for Mary and Joseph!
It’s that Star Wars scene. Pure happiness that evil has lost and God has won. Think back to that scene in the movie and remember how much it felt like the world was made right, that everything was now okay because the empire was on the run. That’s what it must have felt like in Jerusalem. But, then remember, that scene is not the end of the story; the empire strikes back.
This little bit of the story of Jesus begins with the announcing of the child and a mother and father who are faithful and ends with the triumphant declaration of their faithfulness and God’s answer to prayers and promises that are found in the hope of this boy, Jesus. Then we don’t hear about Jesus’ life for twelve years. We go from baby at the Temple to tween at the Temple. So, by this, we can know that this story, this vignette with Simeon and Ana, is the end of this section of Luke. If only that was the real end, the end of the whole story of the savior… Jesus, his very existence being the proof of God’s love. If only we could just see this story, as the end, as the triumph it was meant to be – that God came to earth to live beside us in a way that we understand and to show us the way. We could simply know God’s love, made known, in this little boy, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Jesus teaches, and suffers, and dies.
Unfortunately, stories don’t always end the way that we would like them to. The truth is: We took God’s greatest gift, the greatest source of joy that we could ever receive and we turned it into the world’s greatest sorrow.
The good news, the best news that I know, is that God never gives up, no matter what we do. Even when we did our worst. Even when we abused and destroyed God’s own son, God never gave up on us, and will never give up on us. And, as a part of that good news, there are some, like Anna and Simeon, who will never give up on God. Even when the chips are down and they stare at the depths of human suffering, suffering that we cause over and over again, they know that God will come through in the end. No matter what, they know that God never gives up on us and that we should never give up on God.
Let’s jump back into the story, for just a second, because I think that you should know that Luke is a bit mixed up. And knowing this, helps us to know what’s on his mind. Luke is mixed up on his Jewish customs and practice. In fact, the more we look at Luke’s Gospel, the more it might be clear that Luke was likely either not a Jew, or (at least) was not very well versed in Jewish rituals because he mixes up a couple of customs and puts them in the same story.
In Jewish practice, after birth, the mother of the child was considered to be ‘unclean’ or ‘impure’ for forty days. Then she would need to present herself to the priests with a sacrifice in order to be purified. Luke acts as though both parents, by ritual and custom, had to be purified after the birth of the child. This just wasn’t true. The father was left out of this.
Likewise, when there was a birth of a first-born son, by custom, he belonged to the Lord and had to be ‘bought’ back for 5 shekels. Luke is again confused when he believes that the child had to be brought to Jerusalem and that a sacrifice of an animal had to be made. Again, it just isn’t true.
But what he is trying, what we can see when we get into Luke’s head a bit, we find that he is trying to do something really admirable. The people reading Luke would have known that Luke is saying that Mary and Joseph believed that Jesus belonged to God more than he belonged to them.
It is much like how we, in the UMC, baptize our children as a sign that they are specially related to God, that they are children of God, and that his grace lives in them, and that we can’t stand in the way of that grace. We bring them forward to receive this blessing, by water and the Holy Spirit, so that we can know that they belong to God. Luke is showing that both Mary and Joseph know that Jesus belongs more to God than even to them. It is a huge sign of their faith and of their faithfulness.
It’s like Hannah, and everyone reading this story would have known about Hannah, from the Book of Samuel, who was barren and desperate for a son. She went to the Temple in Jerusalem and made a promise to God, in prayer, that, if she could have a son, she would give him over completely to the priesthood. As soon as she weaned him, that child would live at the Temple and serve God all his days. And God provided. This boy’s name was Samuel. He was a priest and a prophet that changed the shape of Israel forever. I think it’s no surprise, knowing this story of Hannah, that Luke puts Jesus at the Temple so often in his young days – he’s drawing a direct line between Samuel and Jesus. Because Luke wants us to know, whether he is mixed up about the customs and practices or not, he wants us to know that Jesus, like Samuel, is going to change the shape of Israel forever, as well. Because God didn’t give up on Israel with Hannah. God never gave up on them. And people, like Hannah, never gave up on God.
There is certain boldness that should come from being so accepted by God. A boldness that comes from knowing that we are so unconditionally loved. But, it could also go sideways, go in the wrong direction, making us think that grace is free so nothing is required. Then, what does that mean for us? The Apostle Paul takes this problem head on and asks a simple question? Romans 6: “Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not!” We have to turn back, turn toward that baby in the Temple, turn back toward the cross, turn back and see this child through the eyes of Simeon and Ana, as our savior, turn back to the child to whom we said, “No Room.” No room in my life. No room in my heart. No room in my home. Turn our hearts back to that child and say “yes.” Yes to hope. Yes to help. Yes to Christ Jesus… who never gives up on us.
Say yes. Turn around. If we turn around, repent of what we have done, of the ways that we have shut God, and his goodness, out of our lives, God will forgive every time. God never gives up. So we must not give up on God. Can we just stop saying, “But you don’t know what I have done”? Or “There’s no way that I can ever make it right.” We have to stop it, turn around, we have to stop walking away from God, and, instead, move toward him, move toward the light and love that Simeon and Anna recognized. Turn around, stop saying, “no room,” and instead say, “Yes.”
God never gives up. May we always find hope in that truth. Say yes.