Luke 2:22-40; 1 Corinthians 13
4th Sunday of Epiphany – Candlemas
St Barbara’s Church; 31.1.2016
Rev Tulo Raistrick
I think one of the great things about church is the opportunity to mix with people of all different ages. There are not many contexts where babies, young children, teenagers, and people of every generation, up to people in their 90s and 100s can mingle and be together. And not only be together, but share something important in common. Being a family together.
I remember as a teenager going to a church where I formed friendships with people of almost every decade between 10 and 90. I remember visiting old Mr Lee, a fearsome individual who it turned out had a wicked sense of humour. I remember playing football with Steve, our youth leader and local school teacher, and appreciating what difference his ten extra years of life experience could make. I remember long chats with Jim and Margaret, the same age as my parents, and who said the same things as my parents, but for some reason, my teenage ears found I heard them when my parents’ wise words just didn’t get through. I look back now and realise how much those inter-generational relationships helped me through those difficult teenage years, how much they anchored me amidst challenging times.
So, I love this passage from Luke’s gospel, because of its cross-generational nature. Here we have a baby- Jesus; his mother – possibly no more than a teenager herself; her husband Joseph – maybe a bit older – 20s or 30s perhaps; and Anna and Simeon. Anna is 84; and Simeon must be old too, having held on to life for this day.
So let’s start with the youngest, Jesus. He is brought to the Temple in Jerusalem for a special ceremony where, as the firstborn male in the family, he is to be consecrated to the Lord. His life is being offered up to God. Mary and Joseph, like parents the world over, ask for prayers for his protection and good health.
Here is a baby, vulnerable and helpless, only 6-7 weeks old, in need of love, of protection, of blessing. But what a blessing he already is to his mother Mary and to Joseph – the wonder and joy he has brought into their lives, the delight as they lose themselves in love, holding him in their arms, rocking him to sleep, feeling his little grasp on the fingers of their hands.
And a source of joy to others too. To those shepherds that came to see him on the night of his birth, and went home rejoicing. To the angels trumpeting their excitement to the heavens. To the wise men for whom the end of their long search had not proved a disappointment but a source of worship and reverence.
And he continues to be a blessing, a joy-giver. Simeon takes him in his arms and gives praise to God, knowing that he can now die happily and at peace. Anna, too, delights and give thanks to God.
Children are a blessing to us all, a source of wonder and delight. We should never begrudge them a place in our church, never be unwilling to accommodate them or make them feel that this is not their family, not their home.
But this child, brought into the Temple that day, is particularly special. He is the light of the world, the salvation for all people, the hope that God’s people have been longing for. Here is the child who will grow up to transform the world for ever, the one who will make it possible for us to love God and know that we are loved by God. And so Anna and Simeon cannot help but praise God, and celebrate. It is the natural reaction of all who come into the presence of Christ. We, the people in whom Christ’s Spirit lives, should be a people of worship, of love, in every moment of our lives. Just as Jesus was offered up to God that day in the Temple, so in response to him, we should offer our lives afresh to God each moment of each day.
In the last week I have heard amazing stories of Christ at work amongst people in this congregation. Someone seriously ill who has found a deeper experience of God than they have ever experienced before. Another person who through prayer has experienced real physical healing. Christ is present among us. Like Anna and Simeon, let us celebrate that wonderful truth.
But what of the next generation, Mary and Joseph. There must have been immense pride and joy for them as they brought their child into the Temple. And then wonder and amazement at Simeon’s words that he would be the hope, the salvation, of the world. That here, in God’s own temple, once again, God should confirm for them the nature of their child.
As with any parents, Mary and Joseph must have had hopes and dreams for their child, who he would be, what he would become. | wonder what your parents hoped for you? I wonder, if you are a parent, what hopes you had, still have, for your children?
Not just hopes however, but fears. It is difficult isn’t it to look to the future without fearing what could happen – the difficulties, the challenges that lie ahead. And Simeon’s words promise plenty of pain: he will cause the falling as well as the rising of many in Israel; he will be spoken against; a sword will pierce Mary’s soul too. How hard for a mother or a father to hear those words. To hear that their child will be rejected; will be a cause of conflict and division; will be persecuted and misunderstood; will suffer.
As I think about my own children, I want more than anything that they be happy, that they know that they are loved. Other things – doing well at school or in their hobbies and interests, going to university, getting a good job – are all a bonus. But what I want more than anything is that they know they are loved. To be told like Mary my child will not be loved or liked – how hard would that be!
Those of us who are parents know the angst, the worry, that we can’t protect our children as we would wish. We wish we could wrap our children in cotton wool, or take all the blows upon ourselves that fall on them, or make decisions on their behalf so that they wouldn’t make the mistakes we have made. And I see it with my own parents, that their desire to protect doesn’t get any less with age. I know that they worry about me and my brothers, full-grown adults though we are. Parenting comes with pain. For some, the pain is like Mary’s, a sword piercing the soul.
If you have parents alive when did you last acknowledge and support them in the pain that as parents they carry. If they have passed away, when did you last give thanks to God for them. And if you are a parent, or a foster parent, or a surrogate parent, when did you last offer up your pain, the pain that can be like a sword piercing the soul, to God. As you do so it is worth reflecting too on God our Father, the one who as he reaches out in love to us, experiences the pain of parenthood too.
And so to our older generation, Anna and Simeon. There is something wonderful in this story of how those who recognise who Jesus is are not the dynamic, religious professionals, those who are making their way up the hierarchy of Temple power, the movers and shakers. They are not the people who are the shapers of religious opinion. They may have been at one time, but that time has long since gone.
Here we have two people, well on in years, for whom their age has brought an unsought-for gift. For they have the time to wait. Indeed, simply getting to the Temple may have been all that Simeon’s elderly frame could muster. Anna, possibly weaker still, never left the Temple at all. There they sat, waiting and praying. And it is their patience, their life-experience, their prayerfulness, that helps them to see what no one else sees – a baby who will be the saviour of the world.
Life can be a constant rush from one thing to the next, barely having time to stop and take breath. But there comes a point in life where our bodies begin to slow us down, where we just cannot do those 101 things on our list each day. But in being slowed down, we may find the time to do the really important things. Like Anna and Simeon, we may find that all we can do is wait and pray.
For Anna and Simeon, encountering Jesus was the high-point, the fulfilment of their lives – “now you can dismiss your servant in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation”. Far from old age being a gradual decline, it was the opposite: a gradual heightening of awareness of God’s work in his world.
For those here who can identify with Anna and Simeon – who are experiencing the limitation of the body, the effects of age – Anna and Simeon give a wonderful source of hope. What is most important in life, what offers most hope, has not been stripped away. Indeed it lies ahead. Encountering Christ.
And for all of us, just as the child Jesus shows us the importance of valuing children, so Anna and Simeon show us the importance of valuing those who are elderly. May we be a church where young and old are loved, accepted and made at home.
May we be a people who love to listen, who value the stories of experience, where we have time for one another.
For love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy. It does not boast. It is not proud. It is not self-seeking. It is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.