Waiting on God

Posted on 02 Feb 2020, Pastor: Adam
  • Luke 2:22-40

    When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

    Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

    “Master, now you are dismissing your servant 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.”

    And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

    There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

    When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

The story of Jesus’ presentation in the temple is one of my favorites from the New Testament. Partly it is because it offers a wonderful reflection of Jesus’ ministry, a thesis statement in the form of a story of his childhood.

It was customary in Ancient Hebrew tradition that the first fruits of the harvest and the first born, whether it was a goat or a child, be dedicated to God. And be dedication, let’s be clear, I mean sacrificed. Now, obviously, neither the Ancient Hebrews nor the Jews of Jesus’ time practiced human sacrifice. Instead, when a couple had their first male child, they would bring him to the temple to be presented before God. In addition, they would bring a redemption offering—a substitutionary sacrifice—to offer to God instead of their child.

Mary and Joseph enter the temple today with the infant Jesus. With them, they bring two pigeons that they will be offered as a sacrifice to the Lord, a sacrifice offered that they might redeem their son, Jesus. And in case the symbolism of this act is too subtle for the reader, the Prophet, Anna, and the old man, Simeon, are there to drive the point home.

“Presentation at the Temple” – cloisonné enamel-on-gold icon, Georgia, 12th century

In what I am sure was a surprising turn of events for Mary and Joseph, who had shown up at the temple to do what was customary, Simeon proclaims that this child is the long-awaited salvation. This child, for whom they come to offer a redemption sacrifice, will in fact be the one by whom all God’s children will be redeemed, Anna assures them.

It is a wonderful story filled with theological imagination and foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But truth be told, what makes it my favorite story are the two people that the Holy Family meets when they enter the temple, Anna and Simeon. In the middle of this story about who Jesus is and what Jesus will do is another story, the story of what it means to wait for God.

Anna and Simeon had waited for God for a long time. Anna was eighty-four years old when Jesus was brought to the temple, and for most of those years she had devoted herself to the worship of the Lord in the temple. Likewise, Simeon had led an upright and righteous life, and had waited for God’s salvation. We don’t know Simeon’s age, but based on his words, it is fair to guess that he was getting old himself.

They had waited for so long. Can you imagine all they had seen; all they had witnessed in that time? The faces of friends and family who had passed away, the faces of youth who had now grown up and brought young faces of their own into the world. They had watched the suffering of their people under the rule of the empire. They had watched their leaders become hypocrites and cowards as they chose power, wealth, and political expediency over serving and caring for the people whom God had entrusted them. Through this all, Anna and Simeon waited. They watched. They prayed. They grew old. Still, they waited for their God, for the salvation God had promised.

So, you can imagine the relief and the joy they felt, the joy that is not a momentary elation, but that comes from deep within and gives witness to all the years that had passed in patient and prayerful anticipation. In joy, Anna the Prophet proclaimed the redemption of Israel to all who would listen. In joy Simeon beheld the child and declared to Mary and Joseph that he could at last die in peace. His long watch was over; at last God’s salvation was at hand.

It makes me think of all the other people in our world who have waited and longed from God’s justice, God’s salvation. In my previous church was an older gay couple who had been together for some fifty years. They met in their twenties in New York City and they would share stories with me on occasion of what it was like, back when being gay was dangerous, when police would follow you home and harass you. When much of the world wasn’t safe and you had to know when and where it was safe to be yourself. They shared some of their experiences during the time of the Stonewall Riots, and of their participation in LGBT activism of the years of their lives. They had longed and waited for so long for equality and justice. When I knew them, same-sex marriage was starting to become legal in more and more places, and they spoke to me of their joy at how far we had come, that the longed-for equality and freedom was finally at hand.

As we begin February and start Black History Month, I find myself thinking of all the fathers and mothers, all the grandmothers and grandfathers, all the children and the children’s children who longed to be freed from slavery, who fought for equal treatment under the law, who waited and continue to wait for the day that a person is judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, to paraphrase Dr. King.

This past summer, I attended a pilgrimage led by our diocesan Racial Healing, Justice, and Reconciliation Ministry Network to the first building of Trinity Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, CT. It is an old, colonial era, wooden building, and it was built primarily by the enslaved people of the church’s main benefactor, who donated the land upon which it stands. The church had a second-floor gallery where the same enslaved people who built it were expected to sit. In the wood of the pews and rails of the gallery are small carvings made by the enslaved as they sat in worship. Some were Bible citations, some were less-than-flattering depictions of the preacher, and some were pictures of the slave ships that brought them to our country, bound in chains.

After a presentation in the old sanctuary, we were allowed some time to explore the graveyard outside the church. In a prominent location was an elaborate tomb for the aforementioned man who donated the land, material, and enslaved labor to build the church. His tomb was covered in lengthy writing, extolling his many virtuous qualities. Maybe forty feet away, at the back of the graveyard, was a row of small, simple stone grave markers, bearing only a first name on each of them. They were the graves of the enslaved people he had owned.

I think of their names on those simple grave markers, and I think of how long each of them longed and waited for God’s salvation, for freedom. They waited and watched their whole lives, but the only freedom they found was in death.

That is the difficult and disquieting part of today’s story. God’s redemption does come. The day of God’s salvation does arrive, but it does not always come quickly. It does not always come as we expect it to. Anna and Simeon waited their whole lives to see Jesus arrive in the temple as a baby. They would not live to see his ministry. They would not live to see his death. They would not live to behold his resurrection. And still, they were filled with gratitude and joy to God and God’s promise.

In a world where Amazon is rolling out same-day delivery because waiting one or two days for our stuff is just too unbearable a burden, this act of life-long and generational hope and expectation is so foreign to us that it can seem inconceivable. Yet it is the work we are called to do as Christians. It is the work we must also teach our children to do. We are meant to live our lives in a state of trust and hopeful expectation. We must draw that longing and expectation into our very being so that our hungering and thirsting for justice, our enduring of abuse and injustice, and our humility before a world that reviles us is not something that we do, it becomes who we are.

Then we will be ready to stand with Anna and Simeon, with our ancestors who have come before us, and with the matriarchs and patriarchs of the communities who are waiting for justice and salvation, and who have kept the faith, as we wait for God’s redemption. For God’s promised salvation has come, and it is coming, and it will come again.

Preached by Adam Yates